On a small obscure world somewhere in the middle of nowhere in particular - nowhere, that is, that could ever be found, since it is protected by a vast field of unprobability to which only six men in this galaxy have a key - it was raining.
It was bucketing down, and had been for hours. It beat the top of the sea into a mist, it pounded the trees, it churned and slopped a stretch of scrubby land near the sea into a mudbath.
The rain pelted and danced on the corrugated iron roof of the small shack that stood in the middle of this patch of scrubby land. It obliterated the small rough pathway that led from the shack down to the seashore and smashed apart the neat piles of interesting shells which had been placed there.
The noise of the rain on the roof of the shack was deafening within, but went largely unnoticed by its occupant, whose attention was otherwise engaged.
He was a tall shambling man with rough straw-coloured hair that was damp from the leaking roof. His clothes were shabby, his back was hunched, and his eyes, though open, seemed closed.
In his shack was an old beaten-up armchair, an old scratched table, an old mattress, some cushions and a stove that was small but warm.
There was also an old and slightly weatherbeaten cat, and this was currently the focus of the man's attention. He bent his shambling form over it.
"Pussy, pussy, pussy," he said, "coochicoochicoochicoo ... pussy want his fish? Nice piece of fish ... pussy want it?"
The cat seemed undecided on the matter. It pawed rather condescendingly at the piece of fish the man was holding out, and then got distracted by a piece of dust on the floor.
"Pussy not eat his fish, pussy get thin and waste away, I think," said the man. Doubt crept into his voice.
"I imagine this is what will happen," he said, "but how can I tell?"
He proffered the fish again.
"Pussy think," he said, "eat fish or not eat fish. I think it is better if I don't get involved." He sighed.
"I think fish is nice, but then I think that rain is wet, so who am I to judge?"
He left the fish on the floor for the cat, and retired to his seat.
"Ah, I seem to see you eating it," he said at last, as the cat exhausted the entertainment possibilities of the speck of dust and pounced on to the fish.
"I like it when I see you eat the fish," said the man, "because in my mind you will waste away if you don't."
He picked up from the table a piece of paper and the stub of a pencil. He held one in one hand and the other in the other, and experimented with the different ways of bringing them together. He tried holding the pencil under the paper, then over the paper, then next to the paper. He tried wrapping the paper round the pencil, he tried rubbing the stubby end of the pencil against the paper and then he tried rubbing the sharp end of the pencil against the paper. It made a mark, and he was delighted with the discovery, as he was every day. He picked up another piece of paper from the table. This had a crossword on it. He studied it briefly and filled in a couple of clues before losing interest.
He tried sitting on one of his hands and was intrigued by the feel of the bones of his hip.
"Fish come from far away," he said, "or so I'm told. Or so I imagine I'm told. When the men come, or when in my mind the men come in their six black ships, do they come in your mind too? What do you see pussy?"
He looked at the cat, which was more concerned with getting the fish down as rapidly as possible than it was with these speculations.
"And when I hear their questions, do you hear questions? What do their voices mean to you? Perhaps you just think they're singing songs to you." He reflected on this, and saw the flaw in the supposition.
"Perhaps they are singing songs to you," he said, "and I just think they're asking me questions."
He paused again. Sometimes he would pause for days, just to see what it was like.
"Do you think they came today?" he said, "I do. There's mud on the floor, cigarettes and whisky on the table, fish on a plate for you and a memory of them in my mind. Hardly conclusive evidence I know, but then all evidence is circumstantial. And look what else they've left me."
He reached over to the table and pulled some things off it.
"Crosswords, dictionaries, and a calculator."
He played with the calculator for an hour, whilst the cat went to sleep and the rain outside continued to pour. Eventually he put the calculator aside.
"I think I must be right in thinking they ask me questions," he said, "To come all that way and leave all these things for the privilege of singing songs to you would be very strange behaviour. Or so it seems to me. Who can tell, who can tell."
From the table he picked up a cigarette and lit it with a spill from the stove. He inhaled deeply and sat back.
"I think I saw another ship in the sky today," he said at last. "A big white one. I've never seen a big white one, just the six black ones. And the six green ones. And the others who say they come from so far away. Never a big white one. Perhaps six small black ones can look like one big white one at certain times. Perhaps I would like a glass of whisky. Yes, that seems more likely."
He stood up and found a glass that was lying on the floor by the mattress. He poured in a measure from his whisky bottle. He sat again.
"Perhaps some other people are coming to see me," he said.
A hundred yards away, pelted by the torrential rain, lay the Heart of Gold.
Its hatchway opened, and three figures emerged, huddling into themselves to keep the rain off their faces.
"In there?" shouted Trillian above the noise of the rain.
"Yes," said Zarniwoop.
"Weird," said Zaphod.
"But it's in the middle of nowhere," said Trillian, "we must have come to the wrong place. You can't rule the Universe from a shack."
They hurried through the pouring rain, and arrived, wet through, at the door. They knocked. They shivered.
The door opened.
"Hello?" said the man.
"Ah, excuse me," said Zarniwoop, "I have reason to believe ..."
"Do you rule the Universe?" said Zaphod.
The man smiled at him.
"I try not to," he said, "Are you wet?"
Zaphod looked at him in astonishment.
"Wet?" he cried, "Doesn't it look as if we're wet?"
