Read chapter 3 of “Robot cops” to get caught up before reading on…

Bryan sped down the hoverway, his eyes darting back and forth between the road ahead and the clock on his dashboard. It was 7:53 p.m. His mind was in fits, trying to fathom what his friend Jack could have uncovered. What would make him resort to sneaking about like a spy, leaving paper messages as clues to avoid having his movements traced? Whatever it was, Bryan surmised, couldn’t possibly be good.  

He navigated off the hoverway at exit 4 and quickly turned onto Olive Street. Instead of stopping there, he drove for another block and parked. He’d meet up with Jack on foot, he decided.  

The sun had already sunk beneath the horizon, and the city streets were bathed in a dim gray twilight. This stretch of Olive Street crossed through the city’s central core, densely populated with commuters during the day and all but deserted after dark. Bryan rounded the corner, reaching Jack’s designated meeting place and checking his ID card display for the time. 8:01 p.m.  

Bryan’s eyes and ears were never so alert, listening and watching for any sign of his friend’s approach. But there was nothing. No footsteps, no snapping fingers, just the rustling of stray garbage that blew through the empty streets as the wind whipped between the skyscrapers. He should be here by now, Bryan thought.  

He’d have missed the sound if he weren’t paying such close attention. The almost inaudible scraping sound of shoes on pavement. Bryan turned, relying on intuition to pinpoint the direction where the scraping originated. He stepped off the sidewalk, away from the orange glow of the streetlights, and into the shadow of an office building. In the area between the building and its next-door neighbor was a narrow alleyway, and Bryan took a few steps toward it, pausing to listen for the sound. He heard it again and knew he was getting closer. His eyes were not adjusting well to the darkness, and he placed his hands out to feel for obstacles in his way.  

Only a few meters off the sidewalk, Bryan found Jack. He was leaning up against the stone exterior of the building, his shoes occasionally sliding outward as if he were having trouble supporting his own weight. Bryan rushed to Jack’s side, his vision still struggling to acclimate to the dark. He activated his ID card and used the light from the display as an aid.  

Jack was a sight. His hair was messy and matted to his forehead with sweat. His jeans were torn up the left leg to his thigh, and Bryan could see that his knee was bleeding. He was using a filthy gray hooded sweatshirt as a makeshift blanket, and he was shivering beneath it. His eyes were wide, his pupils dilated, and his breaths quick. When he saw Bryan, his expression went from questioning to relieved to terrified.  

“Bryan,” Jack whispered, “you have to get out of here. Now.”  

“What are you talking about?” Bryan asked, dumbfounded. “What the hell happened to you?”  

Jack coughed as he spoke. “This thing. The malfunctioning cops thing. You have no idea what’s going on. What I found out.”  

Bryan put his hand behind Jack’s head as a cushion, as his shivering caused his head to smack against the stone wall. “Calm down,” he said softly. “Tell me what’s happened.”  

“The cops, the PXs.” He paused, and the shivering and uneven breaths grew more violent between his halting words. “They’re us.”  

Bryan didn’t know how to interpret Jack’s last statement. He insisted on Jack disclosing everything he had discovered. He wasn’t leaving without what he wanted to know.  

Jack relented.  

“Okay,” he began, “but we have to make this quick.”  

In less than three minutes, Bryan heard Jack’s whole story. The PX officers were not robots, at least not entirely. The corporation that produced them used humans as raw materials to create the PX officers, the robotic cops that had become commonplace in every city in the country. The early models, up to the PX5, had been entirely synthetic. But demand for the robot cops outpaced the materials available, and the PX6 was the first to be created using humans as building blocks. At first, the corporation dealt secretly, purchasing criminals and political prisoners from neighboring countries, but it wasn’t enough. The PX8 was created mainly from ordinary citizens who had mysteriously vanished.  

“This is unbelievable,” Bryan said but was cut off by the rest of Jack’s findings.  

The latest generation, PX9, involved a fundamental programming overhaul but was rushed into production before all the kinks had been worked out, hence the mysterious malfunctions. Efforts to prevent the problem had not yet succeeded, so for the time being, the PX9s had to be completely restored to factory settings when they unexpectedly shut down. This was creating an unsustainable drain on the corporation’s resources and the National Police’s patience, and both were searching for a speedy fix.  

