How David Weber Orders a Pizza

Copyright © 2011 by Roger M. Wilcox.  All rights reserved.

In Ovens Baked

by David Weber*

with Roger M. Wilcox

Chapter 1

The telephone rang.

Jason Wilkins roused himself out of his dough-and-flour-addled stupor, and gazed in the direction the ringing noise was emanating from. His eyes landed on the receiver, a black box attached to the wall with an odd-looking, double-ended handhold tethered to it. An angry red light blinked for his attention.

Jason was tall, even for an American, this despite his father's very average height and his mother's petite build. Some had suggested — in hushed tones and never to his face, of course — that it was because his mother had long ago taken an ... interest in the very tall mailman who'd graced their neighborhood mail delivery route for so many years. Mail delivery was one of those necessary evils of modern American life; a citizen could send his friends and colleagues e-mail faxes that arrived in the blink of an eye, but there was always the reactionary old contingent who'd never wanted to bother with these "modern contraptions" who insisted on writing letters on paper and sending them through the antiquated network of delivery trucks and post offices, and so long as this contingent existed the mail would also have to exist.

The telephone rang again. Jason wanted to groan and roll his eyes, but he suppressed this urge and put on the mask of outward neutrality expected of a Pizza Maker Second Class. He'd graduated from the Pizza Making Academy with high honors, learning all the nuances of flavor balance, oven management, and paddle flipping — not to mention the highly prized art of crust spinning — that went into any Pizza Maker in the service. But he'd also learned the importance of Customer relations, and of the need to project a combined air of confidence and deportment whenever he answered the phone.

He slapped the flour dust from his hands, grasped the receiver, and placed it next to his ear. The light codes on the telephone's front panel danced from flashing red to solid green, letting him know that a live connection had been established.

"Pizza Barn," he intoned. "Is this for dine in, pick up, or delivery?"

"Before we begin," the deep, resonant voice on the other end of the line said, "Let me thank you for taking the time out of your schedule to talk to me." Of course, Jason knew, this appearance of graciousness was just a formality. Any Pizza Maker who'd ever received a call from a Customer knew that you made time for them, rain or shine, day or night, when the call came in. "I know many of you must be concerned about the latest announcements from the U.S. Department of Labor," the voice continued, "Which underscore the slower-than-expected growth our domestic economy has experienced over the last Fiscal quarter. Let me assure you that I in no way intend to withhold any funds from the unwritten custom of tipping that has become so prevalent in your industry."

Inwardly, Jason breathed a sigh of relief. Tipping was the custom of paying extra — usually a percentage of the price paid for goods and services rendered — as a reward for outstanding service on the part of the service provider. At least, this was how the custom had gotten started. In practice, the custom had spread to the point where now a tip was expected even if merely average-quality service was provided. A man who transported a freshly-made pizza from the production facility to the Customer's residence could usually count on receiving 15 percent of the pizza's price as free money he could keep for himself, in addition to the salary paid him by his employer. As a result, employers typically took advantage of this situation and set their deliverers' salaries artificially low. Since, technically, there was no legal requirement for the Customer to pay the tip, Customers who had fallen on hard economic times had been known to simply not pay it, leaving the delivery man barely able to subsist on the paltry wages his employer provided. Jason knew the co-worker who was assigned to delivery duty tonight, Pizza Delivery Person Third Class Alonzo Gomez, and had seen the despondent look on his face more than once when Alonzo had returned after a delivery without a tip in his pocket. But this customer had just given his assurance that he would be tipping, thereby relieving Jason of the worries he harbored for his co-worker and comrade.

"As to your original question," the voice on the phone resumed their conversation, "Of the three options you've offered to me, I think Delivery would be the most prudent at this juncture."

"All right," Jason replied, maintaining his professional calm, "What's your address?"

"One two seven one five Harboraz Street," the voice answered. "That's Harboraz spelled like Harbor with an A-Z on the end."

"Is there an apartment number?" Jason asked. Although most Americans preferred to live in single-family units, there were many who, either through economic difficulty or a desire to live close by other specific individuals or simply not caring for the investment a single-family unit entailed, ended up living in large complexes of dewllings called apartments. Some apartment complexes towered dozens of stories high, a feat that would have been impossible in a pre-Bessemer civilization that lacked the ability to mass-manufacture steel. Others sprawled along the ground only a story or two high. But whatever size the complex was, it was always important to indentify which of the many individual units within that apartment complex one lived in. This was usually accomplished by a number, molded in metal and affixed to the center of the unit's front door. Even the antiquated mail delivery system still relied on apartment numbers to route letters to the appropriate box when delivering mail to an apartment complex.

