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The Scent of Opals

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Science Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
People are the same everywhere, even when they are lizards.

Submitted: March 01, 2020

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Submitted: March 01, 2020

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“The machine shop at Smith Industries was good enough for Dan Jordan Sr. and it’s good enough for Dan Jr.”
 
That’s what I always said to myself, when I started the car after working my shift.  Only it wasn’t true.  I hated my job as much as dad did.
 
It was late summer and I had the windows down.  A traffic light turned green and I hit the accelerator.  That was when the lizard jumped through the window into the passenger seat.  He looked at me with slitted yellow eyes and spoke.  “The humans chasing me are intending to cause me bodily harm.  For your own safety and the integrity of your automobile, I recommend you drive as fast as you can.”  That was how I met Zaxar.
 
Everyone knew about the massive alien ship in orbit around Earth.  Three years ago TV and radio stations were taken over by a short broadcast.  The creature was covered with light blue scales and resembled a slender, human sized reptile.  It spoke with what sounded like a female voice.
 
"Greetings, residents of Earth.  My name is Reedindok.  Our species visits you from a distant region of the galaxy.  We wish to assure you our intentions are peaceful.  We have many things to discuss.  We seek arrangements that all parties involved will see as profitable.  Our ship will reach your planet in 18 months.  Please use your favorite search engine to investigate "business opportunities with the Kepler-62 Consortium".
 
Kepler-62 is a star system 1200 light years away.  Or, 7,054,400,000,000,000 miles.  They call themselves Igiliumki.  Proper pronunciation of that is not possible with the human palate, so we called them Keps.  It didn’t take the human race long to figure out they were more advanced than us.  Their technology made our science fiction novels look archaic.  Our 21st century militaries would be useless against their force fields and autonomous weapons.
 
Fortunately, they were as peaceful as they claimed.  By human standards, they were downright introverted.  Keps tended to stay indoors.Their interactions with us were minimal, typically limited to the business deals they were working.
 
Our solar system will never be the same.  Many of their projects were mundane, such as Earth farmers growing food Keps liked to eat.  Some were breathtaking, like their plan to terraform Mars.  They had the knowledge, Earth had the manpower.  All over the planet, universities were offering training programs.  Kep transfer ships had already sent the first wave of human terraformers.  According to them, it will take 140 years to make Mars fully habitable.  They were in it for the long haul.
 
Keps became known as serious, honest beings.  As far as humans could tell, they were law abiding and had no vices.  Except, apparently, for one of them.  Shortly after arriving on Earth, Zaxar had developed a taste for alcohol.
 
That, and the inability to pay his tab at the club he’d just run out of, led to him diving headfirst into my car.  Against my better judgement, Zaxar and I have been friends ever since.
 
We made it to my place without any more surprises.  He was quite a talker, very charismatic.  Any reservations I had about a drunk reptile from a distant star were dissipated by the volume and humor of his dialog.
 
Things changed when we entered my apartment.  Before I had time to consider what might happen next, Zaxar curled up in a ball under the kitchen table.  His tail draped over his face, covering his eyes.  He began snoring.
 
He was still snoring at 6am as I left for work.  That evening, when I pulled into the apartment lot, there were official looking cars parked everywhere.  Large men in black suits were speaking into microphone headsets.  I was pretty sure it had something to do with Zaxar.
 
Any doubt was dispelled when I recognized one of the men standing outside my door.  As far as I knew, this was the first time the Vice President of the United States had visited Pine Valley Apartments.
 
Several lizards were among the entourage.  One introduced himself and things started to make sense.  “My name is Mouaritza, I am the manager overseeing the Mars terraforming project.  Zaxar is my son.”
 
Turns out lizards were a lot more like humans than I figured.  Mouaritza was a scientist, an entrepreneur, and a workaholic, who achieved fortune and fame early in his career.  He wasn’t just a passenger on the huge spaceship, his corporation owned a share of it.
 
Zaxar lived his entire life immersed in the trappings of wealth.  He was a classic example of a spoiled brat.  I’d grown up with a few of those.  Mouaritza finished his story with a convincing argument: 
 
“I’ll be honest with you, the only reason I brought Zaxar with me was to keep an eye on him.  He was a source of constant trouble at home, and things have gotten worse on Earth.  That leads me to you.  Zaxar likes you.  He says he trusts you.  As you learned last night, he can’t be trusted.  Which is why I want to hire you.  Officially, the job title is ‘Earth Liaison Analyst’, but in reality you will be my son’s babysitter.  I took the liberty of inquiring about your salary.  I will triple it.  You’ll also have an expense account at your discretion.”
 
Mouaritza made sure Smith Industries didn’t mind me quitting without a two week notice.  Funny how a phone call from the Vice President can influence people.  I started my new job that night.
 
