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Thrilling Tales of the Downright Unusual
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Enlarge: Professor Wilcox and the Floating Laboratory

The office of the Retropolis Registry of Patents was nearly always empty when Violet arrived, and she liked it that way. The hallways were silent at that hour, bare tiles empty between the double ranks of the closed, rippled glass office doors. The whisper of her actuators and the quiet clanks of her footsteps were the only sounds in the building. Her glassy eyes glowed softly in the darkness of the empty hall.

At this very early hour it was obvious that the Registry of Patents belonged to Violet. And it was perfectly fine with her that no one else suspected that this was true.

If Violet ruled with an iron hand, that was only to be expected from a robot. But still, one thing had eluded her. One thing – the goal that had motivated her rise to power and her disposal, one by one, of each of the Registrars who arrived with the ridiculous belief that this office was their domain – that one thing was still beyond her grasp. Someday she’d be promoted from her post as secretary to the Registrar. Someday she’d become a Patent Investigator. Someday, she was certain, her title would reflect the skills that she’d demonstrated again and again.

Today might be that day.

To understand Violet and her merciless disposition of the Registrars it’s important to know how a robot thinks.

A robot’s pride and self-image is completely dependent on doing the robot’s job. The job must be done; the robot must know that she is in the right place, doing the right thing; and that thing must have been done to perfection. If these things aren’t true the robot experiences first discomfort, and then distress, and even actual pain.

It’s the worst thing in the world to be a robot that can’t do the work that he or she is meant to do.

And why is this? Why do robot brains inflict this kind of punishment on their owners?

The strange truth is that nobody knows. The even stranger truth is that nobody knows why robot brains work at all. They do work. They’re designed; they’re built. They work. But the design of robot brains is based on a long process of experimentation. If you assemble the right vacuum tubes, capacitors, and electrical circuits in such-and-such a way you get a robot’s brain. Vary those specifications more than a little bit, this way or that, and you get an inert, brain-shaped doorstop.

So you can build a robot that is best suited to be a welder, or a carpenter, or a street cleaner, or an instructor… or a secretary. These problems are pretty well understood. But now and then random chance will step in and a robot will have her own impervious ideas about what she’s supposed to do, or who she’s supposed to be, and in those cases… look out. You will have a deeply unhappy robot. That is, you will have a deeply unhappy, nearly indestructible, and unusually powerful person. You’ll be extremely lucky if that person is Violet rather than a giant, heavily armed security robot who would strongly prefer to be a reference librarian.

So it was with a mixture of pride and discomfort that Violet reached her desk, uncovered her typewriter, and poured water, coffee, and something else into the percolator. This was partly traditional – she was still, if reluctantly, a secretary – but the coffee pot was also the magnet that drew Ben Bowman to her desk.

And anyway a new Registrar was expected today, and some new Registrars drank coffee.

Violet was slipping her private can of motor oil back into a file drawer when the televideo phone rang. This early in the morning, that was likely to be someone calling in sick. So she reached for the schedule before she leaned in to the phone.

Surprisingly, it was Ben Bowman’s face that sizzled into view on the screen. He was in uniform, so he probably wasn’t going to be using a sick day. Behind him Violet could see traffic flying by overhead: so he wasn’t even calling from home.

“Hey, Violet,” he said. His voice sounded thin through the videophone speaker. “I beat you in today, just so you know. Wanted to clear my desk before the weekend. You know, that fishing trip next week.”

Violet nodded. “Sorry you missed your coffee.”

“Yeah, I’ll live. Anyway, I’m out by the District already. Going to drop in on Doctor Moore, about that problem with the two preliminaries. Between her and Professor Wilcox. I may be at it all day.”

“Well, just be sure you finish by the evening if you want those vacation days, Ben.”

She saw his head bob up and down with a lot of vigor. “You bet, wouldn’t want to miss it. But there’s that other thing.”

His face swelled on the phone’s screen when he leaned in, one hand cupped over his mouth. Violet did something that another mechanical person would have recognized as a smile. She turned the volume knob down low to help him out.

“It’s that new Registrar. He in yet?”

“No, it’s just me here,” she said.

“Make sure he doesn’t open that safe behind his desk,” Ben whispered.

She turned the volume back up again. “There’s a safe behind the Registrar’s desk?”

“Yeah, pretty hush-hush. It’s notes the Registrars pass on when you, uh, when they leave.”

Violet sank back in her chair. Notes?

“The thing is, Violet, I got a look when Registrar Finlay was getting ready to go. The notes are about you.”

I’ve underestimated them, Violet thought. Each time I got rid of a Registrar they left… evidence.

“Did you see how many? Was it all fourteen?”

Ben’s face froze. Behind him, a hover sled rose quietly and sped out of the camera’s view.

“You’ve gotten rid of fourteen Registrars? I thought it was… I mean, I only knew about three.”

Violet flexed her shoulders in a complicated shrug. “I’ve been here a long time, Ben.”

“Yeah. Uh, okay, Right. Anyway, keep him out of the safe if you want a chance at that promotion.”

Violet heard a door open far down the corridor. “That may be him now,” she said. “Was there anything else?”

“No, I got to be on my way if I want to go fishing next week. Say… you know, you could come along, if you….”

“I doubt I can get away,” she said. “It’s nice to be asked, though.”

Fish, she thought as she switched off the phone. What would I do with a fish? But she was making that secret robot smile again.

She heard a trash can in the hall crash against the tiled floor. “It’s so dark in here,” someone muttered. “Hello? Is anybody here?”

Violet turned the lights on. “Is that you, Registrar?”

“Yes, I… yes, I suppose that is me,” she heard. “Where’s my office?”

“You’re right in here, sir,” she called. “Would you like some coffee? It’s fresh.”

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