There are of course many problems connected with life, of which some of the most popular are Why are people born? Why do they die? Why do they want to spend so much of the intervening time wearing digital watches?
Many many millions of years ago a race of hyperintelligent pan- dimensional beings (whose physical manifestation in their own pan-dimensional universe is not dissimilar to our own) got so fed up with the constant bickering about the meaning of life which used to interrupt their favourite pastime of Brockian Ultra Cricket (a curious game which involved suddenly hitting people for no readily apparent reason and then running away) that they decided to sit down and solve their problems once and for all.
And to this end they built themselves a stupendous super computer which was so amazingly intelligent that even before the data banks had been connected up it had started from I think therefore I am and got as far as the existence of rice pudding and income tax before anyone managed to turn it off.
It was the size of a small city.
Its main console was installed in a specially designed executive office, mounted on an enormous executive desk of finest ultramahagony topped with rich ultrared leather. The dark carpeting was discreetly sumptuous, exotic pot plants and tastefully engraved prints of the principal computer programmers and their families were deployed liberally about the room, and stately windows looked out upon a tree-lined public square.
On the day of the Great On-Turning two soberly dressed programmers with brief cases arrived and were shown discreetly into the office. They were aware that this day they would represent their entire race in its greatest moment, but they conducted themselves calmly and quietly as they seated themselves deferentially before the desk, opened their brief cases and took out their leather-bound notebooks.
Their names were Lunkwill and Fook.
For a few moments they sat in respectful silence, then, after exchanging a quiet glance with Fook, Lunkwill leaned forward and touched a small black panel.
The subtlest of hums indicated that the massive computer was now in total active mode. After a pause it spoke to them in a voice rich resonant and deep.
It said: "What is this great task for which I, Deep Thought, the second greatest computer in the Universe of Time and Space have been called into existence?"
Lunkwill and Fook glanced at each other in surprise.
"Your task, O Computer ..." began Fook.
"No, wait a minute, this isn't right," said Lunkwill, worried. "We distinctly designed this computer to be the greatest one ever and we're not making do with second best. Deep Thought," he addressed the computer, "are you not as we designed you to be, the greatest most powerful computer in all time?"
"I described myself as the second greatest," intoned Deep Thought, "and such I am."
Another worried look passed between the two programmers. Lunkwill cleared his throat.
"There must be some mistake," he said, "are you not a greatest computer than the Milliard Gargantubrain which can count all the atoms in a star in a millisecond?"
"The Milliard Gargantubrain?" said Deep Thought with unconcealed contempt. "A mere abacus - mention it not."
"And are you not," said Fook leaning anxiously forward, "a greater analyst than the Googleplex Star Thinker in the Seventh Galaxy of Light and Ingenuity which can calculate the trajectory of every single dust particle throughout a five-week Dangrabad Beta sand blizzard?"
"A five-week sand blizzard?" said Deep Thought haughtily. "You ask this of me who have contemplated the very vectors of the atoms in the Big Bang itself? Molest me not with this pocket calculator stuff."
The two programmers sat in uncomfortable silence for a moment. Then Lunkwill leaned forward again.
"But are you not," he said, "a more fiendish disputant than the Great Hyperlobic Omni-Cognate Neutron Wrangler of Ciceronicus 12, the Magic and Indefatigable?"
"The Great Hyperlobic Omni-Cognate Neutron Wrangler," said Deep Thought thoroughly rolling the r's, "could talk all four legs off an Arcturan MegaDonkey - but only I could persuade it to go for a walk afterwards."
"Then what," asked Fook, "is the problem?"
"There is no problem," said Deep Thought with magnificent ringing tones. "I am simply the second greatest computer in the Universe of Space and Time."
"But the second?" insisted Lunkwill. "Why do you keep saying the second? You're surely not thinking of the Multicorticoid Perspicutron Titan Muller are you? Or the Pondermatic? Or the ..."
Contemptuous lights flashed across the computer's console.