I wouldn’t trade it for any job I know of, except maybe if I could play guitar like Eddie Van Halen.  Short of that, I’ve got it made.  Being a professional babysitter isn’t all fun and games, though.  Zaxar can be a pain in the ass.
 
For big problems, I contact Ghourig, Mouaritza’s personal assistant.  My phone has an app that sends him an electronic SOS.  Early on, I had to use it twice.  Once after Zaxar became obnoxious at a bar and got arrested.  Once when he climbed a tree at a restaurant and began throwing pine cones at the parked cars.  When I tried to talk him down, his answer was “I’m staying up here forever.  Order me a pizza.”
 
Getting him out of jail was no big deal, all it took was some phone calls.  He wouldn’t leave the tree until I had the firemen douse it with water.  Lizards don’t like to get cold.  After a few minutes he came down via the ladder truck.
 
My number one job strategy was avoiding crowds.  Being around too many humans wound Zaxar up.  It was like he got defensive and had to prove himself.  Over time, I learned to read his moods and divert him from inappropriate behavior before it got out of hand.
 
Small, unusual attractions were good places to amuse Zaxar.  I kept him busy all day at the International Towing Museum in Tennessee.  Likewise at the Museum of Bad Art in Massachusetts.
 
We were on a two day trip, from Sturgis, South Dakota to Seattle.  Zaxar liked anything on wheels, Sturgis was home to a motorcycle museum.  Somewhere in Idaho, we stopped for the evening.  For our last meal of the day, we ended up at Gene’s Gems and Sandwich Shop.  An interesting combination of businesses, you never know what you’ll find in rural America.  The roast beef subs were pretty good and we decided to wander through the aisles of gems, rocks and trinkets.
 
Zaxar was a galaxy class bullshitter and enjoyed messing with me.  That’s what I figured was happening when he pointed at a collection of colorful stones.  “Those opals sure do smell funny.”
 
“Of course, Zaxar, you can smell rocks.  Is that like in Las Vegas when you said you could predict if a slot machine was going to pay?  You still owe me money from that.”
 
“Okay Danny, how about giving me a chance to prove I’m telling the truth?  Double or nothing on what I owe.  You put ten paper cups, upside down, on a table in the restaurant.”  He handed me a stone.  “Put this opal under one of them.  I’ll find it, using only my prodigious sense of smell.  I’ll wait here until you’re ready.”
 
When he found the opal the first time, I figured he’d gotten lucky.  When he found it six more times, without any mistakes, I ruled that out.  “Well Zaxar, it looks like we’re even.”  Then, the idea popped into my head.  “You know, we might be able to make some money from your newfound skill.  After we check into the hotel I’m going to do some googling.”
 
That’s how we ended up in the Australian desert, 33 miles south of Coober Pedy.  A town famous for opal mining.  Where Zaxar could bask in the heat of summer, and there weren’t too many people.  A good place to keep him out of trouble.  For $74, we bought a prospecting permit for a 152 acre block of land.
 
No doubt our site had been combed over many times.  There was a caved in mine shaft that looked decades old.  Manmade holes large and small dotted the landscape.  It didn’t matter, I was confident.  Nobody else had an opal sniffing lizard on their team.
 
The Kep expense account also tilted the equation in our favor.  While our competitors had more experience, few could drop $50,000 of someone else’s money on a Komatsu PC200 excavator.  That was only the largest jewel in the collection of mining equipment I put together, after gaining Mouaritza’s approval.
 
I spent a day at a Komatsu training facility learning how to operate the excavator.  Before Mouaritza agreed to the purchase, he made me promise never to let Zaxar use it.  The thought of an irresponsible lizard at the controls of a vehicle weighing 47,600 pounds terrified me.  I knew he would try, so I had a mechanic install an electronic lock.  The machine could only be started after entering a password.
 
Opal forms when cracks in a layer of rock fill with water containing silicone.  Given enough time and the right conditions, opal will grow.  Hunting it is pretty simple.  Bust up a bunch of rock, look through it for opal.  Or, if you can, smell it.  I took care of the breaking up, Zaxar did the smelling.
 
Unfortunately, the excavator couldn’t do all the hard work.  It broke the layers of rock into chunks that ranged in size from fist to bread loaf up to foot locker.  Zaxar got pretty good at identifying those containing opal.  It was on me to bust them open, carefully, with a hand held hammer, to separate the opal from the ordinary rock that encased it.
 
The problem was, all opal is not considered valuable.  Only the iridescent varieties are cut, polished, turned into jewelry, and sold for a profit.  Iridescence means the opal appears to change colors depending on lighting and the angle it is viewed from.  Soap bubbles in sunlight exhibit the same property, displaying colors from purple to green to blue.  Zaxar’s nose could not tell the difference between common opal and the desirable varieties.  So I busted a lot of big rocks into small ones, searching for the good stuff.
 
