~The Planet of the Living Clouds~

~By Norman Hess~

The multicolored sheep grazed on a small grassy hill that overlooked a large pond whose surface rippled in the light breeze. A large shadow crossed the ground rapidly as something large blotted out the sun as it moved across the sky. The sheep grazed on unaware that the air cow hovered over it. The jellyfish like upper body of the animal loomed large overhead like an ominous gray cloud. A half dozen tentacles stretched out from the air cowís soft belly. They reached down towards the sheep quietly. Still the sheep grazed on oblivious to the air cowís approach.

Then suddenly the tentacles whipped around the sheepís neck and back legs. The animal let out a frightened bleat and struggled to free itself from the entangling tentacles. The air cow pulled the sheep off the grassy knoll and lifted the animal up into the air towards its gaping mouth. The sheep bleated loudly as the air cow bit into its neck and started to dissolve the animalís muscle tissue. Within minutes the lifeless husk of what was the sheep fell back onto the knoll. It was then just a bag of bones; the muscles and innards of the sheep were gone.

Two men emerged from their hiding place and quietly watched the scene. They nodded to each other with grins on their faces. Then they readied a grenade launcher and loaded it. One of the men put the weapon to his shoulder while the other blew a dog whistle. The air cow turned towards them, its massive body towering into the sky. It started to descend slowly. The whistle did the trick. It dazed the huge animal and the air cow began to float downward. The man with the launcher aimed it at the massive balloon like upper body of the animal.

The man pulled the trigger and sent the phosphorus grenade sailing into the air cowís upper body. It punctured the thin membrane and entered the main chamber. Then it detonated and ignited the hydrogen stored inside the chamber. The upper body of the air cow went up in flames with a whoosh. The two men whooped and yelled at the sight.

"Itís barbecue time, big boy!" One of the men shouted happily. "Yeah, buddy!"

The wreckage of the air cow crashed heavily on the grassy knoll. The two men grabbed fire extinguishers and put out the conflagration quickly. They cheered and yelled to each other happily. Then they dug out a pair of machetes and went to work.

Nearly a hundred miles away a young man of the Ermani tribe kissed his wife and two children lovingly in a tearful farewell. The children wailed fitfully as their father left their thatched roof hut and walked into the neighboring fields of maize. The manís wife pulled her children to her and tried to quiet them gently.

The man walked into the field slowly and peered through the green stalks of maize looking for a large flat rock. Then he found the ten yard long slab and climbed up on top of it. Once he had finished his ascent he slowly walked to the center of the stone and stopped. He peered up into the sky for a few moments and then drew out his knife.

He chanted a few prayers in a low voice and removed his robes slowly. Thus he stood naked in the baking sun on top of the stone slab. Then he took the knife and castrated himself. He bellowed in pain as dark red blood splattered the smooth surface of the stone. He became dizzy with the loss of blood and with considerable effort slit his own throat. The man pitched forward and died in a pool of his own blood.

The slinger shuttle jarred to a stop. The braking mechanisms of the slinger port captured the ship and gathered it into the gaping entrance of the dock. The port and its dock were a hundred miles above the planetís surface. Slowly the shuttleís passengers were transferred to a dock lander. This new mode of transportation carried the passengers down to the surface. The waiting spaceport on the surface gave it authorization to land.

Once disembarked on the surface the passengers queued up into several lines and one by one slowly stepped on the transport belt. They laughed and visited with each other as the belt brought them to the check in area of the spaceport. Then they got off the belt and approached the customs kiosks. A woman with long chestnut hair sighed with boredom as she waited for her turn at the kiosk. She watched as two men embraced and kissed on the other side of the kiosks. Then they gathered some luggage from a servo droid and left the area holding hands.

"Welcome to Tarvek 12, Doctor Walsh." The computer generated human face said at the kiosk.

The woman placed her hand on the kiosk panel and waited for the machine to scan her fingerprints and access her biochip that was embedded in her right thumb. The face on the screen smiled at her as the kiosk took a moment to access several databases. Then a small beep emitted from the kioskís panel and she removed her hand.

"Thank you for your input, Doctor Walsh." The face smiled again and addressed her in a soothing tone that unnerved her a little. "Iím sorry to inform you that you will have a forty eight hour lay over with us. A sudden meteor storm has delayed the interstellar ship to Zagis 7 for at least another twenty-four hours. We apologize in advance for any inconvenience experienced by you. Please feel free to patronize the spaceportís excellent hotels and accommodations."

"Gee, thanks." Walsh grimaced and rolled her eyes. She left the smiling kiosk and crossed the luggage area to find a hotel kiosk.

A servo droid zipped up to her with her luggage in tow. She put up a hand and told it to wait. The little robot cooled its heels as she accessed a kiosk and arranged for a room with a view. The kiosk was a bit slow, apparently several of her fellow passengers found themselves marooned here as well.

"Thank you for choosing to stay at the Tarvek Hilton, Doctor Walsh. We hope that your stay with us will be an enjoyable one." The kiosk purred soothingly. Walsh bit back a snide retort and gave the kiosk a smirk. "We have all the latest VR facilities that can accommodate various virtual fantasies and interests. Shall I reserve a VR suite for you?"

"No thanks, reality is just fine for me. Give me a room with a balcony that faces the real world."

"We have a room with a view of the gas giant Tarvek and one of the planetoid Zerece." The kiosk offered with a smile. "Either one is very reasonable. What is your preference?"

"Umm, gee, wow, thatís a hard one. Tarvek is that big red ugly ball that fills up the whole western sky, right?" She asked with a shrug of her shoulders.

"Yes maíam." The kiosk replied with its painted on smile.

"Well, thatís not much of a view then. Iíll take the other one, please."

