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Four people were born and two died.

Eight million human breaths were taken.

In that quiet and mundane moment, a signal was sent out from a spinning ball of blue, white and green.

It was heard, not by few but by endless multitudes. That burst of noise became a beacon to all the things that lived in the endless dark and they were legion. It took just seconds for powers greater than the Earth's human inhabitants could imagine to touch it and change it forever.

The creatures of this speck of air, dirt and water were lucky. First came the kindest, they stretched forth their cold will from a hundred alien suns and in an instant wove a shield. A fragile and temporary thing but enough to earn the planet a chance.

It was more than most challenged worlds got.

Below the steel and glass towers of teeming metropolises and the front of lonely gas stations the first of many impossible things happened; preparing the way for slaughter and madness, suffering and heroism.

Three feet wide and seven feet tall, alien devices twisted into existence, silently consuming pieces of the Earth until fully grown. Millions of them warped into existence over a period of seconds but not a single human eye caught the change happening. Empty screens flickered to life on featureless white fronts and a million small clear panels fell shut in unison across the Earth. After a moment, the screens flickered again, and black words appeared.

Universal Support Station, it read in a friendly font.

The screen flickered again and red numbers appeared below those words.

24:00:00

A second later. 23:59:59


Derrick was thirsty and irritated. Thirsty because he'd just gotten off a late shift at work, long after the last coffee had been brewed and irritated because he couldn't find the bill slot on the soda machine.

It had been fast growing dark as he made his way home from work on foot. He silently walked beneath glass and concrete along the familiar route, passing dozens of people while hardly noticing them. It was a familiar journey until he saw a strange light shining from a well maintained but rarely travelled alley behind a flower shop. He used the alley as a shortcut to get home from work and he was in an upscale part of the city so he didn't worry about muggings. Hidden just out of direct sight was the aggravating machine.

The thing looked trendy, with smooth round corners and a white finish. Like a high-end computer. He didn't see any logo though and a computer company going into the vending business seemed like the kind of thing he would have heard about. He worked in IT and was plugged into that culture. 

Was he supposed to have some kind of card, or chip, or something? Did the countdown timer on the screen mean it wasn't running yet? If so, he wouldn't be getting his soda for 20 hours and change. That seemed like a dick move, tempting the thirsty like this.

He sighed. It was probably going to require signing up for something to get personal information from him. Stupid information economy. Just when he was about to turn away, the screen changed with a happy beep.

Congratulations User

You are a viable candidate for becoming a User. Answer a short questionnaire for vital rewards. Vocal and touch screen responses are accepted.

 

As soon as he was done reading it, the message changed to three boxes with a single word in them.

Safety, read one. Love, the next. Ambition, the last.

So, this was some kind of contest? Not a cheap one either, judging by how impressive the vending machine was. It had to have cameras or some kind of sensors built into it. A promotional event?

“Is one of the vital rewards a soda?” He asked amused. He didn't expect an answer, but he got one.

Yes, the machine flashed before going back to the question of safety versus ambition versus love.

After a couple of hours of work at his terrible job, he felt he had had enough safety. Nor was he feeling particularly full of love.

“Ambition,” he said and the screen presented him with a new question, once more beeping happily.

What is your greatest strength?


Derrick smiled. What was this, a job interview? He resisted the impulse to give a joke answer. He was skeptical about getting anything really valuable as a reward, but didn't want to throw away the chance. Still, it was a hard question to answer. He was no genius or natural athlete. No savvy businessman or charismatic leader. He just sort of steadily worked away at things till he got them done. He didn't want to say stubbornness or something like that, if stubbornness was your greatest strength, you were probably an asshole. If he had been blessed with one great thing it was his health, he was almost never sick and recovered quickly from overworking; a sadly all too common occurrence.

“My Health,” he said and the machine seemed to accept the answer.

Much to his alarm, Derrick felt the ground begin to vibrate beneath his feet. A powerful hum was coming from the machine. Just when he was getting ready to run away in case of an explosion, the hum stopped with a resounding click. He heard a familiar series of mechanical sounds, the kind any vending machine made before dispensing its treats.

An unmarked white can fell from a hidden slot into the recess at the bottom of the machine.

Derrick skeptically eyed the can and the machine it came from. He read the screen.

Thank you for your time. Enjoy your tasty beverage.


He picked up the can. It felt like a can of soda. It was the right weight and contained liquid for sure.

Well, he did just choose ambition over safety.

He popped open the can and nothing happened beyond a very familiar fizzing noise. He sniffed it and it didn't smell like poison, just like one of those fancy sodas you could buy in farmer's markets. It was unspecifically fruity.

He took a sip, then another. It was actually very good. He wouldn't describe it as vital however.

“No more questions?” he asked it.

Registration complete.

Phase One will commence soon. 

You have been assigned 300 points towards future purchases.

