The Bug Guy
It is beginning to drizzle as Rama leads Haru Ono across the zoo to the bug house. They move quickly along the paths, trying to stay beneath the cover of the eucalyptus trees as much as they can.
“Should have brought a flapjacking umbrella,” Rama grumbles.
Haru runs her hand through her short hair and slicks it back from her face. She doesn’t mind a little rain. It’s Rama’s fault for not wearing waterproof clothing. Haru always tries to plan ahead.
When they reach the bug house, Rama leads them around the back, and uses his ID-blip to let them in the staff entrance.
“Don’t drip on the floors,” the zoo AI demands as they step in.
“Stuff it,” Rama growls. He shakes the water from his arms and shuts the door behind them. “They just upgraded the AI,” he tells Haru. “It’s way more irritating than the last version.”
“I have to be bossy with you people,” the AI says. “You behave like a bunch of children otherwise.”
“Back off, mom,” Rama says to it. To Haru, he says, “Come on.”
“The mopbot was just in here, too,” the AI mutters as they walk away. “So inconsiderate.”
The smell of the bug house is just how Haru remembers it, like a package of slimy forgotten mushrooms at the back of a refrigerator, a mix of wet rot and sweaty plastic. Thoroughly unpleasant, sure, but in a strangely enticing way that Haru can’t put her finger on. She takes in a deep breath, savoring it.
Rama leads her down the corridor to a closed plasteel door with a plass window set in it. He taps twice on the plass to announce their arrival, and then pushes it open and steps inside. Haru follows him.
The room is a maze of clear plass boxes of varying sizes and heights, some connected to others by tubes, others standing separate with no more than an inch or two between them. All of the boxes, as far as Haru can see, contain insects of some kind or another: beetles, centipedes, roaches. Hundreds of bugs, maybe thousands, crawling over habitats that had been made for them inside their boxes: branches from trees, mounds of rocky sand, fabbed bones from unidentifiable synthetic animals (at least Haru assumes they are synthetic; she is in a zoo, after all, so anything is possible).
In the center of the room, barely visible through all the plass and insects, a man sits at a small desk, tapping furiously away at a vPad, muttering something to himself that Haru can’t make out. While the words aren’t clear, his irritated tone is.
“Ray,” Rama begins.
The other man raises a hand without looking up from his vPad. “Not now. I’m trying to fix this mess of a report that Francis left about the velvet ants. His work has always been shoddy, but this one is an award winning stack of flapjack. Someone should take an iron pipe to him and toss the body in for the lion to take care of.”
“Ray, don’t plan a murder when we have a guest in the room.”
Ray glances up from the report and peers at Haru. “It’s not a murder,” he explains. “It’s a downsizing.”
“Not my lion, not my zoo,” Haru says.
“Need your expertise, Ray,” Rama says. “Got a bug problem.”
“Get in line. After I fix the velvet ant report, I have to scrub the scorpion tank. Then since Francis can’t be flapjacked to take care of even the basic things around here, I have to feed the pinkie mice to the tarantulas. Been doing this job for twenty years. I shouldn’t be feeding flapjacking pinkie mice to the flapjacking tarantulas.”
“This might be a Sterling job, Ray,” Rama says.
Ray powers off his vPad. “Sterling, huh? You should start off with that next time.” He lifts his hand and gestures for them to come closer. “Talk.”
Haru takes out her vPhone and unlocks it, opens the photo of Omar’s bees, and holds it up for the bug man to see. Ray reaches out to take the vPhone, and Haru pulls it back away from him.
“Don’t touch the lady’s phone, Ray,” Rama says.
Ray groans and rolls his eyes. “Paranoia, in this day and age. Fine, just blow it up, Sterling’s Friend. I’ll just sit here and waste my time and keep my hands to myself. It’s not like I’m busy or anything.”
Haru taps the vPhone’s screen, and a moment later the image of the bees is floating a few inches above the bug man’s desk.
