|The Contents of One of the Jars|
Zebe visits her twin sister, Xanthe, in Brisbane and discovers some more of the effects of the Moogerah Monster's dust. And finally, there's Xanthe's reason ....
Zebe sipped her drink in tandem with Xanthe while she thought. “And?” She made her mouthfuls smaller so she could hold out for the length of Xanthe’s drink.
“It got me thinking. I decided to bring some of the dust home so I could really look at it.” Xanthe sculled down her drink to subvert Zebe’s tactics.
Zebe grinned at her and their silent manoeuvring.
“At last, a smile.” Xanthe swung off the couch. “Come on, I’ll show you.” She slid back the concertina room divider, one half to the dining area, one half to the kitchenette.
Every horizontal surface was covered with glass laboratory jars. Zebe stared. “You must have just about emptied the shelves at SoHAB.”
“Not at all. A job lot at an auction. Cheap as.”
“Neil makes sure we’re rostered on for the same weekends. We autoclave them in the basement. You remember the equipment museum there?”
They stepped into the kitchen gangway. Jars containing similar coloured contents were grouped together.
“Culture medium?” Zebe said.
“A far more complicated story. These jars here,” Xanthe referred to a group of jars near the sink, “are with medium and dust. The first two rows started with a recipe we got off the internet. The back two rows with stuff we got from the lab. All these are the first lot we did. See what happened?”
Zebe stared into the jars. “Nothing? Like, just dust lying on top of the medium? I don’t even see the normal bacterial and/or fungal activity I’d expect from a smear of ordinary dust.”
“That’s right. Then there’s the third set in that batch, along the window sill.” Xanthe crowded Zebe towards the wide window sill.
What she used to call her hanging gardens, now contained twelve jars of luxuriant silvery-green growth on a finger thickness of agar culture medium. A different leaf-shape in each jar. Jars sealed with glass lids.
“I got that frustrated one day with nothing happening, I picked two-leaf twigs of all my herbs and stuck them into a jar each.”
Zebe rolled her eyes. “Our impulsive streak.”
“Yes. But by next morning most had grown to where I put the lowest marks.”
Silvery leaves of sage, thyme, oregano and the rest of Xanthe’s herb collection each filled its jar. All of them with five pen marks up the side of the jar. The agar jelly below was streaked with masses of roots. “You haven’t let them out, have you?” Zebe said urgently.
“You think I learned nothing all the time I spent at your precious facility? As you can see, Neil cut glass lids which we siliconed on.”
“We should do some to compare. Just agar and the herbs.”
This time Xanthe rolled her eyes. “See these? We started them the day after.”
These were twelve jars, each with a finger of the brown growth medium and a twig of one of the herbs, two leaves with the tops cut off. All of them with two or three new leaves. A couple of thin roots through the medium. Nothing like as luxurious as the herbs with the alien’s dust.
Zebe alternated staring at the two sets of jars. Her thoughts spun like a centrifuge.
She was silent too long for Xanthe. “There’s more.” With her hand on Zebe’s arm, she steered Zebe to the jars on the breakfast bar.
Three groups. Zebe concentrated on something ordinary. “Neil put this rim around the bench top?” Obviously to stop the jars falling off, there were so many in each division.
Xanthe nodded. “Told you already. All these,” she made a circle with her arms above the jars at the left end of the bench, “are flowers. The herbs and dust worked so well, we thought we’d experiment with anything organic. These are bits of all the plants out of a pair of his-and-her corsages we got for the SoHAB ball. Plus the dust, of course.”
“What about this lot in the middle?” The jar that really weirded Zebe out sported a clutch of tall, curved, spatula-shaped objects. With what looked like growth stripes in alternating white and silver.
Xanthe laughed embarrassedly. “The one you’re looking at is Neil’s nail clippings. Like a bunch of sky scrapers, aren’t they?”
“And I suppose this is your hair? Gold with a silver overlay, that could be a good look too.”
Xanthe didn’t notice Zebe’s coolness. “Then there’s this lot, Zebe.” Pent-up excitement exploded from her by way of a whooshing breath.
Zebe stared at the final group of jars. “You used all the beach-wrack we collected?”
Xanthe explained impatiently. “Just shavings, Zebe. I’ve still got the things. Look at this one, this was a loose scale from that leatherjacket fish skeleton we found.” Xanthe lifted the jar to Zebe’s eye height.
A sheet of translucent white hexagons each the size of a pinkie finger tip covered the interior glass of the jar. From each scale’s centre to every corner ran borders and struts of a denser silvered material, which should’ve been plain white calcium.
Xanthe put that jar back down into its slot and lifted another. “And guess what this is.”
The jar insides heaved with a dense, live, wriggling mat of thin sea urchin legs. Zebe refused to accept that her dry mouth was due to apprehension. She croaked, “How much of the shell did you put in?”
“A sliver, broken off with a pair of pliers. The spines are in this next one.” Xanthe put down the jar with legs and took up one with a forest of thick silvery-red sea urchin spines.
Zebe closed her eyes. Walking into the living room, she bumped against the couch and sat down heavily. “I’m stunned. Speechless.”
Xanthe replace the sea urchin spines and came to sit down next to Zebe. “You need time to think it through. We’ll save the Reef together.”
Zebe stared at the School of Human and Alien Biology souvenir bags until she saw them. “Aren’t your bosses suspicious, Xan? When you walk out with ten souvenir bags of dust? What do you tell them?”
Xanthe laughed. “Those bags are part of Neil’s collection that he keeps here. They’re coded to the collectable figurines SoHAB produces every three months. One of their primary fund raisers. Come and have a look how much Neil loves the Huddle. We might as well get changed while we’re up there since Neil will pick us up in half an hour for our dinner date.”