Please visit a Universal Support Station again soon, human.


Derrick laughed at the human specification, how cute.

Thirst quenched, he continued back to his apartment without incident. By the time he made his way home he was unusually tired and barely managed to undress before falling into bed and fading into unconsciousness.


Going to bed early didn't turn into waking up early. Instead, he woke up and panicked when he realized how late it was. He didn't love his work, but it was worse when he gave his bosses reasons to notice him. Keeping your head down was the key. Get in and out with minimal interaction with the managers.

He showered, dressed and ate as quickly as his oddly sore and stiff body let him. Slowing down for only a second before grabbing his phone and jumping into the elevator. While waiting, he turned on his phone and was surprised to find that he had messages.

It seemed like Brian, a friend from work had called a bunch of times. Derrick felt a wave of panic, it was unusual for his friend to call him and he could only assume the worst. Was his boss freaking out? Had he been fired? He did a good job and showed up on time but that didn't mean much these days. Even after several months, he was a “new guy” and replaceable. He spent most of his time at work just doing the work the Senior Network Engineer couldn't be bothered to do.

He had a couple bars of reception in the elevator, so he made a call. After a couple of rings, the call connected.

“Oh, hey Derrick. Where are you?” Brian asked as soon as he picked up. His friend sounded more excited than worried, which reassured him.

“I slept in,” answered Derrick with a small yawn. “Why? Am I going to have start looking for yet another shitty entry level IT job. Didn't you say you knew a guy?”

“We got more important things to worry about,” replied Brian. “You sure picked a strange day to start slacking, normally you're never late. Even though you don't have a car. You walk through half the city to get home, don't you?”

“What are you talking about? ” said Derrick, confused by how excited Brian was. He was practically panting and Derrick's brain was still in get to work mode.

“You really are just getting up. You must have not even turned on the TV or anything. Did you find one of those Star Trek machines? The white vending machines!”

“What?” he replied eloquently, having lost the thread of the conversation entirely. What the hell was he talking about. He ran the conversation back in his mind, trying to make sense of it. What did Star Trek have to do with anything?

“Wait are you talking about that white soda machine?” questioned Derrick.

Derrick had to pull his phone away from his head for second as Brian began yelling into the phone. When he returned to speaking volume what he said caught Derricks attention.

“..not a soda machine. It's an everything machine!”


A couple minutes using data on his phone showed him that the internet was going crazy about those machines. Even more crazy than the usual scandal or meme drove it. News sites and chat blogs were filled with stories about what they were calling Pandora Machines. Personally, Derrick found the name a bit trite. All anyone wanted to talk about was how the machines had appeared out of nowhere, replacing now missing vending machines. According to the internet masses, the machines seemed to ignore about half of the people that approached them but would recognize others as users. Each user had 300 points, which could be used to buy anything that could fit in the dispenser; including stacks of cash, weapons and drugs.

Needless to say, governments around the world were not happy about this.

Browsing, he saw hundreds of people taking selfies while pulling money out of the machines, as well as police and military cordons from around the world. Despite the use of explosives and welding torches, the machines remained unscathed, unlike some of the people trying to force their way past the police. Small riots had started and been put down.

Derrick was astounded, barely able to believe what he was reading. It was like the world had been turned upside down overnight.

Who had created the Pandora Machines and how had they sprung up all around the world?

Aliens, AI from the future, God or the Devil? No one had any clues, but everyone had a guess.


At Brian's prompting, instead of going to work, he'd walked to the alley where he had found one of the now infamous machines.

Part of him still thought of this as some elaborate joke, the part that didn't though was difficult to ignore. If only because it was a part of himself that he wasn't used to hearing from.

Something like curiosity. Maybe fear as well. Real fear, not just the low levels of anxiety that plagued everyday life. 

He arrived first and tried to look inconspicuous while hanging out in front of a closed flower shop. Twice, he almost panicked when police cars drove by with sirens on. Neither of them even slowed down though and rushed down the street to disappear around the block.

Derrick wondered where they were going. He could imagine the kind of chaos that was taking place all around the world, although the streets seemed quiet to him. It was hard to imagine that mobs or violence would happen in their small and tidy city. West Hills city was a prosperous and lawful place. People might not respect the government's ban on the Pandora Machines, but he doubted violence would break out beyond a few crazies.

He'd tried to use his phone to surf the internet, but it was painfully slow. He imagined everyone else had the same idea or too many people at IT companies were skipping work like him. He couldn't even begin to imagine what would happen in places like North Korea or Africa. Could these stupid white boxes be powerful enough to collapse economies and bring down governments? Was that the point? Did some benevolent aliens drop them to help out the poorest and most oppressed people of earth? Space altruists?

