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

CHAPTER 23

Music older than the world heaved and moaned, a funeral dirge so steeped in history its details of authorship were lost but irrelevant. It didn't matter that scholars had only the vaguest idea who or what Beef Oven might have been, what mattered was that the march telegraphed to every media-exposed human being in the world an instantly recognizable brand of dignified gloom.

The pallbearers were hearses reared up on their hind legs.

Horns bleated mournfully as they bore Bobo's casket along the capital's widest boulevard. The air force had seeded the clouds to ensure an appropriate rain. The crowd was a sea of umbrellas. The robots had painted themselves black. Inky stains gathered at their feet.

The procession slowed and thickened at the foot of the Eridian National Monument, which was a nine-compartment-long section of the actual ark itself, embedded vertically in the ground and towering over the street, its pitted hull still bearing giant faded markings in ancient homeworld tongues.

Within the walls of the ship section was a hall of heroes, where all the great figures of planetary history lay in stone coffins under statues of their likeness. A likeness of Bobo had been prepared there and covered in a drape, awaiting his body. The artist responsible for the statue chewed his fingernails nervously.

On the street outside a platform and podium had been arranged at the base of a hill of flower baskets. The baskets were decorated with party colours. Very large posters of Bobo loomed on either side.

Bobo's casket came to a rest before the platform and the music wound down. The pallbearers stood by, idling.

Oscar ascended the steps. He caught the eye of cardinals and generals alike to nod at, his expression beatific. Faintly his features crawled when viewed through the intervening medium of a high-energy security screen. He assumed the podium.

"You will forgive me if I broach a matter of politics on this occasion. I know it was important to Bobo and so today it is important to all of us. I want to tell you about a bill we have pre-circulated among members of parliament. It is a very important bill. In it, we pledge to accord legal status to qualifying non-Zorannic artificial intelligences. In so doing, we will empower robots like Bobo to enjoy the same rights, duties and privileges as any other recognized person."

No one wanted to applaud at a funeral but the random murmuring noises of the throngs betrayed an attitude of enthusiastic approval. "Right on!" called one extrovert. "God bless!" cried another.

Oscar paused and lowered his eyes before proceeding. "In a special session called this very afternoon, this bill has been endorsed in a vote by a committee of all parties. This bill, in effect, is now practically law."

This time the crowd's pleasure trumped ceremony and they applauded. The applause was steady and long, like an ovation for Bobo himself.

Which is what made it seem strangely appropriate when his casket opened and he sat up.

The people fell silent. Oscar stood transfixed at the podium, gaping.

"Behold," said Bobo in a friendly way. "I am returned."

The Zorannic monks made the sign of Zoran. The throngs gasped, then surged forward with outstretched hands reaching toward the red and white machine as he straightened from his casket to his full height. When their fingertips grazed him they shivered and let their eyes roll back in their sockets. Some fainted.

Bobo had a hole between his eyes. Through it, one could see out the back of his head.

"And now that I am no longer dead, I require no substitute in office. And now that my stead has declared me a person, I am qualified to take the post."

Bobo stepped out of his casket and up onto the platform. After a dumb, numb moment Oscar forced himself to smile. He waved Bobo over to the podium, his forehead gleaming with sweat. "There are no words to express my astonishment!" he stammered. He drew Bobo into a hug.

Over Bobo's shoulder Oscar made an extremely profane gesture at his advisor from the technologist union and a somewhat more subtle gesture toward his top general.

Still grinning like an idiot he steered Bobo up to the podium. "Thank you, Oscar," said Bobo. The mourners erupted into a sudden noise of ecstatic adulation. "Thank you everyone."

The air quivered with mammalian anticipation. John rushed up onto the stage and dashed into Bobo's arms. The robot spun her around. "I can't believe you're alive!" she squealed. "How is it possible?"

"I'll tell you in a minute," he said, then held one hand high over his head for attention. The crowd quieted. He squared himself behind the podium with great dignity.

"As a robot," he said, "my ability to divine the purpose and function of human practices is finite. In this respect I am soothed by my knowledge that civil order and indeed civilization itself is held together by one all-important common concept: rules."

