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

CHAPTER 22

On voting day the world stopped.

During any other election affairs might be expected to stutter somewhat -- a delay at the bank while the manager runs out to cast his lot, perhaps, or a premature closing of the fish markets so the mongers could make their choice. But this election was different. It was different because as the primary rose and brightened the sky to shining blue the people of Eridu awoke to find their streets already clogged: in every direction, along every avenue, jammed cheek by jowl, with infinite patience the robots of the world queued at polling stations.

Personal servants of various kinds were there, certainly, but also non-anthropoid functionaries like fire extinguishers and turnstiles -- even the cars themselves lined up, engines humming as they idled.

Underfoot marched a steady procession of dildos and toothbrushes.

The traffic pylons wore hats. Short order chefs with spatulas for hands bent down so that clothes horses could straighten their ties. Cranes wore socks, and whole legions of vacuum cleaners wafted with shawls.

"Their ballots aren't valid!" whispered a returns officer to his colleague. "What the hell am I supposed to do with these?"

"Quiet," warned his friend as he cast a wary eye at the crowd. "The microphones have ears."

Men and women mixed with the machines. What else could they do? They lined up together. They tried to make small talk, which was awkward for the human beings because they were accustomed to issuing imperatives rather than engaging in a dialogue, and also because the robots did not get any of their little jokes.

Many of them realized for the very first time how pivotal little jokes really were.

By the time the primary dipped below the horizon a hundred million human beings had cast their votes. And so had ten billion robots.

In the early evening the managing director of elections for the office of the governor-general broadcast a speech live across all indices. Again the world stopped. Every assembly line and taxi stand stood frozen. The streets were empty.

The managing director of elections cleared her throat.

"Ladies and gentlemen and -- well, ladies and gentlemen: the inventory of returns has been completed and verified. As many of you know, two questions of legality have potential to complicate the decision. The first question is the validity of non-human votes which has not been established at this time. However much as this office is loath to declare the decisions of ten billion entities beneath consideration, it is not within the purview of the governor-general to rewrite law at will."

From the university campuses around the globe an emergent mass booing surfaced. The robots simply cocked their heads in tranquil attention.

"The second question is the validity of a non-human candidate. This office has been informed as of this hour that the issue is no longer pertinent since the candidate in question, known as Bobo, had ceased all function before the first vote was cast. Thus it is his substitute who stood for election, and not Bobo himself."

She paused. Chairs creaked as people leaned forward.

"It is therefore my duty to report to you that the Reform Alliance of Eridu has won the mandate to form a majority government, and that no law stands in the way of the ascension of the standing party leader, the Right Honourable Oscar Hacker, to lead this world's next parliament."

Oscar leaned back in his chair and accepted a flute of champagne with a bandaged hand. Interns hugged each other. Party seniors arranged themselves in sequence to offer congratulations and whisper in his ear as they shook his good hand. Confetti rained from the ceiling.

"The chrysalis begins," cried the man with the revolutionary moustache. Everyone raised their glasses, and also cheered before they drank.

The ward had been shielded for sound but even so the patients on other floors of the hospital knew which songs were playing by virtue of the bass.

"They may have discounted the artificials' votes," one of the party strategists explained to a bored volunteer staring into her drink; "but we mustn't discount the impact of their having voted. The mere fact that artificials turned out to make their voices heard today moved the undecided to elect us!"

"This isn't the Bobo Party," snorted another strategist. "Reform was due. The people wanted it. This robot situation is a sideshow. But it's true you're always been swayed by the smell of a breeze."

The first strategist's attention was subsumed by his irritation at this, which afforded the volunteer a chance to slip away. "The people decide what's important, not us," he said with great self-congratulation.

"Perhaps. But ‘the people' isn't only our kind anymore."

Oscar pressed between the men and drew them into a kind of hug. "Gentlemen," he cooed, "gentlemen, my friends, gentlemen. Tonight every kind is our kind. Tonight we can pretend to ourselves every vote actually was taken at face value, if only to imagine we could live in such a noble world. Tonight we can predict how the reform will unfold freely, without the noise and bother of the real world concerns that will shortly intrude." He squeezed the men against him a little bit harder. "Tonight we all share a philosophy," he hissed. "Understood?"

