Violet wasn’t at her desk, so Ben helped himself to some of her coffee – so much better than the usual office pot – and found himself looking at the three ‘Employee of the Month’ trophies that were arranged in a row on one of the file cabinets.
He’d seen them before, of course. But just now he realized that they weren’t quite normal.
You’d expect something like a winged Victory, or an athlete, or (if budgets were tight) maybe a recycled bowler. These trophies looked more like Atlas, bearing the weight of the world on his shoulders. But this fella’s shoulders didn’t seem quite wide enough for the job. You couldn’t help but notice, when you looked really closely, that he was bent over and straining with everything he had; and there was this feeling that he wasn’t going to be able to keep it up much longer. He looked like he ought to be trembling under the weight. Ben bent over to look into the face of one of the trophies just as Violet came back through the Registrar’s door with a stack of papers in her enameled, metallic arms.
He nodded at her and pointed to the trophy’s face. “His face,” Ben said. “The expression. It looks….”
“It’s agony,” the robot secretary told him.
He took a step back. “Yeah, my thought. That’s… well, that’s unusual, isn’t it?”
“It’s a custom design,” Violet said. She sat down behind her desk. “Registrar Finlay designed them herself.”
Ben took a sip of Violet’s excellent coffee. He looked again at the row of trophies.
“And, so far, she’s only given them to you…?”
“That’s right,” Violet told him. “Just me.”
“Well, three months running.”
“Yes. I’d say she has a particular regard for my job performance.”
Ben eased over to the desk, where he could get a look at that stack of papers Violet was sorting.
“Hey, that’s a lot of invitations!”
Each of the papers seemed to be a notification that Registrar Finlay had received an award and was expected to speak; or an invitation to a conference, where it was hoped that she might speak; or an inquiry about her availability on the night of a banquet, convention, or fundraiser, where – if it wasn’t any trouble – she might consider delivering a speech…?
“Oh, yes. The Registrar’s very much in demand at the moment. So many speeches. She can’t possibly make it to all of them. In fact, she was looking for you, just now.”
Ben bought himself a moment by pouring a fresh cup of coffee. There was an intense battle of wills in progress between the Registrar and her secretary. Ben would always take Violet’s side, of course: partly because they were friends, and partly because he knew what happened to anybody who was on the other side. But he was doing his best to stay out of the crossfire.
“Looking for me?”
“Yes. I think she had some kind of assignment for you.” Violet’s head rose for a moment. She looked at him with what might have been concern, though you couldn’t really tell. “You might not like it much.”
So Ben was working out how he could disappear for the day when the Registrar herself came through her office door. “Investigator Bowman. I was hoping I might find you.”
There wasn’t any way to avoid her now. Ben followed her through into her office, where she closed the door behind him and took a seat. She waved at the guest chair. “Please, sit.”
He sank into the chair and worked up a smile. When the Registrar didn’t smile back his eyes wandered to the bookshelf behind her: it was piled with trophies, awards, and plaques. “Say,” he tried, “it looks like you’ve got quite a collection there, ma’am.”
Registrar Finlay shifted in her chair. She didn’t look at her trove of awards. “Yes. I think someone may have been recommending me for those, and for a lot of public speaking. I don’t suppose you know anything about that?”
Ben shook his head.
“In fact,” the Registrar went on, “I seem to have two speeches to make today. So I’d like you to make one of them for me.”
Ben continued to shake his head, now much more quickly. “Oh, no, I don’t think…. That is, I’m not really… you wouldn’t want me to…uh. I’m not very….”
“You’ll do fine, Investigator. I think this lecture will be something you’re uniquely qualified for. You just need to make a speech about the Registry of Patents, over at the Retropolis Academy for the Unusually Inventive.”
Ben stuttered into a terrified silence.
“Your alma mater, I believe.”
The years Ben had spent at the Academy were, he had hoped, well behind him – except in nightmares. Oh, he had some amazing nightmares.
The Retropolis Academy for the Unusually Inventive is the only place in the city where students can study science. Oh, there are plenty of engineering schools, plenty of general universities, and many, many schools for younger students. But any students in those other schools who start to show the telltale signs of a scientific mind are swiftly transferred to the Academy. They might escape notice when they memorize the Periodic Table; they can easily slip by if they tinker with the chemicals in a chemistry lab; but the moment they build their first Antimatter Catapult or High Energy Squirrel Emulsifier, their teachers pull them out of class and pack them off to the one school that’s prepared to deal with their particular talents. Once they arrive they’re on a fast track program that will one day release them into the Experimental Research District – the only place in Retropolis, by statute, where scientific research can be pursued.
Having entered the Academy there was, normally, only the one outcome: a lifelong career in the middle of the explosions and the sometimes successful transmogrifications that punctuate both the District and quite a few of the careers we just mentioned, with punctuation marks like the period, the exclamation mark, and, now and then, the question mark. In careers of this type, an ellipsis is extremely rare.
In a few cases a student might wash out of the Academy and return to a normal life.
Ben had very badly wanted a normal life.
“I really think, ma’am, I mean, I’m sure that one of the other investigators would….”
“I’m sorry, Investigator Bowman. I’m afraid my mind’s quite made up. They expect you at one o’clock.”
“Or Violet! Violet’s memorized all the files, she’s a great… she’d give a terrific lecture, Registrar. She’d be….”
The Registrar gave Ben a cool, thoughtful look.
“Maybe you’d like to take Violet with you, then, as a resource. But you must deliver the lecture yourself.” She finally turned to look at her stack of awards and certificates. “Violet may have had too much free time on her hands, lately.”