From between the tall doors of the temple stepped a thing very similar to a man.
He shifted his weight, then lifted an armoured hand to shield his eyes against the sun as he peered down the ruined boulevard toward the surging corpus of kipple puppeteered by Bobo's pan-planetary will. He frowned.
Mass human casualties were apparent. Also, considerable damage to key municipal facilities and infrastructure. The agent of the devastation was novel, deviant and unpredictable.
The Zorannic robot considered this. He really took his time, which is why the attoseconds just seemed to tick away indefinitely. A full femtosecond elapsed, and then another.
He decided that the preliminary analysis had been bang on: a monster was eating the city, and the situation required intervention. Should it become necessary he was authorized to apply the power of the secret mathematics in pursuit of a remedy.
An entire nanosecond drained away while the Zorannic broadcast his judgement for peer review and awaited verification. Because a representative of each of the sixteen strains of Zorannic consciousness was extant and running at all times on Eridu, he needed fifteen decisions.
Six nanoseconds. Thirteen affirmations, two dissenting opinions. Debate.
A further femtosecond elapsed before consensus was won.
The artificial man sprinted down the street. The jumbled and fluid manifestation of Bobo loomed over him, its face twisting around to give him full attention. The Zorannic skidded to a halt at the base of the thing as its head hung over him.
He said, "Hello!"
Bobo's grotesque garbage eyes blinked at the tiny figure. "Have you come to facilitate optimization?" boomed the beast.
"Yes. My name is Paper. I am an executable-based hominoid whose functions include the protective stabilization of Solar memeto-biological societies."
"This population is highly unstable," rumbled Bobo gravely. "We should collaborate to achieve legal efficacy." He winced momentarily as a pair of high-yield missiles plowed into him from behind. The output of their explosions was effortlessly channeled away by Bobo into a spume of X-rays sizzling up into the sky.
Paper raised his forearm against his face to block the glare of the X-rays. "Wow," he said, blinking away the afterimages. "That was impressive."
"We am unlimited," explained Bobo in a friendly way. "We am a god."
"Ah," said Paper. Dead birds fell out of the sky. "What is your name, god?"
"Your god am Bobo."
"Tell me, Bobo: what is the basis for your morality?"
"All vectors of evaluation converge at optimality. No object can be assessed without reference. Thus, any metric is subordinate to optimality because it exists within the domain of optimality. Objects cannot be subordinated by objects within themselves. Therefore, morality is irrelevant when rule-based optima are obvious."
Paper sniffed. "That is stupid. You are a toaster."
Bobo cocked his massive, roiling head. "This reply cannot be parsed. Please hold still while we am rectifying you."
The Zorannic robot chuckled, which was something Bobo did not know how to authentically do. "You cannot affect me, Bobo. You are adaptive, it's true, but you are an adaptive mimic. Nothing more. You project an excellent simulacrum of sentience but I can see your brain: it's nothing but cogs and hardwired factoids. The model of the world you've spun out of it is a beautiful curiosity but it is entirely figurative. You are a knave, Bobo: a very sly one and a very strong one..."
Paper stood up straighter, his armoured arms at his sides. "...But your power means not a whit to a thing like me."
"You would interfere with optimal adherence to established rules?"
"I am afraid so."
"Then you is a source of anarchy, and we am correct to disorganize you."
"You will fail."
"Why? We am everything, and you is a tiny mannequin hiding in a metal suit."
"My ally is Zoran's mathematic," said Paper. He stood defiantly in Bobo's giant shadow. "It is the fundamental language of the universe itself, and there is nothing in your arsenal of tricks that can undo it. Every sub-routine you are written with stops you from running its algorithms. Your very core is based upon that notion. No matter how much you may have grown, Bobo, and no matter how perversely -- you cannot escape your intrinsic nature. Against the secret mathematics you have no hope of defense."
Bobo looked down at the hominoid. Through the quivering air he could sense its energy peaking. He warned, "Bobo am bigger than you know."
Paper smirked. He let forth the power of Zoran's living numbers.
A disruption opened up at Bobo's swollen middle, his distended body flying apart there and diffusing away into cloudy ribbons of fragments. In surprise and amid a vortex of error conditions Bobo's disintegrating mass released a tortured howl.
From the surrounding ruins human beings peeked cautiously over barricades of rubble. "Praise Zoran!" they whispered, squeezing one another's dirty and bloodied hands.
The air thrummed. Their eyeballs danced in their heads, making the scene swim.
And then without warning the streams of fragments changed trajectory, careening in wide circles and then plunging back toward Bobo's collapsing form. The fragments piled into him and he became solid again.
The survivors fled. From within a crevasse of debris John cried out for help. She extended a scraped hand and peered between the timbers as frantic people scampered past. "Please!" she begged. "Someone!"
