Arm of the Law

by Harry Harrison

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: At one time,this was before the Robot Restriction Laws they'd even allowed them to make their own decisions It was a big, coffin shaped plywood box that looked like it weighed a ton. This brawny type just dumped it through the door of the police station and started away. I looked up from the blotter and shouted at the trucker. "What the hell is that?" "How should I know?" he said as he swung up into the cab. "I just deliver, I don't X-ray 'em. It came on the morning rocket from is all I know."

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

At one time--this was before the Robot
Restriction Laws--they’d even allowed
them to make their own decisions...

It was a big, coffin-shaped plywood box that looked like it weighed a ton. This brawny type just dumped it through the door of the police station and started away. I looked up from the blotter and shouted at the trucker’s vanishing back.

“What the hell is that?”

“How should I know?” he said as he swung up into the cab. “I just deliver, I don’t X-ray ‘em. It came on the morning rocket from earth is all I know.” He gunned the truck more than he had to and threw up a billowing cloud of red dust.

“Jokers,” I growled to myself. “Mars is full of jokers.”

When I went over to look at the box I could feel the dust grate between my teeth. Chief Craig must have heard the racket because he came out of his office and helped me stand and look at the box.

“Think it’s a bomb?” he asked in a bored voice.

“Why would anyone bother--particularly with a thing this size? And all the way from earth.”

He nodded agreement and walked around to look at the other end. There was no sender’s address anywhere on the outside. Finally we had to dig out the crowbar and I went to work on the top. After some prying it pulled free and fell off.

That was when we had our first look at Ned. We all would have been a lot happier if it had been our last look as well. If we had just put the lid back on and shipped the thing back to earth! I know now what they mean about Pandora’s Box.

But we just stood there and stared like a couple of rubes. Ned lay motionless and stared back at us.

“A robot!” the Chief said.

“Very observant; it’s easy to see you went to the police academy.”

“Ha ha! Now find out what he’s doing here.”

I hadn’t gone to the academy, but this was no handicap to my finding the letter. It was sticking up out of a thick book in a pocket in the box. The Chief took the letter and read it with little enthusiasm.

“Well, well! United Robotics have the brainstorm that... _robots, correctly used will tend to prove invaluable in police work_ ... they want us to co-operate in a field test... _robot enclosed is the latest experimental model; valued at 120,000 credits_.”

We both looked back at the robot, sharing the wish that the credits had been in the box instead of it. The Chief frowned and moved his lips through the rest of the letter. I wondered how we got the robot out of its plywood coffin.

Experimental model or not, this was a nice-looking hunk of machinery. A uniform navy-blue all over, though the outlet cases, hooks and such were a metallic gold. Someone had gone to a lot of trouble to get that effect. This was as close as a robot could look to a cop in uniform, without being a joke. All that seemed to be missing was the badge and gun.

Then I noticed the tiny glow of light in the robot’s eye lenses. It had never occurred to me before that the thing might be turned on. There was nothing to lose by finding out.

“Get out of that box,” I said.

The robot came up smooth and fast as a rocket, landing two feet in front of me and whipping out a snappy salute.

“Police Experimental Robot, serial number XPO-456-934B, reporting for duty, sir.”

His voice quivered with alertness and I could almost hear the humming of those taut cable muscles. He may have had a stainless steel hide and a bunch of wires for a brain--but he spelled rookie cop to me just the same. The fact that he was man-height with two arms, two legs and that painted-on uniform helped. All I had to do was squint my eyes a bit and there stood Ned the Rookie Cop. Fresh out of school and raring to go. I shook my head to get rid of the illusion. This was just six feet of machine that boffins and brain-boys had turned out for their own amusement.

“Relax, Ned,” I said. He was still holding the salute. “At ease. You’ll get a hernia of your exhaust pipe if you stay so tense. Anyways, I’m just the sergeant here. That’s the Chief of Police over there.”

Ned did an about face and slid over to the Chief with that same greased-lightning motion. The Chief just looked at him like something that sprang out from under the hood of a car, while Ned went through the same report routine.

“I wonder if it does anything else beside salute and report,” the Chief said while he walked around the robot, looking it over like a dog with a hydrant.

“The functions, operations and responsible courses of action open to the Police Experimental Robots are outlined on pages 184 to 213 of the manual.” Ned’s voice was muffled for a second while he half-dived back into his case and came up with the volume mentioned. “A detailed breakdown of these will also be found on pages 1035 to 1267 inclusive.”

