Chapter Twenty-Three

The Golden Prom was a lot of fun. Cobb hadn’t enjoyed himself so much in years. The beauty of the DRUNKENNESS subprogram was that you could move your intoxication level up and down at will, instead of being caught on a relentless down escalator to bargain basement philosophy and the parking garage. He found that if he tried to go further than ten drinks, to the blackout point, then an automatic over-ride would cut in and he’d loop back to where he started.

Leaving the dance with Annie, he took a few sobering right-nostril breaths and wrapped his arm around her waist. She was acting girlish and giggly. “Have you finished your research, Cobb?” “What.” The moon was hanging over the sea now. Its light made a long lapped lane of gold, leading out to the edge of the world, “What research?”

She slipped her hand into his pants in back and smoothed his buttock. “You know.”

“That’s right,” Cobb said. “Be-boppa-lu-la.”

“Library accessed,” a voice in his head said. “I want to have sex.”

“I’m glad,” Annie said. “So do I.”

“SEX subroutine now activated,” the voice said.

“OUT,” Cobb said.

“It’s out?” Annie asked. “I thought you wanted to.”

Cobb felt his pants tightening in front. “I do, I do.”

They stopped once or twice to kiss and rub against each other. Every square centimeter of Cobb’s body tingled with anticipation. For the first time in years his whole consciousness was out on his skin. Out on both their skins, really, for when they kissed he felt himself merging into Annie’s personality. One flesh.

For some reason the lights in his cottage were on. At first he thought it had just been an oversight … but walking up to the door he heard Sta-Hi’s voice.

“Oh,” Annie cried happily. “How wonderful! Your friend is better again!”

Cobb followed her into his cottage. Sta-Hi and Mooney were sitting there arguing. They fell silent when they saw Cobb and Annie.

Annie was angry to see Mooney there again. “What do you want, pig?”

Mooney didn’t say anything, but just leaned back in Cobb’s easy chair, his alert eyes looking the old man up and down.

“It is really you, Sta-Hi?” Cobb asked. “Did they beam you down or…”

“It’s the real me,” Sta-Hi said. “All-meat. I came back on the shuttle today. How was your trip?”

“You would have loved it. I couldn’t tell yes from no.” Cobb started to say more, then stopped himself. It wasn’t clear how much it would be safe to let Mooney know. Had they found the switched-off robot in the bedroom? Then he noticed the pistol in Mooney’s lap.

“Maybe you should send the lady home,” Mooney suggested easily. “I think we have some things to talk over.”

“SEX OUT,” Cobb muttered bitterly, “DRUNKENNESS OUT. You better go, Annie. Mr. Mooney’s right.”

“But why should I? I live here now, too. Who does this crummy Gimmie loach think he is, making me leave?” She was close to tears. “And after such a wonderful evening, just when …”

Cobb put his arm around her and walked her out the door. Patches of light from his cottage windows lay on the crushed-shell driveway. He could see Mooney’s alert shadow in one of the windows.

“Don’t worry, Annie. I’ll make it up to you tomorrow. Suddenly it’s like… like life is starting all over again.”

“But what do they want? Have you done something wrong? Do they have a right to arrest you?”

Cobb thought a minute. Conceivably they could have him dismantled as a bopper spy. As a machine, he probably wouldn’t even be entitled to a trial. But there was no reason it had to come to that. He put his arms around Annie and gave her a last kiss.

“I’ll talk to them. I’ll talk my way out. Save a place for me in your bed. I might be over in a half-hour.”

“All right,” Annie breathed in his ear. “And I’ve got a gun too, you know. I’ll watch out the window in case …”

Cobb hugged her tighter, whispering back, “Don’t do that, honey. I can handle them. If worst comes to worst I’ll… skip out. But …”

“Come on, Anderson,” Mooney called from Cobb’s window. “We’re waiting to talk to you.”

Cobb and Annie exchanged a last hand-squeeze, and Cobb went back in his house. He sat down in the easy chair that Mooney had been using, leaving Mooney to lean against the wall and glower at him, pistol in hand. Sta-Hi was lounging in a deck-chair he’d dragged in, a lit reefer in his mouth.

“Start talking, Anderson,” Mooney said. He was keeping the pistol aimed at Cobb’s head. A body shot probably wouldn’t stop a robot, but …

“Take it easy, Dad,” Sta-Hi put in. “Cobb’s not going to hurt anyone.”

“You let me be a judge of that, Stanny. For all we know, that other robot is hiding right outside to help him.”

“What robot?” Cobb said. How much did they really know, anyway? He and Sta-Hi had split up before the operation, and…

“Look,” Sta-Hi said, a little wearily. “Let’s cut the noise-level. I know that you’re a machine now, Cobb. The boppers put you in your robot-double. Stuzzy! I can wave with it. The only problem is that my father here …”

The old hard-cop/soft-cop routine. Cobb abandoned his first line of defense and asked for information.

“Where’s the Sta-Hi2 robot?”

“The Little Kidders were here,” Sta-Hi said. “They carried the robot out of your bedroom and left. It looked like they were driving an ice-cream truck.”

