by J. H. Malone
EarthTours is a unique travel agency. It offers space aliens the opportunity to visit Earth in secret and disguise and to enjoy its primitive delights. However, a Vernernusian, “Joan Smith,” has gone missing in Montana. An EarthTours agent is dispatched to find her. He enlists the aid of another Vernernusian, “John Smith,” who is working as a plumber in Illinois. The Vernernusians are telepathic and have a gift for language learning. Their special abilities will bring insights that may make significant changes in Earth’s culture.
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6
I listened to the bugs signaling their summer cycles while she kept me in suspense. Finally she whipped her left leg over her horse’s back and hopped down in front of me. She came up to my shoulder. Her cloaking was perfect: skin moist with sweat, eyes that grabbed mine and held on. I forgot about the chip issue. I forgot that she was an alien.
“Can I offer you some water?” I said, which made no sense.
“Let’s get this over with,” she said.
There was no shade. I sat down on a rock. The other two hunkered in front of me, one frowning, the other philosophical, both with fingertips in the dust. A breeze came up. The grass whispered. The horses lowered their noses into it.
“What’s the bone of contention between you two?” I said.
“Humans eat meat,” Smith said. “I can live with that.”
“Anyone who could live with that is sick,” Miss Smith said.
“She hasn’t learned to tune out the death,” Smith said. “Humans do it. I do it. She can, too.”
“I’ll never tune it out,” Miss Smith said to me. “It’s incredible. It’s barbaric. It’s unforgivable. You kill and eat everything that thinks. You even say, ‘What’s eating you?’ to each other.”
I took a moment to ponder that. “That’s why you were hanging out with vegans,” I said.
“The only sane people on the planet,” Miss Smith said. “Just not sane enough.”
“You should have chosen India,” I said, perhaps thoughtlessly.
“Ha. A billion Indians, and less than half are vegetarians.”
“We’ve got to eat something,” I said. “Some believe that even vegetables can think.”
“Not on this planet, they don’t,” Miss Smith said.
“I don’t understand your problem with Smith,” I said. “Like you, I presume, he consumes nothing organic, thinking or otherwise.”
“Why is he Smith and I’m Miss Smith?”
“Because,” I said, “I... He’s John. You’re Joan. Let’s go with that. Forget the Smiths. Meanwhile, John doesn’t eat meat, obviously, or anything else.”
“It’s enough that he thrives here. No doubt he pretends to eat hamburgers with his buddies. Cows die in vain for that sort of dishonesty.”
I thought back to our dinner on the flight to Salt Lake, breakfast in Billings, and lunch in Miles City.
“He’s never touched meat with me, pretending or otherwise,” I said. “Look, let’s find a place to camp tonight. We’ll spend some time together and figure this out. You can tell us what you hope to accomplish. Maybe we can help, so that you’ll turn your chip back on.”
“I doubt you can help. I know for sure this one won’t,” she said, hooking a thumb at John as she stood up and turned toward her horse.
“All right,” I said. “John and I will tail along and see what you’re up to, if you don’t mind.”
Her cloak heaved a sigh. “All right, I’ll stay the night,” she said. “Maybe I can make you understand what I’m going through and you’ll leave me alone.”
“Let’s find a place to camp,” I said. “How about next to that line of cottonwoods. There must be a creek there.”
We crossed a long patch of marshy swale and found the creek, but cattle had churned its banks into a muddy mess. Cow pies littered the scene, some floating in the brown water.
“There’s shade under the tree we passed,” John said, pointing back to a solitary half-dead oak near the track we had been on.
The horses paced us to it. We unloaded our equipment and left the horses to graze. John unrolled his bedroll and stretched out on it. Joan and I took a walk into the prairie.
“You can use my sleeping bag tonight,” I said to her.
She snorted, perhaps assuming I thought Vernernusians needed sleep.
“Look,” I said, “give John a chance.”
“Talk to him at least. Can’t you two, you know, go mental?”
“I’d rather sniff his sewer pipes,” Joan said.
“He supports the ASPCA and PETA,” I said.
“I don’t know what those are.”
“We need to improve our translator’s acronym service. They’re societies for those who love animals. John owns dogs and a cat and a bird.”
“Animals aren’t to be owned. He probably feeds the dogs horse meat.”
“I’m not sure, but I don’t think dog food contains horse meat anymore. And listen, I’m not crazy about killing cows myself.”
“Save your breath,” Joan said. “You never even think about it. You eat anything and everything that’s conscious, including sometimes each other. You even eat minerals you don’t need, in the form of pills.”
A snake slid through the grass in front of us. I jumped back.
“What?” Joan said.
“Didn’t notice. What kind?”
“Something with yellow stripes.”
“How do you know that?”
“I absorbed a database before coming to Earth.”
We resumed our walk.
“The vegetation on Earth has suppressed all sentience and you go ahead and eat it anyway,” Joan said. “A stand of thousand-year-old redwoods? Not a thought in their trunks. You cut them down and build decks for your houses.”
“I’m not following you with the tree argument,” I said, “but never mind. Why did you come to Earth? Are you getting away from mental networks and looking for something you would enjoy doing on your own? Like John?”
