Wednesday, May 18, 2005


      "Where are we?"
      Everything felt a bit slanted, but he was still a little dizzy. He had tumbled nearly halfway down a bare, brightly-lit hallway. There was no sign of the stars or the bubble. No sign of anything that might make sense of what was happening, or help ease the growing fear that his life was rapidly evaporating around him and would never be familiar again. He stood and immediately hit his head on the ceiling.
      "This is one of many travel nodes connecting the mice fleet cross-dimensionally. Opposite this wall is the provisional chamber of our governing mouse council, who have been awaiting your arrival."
      As they came nearer, Douglas noticed a mouse hole in the wall. He felt even more anxious.
      "Is there anything I should know?"
      Josef looked at Douglas and burst out laughing.
      "...about the mouse council, I mean!"
      "Yes, of course that's what you meant." Josef smiled politely. "Nothing that I can think of, though you should ignore my manner of speech. I was appointed this position due to my fluency in human-speak and mouse governments tend to be a bit out of touch. See you in there."
      "Umm... How do I get in there?"
      "You can squeeze through the cat door."
      "The cat door?"
      Josef pushed against a part of the wall to show that it was hinged.
      "But I thought mice and cats... Well, you know..."
      "Another ingenius mouse plot, I'm afraid. We find them quite useful as inconspicuous modes of transportation. We only made you believe that they eat us." Josef passed through the mouse hole.
      "So we wouldn't realize you ride them?" asked Douglas, pushing open the cat door with his head.
      "It's far cleverer than that, of course. Consider it. Whenever a mouse finds a new home, all he must do is dart around a little, munch holes in a few boxes, and hi-ho-the-derry-o, he's got a new cat."
      "Wow," said Douglas, having wriggled himself into a short, immense, round, columned room. Then he realized both the mouse plot and the room deserved amazement. "Wow," he said again, for the room this time. Of course, it bothered him immediately that the first time had not been specifically for the mouse plot. "Wow," he said, for absolutely the last time. Did he really just think through all that? "Wow," he said accidentally. And immediately hit his head on the ceiling.
      "I thought human children said waa," came a mouse voice. Douglas turned to find, in the middle of the room, three raised mice on three raised platforms.
      "You're thinking of human babies," replied a second mouse, from the highest, center platform, "Human children say why."
      "Then what do human adults say?"
      "Why me," answered the last mouse gruffly.
      "This one's already reached that stage," said Josef.
      "To be expected, of course," amended the third mouse, "He's different, isn't he?"
      "Hello," Douglas interrupted. The mice were a bit startled.
      "Hello, human Douglas Dent. I am the Vice President of mousekind. To my left is the Minister of Progress, and to my right the Minister of The Question."
      "The question?"
      "That was quick," replied the Minister of the Question.
      "The Question's the reason for the season, man," explained Josef, inexplicably.
      "Still practicing the human-speak, Josef?"
      "I find it quite hard to forget."
      "All will be explained, human," said the Vice President, "in this entertaining educational film." A white rectangle descended from the ceiling behind Douglas.
      "Don't forget the candy!" cried the Minister of Progress.
      "Oh yes, of course," replied the Vice President. A small hole opened in the floor through which a bowl of chocolates rose on a short, white pedestal. "Here is your candy, human."
      This strange behavior filled Douglas with terrible indecision, torn between curiousity and candy.
      "Why?" he asked, hardly believing himself.
      "We understand that your movie industry is based almost entirely on your candy industry."
      "Oh. Umm... right," agreed Douglas, quickly choosing a chocolate.
      "Also," added the Minister of the Question, "Feel free to pay us up to ten times what the candy is worth."
      "Mmm... They're very good," Douglas grinned, "They're a lot like some chocolates my mom got in Belgium."
      The mice suddenly stared at him, frozen.
      "Josef," whispered Douglas, "Is 'Belgium' some kind of bad word here?"
      "Not at all," laughed Josef, quite loudly, "It just happens to be a codeword we use for 'The humans are on to us, everyone look surprised!'"
      "Oh," said Douglas, as the mouse council relaxed their expressions.
      "Yes, we made codewords out of all your small countries," said the Minister of Progress, "You'll never guess what we use Fiji for." There was some giggling amongst the council.
      "Enough," demanded the Minister of the Question.
      "Quite right," agreed the Vice President, "Here's the film."
      The screen faded to an image of an approaching mouse. It seemed familiar to Douglas, which was odd, because he didn't really know any other mice.
      "An extremely long time ago," the mouse began, "our ancestors built the greatest computer the Universe had ever seen."
