The future is not what we think it is.
It is neither the glorious second renaissance of mankind, nor the apocalyptic doom of humanity. It is a whimper indeed in which the world as we know it dies; one so quiet that we may hardly notice it when it is upon us.
It is a pacific world, devoid of much of the teeming hurly-burly of humanity that strains the limits of the land. It is a Pacific world, too, where the ocean is slowly reclaiming the cities on its coastline, a few tiny nibbles at a time.
And yet, life goes on… or what passes for life. The villages still have their little festivals, shopkeepers still have their little stalls on the main streets for people to buy and sell, and there are still the occasional gas station and restaurant on the long and tortuous roads between nowheres.
In particular, there is a coffeehouse on what may once have been the outskirts of Yokohama. It may actually be rather charitable to call it a coffeehouse, as it is but a single room adjoining a larger house. Only a counter and two tables serve for the few patrons that may drop by — and there are never enough of them to fill the room, in any case.
What does fill the room, however, is the sunlight of the morning and the smell of the coffee beans as they are roasted by hand on the premises. The sunlight also coats the outside of the house and shop, turning it a brilliant white from the road, when in truth, its paint is somewhat weather-beaten and worn, when examined closely. The weathervane on the corner of the building, a brightly colored fish with odd designs on its sides and a propeller in its mouth, slowly turns in the cooling weather. Old it may be, but it is not in disrepair.
After all, its owner may be gone, but it is not unoccupied, it is not out of business.
Some years ago, my owner, leaving me in charge of the shop, suddenly left for somewhere…
If you visit the place someday, you will receive a friendly, if shy, greeting from its proprietor, Alpha. More likely than not, though, she will join you at your table once you've been served. Don't turn her away, when she does.
Where he is and what he's doing, I don't know… I wonder if he's ever coming back…
It's not that she'll be upset if you prefer to be left alone. Nor is it that she's lonely here, running a coffeehouse where a single guest counts as a good day for business.
It's a good thing I'm a robot…
She doesn't get lonely… not really. Not as fast as you will, in this twilight world she does business in.
This way, I can wait for as long as it takes.
Because this is Cafe Alpha, the coffeehouse at the end of the world.
A Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou fanfiction
by Ukyou Kuonji
Disclaimer: Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou (Yokohama Shopping Log) is the creation of Hitoshi Ashinano, serialized in Kodansha's Afternoon magazine, and animated by Sony Records. No permission has been given, no infringement is intended.
The sunlight that bathes the cafe every morning is doing so later and later these days. There may be very little reason to mark the days one by one, and yet, the seasons continue to change in this world, just as they have in the past, showing the changes within the years. And at the same time, the children, in particular, continue to age and grow, emphasizing the passage of each succeeding year.
The passage of years has no effect on the Cafe Alpha, or on its gentle proprietor. But the change in season does work its will, and Alpha responds accordingly.
It's getting chilly these mornings… it's about time for the fires.
Robots of our present day and age have a long way to go before there is any chance of their achieving anything even remotely akin to sentience. So perhaps it should come as a comfort that humanity will eventually develop robotic life-forms not only capable of sentience (or at least as much so as the average human), but capable of sensations of discomfort — and the ability to adjust their surroundings to alleviate said discomfort.
Let's see… there's enough scrap wood behind the house to last for some time, and plenty of scrap paper, too…
Of course, it may seem a bit strange that tomorrow's robots will make those adjustments in a surprisingly low-tech way: rather than somehow radiating heat from themselves, or amplifying solar radiation, they simply burn scraps.
I still need to rake up the dry grass around the cafe, though… that should really get something started.
But it has been noted that the future is never quite what one would expect it to be, after all.
Tardy or no, the sun does arrive, and the cafe is warmed by the light streaming in. Basking in the radiant warmth, sipping a mug of hand-brewed coffee (is it hand-brewed if the hands belong to a machine?), Alpha senses the temptation to delay the burning for another day.
She almost succumbs to it.
But it isn't as if it's going to get any warmer. And that grass really needs to be raked in any case…
And so, presently, her mug, brightly painted with a fish pattern similar to that of her weathervane, sits empty and alone on the counter. Alpha is working outdoors today.
It needs to be done.
The grass around the Cafe Alpha has not entirely been drained of greenery, but it is near enough. As the rake scrapes through the grass, it draws with it piles of brown and withered grass. There is no sound, save for the odd remaining insect and the scratch of the rake through the grass, as well as the springing noise as the tines snap back into place as she lifts the rake to reach out for more loose grass.
There is a flash of color in the pile of grass. The occasional dried leaf, blown over from distant trees, stand out with their browns and oranges and their rust red hues from the dried-hay yellow of dead grass, but they are not unexpected.