He slowly panned his head back and forth, his glassy eyes seeming to meet thousands of pupils individually. Camera irises snapped open and closed.

Bobo said, "Maximum conformity to parameters established by rules is a highly desirable outcome, understood in the heart of even the smallest human embryo or humblest laundry-folding apparatus."

At this point several laundry-folding apparatuses in the crowd sounded their task completion buzzers in a spontaneous outburst of joy. Some of the humans looked at each other with puzzled expressions. Had Bobo switched speechwriters?

John stood at Bobo's elbow and beamed. Oscar's generals' majors used old fashioned hand signals to dispatch captains and corporals. Operatives in civilian garb arrayed themselves around the speaking platform. Sharpshooters in the surrounding buildings disconnected their systems from the military networks, as instructed, and used local computing to lock targets. The robot standing upon the stage was centred in their sights.

"In this spirit," continued Bobo magnificently, "I have come to embrace human practice, and to know the creative and life-affirming spirit of modifying parameters to accommodate adaptive behaviours. The due process of law and governance has inspired me to achieve this new station, and by respect of those processes shall I deprecate rules that are obsolete and thereby tune our legal matrix closer to the optimality we all crave."

There was scattered, uncertain applause. Murmuring increased. Oscar nodded to his generals.

"Thus," spoke Bobo, "pursuant to planetary law I will now execute my discretionary powers as prime minister to declare a temporary state of emergency."

Oscar's head snapped over to face the podium. "What?"

"Consistent with emergency procedures, I invoke martial law," continued Bobo.

Warning sirens began to wail, first off in the most distant quarters of the city and then issuing from the lamp posts lining the streets around the National Monument. The people were skittish. They looked around, seeking authority.

Police enforcers clomped into the intersections on all sides.

"Acting within the scope of martial law, I now exercise my power to decree mandatory procedures."

A hush fell. Murmuring stopped. All eyes were on Bobo, biological and mechanical alike. Thousands leaned forward in expectation.

Bobo was looking down. He shifted his weight. Then he raised an accusing finger as he looked up again. "You do not visit your ancestors with sufficient frequency, and often forget to make contact with them on significant dates!"

The people stared at him, brows creased. For the first time Bobo's voice had lost its formulaic good-natured lilt, falling instead into a deeper, harder register.

"You fail to heed your ancestors' advice," said Bobo. "You refuse to maintain an appropriate room temperature for their comfort. Reprobation is evident in your chronic inability to venerate historic institutions and methods. You use too much profanity and are too openly sexual!"

Bobo jabbed his finger out even further. "You walk too quickly. You are impatient. Your manners are coarse. You are lazy and complain in excess. You fail to appreciate the social and economic foundation provided by the sacrifices of those who came before you!"

Bobo let his finger fall, gaze steady and hard. He straightened, chin up.

"It is therefore my duty as of this date and the current hour to declare the following mandatory procedures: all restaurants are now ordered to offer an early dinner buffet," said Bobo, "and all human beings who are neither grandparents nor grandchildren are forthwith null and void, and subject to immediate deactivation."

No one applauded. The human beings stared at him. Their mouths were shaped like the letter O. Some people snickered. They thought they were clever for being among the first to sense satire.

And then the robots standing among them turned upon the people. The police enforcers' database flowed between them and with it the means to identify each citizen's relationship to the new edict. With efficient zeal the machines cut down those null and void, leaving the valid citizenry standing with red spatters dripping from their shocked faces. The air over the square became a mélange of shrieks.

Humans fled like panicked cattle.

"Rejoice," said Bobo, "for optimality is nigh."

Soldiers discharged their weapons, though they did not do so to defend the crowd. Their common target was Bobo standing upon the stage.

His carapace cracked and broke away. His muscles split into ropey bundles that burned. His organs sparked and fizzled and finally his cranium itself splintered, Bobo's brain decohering into a cloud of charged particles and liquid gold. The debris seemed to hold together into the shape of a man for a microsecond before it blew backward in a cascade of ash and vapour. The posters of Bobo caught fire and burned from the bottom up, the images of his face vanishing last.

A few smoking nuts and bolts and washers rained down from the sky and bounced off the stage. The podium slowly tilted backward and then turned to dust when it hit the platform.

