“Hey, little guys,” Ben started. “Um, that’s a great fort you’ve got there. But, you know how this level is full of machines that shouldn’t be stored anywhere near each other? Well. Those are the machines you just stacked up all around you. The ones that shouldn’t get close to each other.”
He could see the Arguses’ yellow eyes gleaming in the gaps between the prototypes.
“Which is what you would call an extremely dangerous situation, is what I’m saying. And I do not want to alarm you in any way, but, like I said, extremely dangerous.”
He stepped up and stopped about eight feet from the fort’s near wall.
“So the smart thing would be to very carefully take these walls apart and move all the prototypes away from each other. That would be the smart thing, here. Because any one of them, for example that Triphasic Gaseous Recombinator, might go unstable and set off a chain reaction that would probably destroy this building which we are in. Which, I mean, we are underneath. And everybody who’s upstairs? They’re goners, too.”
There was a quiet, rustling sound inside the fort. The little yellow eyes didn’t blink; but, then, they didn’t blink anyway. So Ben wasn’t sure if he was getting through.
“So that’s our first problem. The incredibly unstable wall of things that should never be put next to each other. That one’s pretty bad. But hang on: there’s more. ’Way back behind us there’s this Low-Velocity Viscosity Projector, which has eaten through its mini-vault. It’s seeping corrosive slime that is just about ready to eat through the mini-vault next door, which contains the Universal Electron Inverter. And, you know what? I have no idea what’s going to happen when the one comes into contact with the other. All I know is that each one of those devices is so dangerous that we decided to put them into these impervious vaults which are, ha ha, not quite as impervious as we thought they were. So, best guess, when the ooze from the Low-Velocity Viscosity Projector hits the Universal Electron Inverter, everything on Level Eleven goes bang. Which includes all of us, right?
“But more to the point, when Level Eleven disappears then all the levels overhead come down on top of it, which is also likely to be a disaster, and which will certainly kill everybody in the building on top. Everybody. Okay?”
More pairs of eyes were peering through the wall. Ben had an urge to wave at them, but he resisted. The situation called for dignity.
“And all of that is pretty bad. I mean, your fort here, it’s likely to kill everybody upstairs when it blows, and then the Low-Velocity Viscosity Projector and the Universal Electron Inverter will kill us all. I mean, they’ll kill us all over again. And everybody in the Registry building above us? They’re all dead, too. Twice over.”
He paused, purely for effect, because what was coming up was either the smartest or the stupidest thing he had ever said.
“And that’s a real shame, you see, because today is the day that four whole classes of boys and girls are getting a guided tour of the Registry.”
Something dropped inside the fort. It rolled a long way in the silence before it bounced off a wall and came to rest.
“That’s, I figure, one hundred and twenty children who are about to die, and I mean, really horribly, and all because you built this fort down here on Level Eleven. Yep, those poor kids just came to learn about the Registry, thinking it was, like, educational. All those boys and girls would rather be out in the park. But all one hundred and twenty children are about to die unless you take your fort apart and let the Containment Squad through.”
He waited. “The thing I’m saying is, because of what you’ve done dozens of kids are about to die. And they’re, uh, children. Just children.”
That was all he had. Ben stepped back to join Officer Rocklynne.
“Even if this works,” Rocklynne hissed, “I’m not sure there’s any excuse for it.”
“We might all live,” Ben offered. “And like you said, they can’t do anything that will hurt children. I just encouraged them, you know, to act according to their nature.”
“You hear anything about this new president over at the Fraternal League of Robotic Persons?”
“I have a feeling you’re going to get to know him real soon.”
There was movement inside the fort. Some of the Argus robots, climbing carefully to the top of the wall, began to hand down the topmost prototypes; others were widening the opening at the wall’s base. A stream of little robots started to carry devices out through the opening and off to either side of the fort, where they placed them several feet apart. As the opening in the wall grew larger Ben could see another group of Arguses doing the same thing at the fort’s far wall. You could already see the lintel of the stairwell’s door.
After a few moments the fort had been breached. The Containment Squad burst through the doorway and ran toward Ben and Rocklynne. Their hands were covered by heavy gloves, and face masks were dangling around their necks; they carried shielded tarpaulins, neutralizing gel, and expanding barriers. Four of them were towing floating pallets that were loaded with cannisters and spray equipment. “Where?” their leader barked, and Rocklynne pointed down the hallway.
“We should lead the Squad to the trouble site,” he told Ben. “Don’t you say another word to the Arguses.”
Ben had been watching those little robots. Once they’d cleared the way for the Containment Squad they began to huddle together in little groups, facing inward. It looked like they were pretending that they were all alone on Level Eleven. Which was fair enough. They’d had a bad day, he knew.
Ben and Rocklynne left them behind and led the Containment Squad deeper into the level in the direction of the Low-Velocity Viscosity Projector and the Universal Electron Inverter.
Ben never felt at ease around the Containment Squad. Maybe it was their uniforms, and those goggled masks they wore, but they all looked pretty much like the same person. The same tall, muscular, grim kind of person. Sometimes he wondered if they were all raised together on a secret island, somewhere.
He smiled at the squad leader. “What about those Arguses? Sensitive little fellas.”
The squad leader – who was tall, and muscular, and grim – gave him a look. “You took the class, right?”
Ben pointed to the right. “Here we go. The problem is right down that aisle.” He was awfully tired of hearing about that class.
“One thing,” Rocklynne muttered. “When did we start giving tours to, you know, students?”
“You kidding?” Ben gave him a look. “Tours of the Registry? What kind of idiot would give tours of the Registry?”
He really hated being down in the Vault. It’d be a relief to get back to the office where he could have some of Violet’s good coffee.