Total World Domination

By Rob Rosen

I was headed towards Union Square to shop for a birthday gift for my mother. Shopping, unfortunately, has never been my forté. My mother taught me well how to overcome so many of life's little obstacles; but shopping simply wasn't something I could master. I just didn't have it in me. And several stores later, I found myself as empty handed as when I had begun. Yes, four hours and I couldn't find a single thing to buy her. (Yet, put me in front of a New York Times crossword puzzle and just watch me go. And in pen to boot!)

I was frustrated. I was tired. And I was ready to throw in the towel and order the first thing on FTD.com that cost under $50. To hell with originality. Anyway, she's my mom; I'm sure she'd understand, I figured. Besides, it's the thought that counts, right? (The thought that ran through my mind, however, was the guilt my mother would lay on me when she received said bouquet. I was certain my brothers and sisters would come up with something far superior. Fuckers.)

I decided to give it another shot. But I'd need a pick-me-up if I was going to make it through one more gift warehouse, or clothes shop, or Virgin Megastore. (Fine, that last one was for me, but I deserved something for my troubles.) What I needed was a cup of coffee.

I didn't have far to look. There was a Starbucks not ten feet from where I was standing. (Surprise, surprise.) No, I'm no fan of Starbucks, except that, at the very least, I'm glad that I never have to search very far for that life sustaining fluid: my good friend, Joe. Starbucks, in my humble opinion, is crap. Bitter, watery, crap. Crappy Joe. (Yes, I'm a fair weather friend. So sue me.) In any case, if I was going to find that elusive birthday gift, it was either get perked up at Starbucks or settle on the FTD® Birthday Party® Bouquet; and the latter was sure to put me in the doghouse with my usually adoring mother.

I eagerly ordered my super-huge 20-ounce Venti Arabian Mocha Java. (Venti, apparently, means 20 in Italian; how smart the good people at Starbucks are!) Smoother and richer than most of the other coffee selections they offer, but still watery crap, just the same. Fine, I too was bitter by that point, but shopping for a parent is a high stress activity. After all, she gave me the gift of life, the least I could do was come up with a suitable present.

I drank my cup of java and chowed down on a surprisingly tasty blueberry muffin. And then I was off and running again; just knowing that the perfect gift was somewhere close by and waiting for me to buy it. I tore down the sidewalk and anxiously scanned each passing window display. "Call to me, oh perfect gift. Call to me," I intoned, just barely under my breath. Downtown is just full of people talking to themselves, so my mantra didn't even merit a second glance from any of the fellow shoppers that passed by.

But that's when I got suddenly sidetracked. Tongue twistered is more like it: I was Starbucks suddenly sidetracked. For there, not fifty feet from where I had just emerged, was another Starbucks. I did a double take to make sure I hadn't somehow been walking in circles. (A hard feat, mind you, since I was going in a straight line at the time.) But no, I wasn't mistaken; there was another identical location within eyeshot.

How strange, I thought. How unnecessary, I added. But c'est la vie. Who am I to pass judgment? I'm sure that extra fifty feet was simply too far out of range for a lot of people to muster. Or maybe one was there for anyone that needed a second cup a short while after the first.

Oh well. I moved on and turned the corner, still furiously window-shopping for that perfect gift (under $50). But then, lo and behold, what should I come across, but another Starbucks.

Something wasn't right. How could this be? What could be the rationale for three Starbucks positioned so close to each other? I decided to hop into this third location and do some investigating. Luckily, this was more of a sit down café than the other two and they even provided a couple of computers for their clientele. Not too surprisingly, the homepage on the vacant computer I sat down to was all ready set on the Starbucks website. (Does their genius have no end?)

I typed in my current location to see how many storefronts there were within a fifty-mile radius. There were 365. 365! One for each day of the year. Mere coincidence? Or was there something more insidious going on. In case there was, I figured I'd better find out. As fate would have it, I was, at the time, out of work. (Which explains the $50 gift limit.) And they were hiring. Maybe some undercover investigation was needed. (Besides, at the exorbitant prices they charge for a 20-ounce cup of coffee, I could certainly use the freebies.)

