The Automatic Marlboro is a science-fiction novelette told in twelve parts, posted serially by me, your slightly sunburned host, Cheeseburger Brown. This is the eighth installment.
Connected stories: Simon of Space, Life & Taxes, Tim, Destroyer of Worlds
And now, the conclusion begins:
THE AUTOMATIC MARLBORO - SECTION III
The lab smells like sour yeast and bitter regret. The cryogenic drum is no longer a brewery; it's been washed out but the odour lingers. Other things are different now, too. Our desks are as far away from one another as geometry allows, for example. We don't make eye contact if it can be helped. It's not because we're shy but because we've been stung dumb by too many small but loaded slights. Nobody knows what anybody's really saying anymore so we just don't say anything at all.
The hobby train has been closed down, its dissociated track segments and cars now hidden beneath stacks upon stacks of boxed spare robot parts ordered by Pulse in order to disorder the budget. We have hips up to our eyeballs, and eyeballs up to the ceiling.
I have never felt so alone.
I'm startled when Pulse appears crouching beside my desk. "Listen," he whispers, "I wanted to talk to you."
I don't know what to say so I don't look at him.
"Marly, I know things are fornicated between us right now. But don't forget to step back and look at the big picture. The budget review is today: presto -- she's gone, and then things can be normal again. It'll be you and me. Like old times, right?"
I let my shoulders sag and look over at him. He has a black eye from where I hit him. I say, "I'm sorry I hit you, okay? Just don't talk to me right now."
"I deserved it," says Pulse, starting to grin but then wincing. "Did it make you feel better?"
"Yeah I guess it kind of did, actually."
We laugh awkwardly, but when we hear Air cough from the other side of the room we drop our voices back to whispers. Pulse asks, "Did you get very far?"
"Don't make me hit you again."
"I'm just yanking your penis."
"You're a comedic triumph."
"Don't be touchy, Marly. She's not worth it. We're bros, man. By sunset all this will be behind us. Right?"
I hold his eye for a moment and then concede with a nod and a reluctant smile. "...Right."
The loading door grinds up, a jester sashays down.
There's no mistaking this particular robot line: it is The Antilogue. He steps up under the lights at the centre of the bay and bows with a flourish before affecting a pose of self-presentation with jazz hands, black bowler hat overturned on the floor, and a lop-sided grin stretching his painted face.
Pulse walks to him, dodging a pallet of spare feet. "The Antilogue! You're looking fit. To what do we owe the honour of this performance?"
The Antilogue nods down at the hat.
Pulse pats his pockets. He looks over at me, shrugging. I shake my head. "I never carry money," I tell him. "Earth habits die hard."
Air sighs melodramatically as she fishes a quarter-hour sovereign from her satchel and tosses it into the hat. Though the hat is empty the coin makes a distinct clinking sound as if it has landed in a bed of peers. Air furrows her brow.
"I'm always serviced at Nirgal," says the robot. "Isn't that funny?"
"So what are you doing on this side of the river?" asks Pulse.
The Antilogue cocks his head. "That is the funny part, isn't it? Very good sir." He straightens and turns to face me as I wander closer. He removes his clown mask and puts it aside, rubbing at one temple with his fingertips. "Goodmorning, sir. I'm experiencing intermittent decoherence in my right occipital module. May I have a tune-up?"
I nod. "Of course. Please step over to the work frame."
The Antilogue looks up at the frame. "Father," he says, his strange little mouth fixed into a permanent smile, "into thy hand I commit my spirit: thou hast redeemed me."
"Is that Shakespeare?" asks Pulse.
"No, sir. It is not."
Pulse peels back the skin. Air connects the cortical cables. I scan the readout. The problem is minor, the remedy routine. We work without banter. The Antilogue peeks between our hands as we hover over him, inclining his head to get a better view of the apparatus under drape in the corner. "That looks funny," he observes...
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