Next morning Ben stopped by the Infirmary again to visit with Officer Binder. The frog’s legs were bigger now – a lot bigger – and the hair on the back of the kid’s head was thinning and falling out to reveal a glossy green, yellow-spotted scalp.
The kid was taking it well. His eyes looked like they’d grown a bit larger, too, but it was hard to be sure because they were tending toward the wide and terrified.
The nurse was smiling in a fixed, manic way that wasn’t very reassuring. “Officer Binder is such a good patient,” she said.
“You just get some rest and heal up,” Ben told him. “We’re really short-handed out there, you know. Everybody’s looking forward to getting you back.”
Officer Binder thanked him for dropping by.
Ben realized that he was staring at those frog’s legs. Every few seconds they’d give a little kick. He had to force himself to look away, ’cause it was kind of interesting.
“No more of those macaroons, right?” he called on his way out. The kid bobbed his head and flicked his long, purple tongue from side to side.
Ben found that Violet wasn’t at her desk, but she had a fresh pot of coffee bubbling on the sideboard. He helped himself and was settling into the guest chair when she came out of the Registrar’s office. “You have a message,” she told him, and she dug out a little yellow slip next to her typewriter.
It was from Dr. Petaja. He had a new batch of preliminary applications and several final applications to file. Ben’s shoulders sank.
“I was hoping I’d have more time,” he admitted.
“I have a call in to Hazel at the League of Robotic Persons. About your whales.”
“Yeah, okay. Well, it’ll be interesting to see which of his preliminaries made it to final, I guess. Might tell us something.”
“You see the new kid?”
“Yeah, he’s looking swell. Gonna just shrug it off, I think.”
They sat for a bit in a companionable silence.
“That filing business settle down?”
Violet turned to face the files. “It’s still early.”
Ben finished his coffee, rinsed the cup, and told Violet he’d see her later. He was just going to have to face Dr. Petaja and collect the new paperwork. No sense in putting it off.
Things were pretty lively in the District that morning; something to do with rogue emanations from a ray at Dr. Price’s place. Big lead shields were standing in the streets all around the laboratory. Somebody with an Info-Slate kept calling out new positions for them, and each time he did a squad of lab assistants would run out, roll the shields into a new position, and then fall back to the alleys. Everyone looked tense.
So Dr. Petaja’s parlor, with its ring of motionless robots, almost felt like a sanctuary.
The doctor was in a strange state. He’d jump up, fiddle with something or other, and freeze for a moment with his head twitching to the left; then he’d settle down, jump up, and start the cycle over again. It looked to Ben as though he was starting to show the effects of the Essential Neural Energizer. It made for an odd sort of conversation.
As the doctor froze again, Ben paged through the final applications. There were forty new preliminaries – fewer than he’d feared – but the finals were the thing he was most interested in. He saw that Enhanced Method of Air Expulsion for Cetaceans, Proposed Technique for Liquefying Cellular Material By Means Of Distant Modified Rainfall, and Completely Revised Application of Highly Energized Light Rays in the Analysis of Atmospheric Composition had all been completed. He barely glanced at the new preliminaries; it would take days to assess whether they were a threat.
The doctor continued his abandoned sentence as though he hadn’t just broken off to twitch for the past minute and a half. “…and I hope there won’t be any delays in processing the final applications, Investigator. I see great potential in all of them.”
“Well, you know we need to look for issues of prior art, Doctor. To make sure you aren’t infringing on any other inventor’s patents. That can take some time, even when we’re not struggling along with a skeleton staff. I don’t think we can accelerate – ”
Ben stopped. Doctor Petaja had just jumped straight into the air and fallen to the floor.
The twelve formerly motionless robots creaked into action: two of them stepped to the doctor while the others scattered throughout the laboratory. Carrying the unconscious doctor to a niche in the wall, his two guardians pulled on a hidden lever. The niche disgorged a metallic capsule, about the size of a sarcophagus, that was closed with thick steel straps. A third robot unlocked the straps and opened the capsule. Doctor Petaja was lowered, quite carefully, inside. The three robots carried the capsule out of the parlor and down the hall.
Eight more robots were working their way through the laboratory. Ben could hear heavy shutters falling into place; the laboratory’s exterior doors were sealed with blast gates, and in every way the laboratory was being secured around him.
The twelfth robot came to rest in front of Ben.
“Doctor Petaja regrets that he has been temporarily incapacitated,” it said in its huge voice. “We will seal the front door behind you. If you have any pending business with the doctor, he should be available again in approximately one hundred and twenty days. Thank you for your speedy cooperation in this matter.”
Then the robot picked Ben up and carried him out to the front steps. Doctor Petaja’s door crashed closed, and Ben heard a blast door roll into place behind it.
“Well,” he said aloud. “That’s something.”
Apparently he now had another one hundred and twenty days to figure out what the doctor had been up to. The Essential Neural Energizer, despite its ridiculous enhancements to productivity, wasn’t a completely bad thing.
Ben started to whistle on his way back to the office.