I was hired on the spot. Yippy for that college education. (Thanks again, mom.) They'd put me to work the very next day. With 365 Bay Area locations, I wasn't surprised. They were probably desperate for qualified workers. Though I seriously doubted there were that many qualifications to begin with, other than the willingness to work at minimum wage and maximum customer obnoxiousness.

I went home that night and pondered my newly found calling. (Forgetting, for the time being, that my mother's birthday was a scant three days away and I still had no present.) Something about that 365 wasn't sitting well with me. Again, I pulled up the locations, this time scanning the map that was provided. The pattern seemed familiar, but I couldn't place it. I went to bed and dreamed of Juan Valdez and his trusty mule. Not exactly a happy dream since they kept trying to force me to drink one cup of coffee after the other. I awoke with a start. Even in my dreams, caffeine has a jolting effect.

Unable to go back to sleep, I got up and fixed myself a warm cup of milk; which I drank as I stared out my kitchen window. It was a beautiful starry night and I scanned the heavens and tried to think drowsy thoughts. And that's when it him me. Stars. Starbucks. The map. The relationship of 365 in our own solar system. Why hadn't I seen it sooner? Finally, after all this time, my minor in Astronomy could have some practical purpose. (No, mom wasn't too keen on that choice either.)

I raced towards my computer and printed the map of all 365 locations. Then I opened my Star Atlas and began my hunt. Sure enough, there was a match towards the middle of one of the galaxies I scanned: Centaurus A.

Centaurus A is a powerful radio galaxy located some 13 million light years away toward the constellation Centaurus. Radio galaxies are usually giant elliptical galaxies that have been disrupted by recent collisions with smaller companion galaxies. The very center of Centaurus A harbors a massive black hole, which fuels powerful jets of material that are thrown out of the nucleus at speeds of up to 1% the speed of light. These jets produce great quantities of radio and X-ray emission.

Fascinating, but what did it mean? Certainly, there couldn't be a coincidence between the local Starbuck's map and this star map, could there be? But what was the tie in? I'd have to be extra observant on the job tomorrow, I thought. Maybe then there'd be a clue to all of this. Hopefully, I was wrong to worry. Still, this was Starbucks we're talking about. Anything was possible.

***

I arrived at my new job bright and early the next day, nervous at what I might find, but glad for the free coffee. (Munchables were fifty percent off. Cheapskates!) Having worked at similar positions in the past, nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Mindless work, after all, is the same from one job to the next. It wasn't until the end of the day that something strange occurred.

I was cleaning up in the back of the store when I heard a strange noise coming from the wall behind me. It was muffled and just barely audible, but it was there, nonetheless. I pictured the layout of the store in my head and realized that the wall I was hearing things from wasn't abutting any other store. Only the other two walls did that, not counting the wall that was adjacent to the storefront. Again, I sensed something wasn't right.

Since I was alone in the back, I walked over to the wall and placed my ear against it. Still muffled, but there was definitely something happening on the other side. But how to find out what was another question; perhaps one I didn't necessarily want the answer to. I did know one thing, though: there was no way to find anything out, there and then. I'd have to wait until I was alone and couldn't hear any noise coming from behind the wall. Then at least I could snoop around. Of course, I didn't even know how to get back there in the first place, but where there's a will, there's a way. I simply had to be patient and bide my time.

I wouldn't have to wait long. I was asked to open up the next morning and was given a key and the security code to get in. I suppose they were very trusting at Starbucks. Then again, what was there steal, other than some day old danish? The money left with the manager every night. Now all I had to do was sneak back there before the store opened and have myself a good look around.

***

I arrived an hour before my actual shift started. That would give me plenty of time, I figured. (Or prayed, at any rate.) If something amiss was indeed going on back there, losing my job was the least of my worries. Still, someone had to do something and that someone might as well have been me. After all, I didn't have anything else occupying my time.