“I’m not like John,” she said, “but it’s true that I’m sick of the primacy of consensus in our social organizations. When the merge happens to me, who will I be? But now that I’m here and see what this world is like, I’ve decided to do something about it. I’ve gathered a herd of cattle due to be slaughtered.”
“Rustled a herd of cattle.”
“I’m not stealing them. I’m freeing them. I’m saving them.”
“In a world of slaughter, you’re saving a few cows?”
“Do you eat meat?”
“I know my way around a pepperoni pizza.”
“You wouldn’t, if you were friends with the pepperoni. I know these cows.”
We turned back.
“You stole the horse,” I said.
“The horse chose to come with me. The ranch thinks it owns the horse, but the horse is not a slave.”
I was not making progress.
“What happens when winter comes?” I said. “You’re taking the cows south, as if they’re migrating? You won’t get far. This may be open range, but the range isn’t so open anymore, they tell me. Lots more fencing than there used to be. There are also rivers south of here, and fenced highways and railroad tracks.”
“Cows cross roads, same as deer.”
“Deer can jump over fences.”
“Cattle can knock down fences.”
“What about the rivers?”
“Cows can swim,” Joan said. “They evolved among lakes and rivers. But this isn’t about migration. The cows don’t need to migrate. They can survive fine in cold weather. They burn more energy. They eat more when it’s cold. Ranchers put out bales of hay in the winter and stack some of the bales to make windbreaks.”
“Shouldn’t they be in a barn when it’s cold?”
She laughed. “They grow a winter coat. Barns are bad for them.”
“The cows are branded,” I said. “They’ll be caught, if that’s the right word for it. Rounded up.”
“I’ll change the brands.”
“That must have been some database,” I said.
“Comprehensive. I knew about the meat before I came, but the reality of it caught me by surprise. Humans don’t care, and that absence of emotion infected the data.”
After that, we walked in silence.
Back at the campsite, I assembled a circle of rocks for a campfire we could use without setting the prairie ablaze. The breeze strengthened and cooled as the sun lowered itself through purple and orange bands and disappeared behind hills to the west. Joan sat down on my sleeping bag. She gave John her back.
I gathered kindling, snapping dead twigs and small branches off the oak. Got a fire going, feeling like an early human squatting on the savannah while a couple of aliens watched me work. I didn’t try burning a cow pie. I brewed coffee and prepared my dinner as I had the night before. John crawled into his bag. I dined in front of Joan without embarrassment, although I did feel awkward.
“We don’t even know that cows and other lower mammals are conscious,” I said.
“Humans should have figured that out by now,” Joan said, prodding the fire with a stick, “you’ve been around long enough. Let me explain.”
“Please don’t. No sharing alien knowledge.”
“How about this? Eat the vegetables and leave the animals alone. You know how to grow clean meat in the lab. Eat that if you must, or the new heme-based pseudo-meats.
“But no. On this hellhole, most of your short-term alien customers are anti-social perverts who come to a world where they can waste irreplaceable resources and cannibalize sentient beings. I’ll bet John condones it, no matter what he says. If I could bear to touch his mind, I know what I’d find.”
“Wrong,” said John from his bag.
“Is there anything you like about the planet?” I said to her.
“There is no one in my head. I like that. I love it. I also like the vegans, up to a point.”
“How far away is your herd?” I said.
“Three hours ride. They’re waiting for me, mixed in with bison maintained by a conservationist group. Let me change your mind about following me.”
“How would you do that?”
“This is Earth, isn’t it? Where money makes all the important decisions?”
She had a point there. “You’re talking about a bribe?” I said.
“Vernernusians are expert with minerals. Humans value gold, don’t they?”
“Don’t listen to her,” John said. “If she gets away from us, I’ll be in as much trouble as she already is.”
“I’m intrigued,” I said to her as I finished my reconstituted chicken without shame, or almost without, “but let’s not rush this.”
“You’re going to make me do something desperate,” Joan said.
“No, no, no,” John said, coming halfway out of his bag.
“You’re not going to get into a psychic fistfight are you?” I said to them. “John, you don’t want to hurt her.”
“That won’t happen,” Joan said.
“Bribery is probably a bad idea,” I said, “and yet...”
But Joan was looking past me. I squinted over my shoulder into the setting sun and made out two riders sitting their mounts and inspecting us from a distance. A twitch of their spurs, which I heard, and their horses carried them over. The men leaned forward, examining us.
“What’re you folks doin’ out here?” said the shorter one, a fellow with a deep voice and Texas drawl.
“You huntin’?” said the taller one, who sounded like a farmer from the Midwest of my youth.
They were on the old side of young, dusty and sweat-stained, with several days’ scruff on their cheeks and chaps on their legs. The tall one wore a Tilly hat and the short one a khaki slouch. They both sported snake-proof boots. I mentally named them Tex and Slim.
“Bird watching,” I said. “What are you boys up to?”
Both were armed with holstered revolvers and lever-action rifles in cowhide scabbards secured by latigos to the cinches of their saddles. True cowboys. What were the guns for? Rustlers? Coyotes and prairie dogs?
