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Ever since the Hydra Wars ended, the galaxy has become a quieter place. There’s not a lot for an old space jock like me to do. So when I got the chance to make a few extra credits hauling something out to the mining camp on XL1, it didn’t take a lot of convincing.
"Drilling machine parts" was stenciled on the side in large black letters. I doubted anyone would pay me to haul what any commercial carrier could have done for a lot less. It made me seriously doubt that there were drilling parts in that box. I only caught a glimpse of the crate before it was dropped into the cargo bay, but, from the size and weight of the thing, I had a good idea what was in it.
You learn not to ask too many questions in my line of work. It made little difference to me whether it was drilling parts or drugs. I wasn’t being paid to care. A wooden crate is a rare sight out here where a tree is a distant memory. There was only one reason to use wood, it was the only substance a smog couldn’t eat.
A smog is a life-form so unlike our own that it took a hundred years of space exploration before anyone realized they were alive at all. Smogs look like big rocks. They eat rocks and for all intents and purposes they are rocks except, of course, they aren’t. They’re alive and they’re pretty damn rare. I spent some time reading up on them. Not that there’s all that much to read. It’s estimated that less than two percent of the asteroids between Scarab IV and Draco may contain smog. That numbers ranges from a couple of hundred at the high end to less than twenty at the low making them the rarest, least understood creatures in the galaxy. Naturally it’s illegal to remove them, molest them, traffic in them or have anything at all to do with them. Get caught with one in your possession and the authorities will put you away for good. So naturally they’re a pretty expensive commodity. The reason they’re in demand is that miners find them a cheap alternative to mechanical drilling. Smogs digest silica and excrete metals, a miner’s dream. Three or four smogs working a claim can make a miner rich.
XL1 is a god forsaken rock out in the fringe lands. One of dozens of rough and tumble mining camps that operate in the borderlands near Hydra space. Until recently I wouldn’t have gone there for any amount of credits. The end of the conflict made the trip possible. The miners were anxious to exploit the new fields. The market for metals was booming, so was the black market in smogs. This wasn’t my first smuggling run. I know, I know they’re an endangered species and all that. But a man has to eat, times are hard and if I didn’t do it, they’d just get someone else. Alright, I’m rationalizing. It’s a hard world. I didn’t make it the way it is, I’m just trying to survive in it.
It’s a three week trip from here to XL1. I was hoping to spend the time reading novels and practicing my inter-galactic patois. In space, boring is what you want. There are so many ways to die that any excitement at all will most likely get you killed. I was eight days out when a crashing noise snapped me awake. At first I’d thought we’d collided with something but the sensors showed everything secure. Then another bang shook the ship.
I hate emergencies. I especially hate mysterious crashing sounds in the middle of the night. When a third bang sounded, I located it in the cargo hold. I approached cautiously. The sensors read normal. I put on the light and peered inside. The wooden crate had definitely shifted.
Something weird was happening. The tie down straps had parted and the crate had worked itself loose. The crate was smashing itself against the wall of the ship making loud, regular bangs. It was as if the smog was trying to get out. WAM! The box slammed itself into one wall; then BAM! it slammed itself into another. The crate was disintegrating rapidly. It already had several large holes. Pieces of wood littered the floor. One or two more bangs and the smog would be free. Wood was one thing a smog couldn’t eat. I wasn’t so sure that was true for my ship.
One piece of common knowledge was that smogs can’t move, at least they’ve never been seen to move. They simply inhabit a tunnel they have dissolved in an asteroid. They are sedentary creatures as far as anyone knows. More like coral than anything else. They certainly don’t suddenly grow legs and smash into walls. Like everything else about them, however, their life cycle is a total mystery. Maybe what I had wasn’t a smog, maybe it was something else. That was a scary thought.
The crate gave one final slide and smashed into the wall for the last time. An instant later, the smog, or whatever it was, was free. It stood on four stubby legs like a tortoise, looking for all the world like a boulder pretending to be a footstool. Legs were something new. Nothing I had read mentioned anyone ever seeing appendages of any sort on a smog. The thing stood there bobbing slightly. I couldn’t tell whether it was aware of me or not. Hell, I couldn’t even tell if it was facing me. I prayed to all the gods who might be listening that the thing wouldn’t wreck my ship.
I backed out of the cargo bay slowly and closed the door. I needed to think. I returned the hold to vacuum but left the light on so I could observe. The smog remained where it was slowly bobbing up and down looking for all the world like a ambulatory boulder. Having freed itself from the crate, it once again appeared docile and calm. I watched it through the cargo bay’s window for a while. Nothing was happening so I went back to my cabin and searched the ship’s library for more information on smogs. This time I pursued the more obscure stuff from the scientific journals. No mention of legs or violent motion. Lots of stuff about metabolism and chemical composition. Very technical. Way over my head. There was very little on smog behavior since they were never seen to actually do anything. So what the hell was going on with my passenger?
There were no more emergencies and things settled down into the kind of dull routine I prefer. I checked on the smog several times a day for the next few days. It appeared to be subtly changing shape. A peak was forming on its lumpy back. It looked like it was growing a small volcano. The mountain grew larger and paler by the day. I hoped it would hold off erupting until we arrived at our destination. There was nothing in the literature about smog volcanoes, maybe mine was a mutant of some kind.