"No," the voice replied immediately, "No apartment number."

"What's the nearest cross street?" Jason continued. In truth, his software would be able to tell him exactly where 12715 Harboraz Street was, and even the exact course that Alonzo could follow in his delivery vehicle to get him there in the least possible time. Modern delivery vehicles were the pinnacle of safety and comfort, but their basic design had changed little from the Model T that had seen service a century ago. An engine produced power by combusting air with gasoline vapor inside a cylinder, which drove a piston attached to a crankshaft. This spinning shaft provided torque that could be routed to the vehicle's wheels through a series of shafts and gears. The wheels themselves mounted inflated rubber rings that pushed against the road surface and impelled the vehicle forward — or provided braking force if the driver chose to slow down. The contact between the wheels and the road, however, intimately depended on the planet's gravity, and as such each vehicle was restricted to operating entirely on the surface of the planet. This meant that special roadways had had to be built throughout every city, roadways big enough and smooth enough to allow vehicles to pass. The route any driver took to his destination consisted of a series of turns, as these streets often intersected one another, creating a situation where vehicles following along one street had to be careful not to collide with vehicles following a street that crossed theirs. This series of successive turns could easily be figured out by modern map software — a feat that just three decades earlier would have seemed like science fiction — but there was always that tiny, tiny chance that the software would make a mistake, or that the street name in question might have been misspelled, and in that case it was vitally important that the driver have the name of another street nearby that ran perpendicular to the street he was interested in.

"The cross street," the voice resumed as though a dissertation on the history of urban traffic had not at all intervened, "Is 4th Avenue."

Jason dutifully wrote this latest piece of information down on a note pad he'd had sitting next to the phone for exactly this purpose. He followed the practice his manager had suggested weeks earlier and wrote in ink, using a hand-held ball-point ink pen made by the Paper Mate company that lay at the end of a tether next to the phone. Ink had had a long and proud history, dating back almost to the dawn of writing itself. He mused about the long, tortuous road leading from the first accountants' tally marks in ancient Mesopotamia to the sophisticated symbolic system of writing modern Americans now enjoyed, but pushed that thought aside to maintain the proper professional air of aloof concentration that Customer relations required.

Then, mentally, he braced himself for the next stage of the phone conversation. He knew it was coming, knew it was as inevitable as next morning's rise of the G2 primary his planet orbited at a comfortable 8 light-minutes, but still he viewed it with trepidation, as he did every time a call got to this stage. "And," he began, smoothing every edge out of his voice he didn't intend to project, "What would you like?"

"Well," the voice answered, "I have in my hand a coupon, bearing the imprint of Pizza Barn and the telephone number I'm now calling you at."

Inwardly, Jason winced. Coupons were another of those necessary evils that had the potential to make the job of the Pizza Maker a living hell. They enticed a Customer to order goods or services when he wouldn't otherwise be inclined to do so, by offering special pricing incentives that would expire if not used by the printed time limit. They also served as a kind of advertising for the company that printed them. However, the pricing deals they spelled out were often convoluted combinations that required the simultaneous ordering of multiple products, and more often than not the exact wording of those combinations appeared only on the coupon itself, copies of which were not made available at the production site — meaning the Pizza Maker answering the phone had no way of verifying the validity of the Customer's interpretation of the coupon while taking his order. Jason recalled the many times a Customer had presented him with the coupon he'd discussed while making a telephone order, only to discover that the deal was different than the one the Customer had quoted or that the coupon had expired a week ago. In those circumstances, making the Customer happy could, and often did, become an exercise in futility.

"This coupon," the voice on the phone continued, "Allows me to purchase two medium-sized one-topping pizzas, and receive the second one at half price, so long as the second pizza is of equal or lesser value to the first."

Thank goodness, Jason thought. This coupon he recognized from a Pizza Barn flyer that had been mailed to his own residence earlier this week. The flyer had not been addressed to him by name, but had come addressed only to "Current resident" at his address. It was common for local businesses to send out copies of their advertising, such as coupon flyers, to every address known to exist in the city. The mail delivery service even provided bulk discounts to businesses who wanted to send out such "junk mail," provided the businesses who wanted them sent took to the task of sorting the advertisements by destination address to make the job easier for the mail delivery personnel. By happenstance, Jason — an employee of Pizza Barn and in fact a Pizza Maker Second Class, no less — had received one of Pizza Barn's own flyers. He'd scanned the coupons, filing their deals and their expiration dates away in his memory for future reference, and the second-medium-pizza-half-price deal his Customer had just quoted matched his memory exactly.

