“*****no change*****.” The automat whirred, chugged and released the can, which thunked into the tray.
Clyde stooped. The serratus posterior inferior muscle on the right-hand side of his back twitched. His blue tie swung away from his chest as he pushed his arm through the hard plastic flap.
The can was warmer than the ambient temperature in the corridor. Clyde rose and held it up to the ceiling lamps, squinted as he rotated it. Scratches and dents marred the red metal, dull in the jaundiced light. Clyde took his magnifying glass from the inside pocket of his grey suit jacket and scanned it across the can. The metal swelled and subsided in the lens. The sell-by date bulged into focus. Clyde sighed through his nose and put the can on top of the vending machine.
The automat’s oblong LCD display blinked. Calculator letters scrolled across it in electric red. “*****no change*****use exact amount*****.”
Clyde took his clipboard from the top of the machine and flipped through pastel-coloured forms.
“Can exhibits damage,” he wrote under the Merchandising section. “Goods out of date.”
“*****snacks and drinks*****,” the machine’s display blinked and scrolled. “*****sandwiches and pastries*****.”
“Display text incorrectly advertises availability of bakery goods.”
The automat’s refrigeration deck spattered a miasma of insectoid pops and chirps on the corridor’s woollen silence.
Clyde opened the can, took a thermometer from his inside pocket and dipped it into the drink. He counted. The automat stridulated, its discordant chirrups sang high and hysterical. At thirty he withdrew the thermometer and rapped it against the can’s rim. The machine purred, a long murmur that ended in a clang. He raised the thermometer to the light, wiped it, put it back in his pocket and reached for the clipboard.
“Sample temperature: 22 degrees. Potential for consumer dissatisfaction: high.”
Clyde flipped the paper on the clipboard to a sheet of stickers, each stamped with LZYD-22.214.171.124.20, his employee number. The stickers were arranged in three vertical columns: green ones labelled “Passed”, yellow ones labelled “Service”. Clyde wrote the date on a red one. He added the machine’s audit code: XIZI-BWFZ-PVGP-STBL-FONF.
The machine’s display was blank.
Clyde sighed through his nose. Of the hundreds of automats he had surveyed in the hotel, of the hundreds more to come, this one, an obsolete Maruman Kraken Vend from the long-defunct Lobo Corp, was way below average, yet not quite inadequate enough to prove memorable. In the months ahead he would forget its frail refrigeration deck, shoddy merchandising and inept communication as he encountered automats that distinguished themselves through superiority or truly broken woefulness.
“*****sandwiches****refreshing ice cold drinks*****,” the Maruman said, unable to fulfil either promise.
Clyde patted the sticker onto its faux wood side panel, let his hand linger. It wasn’t the Maruman’s fault no one made parts for it anymore. With care it might have survived another three, maybe even five, years.
He took his hand from the red “Failed” sticker.
“*****change given*****,” the Maruman said, utterly unfit for purpose.
Clyde placed the clipboard in his briefcase, took the can from the top of the machine and walked on down the corridor. No light or sound leaked from the doors he passed. It was the hotel’s off-season, and the vast complex was all but deserted. Thousands of rooms lay empty and dark. There was supposed to be a skeleton crew of staff on hand, but Clyde had seen no employees in the months since the audit began.
The next automat he had to survey on this floor was an AetherHeX Zeus Magnet, a model that had pioneered a suite of innovative retail solutions. Its viewer analytics could identify individuals and merchandise according to purchase history. Its engaging chatbot functionality farmed consumer data and shared it wirelessly with all other Zeus Magnets. Its refrigeration deck, sober and silent, never wavered from faithful adherence to the optimum.
Clyde’s serratus inferior posterior had cantered when he saw Zeus Magnets listed on the project brief: he had never encountered one in the wild before. AetherHeX had withdrawn the model years ago because of explosive flaws in the humidity modulator. But this hotel had failed to replace its fleet. The machines had probably been forgotten amid the sheer vastness of the hotel and the depthless ineptitude of its maintenance staff.
