Read chapter 2 of “Robot cops” to get caught up before reading on…
Bryan pulled into the parking lot behind the Citizen-Journal‘s offices. It was 9:17am. He fished his ID card out of his pocket for the second time this morning, accessing his employee credentials on the flickering display. I’ve got to charge this thing soon, he thought.
He flashed his credentials at the door panel, and the doors to the Citizen-Journal‘s offices slid open. Bryan was greeted by what looked to be a police officer but with some modifications. Its uniform body wasn’t the standard shiny navy blue finish; instead, it was a glossy grey, but even stranger was that it was smiling. PX officers never smiled unless they were dealing with children or the elderly. Otherwise, they were stoic and blank in the execution of their duties.
Whatever stood before him greeted Bryan as he passed through the office’s main door. “Good morning, Mr. Collins,” it said cordially. “The editorial staff is in the conference room and has been advised of the circumstances of your reporting to work late today.”
Bryan made a face. “Thanks, I guess,” he said as he approached the conference room.
“My pleasure, Mr. Collins. Have a pleasant day at work,” it replied without turning its head.
Bryan entered the conference room to his coworkers’ thunderous, sarcastic applause.
Paul, his managing editor, was the first to comment. “Congratulations on your ‘violation of the municipal traffic code,'” he said in a mock mechanical voice.
Jack, his friend and officemate, chimed in. “Yeah. I considered taking a long weekend if you need extra overtime to pay your fine.”
Bryan took those comments and the few others that followed in stride. When the jokes finished, Bryan poured himself a cup of tepid coffee and sat at the conference table.
“What’s with the PX officer in the lobby?” he asked, hoping he could sneak the question in before the focus of the meeting turned back to assignments.
A female voice scoffed. “Don’t you ever read the news we publish every week?”
The scoff and the insult came from Anna, one of the section editors. Anna was notorious for taking herself and her position at the Citizen-Journal far too seriously, and she was a general pain to work with. Usually, Bryan would fire back with an insult of his own. Still, he let her continue for the sole reason that he evidently missed out on something newsworthy.
Anna scoffed again, “The Police Revenue Act that Congress passed last year?”
Bryan had heard something about the Act when it was working through Congress but needed to hear more to connect all the dots.
“Am I the only person who cares about the news in this place?” Anna said, her face flushed with annoyance.
Paul interrupted, convinced that further progress would only be made at his meeting once this digression was closed. “Last year, Congress passed the Act to allow the National Police to make some additional revenue by leasing out the use of its non-essential officer stock. Mostly leftovers from the PX8 series. They’re obsolete for most police work since the PX9 series was launched, but they can run for 20 years, so they might as well be put to good use somewhere. That unit out in our lobby is our new security guard.”
“It smiled at me,” Bryan said. “It was kind of creepy.”
“The leased PX8s have had most of their police programming removed,” Jack said. “They’ve been reprogrammed for their civilian positions, which includes being friendly.”
The remainder of the assignments meeting passed quickly, as the bulk of new business had been addressed before Bryan arrived. As expected, Bryan paid for his tardiness in more ways than just a traffic citation. He was assigned to report on the journalist’s worst nightmare—the monthly School Board meeting. Not only was the assignment mind-numbingly dull, but the meetings were on Wednesday nights, giving Bryan just a few hours to attend, get interviews if needed, file his copy, and get it approved in time for the final publishing deadline at 4:30am on Thursday, when the issue would be transmitted to subscribers and news syndicates. Bryan would have paid the fine several times if it meant being spared covering the School Board’s banal deliberations.
The assignments meeting adjourned, and everyone dispersed to begin work. Bryan and Jack walked together into the office they shared, Bryan pouting at the assignment he was dealt.
“Next time, don’t get pulled over,” Jack smirked, giving Bryan a playful punch on the arm.
“Maybe I can talk someone into trading with me,” Bryan thought out loud. Turning to Jack, Bryan asked, “What’s your assignment this week?”
Jack laughed. “Nice try,” he said, “but I’m happy with mine. Apparently, the PX officers have had some unexpected malfunctions in the last few weeks. Over a hundred in our district alone. Paul wants me to do some digging and find out why.”
“I saw it,” Bryan replied, his memory returning to the night before when he watched the lifeless machine in the intersection being hauled away by what he presumed was a pair of repair technicians.
Bryan relayed the story to Jack, who listened intently, taking occasional notes. When he finished, Jack spoke.
“Weird,” Jack said. “The malfunctions must be serious if they have to haul the cops away on GravCarts. I thought most repairs could be done remotely or on site with the proper access codes.”