"All right," Jason said, "What would you like on your first pizza?"

"Make the first pizza a mushroom pizza," the voice answered.

Jason wrote down a shorthand notation for "mushrooms" on the notepad, indicating that this topping belonged to the first pizza. He had already written down another shorthand, indicating that the pizza should be medium-sized. Although an Italian invention, modern pizza had flourished under the auspices of Americans like the Shakey Brothers, who had thrown caution to the wind and piled high the mozzarella cheese that had so sparsely graced the earlier varieties. The earliest pizzas were little more than focaccia bread, and the notion of piling on pick-and-choose toppings would have been absurd to pizza's pioneers. But today, topping selections had exploded, and included such wanton vagaries as pineapple, pesto, artichoke hearts, and the barbecued meat of poultry birds. Compared to such eccentric modern toppings, mushrooms almost seemed ... quaint. "And the second?" he asked.

"Make the second pizza with pepperoni," the voice said, "And put it on thin crust."

For an instant, the color drained from Jason's face and his blood ran cold. Had he actually said thin crust?! Thin crust was one of Pizza Barn's top secret R&D projects. They had spent months coming up with the ideal balance of crust thickness, edge crimping, and the cornmeal base below the crust designed to reduce its traction on the paddle, all to address the desires of those customers who preferred less breadlike material below their toppings. They intended to release an announcement about Thin Crust over the television faxes, timed to be broadcast to every home during the Big Game, when the greatest number of viewers would be watching. But the Big Game wasn't until next Sunday. How had this Customer learned of the existence of Thin Crust? Was he a spy for a rival pizza company? Had he merely heard rumors about thin crust, perhaps from unscrupulous Pizza Barn employees who'd leaked the secret, and was testing the water, trying to see how he would react?

Jason would have to tread very, very carefully.

"I'm sorry," he began, "We don't —" he suppressed the urge to say currently — "have thin crust available as an option."

"Oh," the voice replied, and Jason could detect just a hint of crestfallenness in the tone of that single syllable. Jason wondered, briefly, whether he was disappointed that his ploy to get confidential information out of him had failed, or whether he ... just had a thing for thin crust. "In that case, just put it on regular crust."

"Will that be all?" Jason asked.

"Yes," the voice answered.

And now, the calculation began. The pricing of pizza was more art that science, primarily since each individual pizza was so eminently customizable. At base, the order consisted of two medium pizzas. Nominally, each medium pizza cost 10.95 U.S. dollars, but that was the base price and only included the crust, the sauce, and a standard-sized layer of mozzarella cheese. What this customer had ordered were one-topping pizzas, pizzas which, in addition to the crust, sauce, and cheese, also each carried a custom topping that would be placed on top of the cheese just before the pizza entered the baking oven. His first pizza added mushrooms, which Jason noted — looking up the topping and pizza size on his pricing table — would increase its price by 0.75 U.S. dollars. His second pizza added pepperoni, perhaps the most popular of all pizza toppings, and looking this up in the same table showed an identical price increase for a medium pizza of the same 0.75 U.S. dollars. That raised the price of each pizza to ... he punched the numbers into a tabletop calculator ... 11.70 U.S. dollars. But this was before he factored the coupon into the price. The coupon ordained that whichever one of these pizzas had the lesser normal price would have its price cut in half. Since both pizzas clocked in at 11.70 dollars, either one could be used as the "lesser priced" pizza. Jason chose the pepperoni pizza, the second one the Customer had ordered, and cut its price in half. 11.70 divided by 2 was 5.85. Adding this 5.85 figure to the 11.70 normal price for the mushroom pizza resulted in a total bill of ... 17.55 U.S. dollars.

Or rather, it resulted in a sub-total of 17.55 U.S. dollars. The government of the state in which this Pizza Barn was located was always looking for ways to fill its own coffers, to pay for social programs that kept the politicians-in-power popular with the voters, and one of the ways it had chosen to do so was to impose a sales tax. For every sale that a vendor made to a Customer, the vendor had to pay a flat 5.75% of the sales price to the state's tax collectors. However, a loophole in the law — engineered by a crafty coalition of vendors when the sales tax had first been voted on in the Legislature — allowed the vendor to charge the Customer with paying the sales tax directly into the vendor's pockets. That loophole now meant that Jason had the responsibility of calculating the sales tax on the 17.55 U.S. dollar subtotal, and adding it to the Customer's bill. He punched "+ 5.75%" into his calculator, and...

