Monday 9 May 2011

The Automatic Marlboro - Section I, sub-section (b)

The Automatic Marlboro is a science-fiction novelette told in twelve parts, posted serially by me, your high-resolution simulation of a host, Cheeseburger Brown. This is the second installment.

1a|1b |1c|2a|2b|2c|2d|3a|3b|3c|3d|3e

Connected stories: Simon of Space, Life & Taxes, Tim, Destroyer of Worlds

And now, the story continues:



What a lot of people don't think about is that there are robots and then there are robots. There are the robots that conduct traffic and clean toilets and bring you buttered toast -- you see them every day. They weld things. They lift and pull and polish and dance. They shovel garbage until they become it.

And then there are the Zorannic robots. They're more like you or me than it's comfortable to think about. They don't have jobs. They come and go as they please. But when they need a seam resealed or a memory bypass it's Pulse and me they come to.

Dr. Zoran programmed them to live among people, and to learn from their ways. You're taught that in Sunday school here on Mars.

Ares, I mean.

The thing is, we don't often hear from the Zorannics. Pulse and I spend most of our time table-top gaming, watching video streams and posting sassy comments to the metalibrary to crack each other up. We've converted one of the cryogenic drums into a keg for our homebrew, which is why sometimes the lab smells somewhat of yeast. Pulse's desk is orbited by strings of glowing data -- half of it genius, half of it lewd. My desk is the central station for our department-spanning model railway system.

Pulse calls, "Ship me a beer, Marly."

I engage the train and watch it chug around the periphery of the lab on its way to the taps. It leaves a trail of Cheerio-sized smoke loops drifting in the air. "Pilsner or dark?"

"Surprise me."

Pulse jumps as the loading bay door at the end of the lab hisses pressurized air and begins to grind upward. He turns in his chair, feet dropping from his desk. There is a line of shadows sliding down the concrete ramp. I stand up.

A squadron of street-cleaners marches down into the bay, their rubber-soled feet squeaking on the metal floor. "Hey," says Pulse, waving his arms over his head, "you guys can't park here. Hey!"

The squadron comes to a halt, dust raining from the brooms they hold at the shoulder like bayonets. All of them stare blankly ahead with identical sets of dull glowing eyes except one, who breaks ranks by stepping aside.

"This area is for Zorannics only, okay?" says Pulse as he approaches. He gestures at the ramp. "Shoo! Okay? Shoo! I think there's some ape turds in the quad that desperately need your attention, guys. Okay?"

The singular street-cleaner reaches up to his own face, his dirt-darkened fingers searching for the seam in the plastic carapace. The mask comes apart into two halves, revealing the familiar but unearthly features of a Zorannic robot, his metallic skin textured by decades of human-like expressions, his eyes unfathomable black lenses.

"Sirs," says the Zorannic with a slight bow. "I require service."

"And a bath," adds Pulse.

The Zorannic's face smears and crinkles into an interpretation of a smile, exposing a row of little rounded diamond teeth. "Quite."

I turn on the work lamps. Pulse sets up the tools, then teases out a length of hose for a spray-down as the Zorannic undresses from the rest of his street-cleaner disguise. I swing over the diagnostic armature and let it pass around the Zorannic's body before giving the go-ahead to turn on the water.

When the bath is done the robot shakes himself like a dog.

The scanner chuckles: FIRST EXECUTIVE STRAIN - "PAPER" - ITERATION 3. His incept date and service history scroll into view. I look up from the readout. "Goodmorning, Mr. Paper. It's nice to see you again. You came in here once when I was an undergrad, remember?"

"I remember," says Paper.

"My name is Marlboro. Marlboro Siemens."

"You are from the Earth."

"I'm thinking of changing my name."

Paper cocks his head. "Why?"

I shrug. "To fit in, I guess. Do you ever have trouble fitting in, Mr. Paper?"

Paper inclines his head toward the street-cleaner carapace piled on the floor. "Yes," he says.

"Stop bothering the talent," snaps Pulse as he shoves me aside. "Now let's get that torso open, shall we? Have a little looky-loo? We'll see if we can't figure what's troubling your wee crystal heart, Papes."

We hang him and split his seams. Pulse hooks up the cables to run the fluids through a scrubber while I scope with my magnifying monocle for carbon accumulations I can scrape out with my pick. I look up to report, "The nanotubes in your left quadriceps bundle are pretty frayed. Would you like me to replace the whole muscle group?"

"Yes, please."

"No problem, Mr. Paper. Turn off your pain if you haven't already."

Four hours later our guest is like new. He stretches his limbs experimentally, nodding with approval. He tests his speech centres with a series of unintelligible staccato syllables, then straightens and flashes us his impression of a smile again. "Very nice, gentlemen. I feel better than nominal. Thank you."

Pulse steps forward and polishes a bit of grime off Paper's eye with a rag, then pockets the rag and crosses his arms. "Okay, Papes -- you're all set to make yourself filthy again. Go out there and learn all the dirty secrets of human behaviour, you little scamp."

I nod my head and add, "It's our privilege, Mr. Paper."

The Zorannic robot clicks the pieces of the stained plastic carapace back into place, disappearing inside the shell of a humble street-cleaning machine once again. He takes his place in the squadron and without visible command they all suddenly rotate on heel to turn toward the ramp.

I kill the work lamps, and open the door. The squadron marches out.

Pulse waves.

To read the rest of this story, buy it now from Amazon for just $2.99!


Tolomea said...