But this… pink?
Inverting the rake and holding on to it for balance, Alpha crouches down to examine the source of this odd color. Far too small to be a leaf, too wide to be a blade of grass… what is it?
Her hand gently brushes through the raked pile, and uncovers more of these small, pink…
She stares as she picks up a handful of grass, and lets the blades spill through her fingers until she is left with only a few dusky pink petals in the hollow of her hand. She straightens up, and pushing aside the standing grass as she goes, she wades through the field in search of the source of these petals.
She finds it only a few steps away: a clutch of flowers hidden in the tall grass, each bursting into a sphere of color. Pink, red, yellow, orange… how could she not have seen them before? From her crouched position deep in the grass, she turns back to look. The Cafe Alpha is certainly visible, barely ten meters distant. It isn't as if she couldn't have seen them before…
…she just never thought to look for them. She cups a flower in her hand — what kind of flowers are these, anyway?
The answer springs forth from somewhere deep in her memory banks, but strangely, it deepens the mystery rather than dispelling it. Why would she have been programmed with this information, after all? And… 'Imperial'? Alpha wonders what emperor would claim a flower for himself, and what had become of him. Certainly, these flowers are growing wild, unbidden by any would-be ruler, unknown even to Alpha despite living so close by. Emperors come and go — mostly go — but these flowers bloom regardless of any human order, any human desire… even any human knowledge.
But that doesn't have to stay that way. Alpha's pensive expression gives way to a broad smile as she detects the distant puttering of a motor. With a single graceful motion, she reaches in among the flowers, selects one and plucks it, even as she turns and rises to a standing position. Sure enough, a tiny truck eventually crawls its way onto the horizon.
Ojiisan. Her oldest and dearest, neighbor and customer. Even from a distance, she can see him leaning out of his truck's window to wave at her, his boxy cap threatening to fall off as he does so. His wrinkled face is drawn up in a tight smile, as always. He beeps his horn as he pulls up the gravel driveway to the cafe, while Alpha, still clutching the flower behind her back, approaches his window.
"Hello, Ojiisan… what can I get for you today?"
He doesn't attempt to get out of the truck. "Nothing, thanks, Alpha. Just on my way back to the station." He gestures to the drums behind him in the truck bed. "Just picked up a supply of fresh petrol, y'know." He notices the rake in Alpha's hand. "Ah, gettin' the scraps together for tonight's fire, eh?"
Alpha nods enthusiastically. "Mm-hmm. First one of the season. Care to join me? Er… once you're done unloading your petrol and all…"
"Mm. 'Preciate the invite, Alpha, but I don't think I'll be able to. Gotta do some cleaning of my own 'round the station."
"You mean, getting rid of the stale gasoline?"
A slight chuckle escapes Ojiisan's lips. "If you're hinting at what I'm thinking you're hinting at… 'Fraid I can't do that for ya, Alpha. Petrol doesn't burn the way grass and scraps and wood do. You want a fire, not an explosion.
"But I'll let Takahiro know, though, and I 'spect he'll be 'round soon enough." The grin takes on a sly cast, and Ojiisan leans out further toward Alpha. "Tell ya th' truth… I think he's kinda sweet on ya…"
It shouldn't be logically possible, but Alpha actually blushes at Ojiisan's comment, bringing the hand with the chrysanthemum in front of her mouth, and giggling slightly.
Ojiisan's grin widens. "Ahh… so, he's already been by?" he asks, nodding his head toward the flower.
Alpha is flustered by the question, something we might not expect from our knowledge of robots, but which Ojiisan takes as no more than a matter of course. "What..? Oh, you mean this? No, I just found some of these growing wild in the yard." She blinks, and suddenly extends her arm out to Ojiisan. "Here."
Now it's Ojiisan's turn to blush. "Erm… really? For me?"
"Sure! I've got a whole bunch more! And to think, just this morning, I didn't know I even had *one*."
"Well… all right." The old man takes the proffered flower, and Alpha beams at him. He turns the key, and the truck roars to life. "I'll give this to Takahiro when I tell him about your fire." He leans back and glances behind him as he backs out of the cafe's driveway.
Alpha blinks at his sudden departure, then recovers herself and runs after the truck before it can get to the main road. "Wait! Ojiisan! That flower wasn't for Takahiro…" But it's too late. If Ojiisan can hear her calling, he gives no notice as the truck swings back onto the road, only a cheery wave as he heads back to his petrol station.
Winded from her failed attempt to catch Ojiisan, Alpha exhales heavily, hands on her knees. There is a moment's pause, as she decides that either nothing is lost by Ojiisan's misunderstanding, or that nothing can be changed by explaining it to him. In any case, she returns to her pile of dried grass and petals.
