“What do you think they’re doing?” asked Ben.
He and Officer Rocklynne had reached the end of Level Eleven’s rows of shelves and mini-vaults. Where the door to the stairwell should have been they saw a large rectangular enclosure built from piles of the devices and demonstration models that used to be shelved carefully to either side of Rocklynne and Ben, but were now heaped up into walls that had terrifying possibilities.
Rocklynne was staring at the wall. “I think they built themselves a fort.”
Down at the fort’s base, a rectangular device slid out of sight. This allowed one of the Argus robots to shove a new prototype inside. Once he’d followed it inside the fort, the rectangular object slid back into place.
“Maybe we should have given them a couch,” Ben mused. Rocklynne’s eyebrows performed a complex maneuver. “You know, they make great forts. When I was a –”
“Don’t say it.”
“Yeah, right. Anyway, your couch, it’s terrific fort material. Much better than….” Ben waved at the precarious walls.
“Well, this could be worse,” said Rocklynne.
Ben wasn’t sure how. Behind them, the Low-Velocity Viscosity Projector was slowly seeping into the walls of the Universal Electron Inverter’s mini-vault; ahead of them, the Arguses had piled several thousand pounds of dangerous devices on top of each other without any regard for the ways they might interact. It was hard to guess which situation would be the first to kill them all.
“I mean, what they’re doing, it’s defensive. They’re trying to protect themselves from you. Whereas, you know, they might have gotten more aggressive, and if they’d done that then you’d be dead now. Me too, maybe.”
Ben nodded, glum.
Rocklynne ignored him. “’Course it’s all moot, really. We’ve got a time bomb behind us, and that fort… well, I’ve got no idea what’s going to happen there. You see that Anamorphic Matter Reformulator? I’m pretty sure it’s not supposed to be glowing like that. And that, just beside it? I’m thinking that’s a Hydrophilic Isolation Tank. Which, depending on what’s inside it….”
“Yeah, it looks like they switched it off. So we’ll probably find out soon.”
The two of them thought about their situation.
“You ever designate a beneficiary for your insurance?” Ben asked.
“I was going to.”
They thought some more.
“Thing is,” Ben said at last, “we don’t really need the little guys right now, like we thought we did. I mean, I bet the Containment Squad’s on the other side of that wall. Explains why they never got here. And those are the guys we really need. With all their fancy equipment.”
“Well, it’s just not the problem we thought it was, right? We don’t need those Argus fellas to help us. We just need to get them out of the way.”
“You’re talking about a dozen mentally unstable robots who are surrounded by piles of machines that might start exploding, any minute now,” Rocklynne reminded him. “So you want to, what, push them out of the way?”
Ben was frowning. His face was pointed toward the Argus robots, but his eyes weren’t focused. “What was that thing you called me?” he asked.
“At this point I am not sure how many things I’ve called you, or what they were. And that’s just the things I said out loud.”
“You said I was the stupidest smart person you’ve ever met.”
“That’s the least of it. And what I actually meant to say was –”
Ben waved his hand. “Not important.”
“– that you were grossly insensitive about these little robots and what they’ve been through. That you’re a big –”
“No, the first one was the good one. Though grossly insensitive? That’s not bad. I’m thinking that’s exactly what we need. And the other one… the thing about the Arguses and human persons who have not yet achieved their full size. That’s the other thing.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Rocklynne told him.
“That’s okay. I’m going to do something really stupid now.”
He stepped forward almost quickly enough to miss Rocklynne’s “Yes, of course you are.” But Ben’s mind was still on what he needed to say. It had to be just right.
No. It had to be just wrong, in just the right way.
High above, Violet was trying to decide whether there was any point to keeping the Containment Squad in the stairwell. There was no need for them to die down there. It didn’t seem like there was any chance that they could fix whatever was going on down on Eleven. But she figured that this was a question for the Registrar.
He had the Info-Slate in his hand. He seemed to be fascinated by the thing, with its easily sorted lists of just about everything. It wasn’t easy to get his attention; but, as it happened, Officer Bok managed it with an insistent beep that came from the Info-Slate itself.
“Something’s happening,” she said through the Info-Slate speaker. “I think somebody’s in there. Talking.”
“Who do we have in there?” the Registrar asked.
“It’s Investigator Bowman and Officer Rocklynne,” Violet said. “They’re, uh, they’re very fine people.”
And half of them have taken a class in how to deal with Argus robots, she added to herself. But she had a feeling that it was the other half who was doing the talking.