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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.

e)


Blindfolded, we descend. I stumble on the decline but am righted by very strong hands.

"Pulse, where are you?"

"I'm right here, man."

"Me too," says Air.

My breath hitches: Pulse and I have not been caught up in some random sweep...if Air is here, it can only be about the project. Where the Zorannic Centre at the University of Nirgal has been militarized by paperwork, we are apparently having it done unto us the old-fashioned way: by force. I wonder if we are being disappeared. Does that happen to real people? I mean, I accept that it could happen to me -- but could it really happen to natives like Pulse and Air?

When people are disappeared in real life, is it done with firearms? Or do they have some sort of special injection?

My bowels groan.

I gasp as the blindfold is whisked off my head. I blink and squint, my vision runny. I think I have a concussion. I wonder if I'm dreaming because it seems to me as though we're back in the lab.

A figure bears down on me: camouflage fatigues, riot armour, breathing mask, hard eyes. "Dr. Marlboro Kleenex Siemens, Director of the University Zorannic Maintenance Centre at Huo Hsing?"

I manage to nod.

"Sir," says the military man as he reaches up and removes his face; "my name is Jeremiah. Strain five."

The lieutenant at his side follows suit. "Finnimbrun, twenty-first strain."

"Socrates, strain eighteen."

"Flatten, sir, of the seventh strain."

"Symmetry three."

"Curie Twentieth, sir."

The entire platoon is composed of Zorannic robots in disguise. Their eyes are holograms swimming in goggles, peeled away and put aside with the breathing masks and helmets. Curie removes the blindfolds from Air and Pulse who gape to confirm what they've heard. "Holy mung, I thought the campus was actually overrun with soldiers!" cries Pulse.

"It is," says Jeremiah gravely.

"They seek you, but we have polluted their intelligence," adds Flatten. "The delay will not be long, however. Time drains without regard."

"The Antilogue tells us riddles of your invention," says Curie. "What is the truth of it?"

Pulse swallows and nods. "It's a self-contained robot re-propagation apparatus, Ms. Curie." He turns and gestures toward the darkened space between the towers of boxes where the apparatus is nestled, the work lamps dim and our benches shoved aside. The borders of the thing bristle with outstretched fingers. "I call it the Automatic Marlboro," he proclaims.

I look aside at Pulse. He winks at me.

"Please understand that circumstances oblige us to seize this machine," says Flatten.

"We understand," says Air. "We built it for you. We want you to take it."

Jeremiah tilts his head and looks at us, but says nothing. Two iterations of Symmetry-3 and a single copy of Grain-6 arrive down the ramp driving forklifts; they set to scooping up stacks of spare parts. A polished black hearse slides down the ramp next; funerary robots in sombre black carapaces form a fire-brigade line to conduct plastic-wrapped Zorannic bodies from the vault to the trunk. When the hearse is full it glides away and another takes its place.

Key tools are gathered into shoulder satchels by Ms. Finnimbrun and Mr. Flatten while Ms. Curie takes a seat at my desk to grab schematics from my console; breaching multiple hardened security layers barely causes her to pause. Mr. Paper arrives between hearses to conduct his orchestra of street-cleaners -- they arrange themselves around our apparatus and, at an unseen signal, heave. Within minutes the lab is in threat of denuding.

What can we do but watch? Air and Pulse and I hold hands.

Socrates stands poised with his fingertips touching the southern wall. He turns to look back over his shoulder and calls, "Jeremiah, they close! We must move now."

Jeremiah nods. "Order the second unit to initiate the distraction."

"Sir," says Socrates, closing his eyes briefly. He opens them again. "It is done."

The exodus begins. Hearses first, then the street-cleaners march up the ramp with the apparatus between them, loaded forklifts rolling at their heels. The other Zorannics cover their faces with breathing masks and goggles, donning their helmets and tightening their gloves.

"Where will you go?" asks Air.

"We have established a strategic foothold in a defensible location," says Jeremiah. "I regret, madam, that I am unable to disclose more detail."

"Keep your secrets," says Air. "They're yours to keep."

"Madam," replies the robot with a slight bow.

