Chapter Seventeen

It happened while he was buying an ice-cream, a double-size Mr. Frostee with sprinkles. The driver counted the change into Cobb’s hand and suddenly he was… there again. But where had he been?

Cobb started, and stared at the truck-driver, an evil-looking bald man with half his teeth missing. Something like a wink or a smile seemed to flicker across the ruined face. Then the sickly sweet chiming started up again and the boxy white truck drove off, its powerful refrigeration unit humming away.

His feet carried him back to his beach cottage. Annie was on the porch in back, lounging on Cobb’s hammock with her shirt off. She was rubbing baby oil into the soft rolls of her belly-flesh.

“Give me a lick, honey?”

Cobb looked at her, uncomprehending. Since when was she living with him? But… yet … he could remember her moving in with him last Friday night. Today was Friday again. She’d been here a week. He could remember the week, but it was like remembering a book or a movie…

“Come on, Cobb, before it melts!”

Annie leaned out from the hammock, her brown breasts sliding around. He handed her the ice-cream cone. Ice-cream cone?

“I don’t like ice-cream,” Cobb said. “You can have it all.”

Annie sucked at the cold tip, her full lips rounded. Coyly, she glanced over to see if Cobb was thinking what she was. He wasn’t.

“Whydja buy it then?” she asked with a slight edge to her voice. “When you heard that music you went running out of here like you’d been waiting your whole life to hear it. First time I’ve seen you excited all week.” There was a hint of accusation in the last sentence, of disappointment.

“All week,” Cobb echoed and sat down. It was funny how supple his body felt. He didn’t have to keep his back stiff. He held his hands up, flexing them curiously. He felt so strong.

Of course he had to be strong, to break out of his crate and through the warehouse wall, with only Sta-Hi to help him… What?

The memories were all there, the sights and sounds, but something was missing from them. Something he suddenly had again.

“I am,” Cobb muttered. “I am me.” He … this body… hadn’t thought that for … how long?

“That’s good, hon.” Annie was lying back in the hammock, her hands folded over her navel. “You’ve been acting kind of weird ever since Mooney took us to the Gray Area last Friday. I am. I am me. That’s all there is really, isn’t there… .” She kicked out with her bare foot, setting the hammock to swaying.

The operation must have worked. It was all fitting together now. The frantic dash to the pink-house with Ralph. The nursie, the shot, and then that strange floating time of total disorientation.

Under these memories, faint but visible, were the robot’s memories: Breaking out of the warehouse, contacting the old Anderson on the beach, and then moving in with Annie. That had been last week, last Friday.

Since then that cop, Mooney, had been out twice more to talk to him. But he hadn’t realized the real Cobb was gone. The robot had been able to fake it by just acting too drunk to answer specific questions. Even though Mooney had begun to suspect that Cobb had a robot double somewhere, he was naive enough to think he’d know the double on sight.

“There’s Sta-Hi,” Annie called. “Will you let him in, Cobb?”

“Sure.” He stood up easily. Sta-Hi always dropped by this time of day. Nights he guarded a warehouse at the spaceport. They liked to fish together. They did?

Cobb walked into the kitchen and peered through the screen door, holding the handle uncertainly. That sure looked like Sta-Hi out there in the harsh sun, skinny and shirtless, his lips stretched in a half-smile.

“Hi,” Cobb said, as he had said every day for a week. “How are you?”

“Stuzzy,” Sta-Hi said, smiling and tossing his hair back. “Waving.” He reached for the door handle.

But Cobb continued to hold the door closed. “Hi,” he said, on a wild impulse. “How are you?”

“Stuzzy,” Sta-Hi said, smiling and tossing his hair back. “Waving.” He reached for the door handle.

“Hi,” Cobb said, trying to keep the tremble out of his voice. “How are you?”

“Stuzzy,” Sta-Hi said, smiling and tossing his hair back. “Waving.” He reached for the door handle.

Music was playing, wheedling closer. Resonant as a film of mucus across a public-speaker’s throat… har-rumph… sweet as a toothache, it’s Mister Frostee time!

Sta-Hi jerked and turned around. He was hurrying towards the white truck that was slowly cruising up.

“More ice-cream?” Annie asked as Cobb opened the door to follow.

