CHEESEBURGER BROWN: Novelist & Story-wallah
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The Automatic Marlboro
A novelette by Cheeseburger Brown
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The Automatic Marlboro, a novelette by Cheeseburger Brown; illustration by Matthew Hemming



The model locomotive bumps repeatedly against the crap on Pulse's desk, its cargo now hopelessly warm. Pulse proposes a new sub-routine to account for re-refrigeration in the event of distraction, and I propose fried chicken for dinner. Natives of Ares may take it for granted, but every immigrant knows keenly that the single sweetest thing about this planet is hot white meat.

Pulse remains uncertain but it doesn't matter because we've been summoned to a meeting with our faculty supervisor. Pulse looks at the clock. "I guess we should go," he sighs.

"Of course we have to go! Are you crazy?"

We walk across campus. The sun is setting, a greenish smear behind the hills. We huff and puff up the bridge over the old dome-line, entering the pioneer quarter where the buildings pre-date the sky. We bound down the far side of the bridge, freefall easy to find.

Professor Logos Cuthbertson's office is an unholy mess of scintillating text. Every corner glows with stacks of bookmarked holographic pages. He himself nests in the middle amid a cluster of display surfaces, his right hand constantly flexing as he molests a ball of smart plastic. His eyes flit, seeing projections invisible to us…so you never quite know whether he's noticed you.

Pulse coughs. "Professor?"

"Pulse Debugger-Smith," notes the professor, wiping absently at his nose. "Marlboro Siemens." He looks up sharply. "What is it?"

"You called."

"I did. A resource consumption appraisal has been run on this department, and the finding of the dean is that your project is to be immediately restructured."

Pulse stops chewing his gum.

In that moment I realize that even though I don't know what I want to do with my stupid life, the one thing I really do enjoy is palling around with Pulse. Between my parents hounding me and my total failure with Aresian girls, Pulse is what keeps me from going nuts. It makes my intestines creak to imagine our little world together might be wrecked.

"Fornication," frowns Pulse. "Who farted?"

I sink lower into my chair.

The professor reads something we can't see. His lips twitch as he sends a sub-vocal message. He flips through a stack of floating pages, rapidly separates them into two piles cast upward to dangle near the ceiling, then wipes at his nose as he turns to us again. "Your budget has been upgraded. New staff member starts tomorrow. Please acknowledge that you have received this information via personal presence by exhaling on the student identity wand. Thank you, boys. Dismissed."

Neither of us knows what to say. I blink. Pulse blinks back at me. We slip out of our chairs and slink out of the room.

"I don't know what to make of it," Pulse says as we jog out into the night, hands jammed in our pockets against the cold. "A new guy? That's weird. What if he's a total anus?"

"He might be nice," I suggest, my breath a fog. "Maybe he'll be like us."

"Probably not, though. Kids these days aren't like when we graduated, Marly. They're all entitled and ignorant. I bet you anything the new guy will be a complete penis from the minute he walks in, acting like he owns the place."

"Well, I guess that could happen."

"What gives him the right? Who does he think he is?"

"I know, eh?"

We eat fried chicken and act like nothing's changed. We joke around and laugh until a group of beautiful people strides in on a cloud of perfume and popularity. The tipsy boys elbow each other and guffaw. The gorgeous girls crinkle their long noses. "What smells like dirt?" they ask each other, then giggle and cast sidelong glances at our booth. "Dirt? I think you mean Earth."

"I could beat those girls up," offers Pulse.

"Just ignore them," I say, hunching my shoulders.

We walk home. At the north gate we part ways. Neither of us mentions tomorrow. I can tell Pulse is worrying, but I try not to. After all, how bad could it be?

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CHEESEBURGER BROWN: Novelist & Story-wallah
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