It is generally agreed by students of the modern orthodox school of galactic travel writing, and by science fiction hacks, that the urban landscape of any sufficiently advanced civilisation will eventually settle into one of two archetypes. The first can best be summarised as 'pointy and shiny.' Cities falling into this class - exemplified by Gerrard, the shimmering citadel of the noble Sath race - are wont to pierce the skies with their lofty spires which gleam in the light of exotic suns. Indeed, in the past year alone, at least four Sath window cleaners were skewered on Gerrard's spires, while many more were blinded by their incessant gleaming. Still, like most proponents of the 'pointy and shiny' genre, the Sath feel that this is a price worth paying for the inspiration afforded their artists and philosophers by Gerrard's lofty, gleaming, occasionally blood-splattered architecture.
In contrast, the second major class of settlement in post-industrial civilisations attracts few philosophers. What artists it does inspire are unlikely to express themselves through abstract sculpture and tinkly lift music - their mediums of choice are usually eccentric fashion design or PG-rated street art. For this is the world of 'mean and seedy' urban planning, where nothing gleams but the reflection of a neon light in a puddle of oil; where the only piercing you're likely to see involves a switchblade around the corner of the next alleyway.
Alleyways, backstreets and narrow spaces of all kinds feature heavily in a typical 'mean and seedy' environment. Kontropolis, nerve centre of the Mean and Seedy Republic of Kontron, is famous for being composed almost entirely of such areas, and for the badly-lit brothels, reclamation dives and kebab houses that line them. It was here, within a maze of backstreets, sidestreets and occasional frontstreets - in this underbelly of the interbelly of the overbelly - that Zaphod Beeblebrox now found himself.
Much separated this dishevelled creature from the statesman and joyrider supreme the galaxy would one day come to know and love, but the differences would not be at all apparent to the untrained eye. Zaphod sauntered through Kontropolis with the confidence of a liar, always beating an unapologetic path down the middle of any given walkway. This was inevitable on such narrow streets, where the grimy walls to either side left little room for overtaking, but he still managed to make it look deliberate. If there was one thing he'd learned on his travels besides how to mix a few good cocktails, it was that when you can't stay hidden (which is tough with two heads) then the next best way to avoid confrontation is to exude confidence. There was the blaster in his inside pocket, of course, but he'd prefer not to have to use it. If he swaggered hard enough, Zaphod reasoned, all the city's muggers would deem him simply too groovy to rob and send him on his way.
So far, the strategy was working fine. The few citizens he encountered scuttled nastily by, heads bowed to thoughts of their next urgent rendezvous with vice. After trudging unmolested down a seemingly endless succession of identical alleyways, Zaphod finally stumbled out into something like a crossroads, with grim tunnels of concrete leading away in five directions. At the centre of this broken pentangle was a raised dias, on which stood a booth with a ripped-off door and a flickering light. As Zaphod drew closer, he recognised a peeling sticker on its side in the shape of a videophone. He sniffed and pulled the crumpled piece of paper from his sleeve. At last, he thought to himself: progress.
Since the sinking (so to speak) of his submarine salvage syndicate, Zaphod had been wandering the solar systems, living on nothing but his own wits and occasionally those of other people. That was until he received a message from someone he hadn't expected to hear from at all since ruining one family gathering too many: his great-grandfather, Zaphod Beeblebrox III. To cut a very long story short - as Zaphod himself would be forced to do, had he been allowed to tell it to anyone, as the long version bored him to tears - ZB III turned out to be surprisingly radical for a dusty old bat, and had for some years been part of the inner circle of a band of conspiracy theorists. This meant not only that they subscribed to theoretical conspiracies but, literally, that they conspired in theory. They were oddballs, but powerful and well-funded oddballs, and had done their research. One of them, Zarniwoop, had a lucrative day job in publishing and believed he was close to finding out a secret which would upend the running of the whole galaxy.
This was the part that caught Zaphod's attention. It was just so fascinating, so unique - so him. And Zarniwoop and ZB III and their shadowy colleagues agreed. After many years, these old men had done all they could do. The groundwork had been laid for somebody courageous to step into the breech, somebody fascinating and unique and, well, dispensible. Somebody who could easily go missing for a few years without comment, then return to shoot straight to the top of the charts. This task was not to be taken lightly, so ZB III had been keen to impress upon his young grandson. It would be dangerous. Great sacrifices would have to be made - a kind of death, even. The death of the continuous consciousness that masquerades as the self.
