Zircrii peered down into a room filled with aliens.
A mixture of skins and scales flowed together in an industrious mass among the tables. Sentients walked or rushed about. They sat at desks and waited in lines. It was a varied crowd, but not as varied as it could be. Only about seven or eight species, all told; and all of the types best suited for data-entry and clerical tasks.
The occupants most immediately noticeable were the massive Tehrists, who sat comfortably within the enormous office that was built to complement their statures. This was their space, after all. Members of smaller species were forced to stetch uncomfortably or use lifts to reach the tops of the tables, or to access the screens set high into the wall. The Tehrists didn’t particularly notice or care about the struggles of their assistants. Lost in their own work, they peered at the intricate layers of data projected from their sleek desks.
They were busy, Zircrii noted with interest. The room was quiet, and that was highly unusual. Normally there was a great deal of idle chatter, and the workers would only prod at their charts occasionally. Here was a hive of focused industry, all individual elements invested solely in their tasks. There was something going on, for certain. Something gathering the attention of even the lower-tiered clerks.
Zircrii had no worries about being discovered. Even if the office workers below hadn’t been completely absorbed in their own labors, she knew she would not be seen. It was a continual source of amusement to her that no one ever looked up. Had anyone, by chance, paused to glance up at the tangle of pipes criss-crossing the ceiling, she’d be in full view. The Ixiloki who almost certainly wasn’t supposed to be idly watching the activities of a mixed-species distributions office. She supposed that all present were ground-dwelling sentients, with their feet planted firmly on the floor. They never had much occasion to look up.
Zircrii unhooked her tail from a support rod and clambered easily up the side of a large ventilation pipe. Without anyone noting her exit she left the office through a grid in the ceiling.
The paths between the walls were familiar to her. They had been her domain for much of her life. On this massive Tehrist vessel, where stretched miles upon miles of pipes and wires, she knew every nook and cranny. Gathering up her tool kit and tying it to her belt, Zircrii darted up the side of the shaft on six limbs until she found the narrow entry point she’d been searching for. Climbing inside, she crawled down the long tunnel with a startling speed. It did not take her long to find the area where she’d left off, abandoning her regular inspection. Promptly, she returned to work. Following the lines, making repairs. The usual routine. She had some freedom inside the walls, but if the overseer noticed work being neglected it would go badly for her.
Citizens of the Dynasty had learned long ago that Ixiloku made for ideal maintenance workers. Small, nimble, and able to climb anything, it became standard practice to give them the jobs where one needed to get into unreachable spaces. Ixiloku were spiny, armored invertebrates resembling a cross between insect and lizard. Slender in build, they had six limbs—with the option of walking on two or crawling on six. On their heads they had waving antennae and multiple eyes: one very large eye at the center of their faces surrounded by several smaller ones that reached back to the sides of their heads. They originated from a planet of sheer cliffs and thick jungle, where level ground was rare and predators common.
Zircrii had few memories of her home planet. She would dream of tunnels winding deep into rock and the vague forms of family members within. There were bright images of plant life, especially the massive, twisting branches of the Zibikkor, which were every creature’s roads across the wide canyons. The images were fading with time, seeming more dream now than memory. What stuck with her most were the smells: sweet and spicy vegetation, intoxicatingly fresh meats; even the bare rock of the cliffs had a particular scent. Now, the only smells in her world were tangy metals, stale air and the musk of alien bodies.
A mindless hour passed as Zircrii continued on with the inspection. There was nothing to fix, but everything had to be monitored anyway. She followed the narrow tunnels situated under the floors and above the ceilings, checking off routes on a mental map as she went. Every now and then she could hear voices emanating from the walls; at times sharp and clear, and at other times too muffled to make out the words. Sometimes she stopped to listen if there was something interesting being discussed, but today she didn’t feel like bothering.
A sudden tone sounding from the communicator on her belt almost made her jump. Well. Finally they’d found something for her to do. The tone was a summons for her to report to the maintenance office. Swiftly she exited the tunnel and found the familiar route to what was, for all intents and purposes, her home base.
Nolsh was waiting for her, as expected, as she dropped down through the ceiling vent.
“That’s not a door, you invertebrate,” he mumbled in his bored voice, as he had hundreds of times previously. Zircrii didn’t bother to answer but simply waited on the details.
Nolsh tapped at a screen, regarding the blinking data with large, watery eyes. His kind—the Vrishig—were bony, feathered beings with long snouts and enormous eyes. A common and populous species, there were a great deal of them on this vessel as well as throughout the Empire.
“Power malfunction in Storage Quarter 6, Sector 37, cells 156 through 400.” Nolsh droned. “Get up there and fix whatever’s going on with the wires.” He closed the screen; a wordless dismissal.
Zircrii bit down a hiss of annoyance. Those same storage cells again. She’d replaced the wires multiple times now. Unless the core cooling unit itself were replaced, the wires would just keep breaking. The whole thing was stupidly dangerous without a functional core unit.
“Supervisor,” she addressed him, “there is a problem with the core unit.” She spoke in her native language, but the translator soldered to her neck plates immediately repeated her words in Dynastic common. The scratchy, robotic voice that followed her everywhere.
Nolsh gave her an annoyed look, but she continued on: “I have fixed those wires too often for it to be a coincidence.” Or that was what she tried to say, but the translator didn’t recognize the word “coincidence” and instead replaced it with “meat-chair”. What? “Coincidence.” Zircrii enunciated. “Meat-chair”, the translator insisted. Dratted thing. Even speaking as carefully as she could, the contraption consistently failed her. She wished, as she did every day, that she could just speak Dynastic common herself and not be reliant on a device that continuously made her sound like a complete moron.
She’d tried. Oh, she’d tried teaching herself to speak Dynastic common. Trying to force the clicking, trilling sounds that came from her mouthparts into a semblance of Tehrist language. The hours of struggle had been futile, so she had to be content with altering and updating the piece of junk on her neck herself.
Nolsh was giving her a weird look, so Zircrii tried again, using simple words to prevent the translator from malfunctioning. “The core unit is broken.” She said slowly. “New wires will not fix the storage cells.”
The Vrishig glared at her, then, and slapped the data screen hard into its wall-niche. “You disgusting lower life-form will crawl over to Storage Quarter 6 now, or I’ll inform the overseer of your insubordination.” His threat included some truly vile Vrishigon oaths, and Zircrii clambered back into the vent before she was treated to any more.
She didn’t think Nolsh would actually contact the overseer, but one never knew. Nolsh was an idiot who tended to act on impulse. The Ixiloki shuddered, remembering the crackle of the electric prods. The last time she’d been subjected to them was when she failed to fix a waste pipe in a manner that was “timely” enough.
Feeling miserable and worried, she made her way over to the storage sectors.