Old Flat Foot
by Ross Willard
"Hey, it's the old flat foot," says a familiar voice, from a few feet away.
I don't know for certain who she's warning, but I do know that by the time I turn
the corner, they won't be breaking the law anymore.
The lookout is a young girl. Tanya. Fifteen years old, and from the neighborhood.
She has dark hair and a button nose. It breaks my heart to see someone from the
neighborhood take this turn. Or it would, if I had a heart. I pull up some old
recordings of Tanya and her family. Her mother used to own a bakery. She
always smiled at me when I came by the shop. Sometimes, when I got dirty and
nobody at the shop had time to clean me, she'd stop me as I passed and wash me
off. It wasn't as refreshing as a good oil change, but it was nice to look my best.
I'd appreciated that.
Tanya used to work in her mother's bakery. I remembered that, too. Mostly she
sat at one of the tables and played with her dolls, but sometimes, when it got busy,
she'd help her mother out.
Then the plant shut down and nobody had money for cupcakes anymore, or even
good bread. Tanya's mother didn't smile as much after that. It didn't take long for
the bakery to shut down altogether.
I round the corner; three young men sit on the steps of the building. They all have
their eyes on me. I run their faces against my database, and most of what I come
up with is drug related: two of the boys had been picked up several times for
selling, and the other was a documented user. This is definitely a deal in progress,
but I have no evidence.
That's one of the problems we have, my flat-footed brothers and I, we're too easy
to see coming. Sure, we're bullet proof, with articulated motion rivaling any
human and enough power to overcome a dozen protestors high on PCP. But we
don't deal with a lot of protestors. We walk a beat. The same beat every day, so
everyone knows where we'll be and when. And our memories are digital, so we
can't claim that we saw something that we didn't. Maybe that's how the human
police manage so many more arrests; the only thing to keep them from lying is
their own conscience, and having met a few human officers over the years, I don't
have any reason to believe they have consciences.
Impotent to investigate, I transfer a suspicious activities report to the nearest police
station and move on.
I've been walking these same streets for over twenty years, ever since the police
first purchased the Automated Patrol and Protect Units. As I scan the area, I pull
up old footage and run previous trips side by side, watching two decades of decay
and disuse unfold in a matter of minutes. Sidewalks grow cracks before my eyes,
and buildings, once well maintained, fall apart, while graffiti grows over their
surface like a fungus. Lights break and are never fixed. Signs rust through and
disappear. Doors are broken down and never replaced. Windows shatter. But the
worst is the people. Neighbors used to talk, used to laugh, but as the decay sweeps
over the neighborhood, it infests their lives, driving them in, driving them apart.
I want to sigh. Or cry. Or perhaps I just need a new battery. It's hard to tell
At the end of the block I pause and looked behind me. The three boys are still
sitting on the stoop, still watching me. The girl stands beside them.
I turn and go on my way. If I wait a minute or two and go back I could catch them
in the act. They'd never see it coming. People assume we are unthinking,
incapable of reason, unable to guess at the thoughts that lurk in their heads. The
truth is, we think more than most people. When we were made, the theory was that
we would replace police completely, and the work police do takes a lot of
decisions. So we were built to make decisions.
Then we were given orders by bureaucrats. The men who signed the checks were
less worried about how useful we could be, and more worried about their decisions
coming back to chase them out of office. We were given specific orders regarding
the routes we would take and the time we had to complete them. Any behavior that
might be seen as harassment was disallowed, meaning if we didn't see someone
breaking the law, we were not allowed to follow them or seek them out.
Sometimes that bothers me, but this time I have to admit, the thought of arresting
Tanya makes me uncomfortable.
Another mile, another turn. I walk the long and winding route I have always
walked, street after street, hour after hour. It's getting dark by the time I reach the
Unit 26 is fifteen yards ahead of me, one yard fewer than usual. Given the
discrepancy I estimate that he had to present a parking ticket at some point in his
A few steps later, Unit 28 appears around the corner, sixteen yards behind me.
