Brillo
by Ben Bova and Harlan Ellison

Crazy season for cops is August. In August the riots start. Not just to get the pigs off campus (where they don’t even happen to be, because school is out) or to rid the railroad flats of Rattus norvegicus, but they start for no reason at all. Some bunch of sweat-stinking kids get a hydrant spouting and it drenches the storefront of a shylock who lives most of his time in Kipps Bay when he’s not sticking it to his Spanish Harlem customers, and he comes out of the pawnshop with a Louisville Slugger somebody hocked once, and he takes a swing at a mestizo urchin, and the next thing the precinct knows, they’ve got a three-star riot going on two full city blocks; then they call in the copchoppers from Governor’s Island and spray the neighborhood with quiescent, and after a while the beat cops go in with breathers, in threes, and they start pulling in the bash-head cases. Why did it get going? A little water on a store window that hadn’t been squeegee’d since 1974? A short temper? Some kid flipping some guy the bird? No.

Crazy season is August.

Housewives take their steam irons to their old men’s heads. Basset hound salesmen who trundle display suitcases full of ready-to-wear for eleven months, without squeaking at their bosses, suddenly pull twine knives and carve up taxi drivers. Suicides go out tenth storey windows and off the Verranzano-Narrows Bridge like confetti at an astronaut’s parade down Fifth Avenue. Teen-aged rat packs steal half a dozen cars and drag-race them three abreast against traffic up White Plains Road till they run them through the show windows of supermarkets. No reason. Just August. Crazy season.

It was August, that special heat of August when the temperature keeps going till it reaches the secret kill-crazy mugginess at which point eyeballs roll up white in florid faces and gravity knives appear as if by magic, it was that time of August, when Brillo arrived in the precinct.

Buzzing softly (the sort of sound an electric watch makes), he stood inert in the center of the precinct station’s bullpen, his bright blue-anodized metal a gleaming contrast to the paintless worn floorboards. He stood in the middle of momentary activity, and no one who passed him seemed to be able to pay attention to anything but him:

Not the two plainclothes officers duckwalking between them a sixty-two year old pervert whose specialty was flashing just before the subway doors closed.

Not the traffic cop being berated by his Sergeant for having allowed his parking ticket receipts to get waterlogged in a plastic bag bombardment initiated by the last few residents of a condemned building.

Not the tac/squad macers reloading their weapons from the supply dispensers.

Not the line of beat cops forming up in ranks for their shift on the street.

Not the Desk Sergeant trying to book three hookers who had been arrested soliciting men queued up in front of NBC for a network game show called “Sell A Sin.”

Not the fuzzette using a wrist bringalong on the mugger who had tried to snip a cutpurse on her as she patrolled Riverside Drive.

None of them, even engaged in the hardly ordinary business of sweeping up felons, could avoid staring at him. All eyes kept returning to the robot: a squat cylinder resting on tiny trunnions. Brillo’s optical sensors, up in his dome-shaped head, bulged like the eyes of an acromegalic insect. The eyes caught the glint of the overhead neons.

The eyes, particularly, made the crowd in the muster room nervous. The crowd milled and thronged, but did not clear until the Chief of Police spread his hands in a typically Semitic gesture of impatience and yelled, “All right, already, can you clear this room!”

There was suddenly a great deal of unoccupied space. Chief Santorini turned back to the robot. And to Reardon.

Frank Reardon shifted his weight uneasily from one foot to the other. He absorbed the Police Chief’s look and tracked it out around the muster room, watching the men who were watching the robot. His robot. Not that he owned it any longer…but he still thought of it as his. He understood how Dr. Victor Frankenstein could feel paternal about a congeries of old spare body parts.

He watched them as they sniffed around the robot like bulldogs delighted with the discovery of a new fire hydrant. Even beefy Sgt. Loyo, the Desk Sergeant, up in his perch at the far end of the shabby room, looked clearly suspicious of the robot.

Santorini had brought two uniformed Lieutenants with him. Administrative assistants. Donkeywork protocol guardians. By-the-book civil service types, lamps lit against any ee-vil encroachment of dat ole debbil machine into the paydirt of human beings’ job security. They looked grim.

The FBI man sat impassively on a stout wooden bench that ran the length of the room. He sat under posters for the Police Athletic League, the 4th War Bond Offensive, Driver Training Courses and an advertisement for The Christian Science Monitor with a FREE—TAKE ONE pocket attached. He had not said a word since being introduced to Reardon. And Reardon had even forgotten the name. Was that part of the camouflage of FBI agents? He sat there looking steely-eyed and jut-jawed. He looked grim, too.