They dismounted. Tex stepped over to a stunted shrub with dark red berries and kicked and stomped it flat.
“Chokecherry.” he said. “Poisons the stock.” He spat tobacco juice from the cud in his cheek.
“This is private land,” Slim said.
“I thought it was open range,” I said.
“That means it ain’t fenced. It’s open to stock. You ain’t stock.”
“Sam Hayes didn’t say anything about trespassing,” I said.
“This ain’t Sam Hayes’ land,” Slim said. “It’s a piece of the Anderson ranch. Earth huggers are not welcome. Nor are hunters out of season nor are those who cook crank in their Airstreams.”
Tex left the chokecherry and joined us but paid more attention to Joan than to John and me. I couldn’t blame him.
“Ain’t that the girl?” Tex said to Slim. “The one from Friday?”
“By God, I believe it is,” Slim said. “The one Mr. Anderson took a picture of.”
The pair smiled at her.
“Comely,” said Slim.
“Fetching,” said Tex.
“Appears to have calmed down since then,” Slim said.
“She’s riding slick,” said Tex, indicating her saddleless paint.
“What’s she doing with you two geldings?” Tex said to John and me.
“We were looking for her,” I said, sounding like a gelding.
“I want to buy some of your cattle,” Joan said to Slim.
“You what?” Slim said.
“There are two dozen steers with your brand on them, south of here,” Joan said. “The Walking A. They’re mixed in with some bison. I want to buy them.”
“No wonder we were coming up short,” Slim said to Tex. “They’re hanging out with that damn MCB herd.”
“That’s a mystery solved,” Tex said.
Joan reached into a front pocket of her overalls, all eyes on her hands, and pulled out her AMEX Black Card, holding it up.
“Hell, Lady,” Slim said, laughing. “We don’t take credit cards.”
“We could work something out for a single cow,” Tex said in a tone of voice I didn’t like.
“That’s enough of that,” I said. No reaction from Slim or Tex, who began pulling equipment off their horses.
“What’s your name, darlin’?” Slim said to Joan, bedroll in his arms.
“Tell you what, Miss Smith,” Slim said. “We’ll pass the night here, and in the morning, your two friends can go back where they came from, and you can take us to where our cattle are. We’ll fix you up with a nice little steer. How would that be?”
“I want them all,” she said.
“Where you from, anyway?” Tex said.
“A long way from here,” John said, “and we’re with her.”
The cowboys took no notice of this. They moved to the fire, and Tex set about heating up a pot of beans, making biscuits, and frying two deer steaks. They ate while we watched. The sky faded to black and the moon rose, a bronze dollar. The coyotes piped up.
“No green vegetables?” Joan said to the cowboys.
“Beans and biscuits are vegetables,” Slim said.
“I would eat more vegetables,” Tex said with a wiseguy grin, “but I hate pulling them up by the roots. Seems mean.”
Joan brightened. “I’m surprised to hear you say that,” she said.
“I can almost hear them scream,” Tex said with a serious expression, and looked at Slim, who smiled.
“You don’t need to worry about that,” Joan said. “Vegetables feel no pain on this planet. You can eat all you want with a clear conscience. Instead of that deer.”
The cowboys guffawed. Joan frowned.
“I guess you’re a tad simple,” Slim said to her, “but otherwise you’re pretty as a little red heifer.”
When they had finished their supper, the cowboys spread their bedrolls a distance from the fire and sat smoking, drinking, and arguing about something in undertones while watching Joan, who never looked in their direction.
“I had a friend back home who was a vegetable,” John said to me. “Your Arisaema triphyllum reminds me of him. A miniature version.”
“You two have got to talk,” I said quietly. “Joan, let John explain men and women to you, in case your database studies were bowdlerized. Let him tell you what these two have in mind. You know what they have in mind, don’t you, John?”
He nodded and moved over to open his bag and spread it out to share. Joan left mine and sat on his with her back to him. I pulled off my boots and crawled into my bag, to worry while waiting for sleep, which was a long time coming. In addition to their guns, Slim and Tex carried large knives. We were isolated, on their land. They had a steer to trade. For what? Eventually my worries turned into dreams.
Later I awoke to Nature’s call. In the dark, frogs sang in the creek. Toads answered with croaks from the grass. The moon had shrunk from a bronze dollar to a dime rubbed with mercury. The man in it wore a furrowed brow. John and Joan sat facing each other. Neither had triggered cloaked sleep. They maintained eye contact. Eerie, but it gave me hope.
Back in my bag in the cooling night, I let my fingers tick off fifteen seconds while I counted the synchronized chirp of crickets. Seventeen. I added that to thirty-seven. Fifty-four degrees.
John woke me in the morning by unzipping my sleeping bag. A chalk line of light ran across the eastern horizon. Otherwise, the land was dark. John, Joan, and the cowboys were all up. I got to my knees and emerged from my bag. A sharp breeze delivered an aroma of cattle dung from the creek, mixed with essence of coffee from the pot on the campfire. I pulled on my jacket.
Copyright © 2020 by J. H. Malone