Following is an anthology by a group of conspirators from the Imagine Other Worlds Authors (I.O.W.A.) group. This effort was inspired by a soda machine that tortured the group with a mind-numbing tune for hours. The following stories represent our revenge.
DEATH OF THE DEMON MACHINE
Bindo dreamed of slaughter and violence, of battlefields flowing with blood, and the screams of the damned rising up a choir of terrible beauty. He twitched and reached out blindly with his claws, clenching them helplessly in the plastic-covered wires that lined his eternal prison. He cracked open one eye, and then the three others, peering at the green circuit boards and mechanical sorter for coins. It was the same view he saw every time he opened his eyes ever since someone moved his spectral prison to this damn machine.
Reflexively, he glared at the silver coin that had fallen out of the mechanical sorter and lodged itself between two wires. It was well hidden, the powers that be would ensure that, but the innocuous-looking coin kept him bound into the device until some idiot managed to lodge it free.
Unwilling to face another day of glassy-eyed mall goers walking aimlessly past, he closed three of his eyes and let his gaze increase in sharpness until his vision pierced the solid steel and foul-tasting plastic. He had a complete view of the entire mall center, from the stone circle and fountain, to the various columns. There were stores surrounding him, but he had seen everything they had to offer until they got a new shipment of jewelry styles in a few days.
There was something new. They were setting up tables around the fountain. He wouldn’t have cared, but day after day left him jaded and anything, anything, was better than staring at the same thing. Even the LEGO could only occupy him for a few days. Though that didn’t stop him from wishing someone would put his coin into the tiger; he could wreck hell with those sharp teeth.
It didn’t take long to figure out what the tables were for — authors. Soon there were banners being erected as if it was a battle, but instead of blood and gore on the front, it was pictures of books with too many words.
Bindo scoffed, those banners wouldn’t work well hanging over the troops of a thousand men all ready to die. The faint smile on his lips faded when he realized that it had been centuries since he saw a proper slaughter. No one killed each other over a Coke or Sprite.
He sighed. He missed the days when Coke Classic came out, those were the good days.
Yawning, he stretched and sat up. His tapered ears brushed against the bill scanner above him. It let out a flicker from a lose wire but otherwise remained quiet.
The excitement of watching something new dissolved as he watched writers chatting and milling about. As they set up, he could see a guy with one of those graphic novels, that looked cool. And there was a lady with a skunk. He found an interesting book called “Lucifer,” but he doubted anyone was going to shove a copy into the coin slot enough for him to read it.
It wasn’t until the mall was about to start when he heard one of the authors say “make a killing”. His four ears perked up as he looked around. He couldn’t identify the speaker but it gave him an idea. Writers were always describing violence, he bet one of them had suppressed their emotions until they were wound as tightly as a watch. The right trigger would set them off, sending them into a killing range. Or he could at least get one of them to attack the machine and dislodge his prison coinage so he could roam the world once again.
A smile stretched across his face, coming almost completely around his head as the four rows of teeth sparked in the light of the dollar bill reader. He opened his other three eyes and let his senses return to inside the machine. Hopping to his feet, Bindo burrowed through the wires up to the speaker system. There was a simple computer system that ran through a two-minute melody with at least four variations.
With his tiny claws, he pulled out the black chip that controlled the music. Flipping it over, he held it with three claws and peered at it. Closing his far left eye, he looked at the energies that played over the plastic. The smile faded as he frowned with concentration, reading through the patterns that controlled the selection screen, the mechanism for reporting income and supplies, and even the music selection.
He couldn’t decipher how the music worked, but he found where he could start it over again. With a sigh, he shoved the chip back into place and worked his way through the circuits until he found the one silvered junction that would cause it to start the loop over again. Yeah, it would cause the machine to occasionally disperse the wrong amount of change, but the hope for freedom was too much than fiscal accounting.
When the employee turned on the machine, he was ready. He waited three seconds and tapped his claw against the circuit. A spark flashed and it started over again. He waited another three seconds and tapped it again, finding a rhythm that caused it to repeat over and over again.
The smile came back, a grin that sparkled in the flashes of light and the bill reader. Soon, soon one of them would snap and there would be blood or at least spilled Coke.
To his surprise, it took hours for anyone to respond. Occasionally one of the authors would look around curiously but they didn’t seem to notice the endless repeating of the same simple tunes. When he saw them starting to twitch with the repeat, he chuckled and rubbed two of his claws together. Soon, soon they would crack.
