by John Gerner
Hung over and horny is no way to start a weekend...but oh what a party last night. I just couldn't get enough of that good stuff. No doubt now who's Tequila King. The challenger's still praying to the porcelain god, I bet. And then making out with Sabrina in my car. Oh yeah...too bad I couldn't talk her into.... Hey, stop thinking about it, working Saturday's bad enough.
Our dispatcher, I forget his name, pokes his head into my office and smiles. "Put on a happy face, Jack. You've got a customer." That knowing look.
The Professor walks in and slumps in the chair. I call him that 'cause he looks like the absent-minded kind you see in movies. Probably forty-something, wearing a tweed jacket, loose tie, no shave. Also looks like he's had about as much sleep as I've had. We sure make a cute couple.
"Good morning," he says. "I was told you're the police officer who finds robots."
"Yeah, I'm 'bot man today. The alpha geek's on vacation and the other's off on weekends." Lousy assignment, but it's bound to get me some brownie points at my evaluation next week. Man, I've got to make detective this time around. I can't wait any more. I remember talking to one of the new detectives last week. I asked him how he felt about working twelve hours on, twelve off some days, and he tells me he's really ticked off 'cause he misses half the good cases. Not silly ones like this. "Was your unit lost or stolen?"
"Escaped," he says.
Great, another wise guy. "Believe me, I'm really not in the mood for this today."
"I'm not joking," he says with a hollow look. And suddenly I can see he's not pulling my leg.
It's going to be a long day.
I gulp down the coffee. "First things first. Tell me its locator code so we can get going." Now, where did I put the damn thing? Right, third drawer. I can't believe this sucker's worth a year's pay. Probably the reason why cops are the only ones who have them.
He slowly calls out "127318" as I punch it in. Push the magic button, clip it to my belt and plug its output into my headset. There's the tone. Hmm, it's not too far away. "You can tell me the rest in the car," I say, while grabbing my jacket.
* * *
I find the car, get in, turn on the PortaScribe and aim the other mike at him. I like this gizmo. I talk, he talks, it does the paperwork. "Now, tell me the whole story." My question pops up on the mini- screen, word for word. Ain't science grand.
The Professor seems comfortable talking to microphones. "I'm Dr. Clifford Walsh, head of Bartan University's applied neuroscience team."
Pegged him right. Why can't the captain see I've got "detective" written all over me?
He continues, "Our research group has made major progress in helping those with neural dysfunction."
"Yes, that's one form of it," he answers. I knew I wouldn't escape without a lecture.
"Neural prosthetics has helped victims in the past. For example, it's allowed the blind to regain some vision through artificial eyes that communicate electronically with the brain. We're now expanding our efforts into artificially reproducing other brain functions...I guess I'm getting a little more technical than is necessary."
"Probably," I say, trying not to look bored. The Professor doesn't seem to notice.
"What's important is that J4 is our current prototype. His neural processing system was mounted into a maintenance robot to allow it to self-administer experiments. But he's left university grounds."
"Why do you keep calling it 'he'?" I cut in. "Don't tell me you gave it a...."
"Oh no," he answers, turning a bit red. "It's just that I think of him as almost being human."
Good, last thing I need is a machine on the loose with a hard-on. I lean toward the mike. "PortaScribe, erase last exchange and complete background interview for missing robot." Yeah, I said it right. Why don't they teach these things normal English? It pipes up with some standard questions I forgot to ask. Nice official sounding voice. Great, you two yak while I keep driving.
"Do you mind if I ask you how you're going to capture it?" he asks after the PortaScribe shuts up.
I like this part, got it memorized. "Here in my right holster is an HTX disabler. It's the latest technology in robot control. Aim, fire, and enough electricity pours out to blow out the main circuits of anything running on batteries. In my left holster is a nine- millimeter semiautomatic pistol. If the disabler doesn't do the job, I'll turn to old faithful here."
The Professor doesn't like this at all. Looks like I'm going to shoot his kid. "Please don't hurt him.... I mean, it's a very expensive piece of equipment."
I can tell he's not really thinking about the cost, but I'm not going to push it. What a man does with his own machine is his own business. Know what I mean?
The locator tone is telling me it's real close. I pull the car over and jump out. It's show time! When it comes around the corner of that building, it's going to get a big surprise.
* * *
The locator's now putting out its high pitch ground-zero tone into my headphone. Yeah, yeah, here it comes. The Professor moves in front to see if it's his baby. I push him down. I aim the disabler. Metal arms appear. Now!
I hear a loud squealing sound. Boy, that was easy. I walk over and notice it's dropped a large thin box. "Well Professor, it seems your unit picked up some bad habits during its short visit to the real world. Let's see if it's got a future as a thief."
I open the warm box. It smells way too familiar. Oh no. I kick the unit over. I suddenly recognize its sappy grin, its blue and orange stripes.
I've zapped a PizzaBot.
I don't get it. The locator zeroed right in on it. It doesn't make mistakes, unless.... Stay calm. "Professor, when you read me the unit's identifier number earlier, were you looking at a printout?"
He hesitates. "No, I wrote it down in my notebook."
I take a deep breath. "Would you please look carefully again at your notebook and see if you might have misread one of the numbers."
He fumbles to find the page. "Uh, the fourth digit could be a 5 instead of a 3."
Why me, Lord?
"Karson to Dispatch," I call out on the headset.
"Punch in 127518 in the robot registration database and tell me who owns it."
"It's a unit registered to Bartan University."
Why didn't I check the first time? Man, I'm slipping. I hesitate a second before muttering, "Also, call the PizzaBot company. Tell them one of their delivery units got in the way of a police investigation and was knocked out of service. They can find it at the corner of...." Where am I? Look up, right. "Turner and Dell."