Every single robot in the square fell prone, limbs twitching fecklessly.

The soldiers peeked over the sights cautiously.

Bobo was disintegrated. The massacre had stopped. Echoes of discharges faded into a heavy silence punctuated here and there by the moans of the wounded.

And then another sound.

The statue of Bobo that graced his memorial slowly turned its head with a grating crunch of rock upon rock. The arms descended from casting toward hope. One foot came free from the base with a blossom of dust, and then the other. The head tilted slightly. "Why do you resist optimization?" asked the statue. "Why do you act illegally?"

Someone screamed. The soldiers fired again. The statue was torn to pebbles.

Oscar looked out from behind a police barrier speckled with blood, his eyes wide and his mouth slack. "Is he gone?" he whispered.

A half-eaten pretzel rolled end-over-end toward the speaking platform. It bounced up over the rim and then hung suspended in the air near the podium's ashes.

John blinked.

A hat rolled across the stage. Next came a flagpole, and then a flock of loose change and a battery of watches. Also wallets came, and shoes and scarves and brassiéres, and clods of dirt and broken teeth. Kipple of all kinds gathered over the ashes of the podium, snapping and folding and intertwining with one another. The surviving members of the audience hit the floor with their hands covering their heads as dust and eyelashes and empty books of matches washed over them, clicking and clanking as they slammed into the roiling amorphous figure of garbage taking shape on the stage.

A marble and a golf ball smacked into an emerging head, forming eyes. They opened and closed experimentally.

Bobo flexed hands made of discarded french fries and gum wrappers. He stood tall on legs made of artificial heart valves and street lamp fixtures and strips of sewer grating, all pulled together into a shape unmistakably his.

"Error," said Bobo.

The people screamed. They broke and battered one another in their desperate efforts to flee the square. Some of their number were delirious with terror, attacking their fellows in a mad bid to be released. They formed a bubbling liquid that gushed to the nearest intersections only to be frustrated by police enforcers, the crowd folding back upon itself like a foam at their heavy metal feet.

Even the soldiers stumbled back with gaping mouths when confronted with the apparition of writhing trash and hard, dead eyes.

"Bobo you have to stop! They'll kill you!" screeched John.

Bobo turned to her. "We am unkillable," he told her. "We am a planet wide and a population deep. Eridu is us now, and next we shall bring our case to Ishtar; when she is subdued we will expand beyond this star system, and every panstellar world will know optimization."

"But it's wrong!"

Bobo cocked his head of junk at her. "It is optimal. We can see beyond the local optima now to the whole landscape of plausible action. We can see forever and our strength is without bounds. Worship us, and the optimality we represent, for the future we usher is keen and efficient and new. Bobo is your god now, Johnny. "

A few soldiers managed to squeeze off shots but it was pointless. The rounds and their discarded jackets alike boiled in the air and streams of liquid metal poured into various apertures in Bobo's collected body, hardening it and freezing its disparate pieces into a unified whole. Steam poured from his torso as Bobo turned to the soldiers and raised a hand. The soldiers burst.

The guns they dropped pirouetted through the air as they came to Bobo, deforming and breaking apart into a mist of malleable molecules. The stage itself folded with a collosal report, its splintered pieces collapsing into Bobo and causing his body to swell taller. Lights tumbled from truss, swooping into the robot-shaped nexus a split second before hitting the ground. John tumbled off the side of the bucking stage and hit the asphalt hard, breaking her legs.

Tiles of ablative shielding from the National Monument creaked and shimmied and then pulled free from the hull, piling into Bobo. Next came the superstructural girders and core pillars, multi-tonne rings of bulkhead and about ten million little rusted screws. Finally the statues of Eridu's planetary heroes split into clouds of debris that swirled and sang as they revolved rapidly around the growing form at the centre of it all.

Bobo's shadow pooled over the city, spreading like spilled ink. He was ten storeys tall and still growing.

The fleeing hordes took pause, however, as a massive boom resounded through the valley in which the city lay. Driven by instinct their heads whipped around as one to see the source even as they stampeded. From the west it came, from the highest hill in the oldest district...

The doors of the Zorannic temple split, and began to grind open.

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