And the reward? Forbidden knowledge, cosmic enlightenment, really wild things. Fame and glory and a place in the history books. Also, possibly, actual death. It was so him.
Two martinis, one unlimited OmniPay card in his name and a quick hyperjump later, and Zaphod had alighted in Kontropolis. It wasn't his first choice of all-expenses-paid holiday destination, but he prided himself on his ability to make the best of any situation. And so here he was.
Zaphod stepped up into the booth and flattened out his scrap of paper on the interior wall, squinting to make out the pencil markings scrawled across it. The guttering lamp overhead gave enough illumination for him to see the paper, but it was proving near impossible to trace the twelve-digit sub-etha videophone number he needed. As little sunlight ever penetrates the dense Kontropolitan smog, Zaphod was now in a bit of a fix. He let out two small grunts of irritation and was leaning in extra close for a really good, hard squint when a nearby noise made him jump so hard that his skulls knocked together.
"Wotcher clock, son." A Kontron had appeared in the booth's doorway, dragging a steel trolley behind him.
"Hey," Zaphod yelped, mortified at having been seen to be flustered. "What gives, man? That's no way to make an entrance."
The Kontron shrugged its shoulder. Any readers who are unfamiliar with Kontron anatomy need only know that it is approximately Gelphoid in appearance, but just approximate enough to be unpleasantly strange. This one was clad in plastics and had a sly look to him that Zaphod didn't like at all. "Maybe not where you come from. You all right, there?"
"I'm fine," muttered Zaphod, "nothing a long lie down in a darkened room won't take care of." He rubbed his heads while his other hand quickly stuffed the paper scrap back into his coat. "Would you mind getting out the way? I don't feel like standing in this little box any more, it's cramping my style. And my elbows."
Without taking his eyes off Zaphod, the Kontron stepped aside and let him squeeze back out into the pentangle. It was only now, as it squeaked over the cobbles on four rusty little hover field generators, that Zaphod noticed the trolley he was pulling. "Hey, what's all that?" Zaphod gestured at the tangle of electronics inside. As a sometime conman, he should have known better than to take an interest in the personal affairs and effects of shifty strangers in mean and seedy cityscapes, but the search for ultimate truth and the indulgence of mild curiosity are only two points on the same scale. A man preparing to sacrifice everything for the former can only be expected to pause now and then for the sake of the latter.
A smile spread across the Kontron's almost-but-not-quite-Gelphoid face. "That's my wares. Reclamation tilt." 'Tilt' is the name given by the Kontron, who as a species are pathologically reluctant to throw things away in case they come in handy later, to the residual technology that consequently clogs their conurbations. "Anything I can do you for?"
"What do you have?"
"Mostly things that go 'bleep.'"
Zaphod considered. "Do you have, like, a torch? Something I could use to see my way around this dump?"
The Kontron rummaged briefly in his trolley before emerging with a fistful of plastic. "This should see you right!" He held the object out for Zaphod's inspection.
In the poor light from the booth, it looked like a small ponytail of silvery-white hair all clumped together. The hairs were shaped around a tube, which was open at one end, and splayed in a halo of shiny threads at the other. Zaphod peered at it eagerly. "Hey, neat! Er, what is it?"
"It's a torch," said the Kontron, and he held up one finger. Then, with Zaphod looking on, he pushed the open end of the device down onto his finger. "Just watch." Almost before the tube had swallowed his third knuckle, the tips of the silvery hairs all began to glow with a bright white light.
"Hey, neat," Zaphod exclaimed, and he meant it this time. "How does it work?"
The Kontron yanked the torch from his finger and it abruptly stopped shining. "Dunno," he admitted. "Don't much care to, either."