“Mr. Frostee,” Cobb said absently. He was thinking hard. What the boppers had done to him was, on the whole, a good thing. A whole nother ball-game. If only he could make Sta-Hi and Mooney see…

“Where’s your base of operations?” Mooney demanded. “How many others like you are there?” He gestured menacingly with his pistol.

Cobb shrugged. “Don’t ask me. The boppers never tell me anything. I’m just a poor old man with an artificial body.” He looked over at Sta-Hi for sympathy. As with Annie before, he was getting a telepathic feeling, a feeling that he could see through the two other men’s eyes. Sta-Hi was stoned, receptive and open to change. But Mooney was tense and frightened.

“As far as I know,” Cobb said, “I’m completely in control of myself. I don’t think the boppers plan to use me as a remote-control robot or anything like that.”

“What’s in it for them?” Mooney asked.

“They said they wanted to do me a favor,” Cobb said. He considered opening his food-unit door to show Mooney the letter, but then thought better of it. But thinking of the door suggested a possibility.

“Be-boppa-lu-la,” Cobb said out loud.

“Library accessed.”

“Was there a subroutine called MR. FROSTEE?”

“Now activated,” the voice murmured.

Something opened up in Cobb’s mind, and a whole different set of visual stimuli overlaid the yellowed walls of his living-room.

He was still in his cottage, yet he was also in a concrete parking garage. Something very bad had just happened. Berdoo had shot Phil, his best remote. It was like losing an eye. And now there was no way to see what Berdoo and Haf-N-Haf were doing. Should he send the extra remote after them?

“Hello,” Cobb thought, stopping himself from saying the word aloud.

“Cobb?” Mr. Frostee’s response was quick and unsurprised. “I was hoping to talk to you. But I wanted to let you make the first move. We don’t want you to feel …”

“Like a remote?”

“Right. You’re designed for full autonomy, Cobb. If you can help us, so much the better. But there’s no way we would have edited out your freewill… even if we knew how. You’re still entirely your own man.”

“What do you want from me?” Silently asking this, Cobb leaned back in his chair, stretching out his legs. Mooney looked impatient. Sta-Hi was staring at the bugs on the ceiling.

“Convince the others,” came Mr. Frostee’s reply. In the background, Cobb could make out the interior of a truck-cab. Hands on the steering wheel. The concrete walls of a parking garage, then the garish lights of Daytona Beach streaming past.

“Convince them all to get robot bodies like you. Then we can merge, we can all merge to become a new and greater being. We’ll set up a number of reprocessing centers …”

Mooney was standing over Cobb, shaking him. It was hard to see, with the glare of headlights coming at him. Slowly, Cobb brought his attention back to the cottage.

“What’s the matter, Mooney?”

“You’re signaling for help, aren’t you?”

“How would you like a nice ever-lasting body like mine?” Cobb countered. “I could arrange it.”

“So that’s it,” Sta-Hi said dreamily. “The big boppers want to bring us all into the fold.”

“It’s not so unreasonable,” Cobb protested. “It’s a natural next evolutionary step. Imagine people that carry mega-byte computing systems in their head, people that communicate directly brain-to-brain, people who live for centuries and change bodies like suits of clothes!”

“Imagine people that aren’t people,” Sta-Hi replied. “Cobb, the big boppers like TEX and MEX have been trying to run the same con on the Moon. And most of the little boppers up there aren’t buying it … most would rather fight then let themselves be patched into the big systems. Now why do you think that is?”

“Obviously some people … or boppers … are going to be paranoid about losing their precious individuality,” Cobb answered. “But that’s just a matter of cultural conditioning! Look, Sta-Hi, I’ve been all the way in … all the way. After I got taped on the Moon I was just a pattern in a memory-bank somewhere for a few days. And you know, it wasn’t even that …”

“Let’s go,” Mooney ordered, roughly pulling Cobb to his feet. “You’re going to be deprogrammed and dismantled, Anderson. We can’t let this kind of…”

Mr. Frostee was still there in Cobb’s head. “I’ve taken the liberty of activating your SELF-DESTRUCT subroutine,” the voice said quietly. “Just say the word ‘DESTROY’ out loud and you’ll explode. Your body will explode. You’re really in me. I’ll give you a new body, the one here in the truck …”

“MR. FROSTEE OUT,” Cobb said. If he did it, he wanted it to be his own decision.

Mooney had his pistol at the base of Cobb’s skull. He was getting panicky.

Any second, Mooney, Cobb thought to himself. But still he hesitated. He told himself it was just because he didn’t want to hurt Sta-Hi… but he was also scared, scared to die again. Could he really cross the noisy void between bodies again? But he’d already done it once, hadn’t he?

“Go outside, Sta-Hi,” Mooney said then, and sealed his fate. “Go check if that old bitch is waiting out there to ambush us. Or the other robot.”

Sta-Hi eased out the back door and melted into the night.

“I’ve finally got you,” Mooney said, with a nudge of his pistol. “I’m going to find out what makes you tick.”

“DESTROY,” Cobb said, and lost his second body.

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