A short story by Michael R. Lockridge
Captain Lepshot was ecstatic! After so much searching, he had found a source of Schmagmum that was of astounding purity, and in an environment that would allow for easy extraction. He could hardly wait for the final tests. In moments he would be able to send a message to the fleet leader, advising of the discovery.
“The damned thing is back again!” called out First Officer Plenum. “Battle stations! Strap in, everybody!” Alarms sounded, red lights flashed. Blue bodies bounded to security benches, attaching themselves with various straps and fasteners.
Lepshot watched as a huge quadruped entered the view of the forward monitor. It was gigantic, covered with fur and obviously built for killing. It stepped into the granular material in which Lepshot’s ship, The Underbelly, lay hidden. Only some of the remote sensor arrays were visible above the surface of the curious granular material containing the precious Schmagmum.
The great beast made a cursory olfactory inspection of the area in which The Underbelly lay hidden, then turned away. Moments later it lowered its hindquarters over the secreted ship.
“It’s going to defecate!” shouted Science Officer Debenture. “Prepare a test probe!”
The ship shuddered as masses of fecal matter dropped upon it.
“I think that it’s done.” Said Debenture.
“It’s turning around.” Said Plenum. “I think it is making another olfactory scan of the area.”
“What’s it doing?” Shouted Lepshot.
The ship shuddered as the massive creature dragged masses of granular material over the feces. Then it turned, and walked away.
Lepshot was going to call general quarters, when the sensors called out again.
“What the hell is that?” shouted Plenum. He was staring at the monitor in terror, gripping his bench with all four hands.
On the monitor was a creature to make the quadruped seem miniscule. Bipedal, with only two arms. At least it wasn’t covered with fur. Just a little on top of the orb between its arms. It was leaning down toward where The Underbelly was laying, now only partially hidden.
It appeared to have some kind of tool in its hand. It scraped away at the granular material, while deep and loud sounds issued from the orb between its arms. There seemed to be sensors and an orifice of some kind in the orb between the arms.
“I wonder if we could communicate with it?” said Debenture.
The creature collected feces from the granular material, and placed it in a bag. It started to turn away, when it suddenly stopped. Turning, it appeared to be focusing its sensors in the direction of The Underbelly.
“Uh, oh.” Said Plenum.
“Always one for understatement.” Said Lepshot. The sound was a whisper.
Sudden and violent motion indicated to all that the creature had taken The Underbelly into its grasp. Most of the crew was unconscious by the time the shaking stopped.
“Damage report!” called Lepshot when he regained consciousness. At first there was nothing, then confused and feeble voices responded.
“No permanent damage, Captain.” Reported Plenum. “Two serious injuries on level two. Security straps broke loose. They are on the way to sick bay.”
“Captain, you won’t believe this!” said Debenture. “Those samples! The feces? Huge traces of Schmagmum. Huge!”
“Hmm.” Lepshot responded. “And just where are we?”
“In some other part of the artificial structure we were exploring.” Replied Plenum. “On a flat surface, next to some kind of information processing device.”
“Can we communicate with the device?” Lepshot asked.
“Way ahead of you, Captain.” Said Debenture, prodding some instruments. “Hmmm. Yes. Yes! I think we can do it!”
“By the time the star of this planet sheds light here, again, it will be done.” Said Debenture.
“Tomorrow, then?” Said Plenum.
“Well, taking into account various factors, tomorrow is a good enough term.” Replied Debenture.
“Debenture, keep your team working. I want to send a message by morning.”
“Plenum, with me. My ready room. We need to work out our message.”
“Aye, Captain.” Said Plenum.
Everyone began to undo their safety straps. Debenture headed down to deck two, to put together a team to attempt to communicate with the device next to the ship.
Plenum and Lepshot went into the ready room and closed the door.
William Tanner looked at the object sitting next the computer on his desk. It looked like a stainless steel can, about ten inches long and three in diameter. Then he looked at his computer monitor. The message looked like some kind of Pidgin English, but the message was clear.
The only thing to do was to test the promise he read on the computer. William picked up the can, and carried it into the next room. The stench indicated that Ludlow, his faithful cat, had recently used his litter box.
“Good.” Said William.
He placed the can in the dirty litter box, and left the room. For the next hour he kept himself busy, avoiding the room containing the litter box. Finally, when the hour was done, he returned.
The can sat on the surface of the litter. The litter itself was clean, and the room was free of the usual odor.
William picked up the can, and carried it back to his desk. He used more care than he had used the night before. He had some idea who lived inside, and wanted to avoid any injuries to his new partners.
He sat down at his desk, and began typing carefully on the keyboard. He was not the greatest businessman, but nobody he knew had any experience in writing an interplanetary contract.
The strange little people in the can were going to make him rich.
“Captain, I think we have an agreement.” Said Debenture. The whole crew had worked together to craft the contract, knowing that they now possessed first rights to the largest source of Schmagmum in the known Galaxy.
Lepshot reviewed the contract. It had taken quite a while to iron out some elements of communication, and yet it seemed to go rather quickly for an interspecies business agreement. The profit motive always seemed to cross such lines.
Lepshot flicked on the intercom and started to speak.
“I remain your Captain, but only for purposes of negotiation with the Fleet and the Home World. By virtue of being in the right place at the right time, we have all become partners in a great business venture.
“Now that we have the initial contract with the creature called ‘William Tanner,’ we may prepare for our communication with the Fleet. Considering just how wealthy they will all become, along with us, I think we will reach a most lucrative agreement.
“Lest any of you not fully understand the treasure we have found, I will explain. This world has a creature, called a ‘cat.’ These creatures commonly dwell with creatures like William Tanner. He calls himself ‘human.’ Though the cat is pleasant to humans, the cat’s urine and feces are not. These are collected in boxes, called ‘liter boxes.’
“We have discovered that cat urine and feces are loaded with Schmagmum, a material critical to our culture and the reason for our exploratory travels.
“It is most convenient that our ships are just the right size to fit into these ‘liter boxes.’ We shall bring the fleet, and each of our ships will be assigned a litter box. They shall process the Schmagmum, and periodically we shall rotate ships to return to the home world.”
“What does this ‘Tanner’ get, in exchange? Can he get the other humans to cooperate?” Asked Distopia from Engineering.
“Tanner will ‘sell’ our ships to other humans as a device to clean litter boxes. He will become quite wealthy. He will see to distribution of as many ships as we can make available. I believe that Fleet Commander Pudillia will quickly call in the other exploratory fleets. As the Schmagmum begins to flow, I am sure more ships will come from the Home World.”
“What if curious humans try to discover how we process the urine and feces? Won’t they try to disassemble our ships, and put us in danger?” Asked someone else in Engineering.
“Good question.” Said Lepshot. “ Plenum thought this one through. Our short-range telleporters will work well enough to get a crew away from the ship before a breach. Crews can survive long enough in this world for a rescue team to reach them. The ship will self-destruct after the crew is safely away. We will modify the interiors of our ships to make them look like some indescribable machine. The destruction will be contained within the hulls, to prevent injury to the curious. Our secret will be safe.”
“Any further questions?” Lepshot asked. “No? Well, then, Plenum, would you please put me through to Fleet Command? I think it is time for us all to become incredibly wealthy.”