Ashwin Vaidya About
Short Story | Originally published on One Picture Notes|Last Updated: 03 December 2023

A Cup of Coffee for Alan

“One medium cappuccino for Alan”, shouted the Barista from behind the counter. She didn’t have to. He was the only one there this early in the morning. He approached her and she gave him the smile of familiarity while handing him his coffee and the aluminium finished AstraSlate. Alan gave her a big smile which he had practised and one day he hoped he would finally talk more than naming his coffee and saying thanks. His eyes glanced at her name plate. It read “Alysa”. He didn’t have to read it. He knew it already and always found it a lovely name. He was a frequent customer there if frequent meant every day. He didn’t like working from his room and found her pretty face pleasant to look at. He found a spot where he could see her face whenever he looked up from his laptop screen. Which was right in front of the counter leaving but a single table in the middle. It didn’t make a difference as he was the only one who sat in the cafe in the morning. Other customers were too busy taking their coffees with them to their work.

Alan turned the coffee to read his name. It spelt “Aln”. He sighed. One day he planned to correct her. And also inform her that his name was Alessandro. But when he first asked her for coffee, the only sound his mouth made was Aaa and while he stood there surprised at the disfunction between his brain and his mouth, she said, “Sit tight Alan, I’ll get you your coffee” and got busy taking other orders while making his coffee. After getting his first coffee, he lost any curiosity in finding out how Alessandro would be spelt. But that was just his brain being creative to avoid the prospect of speaking to her. His brain also convinced him that she spelt his name wrong so that he would use this excuse to strike up a conversation with him but he never got the courage to correct her. She had an idea of his feelings towards her. In her long experience as a barista, she had seen more guys like him. The first mistake was genuine. She was in a hurry and forgot to write “a”. But the next ones were deliberate and all her attempts to convey her disinterest in him were never picked up.

He sat down on his table and opened the lid of his laptop. He glanced up to see her face but she was missing. The lack of customers had given her the opportunity to come up with a chore to do in the kitchen and it was the third time that she changed the filter of the larger coffee machine in the kitchen. If the costs of new filters were ever calculated they would have figured out that the filter alone made up for another minimum-wage employee and the manager would have drafted its employment contract ensured that it worked overtime to prove it deserved the $8/hr salary.

Alessandro got bored waiting for her just so he could quickly look down at his laptop. He picked up the AstraSlate. The AstraSlate for all intents and purposes was an astrology sheet. But one day someone decided that fate can be more accurately calculated if they stopped looking up at the stars and make predictions based on user behaviour and clustering similar profiles. Every cafe took efforts to add value to customers by giving them something to read or solve such as a crossword puzzle. They could have always reduced the price of their coffee or make its quality better but then people would lose the premium feeling they got by paying for overpriced caffeinated water and would stop coming altogether.

“Good morning Aln”, it read, to which Alessandro rolled his eyes. Today is going to be a pleasant day with the temperature within the range of 19-24 C. Weather report was something that was always included. If nothing else, weather models had become more accurate. And starting with a fact which always held up true would convince people that the next stuff they read was also true. A nice trick that the Psychology majors came up with when they did their master’s in marketing after realising that their dreams of becoming Friedrich Nietzsche died. They blamed this on the poor quality of education they received but it was the carrots of money dangling in front of them that the Economics majors came up with for the big firms. They believed that one didn’t need to study anything else when you would solve all the problems by structuring the economic incentives and that the root of all the world’s problems were faulty economic incentives. Of course, this was another neat trick played on them by their professors to make them enrol for economics courses and make them believe that what they were doing was going to make the world a better place. But of course, Alessandro didn’t think in this much depth and happily scrolled along. He got happy when he read that he was going to see an increase in traffic on his writing site. This was a lie. The company got a lot of complaints initially from wannabe authors who were told that most of their writings sucked and they weren’t going to find an agent. They could have changed their writing habits and instead of staring at a barista and fantasizing they could have locked themselves in their rooms and continued at their craft. But lacking self-awareness and preferring a delusion instead of truth, they complained to the company. The company happily showed a text from a list of carefully crafted responses to any profile matching an author. This placated the writers and increased the sales of AstraSlate .