I was still several days away from XL1 when a ship materialized along side mine. It was a Hydra warship. A few months ago they’d have fried me on sight but now, thanks to the treaty, we were no longer at war. XL1 is closer to their territory than is comfortable. The miners must have worked out some kind of deal with the Hydra to be able to work there. The Hydra signaled they wanted to come aboard. I was in no position to refuse. A Hydra boarding party entered and went over every inch of my ship. We conversed in halting inter-galactic and shared a cup of tea.
The boarding party reported the smog to their captain in rapid fire Hydra with much excitement and tentacle waving. The captain turned to me and said in halting galactic, “Lucky human. Your bzt’slort is in multiplication. Very rare. One time in million years.” At least that is what I thought he said. The Hydra mouth has a hard time forming inter-galactic and my knowledge of Hydra is limited to a few obscene phrases. The Hydra handed back my papers and departed. I was left puzzling what they meant. Their knowledge of the smog appears deeper than ours. I would have liked to question them further. They seemed in a hurry to leave.
Perhaps the Hydra detected the presence of the Federation ship that appeared along side mine a few hours later. This was my greatest fear and probably the worst thing that could happen. Being caught red handed transporting a smog could not possibly be good for my future. The presence of a smog aboard my ship would certainly cost me dear. I slumped in my seat, buried my head in my arms, and awaited the inevitable arrest and confiscation of all I owned. Instead, the young captain asked me to accompany him to the cargo bay.
“What is that?” he asked pointing to the smog. I sensed a miracle in the making. He didn’t recognize the smog. In all fairness, how could you blame him? By now the smog was looking most un-smog like. It had assumed a pyramidal shape. A snow capped mountain supported by four stubby legs. The top half of the volcano was a snowy white. It reminded me of a cheap rendering of Mt. Fuji I’d once seen in a museum.
Thinking quickly I replied, “It’s a Bleem. Frazzle there is my pet. A product of genetic engineering. Good boy, Frazzle, good boy.” I got down on my knees. There was no reaction from the smog. “He’s shy.” I improvised.
“What’s all the wood for?” the captain asked, looking at the pieces of crate scattered around.
“That’s what they eat. Damn expensive too I can tell you.”
“Never heard of a Bleem,” he said following me back to the bridge. “Live and learn.”
A couple hours after the Federation ship left, the smog began erupting. Spitting out small rocks with such force they put dents in the metal ceiling. Each rock was a few inches across and looked like a lump of granite. For two days and nights the eruption went on. Each one sounded like a gunshot. It was impossible to sleep. I jumped at every bang. When it was over, the floor was littered with hundreds of rocks. It looked like a load of gravel had been dumped there. Now I understood what the Hydra captain was trying to say. My smog was multiplying. Or in other words, giving birth. All that gravel was baby smog. What did he say, once in a million years? No wonder our scientists have never seen it. I might be the only human to ever witness the event. Science has only known about the smog for what, twenty years? An eye blink in a smog’s life.
I scooped up the baby smog with a shovel and put them in a wooden container I knocked together from pieces of the original crate. Judging by the violence with which the mother ejected her young, it didn’t look like parental care was involved in the raising of the offspring. In space, the babies would be scattered to float through space until they encountered an asteroid upon which to feed. Given the vastness of space, such an encounter had pretty long odds. The smog was lucky if one in a thousand smoglets found food and managed to grow to maturity. And here I was in possession of several hundred potential smogs. I could hardly contain my excitement. Was this a fantastic business opportunity or something else? I wasn’t sure. I’d have to think about it.
I was in possession of a thousand potential smog. Considering the price for a single healthy specimen, I could theoretically be wealthy beyond my wildest dreams. Then again what I had wasn’t exactly anything a miner could use. If a smog lived for a million years, it would be quite a while before these little fellows were ready for market. Nothing that was going to improve my financial situation during my lifetime. I couldn’t see how my sudden acquisition of smog seeds was going to translate into money. Maybe I ought to just dump the damn box overboard.
Then I got to thinking about how rare they were. Thanks to smugglers like me there probably wouldn’t be any of them left in the wild in another thirty years. The creatures were staring at extinction. Suddenly it dawned on me that I was the custodian of an entire species. That realization weighed heavily on my mind. I’m not someone who deals well with responsibility. But the smog needed me. I hadn’t been needed in so long I almost didn’t recognize the feeling.
There were untold millions of asteroids between where I was and where I was going. I could stop every now and again and drop off a proto smog. I could be like Johnny Appleseed and seed the galaxy with smog. Maybe by the time they mature, the world will have changed and they’ll be safe. Maybe humans will have come and gone. At least they won’t go extinct on my watch. What could it hurt? It might even make up for some of the harm I’ve done. Yeah, I like that idea. There’s an asteroid now.
The only thing i was confused about is, is XL1 the planet he was visiting? When I ran spell check, there wer no errors, except for counting didn't as a misspelled word. The ending seemed to be just slightly chopped off, but I really enjoyed what there was to read.''
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