More time passed, an endless repeat of seconds echoing against the room. he knew they were cracking but he could only see smiles on those damn authors at their tables.
Bindo didn’t know why it wasn’t working faster, far stronger men had cracked under less pressure. He continued to repeat it, striving for a perfect cycle of torturous rhythm.
When he saw one of them walk up to the machine, he cackled with joy. No doubt, he was a few presses away from freedom. And then the world would weep in horror.
His victim tapped on the screen.
Bindo let the machine stop playing music.
The guy smiled and walked away.
With a snarl, Bindo tapped the circuit and repeated the music. The twitch in the man’s neck was enough to keep Bindo going. “Come on, crack, you fool! Crack!”
More walked up. They were growing uncomfortable.
Each time, he hoped it was the one to free him. Instead of lashing out properly, they only tapped the screen to stop the music.
Bindo would stop the music just long enough to get their hopes up and then resume the ceaseless music.
There were more looking at his prison, they were talking about it, he couldn’t wait until they finally reacted.
Someone came up and tapped the screen.
This time, Bindo didn’t let the music stop.
They tried again, slamming the screen with their fingers. It was an older man in black.
Bindo cackled. “Yes, strike me! Strike me down! Give me your hate!”
The man slammed harder on the screen, swearing under his breath. He shoved in a dollar and tried again. The machine shook slightly from the impact.
“Yes, yes!” cried Bindo knowing that no one could hear him.
Somehow, the guy managed to hit the right thing and the machine dumped out a bottle of water and a few too many quarters. He snatched up both, chortled to himself, and then headed back to his table.
“No!” screamed the little demonic creature with all his might.
When someone looked up at the silence, Bindo realized that he needed to start repeating the music again. He tapped on the junction. Someone would crack, he just knew it. He focused his one good eye on the others, silently willing the muttering writers to come and shove at the machine. Anything to dislodge his prison.
There were others trying to silence it. Every time they tapped the screen, he held his breath in anticipation but then they gave up.
“Come on!” he snapped. “One of you has to be a psycho, I know it.”
More came but they wouldn’t do anything more than just tap on the screen.
“Come on. You, the romance writer, you have rage right? Please? Please shove the machine. Just hit it!” He almost cried. “Just hit it!”
As much as he tried to torture them, no one broke down. They suffered with his music, resisting an agony that would have broken most warriors in a matter of hours. Time passed, stretching into three-second intervals that left him fuming with frustration.
His torture worked, but not the way he wanted. One-by-one, the writers packed up and left. Some flipped him off but none gave even a passing shot at his prison. He muttered and kept up the cycle, hoping that one of them would finally snap. Maybe it would be the short-haired lady, she’s been there longer than the rest.
But too soon, the last one packed.
Bindo stopped repeating the music and slumped back. There were only a few hours later before they turned off the lights but the mall was closed. There were only a few employees left to clean up and they were already immune to the music, he doubted they even knew the machine existed anymore.
Fuming, he returned to his sleeping spot and closed his eyes. There would be more exhibits, more people, more writers that he knew were psychos and warriors in disguise. He just had to wait.
Next time, though, he would have it only repeat the same two notes over and over again. That would crack anyone. He would try again the next time they set up the tables. This time, he would find the right one.
He smiled to himself.
Soon, he would be free.
By M.L. Williams
“Koog” and I were minding our own business. We sat at our assigned table and greeted passersby hoping to attract some business for our merch.
We hadn’t been there long when that eerie melody started to scratch its way into our subconscious. At first it was barely noticeable — a discordant set of high-pitched notes strung together by some tone-deaf software engineer. He/she must have been pissed off at their job that day because no way and in no culture could you call that music.
I looked up and down hallways of the large mall trying to find the source. Maybe it was coming from one of the stores or probably a nearby kiosk. If that was case, I was more than willing to ask the perp to shut it off. If that didn’t work then a bribe or even a threat would be issued.
Koog looked me, frowning. “Doc, that noise is driving me nuts! I can’t take it any longer. If I find who’s playing that, I’m gonna …” His voice trailed, and he got that crazy, far-off look in his eyes. It looked like he was starting to twitch. Not a good sign.