For those who do care to know the principles behind the IDG PointerLazer - for that is what it was -The Big Interstellar Book of Things That Go 'Bleep' describes it as a rather nifty little gizmo which harnesses the electromagnetic charge generated by most organic bodies and, after some jiggery-pokery in the middle which is more complicated and improbable than any normal person can be expected to comprehend, outputs it as light. This light is helpfully dispersed through a bundle of short fiber optic cables which respond to the wearer's movements, enabling flexible and customisable illumination. In order to function, it must be attached to a finger, tentacle, antler fork or other small appendage. This is where the PointerLazer really lets itself down, as for most species the loss of the use of such an appendage is so inconvenient as to render the extra light useless. "Blast," a typical user might say, "now I can see which part of the oxyphlegm recyclotank needs fixing, but this bundle of short fiber optic cables on my tentacle means I can't hold the recyclotank wranglestick in order to fix it. I shall just remove them..." At which point he is left perfectly able to hold a wranglestick, but completely in the dark about where to wrangle it. Hence the failure of the PointerLazer to achieve any kind of commercial success, except among one or two species (such as the fifty-armed Jatravartids of Viltvodle VI, for whom small appendages are too plentiful by half, and of whom more shall be said later).
Beggars, however, cannot be choosers. Zaphod Beeblebrox needed a light and here, by convenient coincidence, was the opportunity to obtain one. After a quick glance around, he took out his OmniPay card and asked the Kontron merchant to name his price. The Kontron merely looked askance at the card. "What? You wanna pay with that thing?"
"Er, yeah," said Zaphod, pulling two of his best baffled expressions. "What's the matter with that?"
"Cash only, I'm afraid," replied the Kontron.
"But that's ridiculous..."
He sneered. "Don't care if it makes you laugh, mate. Doesn't matter what currency, just make it something you can scratch a window with. None of this digital nonsense."
Zaphod gave an exaggerated sigh. "Right. Cash." He felt in his pockets and, in doing so, came into contact with his blaster. For a moment he considered marking the possibility of threatening this guy. Then he wondered what shockingly unhip kind of person would go to all that bother for a torch, and shuddered.
The Kontron watched, impatient. "I ain't got all night, you know," he said while Zaphod hunted for loose change. "Either buy the bloody thing or be off with you."
"Either sell me the bloody thing or be off with you!" huffed Zaphod. "Look, I'll give you an autograph for it, how about that? It'll be worth a thousand Alterian dollars in a few years, I swear."
"That's as may be, but I don't wanna wait that long. If you're looking to barter, ain't you even got any tilt of your own?"
Zaphod paused. He must have something worth the interest of this grangey little anti-frood. He dug in his back pocket and there it was, neat and compact inside a case emblazoned with the words 'DON'T PANIC.' He handed it over. "Will that do?"
"What is it?"
"Just a guidebook."
"Guidebook to what?"
"I don't know, man, the galaxy or something? I'm not using it; my scope's so much broader than that, know what I'm saying?"
Frowning, the Kontron slipped the Guide out of its cover and tapped at the buttons. He listened for a few seconds to the bleeps it produced before apparently making up his mind. "All right," he said, slamming the Guide back into its case and chucking it into his trolley, "it'll do."
In return he tossed the torch to Zaphod, who caught it with a wink and a grin. "Thanks a billion, bud. You just made my day a whole lot easier."
"Pleasure doing business with you, too," grimaced the Kontron. Taking his trolley by the handles, he turned away and squeaked off into the darkness.
Zaphod watched him leave with a mild sense of irritation quickly fading to indifference. He couldn't stand the feeling of being disliked, even by someone so obviously irrelevant as a Kontropolis street vendor. After all, Zaphod considered himself to be uniquely loveable, both by nature and design. If any sentient being proved immune to his charms, who knew what other perversions they might be capable of? But in the end, it didn't matter. He had what he needed now, and bigger fish to fry. The sooner he got this over with, the sooner he could get the hell off this grim planet and onto one with a bit of party atmosphere.
He made a mental note to tell Ix that he'd finally got rid of that stupid book, and that it needed updating with a better entry on the Kontron Republic. Zaphod didn't know what the Guide's current entry was like - he hadn't looked it up before arriving - and now he probably never would, but he was willing to bet that it was sub-parr.