"That's how it looks to me," said the man, "but how you feel about it might be an altogether different matter. If you feel warmth makes you dry, you'd better come in."
They went in.
They looked around the tiny shack, Zarniwoop with slight distaste, Trillian with interest, Zaphod with delight.
"Hey, er ..." said Zaphod, "what's your name?"
The man looked at them doubtfully.
"I don't know. Why, do you think I should have one? It seems very odd to give a bundle of vague sensory perceptions a name."
He invited Trillian to sit in the chair. He sat on the edge of the chair, Zarniwoop leaned stiffly against the table and Zaphod lay on the mattress.
"Wowee!" said Zaphod, "the seat of power!" He tickled the cat.
"Listen," said Zarniwoop, "I must ask you some questions."
"Alright," said the man kindly, "you can sing to my cat if you like."
"Would he like that?" asked Zaphod.
"You'd better ask him," said the man.
"Does he talk?" said Zaphod.
"I have no memory of him talking," said the man, "but I am very unreliable."
Zarniwoop pulled some notes out of a pocket.
"Now," he said, "you do rule the Universe, do you?"
"How can I tell?" said the man.
Zarniwoop ticked off a note on the paper.
"How long have you been doing this?"
"Ah," said the man, "this is a question about the past is it?"
Zarniwoop looked at him in puzzlement. This wasn't exactly what he had been expecting.
"Yes," he said.
"How can I tell," said the man, "that the past isn't a fiction designed to account for the discrepancy between my immediate physical sensations and my state of mind?"
Zarniwoop stared at him. The steam began to rise from his sodden clothes.
"So you answer all questions like this?" he said.
The man answered quickly.
"I say what it occurs to me to say when I think I hear people say things. More I cannot say."
Zaphod laughed happily.
"I'll drink to that," he said and pulled out the bottle of Janx spirit. He leaped up and handed the bottle to the ruler of the Universe, who took it with pleasure.
"Good on you, great ruler," he said, "tell it like it is."
"No, listen to me," said Zarniwoop, "people come to you do they? In ships ..."
"I think so," said the man. He handed the bottle to Trillian.
"And they ask you," said Zarniwoop, "to take decisions for them? About people's lives, about worlds, about economies, about wars, about everything going on out there in the Universe?"
"Out there?" said the man, "out where?"
"Out there!" said Zarniwoop pointing at the door.
"How can you tell there's anything out there," said the man politely, "the door's closed."
The rain continued to pound the roof. Inside the shack it was warm.
"But you know there's a whole Universe out there!" cried Zarniwoop. "You can't dodge your responsibilities by saying they don't exist!"
The ruler of the Universe thought for a long while whilst Zarniwoop quivered with anger.
"You're very sure of your facts," he said at last, "I couldn't trust the thinking of a man who takes the Universe - if there is one - for granted."
Zarniwoop still quivered, but was silent.
"I only decide about my Universe," continued the man quietly. "My Universe is my eyes and my ears. Anything else is hearsay."
"But don't you believe in anything?"
The man shrugged and picked up his cat.
"I don't understand what you mean," he said.
"You don't understand that what you decide in this shack of yours affects the lives and fates of millions of people? This is all monstrously wrong!"
"I don't know. I've never met all these people you speak of. And neither, I suspect, have you. They only exist in words we hear. It is folly to say you know what is happening to other people. Only they know, if they exist. They have their own Universes of their own eyes and ears."
"I think I'm just popping outside for a moment."
She left and walked into the rain.
"Do you believe other people exist?" insisted Zarniwoop.
"I have no opinion. How can I say?"
"I'd better see what's up with Trillian," said Zaphod and slipped out.
Outside, he said to her:
"I think the Universe is in pretty good hands, yeah?"
"Very good," said Trillian. They walked off into the rain.
Inside, Zarniwoop continued.
"But don't you understand that people live or die on your word?"
The ruler of the Universe waited for as long as he could. When he heard the faint sound of the ship's engines starting he spoke to cover it.
"It's nothing to do with me," he said, "I am not involved with people. The Lord knows I am not a cruel man."
"Ah!" barked Zarniwoop, "you say `The Lord'. You believe in something!"
"My cat," said the man benignly, picking it up and stroking it, "I call him The Lord. I am kind to him."
"Alright," said Zarniwoop, pressing home his point, "How do you know he exists? How do you know he knows you to be kind, or enjoys what he thinks of as your kindness?"
"I don't," said the man with a smile, "I have no idea. It merely pleases me to behave in a certain way to what appears to be a cat. Do you behave any differently? Please, I think I am tired."
Zarniwoop heaved a thoroughly dissatisfied sigh and looked about.
"Where are the other two?" he said suddenly.
"What other two?" said the ruler of the Universe, settling back into his chair and refilling his whisky glass.
"Beeblebrox and the girl! The two who were here!"
"I remember no one. The past is a fiction to account for ..."
"Stuff it," snapped Zarniwoop and ran out into the rain. There was no ship. The rain continued to churn the mud. There was no sign to show where the ship had been. He hollered into the rain. He turned and ran back to the shack and found it locked.
The ruler of the Universe dozed lightly in his chair. After a while he played with the pencil and the paper again and was delighted when he discovered how to make a mark with the one on the other. Various noises continued outside, but he didn't know whether they were real or not. He then talked to his table for a week to see how it would react.