The Chief, who has trouble reading an entire comic page at one sitting, turned the 6-inch-thick book over in his hands like it would maybe bite him. When he had a rough idea of how much it weighed and a good feel of the binding he threw it on my desk.

“Take care of this,” he said to me as he headed towards his office. “And the robot, too. Do something with it.” The Chief’s span of attention never was great and it had been strained to the limit this time.

I flipped through the book, wondering. One thing I never have had much to do with is robots, so I know just as much about them as any Joe in the street. Probably less. The book was filled with pages of fine print, fancy mathematics, wiring diagrams and charts in nine colors and that kind of thing. It needed close attention. Which attention I was not prepared to give at the time. The book slid shut and I eyed the newest employee of the city of Nineport.

“There is a broom behind the door. Do you know how to use it?”

“Yes, sir.”

“In that case you will sweep out this room, raising as small a cloud of dust as possible at the same time.”

He did a very neat job of it.

I watched 120,000 credits worth of machinery making a tidy pile of butts and sand and wondered why it had been sent to Nineport. Probably because there wasn’t another police force in the solar system that was smaller or more unimportant than ours. The engineers must have figured this would be a good spot for a field test. Even if the thing blew up, nobody would really mind. There would probably be someone along some day to get a report on it. Well, they had picked the right spot all right. Nineport was just a little bit beyond nowhere.

Which, of course, was why I was there. I was the only real cop on the force. They needed at least one to give an illusion of the wheels going around. The Chief, Alonzo Craig, had just enough sense to take graft without dropping the money. There were two patrolmen. One old and drunk most of the time. The other so young the only scar he had was the mark of the attram. I had ten years on a metropolitan force, earthside. Why I left is nobody’s damn business. I have long since paid for any mistakes I made there by ending up in Nineport.

Nineport is not a city, it’s just a place where people stop. The only permanent citizens are the ones who cater to those on the way through. Hotel keepers, restaurant owners, gamblers, barkeeps, and the rest.

There is a spaceport, but only some freighters come there. To pick up the metal from some of the mines that are still working. Some of the settlers still came in for supplies. You might say that Nineport was a town that just missed the boat. In a hundred years I doubt if there will be enough left sticking of the sand to even tell where it used to be. I won’t be there either, so I couldn’t care less.

I went back to the blotter. Five drunks in the tank, an average night’s haul. While I wrote them up Fats dragged in the sixth one.

“Locked himself in the ladies’ john at the spaceport and resisting arrest,” he reported.

“D and D. Throw him in with the rest.”

Fats steered his limp victim across the floor, matching him step for dragging step. I always marveled at the way Fats took care of drunks, since he usually had more under his belt than they had. I have never seen him falling down drunk or completely sober. About all he was good for was keeping a blurred eye on the lockup and running in drunks. He did well at that. No matter what they crawled under or on top of, he found them. No doubt due to the same shared natural instincts.

Fats clanged the door behind number six and weaved his way back in. “What’s that?” he asked, peering at the robot along the purple beauty of his nose.

“That is a robot. I have forgotten the number his mother gave him at the factory so we will call him Ned. He works here now.”

“Good for him! He can clean up the tank after we throw the bums out.”

“That’s my job,” Billy said coming in through the front door. He clutched his nightstick and scowled out from under the brim of his uniform cap. It is not that Billy is stupid, just that most of his strength has gone into his back instead of his mind.

“That’s Ned’s job now because you have a promotion. You are going to help me with some of my work.”

Billy came in very handy at times and I was anxious that the force shouldn’t lose him. My explanation cheered him because he sat down by Fats and watched Ned do the floor.

That’s the way things went for about a week. We watched Ned sweep and polish until the station began to take on a positively antiseptic look. The Chief, who always has an eye out for that type of thing, found out that Ned could file the odd ton of reports and paperwork that cluttered his office. All this kept the robot busy, and we got so used to him we were hardly aware he was around. I knew he had moved the packing case into the storeroom and fixed himself up a cozy sort of robot dormitory-coffin. Other than that I didn’t know or care.

The operation manual was buried in my desk and I never looked at it. If I had, I might have had some idea of the big changes that were in store. None of us knew the littlest bit about what a robot can or cannot do. Ned was working nicely as a combination janitor-file clerk and should have stayed that way. He would have too if the Chief hadn’t been so lazy. That’s what started it all.

