Bryan noticed the officer directing traffic on the corner just in time and killed the accelerator on his hovercar. The vehicle glided to a smooth stop at the end of a long line of hovercars waiting to clear the intersection, and Bryan eased his foot off the brake. He couldn’t tell what was causing the logjam, but he was grateful. Having to wait gave Bryan the time to carefully watch the officer standing in the middle of the street, using its hands to allow one hovercar from each side to pass through the intersection at a time.
Bryan had never seen a human patrol officer before, and it was likely that neither had anyone his age. It had been 44 years since the national police had begun replacing human patrol officers with the PX4s, commissioning new models as vacancies opened through promotion or attrition. Nearly 26 years ago, the last four remaining human patrol officer turned in their badges and sidearms, and the lower ranks had been composed entirely of PX officers ever since. Detectives and other higher ranking members of the police force were still human, of course, because criminal investigations required more than the PX programming could offer.
The transition from human to PX patrol officers had succeeded by all observations. The National Police Commissioner, wary that the citizenry would protest, was astounded when the Police Complaints Authority received only seven complaints in the first three months. In the decades that followed, incidents of police brutality and excessive use of force had plummeted, complaints of racial and gender inequality in traffic stops were next to zero, and costs of operating the national police had returned to manageable levels. After all, PX officers did not require vacation, sick leave, insurance, or pay. The success of the PX transition reaped enormous benefits for the police force and the country as a whole.
Bryan watched the officer raise its arms, stopping traffic from advancing on all sides of the intersection. He saw the officer’s expression change from the empty, blank gaze commonplace for PX officers on duty to what looked like confusion. Something was wrong, Bryan thought. It must be malfunctioning. The officer dropped its arms to its sides. Its eyes closed, and its head slumped forward onto its chest. Hovercars began navigating through the intersection in a haphazard, every-man-for-himself fashion, a few skirting through dangerously close to where the officer stood lifeless beneath the traffic lights. Bryan pulled off the road into the parking lot of a flower shop and watched the rest of the traffic clear the intersection.
Bryan had seen a PX officer malfunctioning only once before. Once the PX transition was complete, the national police made it a priority to acquaint children with the officers they would likely see most. To that end, every third-grade classroom in the country was visited by a detective and a PX officer at least once a year. The detective introduced the PX officer to the children, answered questions, and demonstrated how the PX models helped enforce the law.
Bryan’s memories of his third-grade police visit were burned forever into his mind. The detective explained how to call emergency services, ensuring everyone knew their addresses and contact numbers. He then turned to the classroom door and beckoned, “Come on in, Officer.”
The PX officer walked smoothly through the door, turned, and joined Detective Martin at the EdBoard in the front of the room. Bryan looked at the officer’s face and realized it looked like an average person’s. However, it seemed like the officer was sleeping with its eyes open. Bryan also noticed that the officer wasn’t wearing its uniform like he expected. Instead, the uniform was part of the officer’s body. The only things separate from the officer’s body were its shoes, necktie, and badge. Its face and hands looked human enough, with neatly trimmed dark brown hair and deep blue eyes. It even had light hair on its knuckles. But just past its neckline and wrists, the lifelike flesh coloring stopped abruptly, and from there, its limbs and midsection were the familiar dark blue patrol officer uniform color.
“This,” the detective began, “is Officer PX6-5901.” The detective whispered something quietly into the PX officer’s ear.
The PX officer’s blank face instantly came to life. It was now smiling, with warm, inviting eyes. “Hello, children,” it said with a friendly tone. “I’m Officer PX6-5901. Detective Martin and I are here to explain briefly what I can do to keep you and your families safe.”
The next 45 minutes passed quickly, and Bryan almost forgot that Officer PX6-5901 wasn’t human. It acted as normally as any other person, explaining the importance of listening to the PX officers in an emergency and assisting them if asked. “Remember, kids,” the PX officer said, “it’s always best to help–”
It stopped talking and turned its head toward Detective Martin. “To help–”
Its face, which had been inviting and friendly during the entire presentation, now looked confused. Many of the third graders became alarmed, some outright frightened. But Bryan stared at the officer in earnest.
The PX officer’s arms, which had gestured emphatically during its speech to the class, dropped to its sides. Its eyes closed, and its head slumped on its matte navy blue chest. The teacher, picking up on the detective’s body language, began ushering the children outside for an impromptu recess. Bryan lingered behind, eager to see what the detective would do to repair the malfunctioning PX officer. In the bedlam that resulted from trying to direct the movements of 50 eight-year-old students who had just seen what no one outside of an engineering lab should see, it wasn’t surprising that the teacher didn’t notice Bryan wasn’t among the students rushing out onto the playground. He remained in the hallway, just outside the classroom door, and overheard the detective’s phone call.
“Yeah, it’s Martin. Clearance 05449.”
“Something’s wrong with PX6-5901. We were in the middle of the youth orientation, and it couldn’t finish its sentence. It just shut down in front of a room full of third graders.”
The detective was silent for several minutes afterward, save for the occasional “mmm-hmm” to acknowledge what he heard. Bryan couldn’t take his eyes off the motionless PX officer, its smooth navy blue form standing rigidly. At the same time, the detective scribbled some instructions onto the EdBoard.
“Okay, I’ll try it,” the detective said finally and ended the call.
Bryan stifled a cough so as not to be noticed behind the door. Detective Martin placed his hand on the PX officer’s chest, feeling around for something he couldn’t see. His fingers grabbed the officer’s badge and twisted it a quarter-turn clockwise. Officer PX6-5901 came to life once again, but not like before. It was different. Gone were the friendly expressions and casual stance. The officer stood ramrod straight, its hands gripped tightly behind its back, its face staring blankly ahead.
“Maintenance protocol activated,” the officer said.
Detective Martin read his notes off the EdBoard aloud. “Initiate error recovery procedure X1X, reboot, and signal when ready.”
Bryan heard a faint whirring sound from the PX officer, like the quiet hum of a clothes dryer running in the next room. The sound stopped, and the officer’s former personality returned.
“I apologize for the interruption in service, Detective,” PX6-5901 said.
Detective Martin was slightly annoyed. “It’s fine,” he said briskly. “Just make sure you forward your error report to the IT department. We can’t have you shutting down in front of a room full of third graders again.”
“Understood, Sir,” the PX officer said cordially.
Bryan ducked behind the water fountain when the detective entered the hallway. A few paces behind came PX6-5901, carrying Detective Martin’s suit jacket and briefcase.
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