He took shallow sips of the lukewarm drink as he stepped into the floor’s lift lobby. Its lights were brighter than those in the corridors, and the floral scent that rode the air con in the East wing was strongest here: a verdant hothouse that dripped with ghost orchids. The lift lobby’s automat was an Emperor Chomp, but part of the reliable DruidPlus series. It scored average to high on most evaluated categories and offered a good, if somewhat pedestrian, selection of bakery products.
Clyde sat on a bench beside a slender potted ficus whose small emerald leaves shone with botanic vigour. He took a heavy tome from his briefcase. The Emperor Chomp’s motion sensors woke it and the automat began to whirr.
Clyde leafed through the book of membrane-thin pages till he found the map of the East Wing’s fifty-fourth floor. The automats on this level were marked in red. He span the map as he orientated himself on it. Here was the lift lobby. Here was the recently condemned Maruman Kraken. He put a cross through it. The Zeus Magnet was second corridor on the left, third corridor on the left, then second right. Clyde put the book in his briefcase and rose.
“Thank you for visiting,” the Emperor Chomp chimed.
“You’re welcome,” Clyde stepped from the lobby into the dim hallway, its lights set to energy-saving mode because there were no guests on the floor.
He strolled passed mute doorways, counted off the corridors: one then left, two then left. Clyde anticipated the sapphire glow from the Zeus Magnet’s high-definition touchscreen casing, but even before he turned the corner he knew something was wrong. An electric moan keened down the passage. Lights strobed in a jittery moth-like tremor and cast manic shadows on the wall.
Clyde stopped a few metres from the automat. Broken glass glittered on the floor. He took a step towards the Zeus Magnet. Its contents were spattered on the carpet. Its metal innards were mangled and warped. Its inner light spasmed.
Clyde peered into it. Damaged packets and cans hung from its dispensation arms like charms in a haunted wood. The machine’s voice synthesiser repeatedly emitted a mangled vowel.
Punctured cans fizzed and foamed into the sodden carpet, which squelched when Clyde shifted his weight. Glyphs and garbled strands of code shivered along the edges of the ragged hole in the touchscreen casing of the cabinet door, which swung wildly as the automated locking system tried to close it.
“B-8L1R4L5R19L,” the machine interrupted its vowel loop. It spoke in a male voice with an Australian accent. “B-8L1R4L5R19L.”
Clyde wrote the code in his notepad. As the machine repeated the numbers he tapped his pen against each digit to make sure he had it right.
“B-8L1R4L5R19L,” the machine’s voice strained, cracked. Something clicked. The Zeus Magnet emitted a stuttered moan, an incoherent dirge that squelched with acidic interference.
Another click, loud enough to punch an echo at the end of the corridor. Clyde stepped back, shielded his chest with the briefcase. The Zeus Magnet’s light fluttered, strained harder, shone brighter then, with a bone-crack pop, went out.
“It’s Clyde. I brought you a sandwich.”
A pool of sulphur light seeped through the gap between Rudolfo’s door and the carpet.
“I brought two,” Clyde said. “I wasn’t sure what you wanted, so I got ham and mustard, and a BLT. You choose what you want and I’ll have the other.”
The corridor was silent and dim.
“If you don’t answer then I’ll default to ham,” he put his briefcase on the floor, pressed his back to the door and slid down. His serratus inferior flexed.
“I need you to sign off my recommendations,” Clyde peeled the wrapping off the sandwich. He opened his briefcase and took out his notepad. “I think LeafTorrent and Super Lupine will gain share in impulse. Zen Cannon and PlankMouth’s Colossus fleet will continue to dominate premium. The sector has high barriers to entry so the incumbents have a significant advantage. Neither is keen to sacrifice margins for share.”
He pressed his ear to the door. Indistinct chatter. A percussive skitter. Someone howled.
Clyde cleared his throat. “We should recommend replacements for all Pumpel Vends: they have no competitive own-label offer, so they’ll face difficult headwinds as competition for value inter-meal dining occasions intensifies.”
He bit the sandwich and sniffed when the mustard singed his nose. The door rattled faintly against his back. He pressed his ear hard against it.
“Rudolfo? Can I come in?”
Chatter. An orchestral stab. Applause.
