“…and so then the mathematician – no, sorry, I mean the logician. It was the mathematician who said that last bit. The one, you know, that… anyway, then the logician says, in fact what we see is that one sheep in Scotland is black… on one side.”
He waited for the laughter. The crowd, though, was just sort of staring at him with the kind of fascination you get when something unexpected and disturbing shows up under the microscope, without its pants on.
Ben swallowed. From the wings, Violet was hissing at him: “Use statistics!”
“Uh, thirty-two per cent of you thought that was funny, but don’t want to say so,” he tried. He shot Violet a smile. That’s statistical, he thought. That’s what you call a statistic.
From there he launched into a brief history of the Registry of Patents, its charter, and what everyone thought its function was, because you never mention in public that the Registry is a form of oversight over the scientists in the Experimental Research District. He could see that he was losing his grip on – at least – the audience; so he went on to describe very successful inventions and the fortunes they’d made for the scientists who created them. He was on slightly firmer ground there, he could see. The Energetic Earth-Displacing Behemoth (Patent #14,529) was always a crowd pleaser. So he went on with the Previously Unsuspected Method for Gravity Inversion (Patent #12,449) and the All-Encompassing Mood Sensing Toroidal System in a Compact Device (Patent #8,922). But those weren’t so compelling to the audience, maybe because they had so little potential for destruction. So Ben’s brow bunched up into a knot of wrinkles as he tried to think of some Registry statistics.
“But, uh, those commercial applications can’t be the only focus of your research,” he tried. “Because, uh, what you must always do is to… uh, to forge forward through the boundaries of human knowledge.” The students looked as though they liked that one. “Royalties, though not very interesting in themselves, provide you with the wealth you need to expand your laboratory. To purchase expensive equipment and materials, uh, of a kind that your neighbors can’t afford. To, uh, become a towering giant of scientific innovation before whom, uh, who – no, whom! – all other scientists must, well, bow in deference. Royalties are the fuel that drives you to… to utter domination in the Experimental Research District.”
The students hesitated, then started to applaud in little groups.
Ben couldn’t believe it: he had them. He drew in a breath, while Violet signaled frantically from the wings, and prepared to sink the hook into his audience. “With substantial royalties, you can rise above the – ”
The doors at the far end of the auditorium flew open. Four students rushed in and cried, “Mole people!”
Ben stopped for a moment. “No, you don’t get mole people in June. What I meant was – ”
But by then he could see that something was going wrong out in the atrium. Tiny, suited figures were headed toward the auditorium doors. Some kind of gigantic drilling machine had thrust up through the tiles. A horde of mole people was spilling out from the machine’s cabin.
“Uh, we ought to do something about those doors,” he said. But it was too late: the mole people had slammed them shut.
“They have welding gear!” one of the students shouted. The crack between the doors was already heating to a dull red. From the rear rows of the auditorium a group of students jumped up to shove the doors open, but it was already too late. They were trapped inside.
“Huh,” Ben said. “Really, you just don’t get mole people this early in the summer.” Nobody was listening any more, so he edged back into the stage’s wings.
Professor Zappencackler and Violet were whispering back and forth.
“In June!” Ben said. “Can you believe it?”
Professor Zappencackler shushed him. “They’ve blocked the main doors, but they probably missed the hallway,” he said. “Hurry!”
So the three of them hurried down the narrow corridor alongside the auditorium. When they reached the door, they cracked it open and looked out into the atrium.
The mole people had assembled in front of the two glass tubes that housed the immense Eunice aphroditois specimens. The tubes seemed to worry them: one mole person was rapping the nearest tube with a mallet. They were all carrying long crooks and ray guns. The crooks, Ben supposed, were meant for worm wrangling. But it looked like they hadn’t expected the great glassy containers.
“Do you suppose those fellas came for the worms?” Ben asked.
“They’re not fellows,” the Professor corrected him. “Just look at the, um, the chest area.”
Each mole person’s chest armor was studded with six tiny breast cups.
“The males invariably fight when they meet,” Violet said. “So if you run into a group of mole people, they’re always female.”
The mole persons, each about three feet in height, gathered in a ring in front of the worm tubes. Some kind of discussion seemed to be going on.
“We should get young Fenwick,” said the Professor. “And whatever useful devices the students are carrying.” So Ben ran back through the hallway to call for volunteers.
Fenwick was, indeed, young: obviously a prodigy. The devices were more or less useful; mainly less, to be honest. But the Spherical Obfuscator could be of use, and even the Hand-Held Universal Moisture Remover might come in handy. Ben guided his charges back to the doorway. The Professor and Violet had by then decided what was going on and were working on a plan for getting the mole people back underground, where they belonged.
“But you can’t talk to them,” the Professor snapped. “They’re moles.”
“But, what they’re wearing… and the drilling machine.…”
“Still moles. Oh, they communicate in some way, but we’ve never worked out how.”
Violet poked her enameled head through the door. “They’re… they’re snuffling,” she said.
It was true: the mole helmets had a kind of grating at the front, and it looked like the moles could sniff odors through them.
“Very sensitive to odors, your mole.” Professor Zappencackler looked back at Ben’s students. “Fenwick! What can you tell me about this?”
The young genius shuffled to the front and peered through the door. “I think they smelled my worms,” he said.
Zappencackler slapped the boy’s head. “Of course they smelled your worms! But how?”
“It may have been the way I added the neurotoxins,” Fenwick told him. He didn’t seem to mind the slap, but of course he’d be used to that by now. “Eunice aphroditois isn’t poisonous by nature.”
“Really?” Violet asked. “But I thought they were.”
“No. That’s a myth,” Fenwick said. “Until now, I mean. I made that little improvement.”
The group of them turned to look out at Fenwick’s thirty-foot long improved venomous worms. The worms had grown still, their brightly colored heads turned toward the mole people.
“I wonder if the mole people know,” said Ben.