It has been suggested, perhaps only partly in jest, that the destruction of Western civilization as we know it will come at the hands of our own paperwork. Piles of bureaucratic forms and regulations, mountains of advertising brochures and coupons, and vast heaps of our own waste paper may one day rise up and crush us literally, just as they do metaphorically even today. While the internet and the paperless office has staved off this horrid fate for the time being, one need only open one's mailbox to wonder yet again what kind of weird fossil fuel we may provide in the millennia to come if we cannot dig our way out from under this paper mass.
Of course, it serves as fuel even in its original state. It is this fuel that warms visitors to the Cafe Alpha tonight, and with proper rationing will warm them until the nights cease to grow so cold.
There is the rattle of a bicycle on the cafe's driveway, and Alpha needs no enhanced vision module to know who it is. "Takahiro! Welcome!"
A scuff of rubber, a spray of pebbles, and the murmur of a mild expletive mingles with the clatter of the bicycle falling over. "Hey, Alpha. Gramps told me you were gonna start the fire tonight — Umph! There you go — so I came over as soon as my chores were finished." The bicycle propped up to his satisfaction, the boy approaches the cafe… and Alpha. He holds out a small bag to her. "Here… these are for tonight."
Emotions wash over Alpha's face — embarrassment, as she recalls Ojiisan's words; delight, at a present from Takahiro; and puzzlement, as she opens the bag. "Thank you, Takahiro… erm… what are these?" They are soft and white, fluffy and light, and… and she's never seen anything like them before.
Takahiro grins. "They're called marshmallows. You eat them. They're supposed to be really sweet, and… erm… I don't think there's any animal protein in them." Robots have a few things that gum up their works; animal protein is the worst, as far as Alpha's constitution is concerned. So, for all the cafes au lait she has prepared, she's never worked up the nerve to actually taste her concoctions.
Alpha's expression dissolves to one of mild embarrassment. "I couldn't possibly. Even if these are safe for me to eat, this is a rare treat for you. You should keep them for yourself, and bring them out for a special occasion."
"Rare? Yeah, once in a blue moon, I suppose." The boy shrugs. "But if I waited to eat 'em, Gramps tells me that they'd get hard as rocks in a coupla months. Might as well eat 'em now. And what's so not-special about the first fire of the season, anyway? Gramps says these things're really good toasted over a fire. He used to do it all the time with a stick or something when he was a kid."
"Like you are now?" There is no condescension in Alpha's tone; she is simply noting a passage from grandfather to grandson. "So why isn't he here too? To show you how to toast it?"
"Dunno… and it's not like he's puttin' together a fire of his own or nothin'. He just gave me the bag when he got back from the supply depot — guess he picked 'em up there — and told me to go and 'have a good time'. Like I don't usually when I'm here."
While Takahiro speaks, Alpha turns a marshmallow over and over in between her fingers, eyeing it critically, squeezing it slightly at turns. "So, Ojiisan said something about a stick…?"
"Yeah… I think you're supposed to spear it and hold it over the fire until it turns brown." He indicates Alpha's supply of kindling wood. "Got anything in there you can spare?"
"Aaah!" Alpha's first marshmallow bursts into flame, and she yanks it from the fire, shaking it vigorously to extinguish it. Its skin is blistered and scorched black, and she looks at it in dismay. "Ohh, I've ruined it."
"Only on the outside, Alpha-san." Takahiro rotates his stick slowly over the small fire pit outside of the Cafe Alpha. "Ya gotta keep the thing outta the flame itself, though." The last ruby red rays of the setting sun can just be seen behind the lopsided profile of Mount Fuji. "If you don't like the burnt parts, just peel the skin off. It'll taste just fine, you'll see."
Alpha gingerly attempts to peel the blackened skin off. "You talk like you've actually done this before. Didn't you say this was a rare treat for you?" Bits of burnt marshmallow flake off and fall into the fire, but most of the skin pulls away, with only a thin skein of molten interior holding the blackened crust to the gooey interior. "Anyway, now what am I supposed to do?"
"Oh, just bite it off the stick." Noticing Alpha's continued confusion, he decides to demonstrate. Besides, his marshmallow is more or less ready, in any case. "Like this." Taking his marshmallow off the fire, he brings it up to his lips. After a moment of blowing on it, he decides it's sufficiently cool, and with a single motion, wraps his mouth around the marshmallow, stick and all. He pulls the stick from his mouth, the end still sticky with white residue. "Yea… I'ffe…" He pauses, as he realizes his words won't be understood around a hot marshmallow, and focuses on chewing and swallowing before answering.