It was around nine at night and the Chief was just going home when the call came in. He took it, listened for a moment, then hung up.

“Greenback’s liquor store. He got held up again. Says to come at once.”

“That’s a change. Usually we don’t hear about it until a month later. What’s he paying protection money for if China Joe ain’t protecting? What’s the rush now?”

The Chief chewed his loose lip for a while, finally and painfully reached a decision.

“You better go around and see what the trouble is.”

“Sure,” I said reaching for my cap. “But no one else is around, you’ll have to watch the desk until I get back.”

“That’s no good,” he moaned. “I’m dying from hunger and sitting here isn’t going to help me any.”

“I will go take the report,” Ned said, stepping forward and snapping his usual well-greased salute.

At first the Chief wasn’t buying. You would think the water cooler came to life and offered to take over his job.

“How could you take a report?” he growled, putting the wise-guy water cooler in its place. But he had phrased his little insult as a question so he had only himself to blame. In exactly three minutes Ned gave the Chief a summary of the routine necessary for a police officer to make a report on an armed robbery or other reported theft. From the glazed look in Chief’s protruding eyes I could tell Ned had quickly passed the boundaries of the Chief’s meager knowledge.

“Enough!” the harried man finally gasped. “If you know so much why don’t you make a report?”

Which to me sounded like another version of “_if you’re so damned smart why ain’t you rich?_” which we used to snarl at the brainy kids in grammar school. Ned took such things literally though, and turned towards the door.

“Do you mean you wish me to make a report on this robbery?”

“Yes,” the Chief said just to get rid of him, and we watched his blue shape vanish through the door.

“He must be brighter than he looks,” I said. “He never stopped to ask where Greenback’s store is.”

The Chief nodded and the phone rang again. His hand was still resting on it so he picked it up by reflex. He listened for a second and you would have thought someone was pumping blood out of his heel from the way his face turned white.

“The holdup’s still on,” he finally gasped. “Greenback’s delivery boy is on the line--calling back to see where we are. Says he’s under a table in the back room...”

I never heard the rest of it because I was out the door and into the car. There were a hundred things that could happen if Ned got there before me. Guns could go off, people hurt, lots of things. And the police would be to blame for it all--sending a tin robot to do a cop’s job. Maybe the Chief had ordered Ned there, but clearly as if the words were painted on the windshield of the car, I knew I would be dragged into it. It never gets very warm on Mars, but I was sweating.

Nineport has fourteen traffic regulations and I broke all of them before I had gone a block. Fast as I was, Ned was faster. As I turned the corner I saw him open the door of Greenback’s store and walk in. I screamed brakes in behind him and arrived just in time to have a gallery seat. A shooting gallery at that.

There were two holdup punks, one behind the counter making like a clerk and the other lounging off to the side. Their guns were out of sight, but blue-coated Ned busting through the door like that was too much for their keyed up nerves. Up came both guns like they were on strings and Ned stopped dead. I grabbed for my own gun and waited for pieces of busted robot to come flying through the window.

Ned’s reflexes were great. Which I suppose is what you should expect of a robot.

“DROP YOUR GUNS, YOU ARE UNDER ARREST.”

He must have had on full power or something, his voice blasted so loud my ears hurt. The result was just what you might expect. Both torpedoes let go at once and the air was filled with flying slugs. The show windows went out with a crash and I went down on my stomach. From the amount of noise I knew they both had recoilless .50’s. You can’t stop one of those slugs. They go right through you and anything else that happens to be in the way.

Except they didn’t seem to be bothering Ned. The only notice he seemed to take was to cover his eyes. A little shield with a thin slit popped down over his eye lenses. Then he moved in on the first thug.

I knew he was fast, but not that fast. A couple of slugs jarred him as he came across the room, but before the punk could change his aim Ned had the gun in his hand. That was the end of that. He put on one of the sweetest hammer locks I have ever seen and neatly grabbed the gun when it dropped from the limp fingers. With the same motion that slipped the gun into a pouch he whipped out a pair of handcuffs and snapped them on the punk’s wrists.

Holdupnik number two was heading for the door by then, and I was waiting to give him a warm reception. There was never any need. He hadn’t gone halfway before Ned slid in front of him. There was a thud when they hit that didn’t even shake Ned, but gave the other a glazed look. He never even knew it when Ned slipped the cuffs on him and dropped him down next to his partner.