"Certainly, Doctor Walsh. You are in room number 3415." The kiosk said cheerfully. "It also has an excellent view of the hotel lobby from the balcony. However, due to safety concerns, diving from the balcony into the lobby pools is greatly discouraged."

"You donít have to worry about that, pal. I donít swan dive thirty four stories for anything!"

"Of course not, Doctor Walsh!" The kiosk agreed and winked at her. "Enjoy your stay at the Tarvek Hilton. I will forward your room number to your servo droid, Doctor Walsh."

"Thanks!" She said and waved at the waiting robot. "See ya!"

The servo droid roared off after it had received its instructions from the kiosk. Walsh wandered about searching the various restaurant kiosks until she found one that she liked. She placed her hand on the panel and the kioskís face appeared on the screen.

"Good afternoon, Doctor Walsh!" The kiosk beamed happily. "Welcome to Vegan Delite! How can we serve you?"

"Umm, Iíll have a veggie burger with low fat fries and a sweet tea, please."

"Certainly, would you like it delivered to your room?"

"Nah, Iíll eat in the lobby. Give me a table by a window with Internet hook up."

"Yes, Doctor Walsh." The kiosk smiled again. "Enjoy your meal!"

She followed the kioskís directions and found a table by a window on the third level of the lobby. She then seated herself and the tableís Internet screen blinked on. A servo droid appeared at her elbow with her food and placed it before her. Then it zipped off rapidly. She sipped at the sweet tea and called up some information on this far-flung piece of galactic real estate called Tarvek 12.

"Tarvek 12 is the twelfth major moon of the gas giant Tarvek. It was the first M-class or Earth type planet discovered by a commercial space probe. It was surveyed by the British Intercom space probe Sir Francis Drake in 2144. It was colonized as early as 2191 and for nearly forty-two years has experienced unprecedented growth and development. The present colony is governed by a joint partnership of the UK and the United States.

"Tarvek 12 has a native population of about twenty million and a colonial population of about fifty million. The natives are called Ermani. They live in primitive thatched huts and practice primitive farming techniques. They grow maize, beans, and other vegetables. They also tend domesticated sheep and oxen. The other denizens of the planet are what are known as air cows. These are peaceful, slow-witted animals that resemble giant jellyfish. They float in the air by using bladders full of naturally occurring hydrogen to keep them aloft. Very little is known about these creatures as they remain elusiveÖ"


"Huh?" Walsh jumped and looked around. "Who said that?"

Across the aisle from her an interracial couple were herding their brood of three young boys into a booth. The father was white and the mother black. The youngest of the three boys turned his head and smiled at Walsh. His mother clamped down on his head with her hand and turned him around. She told him not to stare and smiled at Walsh. She smiled back and waved. The woman waved back and smiled.

Two women strolled into the lobby hand in hand and plopped down at the table next to Walsh. One was a big buxom blonde and the other a petite brunette. They immediately started kissing passionately and ignored everyone else in the lobby. Walsh rolled her eyes and wished they would find a room somewhere. Not that she was a homophobe or anything but there are children around. Keep it G-rated, will ya, people?

"Hrrrrffffff!!! Shhhuuuuiiiii???"

"Whoís saying that?" Walsh asked the lesbian couple. They had stopped with their amorous embrace and were staring out the window. Walsh turned to her left and jumped back in fright. She spilled her sweet tea and let out a yelp. There in her window was a bright blue eye about the size of a large meat platter staring at her. The eye followed her movements as she shrank away from the window. Around the blue eye were bluish gray eyelids that blinked occasionally.

Then as suddenly as it appeared the thing in the window floated upward. Walsh watched as it rose and got closer to the window to get a better look. A collection of tentacles appeared next as the beast floated away. She watched as it floated swiftly away and became just a speck against the huge red orb of Tarvek. Walsh shivered suddenly and began to calm down a little. A servo droid zipped up and cleaned her mess that she made. It had replaced the spilled sweet tea with a fresh full glass. Once done it roared off quickly.

"What the hell was that?" She asked the lesbian couple.

"That was an air cow, miss!" The little brunette replied with an English accent. "It seemed to like you, it did!"

"Yeah, odd thing that was!" The big blonde added with a smile. Her accent was a little strange. Walsh couldnít place her. "What do you suppose it wanted?"

"Beats me, Iím just here for a lay over, until my next ship arrives."

The two looked at each other and then back at her. They smiled and shrugged their shoulders almost in unison. Walshís heart finally slowed itís racing and she took a deep breath slowly. She looked back at the two women and found them locked in another embrace. She sighed then and tried to concentrate on her meal. She occasionally looked at the window and shuddered from the memory of that big blue eye.

In the spacious confines of a richly furnished living room an asian woman prepared to sing the Laudate Dominum from Mozartís "Vesperae solennes de Confessore". The music started out slowly and began to build gradually. Once the right moment had arrived she began to sing in a slow flowery soprano. Her companion was a black man seated at the sofa who smiled widely at her performance. His head bobbed a little with the slow beat of the music. Then the chorus came in to accompany her with the same slow flowing melody. After the chorus ended she sang with a little higher note and finished the song with a slight trill.

The man jumped up off the sofa and clapped wildly. The woman smiled and blushed at the attention. She curtsied quickly and laughed softly. The man hugged her and kissed her warmly. The two were in a passionate embrace when the doorbell chimed softly. The man broke away reluctantly and sighed disgustedly. The woman laughed at his obvious displeasure.

"Who is it?" He asked the door.

"Mr. Hodges and Mr. Worth, Doctor Gardner." The door answered in a soothing soft voice.

This time it was the woman who gave a scowl of disgust. Gardner shrugged his shoulders and rolled his eyes apologetically. She shook her head angrily and waved her hands as if to push the intruders away. Then she spun around and walked towards the kitchen. Gardner sighed and sputtered a little.