At this point it had once again become necessary for him to cram himself into the videophone booth, not a task he was looking forward to. Its design seemed to be a compromise betewen the needs of natives and those of larger, interplanetary visitors in that it was taller than the average Kontron but still a few inches too short for Zaphod Beeblebrox. Reasons of hygeine, safety and (most pressingly) style prevented him from removing his Beatle boots, so instead he ducked his heads, pulled in his elbows and got on with it.
While he was going through the painstaking palaver of re-entering Zarniwoop's number, Zaphod cursed the cramped conditions and the LazerPointer on his finger for making it all so much harder than it had to be. In fact he should have thanked his lucky star systems that he was not a Jatravartid.*
At last Zaphod reached the end of the number. He checked and double-checked it before hitting the call button. The sub-etha droned and fizzed for a few seconds before the connection clicked, and far away on Ursa Minor Beta a phone started to ring. Zaphod had hardly finished his celebratory 'phreeow' before Zarniwoop's face appeared on the grubby little postage stamp of a screen. He looked angry. Zaphod reasoned that this might just be the result of image warping by a poor connection and dodgy hardware.
"Beeblebrox," snapped Zarniwoop.
Zaphod accepted that maybe he was just angry. "Hi," he smiled, casual as he could manage under the circumstances.
"Don't you 'hi' me," said Zarniwoop. His voice came tinny and crackling through the booth's single speaker, a black square mounted just beneath the screen. "Are you alone?"
Zaphod glanced around the booth. Every square inch of it was filled with Zaphod. "Yep," he confirmed, "totally solo. More's the pity."
"Good. Why the hell's it taken you so long to call? I've been sitting here like a high-powered executive lemon for two hours!"
"Hey, man, cool your engines..."
Zarniwoop ignored him. "I hope you haven't been distracted from the task at hand. Your great-grandfather told me you were easily distracted."
"No need to worry about that in this dump. It's so grim I keep wishing for a riot or a meteorite strike just to cheer the place up a bit." Although Zaphod didn't know it, he had just quoted more or less word for word an exerpt from The Hitchhiker's Guide to The Galaxy in its entry about Kontron. "So anyway, what's the deal? I found the phonebooth, just like you said. Do I get the rest of my directions now?"
Conspiracy theorists are, by definition, paranoid. The more paranoid they are, the bigger the theoretical conspiracy, and since Zarniwoop subscribed to one of the grandest conspiracy theories in history, it should not be surprising that he was almost too paranoid to function. At the time this exchange took place, he had already started work constructing an artificial universe: an electronically generated, minutely accurate replica of the real** cosmos into which he could retreat and wait out the years for his plans to come to fruition. Someone who goes to those lengths to avoid his perceived enemies is not going to be foiled by a feckless Beetelgusian conman getting himself kidnapped and tortured for information, or leaving his copy of the top-secret plans in a bar somewhere. As such, Zaphod had not been furnished with a copy of the top-secret plans, nor even complete instructions on how to reach his destination. All he had was an encoded sub-etha phone number and a map of a small section of the city, both scrawled in pencil so that later on they could be rubbed out before the paper was folded up, shredded, incinerated and the ashes fed to Eridian fear wasps.
Zarniwoop glanced about furtively, even though he knew he was perfectly alone. "All right, Beeblebrox," he said, "listen carefully because I won't repeat this. Exit that junction to the north-east and walk three blocks down. When you come to a food outlet called..." (He consulted his notes.) "Gigi's All-Night Pizza Takeaway, look to the right of it for a stairway leading down beneath ground level. Roosta tells me the opening is very narrow and, well, if it's giving him trouble then it must be. Have you seen the gaps that man can squeeze through? Like a cat. Anyway. If you manage to fit down there by removing an appendage or two, you'll be met by my contact. They're expecting you, but you'll have to give the code. You do remember the code, don't you?"
"Of course," Zaphod said nervously. "It's 'Ark-'"
"Quiet!" Zarniwoop fumed. "We don't know who might overhear you! Good grief, I can't pretend I don't find you engaging, Zaphod, but..."
"Hey, you wouldn't be the first, baby."
Zarniwoop sighed and rubbed his temples. "I know this job would be perfectly within your capabilities if you could only focus on it for five minutes. Will you do that, for me? Hmm?"
