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.
Connected stories: Simon of Space, Life & Taxes, Tim, Destroyer of Worlds
And now, the story continues:
THE AUTOMATIC MARLBORO - SECTION I
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?"
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?"
"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.
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