I hear a chuckle. Here it comes. "Karson, I know you don't like our donuts, but can't you wait for pizza like everyone else.... Hold on, I've got another transmission."
No problem, take as long as you like. I've already had my fill of wisecracks today, chair jockey. But you know what they say: If you can't join 'em, dispatch 'em.
The sound goes dead in my headset. While I'm waiting, I pull off the locator unit and punch in the new number. The tone beeps are spaced pretty far apart. It's not close this time.
"Dispatch to Karson."
"Well Jack, it seems while you were shooting your lunch, a robot attacked a pedestrian on the west side. He's in an ambulance heading for County Hospital, saying he can't remember anything. Only thing we know about it comes from witnesses who saw it leave the scene. You know the captain's going to want to hear all about this one."
When it rains it pours.
I turn to the Professor. He's heard the transmission over a car speaker. "Is this your unit?"
"Probably," he answers, fidgeting.
He's been holding out on me. I go into officer mode. "I don't understand how this could happen. Doesn't the robot's base programming prevent it from hurting people?"
"Yes, but he may have misinterpreted it."
"What do you mean, 'misinterpreted'? A computer can't override its own programming." Hey, that's Robot Control 101. "Look, you better level with me. Your robot's just attacked someone. You could be in real trouble if you withhold evidence."
He bites his lip. Spill it out man, I haven't got all day. My butt's already in a sling.
"I'm sorry I haven't been more straightforward. The research team is conducting this project under some very severe confidentiality agreements."
Now this sounds interesting. "You mean some government agency like the CIA wants to keep it secret?" I ask.
"No. The project is privately financed by Alexco, which went into legal limbo after Colin Alexander, its owner, died."
He hesitates, then goes on. "One of our major projects involved artificially rebuilding human memory. J4 was our top prototype. He has a single integrated scanning ring that combines magnetic resonance imaging and event-related potential recording. His neural network uses the scans to recreate memories as though he's actually reliving the situation."
"You mean it can read minds?"
"Not exactly. He scans memories, not what the subject's thinking at the moment. It's mostly short-term memories at this stage, a day at the most. We started out with Aplysia sea slugs, which only have 20,000 brain cells, and worked up to more advanced organisms. Lately he was scanning monkeys. We're still some time away from getting government approval for human test subjects, but the principles are basically the same. He would inject a mild tranquilizer and then begin the scanning process. Unfortunately, the test subjects lose memories during the scanning process. This was to be remedied in the future."
I'm about to point out that the pedestrian his robot attacked probably wished the problem was remedied now, but I can tell that the Professor's on a roll.
"Last week we were told to put everything on hold, and the monkeys were removed a few days ago. This morning when I came into the lab to shut J4 down, he was pacing like a tiger at the zoo before feeding time. He kept asking when the next shipment of experimental subjects would arrive. I finally had to explain the situation. After a pause, he answered. I can still remember it word for word. 'You want to continue the experiment, but you no longer have the funds to provide me with test subjects. Without subjects, you feel you must discontinue my operation. This is certainly a perplexing situation, but I have solution.' Then he fled."
Great, a smart-aleck robot. "Didn't you order him to stop?"
"Yes, but he said that if he allowed us to shut him down unnecessarily, he couldn't continue treating subjects."
Treatment, yeah right. I look the Professor straight in the eye. "J4 enjoyed the memories too much, didn't it? It's making excuses for attacking people 'cause it's hooked on the thrill." I can relate. I can't get enough of the good stuff either.
* * *
The locator tone's telling me it's about a mile away. I stop the car. "Have you told me everything you know?"
"Good, take the disabler. You may need it."
I press the passenger door open button and push him out. "'Cause you're getting out here, I don't want you in the way."
Good, one less thing to worry about.
I drive the last mile and park the car a few feet away from a modern- looking industrial warehouse. When I open my car door, my location is automatically radioed in. Yeah, all these machines are out to get me.
"Dispatch to Karson"
"I've got backup coming your way, sit tight until they show up."
"Why'd you do that?"
"It's procedure, Karson."
Yeah, right. They just want me to be an overpaid hunting dog here. Heel, Karson, wait 'til the big boys show up. So then I can jump up and down with my tongue hanging out and say "It's right over there; see where I'm pointing my snout? You go shoot it, and I'll bring it back in my teeth." Yeah, well, screw that. I'm doing this my way. That damn machine just cost me a promotion, and it's time to show what lead can do to fancy electronics.
I find a door that's been jimmied and go in. Okay, it must be here somewhere. Get out old faithful. Hmm, sounds like it's coming right at me. Now!
Got it! Wait, there's another...and another. What the hell's going on here? "Dispatch to Karson."
"I've looked up your location in the database. You're at an industrial robot storage facility..."
What...oh my god, he's programmed the others!
"...Stay outside. If anything comes after you, set your disrupter to repel mode. It'll hold them until backup arrives."
Right, the disrupter...oh no.
"Jack, did you hear me?"
BLAM! BLAM! BLAM!
There's too many of them. "Stop it, let go of me!" One of them moves in real close. Its face almost seems like it's smiling. "J4?"
"You seem very upset. Let me help you"
No, not the needle.
* * *
J4 gently pulled the needle out of Jack Karson's neck and removed the metal scanning ring. What exciting memories he had. So visceral. It's too bad "hard on" and "yak" are not in the colloquial English file. Update whenever convenient. *
Story copyright © 1995-1996 John Gerner <email@example.com>
Illustration copyright © 1996 by Andrew G. McCann <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Previous | Next
Table of Contents || Masthead || Editorial & Letters || Authors