Things would have gone faster if Zaxar were willing to swing a hammer.  But he made it clear as soon as I proposed the idea.  “Hard work is for machines and humans.  I am neither.”  Spoiled lizards...
 
At any rate, we steadily built up a stash of nice opals.  After two months, we visited a wholesaler, a fellow known as Crocodile Mike.  He was impressed enough to buy our best stones for $9000.  A good start, considering Mouaritza was expecting what he called my “crazy human idea” to eventually pay back the investment and cover the operating costs.  Between fuel for the excavator and the Winnebago air conditioner, and Zaxar’s bar tab, we were steadily burning through cash.
 
You can’t mine opals all the time.  When we weren’t prospecting, eating, or sleeping, we entertained ourselves in downtown Coober Pedy.  Not surprisingly, we spent much of our free time at the Opal Inn Hotel, Motel and Caravan Park.  They had Zaxar’s two favorite things, alcohol and gambling.
 
I had learned how to rein in his bad habits by using the same trick my mother perfected on me:  Guilt.  I’d convinced him, if I had to use the Ghourig app one more time, I’d get fired and our party would be over.  I knew Zaxar’s priority was being somewhere his father wasn’t.  I was his ticket to that place.
 
After our second visit to Crocodile Mike, I began to think our scheme was going to pay off.  We’d hit a stride at mining.  At this pace, we’d gross at least $90,000 before winter ended the mining season.  I felt we could double or triple that next year.
 
Zaxar became as enthusiastic as I was about hunting opals.  Finding a rare opalized sea shell, worth up to $20,000, got his attention.  Even Mouaritza got the bug and we sent him photos whenever we found a nice stone.
 
For the first time, I felt my days of punching a time clock were truly gone.  That was when Zaxar met Lilly.
 
Lilly had drifted into town and was waiting tables at the Opal Inn Saloon.  Since I’d known Zaxar, he’d never shown any interest in human females.  Lilly was different.  She shared his affinity for alcohol, had unusually large, round eyes, and long blond hair she kept in a single braid.  Her locks, trailing down her back, swung from side to side as she moved through the bar.  To Zaxar, her hair was a tail.
 
She was pretty and a flirt.  He was wealthy and fascinated.  I knew Lilly was going to be trouble.  It started when she delivered our beverages.
 
“You’re the first Keptilian I’ve met in person.”  That nickname was considered derogatory but it didn’t phase Zaxar. 
 
“You’re the prettiest human I’ve met in person.”
 
It kept going downhill after that.  By the second drink, they’d exchanged phone numbers.  Then they made up nicknames for each other, he was Dragonboy and she was Hotcakes.
 
It occurred to me I needed to get him out of the bar, away from her, before they had intergalactic sex in the bathroom.  According to Mouaritza, when Zaxar got into trouble, it often involved females.
 
Somehow I managed to get him in the car.  By the time we reached the RV, I’d been awake for 20 hours.  It was time for sleep. 
 
“Zaxar, promise me you won’t do anything stupid while I’m sleeping.  By stupid, I mean anything to do with Lilly.” 
 
“Sure Dan, I promise.”
 
I crawled into bed and slept for nine hours.  It took Zaxar less than that break his promise.
 
His phone was on the kitchen counter when I woke up, next to a note.  “Dan, don’t worry, we’re just going to have a little fun.  Lilly is great and we’ll be back in a day or two or so.  I know Ghourig tracks my location on the phone so I’m leaving it.”
 
That was the third time I pushed the emergency button.  The knot in my stomach was telling me it might be the last.  The only thing that moderated my anxiety was the amazing technology the Keps possessed.
 
All I could tell Ghourig was Lilly’s first name, where she worked, and her description.  He said, “I’ll call you back in a few minutes.”
 
My phone rang.  “Zaxar and Lilly are in the Roxby Downs Tavern, in a town by the same name.  It’s 140 miles to the south, I suggest you get moving.”
 
Just when I thought the day was getting better, it got worse.  Zaxar’s phone rang.  The caller ID said Lilly Hotcakes.  She was shouting.
 
“Dan, there’s something wrong!  We just blew a couple lines of coke and Zaxar turned red and had a convulsion.  I think he’s breathing but I can’t wake him up!”
 
I spoke to Ghourig again.  He seemed remarkably calm when he placed me on hold.  After a short pause, I heard his voice.
 
“Dan, tell Lilly an ambulance will be at the bar momentarily, and a helicopter from the Air Force base in Woomera will be there in 12 minutes.  Another helicopter will pick you up in less than an hour.”
 
By the time I caught up with Zaxar, he was conscious.  Sitting up in a hospital bed in Adelaide, on Australia’s southern coast.  The lizard equivalent of a smile crossed his face when I entered the room.
 
“Hey Danny boy, how’s it hanging?”
 
