The city of Jax had changed since Ford was last here and, he thought, not for the better. Gone were the quaint old three-storey town houses that had made up the majority of the streets with their ground floors converted into small shops, speakeasies and cafes, owned and run by the residents, selling local crafts, produce and an unimaginable array of cocktails all based on the planet’s most famous export, Janx Spirit. Of all the places Ford had been to across the galaxy, the only place that came close to the same atmosphere was New Orleans on Earth, and that didn’t even come close. But Jax had changed, the old ornate building fronts had been ripped out and replaced by indistinguishable glass window displays that stretched for half a street, showing that the interiors too had been knocked through to create the large, corporate-looking stores that Ford found so depressing on every other planet. The small basement bars with their hand-painted signs had gone too; bright neon blinked on and off seemingly all day with the various slogans used to advertise that ol’ Janx Spirit.
It wasn’t just the architecture that had changed, the atmosphere had too. Before, everyone was friendly and carefree. Ford remembered the bartenders recommending the cocktails elsewhere with genuine enthusiasm and envy. Now it looked as though they were fighting each other for the trade, and the trade too was different. Where there used to be young couples getting away from the hustle and bustle of daily life for a bit of the quiet relaxation that Jax offered, now there were large groups of drunken males following large groups of drunken females around in the hope of getting drunk together.
Jax had lost its soul, and if it didn’t still have its reputation of being the best planet for manufacturing towels, Ford would probably have got on the first shuttle back out of it. As it was he headed into the first store on the street.
The building used to be home to a small family-run business that Ford had used since he bought his first towel as a teenager and had come back to ever since. Looking through the plate glass that now made up the front of the six houses that had been knocked together, he was pretty sure that old Ma Rowan was no longer working here. There were lots of staff, all dressed in identical blue t-shirts with the same logo of a hand holding its thumb up, the galactic sign of the hitchhiker, and they all looked as though they were only just out of school. Ford doubted that any of them had ever been hitchhiking.
“Hi there! Welcome to the Towel Store, how may I help you today?”
Ford recoiled. The youth’s overly happy attitude wasn’t doing much for his already aggrieved outlook.
“I’m after a new towel, my old one’s worn out,” Ford said casually, refusing to let the salesman know how irritating he was. “Here,” he continued, whipping his towel out of his satchel in one well-practiced move, “it’s been around the galaxy a few times.”
The sales assistant looked at the towel with utter horror. “Wow, I don’t think I’ve ever seen one this old. Is this an original Jax? You really should have come in for an upgrade sooner.”
“An upgrade?” Ford asked.
“Oh yes, these old models were phased out years ago. They were found to be lacking in so many of the basic functions the modern Towel user needs.”
“Oh, this has done me fine, it’s just worn out a bit.” Ford tried to remain casual. “So what have you got?”
“Here, let me show you the modern Towels and the features they come with, and then you can decide for yourself. Buying a Towel isn’t just about purchasing a product, it’s about joining our family of Towel users,” the salesman enthused.
“I’m not after a family-sized towel,” Ford replied levelly.
“Oh very funny, yes, that’s a good one,” the salesman chortled, leading Ford towards the first table in the store and the conclusion that the sales assistant was mad. The table was large enough to easily accommodate eight diners, but rather than having a wide range of towels stacked high on it, it had only eight, all in the same light grey and arranged at equal distances along both sides. In fact, Ford noticed, all the tables in the store were arranged the same way, eight identical towels laid out precisely. “This is the latest Towel from Sirius Cybernetics,” the salesman said as he lifted one of the towels almost reverentially from the table, “with the new Galactic Position Sensor built in. The GPS is constantly accessing Sirius Cybernetics’ headquarters over the sub-ethernet, wherever you are in the galaxy. Wherever you go with your Towel, we’ll know where you are. And that information is then made available to you, and everyone else, at any time.”
Ford looked aghast. “Why would I want everyone to know where I am?”
“Because this way you can not only prove that you know where your Towel is, but that everyone else knows it too!” the salesman explained excitedly.
Ford took the towel and looked at it, and there on the small label was what he was expecting to find: “Know Where Your Towel Is ™”. Yup, he thought, they’d trademarked the saying.
“No thanks,” Ford said, handing the towel back. “I need something a bit more practical.”