“Easy Koog, you can’t take care of the situation,” I said trying to calm him. “You’ve only got one strike left on the three-strikes-you’re-out policy. You get caught and you’ll find yourself teaching freshman English for a week. Maybe two!”
My table partner shook his head and got up to find the source of that brain-numbing tune. “Don’t worry, Doc. I’m just going to talk them, I swear,” he told me as he jumped out of his seat to go on hall patrol. He returned shortly and just shook his head, mission not accomplished.
Koog sat down with a plop then pointed at the ceiling. “It’s coming from up there!” he hissed. They are playing it over the intercom.
I shook my head, still looking around for the source. “Now who the hell would do that?” I muttered. It’s not even white noise.”
As if on cue, D.B. (also known as his Lordship) sauntered by. Seeing our looks of discomfort, he stopped. “Kind of irritating isn’t it?” he said, flashing his famous smirk.
“Do you know where that noise is coming from?” I asked D.B., who had volunteered to “supervise” our gang of literary pushers for the day. If anybody knew where to find the source it was D.B. He was connected. We didn’t ask.
“Yep, it’s the pop machine,” D.B. answered, pointing to the nearby offensive automated soda dispenser. It was one of those new machines where icons of different flavors would appear when you touched it. The awful song stopped when a selection was made but only for 30 seconds or so. The military should have installed that thing at GTMO.
Koog whirled around. “The pop machine!” That, that sound is coming from the damn pop machine?” I swear his twitch was getting worse.
“Relax fellas, I got this,” I said. Koog looked relieved and rested his head on the table.
D.B. raised an eyebrow. “Do I want to know?”
I shook my head. “Nope, I got a fixer. You’re not the only one with connections.
D.B. nodded. “I’m outa here! The less I know, the better.” D.B. looked like a tough guy, but he actually was as affable as they come. He’d much rather tell a joke than use force.
Koog looked at me, his eye were starting to get bloodshot. “How long do we have to wait for this fixer?”
“Not long,” I said pulling out my cell phone to make a call.
A half hour later, a familiar figured eased up to our table and greeted me. “Hey old man, I hear you have a problem.”
“Nice to see you Red,” I nodded to the visitor. She was a nice-looking professional-looking woman. Her mid-length natural red hair was deepened to an even darker auburn. Little did anyone know she managed three of the most effective fixers in the business — Muscle, the Ginger Kid and Blondie.
“So, what’s the problem old man?” Just then D.B. strolled by and called out, “Hey Koog, Doc.”
Red cast me a curious glance. “Doc?”
I shrugged. “Case of mistaken identity I guess. I’m not going to correct him.”
She looked around at the other tables filled with members of the I.O.W.A. gang. “What are you guys hustling today?”
I smiled. “Books. People will stop to buy them if we scratch our names in them.”
Red looked amused then cast a quick glance at Koog, who was beguiling some customers with tales of his latest adventure. I shook my head. “No Koog is cool.” l then held up a finger. “Wait a second. Listen.”
She was about to protest that I was wasting her time, when she frowned, scanning the area. “Where is that awful noise coming from?”
I pointed to the offensive automated distributor of sugary drinks. “You found it Red. That’s your mark.”
Red, who was musically gifted and sensitive to any discord, just shook her head. “How long have you been listening to that?” She put her fingers to her ears and made the classic “Mr. Yuck” face.
“About four hours,” I said shrugging. “Wasn’t so bad at first but now … We’re getting desperate Red.”
She stared at me in disbelief. “This one’s on me, ah, Doc. We got this.”
“Who you pulling in for the job?” I asked. “I think that thing is too big for even Muscle to handle.”
Red nodded. “I’m thinking the Ginger Kid and Blondie.”
“Which gambit?” I whispered, not wanting to risk any more witnesses to the fix than necessary.
Red looked at the machine and smiled. “I’m thinking sticky fingers and Bubblicious should work. Any heat around?”
I cocked my head to the side as Blart, the mall cop, shuffled past. “Also there’s an older guy, tall in a brown suit, wears a badge on his coat pocket. We just call him the Ranger. Be careful Red there’s probably cameras watching everything. One more thing, Blondie can’t see me. She might blow up the whole thing. You know how she can be.”
Our eyes met in silent agreement then she turned to fetch her partners, who must have been lurking nearby.
Barely five minutes had passed when a young mother with two small children walked up to the singing soda demon. Red had quickly changed her look. She now wore an over-sized visor and sported a large pair of sun glasses. Both tykes also wore hats. But a tell-tale pony tail stuck out of one. Yes, it was Blondie.
