Young Zaphod Plays It Safe by Douglas Adams
Douglas Adams. Young Zaphod Plays It Safe
A large flying craft moved swiftly across the surface of an
astoundingly beautiful sea. From mid-morning onwards it plied back and
forth in great widening arcs, and at last attracted the attention of the
local islanders, a peaceful, sea-food loving people who gathered on the
beach and squinted up into the blinding sun, trying to see what was
Any sophisticated knowledgeable person, who had knocked about, seen a
few things, would probably have remarked on how much the craft looked
like a filing cabinet – a large and recently burgled filing cabinet
lying on its back with its drawers in the air and flying.
The islanders, whose experience was of a different kind, were instead
struck by how little it looked like a lobster.
They chattered excitedly about its total lack of claws, its stiff
unbendy back, and the fact that it seemed to experience the greatest
difficulty staying on the ground. This last feature seemed particularly
funny to them. They jumped up and down on the spot a lot to demonstrate
to the stupid thing that they themselves found staying on the ground the
easiest thing in the world.
But soon this entertainment began to pall for them. After all, since
it was perfectly clear to them that the thing was not a lobster, and
since their world was blessed with an abundance of things that were
lobsters (a good half a dozen of which were now marching succulently up
the beach towards them) they saw no reason to waste any more time on the
thing but decided instead to adjourn immediately for a late lobster
At that exact moment the craft stopped suddenly in mid-air then
upended itself and plunged headlong into the ocean with a great crash of
spray which sent them shouting into the trees.
When they re-emerged, nervously, a few minutes later, all they were
able to see was a smoothly scarred circle of water and a few gulping
That’s odd, they said to each other between mouthfuls of the best
lobster to be had anywhere in the Western Galaxy, that’s the second time
that’s happened in a year.
The craft which wasn’t a lobster dived direct to a depth of two
hundred feet, and hung there in the heavy blueness, while vast masses of
water swayed about it. High above, where the water was magically clear,
a brilliant formation of fish flashed away. Below, where the light had
difficulty reaching the colour of the water sank to a dark and savage
Here, at two hundred feet, the sun streamed feebly. A large, silk
skinned sea-mammal rolled idly by, inspecting the craft with a kind of
half-interest, as if it had half expected to find something of this kind
round about here, and then it slid on up and away towards the rippling
The craft waited here for a minute or two, taking readings, and then
descended another hundred feet. At this depth it was becoming seriously
dark. After a moment or two the internal lights of the craft shut down,
and in the second or so that passed before the main external beams
suddenly stabbed out, the only visible light came from a small hazily
illuminated pink sign which read The Beeblebrox Salvage and Really Wild
The huge beams switched downwards, catching a vast shoal of silver
fish, which swiveled away in silent panic.
In the dim control room which extended in a broad bow from the
craft’s blunt prow, four heads were gathered round a computer display
that was analysing the very, very faint and intermittent signals that
emanating from deep on the sea bed.
“That’s it,” said the owner of one of the heads finally.
“Can we be quite sure?” said the owner of another of the heads.
“One hundred per cent positive,” replied the owner of the first head.
“You’re one hundred per cent positive that the ship which is crashed
on the bottom of this ocean is the ship which you said you were one
hundred per cent positive could one hundred per cent positively never
crash?” said the owner of the two remaining heads. “Hey,” he put up two
of his hands, “I’m only asking.”
The two officials from the Safety and Civil Reassurance
Administration responded to this with a very cold stare, but the man
with the odd, or rather the even number of heads, missed it. He flung
himself back on the pilot couch, opened a couple of beers – one for
himself and the other also for himself – stuck his feet on the console
and said “Hey, baby” through the ultra-glass at a passing fish.
“Mr. Beeblebrox…,” began the shorter and less reassuring of the two
officials in a low voice.
“Yup?” said Zaphod, rapping a suddenly empty can down on some of the
more sensitive instruments, “you ready to dive? Let’s go.”
