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Bobo, a novella by C. B. Brown; illustrations by Matthew Hemming.

CHAPTER 10

In a rude dirt tunnel, lit by work lamps, a woman named John picked into a wall of time-compacted trash with a fine metal hook. Gingerly she teased aside the mashed remains of a brown diaper to peer at the data wafers behind it. She took tweezers from her belt and carefully pinched the wafers between conductivity nodes, then tugged.

The wafers crumbled into dust.

John dropped back on her haunches and sighed. "This fellates," she declared. "Everything I touch turns to powder. Can't we get another pass of bonding gel?"

Ralph shot her cuff and checked her watch, scanning the inventory. "Tank's tapped," she said, shaking her head. "There'll be no refill until the new grant kicks in, Johnny."

"We should call it," said Dick, wandering over. "Break down camp, start fresh next week. We're down to emergency rations and my boots are coming apart."

John drooped, then pursed her lips as she peeled off her gloves. "Every plot said this site should be swarming with colonial artifacts. How could we have been so wrong?"

Ralph put a hand on John's shoulder and squeezed. "Chin up, Johnny. We're not wrong. Something'll show up sooner or later."

"Yeah?" snapped John. "Well, we need to push that grant. If we're not digging we're going nowhere. It's not as if a piece of colonial-era hardware's going to walk up to us and introduce itself."

Dick gaped. Ralph looked where she looking. Slowly John turned around.

"Good afternoon," said Bobo as he emerged from the darkened far end of the tunnel. "Are you dear ladies residents of a home?"

Dick's eyes danced. "Did you hear that accent?" she whispered urgently.

Ralph narrowed her eyes and took a step forward, addressing the robot with a crisp tone of command. "Robot: where did you come from?"

"Bobo came from the home," said Bobo.

"What kind of home?"

"The home was a multi-unit assisted-living dwelling complex incorporated for the purpose of caring for geriatric human beings."

Ralph licked her lips quickly. "In what year was this home incorporated?"

Bobo told her the year. Ralph's eyes went wide. She turned to her colleagues with a raised brow. "I think it may be genuine. But how could that even be possible?"

Nobody had a chance to reply. The floor of the crude tunnel started vibrating under their feet. Clods of dirt and kipple sprinkled from down the ceiling between reinforcing arches. John yelled, "What's that?"

"It is Bobo's pursuit," explained Bobo. "They are legion."

John pointed her headlamp into the tunnel. Its light caused something unfathomable to glitter in the distance. Rumbling, drawing nearer. Synthetic voices overlapping: "Blasphemy!"

Ralph seized her colleagues by the hands and barked, "Run!"

John cried, "The charts!" as she was yanked to her feet to stumble after Dick. Bobo followed them, legs humming and clicking as they cycled as quickly as he could move them without breaking into a full run and thereby overtaking the human beings. Bobo felt it would be impolite to overtake anyone.

The worklamps clattered down and went dim behind them. Metal clanged on metal as the horde stampeded over the tools. Like a tidal wave they surged to fill the tunnel behind Bobo and the women, their electronic howling echoing off the close walls.

"Left!" screamed Ralph, and then, "Right!"

They burst from the mouth of the passage and out into the light of day, a cloud of dust blossoming behind them. Ralph turned back to face the oncoming storm. She reached for the nearest structural arch and pulled on the collapse lever, teeth gritted in effort. She looked up to see a rampaging cluster of robots bearing down on her a split second before the lever flipped and the arch folded.

Bobo tugged Ralph back out of the way as the mouth of the tunnel fell apart. Garbage and mud rained down, pulling a few of the closest arches with it. The cable for the work lamps and data-pipe was severed and blew sparks.

A rumbling, crashing report faded as it repeated against the faces of the mounds surrounding them. When the dust cleared the women's careful excavation had become a sloppy pile of debris. A few stray pebbles bounced to a stop. Nothing further stirred.

"Bobo has been saved," said Bobo. "Bobo is grateful."

"The equipment!" moaned Dick, hands in her hair.

"Forget the equipment," said John, eyes locked on the mismatched robot. "This is a real find."

Bobo froze. The anti-physician had also described Bobo as a "find." Were these people in league with the anti-physician? Would they try to break Bobo into components and disrupt his cognition? Reflexively he dropped into a martial stance, scanning their faces carefully for any hint of their intentions. NO RESTAURANTS FOUND.

"Do not harm Bobo," he said. "Bobo resists harm."

"He seems awfully defensive."

John nodded. "He's been surviving in the junkyard, alone, for God knows how long. He's adapted to constant predation." She stepped closer and extended a hand, gently touching the scratched surface of Bobo's carapace. "You poor thing," she said. "Don't be afraid. There, there."

"These dear ladies will not melt Bobo?"

"No, of course not. We're garbage archaeologists. We're here to learn."

Ralph crossed her arms and frowned. Dick took a picture. John was all smile from ear to ear, her dirt-smeared face split by gleaming teeth. She put her arm around Bobo, steering him toward the car. "Come with me, Bobo. Let us take care of you."

"Bobo takes care of the residents," he interjected.

"Well, now it's your turn to be taken care of," said John, opening the car door and inviting him to sit inside. She patted the seat. "Just leave everything to us."

Bobo ducked inside the cabin and sat down, sliding his legs in after him. The door slammed.

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