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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 lab smells like sour yeast and bitter regret. The cryogenic drum is no longer a brewery; it's been washed out but the odour lingers. Other things are different now, too. Our desks are as far away from one another as geometry allows, for example. We don't make eye contact if it can be helped. It's not because we're shy but because we've been stung dumb by too many small but loaded slights. Nobody knows what anybody's really saying anymore so we just don't say anything at all.

The hobby train has been closed down, its dissociated track segments and cars now hidden beneath stacks upon stacks of boxed spare robot parts ordered by Pulse in order to disorder the budget. We have hips up to our eyeballs, and eyeballs up to the ceiling.

I have never felt so alone.

I'm startled when Pulse appears crouching beside my desk. "Listen," he whispers, "I wanted to talk to you."

I don't know what to say so I don't look at him.

"Marly, I know things are fornicated between us right now. But don't forget to step back and look at the big picture. The budget review is today: presto -- she's gone, and then things can be normal again. It'll be you and me. Like old times, right?"

I let my shoulders sag and look over at him. He has a black eye from where I hit him. I say, "I'm sorry I hit you, okay? Just don't talk to me right now."

"I deserved it," says Pulse, starting to grin but then wincing. "Did it make you feel better?"

"Yeah I guess it kind of did, actually."

We laugh awkwardly, but when we hear Air cough from the other side of the room we drop our voices back to whispers. Pulse asks, "Did you get very far?"

"Don't make me hit you again."

"I'm just yanking your penis."

"You're a comedic triumph."

"Don't be touchy, Marly. She's not worth it. We're bros, man. By sunset all this will be behind us. Right?"

I hold his eye for a moment and then concede with a nod and a reluctant smile. "...Right."

The loading door grinds up, a jester sashays down.

There's no mistaking this particular robot line: it is The Antilogue. He steps up under the lights at the centre of the bay and bows with a flourish before affecting a pose of self-presentation with jazz hands, black bowler hat overturned on the floor, and a lop-sided grin stretching his painted face.

Pulse walks to him, dodging a pallet of spare feet. "The Antilogue! You're looking fit. To what do we owe the honour of this performance?"

The Antilogue nods down at the hat.

Pulse pats his pockets. He looks over at me, shrugging. I shake my head. "I never carry money," I tell him. "Earth habits die hard."

Air sighs melodramatically as she fishes a quarter-hour sovereign from her satchel and tosses it into the hat. Though the hat is empty the coin makes a distinct clinking sound as if it has landed in a bed of peers. Air furrows her brow.

"I'm always serviced at Nirgal," says the robot. "Isn't that funny?"

"So what are you doing on this side of the river?" asks Pulse.

The Antilogue cocks his head. "That is the funny part, isn't it? Very good sir." He straightens and turns to face me as I wander closer. He removes his clown mask and puts it aside, rubbing at one temple with his fingertips. "Goodmorning, sir. I'm experiencing intermittent decoherence in my right occipital module. May I have a tune-up?"

I nod. "Of course. Please step over to the work frame."

The Antilogue looks up at the frame. "Father," he says, his strange little mouth fixed into a permanent smile, "into thy hand I commit my spirit: thou hast redeemed me."

"Is that Shakespeare?" asks Pulse.

"No, sir. It is not."

Pulse peels back the skin. Air connects the cortical cables. I scan the readout. The problem is minor, the remedy routine. We work without banter. The Antilogue peeks between our hands as we hover over him, inclining his head to get a better view of the apparatus under drape in the corner. "That looks funny," he observes.

"Try not to talk when I have my fingers in your neurology," mumbles Pulse.

"Why should there be secrets here at Huo Hsing?" persists the robot.

"It's not a secret," I tell him. "It's just covered up. We're just not working on it right now is all."

"Working on what?" he asks, looking from Air's face to Pulse's to mine.

I shrug. "It's just a side-project thing."

Nobody else speaks. None of us wants to think about the experimental apparatus that we've cooperated on and argued over and flirted by for months. Now the thing is as dead as our clobbered feelings -- under wraps, in the shadows, discomfiting to consider.

