Officer Rosie and the Mindburner
by Gary Clifton
“Your worst friend forever is on line two.” Margaret Smith stuck her head around the edge of Dallas Bomb Squad Detective Norm Taylor’s cubicle. She was forcing a wan smile. It was plain to see she was not happy.
“Good grief, Margaret, it’s nearly eleven. Tell Mrs. Swartz I went off shift already.” Taylor, a Dallas cop for 31 years, had switched to the bomb squad a year earlier after 12 years in Homicide. The extra hundred a month was handy to have and, contrary to how it might seem, the bomb squad was not faced daily with the carnage common to homicide investigations.
“She’s called four times tonight and is threatening to write more letters to the news media and mayor if somebody doesn’t help her. She’s still on the line in there, asking for you personally and about as nuts as I’ve ever heard her.”
“Why the bomb squad, Margaret? Her Mindburner Monster always burrows through walls and crap. Nothing explosive.” Along with every other cop in the area, Taylor knew Mrs. Swartz as a recurrent, chronic, irritating, cop’s nightmare.
“She says tonight it blew a hole in her basement. Took out the floor beneath the furnace.” She brushed her stringy red hair back over her left ear. This time the hint of a smile was real.
Taylor leaned back in his chair, hands clasped behind his neck, studying the dingy substation ceiling. “Officer Rosie’s in the break room. We send her out with somebody, Rosie could dig around in the furnace and maybe pacify that goofy woman one more time.”
“Sounds like a plan, except you’re the only one available who’s authorized to handle Rosie. You could haul Rosie out there, call for a couple of uniforms for cover and be back in an hour.”
“Couldn’t the uniforms just haul Rosie themselves? She’s easy to manipulate.”
“Taylor, you gotta know the captain would have apoplexy if we let Rosie out of our sight. We just had her memory wiped during her overhaul from the accidental detonation last month. Captain isn’t convinced she’s not some sort of alien plant as it is.”
Taylor nodded with grim resignation. Officer Rosie was a million-dollar robot. About half the size of a garden tractor with all-terrain bulldozer treads, she could be sent into a potentially dangerous situation, use the single arm extending from her chest to dig into any potentially explosive package or briefcase. She was controlled by a remote, which kept the operator apprised of everything Officer Rosie saw with her electronic eyes.
Taylor studied Margaret’s tired face. “Tech Service assured me she was once again only a simple machine, fully controllable by the remote. She can’t really think for herself.”
Margaret nodded. “We’ve moved her away from the TV. She seems like the old Officer Rosie.”
Somehow, Taylor thought Margaret still had some doubts. He had sent Officer Rosie into a situation a month earlier wherein a dope dealer had been duct-taped to a chair with a bomb strapped on his chest. When the man kicked Rosie, Taylor had suddenly realized Officer Rosie’s vocabulary and intellect had inexplicably advanced well beyond factory expectations.
The conclusion was that when out of service, she’d been parked in the bomb squad break room, facing to a TV that was left on 24/7. Some way, instead of being a simple device capable of voice response to a limited number of commands from the directing officer, her intelligence level and use of the English language had expanded incredibly. Consensus was that exposure to television had “soaked in.” Rosie had since been reprogrammed by the manufacturer, who assured she could no longer “think.”
“Norm, I can hear that old reprobate shrieking on the phone from down the hall. We have to send somebody, or the Chief will bust a gut.”
“And me, too,” Taylor muttered. “Find Officer Rosie’s ignition keys. I hope she’s fully charged.”
* * *
Mrs. Swartz lived in a modest, graying frame house in the area of southeast Dallas known as Pleasant Grove. All lights in her house were on and, from the size of the crowd gathered, the entire neighborhood was aware Mrs. Swartz was having another crisis.
Two fresh-faced young uniforms watched as Taylor maneuvered Rosie down the ramp of the bomb squad SUV.
Mrs. Swartz appeared. “Great God, Taylor, my taxes go to pay cops to investigate that monster in my basement, not to send some damned ugly little grotesque toy.”
Officer Rosie’s eyes, implanted in her chest, rolled up and studied Mrs. Swartz at the comment. But Taylor, with faith in the technological skills of the scientists who had wiped Rosie’s brain, was confident Rosie could not possibly have understood the mechanical slur.
“Yes, ma’am,” Taylor replied but continued to manipulate Office Rosie up the front steps, then gingerly, using her counterbalance device, down the basement stairs.
