Cents went in the machine. Out popped a jar of nutrient-rich slime, and the next customer came up to claim his meals for the next week. The slime tasted…fine, sat in the stomach fine, and would keep you alive.
It was also the only thing to eat—the only thing anyone ate. And thus, ash on John’s mouth. John hated the stuff with a burning passion beyond what a person his age should be capable of feeling. His mother had spoon fed it to him in the usual airplane style as a toddler, and even then, it felt like a kamikaze attack on his soul.
Where was the flavor, he wondered? Eating, according to the books, was something done by old generations to a great degree. Too much in some places. But, as John heard of what they had devoured, he understood the appeal. Flavor would change everything.
He broke from these thoughts as he shuffled forward in the line of others who looked like him. Other teenagers in garb taken from wherever they could find it.
The line shuddered with some holdup, and John cast his gaze down the way to the wire mesh window, behind which sat a man with no biological parts except his brain chugging away in a yellowish pus soup.
The guy in front was having a fit. John observed this with a detached view for now, but with growing interest. Anything to break the boredom got his mind going. He’d been told, many times, he could use the neural device in his head, and draw forward something to watch—provocative images of mating were a popular choice.
But, he personally never got the appeal. Not like the idea of food. Not like the stories of cooking. Making edible things, for yourself, with your own hands? It boggled the mind.
John again broke from his thoughts when someone fired a weapon. The quick, echoing ka-thunk of the propelled acid was enough to rouse anyone. The hiss of the target melting across the floor added to it nicely.
Others in the line fell backward in alarm, shirking from the hovering machine shaped like a face. It closed its jaw slowly, hiding the small tube in it, still dripping with green slime. The dark metal thing hovered, shining under the smog-diluted rays of the sun before it floated off into the sky.
The line reformed sluggishly enough for John to take his chance. He cut ahead, moving up to the window, and held out his coin for the guy behind the glass to approve.
The man behind the window’s artificial eyes glowed green. His pincer hands closed around the metal and examined it for just long enough to worry John. After another few moments passed by, John already knew what he would say, and his mind was searching—so hard—for some ways to resolve the problem before his life bottomed out on him.
“This coin is not allowed. You are not to have any food this week.”
John jolted, despite already seeing it coming. The line behind him had still not found a major source of organization, and so he did not fear a mob coming and removing him from the spot, but the glare of the robot sent bile to his stomach.
“I would die from lack of food, you understand, right?”
“Of course. I do understand. That does not change the rules. Please step aside and let someone else have a chance.”
“I’ll die,” John repeated, thinking somehow that would change the mind of the programmed person. “I will shrivel and die.”
“Humans, without any help, can last a week without food.”
John considered this, figured it likely true, but was not willing to take the risk. He was sure, with the work he did—construction of houses—he would not last.
So, he decided, it was act or die, and he knew what to do.
With a quick jump, he snatched the coin and shoved it into the food machine. The coin slid into the slot, and inside some gears ground, but nothing fell out for him.
An alarm sounded. Machine faces descended from their perch.
John, in desperation, slammed his shoulder into the machine and cracked the front of it. Another hit made the bowels of the machine become visible, revealing a void. Shelves, usually full of food jars, had nothing on them.
John’s mind clicked on it, right away.
“You have no food! You would have turned away every single person? You would have—how many would you have killed?”
The robot man behind the window did not know the answer, and even if he had, John only had time to cast another accusing glare before a fast-acting acid reduced him to slurry on the floor, and his liquefied bones ran in rivers toward the nearest sewer grate.