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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 new guy is a girl.

Worse than that, she's a polymath. She's bossy. She's taller than either of us and knows it, too. Her teeth are too big. She seems pretentious, or if she's not she's faking it.

"Air Marrowman," she says with deliberate emphasis as if it were a brand name. "Class of the turn of the century, summa cum laude, winner of the Felix Mathematics Prize for my work on active numeral condensation schema under Wilderton and Hung, current Vavilov candidate for my research in fungal-crystallographic substrate engineering. I'm saying it now to get it over with -- don't anybody be touchy."

Pulse tries to affect a smile. "I'm P --"

"I know," she says. "I've reviewed your files."

Pulse leaves his hand dangling unshaken as Air breezes by to tour the rest of the lab, her unruly tangle of hair leaning this way and that as she cranes her head to take in the details. She frowns at everything she sees. "Zhang-style electrostatic clamps? Hopelessly obsolete. Look at those old magnetic isolation channels -- awful! And the only word for this field-twisting apparatus is...sad." She turns around and put her hands on her hips. "Well boys, it looks like we've got our work cut out for us."

Pulse crosses his arms. I shift uncomfortably. "What do you mean?"

"We've got to turn this place around," says Air. "Just as active number matrices can be reduced, there exists a set of condensation schema that can be applied to the system of this lab. Optimization, boys -- that's the name of the game. I'm excited about it. It's obvious this place needs some tuning."

"Well, technically, I'm the project's principal --"

"Oh of course, of course. Sure you are. That's not changing. We wouldn't change that, Marlboro. I'll be needing your nod on every tweak, your signature on every form, your breath on every wand. I'm going to be able to count on you to help make this place better, aren't I?"

"Well, sure," I stammer.

Her grin is weird. It's like a horse. I think it's worse than a Zorannic smile. Pulse and I flinch. "This is going to be great," she gushes. "I've got so many ideas!"

We can't wait to leave.

The café is busy, the atmosphere a solid fume of zealous babble and cultured yeast and hot cricket steam. Even though I can't be heard over the din my order is still correct because they know how I like my chicken. I'm bumped around a lot by the milling students but I manage to keep my lunch on the tray this time.

Pulse isn't jostled quite as much. He scopes out a quiet corner for us and we weave our way out of the throng.

"From Hell's heart I stab at her," says Pulse as slides into the booth; "for hate's sake I spit my last breath at her."

I unfold a plastic napkin on my lap. "I know, eh?"

First of all we agree that she's probably secretly stupid, a con artist able to squeeze by with some flashy book smarts that haven't distilled down to any parts of her brain that matter. We rattle off the titles of essential volumes she's unlikely to have read, first fiction than non. We next attack her likely abject ignorance of music, and the conceivably credible fact-like conjecture that she subscribes to all the worst kinds of streams -- mindless, jingoistic, popular.

"It's the way she approaches things -- you can just tell," says Pulse around a mouthful of microbial loaf. "She's got that stuck-up attitude of somebody impressive who's never really accomplished anything but wants you to think they have."

"To be fair, Pulse, she did win the –"

"That, Marly, is nothing but evidence that the standards at this school are going down. Way down."

I nod, picking at my chicken. "Yeah, I guess that's probably true."

"You're not going soft on her now, are you?"

I look up. "Oh no, Pulse. Faeces, no. She's clearly incompetent."

Pulse shovels another wad of loaf into his mouth. "And ugly," he adds.

I busy myself dipping chicken into sauce, tapping the excess off against the side of the container. "Yeah," I agree slowly. "I guess she really is pretty ugly, isn't she?"

Air Marrowman is knock-kneed and wide-shouldered. The skin between her splotches of thick, chocolate-chip freckles is colour of wet sand. Her eyebrows look like caterpillars, pinched over pupils a completely forgettable shade of slightly greyish phthalocyanine green.

Her spine is curved to hide her height. She wears obnoxious white sneakers that don't go with her pants, and her pants are a men's cut and at least a size too large. Her big ugly sweater has a stupid cat on it. The cat is ugly, too. Because of her sweater it's impossible to know what kind of shape her bosom has, but who would even care about that anyway?

"She's a hog," says Pulse. "Even we could do better."

"I bet she's never kissed anyone," I add, wagging a piece of chicken importantly.

Pulse swallows and nods. "She probably puts all her energy into messing with everything because she doesn't have a boyfriend to keep her busy."

"That's insightful," I claim.

Darkly Pulse decides, "We've got to get rid of her."

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