I went to the back room and again pressed my ear to the wall. No noises, this time. I sucked in my breath and knocked gently on the wall. Definitely not a solid wall, I realized. But how was I to get on the other side? I tapped up and down and all around, and nothing happened. I couldn't feel any seems or handles to pull on. There was, it appeared, no outwardly way in. There was, however, an underly way in.

I noticed it just as I was about to give up and go grab a day old muffin. (Screw that half off nonsense. I was all ready in up to my neck, what were a few more inches?) The floor beneath me was tiled. Perhaps one of them lifted up to reveal a way behind the wall. Sure enough, one tile easily came up and off, revealing a small, silver knob. With my heart pounding, I gently turned the knob. Instantly, the floor in front of the wall started to shift downwards, creating a short staircase down. Not exactly the technology you'd expect at a Starbucks, I thought.

I checked my watch before making the descent. I still had a half hour to go until my shift started. Easily enough time to check out my find and make it back out before anyone else arrived. I eased my way down the staircase, found a light switch, and then spotted an identical stairway in front of me that I could clearly see rose up behind the wall. Eureka, I had found my entryway! And I was immediately overcome with the smell of coffee beans. Perhaps this was nothing more than a storage facility.

Perhaps not.

I climbed up and into the room behind the wall. It was small, but incredibly packed. In the center of the room was a surveillance counter with several small screens, which showed nothing but the storefront and backroom. To the left of this were about a dozen bags of coffee beans (hence the smell), and to the right were three large drums with strange markings on them. I couldn't yet put my finger on it, but something wasn't right.

I noticed numerous scrolls of paper in a canister beneath the video monitors and proceeded to open them, one by one. Each one was a star map with two initials written on the top; each was clearly a different location within the Centaurus A galaxy. One map was identical to the Bay Area map of locations I had previously seen. The others were similar, but clearly represented other cities throughout the world. A map, that represented the center of the galaxy, had S.W. written on top. It only took me a second to figure that one out: Seattle, Washington. Headquarters. Or was it home base for a group of star travelers? Perhaps Star Bucks. I knew that the top three executives were all men, after all. The pieces were fitting together. But why coffee? And why here? They had come along way from their own galaxy, if such was the case. (An awfully long distance just to make crappy coffee.)

I didn't have long to ponder that, though. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed on the screen that there were people approaching the front door: the manager and a man I didn't recognize. My heart leapt to my throat. What was I to do? There was nowhere to hide. That's when I spotted the knob on the console. It was identical to the one I had found embedded in the floor. With a quick prayer to the almighty, I turned it. Thankfully, the stairs on the other side rose again to their original position, just before the men entered the store. Safe. At least for the time being. Though I was, after all, still trapped.

I watched the men on the screens. Fortunatley, they were audio and visual monitors. I could easily make out every word. Nothing out of the ordinary, until.

"When do our brothers arrive with the replacement drums?" asked my manager.

"Two days," answered the other man.

"Same shipment as usual?"

"No. Several more orders than normal. Remember, we're opening 150 more locations over the next month."

"Of course. And are we still on schedule with that?"
            "Most definitely. Once the Antarctic location opens up in 2006, we will have covered the entire planet with a minimum of 10,000 locations. Easily enough to mutate these humans by the time the hole is capable of doing any harm to the home world. Right on schedule, as planned."

"Thankfully, these humans are so susceptible to their addictions."

"Quite. By the time we arrive, only a mere 10% of the population should be unaffected; an easy number to contain by our vast fleet."

"Stupid humans."

"Yes. We should have known how easy it was going to be once we realized how much they'd pay for a cup of crappy coffee."

"Exactly, now let's go get the remaining drum out of the car before the workers arrive. Prop the door open and let's be quick about it."

And with that, they were out of the store. With no time to spare, I returned the scrolls to their bin, turned the knob again, and ran as fast as I could back to the storage room, where I hid behind the counter. They were back in about a minute and I listened as they wheeled the drum in and activated the stairs. Once they went down, I ran, as fast as I could, out of the store and down the street. I doubt they suspected anything because no one was chasing after me. And by the time I made it to the local police station, I was about ready to pass out.

