It was hard to figure, how a robot could brew the best coffee in the office when she never drank the stuff herself. But Ben had stopped wondering about that. He poured himself a cup while he didn’t look at the new Registrar’s office door. It was closed, anyway.
“She working out?” he asked. “I only ask ’cause, you know, I’ve been kind of busy.”
Violet looked up from her filing. The Registry of Patents sometimes seemed like one big operation that simply moved folders from one cabinet to another. If you ignored the casualties.
“She’s a little frustrated by the lack of qualified candidates.”
This was because, when it came down to it, you couldn’t ignore the casualties. Registrar Finlay had begun her reign with an attempt at a hiring spree that might have swelled the ranks of Patent Officers and Investigators with fresh, optimistic faces. It had seemed like a good plan, especially to the new Registrar. It just wasn’t working out that way.
Ben wandered over to Violet, whose enameled face was once again buried in the filing drawers. She had these little rubber sleeves on the tips of her steely fingers. Ben sipped his coffee. “You’re refiling the old registrations?”
Violet’s head bobbed, but she didn’t bother to explain.
“Only, I don’t quite get the system. They’re….”
“In reverse alphabetical order,” she told him.
He was wondering whether he should ask when a stranger in a brand new uniform came through the door and actually saluted.
Violet closed the file cabinet and gave the new recruit a look. “Officer Binder.”
“Present and correct, ma’am. Ready for my first assignment.”
“You’ve read the regulations?”
“You’ve had your briefing?”
Officer Binder hesitated. “We had that meeting this morning, with a short instructional film….”
“But nobody sat you down and had a talk with you?”
“They must be very busy. Well, you should make your rounds, and if you’re confused about anything you can aways talk to Mr. Bowman here. He’s a very experienced investigator.”
“Oh, I know, ma’am! Investigator Bowman, he’s what you call a legendary character.”
The legendary character made humble noises and smiled. Then Officer Binder decided to shake his hand, and he went along with it. There was one of those awkward moments while he and Violet waited for the youngster to figure out that they were done with him, but eventually he caught on and he went.
“He looks familiar,” Ben said.
“Mail room. Two years.”
“He came up from the mail room? She’s promoting from within! You should – ”
Violet, with a fresh stack of files, looked up and stared at him.
Ben hid behind his coffee. But having come so far, he had to keep going.
“So she won’t make you an investigator. Fair enough – she doesn’t even know you. Did you apply to be a Patent Officer?”
“Yes, I was that desperate. But no. She’s won’t consider promoting a secretary.”
“Look, I can put in a word. She probably has no idea – ”
“That’s very kind, Ben. But you know I prefer to handle things my own way.” Violet slid open another file drawer and went back to her reverse alphabetical filing.
Ben thought it over. “Yeah, I guess I can see that.”
His eyes wandered over to the Registrar’s door. They never lasted very long, the Registrars. Somehow, once they’d denied Violet the promotion she wanted, they never hung around much longer.
“Shame, really. I had hopes for this one.”
But it was time Ben got on with his day. He thanked Violet for the coffee, which was a sensible thing to do, and he shuffled through the papers on his clipboard so he could plan the shortest possible route through the Experimental Research District. This was also a sensible thing to do.
You don’t last long at the Registry of Patents without being sensible. Also, there’s luck. You can’t deny the importance of luck.
To an outsider, the Experimental Research District might seem like a peculiar institution, though it’s less like an institution than a neighborhood. It was established so long ago by the zoning regulations of Retropolis that it has become an institution over time.
The idea is simple; the solution, ingenious.
When a society is faced with the rapid growth of technological progress there’s a lot to celebrate: the lighter than air metals, the mysterious rays, the advanced robotics, and the unexpected sources of energy, all originating in the District, are a clear benefit to the city of Retropolis. One could make the argument – if it were needed – that the city wouldn’t even exist if not for the constant, furious inventive powerhouse of the District scientists.
But if those scientists were spread carelessly around the city, the city might not exist for very long.
In some universes scientists may be careful, methodical researchers who work under rigorously controlled conditions and who seldom, if ever, decide to find out what happens when you cross a great white shark with a lawnmower, and then add a rocket pack. That is not the case here.
Some early critics of the zoning regulations questioned the wisdom of crowding all the city’s scientists into a single neighborhood. The answer – which proved to be correct – was that when their laboratories exploded, melted, transformed into glowing jelly, or decided suddenly that they ought to exist four doors down, they would only destroy the laboratories of other scientists. The city that surrounded them would not be affected. Not in most cases.
The other argument – that crowding the scientists together might lead to a united force that could overcome the rest of the city – was also easily disproved by the tendency of scientists to be highly competitive, distrustful, and energetic.
So in every way it was safer, for most people, to confine all scientific research to a single neighborhood.
The District wasn’t visited by emergency services or by most civilians. It was a kind of anarchic, kingless tribe in the middle of the city. But it wasn’t completely unsupervised.
That was the mission of the Registry of Patents.