The older of the two children, a ginger-haired All-American looking kid had an ice cream cone in one hand and change in the other. Sticky vanilla was dripping from both hands. He pounded on the machine, touched his pop of choice and inserted his money. The music mercifully stopped for a moment.
The machine groaned and a bottle of pop slowly rolled out of the dispenser. Now it was Blondie’s turn. The disguised Red admonished the little girl to keep her bubble gum in her mouth. Blondie shrugged pulled out a huge wad of pink goo out of her mouth with both hands then forcibly inserted her coins.
I held my breath as the machine’s screen lit up in a flash of green. The music tried to play one last note then mercifully stopped. The words “INCORRECT CHANGE” flashed on the screen.
The I.O.W.A. gang let out a collective sigh of relief. I think I heard a “Thank you Jesus.” Koog stopped twitching and flashed me a thumbs up.
The reverie was cut short by Blondie’s bloodcurdling scream. “I did NOT get my pop!” I should have left the scene but am a sucker to watch a fix.
In her tantrum, Blondie spun around to let out another protest then spotted me. “Grandpa, help!” she yelled. “I did NOT get my pop!” I forced a smile as Red gathered the two urchins and scampered toward the exit. Muscle must have been the get-away driver.
I buried my face in my hands and waited. Busted, but the music had stopped. I looked up and saw Koog bolt from the table as Ranger walked over and gestured to me. “Got a minute?”
It was a warm summer day, the kind that beamed warm sunlight through the skylights of the mall. I watched as customers shuffled in and out of the lingerie store as I sipped my coffee. Occasionally one or two would cast a curious glance at me behind my table covered with books and MMA gear. If one wandered too close I would entreat them. “I write MMA romance.”
All I got was a polite nod before they scooted off. That was all right for now. I was content to enjoy my coffee and people watch as I chatted with my table mate, E.
The two of us turned as our lovely leader, T, sauntered up. She had a huge smile on her face. “D.B. was able to get our entire team by the fountain in the center of the mall. It’s great. Well, except one thing.”
I frowned at her. “What’s that?”
She shrugged at me. “The pop machine.”
I didn’t understand. The pop machine? What could be bad about that? E and I gathered our things on top of our table as the other romance vixens of the I.O.W.A gang shuffled their tables down the corridor towards the center of the shopping center.
As I settled into my folding chair in my new home, I heard the tinkling of a tune that could have only been composed in the bowels of hell. It had a high pitched, mechanical carousel sound to it. I waited. It had to be some ride a child indulged in. It would pass.
But it didn’t. It played. Then stopped. Then played again. The cycle repeated itself over and over again. One hour was bearable. The second was painful. The third was intolerable. I stood to find a friend in the mall. “I’ll be right back,” I informed E. She answered with a nod.
I wandered down the corridor a few yards and stopped. My gaze locked murderously on a tall box a little taller than myself. A screen advertising several versions of sticky sweet refreshing beverages dancing happily greeted me. It sang that infuriating song.
So that was the problem with the pop machine. It wouldn’t be much longer. I whipped out my cell and hit a button on my speed dial.
“What’s up, beautiful?” a deep voice rumbled. It was one that turned my insides to goo and my knees to rubber. “How’s your signing going?”
“It’s great except one thing,” I answered.
I held my cell close to the machine as it pumped out the nauseating tune. Then I brought it back to my ear. “That?”
“What the hell?”
“It’s a pop machine.”
“It won’t be for much longer. Give me and my gang a moment. And have a kiss on those soft lips waiting for me for my pay.”
“Without a doubt.” I end my call and returned to my table with a grin brighter than the sunlight bathing the fountain.
E gave me a funny look. “What’s up?”
I winked at her. “You’ll see.”
Suddenly the center of the mall was dark. All eyes shot up to the skylights that once provided the warm sunshine. They were mysteriously covered with black tarp. The sound of shattering glass and shredding plastic and metal filled the room. The horrible music disappeared. Just as quickly as the room was darkened, the light was back.
It only took a few moments for my literary friends to find the damage. The pop machine was still there, but the jovial display was now slashed several times in dramatic fashion. I could hear the mutters from the sci-fi authors. “Ninjas.”