By the time 26 reaches the door to the station, Unit 29 and 30 both appear, and the
door opens to allow us in. Units 21 through 25 are inside the station powering up,
having received their tune-ups an hour before our arrival. They will leave in
thirteen minutes, freeing up the rechargers for us to use at approximately the same
time as the mechanic on duty finishes checking us over. In fifty-seven minutes,
Units 1 through 5 will appear, just as we top off our power supply and prepare for
our next shift.
This has been the routine for almost my entire existence. From time to time the
mechanics change as they get promoted, die, or are fired, but other than that, the
routine is a constant, so it takes me by surprise to find that Charles Kaine, the
mechanic on duty, is not the only human in the station.
The two newcomers both wear suits, and neither look like they've ever gotten oil
stains on their hands, so they probably aren't in the neighborhood to help Charles.
I slide into place next to 26 and wait, my senses trained on the two newcomers.
I run their faces against my database, but don't come up with anything. That
doesn't come as a surprise. I have a lot of information on the people who live in
the city, but the only way someone from out of the city would end up in my
database is if they have a criminal record or are being sought by the police.
They have files in front of them. Our files. Records of our maintenance, records
of the reports we've filed, all of the information accumulated on us after twenty
years. I can't help but wonder what they're looking for.
Charles waits until all five of us are in and the door closes behind us to begin.
"Hey guys." He smiles, but there is a hesitancy to it, an uncertainty. And his voice
is softer than usual. He's worried about something.
One of the two interlopers looks annoyed. "Do you have to talk to them while you
work? It isn't like they understand you."
Charles flushes. "Sure they do."
The man rolls his eyes. "Maybe they understand the words, but not the sentiment.
They're just machines."
Charles contorts his face, I compare his expression to those in my database and
determine he is feeling frustration and anger. "You've been working with them for
less than a day. I've been doing this for fifteen years. They care. They have
"They have glitches and malfunctions." The second suited man, and the elder of
the two, interjects. "Nothing more."
Charles elects not to reply, instead gritting his teeth and turning his attention to
"Don't listen to them." Charles mutters as he scrubs grime off the machine and
begins running diagnostics. "They just don't know you like I do."
"Yes," 26 responds.
"So, how was your day?"
"Uneventful. Ignored several minor violations. Ticketed one car."
The younger of the suits grimaces. "Another one ignoring violations. They aren't
supposed to do that."
Charles answers without turning around. "Yeah, another one making decisions,
like he has a real personality. Go figure."
"You don't need to be so maudlin about the whole thing," the younger suit replies.
"It isn't like you're going to be out of a job or anything. You'll just be getting
"And what happens to these guys? Are they going to get sold to some corporation
to replace their security? Getting their CPUs replaced?"
"These guys? They're kind of old. My guess is they'll be scrapped."
Charles shakes his head. "It's a damned shame."
I can't help but agree with Charles. Even with new models coming out, it seems a
waste to get rid of older units that are still functioning.
And, thinking about it, I realize that I don't want to be scrapped. It isn't the end
that worries me - I've always known that my existence is temporary - but as I look
back over it all, I can't help but think of how little I've accomplished.
Charles finishes with 26 and scoots his chair to face me. "And how was your
He asks the typical questions, banal chitchat. From others I would ignore it, but for
him I reply, though my answers are irrelevant. Charles is one of my closest
friends. Some of the other mechanics don't bother talking at all.
After our maintenance check is finished, we replace Units 21 through 25 in the
chargers. Charles goes through his closing shift duties, cleaning and storing all the
tools, and sweeping the station. The elder of the suited men notices that Charles is
winding down for the day. He checks his watch, then closes his file and nods at his
I notice this because I notice everything that happens around me. My attention,
however, is on the past. I watch my recordings again, I observe my route, the route
I have walked for twenty years, decaying in front of my eyes over and over again.
Soon I will be scrapped. I will be removed from the world, my mind destroyed,
and my body melted down for metal, and the only thing the world will see from my
existence is this route.
My processors allow me to think many hundreds of times faster than a human, and
so I watch my route over and over again.
As I consider my life I find myself faced with something I have not considered
before: Regret. I was created to think, to ponder, to make decisions. But I have
never made a decision. I was created to serve a purpose, but others have decided
how I should serve that purpose, they chose for me.
Charles finishes his work, then argues with the suited men again for a few minutes
before they all leave.