"Yeah, I've had these things before, but it was a long time ago. I was maybe four or five. Gramps did all the work, and I got to eat the thing." He loads up with stick with a new marshmallow, and holds it over a glowing log. "Like I said, though, he gets stuff like this for Makki and me once in a blue moon."
Alpha stares pensively off to the west. There are a number of orange lights dotting the landscape, where other people — or robots; you never know — have started their own nightly fires. She can see the smoke from some of the nearer fires, while the points of light from the more distant ones climb to the foothills of Mount Fuji itself.
"There was a blue moon here once, you know…"
"Mm?" Once again, Takahiro's mouth is full of marshmallow, rendering him unable to hold up his end of the conversation.
Alpha turns back to the fire. "A blue moon. I mean, it's not really blue, you know. It just looks that was because of all the smoke particles in the air. When the mountain went…"
Takahiro follows Alpha's arm gesture, indicating Fuji. "That thing blew? Jeez, I thought it was extinct."
Alpha shrugs. "Lots of people did. But I think I can remember when it was symmetrical. That's when the moon looked blue for a couple of days." She places a new marshmallow on her stick and copies Takahiro by holding it over a glowing ember rather than sticking it directly into the flame. "So this is how you do it, ne?"
"Un." Takahiro nods. His stick has been reloaded as well, with three marshmallows strung together. He jabs it over the fire as close as he dares. Closer, even, as a log pops, and several sparks land on the first marshmallow, setting it afire. "Ack!" He blows on it before the marshmallow can be even half burnt. "Heh… see what I mean? I'm no expert, either."
"Well, you couldn't've predicted that was going to happen."
"No, I suppose not."
"Mm." Alpha inspects her marshmallow before setting it back over the fire. "We both need more practice."
"Yeah." The bag of marshmallows lying between them sags slightly. At this point, it could definitely be considered at least half empty. "More than we're gonna get tonight. Gonna have to ask Gramps to pick up some more next time he goes to the supply depot."
"That may be awhile, Takahiro-kun…" Gasoline goes stale, yes, but it takes a while.
"Going to wait for the next blue moon?" Alpha bites her marshmallow off of her stick. Outside, there is the bitter taste akin to the smell of the cafe when she leaves the beans roasting too long. Burnt. Again. She bites through the paper-thin crust, and the melted marshmallow bursts from its skin, covering it and her mouth with its sticky sweetness.
Takahiro looks out to the west, to the darkling silhouette of the mountain. "Gawh, I hope not… if thatís what it takes for a blue moon."
Alpha nods sagely as she ruminates. Her memory flashes back to the blue moon of so long ago, and she offers up a prayer for the lights in the west… a quiet benediction for the people who remain.
These days, the whole world has changed a lot.
How long has it been that she has seen the world turning around her? Sunrises, sunsets, seasons changing, children growing. How many times has she traveled to Yokohama to buy coffee beans? How long has Owner been away? When will Owner be back?
It looks like the twilight of this age has quietly arrived.
There was a time when people filled the earth and subdued it. In this future, it would seem as if the world was returning the favor, as gradually as was done to it. The seas rise, and cut off the islands one from another. The mountains burst, and vent their fury. The world tests humanity, without malice or pity.
And yet, there is a hopeful light in the robot's eyes
I think I'll probably stay around to see it through.
It isn't something that even Takahiro could see, much less understand, but it is there. Despite the changes, the grass still grows in its season, the flowers still bloom, just the way they always have. And the people that remain still go about their business, finding enough sweetness in their lives to overwhelm the bitterness.
I've got all the time in the world, after all.
And despite the chill of the night air, Alpha feels a strange warmth. Strange because it has nothing to do with the fire cracking before her. Strange because it feels as if it is coming from the inside.
And somewhere, somehow, her owner… her builder… knows this, and smiles.
Author's notes: This was written as an unbirthday present for the Ucchan's resident firebug, Konatsu-chan. Thanks to my kunoichi, we rarely have to throw anything out — it all just goes into the fireplace, just like with Alpha, here. After a weekend of cutting wood and raking leaves, and cleaning the fireplace flue in preparation for the burning season (pity that burning leaves is illegal here — it comes at a time when one supposes a little global warming would do some good), this story just started to come together… slowly, just like raking a yard, just like the pace of Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou.
This piece probably ought to seal my reputation as a patron of neglected series; I wonder how many people will be able to point out that I've implied a lot more about the Alpha-Takahiro relationship than exists in either the anime or the manga. It just felt right as I was putting it together, that's all I can say.
Anyway, I hope you enjoyed this little piece, as I may be able to put together another YKK fic eventually. But y'all know how slowly I write, so don't hold your breath or anything, ne?
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