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The Automatic Marlboro
A novelette by Cheeseburger Brown
SECTION 1 a|b|c
SECTION 2 a|b|c|d
SECTION 3 a|b|c|d|e
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The Automatic Marlboro, a novelette by Cheeseburger Brown; illustration by Matthew Hemming

SECTION III.

b)


There's a gazebo on Michael's Hill. If you sit on the roof you can see clear across campus, from the southern Marineris cliffs all the way to the broad and glittering shores of the Future Sea.

That's what I'm doing: sitting on the roof.

From way up here the boundaries of the old domes are obvious in the architecture below. When you're in the streets it all seems to blend, but from above the transitions are abrupt. Move your head -- one blink takes you from pioneer days to the modern era. Low Earthish structures on one side, soaring towers on the other. Tradition and ambition.

It's really weird how small and short-lived people are, and how big our lives seem when we're in their trenches. Overwhelming, our mammal trivia.

The election's coming to a head so there are colourful signs everywhere I look. I've been too busy losing all my dignity and friends and purpose to bother choosing a party to vote for.

But I do have to make a choice. An important one.

It shouldn't even be a choice, but it is. Professor Cuthbertson's expecting it. My heart starts to hammer as I let myself down from the gazebo roof and drop onto the lawn. I can't put it off any longer.

As instructed, we have laid waste to our budget. Our staff allocation has been dropped to two. I've submitted my report. Now the professor will see me in person so he can authorize my recommendation and make it official.

Pulse will get the axe.

I'm shaking as I cross the quad. Change is difficult. But I'm making things better. Air has a lot of good points. She's looking ahead. She's responsible. Why does it feel so awful? I know I'll never be able to look him in the eye again.

But I have to put the project first. That's not really something I can do anything about, technically.

Pulse is holding us back.

I am a total anus.

Professor Logos Cuthbertson is uncharacteristically mobile. He's jamming data wafers and viewing plates into boxes, stacking the boxes on his desk and labeling them illegibly. His broad forehead glistens with sweat. He doesn't look at me but that isn't unusual. To his boxes he says, "Marlboro Siemens. Yes?"

"I came about the, um, budget review."

"Forget about it. Whatever you recommended has been authorized. Do you have a car?"

I blink. "What? No."

"Get yourself a car. Pack your things. Get out of Huo Hsing. You've seen the results."

I shrink back out of the professor's way as he bustles around the cramped office, eyes searching the shelves. "What results?" I ask.

He looks up. He looks right at me. "Get your head out of the sand. You're an idiot for ordering all those spare parts! They'll think you're building an army."

I feel dizzy. "Who'll think what?"

"The new government, boy. They're moving fast."

I shake my head. "What do you mean?"

"They'll come," he says, bending over a box. "Get out. You can't be seen with me -- you don't look Aresian enough. Too notable." He looks up again and frowns. "You're still standing there, boy. Get out!"

"What?"

"Go!" he roars, throwing a binder at me. I dodge it and stumble out into the corridor. A few other faculty members seem to be emptying their offices, too.

I catch the arm of an undergrad running boxes. "What's going on?"

"The New Martian Party has taken parliament, man!" he replies, twisting his arm free and sprinting away.

The running is contagious. Now I'm running, too, though I'm not really clear on why. I feel like a dozen things should be racing across my mind at once but they're not -- instead there's a just white noise, a numbness, a bemused mix of panic and detachment.

I run faster.

When I get to the lab I'm slick with sweat and heaving for breath. I stop in the middle of the bay, hands on my knees, panting. When I look up I'm looking straight at Pulse's desk and it's empty. He's gone.

"You did the right thing."

I turn around and there's Air. I swallow. "How did he take it?"

She drops her eyes, shifts awkwardly then looks up again. "Listen, Marly -- there are more important things happening. I made some calls. The Zorannic Centre at the U of N has been militarized. They're trying to keep it quiet, but word is the robots won't come near the place anymore."

My mouth goes dry. "Sacred faeces. The election! So that's why The Antilogue came to us -- he couldn't go anywhere else."

"I think he chose to come."

"To warn us?"

"To assess," she corrects. "He was a scout."

"In advance of what?"

She licks her lips and looks me in the eye for the first time in weeks. "Marly, I think the Zorannics are going to try to take the lab."

"Take it?" I repeat incredulously. "Like, a rebellion? Are you crazy?"

A tear rolls down her cheek and her chin dimples. "I never wanted to be wrong so bad in my whole life," she croaks.

"Faeces," I say. And then I hug her.

"We have to help them," she says into my neck.

I pull away, brow furrowed. "What could we do?"

"We have to finish the apparatus," she says, eyes wide. "We can put their reproduction in their own hands. Instead of being tied to this lab they'd be truly independent!"

I don't know what to think. I keep wiping my hands down my face and pacing in circles. "There's some people who say the Zorannics are too powerful to be independent. You know that, right? There's some people who say there's no knowing what they might do if they weren't bound to us." I gulp heavily to avoid throwing up and then whisper, "What you're suggesting is treason. Like real, actual treason. Like in history."

"People have to do what's right," says Air, raising her chin.

"Yeah? Well, those people aren't me. I don't do the right thing. I just fired my best friend for all the wrong reasons. I'm why people shouldn't be allowed to make decisions that matter. I'm a selfish coward. I'm a moron."

She slaps me. I stagger back and then tumble over a stack of boxed fingers. The spare parts spill out of their boxes and point at me. I shrink back, looking up at Air and rubbing the side of my face.

"Shut up," says Air. "You're a baby."

"I am not," I hiss, eyes watering.

"This is bigger than you, Marlboro Siemens. Can you understand that? You're going to have to put your personal problems aside and help me save the Zorannics from the New Martians. I'm not letting anything different from that happen in this room. So you're either with me now or I'm hitting you until you are."

I hold up a hand. "Wait," I say, "Hold on."

She shakes her head. "We're not waiting for anything," she says, stepping forward and standing over me. "We may only have until morning. I can't do it alone. We've got to get to work immediately. Okay?"

"No," I insist. "No, Air -- listen. There's something we need first."

She cocks her head. "What's that?"

"We need Pulse."



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