“I thought the same thing,” Bryan said.
“I’m glad you told me about this,” Jack said. “I wasn’t sure where to start. Maybe I could try to find out who these technicians are. One of them might be willing to talk to me. Did you notice any company logo on their van or their clothes?”
Bryan said he didn’t.
Jack pulled a few of his contacts up on his terminal, figuring out the best place to begin. He left Bryan shortly afterward, striding purposefully through the front door in full investigative journalistic vigor.
He’ll probably win a Peabody, Bryan thought, and I’ll get hate mail from parents for not writing enough about the fine arts budget.
The one upside to being assigned the School Board meeting was the relatively light workload. The prep work included re-reading the minutes from the previous meeting, being issued his press pass, and refreshing himself on the biographical details of the School Board members. Everything was ready on Monday morning, and the meeting was still two days away. To make himself useful, he assisted staff writers on the other editorial teams with fact checking and copy editing.
On Wednesday afternoon, Bryan was in his office, downloading the press pass to his ID card, when Paul knocked on the door. He entered, and Bryan offered him a seat, which Paul declined. Something wasn’t quite right.
“Have you spoken with Jack recently?” Paul asked.
“No,” Bryan said. “Why? Is something wrong?”
It wasn’t uncommon for the Citizen-Journal‘s staff writers to go unnoticed at the office for a few days, especially when working on a story that proved to be bigger than anticipated or where time was of the essence. All of them had done this at one time or another; it was rarely ever cause for alarm.
“He tried to contact me last night,” Paul said, “but as soon as I answered, the call was cut.”
“That’s not so unusual,” Bryan said.
“He’s called three more times today, and the transmission ends before he can finish his first word.” Paul wrung his hands. “I checked the switchboards to find out where the calls were coming from, and they were placed all over the city. Whatever he’s up to, he’s not staying put very long.”
Bryan was, for the first time, concerned for his friend. What was he running after, Bryan thought. Or running from?
“Just let me know immediately if you hear from him, okay?” Paul asked anxiously. Bryan agreed.
Two hours later, Bryan returned home to change for the School Board meeting. If he hurried, he’d have enough time to clean up and throw on a dress shirt and tie. The School Board hated it when journalists came to their meetings poorly dressed. He pinned his ID card to his sweater, calling up the press pass to grant him access to the meeting, and opened his front door.
A piece of paper fell out the door and landed on Bryan’s shoe. He picked it up and looked at it curiously. Unfolding it, he noticed a message hastily scrawled in pen.
MT M 8P HWAY 9 X4 XST OLV SECRN RGT JK
After reading a few times, Bryan deciphered what it meant. “Meet me at 8:00pm, Hoverway 9, Exit 4, Cross-street: Olive, Southeast corner, Urgent, Jack.”
Bryan was genuinely concerned for his friend for the first time since Paul asked Jack’s whereabouts. They often passed e-notes to each other in this abbreviated form during seminars and teaching days to pass the time. But it was always lighthearted and ironic in the past. This message was worrisome. The fact that it was written on paper also puzzled Bryan. Why wouldn’t he just contact me directly?
The answer came to him. Jack didn’t want anyone to know. E-notes can be traced. Bryan felt himself overcome with dread and decided that the Citizen-Journal would have to go a month without detailed coverage of the School Board meeting. He slipped out of his dress shoes and put on his sneakers, then got into his hovercar and tried to picture where Olive Street was, past Exit 4 on Hoverway 9.
At 7:47pm, the night receptionist at the Citizen-Journal retrieved an incoming message on the wire. She confirmed receipt and opened the message to determine its recipient.
CJ NEWSWIRE FILED BY: JACK CHRISTIANSEN, STAFF WRITER VERSION: FINAL DRAFT, READY FOR PUBLICATION
ASSIGNMENT NUMBER 601A "PX9 MALFUNCTIONS DELIVER SETBACK FOR CITY'S POLICE FORCE"
BEGIN TEXT: All malfunctioning PX9 officers have been repaired. No further interruption in service is anticipated. 100% of units operating within normal parameters. :END TEXT
The receptionist figured there must be something wrong with the transmission. She briefly replied to the sender that the wire must have been disrupted and only part of the message had been relayed. She then directed the message to the inbox of Paul Harrington, managing editor. The daytime receptionist had yet to remember to inform her to contact Paul at home if any messages were received from Jack.
The “final draft” of Jack’s assignment would have to wait, unread, in Paul’s inbox until morning.
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