As they watched, the President of the whole galaxy, Zaphod himself, stole the Heart of Gold. Of course, this had been a risk, given that Zaphod was unpredictable, but such was the way of life now with a 2 headed president. One day, the head on the left would talk about law and order, then the head on the right would talk about compassion for the poor while the other fell asleep or called it a liar. It was confusing.
The prime minister, of course, was overjoyed and believed that a pursuit would be successful. He gathered his advisers and key scientists to discuss how they would proceed.
He began by shouting, which was startling and unprofessional, and probably why he wasn’t president of the whole galaxy. “I want that ship!”
“Er, the Heart of Gold, sir?”
The prime minister was a short man, which also probably contributed to being only the prime minister. But still, he was the prime minister of the whole galaxy. He wasn’t a fool, and he was very annoyed to find himself surrounded by them in such a time as this.
“We need another one built….to chase the first one, don’t we?” Heads nodded around the table. “Then, government ratings will be higher than any of the reality shows because: who will have seen the president on trial before?”
“Well sir, the crickets have frequently needed to impeach their rulers… since, as you know, they are prone to electing evil lizards.”
The prime minister pinched the bridge of his nose. Some of the aliens in the room didn’t have such a structure on their faces, and thought it odd when people with noses pinched them out of frustration. A couple of them laughed, which Minister Gargle noticed and regarded with deadpan annoyance.
He wasn’t prime minister for nothing (if anything, he had lost the election to Zaphod because everyone thought the “Gargle blaster” had really put him in his place in the debates), and knew how to cut to the meat of the problem. “What do we have now, that we can launch. Even if it doesn’t work as well as the Heart of Gold?”
“Sir, we have something ready, you could take off in it … well… any time really, but sir-”
He was cut off by Gargle: “It’s ready? Let’s launch without delay. I was made prime minister because even though everyone loved Zaphod Beeblebrox, he was clearly a wild card that needed someone to actually do the work. Now I am going after him with a team of Galactic marines and we’re going to arrest him.”
“But sir, you see, it’s almost as good, so…” one of the scientists spoke up. This one, of course, had been pardoned by the prime minister after killing the inventor of the original Heart Of Gold in a fit of temporary insanity. The PM understood perfectly, nobody likes a smart arse.
“So it works, then?” The prime minister was getting annoyed, but the flustered scientist was hung over from going to one of ‘those’ parties last night and hadn’t the ability to enunciate himself. Gargle hadn’t been invited to this party, otherwise they wouldn’t be able to drink Pan-Galactic Gargle Blasters without bumming everyone out – so he was in full control of his faculties, and would not be denied the opportunity to see Zaphod captured, personally.
“Of course it works, it’s mathematically perfect. It’s ALMOST as good as the Heart of Gold.” The scientist tried desperately to explain. Almost!
“So we can go after them? Straight away? Excellent.”
“Well,” Said the scientist, trying to make him understand, “You can go …after… him, and it’s almost as good. Instead of warm-tea, it uses a deterministic one-way hash. It’s a probabilistic simulacrum of infinity. Do you know what I mean, in the universe and all that? When you look at the night sky, you see lots of them, but only a couple smudges would be there really. You understand?”
He looked around for understanding, having explained the whole thing. The scientist was really struggling, as he’d had a 3rd “Gargle-Blaster” and passed out before the shenanigans began with some of the undergarments at the party.
Gargle simply shifted his eyes back and forth… “So, we can go?”
The scientist gave up. After all, if this guy wouldn’t listen, “Sure, you can go. Thing works just like the Heart of Gold, it even looks the same. But it’s almost.” He looked around, and everyone nodded. The meeting ended, and he was glad it was over.
Prime minister Gargle quickly worked to swear in the Vice President, and sent one of this aides to get a legally binding warrant from the High Galactic Judge, and then did a number of “corrupt” things that you wouldn’t like to hear about, but which were generally setting up something really good for everyone. The aide pleaded with him not to go to the High Galactic Court, when after all, the position was currently filled by a Vogon known for particularly lengthy poetry in his legal decisions.
With his team in place, they quickly found the … “Heart Too Cold?” he read with some quizzical sounding uncertainty as he saw the lettering on the side of the ship. He shook his head and he and the team of marines got on board and got underway. The HTC had a lot of annoying features, including a peppy voice that always seemed to misinterpret what you wanted, but, Gargle was used to dealing with this, and ordered the HTC to depart immediately. As he settled into the command chair, the HTC took off, and his sensation of space and time felt like it was turned neatly inside out exactly 340,282,366,920,938,463,463,374,607,431,768,211,455 times, which seemed like an oddly specific number as he thought about it.
The sound of “powering down” was unnecessary but the ship did it anyway, to help the life forms with their limited brains cope with the unfolding of space. “Cortana,” he said to the computer “what is our location?” After a moment with a spinning circle on the screen saying “configuring”.
Then, after a moment, his query appeared on the screen, with the answer: “Wherever you go, there you are.” It was also read out by an annoying disembodied voice.
A deep sigh escaped from the PM. His group commander “Prime Minister, please allow us to investigate, and we’ll report to you right away when we’ve got some idea.”
