EeSuJhun carefully drove the device into the plant’s soil pod. The business end of the device was small and rectangular, no longer than her hand and no wider than her finger, and was colored the same metallic grey as her skin. A fine gridwork covered the tip of the device. She gripped the handle tightly and squeezed one of the buttons and waited.
She didn’t have to wait long. A series of small popping, squealing sounds erupted from the soil, followed by a few thin wisps of smoke. She let out a yelping laugh of triumph and pulled the wand out of the soil as carefully as she had inserted it, gratified at the scorch marks along the side. Hmmm, didn’t take the carbonization into account. It shouldn’t affect the quality, at least not yet. I can clean it – can I make it self-cleaning? Maybe a neutralizing pulse to shed the ash – I’m wasting good carbon here, carbon that these little beauties will love. She continued to work out minutiae of a self-cleaning function as she worked the soil with the wand methodically in a pattern that was sure to clear out all but the luckiest of grubs.
So engrossed in her work was she that she didn’t notice the sleek reptilian figure move up behind her. Nor did she note when it snapped its beaked jaws quietly a few times, trying to call for attention. She did notice the gentle pressure as it placed one of its long-fingered hands on her shoulder. Without looking away from her work, she asked, “Oya?”
“MiSanTu, Structural Engineer Third Class, I have found your missing ID.”
EeSuJhun frowned and scoffed as she continued to work. “Not me. EeSuJhun, Botanical Technician. Second Class, if you please. Don’t know MiSanTu. Sorry.”
There was a pause. Hopefully it’s gone. Can’t it see that I’m working here? She harrumphed dismissively as she carefully maneuvered the wand around the plant’s delicate root structure.
There was another clacking behind her, and then a shadow fell across her face. She looked up to see what was blocking her light, and saw the crested, beaked head of a Vislin, dressed in an unassuming harness. Vislin, client race of the Great Family. Good visual artists Cowards. That was about the limit of her knowledge of and interest in the Vislin. Zig didn’t really tend to care much about other species – they weren’t Zig, so they were mentally inferior and thus uninteresting.
Its crest is pretty, though, she mused, watching it refract the white station light in a cascade of muted, scintillating colors. Vislin crests – has anyone ever tried using one for lighting? I know their skin can do odd things with visible bands – must look it up when I’m back at my quarters. She went back to focusing on the soil pod, and tried shifting a bit for better lighting.
It wasn’t happening. The Vislin was squarely in the way of the illumination. Hmmm, might be useful to have a hat made of their crest material, or an analogue. Something that would let me see details if this happens again. Spotlight would be too bright, maybe refraction would be a better trick. EeSuJhun, annoyed, reflected again that it would have to wait until she was off duty – which could be a lot longer if this Dearthing lizard didn’t leave her alone.
“EeSuJhun, I am aware of you. I know that you are not MiSanTu. Nevertheless, I have his ID.”
“What, just because we’re both Zig, you think we know each other?” Scoff, grunt. “It’s not like we’re Tesetsi. Know how many Zig work on this station?”
“I am under no illusions that you know one another. As a matter of fact, I rather hoped that you didn’t.”
What the Dearth was this thing getting at? Scoff. “I’m busy.”
“I can see that.”
“Then why don’t you leave me alone?”
“Are you familiar with Ta-trisk bulbs?”
That got her attention. Ta-trisk bulbs were amazing! A Tesetsi creation, of course, they were plant bulbs with programmable genetics. You didn’t need a lab to make them grow into just about any sort of plant that you pleased. Just apply the right kind of light, soil composition, gravity and environment and the possibilities were almost limitless. Of course, they were expensive. So expensive that she knew that she’d probably never be able to afford one. She sat back on the ground, cross-legged, and looked up at her suddenly interesting intruder. “Yeah, I know Ta-trisk bulbs.”
The Vislin cocked its head to one side and focused its large, reddish-black eyes directly on hers. “I have three in stasis on my person. Are you interesting in receiving them?”
Snort. “Of course I am! I know I can’t afford one, and you’re trying to push someone else’s ID on me. So you want me to do something stupid with someone else’s ID. I get that. I’m Zig, remember?” She grasped both sides of her shaven head with her hands. “Smart. Probably smarter than you and your mother.”
The Vislin made no sign of taking offense, but their kind was not given to obvious displays of emotion. “I am pleased that you grasp the situation. All I ask is for you to go to a particular stateroom and perform a structural examination of the wall, using the ID and a device that I will provide for you.”
“Yeah, getting caught’s not worth it.” They took away anything that you could work on or with in the brig. That was the very definition of Dearth to a Zig. She snarled quietly with distaste.
“Is it worth three Ta-trisk bulbs? One such would be outside of the pay grade of a Botany Engineer of any Class, unless you happened upon an injured Thrathumm.” Seeing EeSuJhun’s look of confusion, it clarified: “An unexpected fortune, such as I am offering.”
Snort. “Find another patsy. Station monitors will catch me. Not worth it.”
The Vislin raised its beak slightly and stroked the side of its face. “I would have thought you had some computer skills. It wouldn’t take much to redirect the cameras. I didn’t imagine that a simple feat of engineering like that would be outside of your reach.”
Harrumph. “I’m Iron Caste, scaly, have been since I came of age. You obviously don’t know much about Zig, so let me enlighten you: Irons make things work. Not people, not ideas, things. Show me an Iron Caste that doesn’t know how to make a computer work and I’ll show you a hairless human slathered in metal paint. I could make a couple of hallway cams get dressed up and dance if I wanted. If I wanted. I want the bulbs, but I’m no idiot. I have no reason to trust you. I don’t know you from AaMaTah, and I don’t want to know you. So take your bulbs and your stolen ID and go find some Hrotata ass to kiss or whatever it is you do in your spare time. And get the Dearth out of my light, I’m BUSY!” Snort.
The Vislin held still through her tirade, and then leaned down towards her, its crested head and razor sharp beak filling her field of vision. “Very well, EeSuJhun. Farewell.” There was something deeply uncomfortable about the way that it stared at her for a long moment before it straightened up and moved out of her light. She heard it slink away, shuddered, and went back to her gardening. No wonder they’re still a slave race. Client race. Whatever. Idiots.
A few moments later she was distracted again from her reverie by hearing a hollow voice call out from behind her, “What’s this I hear about Ta-trisk bulbs?”
That’s it! I swear, whoever that is... She grunted in frustration and spun around. “I’M TRYING TO …” She trailed off as she saw the Vislin directly behind her, clutching what looked like a thin wire between its hands. The wire was wrapped tightly around its palms and gripped in its clawed fingers, and was positioned right above where her head had been just a second ago.
The voice had come not from the Vislin, but from a small, white, somewhat Zig-shaped figure. Its joints were grooved and obviously mechanical and its face had large, black, slanted eyes, a tiny suggestion of a nose, and a small mouth frozen in a perpetual enigmatic grin. The Ningyo was standing not far from the entrance to the nursery.
“work…” EeSuJhun trailed off. A tiny mewl of distress escaped her throat.
The tableau remained frozen for the span of a couple of very tense heartbeats, and in a swirl the Vislin dropped to all fours and skittered smoothly away, past the Ningyo and out the door, its skin changing color to match the floor below. EeSuJhun swallowed and rubbed her throat, her eyes flickering between the Ningyo and the door that her would-be assailant had just scrambled out of.
The Ningyo trotted forward to within a meter or so of her and gave a salute. Its voice was hollow and sounded pre-recorded, and there was a mocking quality to its tone. “I’m Tacky, and let me guess… you… you must be… welcome!”