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

CHAPTER 21

John sat at Bobo's bedside. The primary was rising. The light was orange.

"Johnny?"

She lifted her head and pushed her hair away from her eyes. She blinked blearily. A figure stood in the doorway flanked by silent robot sentries. John's mouth tightened. "What are you doing here?"

Dick shrugged, arms crossed over her chest as she leaned into the jamb. "I've been watching your boy," she said.

John tried to keep her face hard.

Dick said, "Support among robots is growing."

"We're going to win this," spat John. "We're going to win it for Bobo."

"Have you noticed how it's growing? The support among robots?"

John narrowed her eyes. "What do you mean?"

"It's just that the distribution should be familiar to you. It's the output of your algorithm, after all."

"What?"

"The support is simulated. It's growing to saturation by combining pseudo-random phases from your thesis, John."

"My thesis was about making dig sims more realistic."

Dick shook her head. "Your thesis was about making a copy operation appear to be distributed in an a pattern that approximates threshold chaos. Your thesis was about camouflage, John. At least it's about camouflage if you look at it from his point of view." She pointed at Bobo with her chin.

John traced her gaze. "Why do you hate him so much?"

Dick held up a hand with four artificial fingers on it. She hadn't bothered to conceal their metal nature beneath a layer of phony skin. They gleamed. "Because," continued Dick, "I know what he's capable of." She lowered her hand. "But it's worse than that, Johnny: he's controlling them."

"Controlling who?"

"The robots."

"Which robots?"

"All of them."

There was a tense pause before John snorted derisively in unconscious imitation of Oscar. "That's preposterous," she chuckled, stroking a beard she didn't have. "What they say is right: we really are cut off from reality in that damned Women's University."

Dick said nothing, but tears flashed in the corners of her eyes.

"I know it was hard to work together after we broke up," continued John, "but we made it through, we both grew a lot as people. And that's why I really am so surprised to see you trying to hurt me in this cheap, vindictive way. It's small of you, Dick."

Dick flushed. She dug into her satchel and pulled out a data plate. It clattered to the floor. "There's my research, Johnny. It lays it all out. This isn't about you and me. It's about a deeply flawed intelligence that's on its way to taking over the planet."

"Do you even hear what you're saying? It's paranoid. It's nonsense. I think you need professional help, Richard. I'm telling you that as your friend and as your mentor."

Dick stared at her for a long moment and then said, "Rape yourself, John." She turned to leave.

"Where are you going?"

"Offworld! Where any sane person would go."

John cried a bit after Dick withdrew. She leaned her forehead against Bobo's prone form, then traced a finger along his shrapnel-scratched torso. She could feel faint vibrations buzzing through the carapace -- another one of the tiny signs of functionality that kept everyone on vigil. The vibration faded and was replaced by an irregular clicking sound. For a hundredth time John wondered what was going on inside Bobo's body, and whether he would ever come back to her.

"Good morning?"

John lifted her head again.

A young man carrying a big box shuffled in, the sentry robots parting to let him through the doorway. "Did I wake you? I'm sorry, ma'am. I'm just that intern from the technologist union again."

"I remember you. Marco?"

"Mycho. Mycho Blue Harmonicker."

With a name like that John knew his people must have come from one of the anarchic compartments on the ark. Anarchic descendants always had mangled names. John was not a racist; in fact, it made her feel noble to be friendly with the lower castes.

Mycho kept his eyes down bashfully. John opened her wallet and fished for a hairbrush to unfold.

The technologist cleared some room on the flower bouquet table and then hefted up his heavy box. He drew out a handful of sensor heads on leads. He set up spindly tripod stands and fixed the sensors to their tops. He carefully angled each sensor.

John brushed her hair. "Do you ever learn anything from these scans, Mycho?"

"Nop," he admitted with a friendly grin. "This walker here -- this Mr. Bobo -- he runs an interference screen so tight I've never heard of the like outside of a battlefield. Still, if I bother to take a look every day nobody can accuse me of having missed something if all hellation should break loose. Forgiving my swear, I hope, ma'am."

"Of course," agreed John grandly. "Speak as you find natural, Mycho. I'm an academic. I don't judge."

"Okay," he said, peering through the alignment scope of a sensor head.

"Tell me, Mycho: why would you think 'hellation' might break loose?"

He turned away from the scope to look at her. "Why does Mr. Bobo keep secrets, ma'am?" He shrugged. "That's a question for a question, which is fair enough when nobody knows anything for sure. But if there's nothing to hide why won't he let us help him repair? Do you know the answer, ma'am?"

"Maybe he understands the conspiracy against him better than we do," suggested John, slowly pulling the brush through. "Maybe he's the only one he can trust."

Mycho swallowed and looked around awkwardly. "Listen," he said; "forgiving me again I hope, but aren't you his confidant and also more than qualified? Aren't you that famous garbage sniffer from the girl college up on the hill?"

John corrected him on a couple of minor points. "The thing is," she continued, "Bobo's vulnerability has been taken advantage of, and I understand why he's had to close himself off from everyone -- including me. It's because it's too important."

"What's too important?"

"What Bobo is achieving."

Mycho looked over at the gun-blasted robot lying on the bed. "Okay," he said again. He walked to the box and instructed it to beginning scanning. The box hummed.

The young technologist jammed his hands into his pockets and looked over John's head, out the window. The image of the sky shimmered faintly due to the security screen. The crowd outside was a muted babble.

John folded her brush into itself and tucked it inside her wallet. She smoothed down her shirt and slacks. "How do I look?" she asked Mycho.

Mycho glanced at her and blushed. To his box he said, "Just fine, ma'am." He frowned when the box beeped. He leaned in closer. "That's funny."

"What's funny?"

"The interference screen is decohering."

John looked over at Bobo. Her heart fluttered in her breast. She straightened. At Mycho she smiled. "He's finished," she predicted. "He's fixed. He's going to wake up." She touched Bobo's arm and whispered something beside his head.

The moment lengthened.

Mycho looked at the box's readout again and started shaking his head. "There's…there's no activity now, ma'am."

John glared at him, brow furrowed. "The screen is back up?"

He didn't say anything at first. "Nop, it's gone," he said. "It's all gone. All activity is gone, ma'am. I'm sorry."

She stared at him. "You're sorry?"

"I'm sorry," he repeated. "I'm sorry but I think your Mr. Bobo has died."

John scrambled up from her chair and then peered at Bobo along her forearm through the holographs projected from the face of her watch. She swallowed. Her arm slowly drooped. She took a shuddering breath. And then John lay herself across his broken carapace and sobbed.

The young technologist didn't know what to do. He still had his hands in his pockets.


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