(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.)
The Hitch Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy was a wholly remarkable book. We say ‘was’ because it hasn’t been a book for quite some time now. The last edition that in any way resembled a book was published by Focus & Baffle Textuals, who picked up the rights from Infinidim Enterprises, who had earlier bought out Megadodo Publications, who remain synonymous with the Guide even though the Megadodo brand has changed hands several times and these days is actually a cattle feed company.
Focus & Baffle acquired the Guide from Infinidim when one of its rights agents dropped by their offices on a whim and discovered the company was not only winding down, it was trying to go back in time and erase its own existence from history as a means of covering up its involvement in several serious fraud cases. When the agent from Focus & Baffle enquired about the availability of Infinidim’s legacy brands, she was sold them all as a package for the knock-down price of one hundred and seventy Altarian dollars plus the hoverbike she rode in on. When she looked through the list of properties she was astonished to discover she had bought the rights to the best-selling book of all time: a book which dispensed indispensable advice and information for anyone travelling through space on a tight budget.
Focus & Baffle published the Guide in a variety of collectible formats (and also some disposable ones), the most popular of which was a retro edition that precisely recreated the pleasingly clunky interface, charmingly simple graphics and endearingly legally-actionable factual errors of the original. It was long out of date, of course, but this was part of its appeal, enabling the reader to immerse themselves in a simpler era, when the universe made sense, or at least was nonsensical in a less worrying way. Focus & Baffle also published an edition on paper, which was available on subscription in 3,409 volumes: when it was eventually remaindered an entire village was built using the unwanted books as bricks. But the company’s target markets were never going to use it as an actual guide for hitch-hiking, what with being far too old to even consider travelling without bookings and a clear itinerary, and so Focus & Baffle employed no field researchers, no writers and no editors.
This changed when Focus & Baffle became a sentient being for tax reasons and promptly had a midlife crisis, abandoning most of its publishing line to focus on books about extreme sports. The rights to the Guide were sold on to a company called Dataclot, who have updated the book for the modern market. It works like this: instead of publishing the Guide in a readable form, it’s now issued as software capable of running on an organic processor – in other words, your brain. Once you install the Guide, it manifests as a calm, authoritative voice in your head. You only have to ask it a question and it will start reading the entry until you tell it to stop. It’s quicker, you don’t have to carry anything, and if you’re bored during a dull dinner party or a staff bonding exercise, you can pretend to be listening to the people around you while actually listening to the Guide in your head. It is perfectly possible to uninstall the Guide from your brain, but Dataclot deliberately make it slightly tricky to do so, and so most people opt to pay the small annual update charge. If you don’t, the voice will repeatedly remind you to update until you do.
For this all-new Guide aimed at a hip, modern, sexy, desperately disorientated audience, Dataclot need a continuous stream of new content – more content than they are willing to pay for. So, wherever possible, they try not to pay for it.
‘So,’ says Daniel as he sits opposite Charlotte in a 19th-century Japanese lacquer cabinet that has been loaded into the cargo bay of a Sasofriskun salvage ship, ‘you don’t get any money for doing this?’
‘Well,’ Charlotte replies, taking another chocolate digestive from the pack she stole from Tesco barely an hour ago, ‘not up front, no. But there is a royalty scheme.’
‘Yes, for every billion plays of one of my articles, I get eight point seven Altarian dollars.’
‘And how much have you earned so far?’
‘Almost three hundred.’
‘In four years.’
‘But three hundred Altarian dollars is worth much more than, say, three hundred pounds, yeah?’
‘No, by a remarkable coincidence it’s almost exactly the same. I admit, I probably shouldn’t have chosen Earth, I mean nobody comes here much, but some people said it was the galaxy’s best-kept secret, you know, an unspoiled and authentic cultural experience et cetera, not like all those other planets which have exactly the same shops and restaurants you get back home, and I thought Earth was bound to be the next big thing.’ She sighs and bites into another biscuit. ‘Not going to be now, is it?’
‘But why? Why do this for no money?’
‘Why did you do your job for no money?’
‘Well. Because they promised they’d pay me later.’
‘Exactly,’ says Charlotte, gesturing at him with her biscuit, ‘and Dataclot do sometimes offer staff jobs to the most popular writers and in the meantime it’s all good exposure…’ She shrugs. ‘Anyway, I just always wanted to write for the Guide.’
In fact, when she interviewed to become a Guide contributor, Charlotte told the editor all about how she’d grown up reading her mother’s old copy, had read it before going to bed every night, how she could still recite dozens of entries from memory, how she’d cried when it finally broke, how she collected bootleg copies of rejected entries and unedited drafts, how she’d bought the Focus & Baffle retro edition the day it came out, and even owned the first few hundred volumes of the paper edition, which were still stored at her mother’s house, even though they got in the way and her mother was keen to turn them into a small garage. Telling the editor all this was a terrible mistake on Charlotte’s part. If she had simply presented herself as a professional writer with no particular interest in the Guide she might have had a chance of getting one of the paid staff jobs, but unfortunately she had made it clear she had a deep and abiding love for the publication.