Relaying the story seemed to drain the blood from Jack’s face. Bryan, ever the skeptical journalist, had more questions to ask. “How did you find all this out?”  

Jack blinked and started to sob but shed no tears. He quickly composed himself and answered. He spoke more slowly now, as though just speaking required an enormous effort.  

“I got too close. They came after me. Showed up at my house on Monday night and arrested me.”  

“Arrested you?” Bryan interrupted. “What for?”  

Jack’s voice continued its deceleration. “Interfering with National Security Interests,” he said flatly. “They brought me to some facility outside the city, and they–”  

Jack’s even tone was betrayed by the pained look on his face. It was clear they had done something to him and even more clear that he did not want to relive the memory by discussing it.  

“What?” Bryan insisted on knowing. “They beat you? Tortured you?”  

Jack shook his head. “See for yourself.”  

Jack dropped the tattered sweatshirt onto the damp concrete alley floor.  

Bryan’s blood ran cold.  

Jack’s entire midsection, from his neck to his hips and both arms to the wrist, was a glossy, navy blue. Bryan shone the light from his ID card display onto his friend as if he were trying to rid a dark room of shadows. Only this shadow didn’t retreat, and Bryan got a fully illuminated view of his friend’s new form.  

The shape itself looked out of place on Jack’s body but was identical in form to every PX officer Bryan could remember seeing. Obviously, converting humans into PX officers required some modification of the body. Same narrow waist and the same muscular abdominals supporting the same bulky pair of pectorals. This body belonged to a model or an athlete but instead now belonged to Jack. Bryan reached out and ran his fingers down the washboard stomach. It was hard, cold, and plastic. Not human.  

Bryan aimed the light downward at Jack’s torn jeans and noticed that the wound on his knee was still bleeding. So he’s still partially human, he thought.  

“How did you get here?” Bryan asked, his mouth suddenly dry.  

Jack had not looked down at himself once since he shed the sweatshirt. His gaze was pointed slightly upward, back down the alleyway toward the street. “Something went wrong. The power went out for a split second. I snuck out of my alcove and down the emergency stairs before the generators kicked on. I came to your house but knew they’d be looking for me there, so I left you the note.”  

“Don’t worry,” Bryan said, trying to sound like he had the situation in hand. “I’m going to get you out of here.”  

“No,” Jack said. “I’ve told you what I know. Now you have to get out of here. It’s too late. I can tell they’re getting close to finding me.”  

“How can you tell?”  

Jack coughed again. “I just know. I can’t explain it.” His voice continued to change. It sounded deeper, more even paced. Artificial.  

“I’m not leaving you, Jack. Now get up, and let’s go.”  

Jack surprised Bryan by grabbing him by the fabric of his shirt and pulling him close. Bryan was astounded by how strong Jack was and suppressed the urge to rub the feeling of whiplash out of his neck.  

“They started converting me,” Jack said. “And once it starts, it doesn’t stop. I can feel it happening. If you don’t leave now, I don’t know what will happen to you.”  

The sudden demonstration of Jack’s upgraded musculature convinced Bryan he was no match for his half-friend/half-robot cop. He nodded. “I’m going. I promise.”  

Jack gave a weak smile. “Thank you, Bryan,” he said. But he wasn’t finished speaking.  

“Bryan.”  

“Bryan.”  

“Bryan.”  

“Bryan Collins.”  

“Bryan Collins.”  

“Citizen Bryan Collins.”  

“Citizen Bryan Collins.”  

Jack’s head jerked downward and looked at the ID card in Bryan’s hand. In one fluid motion, Jack snatched the card and inserted it into a slot in his left arm. Bryan looked up. The smile was gone.  

His friend was gone.  

Staring back at him was the blank, stone-faced expression of a PX9 on duty.  

“Identity confirmed,” Jack said. “Citizen Bryan Collins.”  

Bryan’s heart skipped a beat.  

“Jack, stop this,” he said.  

“I am Officer PX9-5505,” Jack said, reinstating a grip on Bryan’s shirt. “You have been detained because of the warrant out for your arrest.”  

“What are you talking about? What’s the charge?”  

“You are charged with interfering with national security interests. I must insist you come with me.”  

PX9-5505 spun Bryan around at a speed Bryan found dizzying and slapped a pair of wristcuffs on him. They neared the end of the alleyway and approached the street. Bryan heard sirens in the distance. They were getting closer.  

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