Only the whiz kid from the Mayor’s office was smiling as he stepped once again through the grilled door into the bullpen. He smiled as he walked slowly all around the robot. He smiled as he touched the matte-finish of the machine, and he smiled as he made pleasure noises: as if he was inspecting a new car on a showroom floor, on the verge of saying, “I’ll take it. What terms can I get?”

He looked out through the wirework of the bullpen at Reardon. “Why do you call it Brillo?”

Reardon hesitated a moment, trying desperately to remember the whiz kid’s first name. He was an engineer, not a public relations man. Universal Electronics should have sent Wendell down with Brillo. He knew how to talk to these image-happy clowns from City Hall. Knew how to butter and baste them so they put ink to contract. But part of the deal when he’d been forced to sell Reardon Electronics into merger with UE (after the stock raid and the power grab, which he’d lost) was that he stay on with projects like Brillo. Stay with them all the way to the bottom line.

It was as pleasant as clapping time while your wife made love to another man.

“It’s…a nickname. Somebody at UE thought it up. Thought it was funny.”

The whiz kid looked blank. “What’s funny about Brillo?”

“Metal fuzz, “ the Police Chief rasped.

Light dawned on the whiz kid’s face, and he began to chuckle; Reardon nodded, then caught the look of animosity on the Police Chiefs face. Reardon looked away quickly from the old man’s fiercely seamed features. It was getting more grim, much tenser.

Captain Summit came slowly down the stairs to join them. He was close to Reardon’s age, but much grayer. He moved with one hand on the banister, like an old man.

Why do they all look so tired? Reardon wondered. And why do they seem to look wearier, more frightened, every time they look at the robot? Are they afraid it’s come around their turn to be replaced? Is that the way I looked when UE forced me out of the company I created?

Summit eyed the robot briefly, then walked over and sat down on the bench several feet apart from the silent FBI man. The whiz kid came out of the bullpen. They all looked at Summit.

“Okay, I’ve picked a man to work with him…it, I mean.” He was looking at Reardon. “Mike Polchik. He’s a good cop; young and alert. Good record. Nothing extraordinary, no showboater, just a solid cop. He’ll give your machine a fair trial.”

“That’s fine. Thank you, Captain,” Reardon said.

“He’ll be right down. I pulled him out of the formation. He’s getting his gear. He’ll be right down.”

The whiz kid cleared his throat. Reardon looked at him. He wasn’t tired. But then, he didn’t wear a uniform. He wasn’t pushed up against what these men found in the streets every day. He lives in Darien, probably, Frank Reardon thought, and buys those suits in quiet little shops where there’re never more than three customers at a time.

“How many of these machines can your company make in a year?” the whiz kid asked.

“It’s not my company any more.”

“I mean the company you work for—Universal.”

“Inside a year: we can have them coming out at a rate of a hundred a month.” Reardon paused. “Maybe more.”

The whiz kid grinned. “We could replace every beat patrolman…”

A spark-gap was leaped. The temperature dropped. Reardon saw the uniformed men stiffen. Quickly, he said, “Police robots are intended to augment the existing force.” Even more firmly he said, “Not replace it. We’re trying to help the policeman, not get rid of him.”

“Oh, hey, sure. Of course!” the whiz kid said, glancing around the room. “That’s what I meant,” he added unnecessarily. Everyone knew what he meant.

The silence at the bottom of the Marianas Trench.

And in that silence: heavy footsteps, coming down the stairs from the second-floor locker rooms.

He stopped at the foot of the stairs, one shoe tipped up on the final step; he stared at the robot in the bullpen for a long moment. Then the patrolman walked over to Captain Summit, only once more casting a glance into the bullpen. Summit smiled reassuringly at the patrolman and then gestured toward Reardon.

“Mike, this is Mr. Reardon. He designed—the robot. Mr. Reardon, Patrolman Polchik.”

Reardon extended his hand and Polchik exerted enough pressure to make him wince. Polchik was two inches over six feet tall, and weighty. Muscular; thick forearms; the kind found on men who work in foundries. Light, crew-cut hair. Square face, wide open; strong jaw, hard eyes under heavy brow ridges. Even his smile looked hard. He was ready for work, with a.32 Needle Positive tilt-stuck on its velcro fastener at mid-thigh and an armament bandolier slanted across his broad chest. His aura keyed one word: cop.

“The Captain tells me I’m gonna be walkin’ with your machine t’night.”

