Wednesday, November 28, 2012


A Tale of Bugs
By Joel Zartman

Something was wrong with Christine’s plant.

“Maybe you overwatered it,” Joe suggested.

“No . . . I mean—I always water it but there’s no water in the bottom, see?”

Joe peered at the clear plastic dish in which the plant sat; it was absolutely dry.

“Sometimes the soil still retains the moisture,” he said. But it was evident he no longer believed his own theory, and he departed in search of some popcorn.

After he left, Christine cut a piece from the plant and put it on the desk. She had noticed several black spots on it and when she put the plant on the desk, the spots began to scurry away.

“Bugs!” she said, bending down to peer at them. She got her glasses and looked at the evidence moving away over the desk, then peered at the plant. The plant was infested.

Joe saw her throwing out all the cuttings from the plant. “What was it?”

“It was full of bugs.”

“Where did all the bugs come from?” Joe asked.

“Maybe from Chad. The plant was fine until I got some soil from Chad,” she said.

But Chad’s plants were fine, thriving even.

“Maybe they’re carriers,” Joe said. (He was something of a plant-conspiracy theorist, unfortunately.) Christine eyed him and then went back to her desk.

“Watch out for the bugs,” Joe said to Kevin. Kevin was returning from another cigarette break.

“What bugs?”

“Christine has bugs in her plant.”


“They could be crawling over. Nobody knows where they came from.” This last was another manifestation of the profoundly conspiracy theory-warped soul of Joe, and he was pleased to see it appeared to have an effect on Kevin. “Yes,” Joe said, darkly, “kind of unsettling, isn’t it?”

Kevin went over to see about the plant.

“You had bugs in your plant?”

“Yeah. Hopefully they’re all in the trash now.”

“You threw them in the trash?”

“Yeah. What’s wrong with that?”

“Whul . . .”

Christine eyed Kevin. He was not, it must be said, behaving in ways that anybody, even somebody who knew him, might find usual. He was sort of hopping from one foot to the other, but very gradually, looking uneasy.

“Whul . . .” he repeated, “can I have your trash? I can just switch it with mine.”

“Yeah,” Christine said, swiveling around again. “I don’t want it.”

It was not the habit of Christine to switch her trash with other persons in this easy manner, as if persons were continually clamoring for the privilege. But this was Kevin—and she had her methods.

When after a few minutes she activated the elaborate spying apparatus that she had put in place in order to cope with Kevin, she saw he was hunched over the trash can doing something. After a while it became evident to Christine that Kevin was trying to put the bugs into a glass jar.

Christine sat back and pondered: Why was Kevin trying to salvage the bugs? Was it some lame practical joke of his to put them in other people’s plants? Perhaps he had expected another reaction; maybe her action had been so decisive it had ruined the effect of the joke and he was going to try again. No, she thought, there was more to it than that.

Just then Joe came around, and Christine had to hide the spying equipment surreptitiously, which she barely accomplished.

Joe leaned in, conspiratorially, and whispered, “He’s salvaging the bugs.”

Christine affected surprise. “He’s what?”

“Kevin is salvaging the bugs. He’s taking them out of the trash and putting them in a glass jar.”

“What for?”

“Nothing good,” Joe said grimly.

“What can he use the bugs for, though?” Christine insisted.

“Bring ROD to its knees at last,” Joe said after a pause. (ROD: Radiotron Ontological Devices, their employers.)

Christine rolled her eyes and swiveled back toward her computer.

A few hours later Joe surprised Kevin in one of the conference rooms. Joe thought he had a meeting but there was, of course, no actual meeting. It happened to Joe a lot. Anyway, Kevin was in the far side of the room, singing softly and holding the glass jar.

Joe stared at Kevin who hadn’t noticed and had gone on crooning, bent over the jar. Joe hesitated, then he stepped back and closed the door softly. He looked all around: of course, there were surveillance cameras everywhere, but that’s why Joe had bought a mail order Detect-O-Blast, a device which completely obliterated the presence of the wearer from any means of electronic surveillance for only $99.99, batteries not included. Ever since he had gotten it, Joe had become very uneasy about non-electronic means of surveillance.

But he ought to be safe at this point. So he went back to his desk to think.

Fraud Owl—the seemingly innocuous plastic mascot of the fraud department, however, was watching. And Fraud Owl relayed the information to his Masters, who in turn alerted Kevin.

“Whul,” Kevin said, looking up from the jar, “do I have to kill him now?”