"MishaÖ.." He pleaded with his wife.

"I donít want those morons in my house, Kenny!" She called over her shoulder.

"Itís business, Misha. We can be rich beyond our wildest dreams very soon!"

"I donít want to be rich, just happy!" She stopped and turned to face him. "Why canít you just be happy?"

"Misha, please!" Gardner pleaded futilely as his wife left the room.

The doorbell chimed again and Gardner turned to answer the door. The door slid open slowly and he stepped outside onto a stone patio. Two men were sitting on a stone bench waiting for him. Next to them a large rectangular container hovered about a foot off the ground. The taller of the two men stood at his approach and smiled crookedly at him. This was Worth, a bearded drifter with blackened teeth. The other was Hodges, the business part of the duo; he was a bit short and had wavy brown hair.

"Hey, doc!" Worth yelled a happy greeting. "Had to pry yourself away from the wife and put some clothes on, huh?"

"Uh, yeah, sort of." Gardner replied with a slight grin. "Hey, look, guys, is it possible for you to take some time off? My investor is getting cold feet about this. Something about being unethical."

"Unethical?" Worth looked at his partner quizzically. "You mean, wrong?"

"Yeah, wrong." Gardner agreed with a frown.

"Look, doc, you came to us, remember?" Worth icily replied.

"We have one more shipment and then weíre history." Hodges suddenly announced. "Iíd like to see a real sun and a real moon for once. I want off this rock and hope to never return!"

"Ok, ok! One more shipment and then weíre done!" Gardner put up his hands defensively.

Worth walked over to the container quickly and pulled the lid open. A cold fog billowed up from within. Hodges smiled and waved Gardner over. Gardner joined them and peered into the container. There inside were two bluish balls about twice the size of basketballs. He reached in and tested the surface of one of them. It was frozen solid. He smiled slightly and cleared his throat nervously. Hodges dug out a pocket computer and pried its lid open. Gardner put his right thumb on the tiny screen and the computer beeped softly.

"Kenneth Gardner, Ph.D., transfer twenty thousand credits to the Hodges and Worth account."

"Transfer complete, thank you for your input, Doctor Gardner." The computer announced.

"Thanks doc! Yeah, buddy!" Worth smiled and slapped him on the back. "Itís partying time!"

The two men left the container with Gardner and they got into their hover car. The machine roared loudly and took off vertically. Then it spun around and headed into town. The big red orb of Tarvek loomed on the horizon as they sped off westward. Gardner sighed sadly and closed the lid of the container. He shook his head and then noticed Misha looking out the living room window at him. She did not have a happy expression on her face. He smiled weakly at her and she let the curtain fall quickly.

The communications station sat on a bleak rock outcrop in an arid part of Tarvek 12. It was nearly a hundred miles or so from the nearest Ermani settlement. Because of the high magnetic field emulating from the gas giant; communications were sporadic at best. The station provided a communications link between the spaceport and the slinger port. The slinger port was in a state of gravitational balance known as a Lagrange point. This is the point between the gas giant Tarvek and its moon Tarvek 12 in which the gravitational pull between the two are equal. Thus the slinger port did not have to maintain its position because it simply stays in place.

Inside the station an asian man tapped an Internet screen and licked his lips occasionally. The screen flickered and he puckered his lips. He tapped the screen to print the image and the printer spit out the picture. He whirled around in his chair and retrieved the paper. It showed a scantily clad young girl playing with other near naked young girls on a beach somewhere in the galaxy. He took out a folder from a drawer and added the picture to his collection.

"Benny!" His partnerís sudden shout nearly made him drop the folder in shock.

"Man! Donít do that to me, Jake!" Benny held his hand to chest and rolled his eyes.

"Címere, take a look at this!" Jake motioned him to the west window of the station.

"What?" Benny joined him at the window and peered out. "Hey, thatís an Ermani!"

"Yeah, whatís he doing here?" Jake nodded quickly. "Letís go find out what he wants."

The Ermani struggled off the complaining camel like beast he rode. Benny and Jake stood near the stations main door and waited patiently for him to dismount. The man walked slowly and painfully towards them. It was apparent that he was immensely old. His robes shown frayed edges and sand had collected in their folds. The robes were a little faded in spots but what color was left was of a reddish hue. The old man straightened to his full height suddenly and bowed slightly to the two station keepers. Benny and Jake returned the greeting slowly.

Jake sucked in his breath slowly as he looked the old man over. He had long flowing white hair and a long white beard. The old manís wrinkled skin was the color of old leather and was cracked from years of exposure to the sun. His eyes were bright blue and sparkled with an odd intensity. He smiled a toothless grin and nodded to the two men.

"Umm, Iím Jake and this is Benny." Jake began the introductions with a wave of his hand. "Can we help you, sir?"

"I am Jun Havis, the Doabi of the Raddi tribe." The old man spoke in heavily accented English. "I need you to send a message of great importance."

"A Doabi?" Benny whistled in awe. Jakeís mouth opened suddenly. Then they both bowed deeply and with a bit more reverence. "Forgive us, Holiness, we should have known from your robes!"

"Reverence from humans is an insult." The Doabi observed icily. "I need you to send for a woman named Karen Walsh. It is very important that she visit my tribeís village."

"Umm, I know of an Adonis Walsh. Is that who youíre looking for?" Jake asked hopefully.

"No! Not the father, the daughter!" The old man shook his head rapidly. 'She is here, I know she is!"

"Yeah, old man Walsh has a daughter!" Benny clicked his fingers suddenly. "But sheís probably with him on some expedition somewhere."

"No! She is here, I know!" The Doabi again shook his head. "I feel her presence in the Consciousness. She is here with us now!"

"Well, with all due respect, Holiness, how would you know this?" Jake asked respectfully. "What is the Consciousness?"

