(This is a fan-fiction set in the universe of The Hitch Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. All elements from Hitch Hiker’s are copyright to the estate of Douglas Adams. If you enjoy it, consider donating to Comic Relief, a charity keenly supported by Adams in his lifetime. New readers can find Chapter 1 here.)
While the Sasofriskuns shout at Daniel and Charlotte, the voice in Daniel’s head welcomes him to The Hitch Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy and asks him if he would like to customise his experience now or proceed with default settings. Daniel yelps in surprise: he had no idea the thing had already downloaded itself into his brain. Charlotte and the Sasofriskuns turn to look at him, but they all assume the noise he just made is some delayed reaction to being discovered. The Sasofriskuns go back to shouting at Charlotte and she goes back to trying to placate them. Neither party is speaking any language Daniel understands. Charlotte is pointing at other items of loot in the hold, which Daniel can now see include an Aston Martin db5, several Van Goghs and the World Cup trophy.
The voice in Daniel’s head starts to explain that the Sasofriskuns are a hybrid race created in a merger of two species on neighbouring planets where evolution had gone down a blind alley and needed a kick up the arse. Daniel wishes the voice would stop, and it does. By the time he refocuses his attention on Charlotte and the Sasofriskuns he realises the dynamic between them is shifting. The Sasofriskuns are murmuring amongst themselves: they seem to be considering what Charlotte has just told them. Without being too effusive about it, they turn back to her, nod and gesture that they want her to follow them.
‘Come on,’ Charlotte says to Daniel.
‘What’s happening?’ says Daniel, emerging from the cabinet and setting foot into an alien spaceship for the first time.
‘I explained to them the trick I pulled with that entry I wrote for the Guide about the cabinet.’
‘Weren’t they angry?’
‘No, because other people will see the entry and that’ll boost the cabinet’s resale value. As I said, nobody knows much about Earth so if I say it’s generally considered one of the planet’s greatest treasures, then it’ll be generally considered one of the planet’s greatest treasures.’
‘Isn’t that a breach of professional ethics?’
‘It sounds like it should be.’
‘Well… you’re writing for an informational guide, and you’re making stuff up.’
‘Ah, that’s the beauty of a phrase like “generally considered”. If I tell people it’s “generally considered”, they’ll generally consider it, and there you go, it’s true.’
Daniel is sure there’s a flaw in this argument somewhere, but his brain is too busy dealing with culture shock to look for it. At the moment he’s trying to work out if he’s ever smelled anything like the smell in these spaceship corridors. His best, yet still hopelessly inadequate, effort at describing it is a cross between petrol and icing sugar. ‘What were you saying about all that other stuff?’
‘I was telling them that in exchange for our passage, I will happily write and upload similar glowing entries for everything else they’ve stolen, which will similarly boost the value of those, and they thought that seemed rather a good idea, and they invited us to join them for lunch.’
This definitely seems to be a breach of professional ethics, but Daniel decides that on balance it’s better than being sold into slavery or thrown from an airlock, so he lets the matter lie. Instead he asks: ‘Passage to where? Are we going to your home planet?’
Charlotte stops walking and turns. ‘God no. There’s nothing there. No, we’re going to the Guide offices.’
‘OK. What for?’
‘Because they haven’t paid me any of my royalties and they’re ignoring my calls.’ And she turns and keeps walking in the direction of the canteen.
After a surprisingly bland lunch consisting of a pile of green and purple crackers and a sharp-tasting milky substance, Charlotte and Daniel ask if there’s anywhere they can sit that’s out of the way. It turns out there are literally no seats anywhere on the ship and if they sit in a corridor the Sasofriskuns growl at them for being in the way, so they go and sit in the Aston Martin. The Sasofriskuns seem not to mind them being in there as long as they don’t make a mess.
Charlotte and Daniel spend most of the next three days sitting in the car, not that day and night mean much when you’re many light years from the nearest star. When they feel like sleeping, they recline the seats as far as they can: it’s almost like sleeping on an aeroplane, which Daniel has always hated and never had the knack of doing, but at least the experience feels familiar, which is more than he can say about anything that’s happened since Charlotte dragged him out of the queue at Tesco.
When they’re not sleeping, Charlotte unfolds her phone and works on the entries she’s writing about the items purloined by the Sasofriskuns. Occasionally she asks him to read the entries and check they’re not too over the top: Daniel thinks they are compared with the sort of reference books he’s used to, but compared to the Guide entries he’s heard so far, Charlotte’s work seems very much in keeping with the style.
‘Do you write like that because your royalties are based on how many people access your articles?’ Daniel asks.
‘How d’you mean?’ asks Charlotte.
‘I just thought, a model like that probably encourages you to make your entries as attention-grabbing as possible, doesn’t it?’
‘Oh,’ says Charlotte. ‘I never thought of that. Maybe that’s why other people do it.’
‘Why do you do it then, if not for that reason?’
‘Because the Guide has always been like that. The best bits have, anyway.’
Daniel leaves her to her writing and keeps exploring the Guide. He’s fiddled with the voice settings and chosen one that sounds like the actor Paterson Joseph – so much so, Daniel wonders if that setting came with the Guide or if the Guide has drawn it from his own memory. Either way, he appreciates that whenever he ‘closes’ the Guide, it says ‘Don’t panic’ in those reassuring tones.
Daniel bounces from one article to the next. He starts by trying to find out what the food served by the Sasofriskuns is made of (it seems they are not biscuits, but the wings of the Cubular Birds of Axicorrshh, which begs the question of what they do with the rest of the birds); then moves onto reading about the popular Cubo franchise that has branches on 227 inhabited planets and nine uninhabited ones; then the short but bloody war that was fought when a Cubo employee dispute over pensions, safety standards and which items from the menu they were entitled to take for their free staff lunches exploded into a popular uprising and the formation of a breakaway franchise, the Workers’ Republic of Cubo, which eventually became more profitable than the original company and absorbed it in a leveraged buyout. The Guide could tell you all this, as well as which branches to avoid at peak times and what voucher codes were valid this month for a free milkshake.
One can go on like this for many hours and Daniel does. The overall impression he gets is that the universe is a huge, intimidating and almost incomprehensible place, but also that this is pretty much how everyone feels about it, so that’s something.
To be continued. A reminder that my new novel, HEARTS OF OAK, is out now. You can order it here.