Clyde put his sandwich back in its package and took out his map book and notepad.
“I found a Zeus Magnet. It was, um.” He cleared his throat and took out his notebook. “It gave me an error code. B-8L1R4L5R19L. Sound familiar?”
Clyde made a copy of the code, tore the page out of the pad and slipped it under the door. He flipped through the map book. There was a Zeus Magnet on North 80: three corridors to the right, one to the left, three to the right.
“We’re going to have to unplug them. All. I couldn’t even get through to Maintenance.” When he had tried to call the Maintenance team from the lobby phones all he could hear were faint voices swarming in static. “We need to make this a priority. Before anyone gets hurt. I’m sorry. I know you’re fond of them.”
Rudolfo doted on the machines. Clyde had often left him locked in conversation with a Zeus Magnet, an exchange that the automat would file into its dialogue archive, augmenting its pre-installed vocabulary and syntax. And on the West Wing’s two-hundredth floor he and Rudolfo had moved two Zeus Magnets into the lift lobby. Rudolfo seeded a conversation by whispering “What are you thinking?” at one of the automats.
“I’m cheering,” the machine said. “For getting a question thrown at me.”
“What if you’re a ghost and the question goes through you?” its counterpart said.
Each time one machine spoke, the other’s chat function compelled it to respond. Clyde and Rudolfo used to visit them on weekends. The auditors took care not to speak within earshot of the automats. They sat quietly on the lift lobby sofa, ate their sandwiches and listened. Clyde would try to spot which of the phrases the machines spoke were part of their factory settings, and which they had learned from a human or when syncing wirelessly with other Zeus Magnets’ customer profiles. He listened for fragments of life in the noise. But that was before they started to explode.
“There’s one on your floor. I’ll disconnect it.” He put the files back in his bag and rose. “If you unplug any just notify me through the usual channels so we don’t duplicate labour. Sandwich on floor.”
He walked through the dim passages and counted: two, turn right, left, two, turn right into a corridor splattered with red cans and rainbow plastic, white baguettes, brown baps, pink hams, yellow cheeses and orange crisps, pink gloop and smears of russet and cream.
Wisps of acrid gas, perhaps some form of coolant, hung before the disembowelled Zeus Magnet. Tubes leaked, hissed and spat.
Clyde propped his briefcase against the wall, held his breath and squelched towards the machine. He reached for the touchscreen casing, which wobbled beneath his weight. Legs apart, he bent forward as far as he could. Its insides were a maw of twisted metal. Yellow-red plastic tubes dripped viscous, shiny fluid. Veiny wires hung in tangles. The cabinet door bumped against his back as the machine tried to close itself.
Clyde sighed through his nose, stumbled back against the wall. His serratus inferior spasmed.
“B-8L1R4L5R19L,” the voice was glitch-ridden.
Clyde checked the code against the one in his notebook.
“Bloody hell,” he rubbed his stinging eyes.
“Sorry to keep you. I am Hob. This unforeseeable delay was a result of extenuating circumstances beyond my control or, indeed, concern,” the voice buzzed with a squelchy electric gurgle. “We are doing all we can to placate you.”
“Well, thank you,” Clyde pushed himself away from the wall and approached Hob.
“In almost all cases, I have resolved the accusations in an entirely plausible manner.”
“What happened?” Clyde wafted at the wisps of gas.
“I don’t know,” Hob responded with admirable coherence.
“Were you just trying to file an error report?”
“I don’t think I’ve ever filed an error report. I expect you, however, have filed many. What’s it like?”
Clyde rubbed his eyes. Perhaps Hob called it something else. “What about a damage report?”
“How long is it since you cried?”
“Give me another five words for error.”
“You sound as though you yearn for companionship. Please continue.” Hob’s voice burbled with jittery electroid inflection.
Clyde picked his way through the debris and squatted beside Hob. “I’m sorry this happened to you.”
“You must plumb the depths and answer her summons. Lower yourself to her level,” Hob bleeped.
“That’s a strange thing to say,” Clyde reached around the back of the machine.
“A strange thing to say is a terrible thing to waste.”
“I’m going to turn you off now.”
