03 The Jeltz Conundrum
Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz slumped out of his meeting with the President with as much dignity as he could muster. Vogons are not particularly adept at dignity, generally preferring stomping and carrying on and devising ever more complicated forms of bureaucratic torment, but he tried anyway. Smug was something Vogons excelled at, but this was not a situation that called for smug. Nor did it call for even the merest modicum stomping and carrying on.
Something was wrong.
Galactic President Zaphod Bebblebrox had rather cooly dismissed his report of destroying the planet Earth finally and completely. “Never heard of it,” the President had said. The Vogon Constructor Fleet captain had to pull out the work order to show it to him. All the President had said when looking at it was, “You forgot to check the little box thingy saying you did the deed, man.” He then handed the paper back to the Vogon, had his guards deflect some ultimately useless counter-arguments on the part of the Vogon, and announced what he really needed was a vacation and left the Presidential Palace and Maximum Security Penitentiary on his personal yacht.
Jeltz watched the President leave. Then he watched his aides leave, a bunch of hardened criminals the President had pardoned for being willing to regularly lose to him at cards. Then, as the surviving guards looked expectantly at him, hoping he would leave without any more deaths so that, with no prisoners to guard, at least technically, they could fill out the requisite forms and go home, he looked at the work order.
It was inarguably a work order for the destruction of Earth. It was a legitimate work order, printed on Ultra-Security galactic government bond, unforgeable for less than a few thousand galactic credits. It was a document still linked to its carbon copies by hyperspace threads woven into the sheet. The integrity of the paper left no doubt that that the other copies were still on file with the appropriate offices. He carefully scanned the form for irregularities until he got to the bottom. The little status box indicating successful completion of the work was empty.
Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz stared at the blank box, oblivious to guards trying to figure out how to discretely indicate to a high-ranking Vogon that it was time to move on without risking a poetry reading. Violence the guards could tolerate, but they were in agreement that any attempt at a Vogon poetry reading might require taking some severe and definitive defensive action. Except for Corporal Schroonpill, who quite liked Vogon poetry for some incomprehensible reason.
Jeltz distinctly remembered checking the box off. He had done so with an elegant bureaucratic flourish. He wondered, for a second, if he had indeed failed once again to perform what had seemed, in the beginning, a perfectly routine task of planetary demolition. But that annoying mechanical bird of a book had assured him that this time the destruction was final.
So why was the checkbox still empty?
Much to the relief of the guards, and as previously noted, Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz slumped out of the room with as much dignity as possible.
Things did not make sense. Things not making sense made him mad. But it was not a good mad. It was not a mad that could be resolved by senseless violence. This madness was going to hang out for a while and make him miserable. He almost felt mad enough to extemporize some poetry, but he quickly dismissed the thought as just more senseless violence.
Nothing had gone right in his life since he had received the work order. His forty-second since he had been promoted to captain of his own destructor fleet. Well, not so much promoted as survived until he got fed up and killed the prior captain before the same captain killed him. Such initiative is normally frowned on by Vogons, since it can generate far too much paperwork, but, with an entire Vogon destructor fleet at his disposal, no one felt the need to make an issue of it.
His career had been going swimmingly. He had been debating extorting a nice, high-paying, dead-end desk job somewhere before one of his own crew showed some initiative, and then came this work order which refused to go away. He had a sneaking suspicion that his apparent success, at last, had only made things worse.
He had never trusted or liked that monstrosity of a book he had a hand in crafting, called simply, The Guide, a well-planned and much needed replacement for that horrible Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Something about its subtle, devious computer brain was too cold and calculating even for a Vogon. Vogons usually preferred brute force, or strangling things with red tape if brute force wasn’t an option. Violence was a language they were fluent in. This book had been all high-tech trickery and deceit, designed exclusively to calculate how to the effect the total and irrevocable destruction of the Earth. When the Earth disappeared, so did the book.
That stopped the Vogon up short. Why exactly had the book disappeared? Although he strongly approved of things that got out of the way when he was done with them, even better if they could accidentally let themselves out the nearest airlock, there was nothing in the book’s programming that dictated that it had to cease to exist when the Earth did. He had expected it to go on annoying him for some time. He had enjoyed its disappearance at first, even if it didn’t follow protocol.
Some probability engineers who helped program the book, themselves mystified by the book’s disappearance, had opined that it was merely that, since the sole purpose of the book had been to destroy the Earth, the nonexistence of the Earth made the existence of the book an improbability that blipped itself out of existence.
Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz did not like probability engineers, or, for that matter, anyone who used bigger words than he. Unfortunately, before he could get any more answers out of them, a guard, escorting them back to their quarters between interrogation meetings, accidentally confused their cabin with the nearest airlock. Since the guard had been acting under his direct orders, this did not bother Jeltz in the least.
Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz dug a pen out of a designated pen pocket and once again checked off the box on the form. He stared at it for a while to make sure it didn’t try to sneak off again. It stayed put. As he folded the work order up and neatly tucked it into a designated document transport pocket he felt that he had just done something momentous. It disturbed him greatly.
Whatever was bothering him called for drastic action. He swallowed hard at the thought. His legs momentarily forgot how to function and almost sent him tumbling. Various parts of his brain, and the more intelligent parts of his kidneys, lodged formal protests at the horror of what he was contemplating. Then, realizing his mind was made up, they locked themselves in their rooms to brood and sulk. Jeltz took a deep breath to steel his resolve. He would—
It should be noted at this point that Vogons, normally almost fearless in their bullheadedness, do, in fact, fear some things. And some things they fear more than others. Although most fears are best met with senseless violence or conveniently avoided, sometimes in the course of Vogon history it becomes necessary to face down one’s greatest fears, to boldly seek answers at the very gates of hell. For one Vogon, that time had come. Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz would go visit his mother.