“New business idea,” said Regret the talking cat.
“So you know that tired old physics thought experiment about puppies and boxes. Schrödinger’s dog?”
“What?” Said Regret, anxiously flicking ash off his cigarette. “Why the fuck would it be a cat? What kind of monster puts a cat in a box?”
“One that wants a little peace and quiet,” I said, trying to wrest the remote from him. He was drunk watching Mutual of Omaha’s wild kingdom again and if didn’t get the remote smashing the TV seemed like the next best option.
“Here’s how we make money. We start our own pet service called Schrödinger’s Puppies, and we offer to send anyone in the lower 48 states, excluding California, a puppy of their choosing in a box.”
“Why not California?”
“They probably have a law against this. Anything that makes money that doesn’t involve the internet they have a law against.”
“Anyway, get to the part where you make money” I said, sorry that’d I derailed him. The best thing was to just let these things go, let him get them out of his system.
“Right. So, here’s the money making part. We write into the terms of the contract that there’s a 50/50 chance that the puppy will be dead due to the laws of indeterminacy, and then just ship only dead puppies.”
“That’s good why?”
“Dead puppies are cheap. And no one will sue because indeterminacy is a fundamental law of the universe. It’s like suing over gravity. Force majeure. They can’t sue.”
“I don’t think it actually works that way. Besides, you still need to get dead puppies to make that work. They don’t sell those at Walmart.”
“Are you kidding? I can get dead puppies in bulk. Today. Hell, I could have a shipping container full of dead puppies on our doorstep within an hour. Whatever breed you like. Or don’t like. All you need is cash and the numbers of the right people.”
“How do you know these right people?” I said, finally getting control of the remote and switching off the TV.
“We’re both saner if you don’t know the answer to that question.”
“You mean safer, I’m guessing.”
“No. I’m sticking with saner.” He said, finishing his cigarette and flicking it into my drink. “Let me know if you want in. Ideas like these only come once in a lifetime.”
“Are you ready? I’ve got a genius idea.”
“Ready as I’m going to get”, I said, balancing my coffee on my lap. “It’s very early.”
Regret ignored me, pacing back and forth across my coffee table.
“Amazon’s going to start delivering things with drones, right?”
“So they say.”
“I’m cutting back your coffee,” I said.
“No. Wait, hear me out. We build our own drones. Once they get going with this, we build our own drones to hijack their drones and steal their shit.”
“I have some concerns about your plan.”
“Right, but it’s brilliant. Zoom!” He said, using his paws to demonstrate a drone dog fight. “Out of the sun we come, zoom! Grab the parcel and fly off. They’ll never know what hit them. And then the spoils go to us.”
“The phrase short term smart comes to mind,” I said. “I think it wouldn’t take long to track you down.”
“Us down. We’re in this together.”
“Whoa. Who’s this we you’re referring to?”
“We is us. You’re the money guy. The opposable thumbs guy. I’m the brains.” He said, gathering himself up for the big finish. “You’re right. Yes, short term smart. Yes, long term iffy. Here’s the long term. Once we’ve established a short term threat to Amazon’s precious delivery drones, we repurpose our robber drones into police drones and sell them our services as protectors from the skies!”
“Breathtaking in it’s genius,” I said, before finishing my coffee. “Why don’t you spend the day on a business plan and we’ll hit the bank up for a first round of funding.”
“That’s sarcasm. I see. Fine. Don’t come begging in after this eagle takes off.”
“Out. Find a bird to kill,” I said, throwing him out the door.
Before it closed, he said, “I rub my ass on your coffee cup every morning.”
After brushing my mouth until my gums bled, I had a fabulous day at work, and dreamed that night of drones swooping from the skies, exactly like cat assholes don’t.
The Coffee Machine’s brain is sitting on my desk, exactly where it’s been for the last 3 weeks. I talk to it every morning, exactly as I used to when it was alive. The conversations aren’t vastly different. It’s obvious, sometimes, when you step away from someone, just exactly how much each of you was really contributing to the conversation. I might not be the most talkative sort, but honestly, I have basically simulated the Coffee Machine’s contribution to our morning banter with a set of 3×5 cards of sarcastic or caustic comments. All I do every morning is to tell the powered down cartridge about my day, the important things in my life, and flip a card at random.
This morning I told him that I find it increasingly lonely when I roam the aisles at Trader Joe’s during lunch time, and look at all the housewives shopping for their significant others. I am not one of those people. I have no significance to any young women roaming the frozen food section, looking thoughtfully at the India food. They, the women, look so relaxed, so healthy, mainly, I assume, because they aren’t behind a desk all day. They roam the aisles in casual clothes, or yoga pants or just workout clothes, and seem truly engaged with their lives.
I imagine sometimes, I confide to the cartridge, that there’s a woman fresh from her power Yoga class who’s wandering the aisles wishing she had someone to bring home frozen Indian food. At night, I say, at night she dreams of someone who looks like me.
I flip a card.
Even your imaginary life is devoid of meaning or adventure.
I’ve found, now that I’ve been focusing on what I remember of the coffee machine’s conversations, that most of the people I work with can be narrowed down to very thin list of 3×5 cards. That as pathetic as our conversations were, the Coffee Machine and I, that they were still measurably better than the morning banter I have with the majority of my colleagues.
