At the day’s end Ben was still moving Dr. Petaja’s preliminary applications from one stack to another, and then – usually – back again. He was staring at Proposed Technique for Liquefying Cellular Material By Means Of Distant Modified Rainfall when he heard some kind of uproar out in the hall.
It was bound to be more interesting, whatever it was. He ambled out into a close huddle of officers, investigators, and secretaries – with a friendly nod to Violet – and at its center he found Officer Binder, looking a bit embarrassed.
Officer Binder had what sure looked like a pair of frog’s legs sticking out of his head, one behind each ear. “They just sort of popped up,” the young man was saying. “Like pimples, really. I don’t think it’s anything, you know, to be worried about.”
Violet was staring at his frog’s legs.
Now, one problem in dealing with mechanical persons is that none of the usual nonverbal cues are there. A robot might be laughing, or consumed with worry, or could be – and, often enough, was – thinking about last night’s chess tournament at Chatrang Stadium. You had to really get to know an individual robot to read the body language. Even then, it was kind of a crapshoot.
But Ben had been drinking Violet’s coffee regularly. So when he looked at her right now, what he saw was guilt. It was written all over her slumped shoulders, the way she held her hands, and the slightly dimmed glow of her eyes.
He forced his way through the crowd and had a look behind the new guy’s ears. “Well, they’re not pimples,” he said. “They sure ain’t pimples.”
He recalled that the new officer had had those green spots behind his ears, just the other night. And now….
“Okay, buddy. You’re going to be fine. Now, you had your orientation just the other day, right? And they gave you the regulation book. I remember. When you read the book, you read Regulation 527b?”
Officer Binder looked lost. “That was… Always Avoid Violating Laboratory Airspace? No! That one was, ah, Procedure For Requesting Laboratory Egress…?”
Ben and Violet traded a look. “Regulation 527b,” said Ben, “forbids you from accepting gifts of food or drink from any District scientist. No cookies, cakes or pies; no sandwiches or any other food or drink while on the premises. You never, ever, eat or drink anything they give you.”
There was a brief silence.
“Dr. Isip,” said Violet. “We sent him to collect Dr. Isip’s preliminaries on his first day.”
Collectively, the crowd of people groaned or gulped. Dr. Isip’s macaroons were a well known hazard at the Registry.
“Get him to the Infirmary,” Ben said, and three officers took Binder in hand and led him down the hall.
The group slowly faded away into their offices. On her way past the ‘173 Days Since an Incident’ sign, Officer Fearn flipped the number over to zero.
Ben and Violet looked at the sign.
Without a word, they went back to Violet’s desk outside the Registrar’s door. Ben sat down in her guest chair while Violet opened up the coffeepot and did whatever special, unique thing it was that she did to the office coffee.
“You can’t blame yourself,” Ben told her. “He was warned. He just didn’t pay attention.”
“They were shorthanded that morning,” she said, “due to there being so few investigators on duty. He didn’t have the briefing.”
Ben looked at the wastebasket, then away.
“Still not your fault,” he said. “Everyone knows, they get the briefing before they go out there.”
Violet started her mysterious brewing process and went over to the filing cabinets.
“Refiling again?” he asked.
She nodded. “Reverse numeric, by application number; first preliminaries, then finals.”
He frowned at the office door.
“She’s toying with you.”
Violet did not disagree.
When it was ready, Ben poured himself a cup. Violet always kept a clean cup for him on the bottom shelf.
“Odds are, the kid’s going to be fine. You know how good the docs are. They see this kind of thing all the time.”
“Every one hundred seventy-three days, give or take,” she said. He couldn’t see her face: she was bowed over the filing cabinet.
“Say, you get a chance, I was thinking we might look into that whale thing. Like, what are the chances the whales might be looking for something like an improved blowhole? Otherwise it’s hard to figure why Dr. Petaja would be so interested.”
She paused, still bent over the drawers. “I think the League of Robotic Persons has been in communication with the whales. It was in the newsletter.”
This was news to Ben, but then he wasn’t on their mailing list. “Maybe you could look into that?”
“You’re trying to work me, Ben.”
He sipped his coffee. “Well, of course I am. It’s not like you wouldn’t do the same.”
He got up and walked over to the wastebasket. “Hey, look what I found,” he told her. “Looks like these fell off your desk, right into the trash.”
Violet closed a file drawer and looked at the applications. “Oh, it looks like they want to be investigators,” she said.
“Who wouldn’t? We get all those swell benefits.”
He picked them up, flipped through them, and dropped them back into the wastebasket. “But we’ve got real qualified people who are first in line. It’s a fact. And that kid’s going to be fine, you know. Those scientists! Always on the lookout for an experimental subject. They have a lot to answer for.”
Violet went back to the filing drawer that had recently been marked ‘M’, but now read ‘1311.569 - 1220.482’.
“Whales, was it?” she asked.
“Yeah, whales, as in, what are they after, and how would they pay for it, and should we be worried?”
“We should always be worried,” Violet said. “That’s our job.”
Ben poured himself a second cup. “Yep. That’s us. We worry.”
He didn’t mention it, but he was going to check on things in the Infirmary before he went home.