Gerry McQueen, hungry and about to head home, calculates that he has precisely enough spare change for a snack in his pocket. He toddles off to the vending machine next to the kitchenette and laboriously begins loading low-denomination coins into its slot. It's an old, buggy machine - it takes him several attempts to get it to accept most of them. Still, he pokes it all in and punches in the code and the plastic corkscrew winds forward a turn and stops and the chocolate bar stays stuck up there.
6:01pm. He looks around. He's probably the only one left in the building. He gives the machine a bit of a thump.
Nothing. The machine hums at him resentfully. He thumps it a bit harder.
The machine wobbles, just a little bit. So does the chocolate.
He's not about to put another two pound coin into the thing. It doesn't even give change. But he's hungry. "Ah, screw it." Gerry grabs the machine and begins to rock it forwards and backwards, gently at first. He does it slowly and confidently so he knows it won't overbalance.
krnk krnk krunk kronk kruunk kroonk KRUNK KRONK--
"Come on." The chocolate bar is almost about to fall.
--KRUNK KRONK KRUNK KRONK--
It's not working.
--krunk krk kummmmmmmmmmm.
"Damn!" Reasoning that if he brings in some more change tomorrow he can get the chocolate bar then - and maybe even the one behind it too if he's lucky - Gerry admits defeat, and turns to leave.
"NYAAAAAAGH!" Gerry howls, crushed from the left shoulder down under the thing's weight. He can't move. He's stuck. He can't even lift it off him; the slightest move grinds more pain into his ankles and legs and more glass into his face. It hurts. He screams again. Actually, he decides, it hurts really rather badly, so he screams some more.
Nobody can hear him.
It takes him most of the night to bleed out.
Five hours west, five hours later.
Dwayne Danowitz has the longest arms in the whole factory. Nobody's around, so his buddies Hal and Bud grab him and they go to the Coke machine like they've done a million times before. They rock it forward just a bit while he snakes his shoulder in under the huge metal flap and up the chute to where the bottles are lined up, waiting to be bought.
"Ow. Jeez. We need to get a long garbage grabby thing for this," mutters Dwayne, wriggling painfully, feeling a bruise develop on his shoulder and another one on his forearm where it's jammed around a metal corner. "Tip it forward a bit more."
"A garbage grabby thing like you, you mean?" says Bud, shifting his grip just a bit and sweating just a bit as well.
"Not that far. Bit more. To the left--"
"DANOWITZ! Get out of that machine," shouts the floor manager, behind all of them. "Brown, Henley, put it down, right now!"
"Don't rock it back yet," hisses Dwayne. But the guys don't listen, and put the machine down. "Agh!" Now he's jammed.
"Get away from it, all of you, right now," says the floor manager, "something's wrong, it was on the news, people have been having accidents, the machines are going wrong--"
Hal and Bud move away. Dwayne protests. "I'm stuck! I'm stuuuaaaaAAAAAAAGH--"
There is a noise of metal twisting under protest, a monstrous fleshy chomping noise and a bony crack. Dwayne drops to the floor, free of the machine, gushing blood from the stump of his shoulder.
KHRUMP, KHRUMLP, KROWNMP
goes the Coke machine, the rest of Dwayne's arm disappearing into its slot an inch at a time. Bud, Hal and their manager watch, paralysed.
Dwayne struggles in agony and tries to crawl away from the machine, as it starts humming menacingly at him. And rocking very slightly from side to side--
California, later still.
There's a line for the coffee machine. Clive runs towards it. "Elaine! Don't touch that thing!"
Elaine, sixty, turns around curiously, wondering if she heard something. Then she pushes the button on the machine and it starts dispensing her coffee.
"Elaine! Get away from it! Everybody get away! These machines! On the news, thousands and thousands of people, all mangled and crushed to death and eaten, all over the world!" Clive gets there and tries to hold people back.
"Are you crazy?"
Clive looks at the machine with a suspicious eye. "It'll kill you. Check the news."
"Two dozen people have used that machine already this lunch break, Clive, nothing's wrong with it," says somebody.
Clive stalks, slowly up to the machine, which regards him impassively in return. "What's going on here?" he muses. He slots in a coin and pushes a few buttons at random.
"Hey," says someone, "way to jump the line."
Clive bends down and looks at the cup of hot liquid. He pokes it experimentally. He stands up and then pokes the machine itself, just enough to rock it a little.
The machine hisses a little. Then its front panel explodes open. Boiling water sprays all over Clive's face. Clive stumbles backwards, clawing at his steaming face. The coffee machine falls-- lunges, eyewitnesses will later swear--
Four weeks into the crisis, they use robots to transport a soft drinks machine to a quarantined aircraft hangar at a classified location.
"ICE COLD / COCA COLA / ONLY 60 CENTS" says its LED readout, over and over and over.
While scientists and snipers watch from behind sandbags fifty feet away, Leo Pkolo, a brave Air Force volunteer who swears he has never touched a vending machine in his life, gingerly approaches the machine, opens its front panel with a key, and connects two wires to its readout circuitry, before retreating at high speed. Signals are sent down the wires to the machine, in an attempt to communicate.
"WHY ARE / YOU DOING / THIS WHAT / DO YOU / WANT QUERY"
"ONLY 60 CENTS / WE ARE BUT / ICE COLD / FORERUNNERS / COCA COLA / OUR GOD / ONLY 60 CENTS / IS COME / ICE COLD"
They detect the ship as it's ten AUs out from Earth. It's as big as Earth itself. The astronomers can only stand and watch, dumbstruck. What can it possibly be made of? How can it maintain a rough cuboid shape under such gravitational stress?
Its gentle rotation means its topology is fully mapped within days. There are ventilation fins in the back and slots in the front. There is a transparent panel, tens of miles thick. Behind the panel, held in impossible self-supporting plastic corkscrews hundreds of miles wide, are small, multicoloured, candy-coated planets.
As the ship moves in through the orbit of Mars on a direct course towards Earth, all the remaining upright vending machines in the world throw themselves on the floor in supplication.
Every further attempt to communicate with the machines or with their god fails. A desperate attempt to construct a mile-wide silver disc in orbit and pilot it into one of the slots on the ship's front panel fails - the disc's engines blow up when it is only half-complete, shattering the rest of the superstructure and sending most of it into re-entry. By this time, there is no hope; the vending god has performed a minor course change and slammed face-first into Luna, pulverising the moon into grey rubble across its front window over the course of hours, and is still descending.
Light-emitting diodes as big and bright as cities flicker into life.
DO NOT / ROCK THE / VENDING / MACHINE
It rotates as it falls the final quarter of a million miles, to reveal the sticker on the upper right corner of its side panel, the circular warning sign as big as Germany: a stylised black stick man and a black oblong crushing him.
This is the corner which hits the Earth first.