It takes six point four seconds for a red signal to travel along the guttering behind bright neon lights and flash up as an error message on the console above my desk. Less than that for some impatient shopper to kick the broken machine in question and wander away to find another.
By the time I spit the cigarette from between my lips and push myself out of my seat, the duty manager is already blasting static coated threats into my ear. This is partly because the interpersonal com system for the mall has been a decade out of date for twenty years, and partly because the bastard has never bothered to learn how to use it properly.
From the basement level it takes seven point three seconds to reach the ground floor, point five of a second for each of the ones above. The elevator I use was designed for crates and service mechs, not people. The g-force is the reason I look five years older or younger depending on which direction I’ve come from.
My belt has two wrenches attached to it, they swing down the line of my thigh and bruise the skin with every step. They’re part of the uniform and only for show, a visual cue to shoppers of my place in their world. They aren’t clean because I take care of them, it’s because they’ve never been used.
Depending on the fault and the damage suffered via the angered user after the fact, a repair job on a vending machine can take anything from seven minutes and fifteen seconds to three hours and five minutes. I was nearly fired after the latter.
Being on ground level hurts my eyes. The constant pulsing reflection of flood lights against chrome gives me a headache. Words pour out onto the consumers below like the rain that fell here before the natural atmosphere bled away into space; like someone piercing a balloon and keeping hold as it deflated.
The source of the error message sits at the far end of the floor, the vast expanse between us is enough to make me release a hushed curse. A long walk ahead and much to avoid. A few people travel on foot like I do, but most are perched upon carrier trams or stood upon personal travel discs.
When I reach it, the machine is pulsing sadly and the customer is still there glaring at it. It won’t work, he tells me. His suit is freshly pressed. I consider pushing him aside and wiping a streak of grease along the crisp fabric. I nod him away instead.
A small tablet in my pocket vibrates and I take it out. It communicates with the machine and a diagnosis appears as a line of code across the screen. I nod and pocket it again, kneeling to remove a panel on the side of the machine.
How long will this take? I’m asked. I mumble a gruff estimate, six minutes forty seconds. You work fast then, he says. I don’t reply, my focus on the machine but I do hear him say, you work hard for this place but it won’t be accounted for.
I ignore him, the small spiral of wires between my finger tips responding to the heat under my skin. They hush and cool as I move my hands closer, then spark once more when I pass. The fault is a small one, an error flashing blue where the code is compromised. It isn’t obvious, a small restructuring of the elements within the product inside the vendor.
The man moves away, slow and quiet, thinking me too distracted by the work to notice. He crosses the space between this set of machines and the next, then bends low. I hadn’t seen the data stick in his hand.
The tablet in my pocket begs for more attention and I grant it, removing it once more and looking at the screen. It takes me three point seven seconds to understand my misfortune. It has taken less than that for the man to infect another machine.
The code springs away from my fingers, lighting up a trail of false protocols as it goes. It tells the machine to add a new ingredient to the food it stores. I watch as it turns the contents to poison. I can do nothing as more and more red signals find their way to my console floors below. My manager’s voice sounds off in my ear again but I pay him no attention.
In seven hours, thirteen minutes and twenty three seconds, I will be sitting in a small room with a large man looking down at me. He will tell me I have been charged under the Global Settlement Act against BioTerrorism. He will tell me to confess, to acknowledge my status and admit my resentment – my affiliation with the Spark and their reformist movement.
I catch the tail end of the code as it jumps from one machine to the other. I stand and turn in time to watch the man nod to me and sign the last machine in the line with a sigil. It is a statement and a promise, one of an organisation who seek to change this world like they did the last.
Service mechs move in as more and more machines register the fault. I do nothing as they surround me, as the red signal explodes over every sign and console on the mall floor. People and machines still, they become the audience to my arrest, my false imprisonment.
The news reports will praise the quick action of the mall security forces. The Presidents of all five settlements will come forward to speak on the increasing Spark threat to peace on the planet. Universe wide alerts will tell civilians to keep vigilant – this terrible act is but the first.
It will take five days, four hours and two minutes for a court to find me guilty of an extremist act. I will lose track of time in less than that, in a dark square cell on the edge of the system, surrounded by space.
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This was supposed to be a submission for a short story competition but I missed the deadline, so onto the blog it goes instead. :D