"I do not expect you to understand, so I will not explain!" The Doabi nodded once with a pout on his face. "Hmph! Silly humans!"

"Youíre right, Holiness, we wouldnít understand!" Benny replied coolly, obviously insulted. "Weíre just silly humans!"

"Shut up, Benny!" Jake whispered hoarsely and batted his partner on his head. Then he addressed the old man. "Umm, we will contact Karen Walsh for you, your Holiness."

Benny smiled and winked at the old man. The Doabi didnít like him at all. He frowned and stared into the humanís eyes. After a few moments of this staring contest Benny suddenly whimpered and collapsed in a heap. Jake caught him as he fell. The old man turned and walked away slowly. Benny held his hands to his head and sobbed at Jakeís feet. The camel beast groaned fitfully as it labored under the Doabiís weight. Jake looked down at his partner and then watched the old man ride away.

"Jake! Stop bellowing at me! Tone the language down a little, would you, the censure screen is bleeping out everything that youíre saying!" Simmons pleaded with the red-faced man on his IM Box. "Now, slow down and start over, OK?"

"OK, Iíll tell you again, Dave." Jake paused and took a breath. "An old Ermani man, a Doabi, came here to leave a message for a Karen Walsh to visit his village. He said that it was very important and insisted that she was here on this rock. He got a little condescending towards us and Benny smarted off to him. Well, then the old dude does a whammy on my buddy!"

"Umm, can you elaborate just a little bit?" Simmons turned his head as a pretty asian woman entered the room. She wore a tight jumper that had a zipper running the whole length of her front. "What do you mean by Ďwhammyí?"

"Well, all I know is that Benny and the Doabi get into a staring contest for about a minute. Then all of a sudden Benny keels over holding his head like it was going to blow off his shoulders or something!"

"Is Benny all right?" Simmons smiled as the woman sat down in one his office chairs.

"Well, hell, no!" Jake growled at him. "I had to send for a Med team. They carted him off to the hospital about an hour ago. They said something about him being in a state of mental shock. If that boy dies Iíll freak, man. We go back a long ways, Dave, heís like a brother to me!"

"Ok, Jake, take it easy!" Simmons tried to calm him down. "Iíll try to find this Karen Walsh for your Doabi."

"Hey, alien man, you find out what he did to Benny! That old buzzard needs to do some prison time for this!" Jake started to turn red in the face again. "Those freaks are your baby!"

"Now, just a minute, Jake!" Simmons replied defensively. "We only research alien life forms! We donít have any control over them and they donít have to answer to us!"

"Whatever!" Jake scowled angrily. "I just want my friend back to normal, thatís all!"

"Ok, Jake, Iíll see what I can do." Simmons tried to placate the man. The he turned to the woman and smiled. "Oh, Terri wants to say Hi!"

The woman crossed her eyes and flipped him the bird. Jakeís face turned beet red on the screen and started yelling obscenities. The censure screen bleeped away loudly as it tried to filter out his tirade. Simmons tapped the Internet screen to turn the volume down.

"Ok, Jake, Iíll get back to you, see ya!" Simmons said with a laugh.

"Real funny, Dave!" Terri said with a slight smirk. "Now heís going to have a stroke."

"What is it with you that makes your former boyfriends do a primal scream at the mention of your name?"

"He just couldnít handle me!" She shrugged her shoulders. "Heís a wimp!"

"Here I thought you two were made for each other." Simmons sighed sadly. "Guess itís my fault! I hooked you two together."

"Oh, get over it, mister bleeding heart!" She spat angrily. "I donít blame you at all, ok?"

"Ok, ok. Sorry!"

"Subject change!" Terri said raising her hand.


"Check out the Internet news." Terri pointed to his screen. "Another goat herder Ermani cut his nuts off just after another air cow crashes and burns!"

"So eloquently stated with your usual finesse!" Simmons rolled his eyes.

"Yeah, yeah, whatever!" She waved a hand and smiled. "Well, gotta run, lover!"

"Oh, no, you donít, Terri!" Simmons shook his head rapidly. "Let me lay down a few rules here!"

"Oh, no, youíre not one of those authoritative types, are you?"

"Firstly, Iím your boss, ok? Secondly, donít assume that youíll wrap me around your finger that easily." Simmons became serious. "Besides that, you have a habit of doing a General Sherman and blazing a trail of destruction through all your relationships."

"Who said I was going to do all that?" Terri gave him a seductive look and smiled. "I just thought we could do a little picnic, maybe some skinny dipping, and well, take it from there."

"Well, yeah, umm, I just donít want to be your next victim, ok?"

"Sheesh, arenít we paranoid!" She stood up and unzipped her jumper quickly. She leaned forward and pulled her jumper open. Simmons saw enough to know that she wasnít wearing any undergarments. "See what youíre missing? Going once, going twice, gone!"

Simmons gulped and felt his face blush warmly. She smiled and zipped up the jumper quickly. Then she spun around and quickly exited the office. He shook his head slowly and began to breathe normally. He tapped on the Internet screen to search for Karen Walshís pager number.

Walsh stretched out in the patio lounge and sipped on her second White Russian. Mendelssohn played an eerie rendition of the first movement of his "Scottish" Symphony. It always gave her the chills whenever it played. It started out slowly like a funeral march and gradually speeded up until it was a bold melody. Then after it slowed and sped up several times it became a bit less sad sounding. Near the middle it sounded a little spooky again and changed tempos once again. Then the movement made a bold flourish towards the middle and ended a bit more cheerfully than it started. A slight breeze blew across the balcony as the steel gray planetoid Zerece hung low in the late afternoon sky.

"Another refill!" She called out to her servo droid. It zipped up to her and swapped glasses quickly. "Thanks, barkeep!"