For the past four years Charlotte (her real name is Zic, but she’s never liked it) has been living on Earth, faithfully submitting her material – more than the Guide needed, really – and doing other work on the side to support her main job which she barely gets paid for. ‘Medical trials, that sort of thing. Pharma companies think if their drugs can ward off human diseases they can ward off anything, so I get quite a bit of work there.’
‘But what’s this got to do with Earth being repossessed?’
‘Nothing,’ says Charlotte, ‘I’m explaining how we escaped. My editor at the Guide tipped me off about the repossession, but I don’t have a ship of my own and there were none passing for at least another week – well except VV, and there was no chance of getting a lift from them. I knew there’d be scavengers, but they’d have asked for money to take us away. So I wrote a glowing entry for the Guide about this cabinet, they read it, and here we are.’ She beamed. ‘I thought that was rather clever.’
‘Yes,’ says Daniel, ‘but what next?’
‘Don’t worry, I’ve got it all worked out. If they open the cabinet, let me do the talking. Have another biscuit.’
Daniel takes the biscuit. ‘You don’t look like you’re from another planet.’
‘Nor do you.’
‘I suppose not.’ Despite what he’s seen so far, Daniel is not convinced about any of this yet, because he’s inside an antique cabinet eating biscuits with his girlfriend and while that is not exactly normal, it’s not unusual enough to warrant a comprehensive shift in his understanding of the universe. Yes, he overheard the scavengers chatting to each other in an unfathomable language. He felt the cabinet being lifted by some device that strangely made him feel lighter: he and Charlotte had to brace themselves against the walls to keep from floating upwards. And he had heard the clunking mechanism of the cargo bay doors as they opened and the cabinet was dumped inside. But he hasn’t seen the aliens yet, or the spaceship, and having all this earnestly explained to him by Charlotte feels a little bit, well, Scientology.
‘Do you want me to add you to my Guide plan?’ she says.
‘Yeah, as a contributor I get a free subscription and I can add up to eleven people,’ she says, checking something on her phone which Daniel suspects might be something more than just a phone. ‘My family are using six of them, and I’ve still got an ex on here who I really should delete off…’
‘I don’t think it’s been tested on a human brain before, but the software’s supposed to be self-adapting, as long as you’re above the intelligence threshold. Which you are, don’t worry.’
‘Thanks but –’
Charlotte gives him a pitying look. ‘Daniel, you’ve never been off Earth before. What if I die and you’re left wandering alone in space without the first idea of what to do?’
Daniel has no answer to this, and he says ‘Well, I suppose…’
Charlotte smiles and activates something on her phone. ‘Earth’s in a bit of a sub-etha blackspot, but the download ought to start once we get outside the atmosphere.’
Daniel starts making a concerted effort to get his head around the fact he’s actually going into space; that he’s leaving Earth because humans are no longer allowed to live there; that he may never be able to go back. His family, his friends, his colleagues – all of them are probably in this limbo Charlotte talked about, and he may never see them again. There’s no-one out there now, every street is empty, every office deserted. Have all the planes crashed into the sea, empty of passengers? What if someone had a dog in the hold? The dogs haven’t been evicted, have they? Surely it was just the humans? So what about all the other pets? All those cats who’d been shut in? What was going to happen to all those hamsters in cages?
Just as Daniel starts to really, really worry about the hamsters, the spaceship takes off.
The Sasofriskun salvage ship is quite a cheap one and certainly doesn’t have the sort of gravometric stabilisers you get on the high end models, which stop you falling over when the ship takes off. The cabinet has been firmly strapped to the wall so it doesn’t get thrown around the cargo hold, but Daniel and Charlotte haven’t been strapped to anything at all, so they’re flung around inside the cabinet, colliding with the walls and each other, and when the ship finally settles down they’re both quite bruised and a lot of biscuits have been broken.
Charlotte asks Daniel if he’s OK.
‘No,’ says Daniel, who wants to ask about the hamsters but feels there are much bigger questions right now, he just can’t get his mind to focus on them.
‘Sorry,’ says Charlotte. ‘But this is great news – the Sasofriskuns haven’t found us yet, so whatever happens next, they’re not going to just throw us off and leave us behind on Earth.’
‘But… they could just throw us off and leave us floating in the vacuum of space.’
Charlotte laughs. ‘They wouldn’t do that, don’t worry.’
‘No, they’d much rather sell us into slavery.’
Charlotte turns, runs a hand through Daniel’s hair and smiles. ‘I’m glad you didn’t get left behind. The circumstances aren’t ideal, I know, but it’s always bugged me, not being able to tell you about these things.’
Daniel realises he hasn’t even thanked Charlotte for saving him. He does so now, and she tells him he’s welcome and is about to kiss him when the doors of the cabinet are opened and three deeply unimpressed Sasofriskuns glare at them.
The Sasofriskuns are short, pale, vaguely spherical beings: Daniel realises the mental picture he’s built up of them from hearing their muffled voices is completely wrong. It hits home that he’s completely unequipped for this – not just this specific situation but also for being cast away from his home planet, into a vast universe where none of his knowledge or experience is relevant, and he has absolutely no chance of coping with anything that comes his way.
And then a voice in his head says: Don’t Panic!
A reminder that my new novel, HEARTS OF OAK, is published on 17th March. You can order it here.