Did we skip a couple of subsections?

Cheeseburger Brown said...


Oops, sorry -- title fixed. Thanks!


Dan said...

They shovel garbage until they become it. Nice!

SaintPeter said...

I'll admit, the resolution on this hosting is outstanding. I've rarely seen a host so detailed and lifelike.

I am actually tempted to wait a week or several until the entire story is posted then come and read it in one go.

Regardless, I am intrigued. An enticing treat once again.

Mark said...

My interest is piqued. Or peaked. Love the final line in this entry.

Teddy said...

I smell the birth of the equivalency. 1: Our host is Marlboro. 2: Our host repairs executives but doesn't necessarily know of their programming (to our knowledge, at least). 3: Given the title (and possibly hinted at in the accompaniment art) there will be a robot version of him. I wonder if they'll accidentally make it too lifelike or something.


Sheik Yerbouti said...

I'm not speccing; too many loose ends here. Interesting to see that the Ad Campaign Baby Name Book has already been published.

Riddle me this, dear Cheeseburger: if Felix the First can repair himself in the field (albeit with the help of his staff) and even grow new appendages when it suits him, why do these later models require human intervention for mechanical repairs?

Afternote -- my captcha today is Mr. T l33tspeak: "phool"

Joshua Benjamin said...

LOL! Mark is right... I missed it the first time around, but that last line is gold.

SaintPeter said...

As I was reading this subsection, and thinking back to similar descriptions in Simon of Space, I'm kind of creeped out by the description of the Zoronic robots faces. They sound like they have human-like faces, but rendered in non-human materials. For some reason I always envision them as tightly stretched faces masks of old men. Something like Darth Vader with his mask off . . .

I do believe that CBB has managed to land me directly in the middle of the Uncanny Valley.

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear Dan,

To be candid, the line had such a ring to it that I became paranoid that I was unconsciously ripping it off from somewhere else; however, a Google search turned up negative so I went with it.

Cheeseburger Brown

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear Mark,

Definitely "piqued." Use of "peeked" is a symptom of a bemused mined.

Cheeseburger Brown

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear Teddy,

I'm almost starting to think there should be two burgerverses: the one I type and the one you speculate. Your inspired imagination frequently makes connections that hadn't at all occurred to me during the genesis phase. But good ideas none the less.

I'll split the difference here call it: close.

Cheeseburger Brown

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear Sheik,

If Felix...can repair himself in the field (albeit with the help of his staff) and even grow new appendages when it suits him, why do these later models require human intervention for mechanical repairs?

Your confusion is a natural result of being such an attentive reader, my friend. My brother and I were discussing a very similar issue the other night.

I suspect the root is an assumption -- and a very reasonable one, at that -- that by the time this story takes place Felix is long gone on his mission into deep space. The key information this hangs on, very likely, is the fact that Felix bade goodbye to Dr. Zoran before leaving the Solar System, and Dr. Zoran is long dead by the time of The Automatic Marlboro.

I would now like to make the following assertions here in comments, knowing they will be supported textually in the future:

1) At time of The Automatic Marlboro, Ares does NOT possess hyperspatial technology.

2) Dr. Zoran has indeed passed away.

3) Felix has not yet left Ares, and thus will be able to incorporate improvements to the Zorannic hardware before his departure. Even so, Felix will modify himself as time goes on, inspired by things like the Pegasi staff and crafting versions of his own. In other words, he is an independent tinkerer. Some aspects of convergence are likely here as both Felix and the other Zorannics share the goal of improved self-reliance.

4) There is a special aspect to the relationship between Dr. Zoran and Felix which makes possible their parting exchange before Felix leaves the Solar System, despite the fact that Dr. Zoran is dead. I cannot elaborate on this point further without spoiling the conclusion of The Secret Mathematic.

…Does that help at all, or was it just cruel muddying?

Cheeseburger Brown

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear SaintPeter,

I think your response is appropriate, and it heartens me to hear it.

I've always hesitated to be too specific about the visual appearance of Zorannic faces as I think the imagination does a better job than my clumsy words, for one thing. For another thing the faces of the Zorannics are 1) individual to each line, and 2) subject to change as hardware improvements are incorporated over the decades/centuries.

I think my vagueness may have saved me from being too self-contradictory. But certainly one consistent facet of the description is that their features are disquieting to people -- like the uncanny valley you describe. Expressive and familiar, but alien.

Cheeseburger Brown

SaintPeter said...

The aspect that makes them most eerie is not so much how "alien" they are, but how human they are, without actually being human. It is the closeness that makes their departures so off-putting. As Jeremiah explains in several sections of SoS (especially the very end), his motivations are NOT human. He has emotions but he is not controlled by them. He looks mostly human, but is not.

It is their similarities to humans that set them apart.

I'm glad that was the effect you were going for because you have succeeded on a pretty subtle level.

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear all,

Oh my -- I just realized that a new chapter was supposed to go live today!

In my headlong dash to meet all my work and freelancing deadlines before I leave for vacation at the end of the month I completely missed the note in my calendar about posting today.

My apologies: I'll post the owed chapter as soon as I get back to the old schoolhouse this afternoon.


Sheik Yerbouti said...

CBB, thank you for the chronological and technical clarification. We nitpickers appreciate your attention to detail.

Your final statements about Felix and Dr. Zoran lend credence to some of my own speculation about the end of TSM and how certain beings will come to... be. I shall henceforth dive into your latest chapter and eagerly await the return of Team Mississauga.