Now all I had to do was relate the story to the authorities. They were sure to believe me, right? How could I possible make such a think up? Fine, San Francisco is full of insane people running rampant through the streets, but I assumed they'd all been to Starbucks before; didn't all of this make a great deal of sense? 365 stores? Why on earth would we need so much coffee unless earth had nothing to do with it? And why would we pay so much for such God-awful stuff unless we were being drugged to do so?

Anyway, I had no choice. It was either that or face the consequences. So I did my civic duty and related everything I knew to the first officer that would hear me out. Yes, I know he thought I was a wack job, but at least I did my best. They let me go about an hour after I arrived and said they'd be in touch. I had my doubts, but thanked the man just the same. I figured that if I didn't hear anything in a week, I could always go to the papers with it. At least I could raise some suspicions.

I went home and fell fast asleep, but not before I called my job and told them I quit. No reasons given, none asked for. I suppose a lot of people didn't last past the first day, but certainly not for the same reason as mine. And then I tried, as best I could, to put the whole incident out of my head, at least for a week or so. I figured something would happen by then.

And, of course, I completely forgot about my mom's birthday. One crisis a month is really all I can take. So you see, I was a bit surprised when my whole family turned up at my door step a couple of days later.

"Oh, hi, um.what's up?" I asked, sheepishly, as they stared at me from my doorstep.

"Did you forget mom's birthday dinner? We came to pick you up to go to the restaurant. Remember?" asked my sister, looking skeptically at me.

"No, of course I remembered. How dumb do you think I am?"

"Do you want an answer?" she asked, then added, "Never mind. Just get your gift and let's go."

Damn it! The gift! What with trying to save the planet and everything, it completely slipped my mind. But how could I explain that to my family, especially to mom? She'd encountered my lame excuses before and would never believe the truth, especially this particular truth. Hell, I barely believed it myself.

But just then, as my family stood their staring at me in disbelief at my stupidity, I was saved by an unexpected visitor. (Who clearly had all ready heard about my recent discoveries.)

"Oh, by the way, mom, here's your gift. Surprise! Happy Birthday!"

The Governor and his entourage didn't know what to make of my gaping-mouthed family. Still, Mr. Schwarzenegger played along, like any good actor will do. Besides, who wants to ruin an old woman's birthday? Not that we gave him any chance to object. He was surrounded by my clan in no time flat and readily agreed to follow us in his limo.

"Oh, sure, but if you don't mind, could your son ride in my limo with me? Just to put the finishing touches up on your surprise."

Mom agreed and gave me the biggest kiss I'd ever gotten from her in my whole life. Even my usually arrogant siblings hugged and kissed me and congratulated me on the most miraculous gift they'd ever seen. I blushed and took their praise. What else could I do? Besides, we were going out for German. The Governor was sure to like the menu.

And with that, we went into the limo and my family went to their respective cars and we were off.

"Well, well, young man," the Governor began. "I wish one of my movies had a plot this good." (Don't we all? But I let it go.)

"So you guys believed me?"

"Why not? Made sense. How else can you explain all that awful coffee?" (See, I told you so!)

"Exactly. But what's going to happen next?"

"Don't you worry about that. Let's just say that Starbucks is in for a bit of a shaking up."

"And to misqoute you, hopefully, they won't be back."

"Oh, we'll see to that. Don't you fret. Now let's get going. Maria's expecting me back in a couple of hours and she can be quite the handful if you keep her waiting."

"Yes, I know a thing or two about demanding women, let me tell you."

 

Rob Rosen lives, loves, and works in San Francisco. His first novel, "Sparkle", was published in 2001 to critical acclaim. His short stories have appeared on the literary sites: SoMa Literary Review, Unlikely Stories, Hairy Musings, Strange Minds, Ten Thousand Monkeys, Thunder Sandwich, Willow Lake Press, Muse Apprentice Guild (M.A.G.), StickYourNeckOut, and in the coming months at Open Wide Magazine. Feel free to visit him at his website www.therobrosen.com or email him at robrosen@therobrosen.com


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