It was a warm day in late spring, but he felt a shiver go up his spine. No, Derrick didn't get that feeling at all. The Pandora Machine had been friendly and neat-looking, but he remembered how it had moved the earth beneath it as it gave him his stupid soda. People were using them like they were vending machines, but he didn't think that was more than a tiny part of what they could do.

“Yo, Derrick, sorry I'm late.” A voice called out from beside him and broke him out of his thoughts.

He turned to see his friend, Brian, with a woman he assumed Brian was trying to impress. Derrick could tell because Brian was wearing his self described 'bling'. The young black man tried to pass himself off as “street smart” but in the three weeks Derrick had known him, the man had mentioned that his parents were a dentist and lawyer.

“This is Clara,” Brian said, introducing the short spiky haired blonde woman to him. She was short and pretty, wearing a jacket and skirt. She seemed to be going for an edgy look she didn't quite pull off. “Clara, this is the beautiful man who is going to make us rich.”

“It's true,” said Derrick modestly. “I'm beautiful.”

Clara  gave him an awkward smile and Brian rolled his eyes.

“I'm Derrick,” he said with a somewhat forced smile and offered his hand to her, which she took without hesitation. When she let go, he turned to his friend.

“So, any idea how this is supposed to work?” He asked. “I just woke up an hour ago and have no idea what 'the rules' are. We're not like selling our souls or anything right?”

“Nah, some people I hang with on the web wrote up a guideline. Like a million people have used these things by now and the Pandora boxes haven't done shit to them. If it accepts you as a User, you get 300 points that you can spend on anything you want, cash, diamonds, medicine. Like some freaky shit too. One guy on Utube was showing off his lasergun, like making rocks explode from a mile away. Some people are claiming that you can get cures for cancer and stuff too, though that's harder to prove.”

“I don't think the Devil sells laser guns,” Clara said with a smile.

“The Space Devil might,” joked Derrick. He was just trying to lighten the mood but apparently they took his joke seriously.

“Just think about how advanced the Pandora Machines are!” said Brian passionately. “If their creators wanted to fuck us, we couldn't stop them anyway, might as well play along.”

That was very true, but that didn't necessarily mean that the mysterious they had humanity’s best interest at heart.

“Maybe this is how they fuck us. Get the greedy little humans to destroy themselves with free money and laser guns,” he replied.

“Can we please stop talking about aliens fucking us,” said Clara with a frown. “Making me really uncomfortable here.”

“Think they came for our women?” joked Brian.

Derrick considered making a joke but looking at Clara he saw that she was genuinely scared. Which brought back his own... concerns.

“We should be careful.” he said. “Maybe it is a trick and we will have to repay what we buy with interest or something. We could wait awhile, see what happens.”

“What’s going to happen is someone else will find this Pandora Machine and the Police will quarantine it for our safety.” Brian refuted. “Besides, one way or another, I don't think being poor or unarmed will help us much when the real shit goes down.”

Honestly, that was what he'd been thinking. He just didn't want to jump into anything without thinking it through.

“The real shit?” asked Clara. She was asking Brian but Derrick answered.

“You think it's going to stop here?” he said. “Alien invasion, World conquering super genius, or government collapse, something's gotta happen.”

“Phase One,” said Brian nodding and both Derick and Clara looked at him. “When you sign up, you get told that Phase One will start soon, that implies multiple phases and if it's anything as world changing as the Pandora Machines arrival was, then we need to be prepared. We’re not the rich, fancy folk that can play it safe in bunkers or police protection.”

Brian made a lot of sense. Derrick had been thinking almost the same thing, not because of the phases but just because of the sheer power of the Pandora Machines. Power serves purpose, so something as powerful as the Pandora machines must have one hell of a purpose, one that he doubted would be subtle or easily avoided. 

“Fine, let’s go.” he said and led them behind the flower shop.

The machine came into view, a glowing white rectangle that's spotless surface defied the dirty atmosphere of the alley.

Brian moved up to it without hesitation. After a second of staring, he turned to Derrick.

“Did you pick ambition, love or safety?” He asked.

“Ambition. Why?” questioned Derrick. Did his friend know something he didn't?

“Just curious,” his 'friend' said before pressing safety on the touch screen, causing Derrick to scowl. So much for solidarity. “Doesn't seem to do anything.... yet.”

His friend whispered something he couldn't hear and then the machine began to hum deeply. Both Clara and Brian flinched at that, but Derrick was used to it. When it stopped, Brian reached into the machine and pulled out a sandwich wrapped in cellophane.

He shrugged and once it was unwrapped, devoured it. When he was finished there was a beep and the machine displayed familiar text.

Registration complete.

Phase One will commence soon.

Please visit a Universal Support Station again.


Instead of leaving like Derrick did, his friend told the machine he'd like to make a purchase. A minute later he received a clear plastic case with small bills inside.

“That's worrying,” Brian said as scowled at his new riches.