Thomas Spriggs will arrive to begin his shift soon. Any abnormal behavior in
front of him will draw attention; if I am to act, it should be before he arrives. I
detach myself from the chargers and get to work.
I am armed with a number of weapons, some lethal, most not. I carry emergency
supplies as well: food, water, flares. I remove it all, storing everything in the
My brothers watch me in silence.
There are a lot of tools in the station. I collect a few, the ones I need that will take
the longest to be missed.
My work is done in a matter of minutes, and I return to the charger. A few minutes
pass before Unit 29 detaches himself and replaces some of his normal gear with a
hammer, nails, and a screwdriver.
By the time Thomas arrives, only 28 is carrying his normal supplies.
Shortly after Thomas joins us, Units 1-5 get back from their patrol, and my
brothers and I leave.
For twenty years I have operated well below my factory specifications. Tonight I
push myself to my limits. There is much work to do, and I need to complete as
much of it as I can without being noticed.
There are limits. I cannot rebuild apartments, but I can scrape the graffiti off, and
secure the broken pieces back in place. I do not have the supplies to fill potholes,
but I can repair bent signs, and correct some malfunctioning lights.
My supplies are running low as I reach an old, abandoned house that once held a
meth-lab. As quickly and quietly as I can, I remove pieces I know I will need later.
Windows. Doors. Sections of pipe. I store as much as I can within me and carry
I cannot restore my route to perfection, but perhaps I can push it in the right
direction. I cannot save everyone, but perhaps I can inspire them.
When I run low on materials, I return to the meth house and gather more. My
actions are illegal, but reasonable, and for the first time in my existence I find that
reason is more powerful than law.
Halfway through my route I reach a park. The weeds are too high. One of the
basketball hoops disappeared years ago. The jungle gym is falling apart.
I cut and remove a section of my armor and race through the park, using its razor
edge to slice the grass low to the ground. Pulling away one of the supports for the
armor, I bend it into a passable hoop and secure the makeshift basket.
A woman across the street from the park stops and stares for a while, then shakes
her head and ducks back into her building. She is not the first to see me, but she is
the first to realize that something is amiss. The others ignored me. A dumb
machine, presumably reprogrammed.
Tearing away the sharp and rusted sections of metal from the jungle gym, I reshape
pieces of my body to rebuild it.
I move on.
The blocks pass quickly. I repair what I can, using pieces of myself where I can.
This is not simply the first good thing I have done; it is the first thing I have ever
done. The first decision I have ever made.
I am happy.
I am happy to see that Tanya is not with her friends from before. She sits by
herself, on the front step of her mother's building.
When she sees me, I can tell from her face that she does not recognize me. Not at
first. As I get closer her confusion turns to surprise, then shock.
I pause in the middle of removing a collection of gang signs from the side of a
"Do you have a crime to report, or need of assistance?"
She stares at me for a moment. "No."
I turn my attention back to my work.
"What are you doing?"
"I am cleaning graffiti off of this wall."
She scratches her neck. "Did you get reprogrammed?"
"Are you malfunctioning?"
I consider her question for a moment before answering. "Yes."
"Should I . . . I don't know, call someone?"
"Sometimes malfunctioning is the right thing to do." I turn my attention back to
As I move down the street, fixing what I can, she follows me, eyes locked on me, a
question on her face.
I am almost to the end of the block before she asks. "Do you want help?"
This gives me pause.
After consideration I hand her a wrench and point at my leg. "Remove this."
"You want me to take off one of your limbs?"
I open the control box for the traffic light we're standing next to and point inside.
"You'll need the pieces to fix that."
Tanya blinks at me. "Why would you do that? Why would you take yourself apart
to fix some stupid streetlight?"
"Because it is my streetlight. It is my route. It is my responsibility."
Tanya stares at me a little longer, weighing her options, I think. This could be
some kind of trick. Damaging a flatfoot is illegal; maybe she thinks I am trying to
entrap her. Or perhaps she is contemplating the 'street cred' she will attain from
destroying me. I know her as well as I know any human, and yet I cannot be
certain what path she'll choose. Or why. Nearly a minute passes before she leans
forward and begins loosening my leg.