Her pager rang loudly and she jumped at the sound. She pulled the offending thing off her belt quickly and turned to look at its screen. She peered at the side screen and pushed the answer button. It stopped ringing and a man appeared in the tiny screen.


"Doctor Walsh?" The man said. She looked at him intently and decided that he was fairly attractive. "You are Doctor Karen Walsh, right?"

"Well, the degree is honorary, I only have a Masters in Anthropology." She smiled at the tiny face. "Who are you?"

"I am David Simmons and my doctorates degree in Anthropology is not honorary." He smiled back at her. "But I like to keep things a little less formal. Can I call you Karen?"

"Uh, sure, David."

"Dave, please." He corrected her nicely. "I am the Director of the Institute for Alien Research here on Tarvek 12"

"Umm, ok. Just in case you havenít noticed, Iím human!" She quipped with a wink. "What are you calling me for?"

"Well, your fatherís and your reputation precedes you. Iíve read considerable reviews of your work with telepathic cultures." He said with a serious look. "We need your help on a puzzling development. Weíre a bit out of our league here."

"Care to bring me up to speed?" She sipped on her mixed drink slowly.

"Sure, a couple of hours ago a holy man of the Ermani tribe did some telepathic thing on a friend of one of my colleagues." This intrigued her a bit. She listened intently. "The telepathic aspect was some sort of psychic pulse or something. The man who received the pulse collapsed and is now in a state of shock."

Walsh nearly choked on her drink suddenly. Simmons saw this and waited for her recover. She called for another drink. The servo droid appeared again and swapped glasses quickly. She quickly took a sip of the new drink and looked into her pager.

"I can tell by your reaction that youíve heard of this before." Simmons observed politely. " I wonder if you could come the office tomorrow?"

"I would love to meet with you to discus this." She said with a smile. "I have heard of this, in fact, Iíve experienced the same thing before."

"You have?" He was a bit startled. "Well, I guess I called the right person then."

"Umm, yeah. You could say that." Walsh shuddered a little. "Umm, Iím not a morning person, how about one in the afternoon?"

"Sure, no problem, Karen. Thanks!"

The screen went blank and she clipped the pager back on her belt. She got up and went over to the railing. She peered down towards the lobby and shrank back from the edge a little. From this height the pools in the lobby were like glittering gems and the people down there were like ants. Mendelssohn played on in the background and gave a surreal feeling to the view. She began to feel the effects of the mixed drinks and laughed suddenly. Then she got a wild notion and downed the rest of her drink quickly.

"Hey room, Iím going for a swim!" She announced.

"Certainly, Doctor Walsh!" It answered back in a soothing computerized voice. "Be careful in the pools!"


Guests in lounge chairs surfing the Internet sparsely populated the lobby. Walsh walked by them and headed straight for the pools. At the edge of the deep pool she tugged her loafers off and stuck one of her feet into the water. Mmmmmmmm!! The water was incredible! She picked up her loafers quickly and then dropped them in a patio chair. She quickly stripped down to nothing and piled her clothes on top of her shoes.

She looked around at the various quests to see their reaction to her nudity and was slightly disappointed that no one looked up from their Internet screens. She shrugged her shoulders and climbed the ladder to the diving board. Then she walked the length of the board and stood at the end for a moment. Then she bounced a couple of times and then sailed into the air. She did a full somersault and ended in the water feet first.

Walsh swam up from the bottom to break the surface and sighed contentedly. She swam a couple of laps around the pool and then climbed out of the pool. A servo droid zipped up to her with a thick towel slung over one of its metal arms. She wrung out her hair by twisting it into a ball and then took the offered towel. The droid left abruptly to pamper some other guest. She looked around at the others in the lobby and was a bit sad that hotel lobby pools were clothing optional. She sighed and started to put her clothes back on.


She jumped at the sound but knew what it was this time. She frantically finished dressing and then looked around for the air cow. People vacated their lounge chairs suddenly and pointed to something overhead. Then she looked straight up and saw the air cow. It was directly over her. It filled up nearly the whole open space in the lobby. A tentacle stretched down and she shrank away from it in fear. The huge blue eyes of the animal stared at her intently and seemed to be a little sad.

"What do you want?" She asked it fearfully.


"I, I canít understand you!" She shouted an answer back. The tentacle retreated and the beast floated upward. "No! No! Donít go away! I just donít understand! Come back!"

The air cow floated away quickly and left behind a lobby full of stunned hotel guests. Walsh shook her head trying to comprehend what had just happened. Several people were staring at her now. Oh, sure, stare at me now! She grimaced and rolled her eyes. Then she sought out an elevator with her eyes and found one. She stepped forward into the crowd and slowly a path parted for her. The guests were standing around with open mouths and stared at her intently. Only when she was safely in the elevator and the doors closed behind her did she decide to take a nervous shallow breath.

The Doabi Jun Havis shifted in his saddle a little and his camel grunted in protest. He was just about to cross over an irrigation ditch. The ditch was dug a little haphazardly and snaked lazily through the maize fields. The old man decided to let his animal drink from the ditch and reined it in at the waterís edge. The animal slurped at the water noisily. He stayed in the saddle because it took too long to dismount and climb back on. He was bone weary from his trip to the human outpost.

He ran his fingers through his long white beard and flicked his tongue across his chapped lips. Then he felt a ripple in the Consciousness as if a pebble hit the surface and radiated oscillating rings of waves. A group of air cows floated majestically overhead. There were six of them, three young males, two old females, and a young pregnant female. Their huge billowy air sacs loomed above their collections of tentacles. Their bluish gray bulks lined up together to give the appearance of an approaching storm. The Doabi smiled as they floated silently away like clouds.