"I spare not a single unit of thought on these cybernetic simpletons!" he boomed. "I speak of none but the computer that is to come after me!"
Fook was losing patience. He pushed his notebook aside and muttered, "I think this is getting needlessly messianic."
"You know nothing of future time," pronounced Deep Thought, "and yet in my teeming circuitry I can navigate the infinite delta streams of future probability and see that there must one day come a computer whose merest operational parameters I am not worthy to calculate, but which it will be my fate eventually to design."
Fook sighed heavily and glanced across to Lunkwill.
"Can we get on and ask the question?" he said.
Lunkwill motioned him to wait.
"What computer is this of which you speak?" he asked.
"I will speak of it no further in this present time," said Deep Thought. "Now. Ask what else of me you will that I may function. Speak."
They shrugged at each other. Fook composed himself.
"O Deep Thought Computer," he said, "the task we have designed you to perform is this. We want you to tell us ..." he paused, "... the Answer!"
"The answer?" said Deep Thought. "The answer to what?"
"Life!" urged Fook.
"The Universe!" said Lunkwill.
"Everything!" they said in chorus.
Deep Thought paused for a moment's reflection.
"Tricky," he said finally.
"But can you do it?"
Again, a significant pause.
"Yes," said Deep Thought, "I can do it."
"There is an answer?" said Fook with breathless excitement."
"A simple answer?" added Lunkwill.
"Yes," said Deep Thought. "Life, the Universe, and Everything. There is an answer. But," he added, "I'll have to think about it."
A sudden commotion destroyed the moment: the door flew open and two angry men wearing the coarse faded-blue robes and belts of the Cruxwan University burst into the room, thrusting aside the ineffectual flunkies who tried to bar their way.
"We demand admission!" shouted the younger of the two men elbowing a pretty young secretary in the throat.
"Come on," shouted the older one, "you can't keep us out!" He pushed a junior programmer back through the door.
"We demand that you can't keep us out!" bawled the younger one, though he was now firmly inside the room and no further attempts were being made to stop him.
"Who are you?" said Lunkwill, rising angrily from his seat. "What do you want?"
"I am Majikthise!" announced the older one.
"And I demand that I am Vroomfondel!" shouted the younger one.
Majikthise turned on Vroomfondel. "It's alright," he explained angrily, "you don't need to demand that."
"Alright!" bawled Vroomfondel banging on an nearby desk. "I am Vroomfondel, and that is not a demand, that is a solid fact! What we demand is solid facts!"
"No we don't!" exclaimed Majikthise in irritation. "That is precisely what we don't demand!"
Scarcely pausing for breath, Vroomfondel shouted, "We don't demand solid facts! What we demand is a total absence of solid facts. I demand that I may or may not be Vroomfondel!"
"But who the devil are you?" exclaimed an outraged Fook.
"We," said Majikthise, "are Philosophers."
"Though we may not be," said Vroomfondel waving a warning finger at the programmers.
"Yes we are," insisted Majikthise. "We are quite definitely here as representatives of the Amalgamated Union of Philosophers, Sages, Luminaries and Other Thinking Persons, and we want this machine off, and we want it off now!"
"What's the problem?" said Lunkwill.
"I'll tell you what the problem is mate," said Majikthise, "demarcation, that's the problem!"
"We demand," yelled Vroomfondel, "that demarcation may or may not be the problem!"
"You just let the machines get on with the adding up," warned Majikthise, "and we'll take care of the eternal verities thank you very much. You want to check your legal position you do mate. Under law the Quest for Ultimate Truth is quite clearly the inalienable prerogative of your working thinkers. Any bloody machine goes and actually finds it and we're straight out of a job aren't we? I mean what's the use of our sitting up half the night arguing that there may or may not be a God if this machine only goes and gives us his bleeding phone number the next morning?"
"That's right!" shouted Vroomfondel, "we demand rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty!"
Suddenly a stentorian voice boomed across the room.
"Might I make an observation at this point?" inquired Deep Thought.
"We'll go on strike!" yelled Vroomfondel.