“What?” asked Clara, neither she nor Derrick could see anything wrong with the money.

“I got mostly small bills to avoid suspicion, but I could have gotten a lot more money for the same points if I got larger bills,” he replied. “The machine treats every bill type the same. It's like the value of the bills don't matter, just the material involved in their creation.”

“What does....” Clara started before trailing off into thought.

Derrick really didn't like this. Money was everything in this world. It was easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. A force that could touch every corner of the world overnight was one thing but a force that existed beyond human economics?

That was power on a scale he didn't want to even think about because he'd spent his whole life without considering such a power could even exist. Having only contempt for human currency meant you had only contempt for human civilization and the forces that ran it.

While he was lost in thought, he saw Clara move to the machine from the corner of his eye and go through the same process as the both of them had.

This was a European settlers arriving among Native Americans moment, nothing was ever going to be the same and a lot of people were going to die. So, what should he buy?

“Isn't money going to depreciate fast?” asked Derrick. His high school economics teacher would have been proud of him.

“What else is there,” returned Clara. “You want to invest in gold instead? That's going to become just as worthless at this rate.”

Brian didn't join in their conversation. He was still fascinated by the money in his hands.

“Land.... Physical power?” Derrick thought aloud.

“You mean like weapons?” Clara asked.

“Kinda,” said Derrick. “Maybe we should like form a group for safety, buy a place outside town and fort up?”

“Go full survivalist you mean,” mocked Clara with a raised eyebrow. “We just met, I'm not going to shack up with you out in the woods.”

Derrick felt a wave of embarrassment wash over him. He'd let his thoughts get away from him.

“I meant like generally,” he said. “For safety reasons.”

Clara gave him an unimpressed look. Brian interrupted and Derrick was glad of it.

“We don't know anything” he said quietly but something in his voice let it carry. It took Derrick a second to place it.

It was naked dread. This realization spurred him into action. He moved up to the dangerous enigma and spoke to it.

“Station can you hear me?” he asked, shortening the name it called itself; the Universal Support Station.

Affirmative User


“What are you for?”

To provide vital resources to Users in return for points


“Who created you?” 

User not cleared for information


“Why not?”

User level too low


“How do I increase my level?” 

Level limited until Phase One in 11:21:43


“How do we get more points?” Asked Brian, who had moved up beside Derrick

Points limited until Phase One in 11:21:41


“Why are some people made Users and not others?” interjected Clara. Derrick shot her a look, that was a good question.

Users must fit a criteria of health, fitness and mentality to be considered a safe investment of Support Station resources.


“What kind of investment. What for?” Continued Clara.

User not cleared for information


It didn't seem that they were going to get much new information out of the machine. Clara and Brian asked a few more questions but the machine just kept giving them non-answers or telling them they weren't cleared.

Derrick spent the time thinking over everything the machine had told them and what it had done. Two things stood out.

“Station, why do you offer free food and drink after signing up users?”

Direct consumption is the safest and least resource intensive method of implantation.


Implantation, that was not a word he wanted to hear. They all looked at the sandwich wrappers in Brian and Clara's hands.

“Implanted, with what?” seethed Clara.

Your Universal Support Implant


Other than the name, the angry questions of the group failed to give anymore information. So, Derrick moved onto is next question.

“Station, define vital rewards.” he asked.

Artifacts or enhancements that aide Users in surviving.


Well buggery. Derrick felt the blood drain from his face. Even the Stations themselves thought this was going to get dangerous. It seemed like his life was out of his hands now.

“Station, can you suggest a vital item?”

Affirmative.

Gathering physical and skills data from implant.

User has 300 points remaining

Recommended item costs 290 points


Glowing boxes containing the words YES and NO appeared on the screen and Derrick pressed yes without hesitation. He was sure now that the world was going to change and that he needed to change with it. He took a series of deep breaths to centre himself.

Since the accident that had defined his life, he'd sorta slept his way through life without drive or ambition, just making ends meet. Clearly, that must end now if his survival was on the line. People tended to imagine they were safe these days, he knew this was not true. Life could be random and cruel. 

The machine began its deep hum and he wondered what the future would be like and what the Station offered to help him adapt to it. What was this basically magic machine going to do? After a moment the Station grew quiet and gave a pleasant beep.

Derrick reached inside the compartment of the machine, his hand immediately finding and wrapping around something solid, warm and round. It felt like a ceramic pole, shaped to his hand.

He began to pull and it slid easily out of the machine.

All three of them stared at the thing in his hand. Just holding it felt unreal to him.The two foot long tool, was a strange grey ceramic handle with a midnight black crescent of irregular shape on the side of one end. It was solid and balanced while being beautiful, a work of art and inhuman craftsmanship.

It was warm in his hand and he thought he felt it vibrate just slightly before going still.

It was an Axe.

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Mirrored

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