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



How could I have failed to notice the city transform?

My bicycle splashes through puddles of slush, wheels wobbling as I crane my head to take in the sight of crimson banners flying from every streetlamp and balcony. People with their faces painted red rush along to the public squares, grinning and shouting slogans at me as I try to weave between them. I ring my bell, but it's lost in the noise.

There's a parade winding down Second Avenue so I cut over to Fourth. I ride through a fish market, wrinkling my nose at the smell. On the far side a bunch of people are gathered around an outdoor holographic stage where a woman in a dark red dress is shouting, her image faintly flickering as she gesticulates. "Ares is a name taken to appease Old Earth, to soothe the fetid continents of mutts and its diaspora of vile Jovian inbreds!"

The crowd boos sympathetically, nodding and raising their placards.

"But the time of shame is over," continues the woman in red. "The time of play-acting is done. This is a new era -- an era of truth. We are the natural governors of this star system, and we aren't afraid to say who we are. We are Mars! And we're willing fight for the Solar peace every member of the selected human race deserves!"

The people cheer. I slink past, hat tugged down over my Earthish complexion. I don't want any trouble.

I toss my bike into the alley behind Pulse's apartment building, crank open the door to the fire stairwell and pound my way up the steps. The feeble Aresian gravity makes me feel strong and fast and nearly free.

In the corridor I lean into his door as I knock, calling his name. "It's me, it's Marly!"

His voice comes muffled through the door: "Fellate yourself, Marly."

"Pulse, please open the door! It's important! It's more important than you and me!" I give up knocking and slowly slide down the door, my knees turning to jelly. "Listen, man. I know I fornicated you. I know everything's my fault. You're my best friend, Pulse. I thought I was doing things for the right reasons...but it turns out I'm just a sphincter. I'm so sorry, man. I am."

The lock buzzes and retracts. The door unseals and slides aside. Pulse looks tired. "So what's so important?"

I clamber to my feet. "The New Martian Party won the election."

"I know that. Everybody knows that. What rock have you been living under?"

"The Air rock," I say. "But Air was right about one thing: the Zorannics are dependent on us to reproduce themselves, and we're dependent on the university. The university, in turn, is dependent on the government."

"And the mandate."

"The mandate's over, man. That's what everybody's saying. All the old promises mean nothing now. The New Martians want warships -- real ones, not decoys like in the days of the Shah. And they want the power of the Zorannic robots at their command."

Pulse pales. "What are you going to do?"

"Air says we've got to finish the apparatus. I think she's right. We've got to finish it right now. Like, tonight. She thinks the Zorannics will come for it."

Pulse nods. "She's clever for a manipulative whore."

"You know what, Pulse? Forget that. We need you, but you can't bring that with you. We need your brain, not your anger. I've got to put my feelings aside, too. We just have to get this thing done."

"That's easy for you to say. You fired me, you penis!"

"I said I'm sorry!"

Pulse punches me in the face. I fall down.

"Okay," he says, nodding slowly and rubbing his knuckles. "I think I'm okay with my anger issues now. I still kind of hate you, but I think I can stand working with you."

I cup my hands around my bleeding nose. "Faeces!"

"Are you okay, man?"

"Why does everybody keep slugging me in the face?"

"Because you're a pair of buttocks, Marly. You really, really are."

"I know, but...faeces!"

He helps me to my feet, then lets me into his apartment and gets me a tea towel full of ice cubes to press up against my throbbing face. He points out that the back of my head is bleeding too. "I think I have some gauze somewhere," he says, pawing through the mess.

With one good eye peeking out from behind the ice pack I step over and around things until I'm within the cone of projection for the home theatre. A line of figures in ruby uniforms stand spotlighted, the proud emblem of the New Martian Party floating behind them. "Immigration standards have fallen so low that over four hundred Terrans have gained some level of citizenship here in the past year alone," says one of the uniformed men as supporting graphs crawl beneath him. "How far does it have to go before we stand up to protect ourselves? Will it take an outbreak of neopox in our very own schools? How many children will be scarred for life before we stir?"

I wince involuntarily. My neopox scars are particularly bad.

"How did things even get this fornicated?" I ask aloud.

"Things have always been this fornicated," claims Pulse as he holds up a roll of gauze. "It just used to be rude to say so in mixed company."

"I'm going to end up in a labour camp, aren't I?"

Pulse shrugs. "Maybe tomorrow," he says. "But not tonight. We've got a self-contained robot re-propagation apparatus to build. Focus, Marly. Let's focus."

"Faeces," I say again.

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