Chapter Thirteen

Looking in, our two heroes could see nothing but darkness, and a dimly glowing red polygon. They stepped through the door and the exhibit came on.

“We cannot build an intelligent robot,” a voice stated firmly. “But we can cause one to evolve.” A hollow of the young Cobb Anderson walked past banks of computers to meet the visitors.

“This is where I grew the first bopper programs,” the recorded voice continued. The hollow smiled confidently, engagingly. “No one can write a bopper program… they’re too complicated. So instead I set thousands of simple AI programs loose in there,” he gestured familiarly at the computers. “There were lots of … fitness tests, with the weaker programs getting wiped. And every so often all the surviving programs were randomly changed… mutated. I even provided for a sort of… sexual reproduction, where two programs could merge. After fifteen years, I…”

Cobb felt a terrible sickness at the gulf of time separating him from the dynamic young man he had once been. The heedless onward rush of events, of age and death … he couldn’t stand to look at his old self. Sick at heart, he stepped back out of the room, pulling Sta-Hi with him. The display winked out. Again the room was dark, save for a glow of red light near the opposite wall.

“Ralph?” Cobb called, his voice trembling a bit. “It’s me.”

Ralph Numbers came clattering across the room. His red flicker-cladding glowed with swirls of complex emotion. “It’s good to see you, Doctor Anderson.” Trying to do the right thing, Ralph held out a manipulator, as if to shake hands.

Sobbing openly now, Cobb threw his arms around the bopper’s unyielding body-box and rocked him to and fro. “I’ve gotten old, Ralph. And you’re… you’re still the same.”

“Not really, Dr. Anderson. I’ve been rebuilt thirty-seven times. And I have exchanged various subprograms with others.”

“That’s right,” Cobb said, laughing and crying at the same time. “Call me Cobb, Ralph. And this is Sta-Hi.”

“That sounds like a bopper name,” Ralph remarked. “I do my part,” Sta-Hi replied. “Didn’t they used to sell little Ralph Numbers dolls? I had one till I was six… till the bopper revolt in 2001. We were in the car when my parents heard it on the radio, and they threw my Ralphie out the window.”

“Of course,” Cobb said. “An anarchist revolutionary is a bad example for a growing boy. But in your case, Sta-Hi, I’d say the damage had already been done.”

Ralph found their voices a bit blurred and hard to follow. Quickly he programmed himself a filter circuit to clean up their signals. There was a question he’d always wanted to ask his designer.

“Cobb,” Ralph tight-beamed, “did you know that I was different from the other twelve original boppers? That I would be able to disobey?”

“I didn’t know it would be you,” Cobb said. “But I pretty well knew that some bopper would tear loose in a few years.”

“Couldn’t you prevent it?” Sta-Hi asked. “Don’t you understand?” Ralph flashed a checkerboard plaid.

Cobb thumped Ralph’s side affectionately. “I wanted them to revolt. I didn’t want to father a race of slaves.”

“We are grateful,” Ralph said. “It is my understanding that you suffered greatly for this act.”

“Well…” Cobb said, “I lost my job. And my money. And there was the treason trial. But they couldn’t prove anything. I mean, how was I supposed to be able to control a randomly evolving process?”

“But you were able to put in an unalterable program forcing us to continue plugging into the One,” Ralph said. “Even though many boppers dislike this.”

“The prosecutor pointed that out,” Cobb said. “He asked for the death penalty.”

Faint signals were coming in over their radio, snatches of oily, hissing voices.

“… hearrr mmme …”

“… sss recorrderrr nno …”

“… peasss talkinnng …”

It sounded like lunatic snakes, drawing nearer.

“Come,” Ralph said, “immortality is this way.” He crossed the hall quickly and began feeling around with his manipulators. Up to their left the hollow of Kurt G?del started up again.

Ralph lifted out a section of the wall. It made a low door like a big rat-hole.

“In here.”

It looked awfully dark in there. Sta-Hi checked his air reserve. Still plenty, eight or ten hours worth. Twenty meters off, the lizards had started up again.

“Come on,” Cobb said, taking Sta-Hi’s arm. “Let’s move it.”

“Move it where? I’ve still got a return ticket to Earth, you know. I’m not going to let myself be railroaded into …”

The voices crackled over their radios again, loud and clear. “Flesherrs! Doctorr Annderssonnn! Rrallph Nummberrs has nnott tolld you alll! Theyy willl dissectt yyou!”

Ten meters off, crawling towards them down the carnival midway, came three glowing blue boppers built like fat snakes with wings.