Alessandro stopped reading suddenly not because he realized that it was the end of the horoscope but because he had a hard time figuring out what the sentence meant. Well, he knew what this sentence meant and his subconscious was already on top of it and his amygdala had already prepared for flight response as the fight pathways had atrophied sometime in the past decade. But his frontal cortex was not ready to accept what it meant. It did what it could to squeeze in a little more denial or throw off compression for as long as it could. Alessandro’s face lost all colour and he got up suddenly.

You are going to die today

Have a nice day

Aztech Futures Ltd. and OP Coffee

If only the machine could read what it generated, it would not have proudly mentioned those who created and paid for it.

Generally, at this time Alysa would have become happy looking at him getup and leave but his sudden movement and expressions told her otherwise. She saw fear in his face and her inner disgust and outer smile converged to a look and feeling of concern. Alessandro staggered as he approached her. “This surely has to be a mistake. An error probably. Plus this isn’t even my name”, he thought as he approached her. But thoughts ran through his mind faster than he could catch and utter. He just stood there with open mouth and gesturing heavily at the AstraSlate. Alysa thought for a moment that he had lost it and moved back a bit with fear. Alessandro showed her the tablet and she just stood there perplexed. It was only after her eyes landed on the last line that she felt fear, then a bit of relief remembering it was not her and then guilt for being relieved. But before she could process her emotions and figure out a way to get out of this situation, her subconscious lighted up when hearing the sound of the bell of the opening door. Adam, the manager of the store, had just walked in at the exact time he used to arrive everyday. He saw a young man on the counter in front of Alysa who looked worried. Probably she was scared. Who knew? Adam never had the ability to read the emotions of his employees and never bothered even if someone told him about it. She had told him about Alan and now he would have a chance of sorting this fellow out. A small act and she would respect him more as a manager. At least this is what he thought in his mind. Of course he could have sorted this out weeks before but he disliked arriving early as much as he disliked arriving late. Even if it meant standing outside the door for a few minutes when he reached early on days of low traffic. His customers passing by him into the cafe would have found this weird had it not been for its frequent occurrence.

As he approached the counter, Alysa handed the tablet to him and before he could make sense of what just happened, he read the last line. Right now all he could think was the PR nightmare that his cafe would end up in. He looked up just to see if anyone was holding their phones out and streaming to social media. He just saw one face showing worry and the other about to burst into anger. Before the man could start threatening them with a lawsuit or worse, posting stuff on social media he decided to be proactive. His experience of 20 years of being a manager apparently didn’t help him at this moment and he offered him a new AstraSlate but only after staring at both their perplexed faces for some time he realised his mistake. He should have offered him a free coffee coupon too, he thought. And after their faces turned to annoyance he finally figured out that this was probably not the best response in this situation. It was not completely his fault. In his 20 years he had had no customer coming to him because of something he offered told them that they were going to die and all situations always got better with a replacement and free coupons. This was probably the most challenging problem he encountered. Not because of its complexity but because his mind fought him whenever he tried thinking hard of a solution and only told him to hand in more coupons. He was finally able to come up with a solution. It involved him apologizing to Alessandro which placated Alysa as she was just glad that Adam came up with this all on his own but for obvious reasons made Alessandro even more annoyed. But as Alessandro took a deep inhalation and was about to burst into a tirade, Adam quickly added that he will get to the bottom of this and contact the company. He reached for a phone reserved for incoming home delivery order while his brain congratulated him for quick thinking. Even if his brain could talk to other brains, it would have still come to the conclusion that it was quick. If anything, the last twenty years had cemented a sense of superciliousness. The next part involved a very complicated manoeuvre of fiddling around with the tablet to find out the supplier and then realizing that he had the supplier’s contact details in his office.