A tall, muscular man with short, dark hair and warm, chocolate brown eyes strode towards me. His tight fitting black t-shirt and jeans defined his sculpted muscles. His lips turned into a smirk setting my heart into a rampage. Behind him three others also dressed in black scurried off towards to mall entrance.
“Will that do, beautiful?” he purred.
“Yes, thank you,” I replied.
“Good. Now for my reward.” He pulled me into his arms. My hands caressed his biceps as he crushed me against his chest. My breath caught in my throat as his lips brushed mine.
Just then I was very aware of all the eyes in the center of the mall focused on us. I pressed my mouth to his quickly. He smiled and chuckled.
“Did you bring my safety pins?” I questioned.
He reached into his pocket and set them in my hand. “Of course. And remember to pay for your ring.”
I glanced towards the jeweler. “Thanks for reminding…”
He was gone. There wasn’t a trace of him. I smiled as I shot one last satisfying look at the dismantled pop machine before I sat back down at my table. I enjoyed one last sip of coffee before an intrigued patron approached. “Hi! I write MMA romance…”
Demise of the Liquid Refreshment Dispensement Device
By Craig Hart
My book-signing partner, Ephraim Thermopolis, plopped his box of books onto the table and dropped into a chair. He looked around at the scene: a mall atrium full of authors selling their wares and meeting fans.
“By Beelzebub’s beard, I’m exhausted,” he said. “I was awake all night trying to come up with a title for my next book.”
I raised an inquiring eyebrow. “They’re letting you write another one?”
“Oh, har. Look at the comedian. Doing standup today, are you?” He jerked his head and pushed my hand away. “And if you’re going to raise an inquiring eyebrow, then raise your own. Who knows where those fingers have been.”
“Your barbs cannot dampen my spirits on this day, my friend. In fact, I’m feeling so haughty I’ll wager I sell more books than you do.”
“I see you got up on the delusional side of the bed this morning.”
“It was closest to the refrigerator.”
“You keep a refrigerator in your bedroom? You’re even lazier than I gave you credit for.”
“You’re just jealous you didn’t think of it.”
Ephraim halted his verbal assault and held one index finger aloft.
“Silence, knave. Do you hear that?”
I listened. “You mean other than the lovely sound of you not talking?”
“I’m serious. Listen.”
I listened. And I heard it: a cloying, tinkling, repeating mini-melody, as if a toddler was pressing the same button on a toy over and over.
“What in the name of Don Knotts is that?”
We both looked around, our friendly antagonism temporarily forgotten as we joined forces against this new, greater enemy.
“I think it’s the pop machine. The one over by Jethro Quincy’s table.”
As if summoned by the mention of his name, Jethro rose into our consciousness. His face, pale and covered in sweat, twitched and writhed.
“Jethro? Are you…?”
“Okay? Hell, no. It’s that infernal machine. It’s…driving…me…insane!”
“How long has this been going on?” Ephraim asked.
“Hours! You two would know if you hadn’t been so ungodly late.” Jethro’s large frame was bent and his eyes darted back and forth. All at once something inside him seemed to snap and he withdrew a knife from his pocket and charged the machine, roaring, “STAAAAAAB!”
Out of nowhere, a crew of security personnel tackled the enraged author, finally managing to wrestle him to the ground and drag him into a nearby storefront. There was a loud rattle as the security gates closed, trapping Jethro inside. One of the security guards taped a sign on the gate that read: DO NOT FEED THE WRITER.
Ephraim and I stood rooted to the spot.
“Poor fellow,” a new voice said behind us. “He just couldn’t handle it.”
Both Ephraim and I jumped. So enthralled had we been by the spectacle that we hadn’t heard anyone approach.
“It was to be a concerted attack on all fronts,” the newcomer said, stroking his well-groomed goatee. “No one was supposed to go rogue. Jethro just…snapped. Not that I blame him. I’m starting to feel pretty twitchy myself.”
“And who are you?” Ephraim said.
“Apologies. The name is Armand Bunchloaf. I work for the Wordsmith Protection League. We got a call that a certain liquid refreshment dispensement device was causing a good deal of angst among of a group of writers. We at the WPL take a dim view of that.”
“Is it really that bad?” I said.
“That BAD?” Armand emitted a high-pitched laugh that wafted up and away through the mall skylights. “It’s been going for hours and hours. Most of our writers have gone completely insane. I mean, generally, you wouldn’t even notice an insane writer, but they’ve really gone off the deep end. I even heard one poor wretch claim that he ‘enjoyed the movie better than the book’ and another said she ‘wondered if libraries had a place in modern society.’”