“Great, excellent. Hopefully that won’t take too-”
“Prime minister, I’m ready to report our position…”
Gargle shook his head at the man “aaannddd?”
“We are nowhere.”
“No. Not no what. Where. No where.” He seemed pleased to deliver a clear answer.
“I don’t understand.”
“The ship says our location is outside of the observable universe from where we were. If you look outside, you could sort of see a single distant galaxy in the blackness. It’s kind of a smudge. We’d have to turn out the lights in here for you to see it with the naked eye. We aren’t in our own galaxy any more, let alone our local group or the Sagittarius super-cluster.” The ship is in good order and ready for another point-to-point jump.
Gargle felt a strange sensation creeping into his thoughts, a kind of feeling that he was falling.
“There’s an file here called ‘caution, don’t ever use this ship’, should we bring it up?” Gargle nodded fearfully back to the man.
The scientist at the meeting before came onto the screen. “Well, tomorrow, with the Heart of Gold finally commissioned, this awful space ship boondoggle will finally be dismantled. Thankfully, it paid for the last decade of my research, and with this last entry I raise a toast to the Heart Too Cold. Of course, nobody should ever use this monstrosity.”
Gargles brow furrows deepened, and his breathing became more shallow.
“The thing of this is, it’s an approximation of infinity. Infinity is a really funny thing, especially infinite improbability. All the air molecules surrounding you have the chance to go anywhere, for instance. There’s nothing really about the nature of this infinity that keeps you from suffocating. But these are still finite particles. It turns out that things start to look an awful lot like infinity in a regular computer with 128 bits. It’s a fantastically huge space. It’s still finite though, but you can’t usually tell the difference between that and infinity, if you’re just a finite being. So the real horrific genius of what we’ve created with the HTC is that it goes anywhere in the universe, of course, this space is constantly getting bigger, there are a finite number of places in the universe the HTC can go, and they get further apart from each other, all the time! There are 2 to the 128th minus 1 total locations. I don’t even remember what the number is, because it’s huge. It’s so huge you couldn’t tell the difference between that number and infinity. For the next trillion years or so, the number of locations is more than sufficient to get you anywhere.”
Gargle perked up at this. He knew it was going to work out ok. If they could just get back to where they started, maybe even their own galaxy…
The scientist laughed awkwardly and continued. “The only problem is, you don’t have control over which of these locations you go to in any given activation of the engine. For some crazy reason, we put in 100 years of power and supplies into the thing, so anyone unfortunate enough to try to use this thing would be marooned in infinity until they died of old age.”
Gargle felt the weight of this hit him and he sunk back in his chair.
“It’s funny really. You don’t ever realize how empty the universe is, especially when you’re working every day in a small box. Any random point in the universe is far likelier to be outside of any galaxies than within them. Imagine a night sky without any stars, just an occasional smudge from a distant galaxy. And our local group of galaxies is practically teeming with activity, but even then it’s mostly empty. The odds of ending up even a million light years of where you want to be are astronomically small.. haha, pun intended, I suppose. Either way, don’t ever ever use this ship, it would be a hellish prison for anyone, including a terrible criminal. A person could spend a lifetime using the drive on the HTC and always end up outside of a galaxy. Even if you were lucky enough to end up in a galaxy, 1 time in a million, you’d still just be in the middle of some empty part of a galaxy.”
Gargle was thinking all this over with increasing horror, and he noticed that a window to his left was black with emptiness.
The scientist laughed briefly “… sure… there’s a chance you’ll end up where you want to go, which is how we got funding for this thing. Thank god nobody reads those grants. There’s about as much chance as all the air in this room bouncing around in such a pattern that it avoids your lungs long enough to suffocate you.”
“We even put this annoyingly stupid AI on it so a regular computer wouldn’t have to live such a horrific and terrible existence. We found this thing on a small planet called Earth, which we found by searching for something harmless, and found that sure enough, they were terrible at making AI’s.” He chuckled briefly and continued. “Imagine, forever within sight of something – usually just a smudge or two of a distant galaxy, but always a lifetime away from it with the weak engines we put on this thing. I can’t believe we built it, it’s the stuff of nightmares… Money though..”
The the scientist raised what the Prime Minister recognized as a Pan-Galactic-Gargle-Blaster, and shouted to the group assembled behind him, “To retirement!” And the recording shut off.
The math and scale of the universe and it’s emptiness in this story are a real thing, and so is HTC and Cortana, but those are far less horrific.
The 128 bit space really is mind-mindbogglingly huge. If you were to randomly appear somewhere in the universe aboard the Heart-Too-Cold, you’d find mostly empty space. Your naked eyes would see a smudge. When they first noticed the other galaxies in our local group, they called them “mist”, which in latin was the word “nebula.” They didn’t realize they were distant collections of stars. If you took out all the stars of the milky way you’d see a few of these “mists” in the otherwise blackness of our night sky. Most of our universe is empty, which is weird to think about if you’re high, or a college student. Or a high college student.
Another weird thought, we know the universe isn’t infinite with infinite stars for infinite time. If that were the case, anywhere in the sky would be light from a star, and the entire sky would glow with the distant light from infinitely overlapping stars.