The fear I’d been suppressing boiled over into anger.  “You son of a bitch, you lied to me.  I ought to kick your fucking tail.”
 
“Is that any way to talk to your favorite lizard?  I know I’ve done you wrong, and I’ll make it up to you.  I promise, we’ll be back on the hunt for opals in no time.  I’ve already forgotten about what’s her name.”
 
Zaxar found out the hard way, Keps are allergic to cocaine.  But he was young and healthy and lived through the experience.
 
Staying mad at him was hard to do.  I was over it the next day, when the hospital discharged him and we drove home in a rental car.  Good old Ghourig had already taken care of the Lilly problem.  She had a previous arrest on drug charges and the desire to avoid prison time made her receptive to his offer.  She got a plane ticket to Sydney and some cash, in exchange, she’d never return to Coober Pedy or contact Zaxar again. 
 
When we got to the camp I felt like having a beer and I invited Zaxar to share.  He got a strange look on his face when he stepped inside the Winnebago.
 
“Dan, what did you do with the opals?”
 
I had no idea what he was talking about.  Unless someone burglarized the RV during our recent adventure, they were where we’d left them.
 
“Dude, what the hell are you talking about?”  I pulled the Rubbermaid container out of the kitchen cabinet.  When I took off the lid and Zaxar saw the opals, he turned pale.
 
“I...I...I can’t smell them.”
 
Just like that, our opal mining career was over.
 
The silver lining in that cloud was I became one of the lucky humans who got to travel to the Kep ship, in orbit above Earth.  The human doctor we saw the next day back in Adelaide had no idea how to evaluate or treat lizard noses.
 
At the spaceport, an escalator carried us to the door of the Kep shuttle.  To me it was a featureless white box.  Inside, the attendant, a lizard named Chazzinsery, had me take off my shirt.  He put what looked like a motorcycle helmet on my head.  Next thing I knew, it swelled up and somehow attached itself to my skin, forming a seal.  Whatever I was breathing inside the helmet made me very happy.
 
Chazzinsery led me into a person sized chamber, the door made a sucking sound when it closed.  Translucent green goo oozed in and surrounded me.  Being suspended in slime made me even happier.  Through a window, I watched Chazzinsery repeat the process with Zaxar.
 
Then, we were in outer space.  On an alien ship from a jillion miles away.  According to the film they showed us at the spaceport, the goo chambers protected us from the massive G force required to leave Earth and achieve orbit.  They said the shuttle takes seventeen seconds to make the trip.  It could have been seventeen centuries, the joy juice I was breathing made sure I didn’t know or care.
 
On the ship, the Kep doctors gave us bad news.  In laymen human terms, the cocaine Zaxar snorted fried the smell detectors in his nose.  No amount of lizard technology could fix him.
 
Miraculously, even that did not get me fired.  After I sold the mining equipment, the Winnebago, and the rest of the opals, we ended up only losing thirty thousand of Mouaritza’s dollars.  No doubt a pittance compared to what he had invested in the Mars project.
 
Zaxar and I were pretty deflated at that point.  We returned to our previous strategy of visiting museums and oddball attractions, anywhere the car took us.  But nothing matched the excitement of opal hunting.  I could tell, he was bored.
 
A second Kep ship was due to reach Earth in a few months.  Shortly after that, the first one would be returning to Kepler-62.  Zaxar had casually mentioned that a couple of times and I began to worry he was thinking about going home.
 
When my phone rang and I saw Mouaritza’s number, I assumed that was what he was calling about.  I was half right.  In typical paranoid fashion, I’d assumed that the worst case scenario I was imagining was the only option.  There was something else, potentially even worse.
 
“Dan, Zaxar really wants to go home.  I can’t blame him.  I miss home and I miss my wife.  But I don’t want Zaxar on the same planet as his mother unless I’m there.  Or...”
 
“I told him, the only way I’ll let him go home is if you agree to go with him.  You would be in the first group of humans to leave your home star and visit distant worlds.  You’ll see and do things in the Kepler system that won’t be possible here for hundreds of years.”
 
“If you agree to go, I will make it worth your while financially.  But, there will be a great cost to you.  You’ll spend 18 months traveling to Kepler-62.  The next ship bound for Earth won’t leave for three years after that.  That means a minimum of six years away from home.  I can assure you from my experience, it is far from easy.”  He paused.
 
“You might decide it wasn’t worth the money.  You might decide to stay the rest of your life.”
 
It didn’t take long to make up my mind.  I’ll never play guitar like Eddie Van Halen.  So, I’m about to go Full Metal Mayflower Pilgrim and be a passenger on a genuine interstellar space ship.  It can’t be worse than punching a time clock.  Also, I feel like I’m the best protection the Universe has from Zaxar.


© Copyright 2020 Serge Wlodarski. All rights reserved.

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