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Ursa Minor Beta is, some say, one of the most appalling places in the known Universe.

Although it is excruciatingly rich, horrifyingly sunny and more full of wonderfully exciting people than a pomegranate is of pips, it can hardly be insignificant that when a recent edition of Playbeing magazine headlined an article with the words "When you are tired of Ursa Minor Beta you are tired of life", the suicide rate quadrupled overnight.

Not that there are any nights on Ursa Minor Beta.

It is a West Zone planet which by an inexplicable and somewhat suspicious freak of topography consists almost entirely of sub- tropical coastline. By an equally suspicious freak of temporal relastatics, it is nearly always Saturday afternoon just before the beach bars close.

No adequate explanation for this has been forthcoming from the dominant lifeforms on Ursa Minor Beta, who spend most of their time attempting to achieve spiritual enlightenment by running round swimming pools, and inviting Investigation Officials form the Galactic Geo-Temporal Control Board to "have a nice diurnal anomaly".

There is only one city on Ursa Minor Beta, and that is only called a city because the swimming pools are slightly thicker on the ground there than elsewhere.

If you approach Light City by air - and there is no other way of approaching it, no roads, no port facilities - if you don't fly they don't want to see you in Light City - you will see why it has this name. Here the sun shines brightest of all, glittering on the swimming pools, shimmering on the white, palm-lined boulevards, glistening on the healthy bronzed specks moving up and down them, gleaming off the villas, the hazy airpads, the beach bars and so on.

Most particularly it shines on a building, a tall beautiful building consisting of two thirty-storey white towers connected by a bridge half-way up their length.

The building is the home of a book, and was built here on the proceeds of an extraordinary copyright law suit fought between the book's editors and a breakfast cereal company.

The book is a guide book, a travel book.

It is one of the most remarkable, certainly the most successful, books ever to come out of the great publishing corporations of Ursa Minor - more popular than Life Begins at Five Hundred and Fifty, better selling than The Big Bang Theory - A Personal View by Eccentrica Gallumbits (the triple breasted whore of Eroticon Six) and more controversial than Oolon Colluphid's latest blockbusting title Everything You Never Wanted To Know About Sex But Have Been Forced To Find Out.

(And in many of the more relaxed civilizations on the Outer Eastern Rim of the Galaxy, it has long surplanted the great Encyclopaedia Galactica as the standard repository of all knowledge and wisdom, for though it has many omissions and contains much that is apocryphal, or at least wildly inaccurate, it scores over the older and more pedestrian work in two important respects. First, it is slightly cheaper, and secondly it has the words Don't Panic printed in large friendly letters on its cover.)

It is of course that invaluable companion for all those who want to see the marvels of the known Universe for less than thirty Altairan Dollars a day - The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

If you stood with your back to the main entrance lobby of the Guide offices (assuming you had landed by now and freshened up with a quick dip and shower) and then walked east, you would pass along the leafy shade of Life Boulevard, be amazed by the pale golden colour of the beaches stretching away to your left, astounded by the mind-surfers floating carelessly along two feet above the waves as if it was nothing special, surprised and eventually slightly irritated by the giant palm trees that hum toneless nothings throughout the daylight hours, in other words continuously.

If you then walked to the end of Life Boulevard you would enter the Lalamatine district of shops, bolonut trees and pavement cafes where the UM-Betans come to relax after a hard afternoon's relaxation on the beach. The Lalamatine district is one of those very few areas which doesn't enjoy a perpetual Saturday afternoon - it enjoys instead the cool of a perpetual early Saturday evening. Behind it lie the night clubs.

If, on this particular day, afternoon, stretch of eveningtime - call it what you will - you had approached the second pavement cafe on the right you would have seen the usual crowd of UM- Betans chatting, drinking, looking very relaxed, and casually glancing at each other's watches to see how expensive they were.

You would also have seen a couple of rather dishevelled looking hitch-hikers from Algol who had recently arrived on an Arcturan Megafreighter aboard which they had been roughing it for a few days. They were angry and bewildered to discover that here, within sight of the Hitch Hiker's Guide building itself, a simple glass of fruit juice cost the equivalent of over sixty Altairan dollars.

"Sell out," one of them said, bitterly.

If at that moment you had then looked at the next table but one you would have seen Zaphod Beeblebrox sitting and looking very startled and confused.

The reason for his confusion was that five seconds earlier he had been sitting on the bridge of the starship Heart of Gold.

"Absolute sell out," said the voice again.

Zaphod looked nervously out of the corners of his eyes at the two dishevelled hitch-hikers at the next table. Where the hell was he? How had he got there? Where was his ship? His hand felt the arm of the chair on which he was sitting, and then the table in front of him. They seemed solid enough. He sat very still.

"How can they sit and write a guide for hitch-hikers in a place like this?" continued the voice. "I mean look at it. Look at it!"

Zaphod was looking at it. Nice place, he thought. But where? And why?

He fished in his pocket for his two pairs of sunglasses. In the same pocket he felt a hard smooth, unidentified lump of very heavy metal. He pulled it out and looked at it. He blinked at it in surprise. Where had he got that? He returned it to his pocket and put on the sunglasses, annoyed to discover that the metal object had scratched one of the lenses. Nevertheless, he felt much more comfortable with them on. They were a double pair of Joo Janta 200 Super-Chromatic Peril Sensitive Sunglasses, which had been specially designed to help people develop a relaxed attitude to danger. At the first hint of trouble they turn totally black and thus prevent you from seeing anything that might alarm you.

Apart from the scratch the lenses were clear. He relaxed, but only a little bit.

The angry hitch-hiker continued to glare at his monstrously expensive fruit juice.

"Worst thing that ever happened to the Guide, moving to Ursa Minor Beta," he grumbled, "they've all gone soft. You know, I've even heard that they've created a whole electronically synthesized Universe in one of their offices so they can go and research stories during the day and still go to parties in the evening. Not that day and evening mean much in this place."

Ursa Minor Beta, thought Zaphod. At least he knew where he was now. He assumed that this must be his great grandfather's doing, but why?

Much to his annoyance, a thought popped into his mind. It was very clear and very distinct, and he had now come to recognize these thoughts for what they were. His instinct was to resist them. They were the pre-ordained promptings from the dark and locked off parts of his mind.

He sat still and ignored the thought furiously. It nagged at him. He ignored it. It nagged at him. He ignored it. It nagged at him. He gave in to it.

What the hell, he thought, go with the flow. He was too tired, confused and hungry to resist. He didn't even know what the thought meant.

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