“Mr. Beeblebrox, let us make one thing perfectly clear…”
“Yeah let’s,” said Zaphod, “How about this for a start. Why don’t you
just tell me what’s really on this ship.”
“We have told you,” said the official. “By-products.”
Zaphod exchanged weary glances with himself.
“By-products,” he said. “By-products of what?”
“Processes.” said the official.
“Processes that are perfectly safe.”
“Santa Zarquana Voostra!” exclaimed both of Zaphod’s heads in chorus,
“so safe that you have to build a zarking fortress ship to take the
by-products to the nearest black hole and tip them in! Only it doesn’t
get there because the pilot does a detour – is this right? – to pick up
some lobster…? OK, so the guy is cool, but… I mean own up, this is
barking time, this is major lunch, this is stool approaching critical
mass, this is… this is… total vocabulary failure!”
“Shut up!” his right head yelled at his left, “we’re flanging!”
He got a good calming grip on the remaining beer can.
“Listen guys,” he resumed after a moment’s peace and contemplation.
The two officials had said nothing. Conversation at this level was not
something to which they felt they could aspire. “I just want to know,”
insisted Zaphod, “what you’re getting me into here.”
He stabbed a finger at the intermittent readings trickling over the
computer screen. They meant nothing to him but he didn’t like the look
of them at all. They were all squiggly with lots of long numbers and
“It’s breaking up, is that it?” he shouted. “It’s got a hold full
epsilonic radiating aorist rods or something that’ll fry this whole
space sector for zillions of years back and it’s breaking up. Is that
the story? Is that what we’re going down to find? Am I going to come out
of that wreck with even more heads?”
“It cannot possibly be a wreck, Mr. Beeblebrox,” insisted the
official, “the ship is guaranteed to be perfectly safe. It cannot
possibly break up”
“Then why are you so keen to go and look at it?”
“We like to look at things that are perfectly safe.”
“Mr. Beeblebrox,” said on official, patiently, “may I remind you that
you have a job to do?”
“Yeah, well maybe I don’t feel so keen on doing it all of a sudden.
What do you think I am, completely without any moral whatsits, what are
they called, those moral things?”
“Scruples, thank you, whatsoever? Well?”
The two officials waited calmly. They coughed slightly to help pass
the time. Zaphod sighed a “what is the world coming to” sort of sigh to
absolve himself from all blame, and swung himself round in his seat.
“Ship?” he called.
“Yup?” said the ship.
“Do what I do.”
The ship thought about this for a few milliseconds and then, after
double checking all the seals on its heavy duty bulkheads, it began
slowly, inexorably, in the hazy blaze of its lights, to sink to the
Five hundred feet.
Here, at a pressure or nearly seventy atmospheres, in the chilling
depths where no light reaches, nature keeps its most heated imaginings.
Two foot long nightmares loomed wildly into the bleaching light, yawned,
and vanished back into the blackness.
Two and a half thousand feet.
At the dim edges of the ship’s lights guilty secrets flitted by with
their eyes on stalks.
Gradually the topography of the distantly approaching ocean bed
resolved with greater and greater clarity on the computer displays until
at last a shape could be made out that was separate and distinct from
its surroundings. It was like a huge lopsided cylindrical fortress which
widened sharply halfway along its length to accommodate the heavy
ultra-plating with which the crucial storage holds were clad, and which
were supposed by its builders to have made this the most secure and
impregnable spaceship ever built. Before launch the material structure
of this section had been battered, rammed, blasted and subjected to
every assault its builders knew it could withstand in order to
demonstrate that it could withstand them.
The tense silence in the cockpit tightened perceptibly as it became
clear that it was this section that had broken rather neatly in two.
“In fact it’s perfectly safe,” said one of the officials, “it’s built
so that even if the ship does break up, the storage holds cannot
possibly be breached.”
Three thousand, eight hundred and twenty five feet.
Four Hi-Presh-A SmartSuits moved slowly out of the open hatchway of
the salvage craft and waded through the barrage of its lights towards
the monstrous shape that loomed darkly out of the sea night. They moved
with a sort of clumsy grace, near weightless though weighed on by a
world of water.
