Billy knew he’d made a mistake the moment he saved the priceless artifact from falling and scattering into a million worthless pieces on the mirror polished marble floors of the exhibit.
Really, he realized he’d made the mistake by taking this job in the first place, but it seemed like such an easy deal, especially for someone with his record. The boss hadn’t seemed to care about that, which was just totally amazing. There were so many people on Hollis that wouldn’t look past it that he knew he was lucky to get a gig. Billy knew he was supposed to use the title “Curator” but he just preferred “boss”.
And it was an easy job. He should feel lucky to have it. Hell, he was lucky. A robot should have been able to pull this off, but for some reason they’d hired a schmo like him.
His night usually started by showing up an hour before the exhibit closed and hanging around in back listening to the various staff talk about the day, which involved a lot of complaining about customers. He was there to receive any special orders, so he could be prepared. Like that one time they had him cleaning up after a whatsit from wherever had done something almost indescribable to the floor in the east wing. He still wasn’t sure what it was, but wasn’t curious enough to try and look it up.
Curiosity had never served him well. Not since that time on Jebbit.
Nope. No more. William Rybal Corrigan would never again poke his nose in to places it didn’t belong. He’d learned that lesson already and he had the scars to show it.
So, he showed up, took his directions, then busied himself cleaning up everything in the building. As soon as the doors closed to the public and the nice girl at the desk had gone home, Billy was out with his broom and mop and trusty spray bottle battling the forces of entropy personified by the detritus of some of the strangest people from all across the cosmos, and some he was sure were from beyond. Where did they find the thing–or was that really a person?–that left the occasional slime trail? Sometimes Billy did not envy Cici her job. He could hardly imagine what she must deal with on a daily basis, and all he dealt with is what they left over.
He would begin near the employee lounge in back and work his way through the various rooms, carefully cleaning, occasionally strategizing how to tackle a particular problem, and meticulously caring for every mess he could find or had been warned about. He went through every exhibit, every spot beings could sit, pick noses (or other orifices) and leave boogers (or other… things) behind. He polished every piece of glass that hand, grippers, and even, he guessed, tentacles could touch. He deodorized and sanitized. He spiffied and jiffied. He couldn’t think of any other way to describe his cleaning, but he did it all.
Despite this effort to not notice, he couldn’t avoid the simple truth evident to even one of the Yslar color sniffers. The exhibit was amazing.
Some of the strangest things could be found here, stuff he’d never even imagined could exist. He had no clue how the spinning transmuting chandelier thing both stayed aloft and changed materials, but it did.
Or the singing amorphous goo in the bowl. He couldn’t pronounce the name on the placard, no matter how many times he tried, but the way it responded to the simplest moods unnerved him, so he tried to stay away from it as much as possible.
But trouble finally landed in his lap one night. He’d started following and spot cleaning a strange occasional splotch that seemed to have the gait of a giant, if it were humanoid–as he’d never seen what left the mark it was difficult to be sure–all the way to the back corner of the red room.
Whatever it was had migrated up the wall, over some of the lower glass barriers, and was literally on the pedestal of the Bronze Orb of Whatchamacalit, probably left from the Empire of Whosajiggit. Whatever. Billy had a spot to clean.
And then he slipped.
And knocked it over.
As the orb began to fall his reflexes took over, and the willfully stupid part of him cried as it died. Carefully constructed walls that held out the crushing weight of the Thousand Worlds collapsed, and Billy noticed the orb in all its detail.
Time, or his perception of it, slowed to a crawl. The Orb of Kevisthallan Emerius. It looked to be made of bronze, but the subtle coloring, and the complete lack of any tarnish, suggested otherwise. The intricate details in just the outer layer, itself a latticework of fine sculpting, told stories of empire on dozens of worlds, and he knew, as he noticed, that this tableau changed every so often, beyond all laws of physics that most understood.
The second and third layers of latticework hid further details. If the third could be believed they finally had an answer to the disappearance of the Zinvalli on Terminus VII. No scholar in the thousand worlds would believe that answer, however.
Billy reacted without thinking, or rather, without considering. The part behind the walls, if it had not been contained by his intentionally dullard self, would have kicked his bucket in the way. The orb would not be hurt by soapy, dirty water. Or that self would have perhaps caught the orb on a seat cushion. Or would have let it shatter.
But no. He caught it with his bare hands, and every perception possible to him since the encounter on Jebbit exploded at once into his brain.
*Hello* it said into his mind. *It has been so long since anyone has listened. Are you listening, William?*
The orb wasn’t the only conversant. The singing goo piped up *Willaim? Who is William?* The Concordat Tome of Terillius wondered what a ‘Wiliam’ was. The gold and silver hive of bees on a stand in the far corner of the room shivered to life and started recitation of his family lineage. All the voices crowded into his perception at once.
Billy tried to reconstruct the wall. He envisioned himself grabbing tumbled bricks and slathering mortar across all the broken joins, assembling a defense at breakneck speed. It would be imperfect, prone to breaking, but even a half-assed wall would be better than nothing…