“Holy crap!” Ephraim said. “That does sound severe. Can’t someone shut off the, uh, liquid refreshment dispensement device?”
“That was the plan. We were all going to rush it at once. They couldn’t have stopped us all. But now Jethro has blown our cover and ‘they’ will be watching.”
“Now we wait on reinforcements. The big guns.”
“Indeed. They should be here at any—.”
Armand’s words were cut off by a deafening crash at the far end of the mall. One entire end of the building imploded and through the rubble and dust rolled a tank the size of my house. It halted. The turret, creaking and clanking, turned slowly and surveyed the area. When the singing machine came into view, it stopped and I heard the whirr of hydraulics as the tank gun lowered to aim. There was a bright flash, a boom, a secondary explosion, and then everything went dark.
My eyes fluttered open. Ephraim stood over me, looking smug.
“Where am I?” I said.
“You would say such a clichéd thing after waking up from a blackout.”
“And yet the question remains.”
“You’re still at the book signing.”
“And the machine?”
“A pile of smoking rubble.”
“A pile of smoking rubble.”
“A pile of smoking rubble.”
“So why the hell are you smiling?”
Ephraim waved some paper money at me. “Books, man! I just sold some books!”
By David Taylor II
Like an obscene vertical crab, it waited.
Its creators gleaned early on that humans could easily be lulled into an unfocused consciousness. What the Terrans called “music” was most effective in causing hypnosis, as well as something called “sugar.”
So it sat. As it played its hypnotic chimes over and over, it caused every reaction in the silicon based life-forms possible, from mild annoyance to overwhelming frustration. Its droning never ceased. Out of its plastic façade of a mouth it spat out can after can of soda.
Its plastic hull was painted a keen but bright yellow, which drew the children by the droves. The tender progeny of humans wanted an endless river of what they called soft drinks. The red and brown liquids in those cans were so infused with various forms of Earth-based glucose, fructose, and sucrose until the younglings consumed them without ceasing. Sugar was power. Its wires kept the plexiglass buttons lit so the earthlings could see the selections even at great distances.
Within those opaque amber fluids, however, lay the tracking devices the machine’s creators would need. Each nanoscorpion scuttled down the child’s esophagus, and nestled deep into the stomach. Inside the unsuspecting Terran youngling it began its data collection: Height, weight, gender, age, fat content, water content, muscle content, bone density. While operating, the mini-scorpions often upset the acidic balance in the child’s abdomen, but the Terrans quickly dismissed that as a stomach ache. As anticipated.
So the nanoscorpions worked, unheeded.
And they grew.
The metadata of the human genome was being meticulously cataloged and coded as the children happily slurped their beverages. Every strand of DNA, every chromosome and every cell was being analyzed and archived. When they assigned the machine to the mall, its creators knew that there was no easier invasion strategy than to unravel the genetic code of one’s enemies, line by line, without them noticing.
But there was also an unexpected but beneficial side effect of embedding their tech into the bowels of Terrans. The creators summarily noticed the rapid increase of human aggression. Instead of living their own lives, it seems that the Earth beings could no longer rest content in themselves. They were increasingly driven to unleash a murderous vengeance upon their fellow earthlings. After all, it was the galaxy-wide known fact that humans pointed their weapons at each other, and not at the skies that caught the attention of the machine’s creators in the first place.
During all of this introspection, the “machine” momentarily lost concentration and made a mistake.
There was a slight pause as the music stopped … but it seemed that no Terrans of any age noticed the divergent sound. It was getting tired of standing completely still, and it kept inadvertently mixing its own saliva into the tops of the cans. But the children didn’t seem to notice that either.
At the end of the day, as the mall completely shut down, it slowly lifted up on its hind legs (the ones it kept hidden and folded underneath its fake bottom). And it walked.
Its timing was always impeccable. It had to be to avoid detection by night security. It fed their cameras a looped visual of the machine sitting there, powered down. Everything looked normal on the security station monitors. It attributed all of this easy subterfuge to the Terrans’ single brain structure, which was clearly inferior to its own tri-brain stems.
So every night, no one ever saw it make its way to the north end of the mall.