With his right-hand head Zaphod peered up into the black immensities
above him and for a moment his mind sang with a silent roar of horror.
He glanced to his left and was relieved to see that his other head was
busy watching the Brockian Ultra-Cricket broadcasts on the helmet vid
without concern. Slightly behind him to his left walked the two
officials from the Safety and Civil Reassurance Administration, slightly
in front of him to his right walked the empty suit, carrying their
implements and testing the way for them.
They passed the huge rift in the broken backed Starship Billion Year
Bunker, and played their flashlights up into it. Mangled machinery
loomed between torn and twisted bulkheads, two feet thick. A family of
large transparent eels lived in there now and seemed to like it.
The empty suit preceded them along the length of the ship’s gigantic
murky hull, trying the airlocks. The third one it tested ground open
uneasily. They crowded inside it and waited for several long minutes
while the pump mechanisms dealt with the hideous pressure that the ocean
exerted, and slowly replaced it with an equally hideous pressure of air
and inert gases. At last the inner door slid open and they were admitted
to a dark outer holding area of the Starship Billion Year Bunker.
Several more high security Titan-O-Hold doors had to be passed
through, each of which the officials opened with a selection of quark
keys. Soon they were so deep within the heavy security fields that the
UltraCricket broadcasts were beginning to fade, and Zaphod had to switch
to one of the rock video stations, since there was nowhere that they
were not able to reach.
A final doorway slid open, and they emerged into a large sepulchral
space. Zaphod played his flashlight against the opposite wall and it
fell full on a wild-eyed screaming face.
Zaphod screamed a diminished fifth himself, dropped his light and sat
heavily on the floor, or rather on a body which had been lying there
undisturbed for around six months and which reacted to being sat on by
exploding with great violence. Zaphod wondered what to do about all
this, and after a brief but hectic internal debate decided that passing
out would be the very thing.
He came to a few minutes later and pretended not to know who he was,
where he was or how he had got there, but was not able to convince
anybody. He then pretended that his memory suddenly returned with a rush
and that the shock caused him to pass out again, but he was helped
unwillingly to his feet by the empty suit – which he was beginning to
take a serious dislike to – and forced to come to terms with his
They were dimly and fitfully lit and unpleasant in a number of
respects, the most obvious of which was the colourful arrangement of
parts of the ship’s late lamented Navigation Officer over the floor,
walls and ceiling, and especially over the lower half of his, Zaphod’s,
suit. The effect of this was so astoundingly nasty that we shall not be
referring to again at any point in this narrative – other than to record
briefly the fact that it caused Zaphod to throw up inside his suit,
which he therefore removed and swapped, after suitable headgear
modifications, with the empty one. Unfortunately the stench of the fetid
air in the ship, followed by the sight of his own suit walking around
casually draped in rotting intestines was enough to make him throw up in
the other suit as well, which was a problem that he and the suit would
simply have to live with.
There. All done. No more nastiness.
At least, no more of that particular nastiness.
The owner of the screaming face had calmed down very slightly now and
was bubbling away incoherently in a large tank of yellow liquid – an
emergency suspension tank.
“It was crazy,” he babbled, “crazy! I told him we could always try
the lobster on the way back, but he was crazy. Obsessed! Do you ever get
like that about lobster? Because I don’t. Seems to me it’s all rubbery
and fiddly to eat, and not that much taste, well I mean is there? I
infinitely prefer scallops, and said so. Oh Zarquon, I said so!”
Zaphod stared at this extraordinary apparition, flailing in its tank.
The man was attached to all kinds of life-support tubes, and his voice
was bubbling out of speakers that echoed insanely round the ship,
returning as haunting echoes from deep and distant corridors.
