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“THE VENDING MACHINE”
by Sarah L. Byrne
Marta was working late again. She got up from her desk for a break, walked down the corridor, and habit made her turn aside into an alcove where she stopped, confronted by The Vending Machine.
The gentle white–noise whirr surrounded her, soothing. Easing the stresses of the office, making it all fade into the background. Marta stared into the shrine–like interior. Lit by a soft glow, displaying the rows of snacks wrapped shiny red and gold and silver like Christmas. She put her fingertips on the glass.
Food is not your friend, her therapist said. But it sure felt like it sometimes. She breathed out, the glass misting, her skirt waistband uncomfortably tight.
“You are not my friend,” she whispered.
“Sure I am,” the machine answered.
Marta jumped as though sleazy Rob had goosed her from behind again. There was no one there. She looked back at the machine, blinked.
“You know it’s all packed with chemicals designed to make you want more?” the machine said. “Hyper–palatable mouth–feel, overriding your fullness sensations, stimulating primal urges. The packaging’s designed to trigger the right neural pathways, or the wrong ones, depending how you look at it.”
“What’s your point?” Marta asked, startled.
“You’re getting a bit podgy,” the machine said. “I’m telling you this as a friend. It’s not a good look. Still, you can always throw it back up afterwards, right?”
Marta winced. It wasn’t like she hadn’t tried that.
“That’s not really my cup of tea,” she said. Her eyes slid towards the machine next door. “Don’t tell me the tea machine can talk as well?”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” the vending machine snapped.
“Fine,” Marta said, stung. “I was just asking.”
“No, I’m sorry,” the machine said. “Wasn’t any need for that. I guess I’m a bit sensitive. Don’t go, will you?”
“Don’t worry. I’m not going anywhere without my Mini Cookies.”
Marta rummaged in her purse for the coins: fifty, twenty, five, her fingers counting them out, automatic with practice. Slipped them into the slot, tapped the code that would make her wish come true. The coins slid through and clattered into the coin return tray.
“Are you sure that’s what you want, honey?” the machine asked, voice buzzing softly with concern.
Marta rammed her coins back into the slot. She closed her eyes for a moment, imagining the coolness, the smoothness of the chocolate, biting down through the textures, the layers, the tastes, the sensations. Waited for her heart’s desire to drop into the tray below with the usual satisfying clunk.
“Come on, give it up.” She thumped the glass with the heel of her hand. “Come on, what’s wrong with you?”
Footsteps behind her: she turned to see skinny Andrew from Risk Management and tried to compose her face for human interaction.
“Machine acting up again?” he asked sympathetically. “Don’t know what’s got into it lately. Can’t complain though, gave me two Twixes for nothing the other day.
Marta forced a smile until he walked on, then clenched her jaw.
“What did he do to deserve two Twixes? Look, I need those cookies. Now.”
“Need? Oh honey, can you hear yourself?”
“This isn’t how it works,” Marta said. “Look, this is the deal. I put in my hard–earned money, ka–ching, you give up the goods. It’s non–judgmental. It’s impersonal. If I wanted chat, how are you today, ooh chocolate again, I hope that’s not all for you hahaha, I’d go to Sunny’s shop downstairs. Why do you think people come to you?”
The machine was silent for a moment, and when it spoke again there was a difference in its tone.
“Because I’m open all hours, honey,” it said, suddenly plaintive. “And I put out no matter who’s asking, and they can abuse me all they like and I’ll never talk back. And how do you think that makes me feel?”
The whirring rose to a whine.
“Dirty, that’s how. Used. I thought you were different. You’d come so often and sometimes you’d look at me all tender, like there was love in your eyes. But turns out you’re no different from all the others. It’s just what I’ve got that you want, and when you don’t get it, well. Look at you now, bitch.”
“I am not having this conversation,” Marta said. She punched in the code again, jabbing her finger onto the keys. “The cookies, or my money back. Right now.”
She shoved the machine hard.
“Careful,” it warned. “Didn’t you read the sign? ‘Attempts to tip or rock this machine may result in injury or death.’ You’d better believe it. I’m four times your size, honey, and eight times your weight. I could crack your bones like Twiglets, crush the blood from your soft little organs and the air from your lungs. You’d be dead by the time they hauled me off you.”
“Well, screw you then,” Marta said. She gave the machine a kick, turned to walk away, and then a moving shadow caught her eye. She stumbled backwards as the thing lurched towards her. It caught her on the shoulder, the weight of it horrifying, and she hit the floor and rolled blindly aside. The machine crashed over with a sickening crunch that brought people running.
“Oh my God, what happened?” They were staring down at the fallen machine, and Marta sitting on the floor. “Are you all right?”
Marta nodded, her heart thudding, her eyes on the machine as it sparked, whirred pitifully, and then the lights blinked out and it went dark and dead.
“I’m fine.” Marta rubbed her bruised shoulder. Then she reached into the wreckage, her fingers finally closing around a gold foil bag.
“Hey, free snacks!” someone said. “Get in there.” And they started to plunder the broken corpse.
Leave her alone, Marta almost said, and then hesitated. It was just a machine.
But she felt the package slip from her fingers all the same. “I guess I’m not so hungry after all,” she said instead.
Maybe today would be a good day to start that diet.
Sarah L. Byrne is a computational biologist in London. Her short speculative fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in various magazines and anthologies, including Silver Blade, Kzine and Ideomancer, and she also writes about real science. She can be found on the web at http://sarahbyrne.org