Ben and Doctor Petaja were alone in the laboratory, technically, but Ben couldn’t shake the sense that he was being observed by the twelve immobile robots that formed a circle around the parlor. Their eyes were dark, and their actuators were silent. Ben knew they were inactive. But they stared.
Doctor Petaja seemed to be completely unaware of them. “It’s always a pleasure to see you, Investigator. It’s just that I’m not sure why you’ve come. Cookie?”
Ben declined with a smile. Under Regulation 527b he was forbidden to accept any food or drink while he was on duty. He didn’t mind: he understood why. So did the scientists, of course, but they couldn’t ignore the opportunity. Experimental subjects were difficult to locate by conventional means.
He lifted his clipboard, weighed down as it was by seventy-two preliminary patent applications. “Officer Ennis was concerned about the number of preliminary applications you filed yesterday. It’s… unusual.”
“Oh, pish,” said the scientist. “My mind is highly active, and the Essential Neural Energizer has made it unnecessary for me to sleep. I’ve been extremely productive this week. I hope I haven’t caused you any difficulty?”
“Not a bit, sir. I’m happy for you – if even half of these turn into something useful, well, your royalties are going to go right through the roof.”
Ben didn’t mention that he couldn’t see a lot of commercial application for the Enhanced Method of Air Expulsion for Cetaceans. That one wasn’t a worry, of course; not like the Proposed Technique for Liquefying Cellular Material By Means Of Distant Modified Rainfall. Whatever that one was, it sounded like trouble.
He shifted in his chair, hiding his face from six of the lifeless robots. The dark eyes of the other six were also aimed right at him. “No, sir, it’s just that Officer Ennis wasn’t able to get through the entire stack of preliminaries, so he called me in. I just thought we should meet so you’d know what was going on. But the preliminary applications are all filed and on record, sir. Nothing to worry about there.”
Dr. Petaja seemed pleased. “I should have a few dozen more by the end of the week, Investigator.”
“So, uh, does that mean that you’re not going ahead with these, then?”
“Not at all! Expect several of the final applications at the same time.”
It was possible that everything here was exactly as Dr. Petaja claimed. Ben had read the final patent application for the Essential Neural Energizer. If you don’t mind the aftereffects, the device could certainly let you work ’round the clock for weeks at a time. So maybe the scientist was telling the plain truth, and he’d just gotten so productive that he was inventing himself into the next century.
It was another possibility that worried Ben, and this was the reason why Officer Ennis had handed him the case. It might just be that Dr. Petaja had figured out the real reason for the preliminary applications – the real purpose of the Registry of Patents – and that seventy-one of these preliminary applications were meant to disguise the danger posed by the seventy-second. There was nothing in Dr. Petaja’s manner to tell Ben, one way or the other. So he’d have to head back to the office and explore every one of these preliminaries with great caution.
“Well, you’ve certainly done the right thing,” he said. “With these preliminaries on file, no one else in the District should be able to steal a march on you in, uh, seventy-two cases. Your inventions should be completely secure.”
“Thanks so much, Investigator. You’re always very helpful.”
Ben rose and adjusted his cap. He’d be glad to get away from those twelve motionless robots. “Till next time, then,” he smiled. Dr. Petaja showed him out.
“The whales will definitely be excited about this one,” Violet observed. She was reading Enhanced Method of Air Expulsion for Cetaceans.
Ben looked up from Certain Unusual Applications for Magnetism with Regard to the Disembodiment of the Currently Embodied. “Yeah, okay, but picture every one of those whales with, say, an explosive charge stuck in its blowhole. Then what do you get?”
“An extremely unlikely outcome,” Violet replied. “Though it’s true that they live a long time and have very good memories. There used to be a lot of whaling.”
It was kind of a stretch, Ben admitted.
Registrar Finlay came out of her office. “I can’t seem to find the file on Dr. Brackett,” she said.
Violet pointed at the end of the row of cabinets. “The B’s are second from the end.”
The Registrar looked at Violet, and then at the cabinets. “I see.”
She walked over to the B Cabinet and extracted a file. Then she walked upstream, as it were, and pulled one from the G’s.
“It puts the Z’s right next to your office door,” Violet explained. “And the Z’s, of course, are vital.”
“Oh, yes,” the Registrar agreed. “We can’t forget Professor Zardoz.”
“Much as we might wish to,” Violet agreed.
Ben nodded. The Registrar took the files back into her office. A moment later, her head popped out from behind the door. “Are you assisting Investigator Bowman again?”
Ben tried not to squirm. “Uh, during a lull in her duties, Violet is helping me read through a large number of preliminaries.”
Violet turned expectantly toward the door. “Did you need me, Registrar?”
“It’s just that I’m so impressed with our new filing system. I wonder, though…. Wouldn’t it be better to arrange A-M in reverse alphabetical order, and then N-Z in, ah, normal alphabetical? That would put the M’s in easy reach. I’m quite interested in the M’s.”
She retreated into her office. Ben and Violet stared at the door.
“Hey,” Ben whispered. “She’s pretty good.”
Violet didn’t answer. She just headed toward the file cabinets.
“Any news about the new kid?” he asked. “Only, he should have been back by now, and it’s his first day.”
“No word from the front,” Violet told him, She was holding the entire stack of A files in both hands.
“You need a hand with those?” he asked.
“Oh, no. I’ll be fine.”