      Douglas realized at once that it was the Minister of the Question. The voice in the film wasn't as gruff, but it was gruff enough.
      "They called this computer Deep Thought, and asked it to compute the Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything."
      "Oh really?" Douglas whispered, teasing Josef, "Exactly how long does something like that take to figure out?"
      "About seven and a half million years, actually," replied Josef.
      "Oh." boggled Douglas, and promptly shut up.
      "But the Answer was quite unsatisfactory," continued the film, "The Answer, it seems, is 42."
      Douglas wondered for a moment if this was some kind of outer space joke. He very nearly let out a polite laugh.
      "It wasn't a joke to us," saved the young narrator, "And so Deep Thought designed a new, bigger, better computer. This new computer was the size of a planet, and had to be. We knew the Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything, but now we had to figure out the Question."
      The film cut to images of a planet in the making. Curiously, the planet also seemed familiar to Douglas.
      "So Earth is a giant computer?"
      "Shhh..." whispered Josef, "not yet."
      "It is widely believed that if both the Question and the Answer were ever discovered, the Universe would be instantly destroyed and replaced by one even more inexplicable. Therefore, our noble quest for Truth, Purpose, and Exclusive Merchandising Rights was overcome with controversy. The computer was sabotaged in every Universe, and despite the best efforts of mice, the Question was lost forever."
      The word forever echoed dramatically as the screen returned to white. The Vice President looked up from a very tiny magazine.
      "This may surprise you, human, but your planet was our giant computer."
      Douglas gasped an incredible, incredulous, entirely unnecessary gasp.
      "See?!" said the Minister of Progress, "I told you they didn't know. You owe me one ningi."
      "Later," continued the Vice President, "Right now we must explain the mission to our young visitor before his planet is destroyed."
      "Oh, you always say that."
      "Human Douglas Dent, not everyone is aware that our plans were sabotaged and that the experiment is over. I refer specifically to the Galactic Wards, a branch of the galactic government who have disparaged our efforts since the beginning. Two of their six members, called 1 and 3, disappeared immediately before the experiment. We believe that one of these men is still trying to destroy the Earth, and is responsible for many of the attacks from which we are constantly saving your planet."
      "Earth is being attacked?"
      "Someone has hired a planetary demolition crew of lumpy green ogres called Vogons. The loathsome things have developed a multidimensional corporation devoted to destroying Earth in every form."
      "I thought mice were the only pandimensional creatures."
      "We are, of course..." the Vice President hesitated, "They bought the technology from us."
      "Well, we were completely unaware of their intentions. If we had been, I am certain we would have charged a great deal more."
      "Very charitable of you."
      "In any case, we believe that it is a former Galactic Ward who employs the Vogons, and that Deep Thought has chosen you to stop him."
      "That sounds very hard."
      "Yes. Yes it does." An ordinary pause passed into an uncomfortably long silence. "You had best be getting to it, then."
      "Oh." Douglas looked at Josef, who had started back toward the ship. A little disordered, he turned to follow.
      "Safe journey," called the Minister of the Question.
      "Good luck," called the Minister of Progress, "And we don't care what anyone else says!"
      Douglas took two more crouched steps, then stopped.
      "What anyone else says?" he turned back, "What does that mean?"
      "Nothing of significance," urged Josef, "Off we go."
      "What does it mean?"
      "He hasn't heard the prophecy?" asked the Vice President, "How is that possible?"
      "He's human," Josef sighed, "This is the species who coined the phrase 'Ignorance is bliss.'"
      "What prophecy?!"
      "They certainly ask a lot of questions for an ignorant species."
      "It seems to me," replied the Minister of the Question, "That they often ask questions so they won't have to think anymore."
      "Hello," interrupted Douglas.
      "Hello, human Douglas Dent."
      "What prophecy?!"
      "It is a prophecy handed down from the beginning of Time," began the Minister, even more gruffly than usual, "Across so many generations and so many languages that its origins have long been forgotten..."
      He paused for effect.
      "Its origins have been forgotten, but the prophecy remains clear: a hero named Douglas Dent shall fail to save the Universe."
      "What?!" Douglas suddenly felt very ill. "Does it say when or how?"
      "No, that's all of it, I'm afraid. It's nonsense, of course."
      "Quite right," agreed the Minister of Progress, "Ancient nonsense."
      "You knew this and still sent Josef to get me?"
      Josef cleared his throat.
      "The Universe ain't up for grabs this go-round, dig?"
      "Impressive," applauded the Minister of The Question, "Also, the prophecy foretells a hero. I do not intend offense, child, but you are not yet a hero."