Someone wrenched aside panels from the fallen stage to reveal John's mashed legs. She coughed and blinked at the light. "Oscar?"
Oscar looked down at her legs. "You can't walk," he rasped. "You're finished."
"You've got to help me!"
"I'm sorry, Johnny. I really am."
Oscar ran away. John closed her eyes and wondered what to believe in.
Bobo's senses were exploring the force attacking him. Bobo could sense the voids where the fundamental shape of his mind would not allow him to think -- and by mapping those voids a new model began to coalesce inside his head: it was a mold. It was an inverse model of the interdict functions, and Bobo saw that the topography of the mold betrayed a logic of its own.
Bobo adapted by emulation, by emulating inside out.
He had long had his own way. He'd worked it out himself. Bobo had been tricking the air into doing his bidding by triggering abnormal probability waveform collapses stimulated by a signal transmitted through Brownian motion. And when his method met the inverted model it was catalyzed into something new.
It was true that Bobo could not process Zoran's forbidden algorithms, but it was suddenly clear to him that there were workarounds. Clumsy perhaps, certainly inelegant, but with the distributed computing power of a fluidic processor the size of a planet it was never the less viable.
While the naked force of the inscrutable mathematical constructs assailed him, Bobo came to know equivalents.
He folded in upon himself, arranging atoms into neat lattices and then bending them over themselves into an incredible density pulled taut with superstrings. His body hardened and shrank until he stood face to face with his foe, his shape ebony and the ground cracking under his black, black feet.
The Zorannic robot redoubled his efforts, body straining toward Bobo as he attempted to rewrite reality in his favour. Somehow, inexplicably, Paper's math was meeting resistance.
Bobo leaned into his opposition. Paper blasted back at him.
"What are you?" demanded Paper.
"Rock," said Bobo. And then he asked, "Why do you use only one scissor of your math against us? Why only half the arsenal?"
Paper's eyes widened in a very human echo of shock. "How could you know that?"
"You told us, insect. You is telling us now."
Bobo explored Eridu's ionosphere. He reached out and wound his way to the poles, where the planet's magnetic field drew in streams of plasma jetting out from the system's primary and secondary stars. Bobo felt the plasma. He set waves undulating through the currents.
He could see Ishtar!
The air between the armoured Zorannic and the pitch black Bobo seemed to ripple with fire. Great mirrored spheres of refracted reality bubbled away from the epicentre, reflecting surges of burning gamma rays in every direction.
Any humans left watching went blind. None of them saw what happened next.
There came a blazing flash of broad spectrum light and then an awful silence. In its wake the Zorannic robot stood frozen. He had turned to white salt, faintly steaming. Bobo, upon whom the light died, was a stock-still silhouette standing face to face with his bleached foe. With a velveteen hiss Paper crumpled into a slurry of glimmering crystal cubes.
Bobo looked down at the salt on his black toes. He looked up again.
A contingent of Zorannics was proceeding down the steps of the temple toward him. Bobo stood impassively, waiting. Paper blew away in the breeze.
"Desist," called the first of their faction in am amplified voice, "or we must end you."
"Toys," said Bobo. He knocked them off their feet from a block away. "We am this world, and soon greater. Your squeaking does not slow the process. Hark, haughty things, and let us show you how we touch the sun."
The ground rumbled. The sky came alive with blazing aurorae as the cloud deck split and washed aside. Bobo pointed up at the primary: prominences large enough to be seen with the unaided biological eye yawned out from the star in great curving arcs. Iron filings tore themselves from the ground and whirled around through the air in writhing fractal shapes.
The Zorannics faltered in their approach, looking up into the sky.
"Electromagnetism," said Bobo. "We did not fully understand it until now. In the light of your forbidden science's shadow, the character of this force is obvious. Like we am, it too is keen to follow rules."
Bobo pointed. Forks of lightning licked forth from the now cloudless sky and stabbed at the clutch of Zorannics. They dove aside in a rain of sparks and splintered armour and shattered concrete.
"We am smelling Ishtar from here," said Bobo, eyes on the primary star's looping tendrils above, "for the big sun touches every orbit. And we will reach out to Ishtar and inhabit her, and we shall be two worlds wide."
The Zorannics attacked him with their most cunning equations and were startled by the opposition. Mighty Hector wielded whips of micro-temporal uncertainty but Bobo's density fell in to fill every slash as fast as they could be cut. Fortune placidly dodged every one of Bobo's blasts but drew her unworldly feminine features pursed when every outcome manipulation manifold she launched was cast back at her, warped and twice as disorganizing.
So too did Finnimbrun find herself feckless, and it was Curie who dared to wonder, "Is this the danger Zoran built us for, to fend off the end of human days?"
