Collette

The man shown in to Dr Conjeeca's office after Marvin left was unknown to him, which was rather more surprising than it should have been.  Dr Conjeeca peered at the newcomer, and ran a hand through his hair, remembering too late that he'd not washed it in three days.

"You're not Thomas," he said, wiping his hand as discreetly as he could on his trouser leg.

"No," said the man.  "There had been a recent suite of audits, and one of the issues raised was that your orphanage--"

"Orphanarium."

"--whatever, has not been reviewed in nearly three years.  As such, it was felt that Thomas might benefit from a brief holiday, and his cases would be reviewed on an individual basis.  And so I am here, now, to review you.  And your child-farm."

"Orphanarium," repeated Dr Conjeeca.  "I see.  Thomas came round rather regularly, I am surprised--"

"I'm sure you are."  The stranger didn't even bother to look at Dr Conjeeca.  "You can start by showing me a sample child."

"That's a fairly inhumane way to talk about them!"

"And I'm sure you tuck them in between their silk sheets every night, kiss their forehead and tell them how wonderful their life is going to be from now on."

"There's no call for sar-- for that level of sarcasm," said Dr Conjeeca.  He had a nasty feeling that this man would not accept any bribes, or non-monetary inducements the way Thomas had.  "I was on my way to see a new admission anyway, as it happens.  She's called Collette, perhaps you'd like to accompany me."

The stranger raised an eyebrow, but fell in behind Dr Conjeeca, who led the way from his office towards the wards.  "I am aware that Collette was admitted just this morning," he said, his voice sounding marginally less aggressive.  "I am rather surprised that you'd show her to me."

"And yet I'm sure you'll somehow decide that we're hiding things from you," said Dr Conjeeca, deciding that the best offense was to be offensive.  "Collette lost both her parents in an unfortunate accident at an agricultural fair."

"That's impossible," said the stranger too quickly.  "All agricultural fairs are state-run, there's no way an accident could kill two people like that."

"Well," said Dr Conjeeca turning a corner and slowing down a little, "she's an unusual little girl.  According to her admission notes, she has an erratically magnetic personality, which apparently means that every so often, outside of her control, large magnetic fields engulf her.  A little bit like the aurora borealis, it would seem.  Her parents were aware of this, and tried to avoid taking her places where there are large concentrations of metal.  However, they were sadly unaware of the unusually high iron concentration in state-farm cattle."

"They're robots," said the stranger flatly.  "I know it, you know it.  By the sounds of it, her parents now know it."

"Yes," said Dr Conjeeca, drawing the word out like a pentitent's prayer.  "Although when they took her there they undoubtedly thought that they were still flesh-and-bood cattle, yielding cow's milk.  Rather than the dog-milk yielding robots that the state supplies."

"It's barely 40% dog-milk nowadays," said the stranger. "I don't drink it myself any more."

"Anyway, her magnetic fields kicked in, and a nearby cow was dragged into orbit around her, crashing into her father en route.  He would probably have survived with just some broken ribs and a concussion arranged by the state paramedics, except that she panicked and ran.  Straight towards a paddock.  Her mother, not realising what was happening, ran after her, and was struck first by the father, and then by several more cows.  There were a grand total of thirteen robot cows orbiting her and mooing madly before her magnetism gave out and dropped them all back to the ground."

"I see."  The stranger stopped, and Dr Conjeeca slowed, then stopped also.  "Look, Conjeeca.  We know that you're working on merfolk at the moment, but there's likely to be an opportunity coming up soon, and you seem like you're the kind of man up for a challenge."

Hank nodded, carefully saying nothing.

"The state wants to go back to more natural methods of milk production.  How would you feel about try to reinstate cattle?  We'll be using children as the starting material."

"They're not large enough!" said Hank before he could stop himself.  "A cow used to produced huge quantities of milk a day, you'd never get that much out of a child. Even if you wrung them dry!"

"Just think about it," said the stranger turning round.  "It's an opening, and it may yet be an offer you shouldn't refuse.  Let's go back to your office and talk business."

As they walked along the corridor, Dr Conjeeca reflected that he'd found the lever for the new inspector, but it was turning out rather much to be a double-edged sword.

The End

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