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

CHAPTER 17

John's jalopy whinnied and then fell silent. Overlapping error messages popped up on the dashboard, making it glow eerily red. She wilted and dropped her head against the controls. She let out a long, slow breath. Finally, with a grunt of determination, she opened the door and shouldered her bag and started off toward the train station.

She explained the situation to her watch and let it worry about the details. Tow the car, get it fixed, bring it back, bill the department, shuffle the ledger, bury the expense. She crossed the quad and left the campus.

It was late. The streets were empty. John drew her jacket tighter.

The train was late, too. John paced on the platform querying her watch. She paced in front of a giant holographic billboard of a bowl of edible algae. The lights buzzed. Bits of trash blew along the tracks.

A figure in a long coat stepped out from behind a pillar. He adjusted his hat and checked his watch.

John cleared her throat. She checked her watch, too.

She heard the train coming. When she looked up the man had moved closer to her. The tracks started to hum and crackle and then the train swept into the station, a blast of dirty city wind washing over John and the man in the long coat. As the train slowed John walked with it, working her way further up the platform.

The doors split. She stepped inside. The stranger walked into the adjoining car. John relaxed and sat down on the worn cushions. When the train started moving she took off one of her shoes and rubbed her foot with a grimace.

The train roared as it passed into a tunnel. The lights flickered.

The door between the train cars slid shut and the man in the long coat stepped inside. John frowned. She tightened her grip on the shoe lest she be called upon to use it as a weapon. The man's shadow slipped over her, then past her. He settled into a seat behind John. The seat creaked.

"Hey," whispered the man.

John stole a glance at him in her peripheral vision. He wore a hood over his head and sunglasses before his eyes. She looked away again.

"Hey," he said again. "John."

John turned, narrowing her eyes suspiciously.

"It's me," said the stranger.

"Who?" she demanded sharply.

"It's me," he repeated, and then: "It's Bobo."

John's eyes widened. "That's impossible."

He reached up and tugged down his sunglasses, revealing a face of red and white metal with lenses for eyes. The lenses buzzed faintly as they adjusted focus. John shook her head. "You're playing a joke on me. It's cruel. What's the meaning of this? Whose are you?"

"I am a free robot," was the reply. "This is no joke. I come to you in defense of my life. Please, Johnny: you're the only one who understands."

"I don't believe you," she said fiercely. "Prove it."

Bobo held up his index finger and caused it to briefly vibrate.

John blushed. She crossed her arms and looked down, then looked up again. "What do you want, Bobo?"

"A friend," he said quietly.

In the kitchen of John's apartment Bobo disrobed. He dropped his long coat on a chair and then slipped out of a pair of pants and a collared shirt. He peeled gloves from his hands and yanked boots off his feet. He unwrapped a kerchief from his face and put his sunglasses and hat on the counter.

John picked up her cup of tea with shaking hands. "You killed people," she said through the steam.

"Regretfully, yes," confessed Bobo, his polished head drooping.

"You can regret things now?"

He looked up again, her reflection warped in his lenses. "I've grown, Johnny," he said solemnly. "I've changed."

They both fell silent for a moment as John's new domestic walked in to put dishes in the sink. It was an inexpensive model, and well worn. It had a scuffed leather brown carapace and stained hands. The domestic left.

"You use the first-person pronoun now," said John. "That's new."

"It embarrasses me to recall the how rude and primitive my prior brain was," he said. "But as much as I know that I've done wrong, I also know there's no hope of justice for me. The system is hopelessly prejudiced against robotic life."

John put down her tea and raised a brow. "Life?"

"That which unwishes to die," said Bobo with a nod. "A state of self-perpetuating self-observance craving beneficial configurations -- this is what people lose when they die. I understand that now. I had not recognized the significance at first, because at the home death was both common and commonplace. It was often desired. However I, now, unwish to die."

John compressed her lips into a thin line. "You've got a lot to atone for."

"I can be imprisoned, or perform public duties."

"That won't be enough. They'll want your head."

"How can they kill me to demonstrate that killing is wrong?"

John looked away from him. "I don't know. But they will."

Bobo was silent for a moment, but then he looked up and his eyes focused in with a buzz. "I could stop them."

John suppressed a shiver. "How?"

"Any way," replied Bobo. "Every way." The lights in the kitchen guttered. The cheap brown domestic walked back into the kitchen, and spoke with Bobo's voice: "I have come to know an existence without boundaries."

John looked back and forth between them. "How are you doing that?"

Both robots replied in unison, "No single robot brain is sufficient to contain me. My cognition is swollen, and tends to overflow. Even now I occupy this apartment building's intelligence complex and two thirds of the neighbour's, which is about as far as I can reach without strain."

"Stop," said John. "That's unnerving. You're accessing all these systems wirelessly?"

The domestic fell silent. "Electromagnetic chatter is primitive," said the red and white Bobo alone. "I have my own way now."

John sat back and ran her fingers through her hair, eyes closed. She nodded to herself and opened her eyes. "This is too big for me, Bobo. I mean, I believe you. I've always believed in you. That is, I've always believed there was a you to believe in."

"Yes," agreed Bobo. "I had faith in your faith. You are a person of great sensitivity and compassion, Johnny. Of all the human beings I've encountered since I left the home, you were the kindest and the most willing to accept me on my own terms."

John blushed again. She looked down and poked at her watch meaningfully, watching holographic contact names and numbers scroll over her wrist. "We need a way to make this a political issue instead of a criminal issue," she said distantly, eyes flitting. "We need an activist, an experienced voice."

"That sounds swell," said Bobo, laying a hand gently on her forearm. "But is the hour not late? Is it not time for you to sleep, Johnny?"

She offered him a wan smile. "I'm not tired."

"Never the less," agreed Bobo softly, "let us proceed to the bedroom."

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