Ben had separated Dr. Petaja’s seventy-two preliminaries into three piles: Apparently Harmless on the left; Mildly Concerning in the middle; and Possibly Dangerous on the right. It had been a long day. He was nearly at the end of it.
The third pile was the smallest. Proposed Technique for Liquefying Cellular Material By Means Of Distant Modified Rainfall was on top of that one.
He looked up and saw Officer Binder in the doorway. “Come in, come in,” he waved. Officer Binder didn’t take a chair.
“How was your first day?”
“Just fine, sir. I understand that they want us to be… cautious, and all, and I guess I was expecting all kinds of trouble. But it was smooth as… smooth as anything, sir.”
“Good to hear it,” Ben told him. “But don’t get relaxed out there. You read the regulations?”
Officer Binder nodded. “Oh, sure,” he said. “You bet.”
“Could you turn your head to the left, Binder?”
Ben looked closely at a spot behind Binder’s ear. “And to the right?”
Officer Binder complied.
“You have any trouble with your hearing?”
“Oh. Well, that’s good, then.”
It was probably better to leave it alone. “Well, have a good evening, Binder. Make sure you get your rest.”
“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.”
Ben watched the recruit as he went out the door and down the hall. He had said he read the regulations. Chances were, it was nothing.
Was there some hidden danger in Petaja’s Completely Revised Application of Highly Energized Light Rays in the Analysis of Atmospheric Composition? It seemed so innocent, really: just a way to detect impurities in the air. Probably. Ben switched on his desk lamp and started to go through the left-hand pile another time.
“At this rate,” he told Violet over his morning coffee, “Dr. Petaja will have filed another six dozen preliminary applications before I’ve finished with the ones I have already.”
When he turned to look her way the robot secretary was sweeping a pile of papers into her wastebasket.
She looked up. “I was a little concerned about Certain Unusual Applications for Magnetism. But I think it might be a red herring.”
“Yeah, my thought too. So obvious. But still….”
“If he’s really burying us in the paperwork he’s quite resourceful. I don’t think it’s ever been done before.”
“Nope. I thought the same thing. But honestly, you know the files better than me.”
“Yes, the files,” she said. “The files.”
“You all done with the refiling?”
“Only I noticed you throwing away some papers, just then. You wouldn’t….”
“Investigator! I would never.”
“No, sure, of course. Just one of those idle thoughts.”
The Registrar came out of her office. “Violet, I need you to take a letter.”
Once they were gone, Ben happened to look into the wastebasket. There were seven applications there: not patent applications, because of course Violet would never; these were employment applications. Ben paged through them. Some of these applicants sounded pretty good. They all wanted to be investigators, he noticed. No wonder the Registry was promoting kids out of the mail room, if all the applications were….
He just managed to get them back into the wastebasket before Violet made it through the door. She eyed him, a suspicious gleam in her lenses.
Ben sipped his coffee. “This is sure good,” he said. She sat behind her desk and rolled a sheet of paper into the typewriter.
“Was there anything else?”
He wasn’t hurt, though she was being short with him. You just had to know Violet.
“Not a thing. Thanks for the coffee.”
Ben had started a fourth pile, in one corner of his desk. He thought of this one as Really Strange.
The only one of Dr. Petaja’s applications that had made it to that pile was Enhanced Method of Air Expulsion for Cetaceans.
Now, Ben knew that you couldn’t expect a lot of what you’d call sense out of the District scientists. Their research tended to evolve in outrageous patterns that were bounded only by what the scientists had been thinking about recently. It didn’t really matter whether these things had commercial applications. They just had to be really interesting to a person who had the right sort of mind. Still, why would anyone be interested in creating more efficient blowholes for whales?
He wanted to ask Violet about that, but they’d parted on that odd note this morning. Maybe later. He looked back at the Mildly Concerning pile. If it was him, that’s where the bombshell would be hidden. In the middle of things that seemed pretty much harmless, touched with the slightest flavor of… ominosity? Which is to say, perfectly average preliminary patent applications. If you wanted to hide something, that’s where it would go.
“’Morning, Investigator Bowman.”
It sounded like Officer Binder. Ben just waved without looking up. He heard the new officer make his way down the hall, a “Good morning” for everybody. Nice kid.
Was there some reason Ben had been thinking about him? He shook his head. Probably. But it wasn’t important right now.
Ben could sense Dr. Petaja’s new stack of preliminary applications out there, poised to strike in just a few more days. It felt pretty much like sitting in the middle of the mad doctor’s circle of robots. Like something was watching you, even when nothing was really there.
He thought about that for a moment. Could be, that’s all it was: maybe the super-energized scientist was simply cranking out a big batch of inventions for as long as he could, until he finally collapsed from the effects of his Essential Neural Energizer. Could be all it was.
Still, it was the responsibility of the Registry of Patents, and of its officers and investigators, to make sure that was all it was.
Ben longed for another cup of coffee. But the coffee in the cafeteria was pretty terrible, and he wanted to stay out of Violet’s way for, oh, another sixteen hours or so.
He sighed. It wasn’t any picnic, being a Patent Investigator. Maybe Violet was doing those applicants a favor by tossing their résumés in the trash.