Mrs. Swartz stood by, complaining in soprano the entire time. “If you damned cowards are afraid to confront this mind-burning horror, by damn, I’m gonna follow this piece of junk down into the basement. I’ve already looked at the furnace from the middle of the stairs and I know that monster is in there, waiting to eat my brain.”
Taylor noticed that Mrs. Swartz could not keep her eyes in focus and tended to drool when she screamed, which she was doing in a voice that could be heard a half mile way.
“You gonna let her follow that robot down there, Detective?” one of the uniforms asked.
Taylor flashed a knowing smile. “If Satan himself is sitting in a lawn chair inside that furnace, Mrs. Swartz will frighten him back to wherever he came from. Hellfire, boys, there’s nothing in that furnace. We’re just appeasing a lunatic... again.”
“Why don’t we just go down and take a look?” one of the uniforms asked.
Taylor grinned at the young officer. “Officer Rosie makes for a better dog and pony show. She might actually pacify this crazy old woman... at least for tonight.”
Taylor and the uniforms, standing atop the stairs, were unable to see the furnace. They watched Officer Rosie edge her way down the stairway, followed closely by Mrs. Swartz, then they turned out of sight. All looked to the monitor Taylor held.
“Go faster, you stupid piece of electronic junk,” Mrs. Swartz urged.
At the comment, Officer Rosie again rolled her eyes to bring Mrs. Swartz into her peripheral view, but said nothing. Taylor was hopeful Rosie had not understood and that the sidelong glance was only a reflex. But he knew she’d just gone extensive mind-cleansing and couldn’t possibly understand the cranky old lady’s words or implications.
Through the remote, Taylor and the uniforms saw Mrs. Swartz dig into a pile of debris at the bottom of the stairs. She hoisted a bag, which appeared to be ten pounds of potatoes, into a wicker basket and followed Officer Rosie as she slowly approached the furnace. The door was closed. Rosie jiggled it with her arm until it opened.
“I’m gonna kill this monster with this basket of sand.” Mrs. Swartz clarified the contents of what they now recognized as a makeshift weapon.
What had appeared to be potatoes on the monitor was some sort of sandbag. “A worthless piece of fancy metal trash, sure as heaven, will be no help.” She stepped out of sight of Rosie’s eyes and disappeared behind the furnace door.
Via the remote, Taylor moved Officer Rosie for a better view.
Officer Rosie’s flat, monotone voice said into the open furnace, “Halt in the name of the law.”
“Get back, you useless toy.” Mrs. Swartz was standing in the doorway, waving her basket and sand. Suddenly she kicked Officer Rosie. “I’ll handle this.”
Then Taylor saw, to his everlasting horror that Officer Rosie’s extensive de-programming had not quite been completed.
“Do not kick Office Rosie. You are assaulting an officer of the law.” Rosie’s voice was a deep growl, but remained flat and mechanical. The manual said Rosie had no such words in her vocabulary, nor could she understand the concept of assault.
Mrs. Swartz kicked Officer Rosie again, then began swinging her basket assault weapon wildly at something inside the furnace doorway, out of view of Rosie’s monitor-eyes. Taylor moved Officer Rosie slightly closer.
Before he could get a view of the inside of the furnace, a long, horrifying shriek filled the entire house, then carried through the neighborhood. Taylor had heard Mrs. Swartz’s whining voice enough to know something terrible had happened.
Taylor and the two cops, guns drawn, bounded down the stairs. Rosie stood, or rather sat, at the furnace doorway, peering inside. The furnace floor was a gaping hole, which appeared bottomless. The smell of hot sulphur permeated the air.
“What the hell happened?” one of the uniforms asked. Taylor hoped Rosie was incapable of giving a coherent answer.
The shriek, far, far below began again. “Help me you mechanical idiot, it’s got me.” It was Mrs. Swartz. Taylor and his two companions stared at each other blankly.
Officer Rosie rolled her mechanical eyes upward. Then in a pleasant voice, with normal conversational inflection, she said, “Taylor, did you get a load of that? Mrs. Swartz kicked Officer Rosie, then attacked the Mindburner inside the furnace with a basket of sand. Both fell down that hole. Guess you could say they went to hell in a sandbasket. Darnedest thing you ever saw.” The comment was followed by a sound that could only be interpreted as a giggle.
Taylor stood frozen. Robots cannot giggle. At least, the instructions said they couldn’t.
The hole in the bottom of the furnace was suddenly solid ground again.
“Rosie,” Taylor said carefully. “You recall that overhaul and reprogramming you just had...?
Copyright © 2015 by Gary Clifton