“I’m so sorry, Ben,” Violet said. “I double booked her. I didn’t mean to.”
“The tests, the hazing, the… the exercises….”
“And it never occurred to me that she’d drag you into this. I’ve just been trying…”
“They put things in your locker. Things that leap out and attach themselves to your face…”
“…to keep her out of the office, and to give her a very high profile…”
“…with suckers. And, and tentacles. And they talk to you…”
“…so that some other agency would notice how popular she is…”
“…and the lunches! I still have these dreams about the lunches!”
Ben and Violet came out of the monorail terminal near the Academy. They could see it, three blocks down, its façade a massive, pilastered, windowless block. An heroic statue of Thales of Miletus loomed over the Academy’s open doors. Unlike Violet’s trophies,Thales didn’t look as though he was about to be crushed by the weight of the world.
“It’s hard to flunk out of the Academy! You have to do it in these slight, subtle stages…”
“You know she’ll never make me an investigator, Ben. Just like the other Registrars. So, as always, I just need to…”
“…like, in every test I just did slightly worse. One by one. Quarter by quarter. Until finally my tests were just so bad they had to think I wasn’t equipped for science at the higher levels. Like, I was just a little gifted. But I had to do it slowly. It took years.”
Violet took him by the arm. “I know, Ben. You majored in washing out.”
At that moment, when at last they were having the same conversation, both of them fell silent.
“We need to be there in fifteen minutes,” Violet said at last.
“I never thought I’d have to go back.”
She led him down the street. “I’ll be with you,” she told him. “You just need to give the lecture, and then we’ll get out immediately. I promise.”
They came to the Academy’s entryway, with that huge façade hanging over them. “She knew exactly what she was doing,” Violet said. “She won’t get away with this. I’ve been working on that.”
Ben wasn’t listening.
The Academy’s atrium was fifteen stories tall. Galleries ringed it, one above another, until the walls met high overhead in a domed skylight. All along the galleries the students rushed from one classroom to another. There were collisions, some of them violent, between the young scientists and their projects. Their voices and detonations echoed all through the entry space, in whose center two huge glass cylinders rose fifty feet above the floor. In each one was a thirty-foot worm.
“Eunice aphroditois?” Violet wondered. “But they’re normally aquatic. And, of course, not so large.”
“Oh, yes,” said a voice behind her. “Magnificent, aren’t they? Spines loaded with neurotoxins, and those extremely powerful jaws.They can digest almost anything. Beautiful creatures.”
Violet turned; Ben jumped. It turned out to be Professor Zappencackler. “That’s the senior project of one of our most promising students. Young Fenwick. He’ll be in your audience, of course. So nice to see you, Ben! And Miss Violet.”
“They’re pretty big worms, normally,” Violet said. “But these are exceptional. And… land dwelling, apparently?”
“Oh, my, yes. You certainly wouldn’t want to run into these babies out on the street.”
Ben finally found his voice. “And, uh, what are you going to do with them…?”
That stopped Professor Zappencackler short. “Do with them? Oh, I have no idea. But that’s your Patent Investigator talking, there. These things don’t have to serve a purpose. They just have to be….”
“…interesting,” Ben finished.
“Yes! That’s exactly it!” the Professor grinned. “And they certainly are.”
The three of them stared at the gigantic, carnivorous, poisonous worms with several degrees of interest. The worms, their segmented and colorful bodies writhing, were mainly concerned with escape.
“But we’re almost late for your lecture,” the Professor said. “We must get to the auditorium!”
The auditorium doors stood directly opposite the Academy’s entrance, but as the speaker Ben had to be led through a narrow hall alongside the large room, around to the back of the stage, and finally to the wings. Violet stayed close behind him.
Ben swayed slightly as he stood behind the curtain. “But why are there two of the worms?” he asked, though he was pretty sure of the answer.
“For breeding, of course!”
Professor Zappencackler left them, approaching the lectern to the sound of faint, scattered applause.
“Because you can’t have enough giant flesh-eating poisonous worms,” Violet concluded.
Ben nodded. “I really hate this place.”
“Today’s lecture should be of great interest to all of you,” said Professor Zappencackler. “We’re fortunate to have an investigator from the Registry of Patents, who will explain how the Registry determines which inventions are unique, and which inventors will receive the royalties from those inventions that have commercial applications.”
There was a sound like waves washing out along a shoreline. The students had slumped in their seats and, in the back of the auditorium, had started up a few quiet conversations.
“But as interesting as that is,” the Professor went on, “you’ll be thrilled to know more about our guest lecturer, Ben Bowman. Investigator Bowman is a legend among the Academy faculty. We remember him well! Over the course of four years, Investigator Bowman became the single worst student ever to walk the Academy halls. There wasn’t a single subject his brain could contain! His decline was so remarkable that it’s now the centerpiece of Professor Maepenn’s paper on Rapid Cognitive Decline Expressed Through Graphs and Measurements. Having the famously deficient Investigator Bowman here is a genuine treat that I’m sure you will enjoy. Investigator?”
The Professor was smiling and waving at Ben, who stood motionless behind the curtain.
“Just use lots of statistics,” Violet said. She was shoving him forward. “Statistics will be your friend, here.”
Ben lurched out onto the stage. The audience leaned forward to get a closer look at the Academy’s most complete failure; then two-thirds of them sank back. There was that chance that his condition might be contagious. Ben managed a fragile smile.
Zappencackler tapped him on the shoulder as he stepped to the podium.
“Make the old alma mater proud, boy!”
Ben’s one consolation was that – unlike in the dreams – he was pretty sure he still had his pants on. He looked down. Oh, yes. Pants. He gazed out over the silent crowd. Somebody in the far rows coughed.
Ben decided to start with a joke.