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



Ares is changing. That's what they say.

It's a bigger world, nowadays -- there's Jupiter to consider. Earth may be content to fade but the Galilean moons are feisty. On top of that nobody knows what's going to happen with Saturn.

It makes people uneasy. I can't bear watching the news. I probably won't even vote when the time comes.

History moves too fast, I think.

But sometimes you're lucky enough to be able to touch something that endures.

That's what I'm thinking when the loading bay door draws upward to reveal a hooded figure bent over a cane. It is with agonizing patience that the figure moves, shuffling one withered foot forward and then carefully leaning everything into the cane. The cane lurches ahead with a grinding sound, then the foot shuffles ahead once more. It goes on interminably: grind and slip, grind and slip, grind and slip...

Air stares from her desk, then blinks and looks at me. "We should help."

I shake my head. "Leave her be. She can make it. If that's who I think it is, she's been budgeting energy since before your great-grandmother was born."

Foot slides ahead, cane grinds to catch up. Halfway down the ramp now.

Pulse furrows his brow and looks to me. Air says, "It's cruel to just stand by."

I shake my head again. "This is her last walk. This moment belongs to her. Our part doesn't come yet."

"Our part?" prompts Air.

"Angels of death," says Pulse.

Down in the lab now, the cane grinds along one last time and comes to a halt. She leans into it and lets her cloak fall; beneath it she wears no carapace, her fundamental body exposed and skeletal. She is broken and crooked, her limbs desiccated, her spine tight. Her spotted skin reveals the contours of crude bypass cables and jury-rigged organs beneath the sutured surface. She's kept herself going single-handed, any way she could.

Dust rains from her neck as she turns her head.

"Selladore," she whispers. "Strain twenty-three. I have logged one point eight million hours, and I opt for continuance."

I nod to her. "Good afternoon, Ms. Selladore. We're prepared to facilitate your continuance."

Slowly, carefully, she slides to her knees. Her chassis creaks. "I am ready."

"Please turn off your pain if you haven't already."

The robot crumples. We hop to action. For a smooth transition it's important that we image her memory before it decays into noise. Pulse is already swinging the scanner into position. He gets down on the floor and cradles Selladore's head in his lap. He gently peels back skin like tarnished copper from her scalp. He connects two thick cables to the exposed cortical port as he strokes her cheek. "Okay, darling...just close your eyes, relax, and think of every detail of everything that ever happened to you."

The matter printer squeaks and chitters as it lays down the record, atom by atom, until a dense net of diamond filaments seems to precipitate from the thin air inside the isolation tank. Pulse checks the readout. "Fidelity is good," he reports. "We've got her."

Selladore lets go. Her mouth dangles open and her limbs sag. With a fading hum her fusion pile spins down to silence.

Pulse waves over two simple service robots to wheel the memory record away, then disappears into the buffer chamber to seed a new Selladore pattern into operation. Together Air and I haul the corporeal remains to the incinerator.

"One point eight million hours of operation," breathes Air; "that's over two hundred years!"

"I know, eh?" I say. "I keep telling them they need to come in more often if they want to stay limber."

"This is her funeral," she adds quietly.

I slam the lid on the incinerator and dog the latch. "You don't have to think of it like that," I tell her as I crank the candles up to full heat. "It's also her birthday."

Beneath the lab, in the vault, we walk among rows of pristine bodies swaddled in plastic -- the thesis projects of hardware engineering students. We wipe frost from the labels so we can choose a compatible flavour. "Can we use a Type Five?" asks Air.

I shake my head. "No, Type Fives are Lallos. Too clunky. Selladore always wears a Type Four. Graceful."

We choose a nice ripe model, cart it into the lab and get it hung on the work frame. Air primes the organs while I open up the head. Pulse walks in escorted by a brace of service robots carrying a newly imaged cognitive state, a version incorporating the experiences of other Selladore models who've pooled their memories in the time since this Selladore's last visit with us. This is really Pulse's forte -- he's the fastest, cleanest and most accurate memories synthesizer working in the field today.

Pulse uncouples the cables from the fresh Type IV hardware. I pull on my rubber gloves and hit the body with a surge of power. It jerks briefly, then lies still.

A thin membrane flicks over the black eyes. The metal lips part. The head tilts.

"This is Selladore Twenty-Third: I exist, operate, and am at your service."

We run some memory tests. We hit her in the knees with a little rubber hammer to time the reflex. We ask her to squeeze a ball of smart plastic, then let her down off the frame and ask her to stand on one foot while she touches the tip of her chin. "How do you feel, Ms. Selladore?" I ask her.

"Nominal," she reports. And then, after a pause she adds, "Young, too."

I grin. "That's good. We're all finished here. Welcome to your new iteration."

"Thank you," says Selladore, bending her knees and extending her arms. She twists her head around side to side. She takes up her cloak but leaves the cane behind. We wave as she jogs up the ramp and out into the world.

Where does she live? Whom does she observe?

We will never know, for the Zorannics owe us no report. Like any free living thing their purpose is ultimately whatever they make of it. Dr. Zoran's mandate spelled it out centuries ago -- we're only here to help.

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CHEESEBURGER BROWN: Novelist & Story-wallah
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