A moment or two later a human vehicle hummed by at a rapid speed. It floated about three feet off the ground and the air that it stirred up blasted the green stalks of maize, making them bend and then spring back upright. The old man could clearly see the occupants of the machine, they were two human males. The old man scowled at them angrily. He knew what they were up to.

The hover car whined through the streets rapidly. It banked right and then left to swerve around slow traffic. Inside Walsh pulled her seatbelt tighter and prayed that the servo droid driver wouldnít kill her. Then suddenly the nose reared up and came to a stop rapidly. Walsh nearly was lifted off her seat from the sudden halt. Her stomach lurched spastically and began to feel queasy. She knew that it wasnít a good idea to spend half the night drinking White Russians and rocking to Joan Jett and Billy Idol songs until she nearly grew deaf. Waking up this morning was an adventure in itself as her room orbited one way and then the other about her. She had quickly popped a couple gel caps of hangover killers and then held on to the bathroom sink to wait for the ride to stop. Most of the hangover had subsided by the time she finished showering.

Now nearly a half-hour later she had put her life in the hand of a robot driver whose only function was to get her across town in less than fifteen minutes, dead or alive. She simply closed her eyes at the numerous near misses and hung on for dear life. One more street the droid had told her. Then suddenly the hover car slammed to a stop again and then settled near the curb. Thank God! She released her seat belt and bailed out quickly. Simmons was already at the curb waiting for her.

"No time to explain right now, will talk in the car!" He quickly shook her hand and turned left. "This way!"

"Whatís going on, what happened?" Walsh asked while trying to keep up with his ground-eating pace. "Dave!"

Simmons ducked into a waiting hover car and she followed him in. The door slid shut as soon as she hit the seat and the car blasted away from the curb. She quickly buckled her seat belt. Damn! Then she noticed that the driver was human. It was a woman, asian by what she saw in the rear view mirror.

"Karen, this is Terri. Sheís our driver because Droids are not allowed to drive outside of the city. Terri here is the best there is in an emergency." Simmons smiled at her. Terri threw Walsh an icy look and then concentrated on her driving. She drove almost as bad as the droid did. "Karen is going to help us with our little mystery here. Unfortunately a few things hit the fan the last time you and I talked."

"Like?" Walsh asked and grabbed the doorís armrest as the car banked to the right sharply.

"Benny, the man that got the whammy from the Ernami holy man, came out of his trance this morning. The first thing he did was file criminal charges against the Doabi. The police went straight to the Governorís office and the Governor went straight to me." Simmons said with a scowl. "She insists that we had withheld information about the Ermaniís telepathic abilities. Now I have to find out what happened to Benny and explain why I didnít know about it before."

"Did you know?"

"No maíam! We knew that the Ernami somehow communicated with the air cows but that was it." Simmons shrugged his shoulders slightly. "On top of all that, I have six dead and mutilated air cows and the same number of dead and castrated Ernamis. I donít see what the connection is at all? Any ideas?"

"Well, from what I have read, all I know is that the Ernami are simple farmers raising crops and cattle." Walsh replied shaking her head. "Other than that I donít have a clue."

"Why do the Ernami raise cattle?" Terri suddenly spoke. They stared at the back of her head in silence. "Huh? Have you ever seen them eat meat?"

"Come to think of it, no!" Simmons answered slowly. "But the air cows are carnivorous!"

"So the Ernami raise the air cows food. That still is not a connection, though." Walsh frowned. "What do the air cows give them in return?"

"Beats me!" Terri replied with a shrug of her shoulders.

"Before I forget, Karen, explain to me what that Doabi did to Benny."

"Well, you remember the old style submarines of about a couple hundred years ago?" Walsh smiled as Simmons gave her a blank look. "They used something called sonar to find their depth and to keep from running into things underwater. Sonar was nothing but a sound generator that sent a pulse of sound to the bottom and measured the time it took to return. Because sound traveled at a certain speed underwater sonar could be used to give an accurate graphical representation of the oceanís bottom."

"Umm, ok, I follow thus far."

"So, what the Doabi did was the same thing. But instead of using sound he used thought." Walsh grinned widely. "My father did the same thing to me when I was a bratty twelve year old. One day he finally reached his limit with me. He stared me down for a minute or two. Boing! My brain resonated like a tuning fork. Shut me up for about a day or so."

"Can you do it to?" Terri asked peering over her left shoulder slightly. "Iíve got a hit list for you if youíre interested."

"Umm, never tried it." Walsh laughed.

Terri drove them out of the city and ascended up to about a hundred feet. The she opened up the throttle and the hover car lurched ahead with a burst of speed. Walshís stomach finally had enough and she turned pale trying to keep her breakfast down. Simmons produced some blue pills to calm her stomach and she gobbled them down quickly.

"Ewwww! Ick!" Walsh screwed her face up and stuck her tongue out. "Iíd rather puke!"

"Umm, donít. We donít have any air sick bags." Simmons replied with a wide grin.

"Where are we going anyway?" She asked.

"To visit the Doabi of the Raddi tribe."

"Umm, who?"

"The whammy man." Simmons winked. "He asked for you by name."


Terri brought them to a stop somewhere in the middle of nowhere. They had to wait a minute or two while the dust the hover car stirred up settled. Once the cloud of dust had dissipated Walsh could discern a small village of thatched roof huts just a few yards away. She and Simmons got out quickly. They found themselves in front of a small crowd of Ernami. They had dark brown skin and flat noses. They resembled the Negroid race of humans but they had the blonde hair and blue eyes of the Caucasian race as well. The crowd bowed slightly at their approach and Simmons and Walsh returned the greeting.

The crowd parted slowly and cleared a path for them. At the other end of the path an ancient man waited for them. He bowed to Simmons and Walsh. They looked at each other and then returned the greeting. The ancient man motioned for them to join him. They approached him warily not knowing what to expect.

