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The smell was the first thing that Noithil noticed, walking into the kitchen; their time crystal storage unit was clearly not functioning, and the unit had been full of food. Noithil had a sinking feeling that this was going to involve an unpalatable bill, as well as an unpalatable smell. Author's Notes
Meiffolv didn't follow him into the room, hanging fearfully back in the doorway. "It only started acting wrong last week," she said, glancing about as if time crystals were going to fall out of the sky without warning.
Noithil reassured her, "It's probably only a sticky valve in the storage unit. If they don't close properly, the crystals aren't close enough together to create the right field." He walked in slowly, his detection staff ahead of him; the last thing you wanted was to blunder into a unit so out of alignment that the field was was no longer contained in the cabinet.
The kitchen itself was sunny - there was a cheerful flowered shade over half of the window, and the storage unit blocked the other half. The room had not been designed to accommodate the bulky fixture, so it had been put in where it fit. It had decorative red crystals at the front to serve as warning - the actual crystals were embedded far enough into the mechanism to be out of view.
A child's drawing hung askew underneath the unit, and Noithil took a moment to try to puzzle out if it was a skycat or a show pig. "You have children?" he asked as he took out his tools. Packed in the hard wood case were long crystal tongs with textured tips. They could penetrate time bubble barriers without ill effect, and manipulate mis-aligned crystals. He opened the door of the unit with care, and there was a fresh waft of the rotten air to greet him. He relaxed - it was unlikely that the field was engaged anywhere, given this state of decay. He was grateful that the window was open, at least. Some of the awful air was drifting out.
"Three of them," Meiffolv said proudly. It was worth being proud of; it was challenging to get more than two child licenses in Faajaffug, so the couple must have been able to prove good reason. She gave their names, which Noithil promptly forgot, and babbled about how they were doing in first and second form.
He inspected the door mechanism next - it was still engaged with the sliding apparatus that spread the crystals apart to dissipate the field, and he could hear the parts moving freely.
"Can you see what's wrong?" Meiffolv asked, still from the doorway.
Noithil reminded himself that clients liked to be reassured, and chose to make a non-committal noise rather than indulge his immediate reaction to tell her that it was on the verge of exploding, just to make her jump. Next, he took the door off of its pins, disconnecting the swing arm that was a safety feature, designed to spread the crystals and dissipate the field when the door was opened.
Behind that was a face plate, to keep unskilled hands from getting too close to the dangerous crystals. That, too, came off with careful prying. The unit was made all from wood, with clever stone pins and tight-fitting joints. Some of the newer units were made with 'safe metal,' which was inert and didn't have the same awful interaction with time bubbles that iron and copper and tin did, but Noithil had been servicing time crystal appliances for 30 years, and didn't trust that new technology. You didn't mix metal and time crystals - that's just the way it was.
There was a blinkbird at the windowsill, inspecting his work with curiosity. "Chirp!" It perched at the open back of the unit and stared through at him.
Noithil narrowed his eyes at it, full of suspicion. "Do you often have this window open?" he asked.
"Yes," Meiffolv agreed. "It gets hot in this room in the summer." She had a scarf over part of her face, trying to avoid breathing too many of the foul fumes.
The bird vanished out of the window, but its mere presence made Noithil feel certain of what he would find behind the faceplate.
Sure enough, both of the crystals were gone, plucked out of their spaces.
"Blinkbirds!" He swore, then, forgetting about the mother behind him in the doorway until she gasped. "Sorry, citizen," he apologized.
He fished cautiously around at the bottom of the cabinet until he found one crystal.
Holding it carefully, tongs at armslength, he placed it into a special box at the end of his wooden tool holder. "I'll need to test this at the office," he said apologetically. He wrote down the numbers on the inside of the face plate of the storage unit. He already knew what he'd find - it would no longer match the numbers listed. "You'll need at least one new crystal. Probably two."
Fanning her face as much from the swearing as from the smell and heat, Meiffolv asked, "What happened?"
Noithil sighed. "Normally, citizen, these units are up against a wall - you aren't supposed to be able to get in though the back like this. You might have thieves, who saw an opportunity to come through and steal the crystals out of your unit. They must have dropped one on their way out." He wasn't willing to tell her the rest of his theory. Blinkbirds, they liked time crystals; it seemed like there was always one hanging about, whenever he was servicing something outdoors. And that pattern was always the same - two crystals gone from their posts, and one left behind of a completely different strength.
"Thieves?" Meiffolv gasped, and clutched at her scarf with white fingers. She looked around as if expecting them to crawl in the windows.
"It might take me a while to track down replacement crystals," Noithil apologized. "This size and speed is in high demand."
"What do I do with my kitchen, in the meantime?" Meiffolv asked plaintively. "How will I store food?"
Noithil almost laughed - he remembered when most kitchens didn't have storage units, when time crystals were rare. Now, it was the other way around. "You can rent space in your housing unit," he suggested - there was often a common place for storage. "Or get a box and fill it with ice for keeping things fresh." He made a few other suggestions as he packed his tools back up and put the storage unit back together. "It is safe to clean this cabinet now - the crystals have been removed. As soon as I can get another crystal set to match your unit, I'll be back to get this working again."
Meiffolv seemed unimpressed, but saw him to the outer door and signed his service bill.
There was a blinkbird sitting on the awning as he left. Noithil could swear it was laughing at him.
This story came about from the first Muse Fusion on February 9, 2010, from a request by Elizabeth Barrette to read something about time crystal appliances, and based on this picture from Valerie Higgins:
It was originally printed at Torn World on March 18, 2010 and reprinted in Ergofiction on May 25, 2010.