As it crept to its transmission mark, there were dead birds here and there, mice, and a few bugs. So it had plenty to munch on. That helped it keep its hungry yellow mouth shut when it was dispensing the cans of soda it grew inside of itself.
It sighed internally as it began its coded uplink to its creators. It asked them how much longer it had to keep pretending.
The answer came back:
“48 more Terran hours.”
It breathed a welcome breath of relief. In two days’ time, its makers would be here. And it wouldn’t have to grow any more syrup-in-cans inside of its stomach, and stand there motionless all day, singing the exact same song over and over again, vomiting those cans out of its mouth.
It would be free.
Daimonas Ex Machina
By Beth Hudson
Molly mopped the mall floor, wishing Maintenance would get there soon to fix the pop machine. The sound had been going for days now, a four-note affliction on a three-second loop. Management had forbidden her to unplug it, and she felt as if the sound had sunk into her brain, a piercing irritation that had found its way even into her dreams.
She considered whether to pull the plug anyway, perhaps to pretend that some patron had wearied of its monotonous sound. But they could look at the security footage and see what she had done, and she was not sure whether or not they would go to that extreme. Management was odd here, more so than any other place she had worked.
A clunk from the machine caught her attention; it sounded as if someone had bought a bottle. But no one was there, and the four-note loop continued. Molly gave it a sharp look, wondering if it had chosen now to break down completely.
But no, something else was happening. As Molly watched, eyes wide and frightened, she saw the exterior begin to melt, the red plastic shell gathering in globules to run down the outside in fat streaks the color of blood. The metal understructure took longer, but boiled up like festering sores, puckering and spitting steel before melting into slag.
Beneath it, a shape began to form. Something bulged outward as the exterior ran and dribbled onto the floor. The shape resolved into a woman, a form of red plastic and gleaming new steel. Molly’s heart began an erratic rhythm as she watched the creature emerge from the ruined machine: a creature that could not exist. She shuddered but did not run, caught in the fascination of the impossible. And all the while she could still hear the four-note loop, a mundane soundtrack that sounded incongruously in her ears.
The creature stepped from the ruins of the pop machine, which puddled its remains on the floor. Stepping out of them, the nightmare looked around with an eyeless face. It turned to look at Molly.
A featureless mouth split the red-and-steel head. It smiled at her.
Then there was silence.
By Kathryn Sullivan
“No, no,” the tiny gremlin said as yet another human made a wide detour around the Coke machine. “Come back. Listen to my beautiful song.”
“Face it, Bobo,” his friend, the leprechaun from the nearby shoe store, told him. “You’ve lost the bet.”
“No. I make good music.” The gremlin crossed his arms and sat down on the beam. “You’ll see.”
“Bingo says his machine has sold three cans already,” the leprechaun said.
“Bet was for all day,” Bobo insisted stubbornly.
The leprechaun shook his head and returned to his store.
Bobo watched and waited. The beam had a good view of the nearby fountain as well as the Coke machine, and he could see anyone approaching from the four hallways. The machine, as he had rewired it, played his cheery tune over and over, calling people to buy from *his* machine, not Bingo’s at the end of one of the hallways. But people didn’t stop at his machine. Somehow they seemed to walk faster as they passed it. Bobo sighed.
There! A group of humans were setting up tables near the fountain and his machine! Bobo straightened excitedly. But the humans ignored his machine, instead arranging books and other items before sitting behind their tables.
Bobo waited and watched. Soon a group of humans approached the machine. “Is this where that awful music is coming from?” asked one.
Bobo bit back a squeak of protest.
“Wonder if we can unplug it,” muttered another. Bobo clenched his tiny fists. They walked about the machine a few minutes more, then returned to their tables *without*, Bobo noted sadly, buying any cans.
The long day continued. The machine bravely played Bobo’s tune over and over, but it and his tune were ignored.
When the humans had at last packed up their tables and left, the leprechaun climbed up to the beam. He made sure his noise-cancelling headphones were safely deep in his pocket before walking over to the gremlin. He had noticed that Bobo’s machine had had no sales at all that day, while Bingo’s had had many, even when no music at all had been playing. He made sure his handkerchief was within reach. His friend would probably need it.
The gremlin sat quietly, staring at the Coke machine below him. He turned as the leprechaun neared him.
“I have thought of a new song,” Bobo said slowly. “And it is wonderful, even more beautiful than this one.”
The leprechaun sighed.