"Agreed," and "of course," smiled the strategists. They toasted one another and then drifted quickly apart.

Oscar glowered. He pushed through the bodies, accepting their kudos. Five shining black guards shadowed his movements to keep him safe.

When he slipped out for a breath of air he found John on the balcony. She was looking out over the capital, gaze unfocused. He touched her shoulder and she shivered. With a series of artful shrugs he worked off his jacket and draped it over her shoulders.

"Your gown is exquisite."

John sniffed. "You're sweet to say," she said distantly.

"There'll be an orgy, of course. Will you ride over in my car?"

She shook her head, eyes still on the glittering horizon. "I'm not in the mood."

He touched her shoulder again. "You're thinking of Bobo, aren't you? You don't have to explain: I understand. This whole victory rings a bit hollow without him here with us, doesn't it?"

She turned and hugged him. "He was so special," she said into his collar, voice catching.

"He was," agreed Oscar. Over her shoulder he checked his watch.

"And yet..." she trailed off.

Oscar turned her chin up at him with a gentle finger. "What is it, Johnny dear?"

John swallowed. "It makes me feel awful to say it aloud, but in a way I'm also...relieved. I'm relieved nothing else happened."

Oscar furrowed his brow. "What do you mean?"

"I admit I'd wondered if it weren't true that Bobo could be dangerous."

"You worried he would go berserk again?"

"Not quite."

"What, then? Johnny you're being silly."

"I am, you're right. You're right about me, Oscar -- I let my feelings overwhelm me. It's only -- something Bobo said, that night when he came back."

"What did he say?" asked Oscar, eyes narrowing.

"He said he was kind of everywhere," said John. "He said he could, if he wanted, stop anyone who acted against him."

Oscar smirked. "Well, then, we certainly should rest at ease, shouldn't we? If Bobo had that kind of power he'd have scarcely let himself be gunned down by a random fanatic, now would he?"

"No," agreed John. "That's true. It's just that Dick said something about it, too --"

Oscar chuckled indulgently as he shook his head. "Richard from the Women's University? The same love-sick girl who went off half-cocked at her dissertation committee because you resigned yourself from it? The one who you kept finding sleeping in the hallway outside of your apartment? Johnny, she's not well. You know that. That's why you ended things with her."

John nodded. "I know," she said quietly. "You're right, Oscar." She looked up at the stars and wondered if she would ever see Dick again.

"Come to the orgy," said Oscar, offering her a warm smile. "Forget your troubles. This is a night of celebration. This -- this is what Bobo wanted, Johnny. We've realized his dream. He wouldn't want us to mourn that victory, would he?"

"I guess not," agreed Johnny. "I guess that's true."

"Of course it is," grinned Oscar, squeezing her shoulders. "I know this has all been very stressful for you, but you've earned the right to unclench. Let's all step out of our clothes and make new friends a while. After all, it's tradition."

John managed a smile. "Okay," she agreed. "We'll go together."

Oscar glanced toward his watch. "I tell you what: let my car take you. I'll be along shortly. There's a small matter which requires my attention."

"Don't dawdle," she said coquettishly.

Oscar winked.

He slipped into his darkened office and locked the door, three opal bodyguards inside with him and two outside in the hall. He opened an encrypted channel to a hidden index. Sub-vocally he asked for all assurances.

"Mr. Hacker sir, I've been over this carcass millimeter by millimeter and I can tell you without hesitation that the subject is utterly inoperative. My team and I have peeled open the cranium and looked inside, and everything's fused. There's more life in a lump of rock, sir, than this debris."

Oscar allowed himself to smile. "Very good," he said. "Have the hardware prepared for the public funeral rites. Polish the bastard. He's to be interred on New Year's Day, after I take my oath. I want him gleaming."

Oscar closed the connection. He drew his secret flask from the drawer and took a long pull. He licked his lips and toasted himself.

"Today the election, tomorrow the world."

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