"Your total with tax comes to eighteen fifty-six," Jason said. "It should arrive in about ..." he checked his chrono "... thirty to forty minutes."

"I'll be waiting," the voice said ominously, and closed the connection.

Chapter 2

Pizza Delivery Person Third Class Alonzo Gomez smoothly turned his control wheel counterclockwise, with the skill of a man who'd practiced this maneuver for years. In the sealed chamber in front of his feet, a gear at the end of the wheel's shaft pushed the rack-and-pinion assembly to one side, changing the angle of the vehicle's front wheels. Now, driven onward relentlessly by the vehicle's momentum, the tires bit into the road surface obliquely, forcing the vehicle's nose to port and carrying the entire vehicle with them on its new course. Alonzo and his vehicle thereby rounded the corner, taking them off of Elm street and onto 5th Avenue.

His vehicle wasn't the latest model to roll out of the shipyards, but it had a character all its own to which Alonzo had become attached. The sleek, panel-sided boxy hull was an HHR model, assembled at the Chevrolet shipyards and commissioned into service four years ago. Unlike similar vehicles of that model type, Alonzo's lacked side viewports in its rear half, both as a place to display Pizza Barn's logo and as a means of hiding its cargo from prying eyes. Its engine could deliver a theroetical maximum torque of 203 meter-Newtons to its tires, resulting in a max power of 115,000 Watts. Given the vehicle's empty mass of 1431 kg, its fuel load of 40 kg of petroleum distillate, Alonzo's own mass of 91 kg, and the 4 kg of pizza he was carrying as cargo, this engine power was enough for a max accel of 1.4 gravities, but the coefficient of friction between the vehicle's drive tires and the asphalt road surface limited him to a top practical accel of 0.8 gravities.

Not that he intended to use his max accel for this trip. He wasn't chasing down street pirates, or plotting an intercept vector for a war vehicle. He was simply delivering two pizzas to a Customer, and that was all. Or at least, he kept telling himself that that was all. There was something about this particular Customer that had piqued his attention. He'd attempted to order thin crust while the project was still classified. Sure, he hadn't actually used the code name that Pizza Barn had been hiding their thin crust R&D operation under, and it was possible that he didn't actually know that Pizza Barn did not — yet — have a thin crust pizza offering. But Alonzo knew better than to let his guard down in a situation like this. If the Customer did turn out to be a spy, or worse, a blackmailer, Alonzo would need to bring all of his diplomatic skills to bear.

His choice to take 5th Avenue, instead of the 4th Avenue cross street the Customer had given him, had been partly spawned by this wariness. If the Customer were expecting him to approach from 4th Avenue, he might have positioned sentries along that road who could alert him to Alonzo's presence long before he arrived at 12715 Harboraz Street. The decision was only partly spawned by Alonzo's wariness, though. The other reason he'd taken 5th Avenue was that his course-mapping software had chosen it as the optimal route, and Alonzo knew from previous experience that his Global Positioning unit would start arguing with him whenever he began taking a route it didn't recommend.

120 meters later, he pressed the central pedal on his floorboard and the vehicle slowed smootly to a zero-zero intercept with the pavement. A signpost stuck out of the concrete outside, in front of and slightly to the right of his vehicle. It bore a large red octagon, with the word "STOP" emblazoned upon its center in white sans-serif lettering. The sign was a way of establishing right-of-way rules at this intersection of two streets. The vehicles going his direction, and going the opposite direction on the same street, would both see these "stop signs", and would thus be required by law to stop before proceeding. Vehicles following the street that crossed this one, on the other hand, would not see any "stop signs." They would be allowed to continue across the intersection without changing their velocity. If neither street had displayed any "stop signs", then vehicles following either street could legally cross the intersection at constant speed, resulting in disaster should two vehicles from each street be converging on the intersection at the same time. With the stop signs, the vehicles following the stop-signed street would be required to stop and wait for any such "cross traffic", thus ensuring that both they and the crossing vehicles would emerge from the intersection safely.

Alonzo pressed the rightmost pedal on his floorboard while turning his control wheel clockwise, and his vehicle's drive wheels applied a gentle acceleration of 0.2g while his front wheels pulled the vehicle to starboard around this latest corner and onto Harboraz Street.