The door slapped shut. Annie kicked again, swaying gently. Today she wouldn’t cover up her breasts when Sta-Hi came in. Her nipples were a definite plus. She poured out a bit more baby oil. One of them was going to take her to the Golden Prom tonight and that was that.

Cobb followed the Sta-Hi thing… Sta-Hi2 … out to the Mr. Frostee truck. The sun was very bright. The same bald man with the half-caved-in face was driving. What a guy to have selling ice-cream. He looked like a thrill-killer.

The driver stopped when he saw Sta-Hi2, and gave him a familiar smile. At least it might have been a smile. Sta-Hi2 walked up to him expectantly.

“A double-dip Mr. Frostee with sprinkles on it.”

“Yeth thir!” the driver said, his loose lips fluttering. He got out and unlatched the heavy door in the truck’s side. He wore colorful sneakers with letters around the edges. Kid’s shoes, but big.

“Thtick your head in,” the driver advised, “an you’ll get it!”

Cobb tried to see over Sta-Hi2’s shoulder. There was much too much equipment in that truck. And it was so cold in there. Frost crystals formed in the air that blew out. In the middle was what looked like a giant vacuum chamber, even colder, shrouded and insulated. A double-dip Mr. Frostee with sprinkles was sitting there in a sort of bracket set one meter back. Had it been that way for Cobb? He couldn’t remember.

It didn’t seem to bother the driver that Cobb was watching. They were all in this together. Sta-Hi2 leaned in, reaching for that cone.

There was a flash of light, four flashes, one from each corner of the door. The skinny arm snagged the cone, and the figure turned around utterly expressionless.

“Yes no no no yes no no no yes yes yes no no no yes no no yes yes yes no yes yes yes yes no no …” it muttered, dropping the cone. It turned and shuffled towards Cobb’s house. The feet stayed on the ground at all times, and left two plowed-up grooves in the crushed shell driveway. “…no yes no no no.”

The driver looked upset. “Whath with him? Heth thuppothed to…”

He hurried into the truck’s cab and talked for a minute over what seemed to be a CB radio. Then he came back out, looking relieved.

“I didn’t wealize. Mithter Fwostee jutht bwoke contact with him. The weal Thta-Hi ith coming back… he got away. Tho the wemote’ll need a new cover. Jutht lay him on your bed for now. We’ll pick him up tonight.”

The half-faced driver jumped back into the truck and drove off with a cheery wave. Somehow he had brought Cobb back to life, but he had turned Sta-Hi off instead. They hadn’t had a brain-tape to put into the robot. And with the real Sta-Hi coming back intact they’d decided to turn it off.

Cobb took the Sta-Hi thing’s arm, trying to help it towards his house. The features on the tortured face were distorted almost beyond recognition. The mouth worked, tongue humping up like an epileptic’s.

“Yes no no yes yes yes no no no no yes yes …”

Machine language. It raised one of its clawed hands, trying to block the bright sunlight.

Cobb led it to the front steps, and it stumbled heavily. It didn’t seem to have the concept of lifting its feet. He held the door open, and the Sta-Hi thing came in on all fours, hands and knees shuffling along.

“What’s the matter?” Annie asked, coming into the kitchen from the back porch. “Is he tripping?” She was in the mood for some excitement. It would be really neat to show up stoned at the Prom. “You got any more, Sta-Hi?”

The anguished figure fell over onto its side now, thick tongue protruding, lips drawn back in rictus death-grin. Its arms were wrapped around its chest, and the legs were frantically bicycling up some steep and heartless grade. The leg-motions slowly pulled the body around and around in circles on the kitchen floor.

Annie backed off, changing her mind about taking this trip.

“Cobb! He’s having a fit!”

Cobb could almost understand it now. There was some machinery in that Mr. Frostee truck, machinery which had brought his own consciousness back to him. Machinery which had done something else to Sta-Hi2. Turned it off.

The twitching on the floor damped down, oscillation by oscillation. Then the Sta-Hi thing was still, utterly still.

“Call a doctor, Cobb!”

Annie was all the way back on the porch, peering into the kitchen with both hands over her mouth.

“A doctor can’t help him, Annie. I don’t think he was even…” He couldn’t say it.

Cobb bent over and picked the limp form up as easily as a rag-doll. Amazing the strength they’d built in. He carried the body down the short hall and laid it on his bed.


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