"That's right!" agreed Majikthise. "You'll have a national Philosopher's strike on your hands!"
The hum level in the room suddenly increased as several ancillary bass driver units, mounted in sedately carved and varnished cabinet speakers around the room, cut in to give Deep Thought's voice a little more power.
"All I wanted to say," bellowed the computer, "is that my circuits are now irrevocably committed to calculating the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything -" he paused and satisfied himself that he now had everyone's attention, before continuing more quietly, "but the programme will take me a little while to run."
Fook glanced impatiently at his watch.
"How long?" he said.
"Seven and a half million years," said Deep Thought.
Lunkwill and Fook blinked at each other.
"Seven and a half million years ...!" they cried in chorus.
"Yes," declaimed Deep Thought, "I said I'd have to think about it, didn't I? And it occurs to me that running a programme like this is bound to create an enormous amount of popular publicity for the whole area of philosophy in general. Everyone's going to have their own theories about what answer I'm eventually to come up with, and who better to capitalize on that media market than you yourself? So long as you can keep disagreeing with each other violently enough and slagging each other off in the popular press, you can keep yourself on the gravy train for life. How does that sound?"
The two philosophers gaped at him.
"Bloody hell," said Majikthise, "now that is what I call thinking. Here Vroomfondel, why do we never think of things like that?"
"Dunno," said Vroomfondel in an awed whisper, "think our brains must be too highly trained Majikthise."
So saying, they turned on their heels and walked out of the door and into a lifestyle beyond their wildest dreams.
A man standing on a brightly dressed dais before the building which clearly dominated the square was addressing the crowd over a Tannoy.
"O people waiting in the Shadow of Deep Thought!" he cried out. "Honoured Descendants of Vroomfondel and Majikthise, the Greatest and Most Truly Interesting Pundits the Universe has ever known ... The Time of Waiting is over!"
Wild cheers broke out amongst the crowd. Flags, streamers and wolf whistles sailed through the air. The narrower streets looked rather like centipedes rolled over on their backs and frantically waving their legs in the air.
"Seven and a half million years our race has waited for this Great and Hopefully Enlightening Day!" cried the cheer leader. "The Day of the Answer!"
Hurrahs burst from the ecstatic crowd.
"Never again," cried the man, "never again will we wake up in the morning and think Who am I? What is my purpose in life? Does it really, cosmically speaking, matter if I don't get up and go to work? For today we will finally learn once and for all the plain and simple answer to all these nagging little problems of Life, the Universe and Everything!"
As the crowd erupted once again, Arthur found himself gliding through the air and down towards one of the large stately windows on the first floor of the building behind the dais from which the speaker was addressing the crowd.
He experienced a moment's panic as he sailed straight through towards the window, which passed when a second or so later he found he had gone right through the solid glass without apparently touching it.
No one in the room remarked on his peculiar arrival, which is hardly surprising as he wasn't there. He began to realize that the whole experience was merely a recorded projection which knocked six-track seventy-millimetre into a cocked hat.
The room was much as Slartibartfast had described it. In seven and a half million years it had been well looked after and cleaned regularly every century or so. The ultramahagony desk was worn at the edges, the carpet a little faded now, but the large computer terminal sat in sparkling glory on the desk's leather top, as bright as if it had been constructed yesterday.
Two severely dressed men sat respectfully before the terminal and waited.
"The time is nearly upon us," said one, and Arthur was surprised to see a word suddenly materialize in thin air just by the man's neck. The word was Loonquawl, and it flashed a couple of times and the disappeared again. Before Arthur was able to assimilate this the other man spoke and the word Phouchg appeared by his neck.
"Seventy-five thousand generations ago, our ancestors set this program in motion," the second man said, "and in all that time we will be the first to hear the computer speak."
"An awesome prospect, Phouchg," agreed the first man, and Arthur suddenly realized that he was watching a recording with subtitles.
"We are the ones who will hear," said Phouchg, "the answer to the great question of Life ...!"
"The Universe ...!" said Loonquawl.
