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Chapter Twenty-Six

The old Marineland had closed down back in 2007, after a hurricane had caved in half the building. Now everyone who wanted to see the ritual degradation of dolphins had to go to Sea World instead. The building, in the middle of nowhere on Coastal Route 1A, came up on Sta-Hi unexpectedly.

"Pull around to the ocean side," Wendy said. "So no one sees."

"Yes ma'am. That'll be two fucks and a blow-job."

"Please, Sta-Hi, be serious. Not just anyone can become a member of Personetics. You have to have the right attitude."

"I'll try to keep it limp, baby."

There was a little parking lot in back. Sta-Hi pulled in next to a nice-looking red sedan. Off at the edge of the lot was a beat-up black truck. The wind was high, and the surf was loud. They got out and walked along a concrete wall to where a rusty door hung open. There were no lights inside.

"Mel," Wendy called at the top of her lungs. "I'm back already. I brought someone with another car for you."

There was the sound of footsteps, and a lithe figure hurried out of the building. He was the same height as Sta-Hi, and with the same rangy build. But his head ... his big, round head seemed a size too big for the body. He made you think of a balloon tied to the end of a rope.

"Mel Nast," he said, sticking out his hand. He had a deep, sincere-sounding voice, with a trace of an East European accent. "I'm bleased to meet you. Vhat's your name?"

"I'm nobody," Sta-Hi said. "I'm Mr. Nobody from Nowhere."

"Don't listen to him, Mel. He told me his name is Sta-Hi. He says he's a bopper-lover from way back."

Spoken in Wendy's earnest treble the self description sounded pathetic, imbecilic. But Mel Nast looked sympathetic.

"The point is not just to love, Sta-Hi. It is to live. If only you can vake up in time. Blease come in."

Mel Nast's round head turned like a rotating planet, and his slender body followed along. The three of them walked down a damp corridor, through two doors and into a bright, windowless space.

It was a square hall, with big rectangular holes in the walls. One of the old tank-rooms. The aquarium glass had been smashed out and removed, and each of the tanks was now a sort of nook or roomlet. They followed Nast across the square floor and stopped before one of the ex-tanks. "STURGEON," a cracked label on the wall read, "Acipenser Sturio."

There were two easy chairs in there, a shelf of books, and a desk covered with papers. "My study," the slim man with the big head explained. "Could you blease leave us now, Vhendy? I have plans to make with... Mister Hi." He flashed Sta-Hi a sudden smile. Had he winked?

"That's fine with me," Wendy said. "I'm all tired out. And here's tonight's take." She handed over the five-hundred-dollar bill and walked across the room. Apparently she had a bed in one of the tanks. Sta-Hi followed Nast into his study-tank. They sat down, and looked at each other in silence for a minute.

"How do you like my face?" Nast asked finally. The round face was dominated by a fleshy nose, from which two wrinkles ran down, suspending the somewhat sensual mouth in a rounded sling of folds. The lips parted, revealing square, uniform teeth. "Should I change it?"

"It depends on what you want to do," Sta-Hi said uncertainly.

"What do you want to do?" came the answer. "What do you want from the boppers?"

Another hard question. Most superficially, Sta-Hi wanted to acquire another Happy Cloak and use it to get famous. But on another level, hardly conscious, he wanted revenge, revenge for his father's death, revenge for what the nursie had done to Cobb Anderson.

He hated the boppers. But he loved them. The diggers... the diggers had helped him. Wearing the Happy Cloak and raiding the factory had been fantastic. Perhaps what he really wanted was to go back to Disky and help in the civil war, loving and hating at the same time.

Something strange happened to Mel Nast's face while Sta-Hi considered his answer. The fatty puffed-out skin tightened, the cheeks drew in, and a white beard blossomed around the mouth. Suddenly he was looking at ...

"Cobb?" Sta-Hi asked. "Is it you?" He started to smile and then stopped. "You killed my father! You

"I had to, Sta-Hi. You heard him. He said he was going to have me dismantled!"

"So? It wouldn't have killed you. You blew up your body along with his, and now you're still here and he's gone forever!" The grief came welling up at last, and Sta-Hi's voice quavered.

"He wasn't such a bad guy. And he could paint spaceships better than anyone I ever ..." Sta-Hi broke off, sobbing. A minute went by till he found his voice again.

"I saw them take you apart, Cobb. They took out your heart and your balls and everything else. It's like ..." The face across from him looked sympathetic, interested. The perfect cult minister.

"Fuck!" Sta-Hi spat, suddenly lashing out and hitting the robot's face with the back of his hand. "I might as well be talking to a tape-recorder."

The blow hurt his hand, and made him angrier. He got to his feet, standing over the Cobb-faced robot.

"I ought to fucking take you apart!" The robot began to talk then, slowly, and in Cobb's old voice. "Listen to me, Sta-Hi. Sit down and listen. You know perfectly well that you can't hurt me by hammering on this robot-remote. I'm sorry your father died. But death isn't real. You have to understand that. Death is meaningless. I wasted the last ten years being scared of death, and now ..."

"Now that you think you're immortal you don't worry about death," Sta-Hi said bitterly. "That's really enlightened of you. But whether you know it or not, Cobb Anderson is dead. I saw him die, and if you think you're him, you're just fooling yourself." He sat down, suddenly very tired.

"If I'm not Cobb Anderson, then who would I be?" The flicker-cladding face smiled at him gently. "I know I'm Cobb. I have the same memories, the same habits, the same feelings that I always did."