“Ah, then what you need is this one,” the salesman said as he led Ford across to a table nearer the back of the store. “This,” he continued, flourishing one of the eight towels from the table, “is the NutriNapkin. The fibres in this Towel have been seeded with special mosses and algae from the far reaches of the galaxy, chosen for their ability to grow in darkened places such as inside luggage cases. These grow only to a fixed tog and provide the owner with up to three weeks’ worth of nutrition with each growth cycle. Once the mosses have been eaten, you can purchase additional packets of MossGoo to reseed the towel.”
Ford looked at the price displayed very discreetly on the table. “What’s to stop me just buying a cheaper towel and smearing it with this goo stuff?”
“I’m afraid that MossGoo only works with the NutriNapkin Towels. The weft system used in this Towel is unique in its ability to allow the MossGoo to flourish,” the assistant explained as he handed Ford a packet of the goo.
Ford looked at the ingredients, and then the price for each refill. There was nothing he couldn’t pick up from a hypermarket and garden centre. “I’ll pass,” he said, handing the towel back to the assistant.
Ford looked at the next table. Each towel appeared different and stood out in the uniformity of the rest of the store.
“What about these towels, are they any good?” Ford asked as he picked one up and unfolded it.
“Certainly, these Towels not only come with the Galactic Position Sensor built in, but also with uRead.”
“You read?” Ford asked, knowing he wouldn’t like the answer.
“Indeed. uRead is a revolutionary new system from Sirius Cybernetics that takes where you are, what time of day or night it is, what’s happening around you and what you’ve been doing, and changes the pattern on the Towel to provide you with an image or text that it has extrapolated as being not only pertinent, but useful to your current situation, all downloaded over the sub-ethernet for your benefit.”
Ford held the towel out to look at the pattern. “It’s showing a pink dragon.”
“That’s just one of many default images that it can display while waiting for data.”
“Sorry, but dragons don’t come in pink,” Ford replied, folding the towel up and handing it back to the salesman. “It seems a bit gimmicky.”
“Perhaps then, I can interest you in this one,” the assistant said as he led Ford towards another table, “the latest in our range of travel Towels.”
Ah, Ford thought, maybe they were now getting somewhere.
“This Towel fills a wide variety of uses for the modern traveller,” the assistant explained as he handed Ford a thin napkin that looked as though it was made from silver silk.
“It’s a bit small.”
“That’s the beauty of it,” the assistant explained. “This is made from Springo™, a material developed exclusively for outward bound adventurers. Each Towel is made from a single thread of Springo™, and each thread of Springo™ is a very fine spring. This button printed on the corner here is the control. Press it once and a single pulse of electrical energy is sent through the thread, stretching the spring and expanding the Towel. Press it twice and the spring contracts, along with the Towel.”
Ford was impressed, and only just managed not to show it. “Hey, that’s pretty hoopy.”
“Indeed it is, try it out.”
Ford pressed the button once and the napkin expanded to the size of a hand towel. He pressed it again and it expanded out to the size of a bath towel. Another press and it was the size of a beach towel.
“How big does this thing go?”
“Different models go up to different sizes,” the sales assistant explained. “That model will go up to bed sheet sized so there’s no need to worry about the bedding wherever you may find yourself, and the top of the range ones will go large enough to use as a sail on a moderately respectable yacht should the need arise.”
Ford pressed the button twice a few times until the towel had shrunk back to napkin size.
“Can you get that goo stuff to work on this?”
“I’m afraid not, the MossGoo only works on the NutriNapkin.”
“And that GPS thing?” Ford asked.
“That can be fitted for an additional charge,” the sales assistant explained happily.
Nothing good then, Ford thought; still, it was impressive.
“One more question on this towel,” Ford said, fingering the smooth material between his fingers. “What’s its absorbency like?”
“Springo™ is totally water resistant,” the sales assistant replied proudly.
A water-resistant towel, Ford thought, not really practical after all.
“I think I may be looking for something a bit more traditional,” Ford tried to explain.
“More traditional? All of our Towels use the latest traditions. Each manufacturing process and application has been carefully considered for weeks to ensure a high-quality product providing you with everything you need. If our Towels don’t meet your needs, then it’s not a Towel that you need.”
And that, thought Ford, was all he needed to hear.
“D’you know,” he told the sales assistant, “I think there’s still a couple of years left in my old towel.”