I went in, took their guns from Ned, and made the arrest official. That was all Greenback saw when he crawled out from behind the counter and it was all I wanted him to see. The place was a foot deep in broken glass and smelled like the inside of a Jack Daniels bottle. Greenback began to howl like a wolf over his lost stock. He didn’t seem to know any more about the phone call than I did, so I grabbed ahold of a pimply looking kid who staggered out of the storeroom. He was the one who had made the calls.

It turned out to be a matter of sheer stupidity. He had worked for Greenback only a few days and didn’t have enough brains to realize that all holdups should be reported to the protection boys instead of the police. I told Greenback to wise up his boy, as look at the trouble that got caused. Then pushed the two ex-holdup men out to the car. Ned climbed in back with them and they clung together like two waifs in a storm. The robot’s only response was to pull a first aid kit from his hip and fix up a ricochet hole in one of the thugs that no one had noticed in the excitement.


The Chief was still sitting there with that bloodless look when we marched in. I didn’t believe it could be done, but he went two shades whiter.

“You made the pinch,” he whispered. Before I could straighten him out a second and more awful idea hit him. He grabbed a handful of shirt on the first torpedo and poked his face down. “You with China Joe,” he snarled.

The punk made the error of trying to be cute so the Chief let him have one on the head with the open hand that set his eyes rolling like marbles. When the question got asked again he found the right answer.

“I never heard from no China Joe. We just hit town today and--”

“Freelance, by God,” the Chief sighed and collapsed into his chair. “Lock ‘em up and quickly tell me what in hell happened.”

I slammed the gate on them and pointed a none too steady finger at Ned.

“There’s the hero,” I said. “Took them on single-handed, rassled them for a fall and made the capture. He is a one-robot tornado, a power for good in this otherwise evil community. And he’s bulletproof too.” I ran a finger over Ned’s broad chest. The paint was chipped by the slugs, but the metal was hardly scratched.

“This is going to cause me trouble, big trouble,” the Chief wailed.

I knew he meant with the protection boys. They did not like punks getting arrested and guns going off without their okay. But Ned thought the Chief had other worries and rushed in to put them right. “There will be no trouble. At no time did I violate any of the Robotic Restriction Laws, they are part of my control circuits and therefore fully automatic. The men who drew their guns violated both robotic and human law when they threatened violence. I did not injure the men--merely restrained them.”

It was all over the Chief’s head, but I liked to think I could follow it. And I had been wondering how a robot--a machine--could be involved in something like law application and violence. Ned had the answer to that one too.

“Robots have been assuming these functions for years. Don’t recording radar meters pass judgment on human violation of automobile regulations? A robot alcohol detector is better qualified to assess the sobriety of a prisoner than the arresting officer. At one time robots were even allowed to make their own decisions about killing. Before the Robotic Restriction Laws automatic gun-pointers were in general use. Their final development was a self-contained battery of large anti-aircraft guns. Automatic scan radar detected all aircraft in the vicinity. Those that could not return the correct identifying signal had their courses tracked and computed, automatic fuse-cutters and loaders readied the computer-aimed guns--which were fired by the robot mechanism.”

There was little I could argue about with Ned. Except maybe his college-professor vocabulary. So I switched the attack.

“But a robot can’t take the place of a cop, it’s a complex human job.”

“Of course it is, but taking a human policeman’s place is not the function of a police robot. Primarily I combine the functions of numerous pieces of police equipment, integrating their operations and making them instantly available. In addition I can aid in the mechanical processes of law enforcement. If you arrest a man you handcuff him. But if you order me to do it, I have made no moral decision. I am just a machine for attaching handcuffs at that point...”

My raised hand cut off the flow of robotic argument. Ned was hipped to his ears with facts and figures and I had a good idea who would come off second best in any continued discussion. No laws had been broken when Ned made the pinch, that was for sure. But there are other laws than those that appear on the books.

“China Joe is not going to like this, not at all,” the Chief said, speaking my own thoughts.

The law of Tooth and Claw. That’s one that wasn’t in the law books. And that was what ran Nineport. The place was just big enough to have a good population of gambling joints, bawdy houses and drunk-rollers. They were all run by China Joe. As was the police department. We were all in his pocket and you might say he was the one who paid our wages. This is not the kind of thing, though, that you explain to a robot.

“Yeah, China Joe.”

I thought it was an echo at first, then realized that someone had eased in the door behind me. Something called Alex. Six feet of bone, muscle and trouble. China Joe’s right hand man. He imitated a smile at the Chief who sank a bit lower in his chair.

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