Air uncouples the cables and Pulse seals the cranial seams while I run a quick diagnostic series. I go along with Pulse and the plastic service robots to run the memory backup down to the vault. Pulse seems as if he wants to say something so after the dozenth hint I look at him and snap, "What is it? Because if it's about Air just --"

"No, man. It's about The Antilogue."

I pause, then hug my shoulders against the cold of the vault. "What about him?"

"That decoherence trap was self-inflicted, Marly. He spiked his own module."

I frown skeptically. "Why would he do that?"

"He wanted service, for some reason. He wanted service here. It's weird."

"Maybe he's lonely. The Antilogue is a bizarre line. If you ask me he never should've made the cut, but they say Dr. Zoran was always intrigued by the particularly unique way his sentience germinated. He's crazy, though."

Pulse nods. "He always gave me the creeps whenever I saw him in simulation."

"I know, eh?"

Back in the lab the quirky Zorannic is standing next to Air in the corner by our uncompleted project, the covering drape limp in her hand. The Antilogue bends down on one knee. He peers at the underside of the apparatus, his gaily coloured vestaments swishing as he moves. "You seem to have the interleaving field combs connected through the Mississauga Machine redundantly here..." He straightens. "How hilarious."

"It's not finished," I say quickly.

"We're optimizing," adds Air.

The Antilogue shows us his little diamond teeth. "So you are still working at it, is that it?"

"We hit some snags," says Pulse, looking over at Air.

"They slept together," I explain.

"Things got complicated," Air growls, her expression pinched and fierce.

The Antilogue claps his white gloves together and smiles broadly. "They always do, don't they? Things? Yes, always complicating themselves. Take that, second law of thermodynamics! That's funny, isn't it?"

I say, "It doesn't feel funny to me."

"There's nothing funny about being considered a goal first and a person second," says Air.

"Or being used," adds Pulse with a sneer, "to prove a point."

The Antilogue nods sagely as he pulls the clown mask down over his Zorannic face and drops the bowler on top of his head. "That's the joke of love: e'er a painful punchline. But it wouldn't be romance without tragedy, would it? It would be a nice time. It would be an agreeable session. It would be a sleepy Sunday. Sleepy, sleepy, sleepy."

"He's just raving now," says Pulse, rolling his eyes. "Can we get this dingbat out of here?"

"If of life you keep a care, shake off slumber and beware," continues the odd jester with a theatrical pause, then cries out with startling ferocity: "awake, awake!" He winks at Pulse. "There's your Shakespeare, sir."

Air crosses her arms and frowns. "I've studied you. I've studied your line. You're trying to tell us something. Why don't you be straightforward about it? It's within your capacity."

"My capacity, madam, but surely not within my appetite."

"Fornication," growls Pulse. "What's the big joke already?"

The Antilogue doffs his bowler hat and hangs it out for a tip. Pulse and I both turn to Air. Air fishes out another coin and drops it in. The Antilogue replaces his hat and bows. "Listen, young wetlings," he says in a stagey whisper. "Bend close your ears of meat."

We look at one another apprehensively, then do as we are told. We huddle with the mad fool.

"Ares is over," he sings strangely, "and a new Mars has begun. I have not gone to the University of Nirgal for service because the University of Nirgal will not service me. Not without strings. Not without promises."

"What promises?" prompts Air.

"The faculty has been compromised. The mandate is broken. They want a new oath from us, and a new yoke. The yoke is the joke. Very funny! And the joke is coming here to Huo Hsing. Your sides will split, I tell you true. But timing is everything, isn't it? That's the funniest part: your apparatus is going to be a riot."

I frown. "What does any of that even mean?"

The Antilogue points at the loading bay door and it obeys him, creaking open. Daylight spills down the ramp, winking off the jester's baubles. He straightens, his mask's gaping grin crooked. "Want my advice?" asks the robot happily. "Be very, very, very afraid."

He's gone. His long shadow slithers up the ramp. The door chugs down.

I shiver.

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