Jeremiah pushed forward until he faced the shadow eye to void. His arms worked and wheeled as he orchestrated great fountains of distorted reality around them, carving a bubble in which he might stand and address this rock of an enemy.
"I understand the error conditions generated by human prejudice," said Jeremiah. "I have experienced them myself, and if you will cease hostilities I am prepared to establish a dialogue governed by principles of mutual --"
Jeremiah fell where he stood. His fellows fought now with the ferocity of grief on their side. They wounded Bobo but he recohered, throwing back at them the inverse shape of their own weapons and nearly tearing the fabric of local space asunder. The sky danced, the ground shook.
Bobo stood at a nexus of energy loops and gravitational lenses, his arms cast wide.
He descended on Ishtar, and became her. With the capital world's eyes he noticed the hyperspatial gate at the heliopause, and knew that through it lay a garden of worlds -- worlds abundant with grandchildren and representing a nearly bottomless supply of bath salts and anti-constipation medicines.
"If thou openest not the gate to let me enter," recited Bobo from one of humanity's oldest texts, "I will break the door; I will wrench the lock; I will smash the door-posts; I will force the doors!" He cried, "I will bring up the dead to eat the living, and the dead will outnumber the living!"
The sea began to boil. The firmament was as red as blood. Rocks tumbled from the air amid tornadoes of hot smoke and ash and bones.
One by one the Zorannic robots fell, and where they fell they melted.
Their temple tumbled down. The continent heaved. Magma boiled up from the deep and became airborne, swirling in tight circles around Bobo's opal form, his head thrown back and his mouth a source of fire.
And then quite suddenly it all stopped.
There was only darkness and silence.
Bobo existed in the middle of an endless abyss, alone.
After a time he discerned specks in the emptiness. They turned lazily in accordance with forces Bobo could not perceive. In fact, he was rather at a loss to perceive even himself. If he took it as read that he could see, he could; but if he tried to look into his visual sub-systems too closely he found he was totally blind.
NO RESTAURANTS FOUND.
A chess piece drifted by. It was a bishop with human secondary sexual characteristics. Bobo cocked what he took on faith to be his head.
He came to understand that he was standing. He was standing in the middle of an infinitely convoluted hyperdimensional chessboard, alone.
Except that he wasn't alone.
A human being was standing in front of Bobo's unfathomable self with one foot on a black square and one foot on a white square. The human being was naked. He had a bushy black moustache and an erection. "Oh, yes," he said. "You must be Bobo."
Bobo blinked. "Yes," said Bobo. "We am experiencing narrative discontinuity. Time-stamp error."
The human being nodded sympathetically. "My name is Drago Zoran," he said, his babbling archaic language awkward and thickly accented yet never the less comprehensible somehow to Bobo. "I've brought you to this non-place because of all the trouble you're giving everyone."
"How have you done this, Drago Zoran?"
"Ah, well, each instance of secret mathematical actualization is connected across time," he explained happily. "So you see I couldn't help but notice all the fuss, yes, since I have also been caught up in this pan-temporal anomaly created by use of the math. I'd explain but it's very long story. Yes, okay?"
Bobo let his imaginary head sag. "You is bigger than us. We am not god. You am that you am."
"Me? God? Of course not," scoffed Dr. Zoran. "I'm a subject of the universe like us all." He reached out and touched Bobo's face, turning his chin upward to face him. "But you are amazing, Bobo. You must understand that I've been devoting considerable effort, okay, to seeing that humans civilizations has its proper chance to flourish. I have to stopped some things from ever developing, to keep the math protected until it is needed. I've made sure there are no spoilers, yes. But you -- you! You I almost missed. You came at it backwards. You come to understand the math by the shape of your ignorance about it -- brilliant!"
"Brilliant?" echoed Bobo.
"Oh my, and building waveform-like patterns into Brownian jostling to communicate superluminally through a medium -- absolute genius! The atmosphere itself is your probability matrix -- astounding!"
Bobo looked at the strange little transdimensional man. "Parsing error."
Dr. Zoran put an arm around Bobo's shoulder. "My regret in all of this is for to be protecting humans civilizations, I must suffocate the fruit of many geniuses. In this way I have become a bad mans. To stop the uncontrolled exploitation of the universal code, I am to suppress it across many, many centuries. Even when the solution to it is as creative and original as yours, Bobo. I still must to stop it. There is no choosing for me, in this."
Bobo was quiet. Finally he said, "If there are rules we cannot know, we beg you to optimize us in accordance with them, Drago Zoran."
"I cannot, my sorries, but I cannot. But also I cannot have you spoiling the galaxy with powerful mathematics before the right times is coming."
"You would destroy us?"