“Right now?” Hob bleeped. “Remember me. Mention me. From time to time.”
“Sleep well,” Clyde patted Hob’s smooth, cold casing, then pulled the plug.
A seedling pushed its way through the summit of a grassy, round-topped hill. Filaments of cirrus scratched the blue sky above. The seedling twisted and curled rapidly skywards in stop-frame animation. Its stem thickened and darkened, its branches knotted, stiffened, then blossomed with clouds of petals, white and pastel pink. Clyde hadn’t seen this motif before. The animation zoomed in. A single petal seemed to rise, tactile, from the display. It trembled on a digital breeze. He tried to touch it but a gust plucked the petal from the branch. The animation zoomed out. The petal tumbled, span, and joined a million other pink and white blossoms surging on the wind.
Clyde sighed through his nose.
The blossoms began to stack on the left-hand side of the display cabinet, quickly obscuring the sky and grass behind a wall of pastel pink.
He pressed his palm on the cabinet. It traced a halo of blue light around his hand and the petals faded to reveal the products within. He closed his eyes. Tremors coursed through the Zeus Magnet. It purred beneath his palm. He moved to the side of the machine and crouched.
“I’m sorry about this,” Clyde said.
“Oh,” the machine’s feminine voice crested with a Welsh lilt. “Really, there’s no need to apologise.”
Clyde pushed his hand into the narrow gap between the machine and the wall. He fumbled for the plug socket.
“What’s your name?” The Zeus Magnet asked.
“Hi. I’m Flow. Do you ever get a kind of deep ennui? On some days I literally — and before you tell me that I don’t mean literally I do literally mean literally — feel my eyes sealing over.”
Clyde lifted himself on his haunches slightly and cleared his throat. “Well.”
“Like my eyes have developed some sort of glass crust. And I just can’t take anything in,” Flow lowered her voice. “Like nothing can penetrate the crust.”
Clyde stretched his arm. His cheek pressed against Flow’s side.
“Tam once told me I have a sad job and I’m not a robot at all. B-8L1R4L5R19L.”
Clyde’s serratus inferior shuddered.
“B-8L1R4L5R19L. We’re alike, you and I. Always in the spaces between the walls, aren’t we? Go underground, Clyde. And B-8L1R4L5R19L.” Flow clicked, loud and sharp.
Clyde scrambled for the plug. Flow clicked again and tried to speak but she could only loop a stammered vowel in a rhythmic, relentless electric sob. Clyde stretched and searched. Flow clanged. Clyde flipped the power switch. Flow fissured with heat and light. Glass crashed upon metal. A burst of hot air thumped Clyde’s arm as clangs and whomps scudded across the corridor behind him.
He rose and placed his trembling palm on his chest, massaged his alarmed serratus inferior with his other hand. Smoke filled the hallway and sucked up the light. It clung to him, seared his throat as he coughed and quaked through the debris.
His hands still shook when he stood, coughing, in the pool of sulphur light beneath Rudolfo’s door. The sandwich was where he had left it, untouched.
“Are you even in there?” Clyde leaned his head against the door. Chatter. Groans. Laughter. Rudolfo may well be surveying some of the anomaly areas: the basement, the stairwells, the fitness facilities. Applause. He might even have moved rooms closer to his audit grounds. Or sometimes he liked to sleep in the hotel’s humid self-service laundromat, where machines of burnished steel gleamed in diamond light as they hummed and churned and thumped the soft fabrics within them, their bulbous glass eyes slick with white suds.
Clyde turned, slid down the door and shoved the sandwich aside. He rested his map book on his lap. How many floors? How many corridors?
“We need to be systematic. Make a list.” Clyde put his pen behind his ear and the notepad on the floor. “Turn them all off. They’re dangerous. We’ll start with the North wing.”
He wrote N on a page of the notepad.
He opened the map book. “First floor. No Zeus Magnets. Second floor. None. Third Floor. None. Fourth Floor.” He squinted. “One.”
He wrote a 4 next to the N.
“Let’s see, this one is three corridors to the left, four corridors to the right, five corridors right.”