Joe had always been uneasy about Fraud Owl, perched as it was in a privileged place and glaring out over the fraud room. The eyes seemed to bore into him regardless of the direction in which they pointed. Joe’s Detect-O-Blast had a button which could be pressed to send a self-destruct signal to any device of electronic surveillance. It was a patented invention which did not require that the electronic device be equipped with any built in self-destructor; it simply sent the signal which operated in the complicated circuitry of the device to make it realize that spying on other people was something only low down scum-suckers did, and after that the device sent back increasingly ambiguous data and eventually had to be replaced. Joe often wondered where these devices went when they were discarded.

In the fraud room though, Joe had to be careful where he aimed the device; they had already lost two valuable employees . . . though there was no danger that it would affect regular employees since their brains were not, actually, more complicated than the circuitry in surveillance apparatuses.

Kevin’s Masters were all in the jar, moving in the movements with which a hive mentality achieves its thinking. Finally a decision was reached and Kevin was informed of his course of action, to which he of course mindlessly agreed.

When Kevin got back to his desk and surreptitiously activated the surveillance apparatus with which he observed Joe, he saw that Joe was dismantling something on his desk. He turned up the audio to hear Joe’s muttering.

“Ah,” Joe was muttering between clenched teeth, as usual, “here it is: ‘Made . . . in Alpha Centauri’?”

Kevin saw as Joe looked up from his work, no surprise on his features, but a look of complete understanding mingled with grim satisfaction.

“Aliens,” Joe muttered, his teeth clenched and his eyes narrowed. “I should have known it.” He ran a hand through his hair and muttered, “I wonder how long they’ve been watching me and if they also work for the US government?”

Kevin had managed to see what it was Joe was working on. The Fraud Owl! A preprogrammed response hardwired—with no little difficulty—into Kevin’s brain fired.

All this time Christine, who had noticed that Kevin was back, had been using her surveillance mechanisms to spy on Kevin. As she watched, she saw a look of complete evil cross his face. She was not sure what was happening, but whatever Kevin was about to do had to be stopped: it could not be good. All her instincts cried against it. She reached for the pot in which the plant had been and in one swift movement dumped the whole thing on Kevin’s head, and jammed the pot down.

But it was the soil in which his Masters were nourished, and from it Kevin drew strength like he daily did from a grilled chicken burrito with two packages of mild sauce. Realizing she had made a mistake, Christine sat back down at her computer and began to type frantically, with deadly accuracy. Soon she was into the special management section of the bowels of the ROD intranet, then she had hacked her way up to a Vice-presidential level of access, and then she was into HR and had pulled up Kevin’s records. It wanted a password . . .

“Help!” Joe cried.

H-E-L-P, she typed . . . and the thing was hacked.

Other sounds of distress came from Joe’s cubicle. Christine had no time to loose, not even to put on her glasses! She peered at the screen and found the boxes. She unchecked Full Time and checked Temp and then hit Enter.

Not a moment too soon! Kevin had swelled to unimaginable proportions and was about to break Joe in half over the wall of his own cubicle, but then his status changed and the power drained out of him like a punctured basketball. His Masters, of course, would not work with a temp.

Joe was saved . . . and, strangely, so was Fraud Owl. Soon it was found on its old perch, and nobody thought anything about it.

Joe, of course, insisted on having his cubicle moved even though for all practical purposes, Kevin was the safest guy in the department. Kevin was a bit unhappy about being a temp again—which was how he had started—but he knew it was for his own protection and it was far better than being in the power of evil, alien plant-bugs; though at times, he had to admit, he missed it.

“But why,” Kevin asked some time later, “were the bugs in Christine’s plant?”

“Maybe they knew it was good soil?” Christine offered.

“How much did you pay for it?” Joe asked.

“Like, two bucks.”

“Wow,” Kevin said: he was always looking for deals in potting soil. “Where’d it come from?”

“I’m not sure where it actually came from,” Christine said. “It was a weird place I found it at. I was going there to recycle some surveillance equipment that had suddenly quit working and I found they also sold potting soil.”

The Joe of some hours ago would have detected the link to the aliens: recycled surveillance equipment + random potting soil = MAJOR CONSPIRACY. As it was, Joe was unfazed. Already, unbeknownst to him he was as much in the power of the aliens as Chad was, as most of the department was, even as Christine was, as everybody except in fact for Kevin was . . .

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Joel Zartman lives and works in Columbus, OH.


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