Reading time: 5 min

05 But for a Pencil

The waiter was apologizing most profusely, but it seems its pencil had gone missing.

Slartibartfast offered it a nice, freshly sharpened to perfection, yellow #2 pencil retrieved from a desk in his private quarters, but the waiter only looked upon it with disdain. It was an inferior manual pencil and not the elegant mechanical one it preferred, translucent, dark brown with black trim, a half-used green eraser on the end, and properly filled with 0.7mm HB graphite as all such pencils should be.

Nor was it willing to accept another from the maître d’ station, because, after all, those were maître d’ pencils for marking up the table chart and reservation list, not waiter pencils for marking up the pad it was clutching so desperately with no ability to write anything on it. The lead was far too soft and greasy for proper check generation.

In the meantime, the charts that made up the table cloth were getting most erratic, as were the robotic diners, who were getting most impatient to order. The waiter brought out some complimentary wine to sooth the palpable tension in the room.

Bistromathics, a field of mathematics built on the theory that the numbers on a waiter’s check pad were tangential to reality in only the vaguest of senses, and thus could be used to manipulate it in interesting ways, was discovered to be an incredibly efficient way of travel through space, and, if one was really clever with what one ordered, time, as long as one did not mind traveling in what appeared to be a restaurant that those who been to Italy would consider to be not unlike a small Italian Bistro that would most definitely never earn a listing in a Michelin, Zagat, or Hybwe Guide.[1]

The artificial plants, raffia, readouts in the bottles stocked at the bar, and the fact the that stains on the table cloths were actually data points and tended to move about seemingly at random as that data changed, did not help in giving the resulting space craft anything even remotely resembling quality or ambiance.

The other problem with Bistromathics is that if the waiter was refusing to take orders, you were effectively dead in the water. Though, if you were actually in the water and not, say, in space, you might be having other problems as well.

Attempts at burger joint variations of Bistromathics-powered craft invariably led to catastrophic failures and morbid obesity, though scientists have reported some success in a yakitori bar prototype, as long as travelers were willing to commit to trying the grilled pig’s feet at some point in the journey.

Slartibartfast tugged absently on his long, white beard, scratched nervously at a point on his scalp under his equally long and equally white hair, and furrowed his brow, not that one could tell through the wrinkles and bushy white eyebrows. This was a puzzler. He finally elected to use the ship’s backup navigation system, which involved doodling randomly on the back of a napkin. A pencil would not do for this. He needed something more decisive. He tucked the pencil behind his ear and grabbed a pen from the register that was there to sign receipts.

The pen didn’t work and he had to grab another one.

He set to doodling. He was not entirely sure what to doodle as he had discovered a while ago that the manual that explained the backup navigation systems had not come with the base package for the ship, but could be purchased as an add-on for the price of a small star system.

This doodle, which, in the end, looked remarkably like the famous tri-D painting “A Bingardian fruit drunub doing a backflip with three of its six legs extended over a pot of fresh gee’ntinex” by Casso Pibablo, even though Slartibartfast had just been trying to draw a simple seven-dimensional hypercircuit diagram, resulted in the ship decisively landing someplace.

Slartibartfast hoped that, wherever it was, there was a store that stocked pencils of an appropriate type for mechanical waiters in small Italian bistros.

The problem with space ports is this

One of the problems with space ports is this–

One the many utterly overwhelming problems with spaceports is this–

There are just too many problems to count, and they change depending on who you ask.

That said and generally agreed upon, the problem with spaceports as it pertains to our current situation is this: gift shops.

Gift shops in spaceports are alluring when seen from the outside, hinting at the chance of carrying something that you might actually need or at least vaguely desire, beckoning with promises of wishes fulfilled and boredom alleviated. But when you make the mistake of setting foot, or pseudopod, in one, you find that they have a extensive collection of exactly the sorts of things you don’t have a single use for, except maybe to give as gifts to soon to be utterly mystified recipients. After lurking about in one confused and embarrassed long enough, most travelers opt to grab an entirely uninteresting magazine and mind-bendingly overpriced a packet of nuts so it doesn’t look like they came in for nothing.

The odds of finding a mechanical waiter’s mechanical pencil in one is close to zero, if not actively below it. Even in the spaceport restaurants.

Fortunately, another problem with spaceports is that they are often unreasonably large, each specially engineered to make sure everything is far enough apart that you don’t have a plnfard’s chance in a photon storm of making your connection.[2] Except for the ones that are too cramped to even move about while waiting to board. But this was not one of those. This was one that had to fill up all that space between gates with an endless parade of alluring but entirely useless shops.

Unfortunately, this gave Slartibartfast hope. He doggedly entered store after store hoping, if not for the right pencil, then any pencil of the right weight and thickness. He was almost ready to settle for an erasable pen, though he was not quite that desperate, yet. He was, however, getting a somewhat overburdened with uninteresting magazines and packets of nuts.

As Slartibartfast was about to step into another alluring but ultimately futile store, someone rushed passed him on the way out of the store in an obvious hurry. This hurry may or may not have had something to do with them disappearing right as they were passing in front of Slartibartfast, forcing him to an abrupt stop to avoid colliding with someone who was no longer there.

Slartibartfast looked around for the person who had just disappeared, but they remained disappeared in every direction.

“Odd,” said Slartibartfast to no one in particular.

He was about to continue into the store when the clerk inside shouted over at him, “Hey, you dropped your tickets.”

He instinctively looked down to find two tickets by his feet. They were not his, since he had bought none, but he picked them up anyway. Perhaps the person who had disappeared would be back for them and the tickets would certainly be much easier to find if they weren’t trampled on.

Squinting at the holo-coded information on them, he noticed they were for a quick hop and back to a nearby shopping planet. He noticed they were for Cetacea Spacelines, voted in the top ten space lines forty-two years running. He noticed that the ship was leaving very soon, which would explain the rush of the missing person. He also noticed, with a certain level of discomfort, that one of the tickets was in his name. The other name he did not recognize.

He decided that perhaps some hurrying was in order. After all, a shopping planet was certain to have just the right type of pencil, as long as he could figure out how to get to the office supply continent. And the missing person may very well be at the gate this very moment, panicking that the tickets had gone missing.

On his way to the gate he noticed that he hadn’t noticed before now how empty the spaceport was. He put it down to it being after hours local time. It somehow also felt smaller and more cramped then when he had first stepped out of his ship and into a decorative fountain in the middle of the food court.

1. Hyperspace Best and Worst of Everything Guide, available at most disreputable booksellers and spaceport gift shops.
2. If you don’t know what a plnfard is or what it would be doing in a photon storm, the answer is rather poorly.