Not for you, thought Zaphod. Maybe for your crazy plan - I'm a sucker for a crazy plan. But I wouldn't piss on you if you were struck with Alvegan desiccation sickness. "Sure," he said out loud, with a dazzling grin. "Five minutes, focus up. Got it. Did you say something about a takeaway pizza?"
Some time later - exactly how long, he wasn't sure, because his ultra-precise subdermal chronon implant was on the blink again - Zaphod finally came to the right stairwell. He knew it to be the right one because so far he'd already tried six, all of which had turned out to be housing grumpy rough-sleepers of one shape or another, and he was damned if he was going to keep searching. Objectively flawed as this reasoning was, it did in fact lead him to the correct conclusion. This was just one of many auspicious coincidences which, according to some of the leading minds of the Beeblebroxian psychology community, would inflict more damage to Zaphod's personality over the course of his life than any other single factor.
Whistling complacently, he swung both legs down into the passageway and started to wriggle the rest of his body down after them. Nobody shouted at him, which he took as an invitation to keep at it until finally both heads were tucked into the tiny, gloomy space. His knees were folded all the way up to his chest. Unable to move his arms, he used a foot to tap on the door at the bottom of the stairs with increasing urgency until, to his great relief, it popped open.
Zaphod fell through the doorway and landed chins-first on an unwelcoming floor. When the stars and cartoon birds cleared from around his eyes, he blinked and looked up at the figure towering over him.
Being a Kontron, she only towered because Zaphod was still prostrate on the ground, but that didn't make the illusion any less powerful. She wore an oversized labcoat and protective goggles hung around her neck, but her face was bare. "Hello," she said, making it sound like an accusation.
"Hello," Zaphod tried to say, although it came out slightly muffled by the floor.
The Kontron glared at him. "Do you have an appointment?"
"Yeah!" Zaphod dragged himself up onto his elbows and grinned. Two of his eyes stayed fixed on his host while the others flitted around her shop, taking in a reception desk and a wall of tools which all jumped straight into his 'most improbably scary neurosurgical implements' Top 40. Beside the desk at around his new eye level was a stack of magazines, the top one bearing the stolid face of President Vranx. He allowed his gaze to linger there a moment before pulling his attention back to the Kontron. "I've got an appointment, but I'm not supposed to tell you my name. Is that right?"
In the absence of lips, she pursed most of her face. "That's how we do things, yes. You should have a code."
"Ah-hah, yes!" cried Zaphod triumphantly. He scrambled to his knees and recited, "'Arkle Shmarkle sat on a shmel.' Old Beetelgusian nursery rhyme. Never forget it."
"I see. Wait there, please." She went over to the desk and rearranged the clutter until she could get a clear look at the code sheet. Zaphod took up his whistling again until she had confirmed his booking and ticked off a box or two. "That checks out," she said. "If you could come and sign the form now, we can begin."
"But... I thought you didn't want to know my name?"
"Of course. We don't want you to sign your name. Just something else."
She rolled her eyes, which Zaphod thought was very unfair. "Anything! Write something profane in - Beetelgusian, did you say? - I won't be able to read it. Sketch out a self-portrait for all I care. So long as it fits on the dotted line. We may be committed to preserving the utmost anonymity of our clients, but we still find it helps to collect some token of consent from you before the procedure."
Zaphod shrugged and shuffled over to her. The ceiling was too low for him to stand up straight but he got to his feet and bent low over the desk, blinking as she pointed out the spot. His fingers curled around the pen she thrust at him as he rifled through his brain for something to fill the space. All the thousands of symbol strings he had strung effortlessly together in his life now abandoned him. Sweat was beginning to bead on his necks when a single word finally took mercy and presented itself; Zaphod smirked and scribbled it down, little knowing that he was writing the same word every single customer of this clinic used for their signatures. This may sound improbable, given that beings travelled far and wide for the discreet and reasonably-priced services offered in Kontropolis, but note that the word is - along with 'cricket' and 'gin and tonic' - one of the very few to carry similar meanings across every inhabited world in the galaxy. In this case the word in question is an unutterably rude interjection, except on Earth, where they don't know what it means. Earth is, for reasons too ancient and muddled be explored here, something of an anomaly when it comes to convergent linguistic evolution.
