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

CHAPTER 20

Oscar looked up from his desk to watch himself pace.

The office was makeshift. His jacket hung from an intravenous fluids stand. His coffee steamed from a urine sample jar. He sat in a wheelchair. A cigar smouldered untended in a kidney-shaped vomit dish.

Suddenly he growled, "Will you stop that infernal pacing!"

His double looked over, brow raised. "You want me to take a break, sir?"

Oscar nodded. "Take a break. Take a nap. Take a pill. I don't care -- just give me some peace."

The window opacified and the double left. The show was over. Oscar pinched the bridge of his nose and let out a long sigh. This vigil was killing him.

He was just screwing the top back on his secret flask when someone knocked abruptly on the door. He looked up, licking his lips in prelude to an angry objection. But the door was already opening.

Oscar slammed the desk drawer.

The woman was tall. Her robots closed the door softly behind her. Her robes were impressive and expensive, if somewhat severe in cut. She approached the desk and looked down a long nose at him.

Her eyes were hard. This was no amateur. Oscar stood up to the stranger's level. "Won't you sit?"

"I won't," she said. "It is a poor habit. It achieves only corpulence."

"Ah. You're from Ishtar. Charmed, I'm sure."

"Swallow that snot, politician. This conversation represents the fulfillment of your aspirations and you will do as you are told."

"I beg your pardon?"

It wouldn't be fair to say she smiled, but something changed in her expression. "Difficult as it may be to fathom given your facile transparency, your so-called movement has found the momentum it needs to win the day. The standing government will be dissolved. There are consequences to that."

She snapped her fingers. Oscar's robots wilted, torsos hanging limp from their rigid waists, arms swinging slowly to a rest. Oscar took a startled step backward, running into his chair. "Is this an assassination?"

"No," said the stranger. "An education."

He narrowed his eyes. "Who are you?"

"I am Ishtari Julia Roboticist. I have come to discuss your mascot."

Oscar's eyes widened again but he mastered his expression quickly. "I've heard of you, naturally. Your reputation is panstellar. But I had no idea...that you were so attractive."

"You cannot flatter me, politician. You nauseate me to try."

"Ah."

She straightened. "You are to tell me why this Bobo unit lies in a human hospital. You will refrain from filigree in your speech, and focus exclusively on the most relevant facts."

"What does an Ishtari care about Eridian affairs?"

"You are ignoring my directives," said Ishtari Julia Roboticist. "Do not force my robots to resort to physicality."

Oscar cleared his throat. "There's no need for threats. We are civilized people both, aren't we?"

She said nothing.

Oscar glanced over at her robots. He sat down in his chair and took up his cigar, puffing it to life. "You're being needlessly unpleasant. That's your culture, I suppose. You should understand that I'm not really a politician. I'm a professor. I just happened to write an influential book at an opportune time. As Bobo's proxy I stand in the limelight only by happenstance."

Ishtari Julia Roboticist sniffed. To the robot on her left she said, "Break a finger."

Oscar held up his hands. "Wait, wait, wait. I have a point! Won't you listen? I'm trying to tell you what you want to know." He gave her his best smile. "Please, let's be reasonable."

"Lies are intolerable," she said.

Oscar's finger sounded a muted pop as the bone split. He yanked his hand free and held it with the other, eyes pinched shut in pain. His breathing was ragged. His face was red. His beard was mussed.

"How much do you know?" he hissed.

"Continue your account."

Oscar managed to puff on his cigar with a shaking hand. "Bobo lies in a human hospital because the people love him," he said. "They would not stand to see him without dignity, strung up in a repair shop. They seized him and took him here. I've had my office moved to this ward so I can sit vigil over him, just like the crowd outside that window."

"Who attends to the machine?"

"No one. Bobo attends to himself -- at least so far as we can discern. He's unresponsive but he's put up a security screen around himself. It is the opinion of my robotics advisor that he has entered into the robotic equivalent of a coma, for the purposes of self-repair."

She raised a brow ever so faintly. "You will explain how the robot was damaged."

"He was shot. By a random lunatic."

When Oscar had recovered from having the next finger being broken he said, "My staff found him, that crazed junkman. He already hated Bobo. The arrangements were easy."

"You disposed of Bobo so that you yourself might assume his notoriety on behalf of the reform movement."

"Yes," said Oscar, cradling his wounded hand. "I admit it," he said huskily with a nervous glance at the robots flanking him.

"This new popularity has won you the leadership of the party."

"Yes."

"You intend to lead the new government after the election."

"Yes, I do. And damn it I'll be good. I really will be." He trailed off, eyes unfocused at the window, then turned back to her. "I'm going to level the playing field. Come hell or high water, I swear I'm bringing those Zorannic bastards down."

"You are not an advocate of robot rights."

"You're right. I'm not. It's human rights I care about."

Ishtari Julia Roboticist's mouth twitched. "You agree that Bobo must go."

"I pray for it. If he dies the election will surely be mine."

She offered him a wan smirk. "The election will be yours. I am not speculating, but rather informing you."

"Tomorrow is voting day."

"A formality. You will form the new government because Ishtar allows it. Our legal advisors will help you draft the legislative steps required to unseat the Zorannic machines here on Eridu."

"And what must I do in return?"

"Release the robot to me," said Ishtari Julia Roboticist. She spread her arms. "Nothing more."

"You want Bobo?"

"I do."

Oscar let a smile spread slowly over his lips. "I'll consider it."

"I will take him now."

"You won't. Go on -- I've got eight fingers to go. If you want him so badly, and I can tell that you do, you'll take him when I say and you'll take him on my terms. I can have parliament without help, you Ishtari dog. If the reformers are denied the mandate the people will riot. Mark my words. Whether by grace or blood I'll rule Eridu tomorrow."

"How dare you?"

"You've overplayed your hand, you reeking anus. Get the hell out of my office."

She did. Oscar quickly used his good hand to open his desk drawer but realized immediately he had no way of unscrewing the cap of his flask. Oscar glowered. He tasted bile. He kicked the drawer shut and stabbed at his watch, roaring for security. When two agents from the security firm arrived Oscar had one beat the other, and then vice versa. "You're fired," he said when both men were bloody.

Next he used his watch to contract on credit for a quintet of elite personal bodyguard robots, and asked for them to be built to order with upgrades that promised to deliver the cutting edge in violence: poison, fire, and unfettered physicality.

Nurses arrived to heal his fingers but Oscar waved them away angrily. "Not until after the press conference, you ninnies," he bellowed, dabbing sweat from his brow. "You don't stumble on good luck like this every day."

He ordered the guard on Bobo redoubled, and in a fit of anti-diplomatic combustion insisted that the entire hospital be, until further notice, off-limits to offworlders. His secretary brought him a little white pill and some water. He gingerly fed his injured hand through his sleeve and shrugged on his jacket. "Make-up!" he called. "Worsen my pallor!"

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