"I am Jun Havis, the Doabi of this village." The old man said slowly. His accent was strange sounding to Walsh. "Welcome, humans."

"The whammy man." Simmons whispered to Walsh.

The Doabi slowly looked Walsh over for a few moments. The old manís inspection made her shiver slightly even though it was unbearably hot. Then the old manís blue eyes wandered up to gaze into her eyes. Walsh gritted her teeth and met his stare evenly. She expected the manís Ďwhammyí with a pang of dread. Something muffled sounded in her head and she reeled about holding her head with her hands. Her head shook as if it were a bell and some idiot was hammering away at it. She cried out loudly and went down on one knee slowly. Her eyes fluttered from the unseen attack.

Simmons yelled at the old man to make him stop. Suddenly the sensation subsided and Walsh was able to get back up on her feet. She turned to the old man and decided to return fire. Concentrating on all her angry thoughts she pooled them together and willed them to attack the old man. The Doabi smiled his toothless grin and glared at her tauntingly. Nothing happened for several moments and she thought that she couldnít fight back. Then she got really angry and hurled pure hate at the old man.

Then suddenly the Doabi let out a cry and turned his head to the left. He squeezed his eyes shut in apparent pain and nearly fell backward. A younger man caught him clumsily and held him upright. Walsh stopped her attack and smiled wickedly at the old man. He regained his composure and bowed deeply to her. Simmons fidgeted like a nervous cat and looked from one to the other.

"Umm, are we done playing submarine, kids?" Simmons frowned.

"I think so, Dave." She replied and bowed to the Doabi again.

"You have great power, young one!" The old man laughed loudly.

"I am Karen Walsh, your Holiness." She said with a quaking voice. The Doabi smiled and took her hand and gently led her to a small circle of white sand.

"I know, young one. Your presence in the Consciousness is greatly felt."

"YouÖyou asked for me?" She stammered fearfully.

"I did not, young one, they did." He nodded at something behind her.

She turned around and let out a cry. There about twenty feet in the air above her were about a dozen air cows. Their bulks hid Simmons and the hover car. Her heart hammered in her chest wildly. The air cows towered over her, their blue eyes staring at her sadly. Then she jumped as she felt a hand her shoulder. She half turned as the Doabi whispered in her ear.

"She wants to speak to you." He said nodding to the nearest air cow. "Do not be afraid."

"Donít be afraid!" Walsh glanced at him in horror. "Iím terrified!"

"Let her touch you, young one." The Doabi laughed. "Hold still now."

"Ttthhhhffffrrrr!! Ssssffiii??"

"What is she saying, Holiness?" She turned to him. A tentacle lightly brushed against her forehead and she jumped at the air cowís touch. "Why does she need to touch me?"

"She cannot speak your human language or mine for that matter. She doesnít have any sort of mouth or vocal chords to speak with." The Doabi smiled wisely. "She must touch you to establish a link between the two of you."

"Ok, ok!" She gulped in fear and gathered her resolve to stay still. "Iím here, touch me!"

Once again the air cow approached and extended her tentacle slowly. It touched Walshís forehead and she shivered in fright. Images came to her in a kaleidoscope of jumbled patterns. She saw two human males firing a weapon at an air cow and watched as it exploded in flames. Then she saw how they mutilated it and left it to die a horrible death. Then she saw a black man talking to them next to a splendid mansion and peering into an open container that issued forth a dense fog.

Next came images of stars and planets. After that came space ships and space probes. It was if she where floating in the nether regions of deep space. She traveled at incredible speeds to far-flung worlds and saw the ancient ruins of some faraway yet to be discovered civilizations. Then she came upon a shiny dark green world and swooped down below the planetís thick clouds. On it she saw immense trees that grew in dense forests on the shores of a murky inland sea. The trees appeared to be a mile high and had huge roots snaking over the forest floor.

Floating gracefully amongst the grand trees were air cows of all different sizes and colors. This was the air cowís home world! They swarmed through the trees like butterflies floating on the wind. They seemed so peaceful and happy to Walsh. Then their warm little world grew suddenly dark and cold. She saw air cows dying by the thousands. A group of the air cows fled the dying world and traveled through the airless void of space. They fled without benefit of any kind of ship and arrived on a distant warm planet far from their home. She recognized the huge red orb of Tarvek as they descended from the skies.

Then she saw the Ermani shaking in fear in their thatched roof huts at the approach of the air cows. Next she saw a young pregnant Ermani woman bravely standing on a small white rock as an air cow approached her and touched her on the forehead. The woman smiled without fear and later showed her people that the strange creatures meant them no harm. Thus they lived together for countless years.

Then after what seemed to be centuries of peace and harmony humans from the planet Earth visited the Ermani. She saw how the humans pushed the primitive natives off their fertile lands and made them live in arid hostile territories. Then the humans built huge sprawling cities and paved endless miles of roads. Industry dotted the far horizons in ugly blots of metal and concrete. Their smokestacks clouded the once pristine skies of the Ermaniís world.

"Do you see, do you feel, do you think?" a female voice boomed in Walshís head. "This is only one aspect of the Consciousness, young one."

"Yes, I do see!" Walsh replied in her thoughts. "I have seen your world and others! How is this possible? It was like I was traveling in space!"

"That is the Consciousness, young one. We travel by thought alone. The Consciousness is the collection of past, present, and future thoughts. All knowledge, all dreams, and all aspirations are housed in the Consciousness." The voice echoed in her head softly. "We have access to all this and more. But we must never abuse the privilege of sharing the Consciousness. This is what we gave to the Ermani in exchange for sharing their world.

"You humans have much to learn in that respect. You have taken this world and changed it to satisfy your needs. Now you hunt our males down and take their testicles from them. Humans use the tissue to make a super drug to lengthen their lives and to cure diseases that have plagued them for eons. Why must we endure such deaths for the continuation of the human species?"