Half way to the next intersection, he reached the 12715 address. Now he had to moor his vehicle. He couldn't just leave it out in the middle of the street. The street was only about 4 or 5 vehicle-widths across, and if he simply left his vehicle where it was, other vehicles that wanted to use Harboraz Street would have to dodge around him as they passed. Fortunately, the side edges of most streets, including this one, were legally set aside for the purpose of allowing unpiloted vehicles to be moored there. The practice was so common, in fact, that a street had to display signs if vehicles were not allowed to be moored there.

Unfortunately, he was on the wrong side of the street. The mail delivery service imposed strict rules as to how street addresses had to be assigned. Even-numbered addresses always had to go on one side of any street, and odd-numbered addresses had to go on the other. Traffic rules, on the other hand — which had evolved independently of street-numbering rules — specified that all vehicles had to travel on the right-hand side of the street. This rule permitted vehicles to travel in opposite directions down the same street simultaneously. However, in this case, it presented a conundrum: Alonzo's vehicle was on one side of the street, but the 12715 address his Customer used was on the other. Worse, mooring regulations required a vehicle moored along one side of the street to be facing in the same direction as they would otherwise have to be travelling, with the edge of the street — the "curb", as it was known — to be on the vehicle's right side. He would have to turn his vehicle 180 degrees around before he could moor it.

Worse, Alonzo knew, from his long experience with this particular vehicle, that the minimum radius it could turn around in was about 7 meters. The street was too narrow for a 7-meter-radius turn to fit within its boundaries. He would have to perform an advanced and somewhat dangerous maneuver known as the three-point turn.

two page description of a 3-point turn followed by parallel parking omitted

Alonzo tucked the temperature stasis chamber containing the two pizzas under his arm. Then, focusing on the door at the end of the long walkway, he screwed his courage to the sticking place and marched forward. With each step, the door grew larger and more ominous. He wanted to run. He wanted to throw his pizzas into the bushes and flee. But he knew, in his heart of hearts, that delivering these pizzas to his Customer was his responsibility, no matter what the consequences. At last, he arrived at the door. He positioned his finger above the stud next to the door that would announce his presence when pressed. This is it, he thought. Once he pressed that stud, there would be no going back.

With great determination, he brought his finger down on the button.

From deep within the house before him, a chime sounded, a chime as cheerful as this moment wasn't. He thought he heard a dog bark. The domesticated dog, bred over thousands of years from the gray wolf, had become popular in the last two centuries as a pet. There were now nearly as many varieties of dog as there were varieties of people, but one behavioral trait all these different dog varieties had in common was the urge to alert their owners of potential trespassers by a loud vocal noise known as a "bark." Few dogs were savvy enough to distinguish between a genuine intruder and a friendly visitor without their owner's direct intervention, and so most would literally bark at anything. But, Alonzo reassured himself, he had only thought he'd heard a dog bark. It was probably just his imagination.

The clicking of the door's latch made Alonzo hold his breath for just a split-second involuntarily. Then, the wooden panel swung inward on its hinges, finally revealing the person of his Customer. The man facing him was as tall as he was broad, as imposing as his mien was — at least ourwardly — jovial. His receding hairline and graying goatee indicated a man who had been born too early to receive the first generation of Prolong treatment. His eyeglasses spoke of a man who opted, for reasons of his own, not to get corrective optic surgery or to wear contact lenses. Around his neck dangled a small cross on a silver chain, a cross whose bottom leg was longer than the other three. It was the near-universal symbol worn by those who espoused fellowship in one of the many varieties of Christian churches. Alonzo wondered, briefly, if the man belonged to the same Anabaptist church as himself, if not the same congregation; but their current professional relationship as Customer and Pizza Delivery Person would not permit him to ask.

"Ah," the Customer said with a practiced air of calm, "You must be from Pizza Barn."

"That's right, sir," Alonzo replied, following the courtesies that his job demanded. He glanced at the yellow slip of paper attached to his thermal stasis unit. That piece of paper had previously been directly underneath the sheet on which Jason had written down this man's pizza order. A chemical coating on the yellow paper had created dark marks on its surface wherever Jason's ink pen had pressed, leaving an exact duplicate impression of the order precisely as Jason had written it. Alonzo read the order to the Customer for verification: "One medium mushroom, and one medium pepperoni?"

"Precisely right," the Customer replied.

Then a nuclear weapon detonated in midair above them, vaporizing the city.

*) And if you believe that, I've got a bridge to sell you.

This story was inspired, in part, by "If all stories were written like science fiction stories", which is archived here.

Send comments regarding this Web page to: Roger M. Wilcox.
Click here to go back to my main old stories page