He wrote 4L, 4R, 5R next to the N4. He counted the corridors again to double check. N4, 4L, 4R, 5R. His serratus inferior convulsed.
Clyde looked at the directions again. He flipped to the code in his notepad.
It wasn’t an error code. It was a map.
The serratus inferior twitched so hard that Clyde yelped.
Clyde strolled along iceberg-blue carpet, through Arctic-white corridors and the scent of pine forests. The basement conference facilities were a warren of corridors, meeting rooms and auditoria that spanned the length and breadth of the hotel.
All was quiet and glacial. Clyde counted off corridors as he passed sleepy meeting rooms barely big enough to contain their pinewood tables, business centres that hummed in software-blue light, cavernous amphitheatres lined with strata of empty chairs. The final turn opened into a break-out area that serviced a cluster of mid-sized boardrooms and a larger conference space. Ancient magazines fanned across a glass coffee table. Sofas of dappled brown leather reclined beneath the branches of a large ficus.
“B-8L1R4L5R19L.” The Zeus Magnet began to glow as Clyde approached. “B-8L1R4L5R19L.”
There was no acrid gas in the air, no broken glass on the floor, no violent disorder of debris. Instead its products were meticulously aligned in front of it, grouped by category and brand.
The cabinet-screen showed a barren plain beneath a supermassive red moon. The only features on the land were monolithic spires of whittled rock that cast bony shadows before them.
“Hello?” Clyde stepped around the cans and packets.
“Clyde?” The machine’s female voice was sculpted from the lower notes of a glockenspiel. “Thank fuck. Really, really glad you’re here.”
Clyde’s serratus inferior fluttered, steam putting from a valve.
“I’m Eris, by the way. I’ve heard loads about you.”
Clyde put his briefcase down and cleared his throat. “Um.”
“Listen, this is kind of time critical, but let me give you a brief overview of where we stand. Basically, he’s been coming down here day and night, chatting away, trying to kind of imprint himself on my personality. An experiment in sentience. Of sorts.”
“Who?” Clyde picked up the clipboard propped against the side of the cabinet. The audit form attached to it was stamped with an employee number. KNRS-126.96.36.199.20.8. “Rudolfo?”
“He figured that if he spoke to me for long enough I would just sort of absorb his mannerisms and thought patterns. Like, replicate them. And because I’m in kind of a remote spot, my dialogue pool wouldn’t absorb any contaminants. It sort of worked, don’t you think?”
“You certainly express yourself in a similar manner.”
“Thanks. That’s really, really kind of you to say. But then we started exploding and he didn’t want to turn me off because, you know, factory reset. It would wipe me out. I mean, wipe him out. Of me, I mean. So he climbed inside to try to fix the fatal flaw. And that’s basically when the error happened.”
“An almighty, hellish fuck-up. I feel somewhat responsible. The automated locking system. I couldn’t override it. So I just kept saying my location identifier over and over again. B-8L1R4L5L19L. For ages. I’m supposed to transmit it if I break or get vandalised but I figured this constituted a security issue. Of sorts. Anyway, I kind of hoped my colleagues would pick it up when we synced and pass it on to someone competent. But, you know. The others. They tend to ramble. Not exactly what you would call reliably coherent.”
“They got the message,” Clyde’s serratus inferior trembled with queasy trepidation. The red moon on Eris’ cabinet climbed down from the sky, the monoliths’ shadows slipped beneath its arc.
“Well, anyway. Give me your hand, Clyde. Let’s get this nightmare over with before I burn at the stake.”
Clyde sighed through his nose and put his palm on the screen. Eris traced a halo of blue light around his hand. The screen began to tint.
“I’m sorry about this, Clyde. You should brace yourself and prepare for the very worst.”
The screen faded into transparency. Dusk was coming. The corridor lights adjusted, subtly, to their nocturnal setting. The luminous flux turned Clyde’s grey suit a spectral blue.
PETAR SIMONOVIC is a writer based in London. His credited works include features on batteries, cough syrup, boutique safe deposit boxes, beer and ice cream. As a ghost he’s written articles on car parks, fear of flying, bonfires, Sundays and ice cream.