"But what about your... your soul," Sta-Hi said, not liking to use the word. "Each person has a soul, a consciousness, whatever you call it. There's some special thing that makes a person be alive, and there's no way that can go into a computer program. No way."

"It doesn't have to go into the program, Sta-Hi. It is everywhere. It is just existence itself. All consciousness is One. The One is God. God is pure existence unmodified."

Cobb's voice was intense, evangelical. "A person is just hardware plus software plus existence. Me existing in flesh is the same as me existing on chips. But that's not all.

"Potential existence is as good as actual existence. That's why death is impossible. Your software exists permanently and indestructibly as a certain possibility, a certain mathematical set of relations. Your father is now an abstract, non-physical possibility. But nevertheless he exists! He..."

"What is this," Sta-Hi interrupted. "A cram-course in Personetics? Is this the crap that you feed those girls to keep them whoring for you? Forget it!"

Sta-Hi stopped talking, suddenly realizing something. That black truck outside... that must be the Mr. Frostee truck with a paint-job. And inside the truck would be a super-cooled big bopper brain with Cobb coded up inside it. He couldn't hurt this robot-remote, but if he got out to the truck ... It was just a question of whether he really wanted to. Did he hate the boppers or not?

"I sense your hostility," Cobb said. "I respect that. But I'd like you to come in with me anyhow. I need an outside man, a Personetics promoter. I could be Jesus and you be John the Baptist. Or you be Jesus and I'll be God."

While he was talking, the robot's face changed again, to a copy of Sta-Hi's. "I always use this trick on the recruits," he chuckled. "Like Charlie Manson. I am a mirror. But that was before your time. Here, have a joint."

The robot lit a reefer and handed it over. The Cobb face came back. "I'm a little psychic now, too," he said. "I've gotten pretty loose. And what I said is really true. Nothing is ever really destroyed. There is no..."

"Oh, tape it," Sta-Hi said taking the reefer and leaning back in his easy chair. "I might come in with you. Especially if you can get me another Happy Cloak."

"What's that?" Cobb asked.

"Well, I never told you yet ... about what I did on the Moon."

"You ran away in the museum. The next time I saw you, it was that night when you and your father ..."

"Yeah, yeah," Sta-Hi said, cutting him off. "Don't remind me about that. Let me tell my story. I found this sort of cape called a Happy Cloak. It was made of flicker-cladding and when I put it on I could talk bopper, except with a Japanese accent. I went to where a bunch of boppers were storming a big factory called GAX. We got in, but GAX almost won anyway. Then at the last minute I blew him up."

The robot started in shock. "You blew up a big bopper?"

"Yeah. Some diggers and a repair spider had set the charge. All I had to do was push the button. The remotes would have gotten me then, but at the last minute a digger tunneled up through the floor and saved me. He took me to watch the nursie take you apart. Ralph and the nursie taped you, and then the nursie grabbed Ralph Numbers and taped him, too. The diggers said ..."

Cobb's face was working, as if he were arguing with a voice in his head. Now he interrupted. "Mr. Frostee wants to kill you, Sta-Hi. He says that if it weren't for you blowing up GAX, the big boppers would have won."

Cobb was twitching now, as if he could hardly control himself. His voice grew thin and odd. "I'm not a puppet. Sta-Hi is my friend. I have free will."

The words seemed to cost him a great effort. His eyes kept straying to a hunting-knife lying on his desk.

"No!" Cobb said, shaking his head jerkily. It wasn't clear who he was talking to. "I'm not your hand. I'm your conscience! I'm a..."

Suddenly his voice stopped. The features of his face clenched in a final spasm and then slid back into the serene curves of Mel Nast. The thick lips parted to complete Cobb's sentence.

"... hallucination. But this robot-remote is, in the last analysis, mine. I have temporarily had to evict Dr. Anderson." The hand snaked over to pick up the knife.

Sta-Hi jumped to his feet and vaulted out of the tank in one motion. He hit the floor running, with the robot close behind.

The door out to the hall was open, and Sta-Hi managed to slam it behind him, gaining a few seconds. He got the second door closed too, closed tight, and he had his cab started by the time the robot came charging out.

Sta-Hi ignored it, and aimed his cab at the black panel truck parked across the lot. He revved the engine up to a chattering scream and peeled out.

The robot jumped onto his hood and punched his fist through the windshield. Sta-Hi squinted against the flying glass and kept the car aimed at the truck. He had it up to fifty kph by the time it hit.

The air-bag in the steering column burst out, punching Sta-Hi in the face and chest, keeping him in his seat. An instant later the bag was limp and the car was stopped. Sta-Hi's lip had split. There was blood in his mouth. The car lights were out, and it was hard to see what had happened.

Footsteps came running across the parking lot.

"What happened? Sta-Hi? Mel?" It was Wendy. Sta-Hi got out of his cab. The girl ran past him, to reach out to the figure crushed between the cab and the dented side of the black van.

"Back up, Sta-Hi! Quick!"

But now the black van was moving instead. Its engine, already on, roared louder, and it backed out, grinding the pinned robot-remote against the cab's hood. It looked like steam was leaking from a hole in the truck's side.

The driverless van flicked its lights on, and Sta-Hi could make out the face of the broken robot slumped across his cab's hood. The blank eyes may have seen him or not, but then the lips moved. It was saying...

"Look out!" Sta-Hi screamed, snatching Wendy back and flinging their bodies to shelter on the ground behind the cab.

The robot-remote exploded, just like the other one had, back in the cottage on Cocoa Beach.

As the ringing of the explosion died out in their ears, they could hear the black van's engine, roaring south on Route One.

Chapter Twenty-Five | Software | Chapter Twenty-Seven