“That was where I went wrong” the madman yelled, “I actually said
that I preferred scallops and he said it was because I hadn’t had real
lobster like they did where his ancestors came from, which was here, and
he’d prove it. He said it was no problem, he said the lobster here was
worth a whole journey, let alone the small diversion it would take to
get here, and he swore he could handle the ship in the atmosphere, but
it was madness, madness!” he screamed, and paused with his eyes rolling,
as if the word had rung some kind of bell in his mind, “The ship went
right out of control! I couldn’t believe what we were doing and just to
prove a point about lobster which is really so overrated as a food, I’m
sorry to go on about lobsters so much, I’ll try and stop in a minute,
but they’ve been on my mind so much for the months I’ve been in this
tank, can you imagine what it’s like to be stuck in a ship with the same
guys for months eating junk food when all one guy will talk about is
lobster and then spend six months floating by yourself in a tank
thinking about it. I promise I will try and shut up about the lobsters,
I really will. Lobsters, lobsters, lobsters – enough! I think I’m the
only survivor. I’m the only one who managed to get to an emergency tank
before we went down. I sent out the Mayday and then we hit. It’s a
disaster isn’t it? A total disaster, and all because the guy liked
lobsters. How much sense am I making? It’s really hard for me to tell.”
He gazed at them beseechingly, and his mind seemed to sway slowly back
down to earth like a falling leaf . He blinked and looked at them oddly
like a monkey peering at a strange fish. He scrabbled curiously with his
wrinkled up fingers at the glass side of the tank. Tiny, thick yellow
bubbles loosed themselves from his mouth and nose, caught briefly in his
swab of hair and strayed on upwards.
“Oh Zarquon, oh heavens,” he mumbled pathetically to himself, “I’ve
been found. I’ve been rescued…”
“Well,” said one of the officials, briskly, “you’ve been found at
least.” He strode over to the main computer bank in the middle of the
chamber and started checking quickly through the ship’s main monitor
circuits for damage reports.
“The aorist rod chambers are intact,” he said.
“Holy dingo’s dos,” snarled Zaphod, “there are aorist rods on
Aorist rods were devices used in a now happily abandoned form of
energy production. When the hunt for new sources of energy had at one
point got particularly frantic, one bright young chap suddenly spotted
that one place which had never used up all its available energy was –
the past. And with the sudden rush of blood to the head that such
insights tend to induce, he invented a way of mining it that very same
night, and within a year huge tracts of the past were being drained of
all their energy and simply wasting away. Those who claimed that the
past should be left unspoilt were accused of indulging in an extremely
expensive form of sentimentality. The past provided a very cheap,
plentiful and clean source of energy, there could always be a few
Natural Past Reserves set up if anyone wanted to pay for their upkeep,
and as for the claim that draining the past impoverished the present,
well, maybe it did, slightly, but the effects were immeasurable and you
really had to keep a sense of proportion.
It was only when it was realised that the present really was being
impoverished, and that the reason for it was that those selfish
plundering wastrel bastards up in the future were doing exactly the same
thing, that everyone realised that every single aorist rod, and the
terrible secret of how they were made would have to be utterly and
forever destroyed. They claimed it was for the sake of their
grandparents and grandchildren, but it was of course for the sake of
their grandparent’s grandchildren, and their grandchildren’s
The official from the Safety and Civil Reassurance Administration
gave a dismissive shrug.
“They’re perfectly safe,” he said. He glanced up at Zaphod and
suddenly said with uncharacteristic frankness, “there’s worse than that
on board. At least,” he added, tapping at one of the computer screens,
“I hope it’s on board.”
The other official rounded on him sharply.
“What the hell do you think you’re saying?” he snapped.
The first shrugged again. He said “It doesn’t matter. He can say what
he likes. No one would believe him. It’s why we chose to use him rather
than do anything official isn’t it? The more wild the story he tells,
the more it’ll sound like he’s some hippy adventurer making it up. He
can even say that we said this and it’ll make him sound like a
paranoid.” He smiled pleasantly at Zaphod who was seething in a suit
full of sick. “You may accompany us,” he told him, “if you wish.”
“You see?” said the official, examining the ultra-titanium outer
seals of the aorist rod hold. “Perfectly secure, perfectly safe.”