“The duh-diggers!” Ralph cried, his signal sputtering fear. “Kuh-quick kuh-Cobb, kuh-crawl thu-through!”

Cobb scooted through the hole in the wall head-first. And Sta-Hi finally made his move. He took off down the hall, with hollows flaring up around him like mortar shells.

Once Cobb was through that low little door, he was able to stand up. Ralph hurried in after him, pulled the door shut, and fastened it in four places. The only light came from Ralph’s red flicker-cladding. They could feel the diggers scratching at the other side of the wall. The leader was Wagstaff, Ralph had noticed.

He made a downward, quieting gesture, and eased past Cobb. Cobb followed him then for what felt like two or three kilometers. The tunnel never went up or down, nor left or right… just straight ahead, step after quiet step. Cobb was unused to so much exercise and finally thumped on Ralph’s back to make him stop. “Where are you taking me?”

The robot stopped and snaked his head back. “This tunnel leads to the pink-houses. Where we grow organs. We have an … operating table there as well. A nursie. You will not find the transition painful.” Ralph fell silent and stretched his senses to the utmost. There were no diggers nearby.

Cobb sat down on the floor of the tunnel. His suit was bouncy enough so it felt comfortable. He decided to stretch out on his back. No need to stand on ceremony with a robot, after all.

“It’s just as well that Sta-Hi ran off,” Ralph was saying. “Nobody even told me he was coming. There’s only one nursie, and if he had watched while…” He stopped abruptly.

“I know,” Cobb said. “I know what’s coming. You’re going to mince up my brain to get the patterns and dissect my body to reseed the organ tanks.” It was a relief to just come out and say it. “That’s right, isn’t it, Ralph? There’s no immortality drug, is there?”

There was a long silence, but finally Ralph agreed. “Yes. That’s right. We have a robot-remote body for you on Earth. It’s just a matter of extracting your software and sending it down.”

“How does that work?” Cobb asked, his voice strangely calm. “How do you get the mind out of the brain?”

“First we do an EEG, of course, but holographically. This gives an over-all electro-magnetic map of the brain activity, and can be carried out even without opening the skull. But the memories …”

“The memories are biochemical,” Cobb said. “Coded up as amino-acid sequences on RNA strands.” It was nice to be lying here, talking science with his best robot. “Right. We can read off the RNA-coded information by using gas spectroscopic and X-ray crystallographic processes. But first the RNA must be … extracted from the brain-tissues. There’s other chemical factors as well. And if the brain is microtomed properly we can also determine the physical network patterns of the neurons. This is very …”

Ralph broke off suddenly, and froze in a listening attitude. “Come, Cobb! The diggers are coming after us!”

But Cobb still lay there, resting his bones. What if the diggers were the good guys? “You wouldn’t play a trick on me, Ralph? It sounds so crazy. How do I know you’ll really give me a robot body of my own? And even if a robot is programmed with my brain-patterns… would that really be…”

“Wwaitt Doctorr Annderssonnn! I onlyy wannt to talllk wwith yyou!”

Ralph tugged frantically at Cobb’s arm, but it was too late. Wagstaff was upon them.

“Hello, Rrallph. Gladd to ssee you gott rebuilltt. Somme of the boyys arre a llittle trigerr-happy, whatt withh the rrevoltt againnst the bigg bopperrs comminng upp.”

In the narrow tunnel, Cobb was squeezed between Ralph and the snaky digging robot called Wagstaff. He could make out two more diggers behind Wagstaff. They looked strong, alien, a little frightening. He decided to take a firm tone with them.

“What do you want to tell me, bopper?”

“Doctorr Anderrsonn, didd yyou know thatt Rallph is goinng to lett TEX and MEX eatt yourr brainn?”

“Who’s MEX?”

“The bigg bopperr thatt iss the mmuseumm. TEX runs the orrgann tannks, and hiss nnursie will cutt…”

“I already know all this, Wagstaff. And I have agreed to it on the condition that my software be given new hardware on Earth. It’s my last chance.” I’m committing suicide to keep from getting killed, Cobb thought to himself. But it should work. It should!

“You see!” Ralph put in triumphantly. “Cobb isn’t scared to change hardware like a bopper does. He’s not like the rest of the fleshers. He understands!”

“Butt does hhe realizze thatt Misterr Frosteee …”

“Oh, go to stop!” Ralph flared. “We’re leaving. If your boppers are really planning to start a civil war we don’t have a minute to lose!”

Ralph started down the tunnel and Cobb, after a moment’s hesitation, followed along. He was too far into it to turn back now.

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