When Zaphod had handed back the pen and the Kontron had reshuffled her desk clutter, she led him stooping to the back of the room where a grubby plastic sheet hung across a doorway. Pushing through, Zaphod found himself in almost complete darkness, and immediately banged his elbow on something. "Belgium!" he hissed.
Tutting sounds reassured him of the Kontron's presence as she moved around somewhere ahead of him. "Now, really..." Something went clunk and an eerie ray of blue light shot across the room. "I've a good mind to sponge out such words while I'm rooting around in those heads of yours. Personality fix, isn't it?"
It didn't sound like a question, but Zaphod grunted an affirmative anyway. When the subject of neural purging had first been discussed, he'd taken it to mean a simple memory wipe of the last year or two, erasing all his involvement with the conspirators. Instead Zarniwoop had explained that this approach was too simplistic. Instead what was required was a fundamental rewrite of the personality traits associated with his secrets. The qualities that made Zaphod so suitable for the scheme, his audacity and imagination, those needed to be retained in some form. But if the government looked beneath his swagger and found it concealed an intensely curious and passionately rebellious mind, all would be lost. The plan, as it had been explained to Zaphod, was for some of his more classically admirable attributes to become suppressed in order for his more attention-grabbing quirks - the impulsivity, the vanity - to come explosively to the fore. The persona he'd constructed of untouchable arrogance would, if all went according to plan, become the real thing.
It was a gloriously frightening prospect. Zaphod felt like he was about to down the most dangerous cocktail in the universe with no idea where or whether he'd wake up in the morning.
"Come on," ordered the Kontron, taking his hand out of the dark. Her goggles were huge plates of pale glass. "Sit down." She guided him to a chair and adjusted it until the blue light pooled on his chest. He waited to be restrained, but she allowed his arms to lie quite comfortably in his lap as quiet sounds of tinkering clattered around the room.
He scratched his palms. "Will you be cutting my brain open in the dark?"
"It's not dark for me. Anyway, the surgery is non-intrusive. You'd be amazed what we can do with lasers these days."
Zaphod conceded that he probably would, but now was not the time to think about it. He felt her hand on his arm, pushing back his sleeve. "Hold still. I'm going to administer a little something immobilise you."
"Not a general anaesthetic?"
"No, no. You will retain consciousness; I need to be able to monitor your brain functions throughout the procedure. It's only important that your body is paralysed, so you don't make any ruckus."
This was starting to sound a bit on the unpleasant side to Zaphod. Still, he supposed, he wouldn't remember it. The him that would be taken from this place, the him that would carry out the big plan in the months and years and decades to come, the him that mattered, would be a man who had never experienced any of this. And the him who had experienced it, well, he wouldn't exist to care about it. "Will it hurt?" he asked, without much wanting a reply.
She stuck him with the needle. "Eventually."
And the rest is history, which means - as any historian will tell you - it's a blurry mish-mash of contradictory accounts, loose ends and controversial hearsay.
*As already mentioned, each member of the species has fifty fully-formed arms which make it nigh on impossible for them to fit into anything, from phonebooths to beds to fashionable winter coats. Their bodies are not especially bulky, but as industrialisation has driven them into more densely populated settlements, unintentional jostling has become a serious problem. When the pavement is full of commuters, all dividing their attention between flasks of Viltvodlian coffee and up to a dozen different hand/claw-held electronics, it's hard to see how jostling could not be a serious problem (for several reasons, mass amputation is not considered a serious option). The Jatravartids' ridiculous excess of arms serves no practical purpose but developed mostly as a result of sexual selection, which means that apart from being objectively inconvenient, they are also highly fetishised objects of attraction. Consequently, sexual repression has a hard time finding a foothold among the Jatravartids. This is also one of the main reasons they aren't interested in amputation.
**Insofar as anything can be said to be real, which is debatable. There are some who speculate that our universe is merely a computer simulation being run by super-advanced beings from a higher dimension, or rather there were, until some others rang up the super-advanced beings from the higher dimensions for a statement. The super-advanced beings laughed at this and asked why they'd waste processing power running such a bizarre simulation, then hung up and went back to playing Fantasy Brockian Ultra-Cricket video games.