He said the same thing as they passed holds containing chemical
weapons so powerful that a teaspoonful could fatally infect an entire
He said the same thing as they passed holds containing zeta-active
compounds so powerful that a teaspoonful could blow up a whole planet.
He said the same thing as they passed holds containing theta-active
compounds so powerful that a teaspoonful could irradiate a whole planet.
“I’m glad I’m not a planet,” muttered Zaphod.
“You’d have nothing to fear,” assured the official from the Safety
and Civil Reassurance Administration, “planets are very safe. Provided,”
he added – and paused. They were approaching the hold nearest to the
point where the back of the Starship Billion Year Bunker was broken. The
corridor here was twisted and deformed, and the floor was damp and
sticky in patches.
“Ho hum,” he said, “ho very much hum.”
“What’s in this hold?” demanded Zaphod.
“By-products” said the official, clamming up again.
“By-products…” insisted Zaphod, quietly, “of what?”
Neither official answered. Instead, they examined the hold door very
carefully and saw that its seals were twisted apart by the forces that
had deformed the whole corridor. One of them touched the door lightly.
It swung open to his touch. There was darkness inside, with just a
couple of dim yellow lights deep within it.
“Of what?” hissed Zaphod.
The leading official turned to the other.
“There’s an escape capsule,” he said, “that the crew were to use to
abandon ship before jettisoning it into the black hole,” he said. “I
think it would be good to know that it’s still there.” The other
official nodded and left without a word.
The first official quietly beckoned Zaphod in. The large dim yellow
lights glowed about twenty feet from them.
“The reason,” he said, quietly “why everything else in this ship is,
I maintain, safe, is that no one is really crazy enough to use them. No
one. At least no one that crazy would ever get near them. Anyone that
mad or dangerous ring very deep alarm bells. People may be stupid but
they’re not that stupid.”
“By-products,” hissed Zaphod again, – he had to hiss in order that
his voice shouldn’t be heard to tremble – “of what.”
“Er, Designer People.”
“The Sirius Cybernetics Corporation were awarded a huge research
grant to design and produce synthetic personalities to order. The
results were uniformly disastrous. All the “people” and “personalities”
turned out to be amalgams of characteristics which simply could not
co-exist in naturally occurring life forms. Most of them were just poor
pathetic misfits, but some were deeply, deeply dangerous. Dangerous
because they didn’t ring alarm bells in other people. They could walk
through situations the way that ghosts walk through walls, because no
one spotted the danger.
“The most dangerous of all were three identical ones – they were put
in this hold, to be blasted, with this ship, right out of this universe.
They are not evil, in fact they are rather simple and charming. But they
are the most dangerous creatures that ever lived because there is
nothing they will not do if allowed, and nothing they will not be
allowed to do…”
Zaphod looked at the dim yellow lights, the two dim yellow lights. As
his eyes became accustomed to the light he saw that the two lights
framed a third space where something was broken. Wet sticky patches
gleamed dully on the floor. Zaphod and the official walked cautiously
towards the lights. At that moment, four words came crashing into the
helmet headsets from the other official.
“The capsule has gone,” he said tersely.
“Trace it” snapped Zaphod’s companion. “Find exactly where it has
gone. We must know where it has gone!”
Zaphod slid aside a large ground glass door. Beyond it lay a tank
full of thick yellow liquid, and floating in it was a man, a kindly
looking man with lots of pleasant laugh lines round his face. He seemed
to be floating quite contentedly and smiling to himself.
Another terse message suddenly came through his helmet headset. The
planet towards which the escape capsule had headed had already been
identified. It was in Galactic Sector ZZ9 Plural Z Alpha.
The kindly looking man in the tank seemed to be babbling gently to
himself, just as the co-pilot had been in his tank. Little yellow
bubbles beaded on the man’s lips. Zaphod found a small speaker by the
tank and turned it on. He heard the man babbling gently about a shining
city on a hill.
He also heard the Official from the Safety and Civil Reassurance
Administration issue instructions that the planet in ZZ9 Plural Z Alpha
must be made “perfectly safe.”