When I was a kid, just fresh out of school, I got a job at a local vending machine company. My job was to track down the non-compliant vending machines and retire them. I liked to call myself the Blade Runner, but my boss later told me that there was a corporate policy against giving yourself a bad-ass science fiction nickname.

Back then, things were rougher. The budgets were low; margins were down because of currency fluctuations or whatever. The result is, I didn’t have a partner. I hear you, modern vending machine mechanics - you’re in shock. How could anyone be so callous with their own life? Well, that’s just how it was done back then. Sit down and listen.

I was called out to an old military barracks that was now in peacetime an extremely low rent office complex. Slimy ambulance-chasing law firms, fly-by-night academic publishing scams and artisanal telemarketing operations were all under these roofs. But they had nothing to do with me. My job was to fix the facility operator’s harem of priceless Pepsi machines and secure that sweet, sweet margin for him evermore.

My first target was simple - a 1983 “Classic” Vendomatic. These babies would never lie to you. Straightforward, upright, and only occasionally containing an entire intact beehive, these machines were the bread and butter of my operations. Simple job. The coin mechanism’s slug rejector had gotten dirty, its counterweights seized against their throw. I was out of there so fast the machine’s door was still swinging closed as I left the room.

The rest of the day pretty much went as expected. I was beginning to get bored with the simple tasks held here; they were basic maintenance that anyone could do, rather than call in the specialized services of a tier-one operator such as myself. I checked my notebook again, and only one machine stayed outstanding.

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I arrived in a dark, dead-ended hallway, the only illumination coming from the vending machine at the end. Maybe it was my imagination, but I could feel the walls and ceiling closing in as I walked slowly to the end of the hallway and met the machine’s glance. It was one of those pseudosentient military machines, built back during the last Great War to anticipate dietary needs and adapt the mixture of soft drinks in real time to keep soldiers healthy.

Removing the front cover of the vending machine, I saw the “last serviced” sticker. It was George May, a legend in the vending machine repair business and my mentor. He had gone missing a decade previous, about the same time this sticker was placed. Could this have been the last machine he worked on? I shook the thought out of my head as I continued my meticulous failure analysis. Machines like this took a lot more study; their processing cores were so sophisticated and their mechanicals so hardened it was difficult to work a simple job on them. Trainees who leapt before they looked frequently ended up with brutal refrigerant burns, or long-term hallucinations from inadvertently scraping up against the battlefield-amphetamine injectors.

At long last, the cause of the symptoms presented themselves. Of course, it had to be the positronic motivator matrix. I reached out to touch it, and heard the voice of George May, clear as day, echoing down the hall. No. Had he done it?

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I cleaned the contacts and powered the machine back up. Sure enough, it responded in the voice of George May.

I want to tell you that I did something to rescue my trapped mentor. I want to tell you that I figured out who was occupying his human body after that fateful service call. I want to tell you that I did anything other than get back in my Astro panel van, drive all the way home and weep openly in the tub.

If you find this note, please remember: I made sure to submit my invoice and get reimbursed.