A loud clatter of gunk music flooded through the Heart of Gold cabin as Zaphod searched the sub-etha radio wavebands for news of himself. The machine was rather difficult to operate. For years radios had been operated by means of pressing buttons and turning dials; then as the technology became more sophisticated the controls were made touch-sensitive - you merely had to brush the panels with your fingers; now all you had to do was wave your hand in the general direction of the components and hope. It saved a lot of muscular expenditure of course, but meant that you had to sit infuriatingly still if you wanted to keep listening to the same programme.
Zaphod waved a hand and the channel switched again. More gunk music, but this time it was a background to a news announcement. The news was always heavily edited to fit the rhythms of the music.
"... and news brought to you here on the sub-etha wave band, broadcasting around the galaxy around the clock," squawked a voice, "and we'll be saying a big hello to all intelligent life forms everywhere ... and to everyone else out there, the secret is to bang the rocks together, guys. And of course, the big news story tonight is the sensational theft of the new Improbability Drive prototype ship by none other than Galactic President Zaphod Beeblebrox. And the question everyone's asking is ... has the big Z finally flipped? Beeblebrox, the man who invented the Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster, ex-confidence trickster, once described by Eccentrica Gallumbits as the Best Bang since the Big One, and recently voted the Wort Dressed Sentinent Being in the Known Universe for the seventh time ... has he got an answer this time? We asked his private brain care specialist Gag Halfrunt ..." The music swirled and dived for a moment. Another voice broke in, presumably Halfrunt. He said: "Vell, Zaphod's jist zis guy you know?" but got no further because an electric pencil flew across the cabin and through the radio's on/off sensitive airspace. Zaphod turned and glared at Trillian - she had thrown the pencil.
"Hey," he said, what do you do that for?"
Trillian was tapping her fingers on a screenful of figures.
"I've just thought of something," she said.
"Yeah? Worth interrupting a news bulletin about me for?"
"You hear enough about yourself as it is."
"I'm very insecure. We know that."
"Can we drop your ego for a moment? This is important." + "If there's anything more important than my ego around, I want it caught and shot now." Zaphod glared at her again, then laughed.
"Listen," she said, "we picked up those couple of guys ..."
"What couple of guys?"
"The couple of guys we picked up."
"Oh, yeah," said Zaphod, "those couple of guys."
"We picked them up in sector ZZ 9 Plural Z Alpha."
"Yeah?" said Zaphod and blinked.
Trillian said quietly, "Does that mean anything to you?"
"Mmmmm," said Zaphod, "ZZ 9 Plural Z Alpha. ZZ 9 Plural Z Alpha?"
"Well?" said Trillian.
"Er ... what does the Z mean?" said Zaphod.
One of the major difficulties Trillian experienced in her relationship with Zaphod was learning to distinguish between him pretending to be stupid just to get people off their guard, pretending to be stupid because he couldn't be bothered to think and wanted someone else to do it for him, pretending to be outrageously stupid to hide the fact that he actually didn't understand what was going on, and really being genuinely stupid. He was renowned for being amazingly clever and quite clearly was so - but not all the time, which obviously worried him, hence the act. He proffered people to be puzzled rather than contemptuous. This above all appeared to Trillian to be genuinely stupid, but she could no longer be bothered to argue about it.
She sighed and punched up a star map on the visiscreen so she could make it simple for him, whatever his reasons for wanting it to be that way.
"There," she pointed, "right there."
"Hey ... Yeah!" said Zaphod.
"Well?" she said.
Parts of the inside of her head screamed at other parts of the inside of her head. She said, very calmly, "It's the same sector you originally picked me up in."
He looked at her and then looked back at the screen.
"Hey, yeah," he said, "now that is wild. We should have zapped straight into the middle of the Horsehead Nebula. How did we come to be there? I mean that's nowhere."
She ignored this.
"Improbability Drive," she said patiently. "You explained it to me yourself. We pass through every point in the Universe, you know that."
"Yeah, but that's one wild coincidence isn't it?"
"Picking someone up at that point? Out of the whole of the Universe to choose from? That's just too ... I want to work this out. Computer!"
The Sirius Cybernetics Corporation Shipboard Computer which controlled and permeated every particle of the ship switched into communication mode.
"Hi there!" it said brightly and simultaneously spewed out a tiny ribbon of ticker tape just for the record. The ticker tape said, Hi there!
"Oh God," said Zaphod. He hadn't worked with this computer for long but had already learned to loathe it.
The computer continued, brash and cheery as if it was selling detergent.
"I want you to know that whatever your problem, I am here to help you solve it."
"Yeah yeah," said Zaphod. "Look, I think I'll just use a piece of paper."
"Sure thing," said the computer, spilling out its message into a waste bin at the same time, "I understand. If you ever want ..."
"Shut up!" said Zaphod, and snatching up a pencil sat down next to Trillian at the console.
"OK, OK ..." said the computer in a hurt tone of voice and closed down its speech channel again.
Zaphod and Trillian pored over the figures that the Improbability flight path scanner flashed silently up in front of them.
"Can we work out," said Zaphod, "from their point of view what the Improbability of their rescue was?"
"Yes, that's a constant", said Trillian, "two to the power of two hundred and seventy-six thousand seven hundred and nine to one against."
"That's high. They're two lucky lucky guys."
"But relative to what we were doing when the ship picked them up ..."
Trillian punched up the figures. They showed tow-to-the power- of-Infinity-minus-one (an irrational number that only has a conventional meaning in Improbability physics).
"... it's pretty low," continued Zaphod with a slight whistle.
"Yes," agreed Trillian, and looked at him quizzically.
"That's one big whack of Improbability to be accounted for. Something pretty improbable has got to show up on the balance sheet if it's all going to add up into a pretty sum."
Zaphod scribbled a few sums, crossed them out and threw the pencil away.
"Bat's dots, I can't work it out."
Zaphod knocked his two heads together in irritation and gritted his teeth.
"OK," he said. "Computer!"
The voice circuits sprang to life again.
"Why hello there!" they said (ticker tape, ticker tape). "All I want to do is make your day nicer and nicer and nicer ..."
"Yeah well shut up and work something out for me."
"Sure thing," chattered the computer, "you want a probability forecast based on ..."
"Improbability data, yeah."
"OK," the computer continued. "Here's an interesting little notion. Did you realize that most people's lives are governed by telephone numbers?"
A pained look crawled across one of Zaphod's faces and on to the other one.
"Have you flipped?" he said.
"No, but you will when I tell you that ..."
Trillian gasped. She scrabbled at the buttons on the Improbability flight path screen.
"Telephone number?" she said. "Did that thing say telephone number?"
Numbers flashed up on the screen.
The computer had paused politely, but now it continued.
"What I was about to say was that ..."
"Don't bother please," said Trillian.
"Look, what is this?" said Zaphod.
"I don't know," said Trillian, "but those aliens - they're on the way up to the bridge with that wretched robot. Can we pick them up on any monitor cameras?"