Officer Bok rushed to Violet’s desk with bad news. “Something’s gone wrong down on Vault Eleven,” she said. “Rocklynne called for the Containment Squad. But they can’t get through because there’s some kind of obstruction at the end of the stairwell.”
At moments like these the only sound in Violet’s reception area had once been the gentle bubbling of her percolator. But the percolator was gone now.
There wasn’t any sound at all while Violet took in the news and tried to imagine the scope of the disaster.
“Did Officer Rocklynne say why he needed the Containment Squad?”
Officer Bok shook her head.
“Get an Info-Slate from the supply room and get down there, would you? I’ll check out another one so we can keep in touch. And… don’t worry, Hannah. Ben’s down there too. It will probably be fine.”
But Ben may have been the problem. As Bok hurried out,Violet looked down at the class roster. There wasn’t any question: she’d sent Ben down there with nothing but a vague warning. And although the Argus work program had been successful, nowhere in their assignments around the city had the reconditioned robots been exposed to human persons who weren’t trained to deal with them.
She had to inform the Registrar.
At first she knocked as softly as she could on the door frame (an acquired skill, for a person whose fingers were made of metal), and then she rapped a little louder, and a then bit louder again, before she heard the Registrar’s “Yes?” and opened the office door.
“There’s a bit of trouble down in the Vault,” she explained. “It probably won’t be serious, but there’s a chance we’ll need to evacuate the building.”
Registrar Cartier blinked.
“I’ll let you know if things get dangerous down there.”
“Yes… yes, thank you.”
He had been working his way through a stack of patent registrations. Violet saw that his In box was still overflowing with mail. “Anything I can do to help?”
“Well, when you get a chance… I’m still curious about those inventors who’ve died. Could you…?”
“I’ll get you the last, say, six months’ worth of deceased scientists?”
“Yes, that would be perfect, Violet. Thank you.”
“May I say, sir, that you show admirable restraint for a Registrar whose building may be on the brink of destruction?”
“Oh, is that unusual? I assumed this sort of thing was normal around here.”
“I’ll get you those files. But have you noticed the letters from the Fourth Circuit Court? They seemed to be quite impatient for a reply.”
“Oh, well.” Registrar Cartier waved one hand. “I won’t keep them waiting long.”
“I’ll type the letter whenever you’re ready, sir.”
Dismissed, she closed the door gently and set off for the supply room to pick up an Info-Slate. With that in hand she worked through the file cabinets, gathered together the files for the most recently deceased District scientists, and handed most of them to Irving, a nervous Beetlebot who needed something to do. Then she thumbed on the Info-Slate.
Info-Slates were common in the higher profile city departments, like the Air Safety and Astronautics Association or the Retropolis Department of Power and Light. At the Registry of Patents, though, there were only a few of them.
Violet looked over the several panes of information on the device’s face. She thumbed a dial, and selected something by accident: somewhere across the city she knew that an operator was noting her selection and swapping cables to connect Violet’s Info-Slate to what turned out to be a list of properties from the Zoning Registry. Violet winced and made a silent apology. What she really wanted was in a larger pane near the top of the device.
Officer Bok’s Info-Slate appeared there in a list of connected devices, so she thumbed her way to that entry and pressed a button.
“Gaaaaahhh!” said Hannah Bok’s voice. Officer Bok was even less experienced with the Info-Slates than Violet.
“Officer, it’s Violet. Have you reached the Containment Squad?”
All Violet could see in the televideo panel was Officer Bok’s hip.
“Could you look into the camera, Officer?”
“Where’s the camera?” asked Officer Bok’s hip.
Once she’d worked out where the camera was, things went a bit more smoothly.
By peering at the Info-Slate’s televideo screen, Violet could see the Containment Squad shuffling, sitting and fidgeting at the entrance to Vault Eleven, where they’d been stopped by a wall of piled-up machinery that blocked the door. Faint sounds of activity seemed to come from the far side of the barricade.
“There’s no way to push through it?” Violet asked.
“No, and the fact is, none of us wants to even touch that stuff. Can’t you see? It’s wall of prototypes. They’re all just wedged on top of each other, maybe six feet deep. If we should turn any one of them on by accident….”
Even powered down, those machines shouldn’t have been anywhere near each other. “Yes, I see.”
Officer Bok’s face wavered back into view on the screen. “No word from Rocklynne or Bowman. We just don’t know what’s going on in there, Violet.”
“Does the Containment Squad know why Officer Rocklynne called them?”
Officer Bok’s face vanished, and the squad leader appeared. “He reported a breach in one of the mini-vaults. Some spillover, not sure what it is. Seemed to be threatening the next vault over.”
Violet’s finger tapped the side of the Info-Slate. This was bad.
“And there’s been no more contact with him?”
The squad leader jerked his thumb toward the stairwell’s wall, where Violet could see a televideo set. “That’s the only videophone on the level. You know the regulations.”
He was right. There were stringent limits on what kinds of devices could be taken into a Vault level. Mostly, the list said “none”.
So with no way to get in, no way to contact anybody inside, and no way to know how bad the situation was, there wasn’t any doubt what would happen next.
“I’ll start the evacuation,” Violet said.