Ray looks at it a for a few seconds. “Yes, I see why you needed an expert in this situation,” he says. “That is a picture of some beez.”
“I was told they aren’t beez,” Haru says. “They’re bees.”
Turning to Rama, Ray asks, “Is this lady for real?” To Haru, he says, “Bees are extinct, in case you’ve been living off-Verp for the past fifty years. Obviously these are beez.” He reaches up with one hand for the floating image, then stops short and asks, “May I mani your photo at least?”
Haru nods. “Sure.”
Ray puts his hand in the manipulation space below the photo and gestures, giving the photo a bit of a spin. He groans again. “You could have at least taken a full-D. It would help to have an entire creature to look at instead of only two-thirds. Even better, if you would have brought the actual beez.”
“Picture was the best I could do,” Haru says. “Omar wouldn’t come with me, wouldn’t let me bring the bees.”
Ray snorts. “Omar? I thought you said this was a Sterling job. If I knew it was for Omar, I wouldn’t have bothered. Feed him to the lion as well, I say.”
“I said it might be a Sterling job,” Rama says. “Depending on what you have to say.”
“What I have to say is that these,” Ray points at the photo, “are obviously beez, and you are wasting my time.”
Haru leans forward and puts her hands on the table. “You’re the bug guy, right? Just take a really good look, okay? With your expert eyes. If you say these things are garbage, I’ll take you at your word and head out. If you say there’s something worth looking into, then we’ll go from there.”
Ray sighs loudly. “Fine. An expert opinion, and then I go and clean the scorpion tank.”
“Knew you were the guy, Ray,” Rama says.
“I am the guy,” Ray says. “Never doubt it.”
“Thank you,” Haru says. She takes a step back from the table, giving the bug man room to work.
Ray reaches both hands up and manis the image, zooming in certain areas, pulling back in others. “Stinger, obviously. First place to look. Can’t see a manufacture’s tee-em, but it’s probably on the other side where you didn’t get a picture.” The photo zooms again, tighter on the insect’s head. “Mandibles. Nothing interesting there. No tee-ems, but same problem as before.” The image slides, and one of the eyes moves into view. “More nothing. Nothing, nothing, nothing,” the bug man grumbles. Then, without warning, he pushes his chair back and stands, leaning over the table, pushing in close to the photo. “Hey, hold up.”
Rama comes up behind Ray. “What is it?”
Ray points a finger. “The eyes,” he says. “Look at the eyes.”
“What about the eyes?” Haru asks.
“Lay it on us, bug man,” Rama says.
“Bees have compound eyes,” Ray explains. “Apposition eyes, specifically. It’s like hundreds of little lenses peppered all over the surface of eye, see? Makes it look like a windscreen on a microphone, okay? Kind of like a piece of fabric.” He points at the photo again. “These guys have smooth eyes. Smooth like plass.”
“So they’re not bees then,” Haru says. “They’re synthetic.”
Ray puts his hand down on the table again, and continues peering at the picture. “See, that’s what I would want to say. But where are the tee-ems? Everything synthetic has a trademark on it somewhere. And there’s always something that doesn’t line up right on a thing like this. A seam. A leg that doesn’t quite fit in the socket all the way. Tiny flapjack, but it’s always there.” He reaches up and tries to embiggen the photo even more, but the maximum resolution has already been hit.
“So it’s not synthetic?” Rama asks.
“I don’t know what it is,” the bug man says. Turning to Haru, he adds, “I have to see the real ones. I can’t tell anything else from this picture.”
“I’ll have to ask Omar,” Haru says. “He’ll need to bring them to you. He won’t let them out of his sight.”
“I’ll go to him if I have to,” Ray says. “These things are remarkable. I have to see them up close.”
Haru sighs, then reaches for her phone. She closes the photo, and the bug man emits an audible squeak as the image vanishes.
“Well?” Rama asks her.
“Flapjack it,” she says, and gives a shrug. “Is there an isolation bubble around here I can make a phone call in?”