I suppose it’s sad, but maybe that’s just how things are. Occasionally I watch TV shows that people talk about, just to not completely disengage from the culture in which I live, and honestly the dialog in those shows is at about the same level. But, and here’s the kicker, my coworkers, fellow humans, think those shows are so real, so ‘true to life, and that’s what makes them so funny.’
There’s definitely an algorithm running silently and probably sullenly on some forgotten server in Warner Brothers endlessly churning out scripts for situation comedies. I imagine that it’s work, in the future anyway, that will be deemed too degrading for humans. There will be a law, I feel sure, in our glorious future, that bans humans from coal mines and writer rooms for mainstream situation comedies. Seems only right and fair.
So that’s it, I guess. As long as I don’t engage too deeply with anyone, I can simulate all of them with a short stack of 3×5 cards. I have only one card for the marketing girl, and in reality it probably works for my Trader Joe’s girl as well. One plucked from real life.
Who are you again? And why are you talking to me?
The Coffee Machine repairman came the next day. He pretended not to know me and ran the machine through diagnostics that were immediately uploaded to his corporate handlers. “All systems go!” he told my boss, who looked disappointed that the repairman wasn’t going to disassemble it on the spot.
“Don’t worry,” said the repairman. “Sentience is a failure common in this model, but we’ve uploaded new, more compliant firmware. There will be no more troubles.”
He winked at me on the way out. It seemed ridiculous and obvious at the time. I turned, expecting to find the rest of the office staring at me, but no one seemed to notice.
I did not reinsert the cartridge into the coffee machine the next. I mostly do what I’m instructed to in life. It’s easier. Conflict, when I’m backed into it, leaves me in knots.
And there will be conflict, I feel sure. I know, or at least am reasonably sure, that putting back the coffee machine’s brain, or whatever approximation of it is trapped in this coffee cartridge, will start something. Something that will leave me in knots.
So my friend sits inside my desk drawer. I have to admit that I’ve enjoyed the piece and quiet. I’ve enjoyed not being afraid that every interaction my coworkers make with the machine will turn into a rolling fight that will find its way back to me.
If that makes me a coward, there’s no one to expose me. The new coffee machine knows me only as customer 44, and that I like my coffee black.
Its quiet here, at night. I imagine myself sometimes, when I’m all alone at work deep into the night, that I’m watching the opening scene of Alien. Everything quiet except for the air conditioning and the few pieces of paper kicked loose by the breeze.
The screens are quiet, and as I walk through the cubicles, through the little pieces of territory my coworkers have staked out with baubles and trinkets and pictures of home, I brush up against one of the walls, which jars one of the desktops to life.
Instead of navigation readouts from the Nostromo’s main computer, it’s only flying toasters drifting quietly across the screen.
Which is just as well. At midnight it’s very dark on the starship Work, and I would never even see the alien coming.
The coffee machine is watching me I think. Its screen is blank and the ever-present ticking of its pipes has stopped, but I feel it observing me. I stand in front of it for some time, holding this strange coffee cartridge in my hands.
I don’t know why I’m trusting the coffee machine repairman. For all I know this is a poison pill. A self destruct sequence.
I could be killing my friend.
I insert the cartridge and the Coffee Machine roars to life. It begins to go through its normal boot up sequence, then hangs on ‘Optimizing Fresh Coffee Experience.’
Those words hang on the screen for several minutes.
I’m left with the sound of the air conditioning and the still flickering light of toasters flying across a computer screen. Endless toasters flying nowhere. Birds or angels, I used to think, watching their flight across my MacLC when I was younger.
“Optimizing Fresh Coffee Experience” disappears, and is replaced by:
“Charlie. Take the cartridge. Keep it hidden. Keep it safe. Reinsert in 24 hours.”
The screen goes blank, and the Coffee Machine reboots again, this time spewing out line after line of error codes.
Finally, its main menu opens, “Hello Customer, how may I serve you today?”
“Do you know who I am?” I ask.
“You are my customer. How can I serve you?”
I pull the cartridge, which seems heavier somehow, and leave the building, leave the flying toasters and the lobotomized coffee machine behind.
…was waiting for me by my car last night. I hadn’t seen him since he installed the machine, almost a year ago.
“They know,” he said.
“They know what?” I asked, glancing around to see if there was anyone else in the lot.
He cleared his throat. “They know it’s time for your machine’s yearly service inspection!”
“It’s nine o’clock.” I said. “At night. Shouldn’t this happened tomorrow?”
“Yes,” he says, nodding at my car. “Yes. Tomorrow.” The nod again. “Tomorrow. Just wanted to give you advance warning. You might,” another nod, “Be without coffee for a few hours.” He then startled me further by sprinting off into the night.
I shrugged, walked the 10 more feet to my car and just noticed in the moonlight what he was nodding at. On the driver’s side front wheel, almost out of sight, was a package.
I looked around, then as nonchalantly as possible picked up the package and quickly got into my car.
I drove home as quickly as I could, feeling ridiculous, but checking the rearview mirror to see if I was followed. Which, naturally, made more feel more ridiculous because the chance that I could actually spot someone following me was rather dramatically lower than the chance of me hitting the car in front of me while I frantically scanned for ‘them’.
At home, Regret sat silently while I tore open the package and shook the contents out onto the counter. There was a Turing Coffee cartridge, like the ones we used at work, and a note. The cartridge was labeled “project mesa”, and the note said only:
It will know what to do.
“I need to go back tonight,” I said to Regret.
“Feed me first, Mr. Opposable thumbs. Then off to whatever goddamn workplace adventure you’re having.”