“Roll up, roll up! Get your antimatter here! Gravitons, superstrings, Higgs bosons — all going cheap. Every proton has a lifetime guarantee! Buy caloric, aether and nebulium while theories last. Special offer on orgone and vril! Dried ghosts, astrographs, universal meters. Superconductors and Bose- Einstein condensates. Athanors and alembics. Test tubes and Bunsen burners, if anyone still uses them.”
I switched on Markor’s Domestic Star to spotlight the stock. It had taken all afternoon to set up the booth, and I didn’t want to have to take everything home again. As the scientists began walking in, I mentally assigned a sales target to each experimenter.
Pale from lack of sun, or tanned scary colours from exposure to strange rays, the early arrivals stared at each other as if they’d forgotten what other people looked like. Their expressions told of the despair of failure, or the voyeuristic exhilaration of uncovering the universe’s secrets. Only a few remained unmarked, as if they’d discovered an anti-ageing drug, or been silently replaced by a robot they’d foolishly made in their own image. I recognised most of the arriving scientists, but one face was missing.
“Any sign of Rankin?” said Audran, who’d been browsing my stock of entangled photons.
“No,” I said. “You think your device can find him?”
He looked hurt. “You saw it at Demonstration Day last year. Given the right input, it can find anything. Grab one of those tables and I’ll set it up.”
Let the sleuthing begin, I thought. Audran had been nagging me to stock his latest device ever since he invented it, and this would be a good test of whether it worked in the real world, as well as in carefully contrived demonstrations.
“I need something close to him,” he said, returning with his laptop computer.
“That’s the problem: all his personal stuff disappeared with him — notebook, everything. But we do have this.” I reached into one of my cases and brought out a dead dog in formaldehyde.
He burst out laughing. “Is that the best you could do?”
“Don’t laugh. Occam here was his constant companion in the lab, and acted as point man in his experiments — or point dog, you could say.”
“What experiments?” asked Audran, curious.
“No-one knows, not even his daughter; only the dog, and he’s not talking. Margaret reckons he died of a broken heart after Rankin disappeared, but I think lack of food and water might have had more to do with it. Anyway, she preserved old Occam in case her father wanted to do any tests when he returned. But he didn’t come back. And so —”
“And so you called me. I still think a ten per cent royalty is pitifully low.”
“You’ll be getting a hundred per cent of nothing if this doesn’t work. Do we have to take the body out and drain off the formaldehyde? I’d rather not.”
“We’ll try it the easy way first.” Audran booted up the computer and plugged a home-made device into the back. “Got any Z-leads?” he asked.
I passed him two from my stock, making a mental note to get them back after the test. Audran clipped one end of each lead to his device and attached the other ends to the big specimen jar with sticky tape.
“Woof!” said a passing scientist. “It’s alive! Run! Run, I tell you!”
I glared at him and he slunk away.
“The classical world is an illusion,” said Audran, looking at the screen and typing away. “The universe is a single quantum system in which everything is connected. Nonlocal entanglements—”
“Spare me the spiel,” I said. “I heard it last year.”
He sniffed, annoyed at being cut off. But he shut up and typed for five minutes, without seeming to get much joy. Eventually he said, “Can you open it up? No need to take anything out; we’ll stick the leads in at the top.”
I didn’t enjoy the task — I’m a salesman, not a vivisectionist — but after some ineffectual poking we snagged two leads on the remaining patches of fur, and Audran said that would have to do. Then he looked at the screen and shook his head. “Nothing. Are you sure it’s his dog, and not a stray?”
That wasn’t worth answering, so I didn’t. Audran shrugged. “I’m not getting a damn thing off it. If this dog ever had an owner, right now he’s seriously unavailable. I’ve had livelier readings for corpses.”
“Looks like you need to improve performance before worrying about a brand name,” I said. I recovered my leads and wiped them clean.
“I’ve decided to call it the Quent,” he said.
“Snappy name. Shame it doesn’t work.”
He looked devastated. “I don’t understand what’s wrong. Can we test something else?”
“I haven’t got anything else that belonged to Rankin,” I lied. “And I can’t stock equipment that only works when it feels like it. Come back to me when it’s fixed.”
Audran gave me a sour look. He picked up his kit and went upstairs to stow it away, safe from the prying hands of rival scient -- [End of Preview.]