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Enlarge: Ben Bowman in the Vault of Terror - the Retropolis Registry of Patents #5

Ben Bowman came out of the Patent Registrar’s office with a can of varnish and a paintbrush. There was a furtive expression on his face. Violet, who was just settling in behind her typewriter, didn’t seem surprised.

Not that it’s easy to tell – with her being a robot and all – but she hadn’t shown any sign of emotion since the day when she and Ben had accidentally killed the old Registrar. It was driving Ben crazy.

“There’ll be coffee in a couple of minutes,” she told him. He could hear the experimental bubbling of the percolator as it geared up for business.

He sank into Violet’s guest chair and watched her sort through the morning mail. The Registrar’s In box was taking over her desk since there was still no Registrar to empty it, or to move it into scattered piles inside the office, depending on what kind of new Registrar they were going to get.

Ben waved at the varnish can and the brush. “So, I spent the weekend paneling over the Registrar’s safe. Nice work, if I say it myself. I don’t think anybody’s going to find it again.”

Violet just nodded. She didn’t look up.

“That means you’ll have a clear field, with the new one. None of those old notes, you know, that might set the new boss against you.”

The Registrar’s safe had contained a fat dossier on Violet and her long-running campaign to become a Patent Investigator. If a Registrar didn’t want to promote her they always seemed to quit, or lose their position, or get moved to another agency, or (in the case of Registrar Sandrov) die in office. That last one had been a miscalculation: Sandrov had actually wanted to make Violet an investigator. It was a real shame, the way he’d died before he could manage it. It was pure bad luck.

Ben wasn’t sure that was the way Violet looked at it, though. She hadn’t been herself since they dropped that laboratory on top of Registrar Sandrov. It was like she’d… taken it to her electrified robot heart.

He knew that Violet kept a big stack of files that documented all the successful investigations she’d worked. It was already more than some of the investigators had to show for themselves. It ought to have been enough to get her that promotion, if it hadn’t been for all those notes in the safe.

“You got your files all ready?”

She dropped another letter on top of the Registrar’s In pile. “No. I’m not doing that any more.”

This was a lot worse than Ben had realized. He started to say something, and stopped, and then he started to say something else, but he stopped that, too. It was going to take some work, turning this around.

The percolator gave a final burp of victory. He went over to the file cabinets to pour himself a cup.

“Anything on the docket for me?”

Violet shuffled through her papers and came up with an assignment. “Officer Rocklynne needs some help down in the Vault.”

Ben stared down into his coffee cup. He thought rapidly.

“Maybe Fearn is free…?”

“Officer Fearn is collecting preliminary patent applications all day today,” Violet said. “And anyway they always like your input down there. Due to your unique insight, according to Officer Rocklynne.”

He nodded and drank a third of the coffee in one go. It was excellent, as always. And the insight was hard to argue, since Ben had once studied at the Retropolis Academy for the Unusually Inventive. It wasn’t something he liked to mention, but word gets around.

“Uh-huh. Okay, then. Any word on the new Registrar?”

“This ought to be his first day. I’m expecting him… oh, any time now, depending on how long they take over his briefing.”

Ben glanced at the clock. He wondered whether he’d rather be here when the new boss arrived, or whether it would be better to head down to the Vault. “The devil you know,” he muttered.

“What’s that?”

“I said, I guess I should get down to the Vault and see what Rocklynne needs down there.”

Violet gave him a look, but then she went back to sorting the Registrar’s mail. “There’s that new staff down there…” she started.

Ben laughed. “Well, of course there is! Nobody wants to stay down there for long.”

“But they’re… well, dealing with them requires some care,” she said. “Due to their difficult history. As you know, from the –”

He waved her off and rinsed out his coffee cup. “We all have a difficult history,” he said. “We just have to get up every day and keep going anyhow.” He gave her a fierce stare, but this is problematic with a robot. You can never tell what they’re thinking behind those still, enameled faces. So he finished with, “If what we want is worth wanting, we just have to keep trying,” and stalked out of the room.

“Just be careful with them,” she said, but he’d left so quickly that he probably didn’t hear her. And, anyway, it hadn’t been the new Vault staff he was talking about.

She finished sorting the correspondence. There were a dozen inquiries that she could deal with herself, and twenty-two letters that would require the Registrar’s personal attention. She rolled a sheet of Registry stationery into her typewriter and looked down at the first letter in her own pile.

She had always been a good secretary: prompt, responsive, motivated, and polite. It’s what she’d been built for. And if she had felt that she had a different calling, it had probably been some kind of delusion, or a defect, that she needed to put behind her. Things all made so much more sense this way. She began to answer the inquiry from Dr. Petaja’s attorney with swift, crisp punches on the typewriter keys; and if she was aware of her own unhappiness no one could have seen it except, possibly, for Ben Bowman.

She heard footsteps approaching in the hallway, and she stood up behind her typewriter.


“Yes, it’s me,” she heard, and the new Registrar entered the room.

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