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

CHAPTER 13

"Ardelle?"

John returned to the living room, frowning. "Bobo, have you seen Ardelle?"

"Good morning," said Bobo.

Starshine streamed in through the big windows, illuminating muddy footprints on the carpet -- prints left by John and Bobo when they had arrived, prints that should have been long ago cleaned away by Ardelle. John rushed over them as she collected the scattered elements of her person: her watch, her bracelets, her brassière.

"We're late!" she breathed urgently.

Bobo followed her downstairs to the car while she fastened her shirt seams and left a message for the superintendant through her watch, rambling disconnectedly about the missing domestic robot. She pushed Bobo into his seat and stabbed the ignition. "Hang on," she warned.

Dick and Ralph met them as John jogged into the laboratory with Bobo trailing behind. "Everything went fine, don't even worry," lilted John dismissively as she rounded into the conference nook and nodded her greetings to the team. "Ladies and girls, allow me to introduce a very special visitor from the past."

Bobo entered the room. Several decidedly non-geriatric humans were staring at him. After a brief pause they applauded.

Bobo did not know how to respond. His legs quivered. Beyond the clapping grandchildren was a row of transparent security cases containing colonial robot parts in various states of restoration. Half a dozen near-complete forms with pristine if somewhat light-bleached carapace shells hung suspended in space, slowly turning. That on the furthest left was the white carapace of an authentic Bobo unit.

"Bobo?" asked Bobo.

The students parted to allow him through. He wandered closer to the case, hand upraised. "Bobo?" he said again. There was no hint of reaction in the ancient unit's glassy eyes. Bobo turned around. "This unit requires maintenance," he reported. "This unit is not responding."

John smiled graciously. "There's no brain," she said. "It's very rare to recover brains because they're too often melted down for their rare elements. When we do find them they're in pieces. That's why it's so special to be able to speak with you, Bobo, to find out first hand what life was like in colonial times."

"Life was very orderly in the home," said Bobo. "For example, spaghetti was always served on Tuesday and algae pie on Wednesday. Thursday was garbage day."

John said, "The point, Bobo, is that these pieces in the cases won't ever respond. We've cleaned them up for display, but they'll never function. Not without brains."

"Bobo would like access to Bobo, please, and a set of talking cables."

"The cases stay closed, Bobo. We're setting up an exhibition. They belong to the museum."

Bobo turned to face her. "Bobos are not the property of museums, Bobos are the property of homes."

"This one's home is gone, Bobo, just like yours. We found these parts on a dig funded by the museum. They were once owned by a home, but now they're owned by the museum. Things change."

Bobo considered this. John took his elbow and tried to turn him away from the case but Bobo remained planted in place. "Bobo's claim is stronger," he decided. "Bobo is a Bobo, and Bobos are Bobo. That property belongs to Bobo and is Bobo. What is Bobo belongs to himself. Bobo makes this claim."

John blinked. "You think it's yours? But these parts didn't even come from you."

"All Bobos are Bobo," said Bobo. "Does Johnny hold this Bobo captive?"

"What? No! Of course not. It hasn't got a brain. It doesn't have wants."

"Bobo has a brain," he said. "Bobo has wants."

John looked over at the other researchers. Their expressions were concerned. She looked back at Bobo. "I need you to do something for me, Bobo, okay? I need you to come over here and lie down on the slab for a little examination. We need to get to know you better in order to understand what you need."

"Bobo needs to return to duty," he replied. "Bobo craves optimal function."

"Please," John said simply, gesturing to the examination bay.

With one last look at the hardware in the transparent case Bobo allowed himself to be led over to the slab. He was persuaded to lie down and assured that no one would modify his brain -- observation only. Bobo lay back and his head spread open.

The students positioned lights and rolled over a scanning arm. A line was patched directly between Bobo's brain and the lab's network, the output from his function code log scrolling by on a large screen above the slab.

It made Bobo feel disturbed to watch his own function codes in real time. As he thought about the codes he saw, he saw the codes of his thinking about the codes. In response the codes multiplied, a self-reinforcing ripple of reverberating contemplation threatening to draw Bobo into a vortex of infinite regress.

He looked away from the screen, focusing instead on the people gathered around his unfolded cranium. Their mouths pulled into the shape of the letter O as they frowned over their flashlights between glancing up at the screen. A probe was inserted. Bobo flinched.

"It's okay Bobo, just relax," said John with a hand on his forearm.

"There are globs of neo-solder everywhere," commented Ralph, a magnifying lens before her eye. "Has it been self-repairing?"

"Couldn't be. The proprioceptive buffer is definitely late-model. It couldn't do a self-install on that because motor control would be offline."

"Would you look at this? Has anyone ever even seen one of these before?"

"I have. Twenty years ago Harold did her thesis on wild robots. If I'm not mistaken this is what they would call a ‘liberty module.' It's basically a firmware hack that reroutes low level commands around the inhibitor."

A number of the researchers took a nervous step back. "This thing's running without a working inhibitor?"

"Calm yourselves, ladies," snapped John. "He doesn't bite."

"He might," warned Ralph seriously. "This isn't right at all. We've got simplistic colonial-era commands being run through modern memory modules. His primary drives are orders of magnitude more crude than his modeling ability. The mismatch is dangerous."

"Dangerous? Why?" asked John, squeezing Bobo's arm.

"It's like a toddler with a howitzer, Johnny. Modern hardware like this wireless unit that looks like it came right out of a brand new domestic is designed for the subtlety and complexity of a current robot brain, but instead it's hooked up to this ancient calculator. It doesn't even understand what it doesn't understand -- it just wants to fulfill its mandate."

"His mandate is caring," John pointed out.

"And if he perceives that we're interfering with that mandate?" said Ralph. "We could have a tantrum on our hands."

Dick nodded. "The motivation landscape in a machine like this is very primitive. We can't know how he'll respond."

"I agree," said Ralph. "We need to get those parts out of there right now."

"We promised we wouldn't meddle with his brain."

"It's technology, Johnny. That's like making a promise to a rocking chair or a ceiling fan."

John frowned. Ralph nodded to Dick and Dick leaned in with a handheld laser to try to tease the neo-solder off the fresh connections. Bobo looked up at her.

"Bobo objects," he said. "Bobo resists harm."

"This won't hurt," said Dick.

"Yes," argued Bobo, "it will hurt."

"You don't have that capacity," insisted Dick, activating the laser. It hummed. Neo-solder smoked.

"Bobo's capacities are irrelevant," said Bobo, "because the pain will be the property of Dick."

Dick hesitated, toggling the laser off. Suddenly scared she decided to withdraw her hands from Bobo's skull.

But she made her decision too slowly.

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