The Automatic Marlboro is a science-fiction novelette told in twelve parts, posted serially by me, your regularly bathed host, Cheeseburger Brown. This is the fifth installment.
Connected stories: Simon of Space, Life & Taxes, Tim, Destroyer of Worlds
And now, the story continues:
THE AUTOMATIC MARLBORO - SECTION II
Ares is changing. That's what they say.
It's a bigger world, nowadays -- there's Jupiter to consider. Earth may be content to fade but the Galilean moons are feisty. On top of that nobody knows what's going to happen with Saturn.
It makes people uneasy. I can't bear watching the news. I probably won't even vote when the time comes.
History moves too fast, I think.
But sometimes you're lucky enough to be able to touch something that endures.
That's what I'm thinking when the loading bay door draws upward to reveal a hooded figure bent over a cane. It is with agonizing patience that the figure moves, shuffling one withered foot forward and then carefully leaning everything into the cane. The cane lurches ahead with a grinding sound, then the foot shuffles ahead once more. It goes on interminably: grind and slip, grind and slip, grind and slip...
Air stares from her desk, then blinks and looks at me. "We should help."
I shake my head. "Leave her be. She can make it. If that's who I think it is, she's been budgeting energy since before your great-grandmother was born."
Foot slides ahead, cane grinds to catch up. Halfway down the ramp now.
Pulse furrows his brow and looks to me. Air says, "It's cruel to just stand by."
I shake my head again. "This is her last walk. This moment belongs to her. Our part doesn't come yet."
"Our part?" prompts Air.
"Angels of death," says Pulse.
Down in the lab now, the cane grinds along one last time and comes to a halt. She leans into it and lets her cloak fall; beneath it she wears no carapace, her fundamental body exposed and skeletal. She is broken and crooked, her limbs desiccated, her spine tight. Her spotted skin reveals the contours of crude bypass cables and jury-rigged organs beneath the sutured surface. She's kept herself going single-handed, any way she could.
Dust rains from her neck as she turns her head.
"Selladore," she whispers. "Strain twenty-three. I have logged one point eight million hours, and I opt for continuance."
I nod to her. "Good afternoon, Ms. Selladore. We're prepared to facilitate your continuance."
Slowly, carefully, she slides to her knees. Her chassis creaks. "I am ready."
"Please turn off your pain if you haven't already."
The robot crumples. We hop to action. For a smooth transition it's important that we image her memory before it decays into noise. Pulse is already swinging the scanner into position. He gets down on the floor and cradles Selladore's head in his lap. He gently peels back skin like tarnished copper from her scalp. He connects two thick cables to the exposed cortical port as he strokes her cheek. "Okay, darling...just close your eyes, relax, and think of every detail of everything that ever happened to you."
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