"You shouldnít, itís wrong!" Walsh replied in a fitful gush of guilt. "No intelligent species should die for the sake of another. The men who did thisÖ"

"Have been severely punished, young one." The voice continued. "You must tell your people about us and make them stop their abuses of our species."

"I will, but what of the Ermani men that castrated themselves? What does that mean?"

"The Ermani are us, we are them. We are all, all is one." The voice boomed. "Tell this to your people, young one!"

"I will, I promise!"Walsh smiled warmly. "Thank you for sharing the Consciousness with me, I will never forget it!"

"You are very welcome, young one!"

Then the voice faded away and Walsh saw the old female air cow float upward. Her tentacles retracting as she ascended into the sky. The group of air cows left en masse and drifted slowly away. Their bluish gray bulks appeared to her like a collection of storm clouds as they moved silently to the west. Their bodies slowly became silhouettes against the dark red orb of Tarvek.

Gardner poured himself another stiff drink of Jack Daniels. He had checked into the Hilton shortly after Misha ordered him out of their house. Worth and Hodges arrived with their last shipment and demanded their usual payment. Then the air cows arrived and descended upon them. Worth and Hodges writhed and whimpered in obvious pain as the air cows stared at them with their big blue eyes. They hovered silently above the two hapless men as they clutched their heads and crumpled onto the ground.

The air cows ignored Gardner as he watched in horror. After the air cows floated silently away Misha packed up his things and told him to leave. He could not refuse her because it was her parentís money that built the house; it was more hers than his. When they married he didnít have much but a promising career in genetics.

Now his career was in ruins and his wife was filing for divorce. He looked down at the pools that were thirty-five stories below and swallowed his drink in a huge gulp. Then he put down the glass and climbed up on the rail. He steadied himself and looked down once again. He laughed and took a deep breath.

"Hey, room, Iím going for a swim!" He announced with a smirk.

"Certainly, Doctor Gardner!" It answered back in a soothing computerized voice. "Be careful in the pools!"

"Thanks, man! See you later!" He replied with a laugh.

Then he straightened himself and leaned forward slightly. His feet left the railing and he started to tumble slowly. Air rushed by his ears as he tumbled faster and faster. He laughed wildly as he saw the crystal clear water of the pool rush up towards him. He hit the water at a frightening pace and his neck shattered like glass. A huge geyser of water spewed up from the pool as several guests jumped out of their chairs and ran to investigate.

The guests found Gardner face down near the bottom of the pool. One of them jumped in to retrieve him. Several others noticed a huge shadow pass over the open space of the lobby. They caught a glimpse of a bluish gray object floating away. Some the guests thought is was a storm cloud that passed overhead while others thought it was an air cow.

In a mental ward of a hospital on the other end of the city an attendant sadly shook his head as he checked up with his two newest charges. One was a tall, gangly man with blackened teeth and the other a short man with wavy brown hair. Both were admitted at the same time with the same symptoms of mental shock. The tall one, Worth, simply stared at nothing with wide unseeing eyes. Drool dribbled from his open mouth as he sat like a rock in the middle of the room. His partner, Hodges, stood with his face in a corner and blubbered incoherently.

Benny abruptly shipped out on the next slinger shuttle. The sudden departure deeply shocked his colleague. Jake tried to talk his friend out of going home at least for a little while. His words were wasted on his friend. Benny packed up his things and bought a ticket back to Earth. Two days after Walsh and Simmons returned from the Ermani village, he was gone.

Walsh had gone to the Governor and convinced her to scale back further colonial expansion. Walsh had argued that the colony was big enough already and needed to be confined within the existing developed area. She had given the Governor a glimpse of the Consciousness just like the air cow gave her. That alone scared the Governor into action.

Jun Havis, the Doabi of the Raddi tribe painfully dismounted from his complaining beast of burden. His attendants ushered him to another grisly scene of death. Another young man had castrated himself and slit his throat. The old man shook his head sadly and hoped that this would be the last one. He ordered that the man be carried to the village and then sat upon a small tree stump. When his attendants returned from their labor they found the Doabi asleep at the base of the trunk. They tried to wake him but could not. The Doabi had died peacefully in his sleep.

Several months later Simmons sat at his desk at home and talked to Jake via an IM Box. Jake and Terri had been dating again and he had called Simmons to announce their engagement. The Governor had given the Institute more authority to prosecute air cow poachers and anti-Ernami hate mongers. She had called shortly before Jake to give him the good news. Simmons signed off with Jake and fired off an e-mail to several departments at the Institute.

Then he stepped outside and faced the bright sun with a smile. He walked through a small well-manicured flower garden and came upon his wife sitting on a stone bench. She had just finished painting a strange landscape that featured huge reddish trees that stood by a murky inland sea. She looked up from her work and smiled widely at him.

"Jake called and so did the governorÖ."

"I know, I heard." She smiled and shifted her extended belly. Her unborn child kicked lightly and she smiled and put a hand on her stomach. "The baby kicked again."

"Maybe he heard too, Karen." He smiled and kissed her deeply.

Then she felt a ripple in the Consciousness and looked to the west suddenly. Simmons followed her gaze and saw a pair of air cows floating majestically by them. The big red orb of Tarvek loomed on the horizon before them. Karen watched the pair gradually became smaller as they moved further away. They looked to her like a pair of living clouds suspended in the sky, quietly passing over the land as they have done for centuries.


Copyright © 1999 by Norman Hess

Norman Hess is 39 and lives in Fairmount, Georgia. He is employed as a technical support personnel for a small internet company. He is currently attending a tecnical school majoring in computer networking. Click here to e-mail him.

E-mail: rothise@yahoo.com

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