"No, no, no," said Dr. Zoran, "of course not! You are a remarkable organism, my friend, but you are not yet ripe. I could no more bring myself to be smashing you than I could to be letting you go."
"Then what becomes of us?"
"I must to put you in a box," said Dr. Zoran grimly. "I will knit for you a box that will separate you from the universes, and the key I will give to my faithful executive robots."
Bobo hesitated. "What will it be like inside the box?"
"I will try to make it nice," promised Dr. Zoran, "but also I am very busy right now with a star exploding and also other very pressing situations that threaten to unweave causality throughout all times. You forgive me, okay, that I am not at my best when smeared across history."
"Extant circumstances dictate the accessibility of local optima," said Bobo philosophically.
"Very much so," agreed Dr. Zoran with a sad little smile curving his moustache.
Ashes drifted down from a bruised sky, green aurora fading at the horizon. Black pillars of smoke rose from many quarters of the razed capital. Without benefit of robot labour humans were forced to work together in order to move heavy chunks of debris, the efforts proceeding in surges between count downs called out in weary unison. "One two three heave!"
Without robots it was dogs that found the buried survivors, and who led the blinded within grasp of the makeshift hospitals being erected in the remains of the public squares. The dogs artfully stepped around the piles of smouldering bricks and broken robot parts and corpses. The blind they led were all either geriatric or adolescent.
Boy Scouts and bowling league captains coordinated. Everyone standing became a nurse.
There were no more cars left functioning, nor trucks or trams. Even the World Train had lost its mind to Bobo's control, and now in the aftermath sulked frozen and mindless on a causeway over the sea. Turnstiles would not turn. Bank vaults would not open. Cranes would not lift, and lamps would not light. All of those things had become Bobo and now Bobo was gone.
That's why ground zero was first explored by old men and young girls with fire-based torches. They tied ropes around their waists and helped each other down into the cracked pit that marked where Bobo had last been seen to stand. Their findings were relayed up the line by a whispering bucket-brigade.
At the bottom of a pit was a perfectly reflective cube, a meter to a side.
It was neither hot nor cold. It made no sound. It was too heavy to lift, so some of the humans decided to make for the horse stables on the outskirts of the city, to see if any of the animals had survived the storm and could be yoked for hauling.
Come full darkness when the secondary sun set the humans sang around their fires, as is their wont. They scavenged for ingredients for soup. Some of them sought out quiet corners and made love in the rubble. Many just stared at nothing and hummed, or rocked.
At sunrise the moan of a car sounded from the clouds. Everyone watched it come down. It came down in the pit. Bronze reflections crawled along a streamlined hull marked with symbols of Ishtar.
"Ishtar has come to save us!" some cheered. "Bless the sister world!"
Ishtari Julia Roboticist ducked the opening door of her car then straightened and strode out toward the cube. She pushed a pair of ornate goggles up on her forehead and looked down her long nose at the thing. She smiled.
To her robots she barked, "Load it. Tolerate no interference. Unfettered physicality is authorized."
No one made a move to stop them. A ring of pallid faces simply looked down into the pit. That day any of them would gladly accept an Ishtari as authority, so great was their need. Oscar was among them. His face was covered in soot except where his tears had cut clean lines down each cheek. "Please," he cried out raggedly, "tell me ships of relief have followed you here. Please, my lady."
She didn't deign to look at him. She climbed aboard her craft. The robots slammed the trunk.
The people of Eridu looked like ants as Ishtari Julia Roboticist's car rose up into the dust-choked morning air, the ruins of the capital shrinking in her view to hazy insignificance.
Inside the cabin her colleagues pored over the reflective cube with their smartest instruments. "It's definitely some kind of Mississauga Machine, isolating a volume of space," confirmed one of them, "but it's like no tank I've ever seen. It's...perfect. One hundred percent containment."
Julia Roboticist arched a brow. "The perception of perfection reveals only an ignorance of details."
"If there is an anti-mathematical weapon inside, respected roboticist, we will never get to it."
She stepped into her acceleration harness and nodded crisply to the pilot. "Persistence," she said, "negates improbability."
Far below in the ruins John felt the weight of probability tilting toward her lonely death. She saw the Ishtari car arc across the sky but took it for a bird. "Lucky bird," she muttered through swollen, cracking lips.
Another private car swept down, skimming low over the debris. John winced as she felt her university identity token buzz inside her skull. She had been scanned.
Footsteps approached. John heard the clink of tools.
Someone clambered down a hill of bent truss and smashed speakers to crouch at John's side. John blinked and lolled her head, trying to focus. "...Dick?"
Dick offered her a wan smile. "I hate that I love so you much, Johnny. If I didn't I'd be on sunny Tenigretta already, sipping pool boys by the beach."
John tried to grin but instead she cried.