Aztech Futures’ regional office was located in a large skyscraper overlooking the skyline. The founders knew that you could make money selling horoscopes to people but they didn’t imagine this much. AstraSlate had been their single most selling product. But this was also because it was their only product. Annika sat in a cubicle right outside the regional manager’s office. She was also responsible for receiving complaints. The company didn’t get many so this became one of her duties which she was unaware of until today.

She was waiting for this day for a couple of weeks. Today was the annual company retreat and the manager had booked luxurious cruise for the staff. Well, not really. The manager had protested continuously with his seniors but they got their way in the end. And today Annika planned to ask the new intern out. She was going to get him alone on the cruise and tell him how she felt. If he felt the same way, then they could enjoy the whole cruise together. While he was a few years younger than her, she had the looks of someone much younger. However, all her fantasies fell apart when she received the tenth complain of the day and the manager in a attempt to pacify his customers, cancelled the cruise and started offering the tickets to them. He wasn’t sure why he didn’t just blame it on a new update to the system causing a system error or why he thought it would be a good idea to put all the people who had the same complain together. If they knew other people had the same complain they could go public with this. But if one peered deep within his subconscious they would find that he was afraid of water and it stemmed from a childhood trauma. Not from something he endured but by something his favourite cartoon duck endured. Or at least he thought he did. The plot involved the duck being thrown overboard by pirates and sinking to the bottom. Of course this was a ruse and he should have known that ducks don’t just drown. But at this time the show abruptly ended due to some technical failure. This incident apparently made the manager anxious of water and he took the first opportunity to get out of this situation by giving away the cruise tickets. He thought that the director would surely understand.

Alessandro was weary when Adam told him that the company wanted to apologize him in person and was willing to reimburse him. And Adam could only imagine what the reimbursement involved and picked up a AstraSlate to check his horoscope hoping that he got the same message and would also be entitled for reimbursement. The absence of the message informing him of his imminent death surprisingly disappointed him.

The bus moved slowly through the city as Alessandro found a comfortable place towards the rear. He had never travelled a block away from his house and so had to rely on a public transport. He chose the bus because he felt it would be cheaper and it was. He really couldn’t afford the taxi till the office of Aztech Futures. In front of the bus, a small screen played the news but his mind drifted away to what the reimbursement would involve but this excitement was mixed with dread of the prophecy. He knew what was in the news. It had been going for days. A few days ago, the navy had discovered a secret hidden underwater weapons facility in international waters. Due to its location, all the countries wanted access to the facility. What remained mysterious that no country claimed ownership and no one knew who build the weapons. And that was what drew the media’s attention.

Alessandro was not the only one to deboard the bus in front of Aztech Future’s offices. Two other people got out with him and apparently had the same complain. They received a warm welcome and were immediately briefed about the technical glitch which lead to this situation. But this explanation was clearly rehearsed. No one in the company had any clue as to why this error occurred. However, any doubts in the story were quickly quelled when the part about getting a ticket to the luxurious cruise was told.

The customers lined up in front of the bus which was going to take them to the cruise while the employees seethed with jealousy. When the day started they were the ones who were going to be in the bus. They would have started a mutiny but no one was capable of taking the lead. So they just smiled with cold eyes to the customers who were boarding. A strange expression which reminded the customers about the morning’s threat.

All fears were quelled when the rooms were shown and the buffet laid. Now, all the customers could think of enjoying the rest of the day. Some of them dipped in the pool under the hot sun. At about an hour after leaving the port, the entire ship shook. One of the weapons from the underwater facility apparently had drifted into the seas a few days earlier and had now targeted the nearest ship with the most people onboard. Before everyone could recover, sound the alarm and jump onto the life rafts, another explosion shook the boat. But this time, it teared right through the cruise drowning everyone onboard.

The neural network powering the AstraSlate servers had been right. In a strange way, it had been right. And the strange series of events had realized the prophecy swiftly and at the same time for everyone.