"Well," says Pulse, "I guess you guys won't be needing us anymore. Or any human being, really."

"Perhaps we may not need you," agrees Jeremiah, his black lenses reflecting our faces back to us. "But we still want you."

Pulse smiles. I smile, too.

Jeremiah covers his Zorannic features with a mask and goggles as he turns and walks up the ramp with Curie and Flatten. Socrates follows walking backward. He nods to us, holographic eyes roving back and forth as the group is lost to our sight. Chill morning air wafts down to us.

"I wish we could go with them," says Air.

I shake my head. "We couldn't. We can't. Somebody's got to stay behind."

She furrows her brow. "Why?"

"To finish what we've started."

The speakers built into the walls crackle. An alarm tone sounds, followed by the voice of the dean instructing all students to assemble in common areas and comply with the authorities. Pulse walks up the loading bay ramp: he peeks outside then ducks back in. "The sky is full of floaters," he says. "There's army guys everywhere, wearing the exact same uniforms the Zorannics were."

The alarm tone sounds again. "We're supposed to get out," says Air.

Pulse looks at me. "Marly?"

"Rice syrup solids," I say. "There's a canister of rice syrup solids by the cryo tub. Then all we need is a match."

Air stares. "What?"

"We used it for the beer," explains Pulse. "It's...highly flammable."

Air starts to say something but stops. She knows we can't stop halfway. She knows it isn't enough that we give the Zorannic robots the ability to reproduce themselves -- the ability has to be taken away from us. "Like you said," I tell Air, "these secrets belong to them, now."

"But what about the Zorannic Centre at Nirgal?"

"We'll hit that, too," I promise.

Pulse raises a brow. "Are you serious, man? That's a lot to bite off."

"Yeah, well, it's worth tricking yourself for. Don't you think?"

He pauses, then nods. In his best imitation of my accent he says, "I guess that's probably true."

I look to Air. "Are you in or are you out?"

Air hesitates. "I think...I think you're a brave man, Marlboro Siemens," she says. "And I think you're right, too. I'm with you. I mean -- not with you with you...but I'm in." She blushes between her freckles.

"How can we do it?" asks Pulse. "They're going to come around with tasers and student identity wands any minute now."

I point to the stacks of spare parts still leftover after the Zorannic raid. "This time, it's our turn to wear the disguises."

The lab burns. Great greasy clouds spill out from the loading bay ramp and roll into the overcast sky. Windows shatter. Electronics melt and pop. People rush to move their cars. Alarms clang. Soldiers and police force people back behind lines of tape, the amplifiers on their necks lending their voices an inhuman, rumbling buzz. Sirens wail in the distance.

In the quad bleary-eyed students and stunned faculty mill, hemmed in by soldiers in riot gear. The more hot-headed factions are starting group chants or holding hands while singing the old planetary anthem. An anti-broadcast field glimmers in the air over the rooftop gardens.

Service robots parade in orderly queues from the smoking doorways, some of them with their carapaces smouldering or even on fire. The soldiers and firefighters step aside, because hardware is not their concern: let the insurance adjusters worry about it. A cafeteria robot, a janitor, an RN, a translator, and then Pulse and Air and me. Each of us follows the robot ahead. We keep our eyes locked forward, our legs moving with mechanical precision. We sweat inside our cramped coverings, lenses fogging up from the inside and making the world look misty.

Our lungs burn but we dare not cough.

People may be cowards but we can pretend. We can trick ourselves into being instruments for what is right if we want badly enough to be able to be proud. We can stand taller. We can act. We can chase fear, if we want.

To be a really good human sometimes means rising up above your humanity. It's weird.

Do we feel historic? Do we feel important? No -- we just feel like us.

Pulse leans over awkwardly and whispers to me, "This galvanized codpiece is giving me the worst kind of wedgie, man."

Covered by the noise of shouting soldiers firing tear-gas rounds and into crowds of protesting students, we allow ourselves to laugh. Air hisses at us to shut up but, really, it's not negotiable.

Inside my mask I can't help but grin. "I know, eh?"


Fin.

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