"And Everything ...!"
"Shhh," said Loonquawl with a slight gesture, "I think Deep Thought is preparing to speak!"
There was a moment's expectant pause whilst panels slowly came to life on the front of the console. Lights flashed on and off experimentally and settled down into a businesslike pattern. A soft low hum came from the communication channel.
"Good morning," said Deep Thought at last.
"Er ... Good morning, O Deep Thought," said Loonquawl nervously, "do you have ... er, that is ..."
"An answer for you?" interrupted Deep Thought majestically. "Yes. I have."
The two men shivered with expectancy. Their waiting had not been in vain.
"There really is one?" breathed Phouchg.
"There really is one," confirmed Deep Thought.
"To Everything? To the great Question of Life, the Universe and Everything?"
Both of the men had been trained for this moment, their lives had been a preparation for it, they had been selected at birth as those who would witness the answer, but even so they found themselves gasping and squirming like excited children.
"And you're ready to give it to us?" urged Loonquawl.
"Now," said Deep Thought.
They both licked their dry lips.
"Though I don't think," added Deep Thought, "that you're going to like it."
"Doesn't matter!" said Phouchg. "We must know it! Now!"
"Now?" inquired Deep Thought.
"Yes! Now ..."
"Alright," said the computer and settled into silence again. The two men fidgeted. The tension was unbearable.
"You're really not going to like it," observed Deep Thought.
"Alright," said Deep Thought. "The Answer to the Great Question ..."
"Of Life, the Universe and Everything ..." said Deep Thought.
"Is ..." said Deep Thought, and paused.
"Forty-two," said Deep Thought, with infinite majesty and calm.
It was a long time before anyone spoke.
Out of the corner of his eye Phouchg could see the sea of tense expectant faces down in the square outside.
"We're going to get lynched aren't we?" he whispered.
"It was a tough assignment," said Deep Thought mildly.
"Forty-two!" yelled Loonquawl. "Is that all you've got to show for seven and a half million years' work?"
"I checked it very thoroughly," said the computer, "and that quite definitely is the answer. I think the problem, to be quite honest with you, is that you've never actually known what the question is."
"But it was the Great Question! The Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything!" howled Loonquawl.
"Yes," said Deep Thought with the air of one who suffers fools gladly, "but what actually is it?"
A slow stupefied silence crept over the men as they stared at the computer and then at each other.
"Well, you know, it's just Everything ... Everything ..." offered Phouchg weakly.
"Exactly!" said Deep Thought. "So once you do know what the question actually is, you'll know what the answer means."
"Oh terrific," muttered Phouchg flinging aside his notebook and wiping away a tiny tear.
"Look, alright, alright," said Loonquawl, "can you just please tell us the Question?"
"The Ultimate Question?"
"Of Life, the Universe, and Everything?"
Deep Thought pondered this for a moment.
"Tricky," he said.
"But can you do it?" cried Loonquawl.
Deep Thought pondered this for another long moment.
Finally: "No," he said firmly.
Both men collapsed on to their chairs in despair.
"But I'll tell you who can," said Deep Thought.
They both looked up sharply.
"Who?" "Tell us!"
Suddenly Arthur began to feel his apparently non-existent scalp begin to crawl as he found himself moving slowly but inexorably forward towards the console, but it was only a dramatic zoom on the part of whoever had made the recording he assumed.
"I speak of none other than the computer that is to come after me," intoned Deep Thought, his voice regaining its accustomed declamatory tones. "A computer whose merest operational parameters I am not worthy to calculate - and yet I will design it for you. A computer which can calculate the Question to the Ultimate Answer, a computer of such infinite and subtle complexity that organic life itself shall form part of its operational matrix. And you yourselves shall take on new forms and go down into the computer to navigate its ten-million-year program! Yes! I shall design this computer for you. And I shall name it also unto you. And it shall be called ... The Earth."
Phouchg gaped at Deep Thought.
"What a dull name," he said.
If anything in this life is certain, if history has taught us anything, it is that you can kill anyone.