Nodding, flexing his fingers, Reardon said, “Yes, that’s right. The Captain probably told you, we want to test Brillo under actual foot patrol conditions. That’s what he was designed for: foot patrol.”

“Been a long time since I done foot patrol,” Polchik said: “Work a growler, usually.”

“Beg pardon?”

Summit translated. “Growler: prowl car.”

“Oh. Oh, I see,” Reardon said, trying to be friendly.

“It’s only for tonight, Mike,” the Captain said. “Just a test.”

Polchik nodded as though he understood far more than either Reardon or Summit had told him. He did not turn his big body, but his eyes went to the robot. Through the grillwork Brillo (with the sort of sound an electric watch makes) buzzed softly, staring at nothing. Polchik looked it up and down, slowly, very carefully. Finally he said, “Looks okay to me.”

“Preliminary tests,” Reardon said, “everything short of actual field runs…everything’s been tested out. You won’t have any trouble.”

Polchik murmured something.

“I beg your pardon?” Frank Reardon said.

“On-the-job-training,” Polchik repeated. He did not smile. But a sound ran through the rest of the station house crew.”

“Well, whenever you’re ready, Officer Polchik,” the whiz kid said suddenly. Reardon winced. The kid had a storm-window salesman’s tone even when he was trying to be disarming.

“Yeah. Right.” Polchik moved toward the front door. The robot did not move. Polchik stopped and turned around. Everyone was watching.

“I thought he went on his own, uh, independ’nt?” They were all watching Reardon now.

“He’s been voice-keyed to me since the plant,’“ Reardon said. “To shift command, I’ll have to prime him with your voice.” He turned to the robot. “Brillo, come here, please.”

The word please.

The buzzing became more distinct for a moment as the trunnions withdrew inside the metal skid. Then the sound diminished, became barely audible, and the robot stepped forward smoothly. He walked to Reardon and stopped.

“Brillo, this is Officer Mike Polchik. You’ll be working with him tonight. He’ll be your superior and you’ll be under his immediate orders.” Reardon waved Polchik over. “Would you say a few words, so he can program your voice-print.”

Polchik looked at Reardon. Then he looked at the robot. Then he looked around the muster room. Desk Sergeant Loyo was grinning. “Whattaya want me to say?”

“Anything.”

One of the detectives had come down the stairs. No one had noticed before. Lounging against the railing leading to the squad room upstairs, he giggled. “Tell him some’a your best friends are can openers, Mike.”

The whiz kid and the Chief of Police threw him a look. Summit said, “Bratten!” He shut up. After a moment he went back upstairs. Quietly.

“Go ahead. Anything,” Reardon urged Polchik. The patrolman drew a deep breath, took another step forward and said, self-consciously, “Come on, let’s go. It’s gettin’ late.”

The soft buzzing (the sort of sound an electric watch makes) came once again from somewhere deep inside the robot. “Yes, sir,” he said, in the voice of Frank Reardon, and moved very smoothly, very quickly, toward Polchik. The patrolman stepped back quickly, tried to look casual, turned and started toward the door of the station house once more. The robot followed.

When they had gone, the whiz kid drywashed his hands, smiled at everyone and said, “Now it begins.”

Reardon winced again. The Desk Sergeant, Loyo, rattled pencils, tapped them even, dumped them into an empty jelly jar on the blotter desk. Everyone else looked away. The FBI man smiled.

From outside the precinct house the sounds of the city seemed to grow louder in the awkward silence. In all that noise no one even imagined he could hear the sound of the robot.


Polchik was trying the locks on the burglarproof gates of the shops lining Amsterdam between 82nd and 83rd. The robot was following him, doing the same thing. Polchik was getting burned up. He turned up 83rd and entered the alley behind the shops, retracing his steps back toward 82nd. The robot followed him.

Polchik didn’t like being followed. It made him feel uneasy. Damned piece of junk! he thought. He rips one of them gates off the hinges, there’ll be hell to pay down at the precinct.

Polchik rattled a gate. He moved on. The robot followed. (Like a little kid, Polchik thought.) The robot grabbed the gate and clanged it back and forth. Polchik spun on him. “Listen, dammit, stop makin’ all that racket! Y’wanna wake everybody? You know what time it is?”

“1: 37 A.M.” the robot replied, in Reardon’s voice.

Polchik looked heavenward.

Shaking his head he moved on. The robot stopped. “Officer Polchik.” Mike Polchik turned, exasperated. “What now ?”

“I detect a short circuit in this alarm system,” the robot said. He was standing directly under the Morse-Dictograph Security panel. “If it is not repaired, it will cancel the fail-safe circuits.”