Monday, November 19, 2018

The Beauty of Horses by Rick Joy

The horses outside Zack's home start to behave oddly, as if coordinated by a sinister intelligence; by Rick Joy.

Just hours before Zack's mind was stolen, horses standing on the nearby ridge were backlit by the setting sun, surrounding each with a warm, slightly fuzzy glow. Zack paused from his daily walk with Roxie, his chocolate lab, to soak up the vision.

The leaves on the trees were astounding, with sun-bright yellows giving way to heart-warming oranges and lush, dark reds, all contrasted with a polka dot spray of still-green leaves. And the fall smells, crisp and earthy, made the walk that much better. It was Friday, the work week done, temperature cool but not cold. This was a good walk.

Zack and Roxie lived alone now that Sheila was gone, so Zack tried to take Roxie out every day after he got home. Partly from a sense of guilt for leaving her home and partly because the walks were calming after a stressful workday. For a while after Sheila left, Roxie wouldn't even greet Zack when he came home. She would just lounge on Zack's bed waiting to hear food being poured into her bowl. Zack assumed that Roxie blamed him for Sheila's absence. He still didn't completely admit what happened between them, although it was obvious. Long hours and then coming home with a headful of work left little time or energy for their relationship. Sheila wanted and deserved more.

Sometimes their walks brought a flight of startled sparrows, or maybe a dead snake, or a groundhog hole, or really interesting smells at the base of a fence post, or horse shit, which was one of Roxie's favorite treats. Today they walked through the field behind their house, which was part of the adjoining horse farm and their favorite trek. Roxie was in luck because there was a mound of perfectly aged horse shit near the fence. She spied, sniffed and ate part of that natural treat before Zack, grossed out and pissed off, could pull her away.

At the next fence line near the bottom of the hill they turned around and began the walk back to the house as the sun set ever lower on that spectacular fall evening. Once home, Roxie insisted upon being fed. Evidently her surprise treat hadn't been very filling.

Zack was hungry, too, so he opened the fridge to see what his supper choices might be. There was half a roasted chicken carcass - that wouldn't take much effort. As he sat down in his comfortable recliner and pulled the much-used tray table close, Roxie lay down beside his chair, hopeful that some stray piece of Zack's supper would come flying her way. When it came to food, Roxie was ever the optimist.

After supper, standing at the sink cleaning dishes and looking out the window, Zack noticed the horses from the farm were beginning to gather along the fence near his property. That hadn't happened in a while. Now that he thought about it, he didn't remember any occasion when all of the horses had come to visit.

With supper eaten and the dishes done, Zack felt the urge to take Roxie out again. They walked through the sliding glass door onto the deck and stood there for a moment soaking in the early evening view. The sun was low, nearly spent. The fall colors fairly glowed, warm and inviting.

With that, he and Roxie ambled to the trees in his back yard and picked a couple of not-too-wormy apples for the horses.

Zack tied Roxie to a tree near the fence line so that he had both hands free. He opened his folding knife, cut the apples into quarters, and walked up to the fence. Placing one of the quarters on the flat of his open hand, Zack offered it to the nearest mare. She seemed restless, slightly out of sorts, but sniffed the apple. Then, with surprising speed for an animal so large, she snatched it from Zack's hand. Startled, Zack pulled back from the fence.

His hand was bleeding.

He looked over at Roxie and she was on the ground shaking.

"Roxie! What's wrong, girl?" Zack took two quick steps to her side and began stroking her. "It'll be okay," he whispered, "I'm here." Her trembling slowly subsided as he cooed and coddled her.

Confused by the way the animals were behaving, he thought he'd try an experiment. He threw half of the remaining apple quarters on the ground and waited to see what would happen. Nothing. Not a single horse ate a single piece.

Zack once again put an apple quarter onto the flat of his right hand and offered it to one of the mares. This time he was ready when the horse made her move. She struck with unnerving quickness, but Zack was ready and didn't lose any more skin. The apple just fell to the ground, neglected.

Zack looked more closely at the horses. They all had that wild-eyed look they sometimes get. No, wait. It wasn't just that. These horses looked insane with fear. Thirty horses were beginning to move along the fence, pawing the ground, snorting, jostling each other, kicking the fence. Zack untied Roxie and backed away. The horses behaved more and more erratically, some of them rearing on their hind legs, screaming in terror. Then suddenly it stopped.

The herd milled about listlessly for a moment, then slowly, almost reluctantly, formed a single, large circle, heads toward the center. Then they all walked inward until they were so close each horse's head was tight against its neighbors', nose to nose.

Zack led Roxie away from the horse circle and back to the house. It was getting dark and he was more than a little creeped out. Once inside, after Roxie received her customary treat and he tended to his wound, he sat down in his recliner, exhausted.

A half hour later Roxie was at the door demanding to be let out, which really surprised him. As she went out, Zack chanced a glance at the horses. They were still in that tight circle, barely moving. No, not moving at all. Not an ear flick or tail twitch.

Roxie returned quickly, tail between her legs, and dashed inside as Zack slid open the door.

He made sure it was locked and then walked to the bathroom where he peeled off his shirt, washed his face and underarms and toweled off his back. Roxie sat outside the open bathroom and watched him.

BAM!

The noise seemed to come from the bedroom.

BAM!

Zack crept toward the sound. Cautious as he entered, he saw nothing unusual. Then another noise. This time a kind of snorting coming from the window. Gingerly, he snuck up to it and looked out.

Two horses, wild-eyed, nostrils flared, looked back.

He fled from the bedroom, past the windows on the east side of the living room (three horses), past the sliding glass doors overlooking the deck (two horses), to the front door. Slowly, he pulled it open, his mind racing. Two horses stared back, silent screams of terror in their eyes.

Zack grabbed his nearest landline phone and pressed the button. Nothing. No dial tone.

He ran into the living room and tried the other phone... nothing.

Panic was now getting the upper hand.

Zack forced himself to walk the interior perimeter, checking every door and window. Horses. Horses. Horses. He was trapped in his own home. Or was he? He hadn't tried to leave. Yes, there were horses standing at every possible exit, but that didn't necessarily mean that they would actually stop him. So he went back to the front door, opened it and stepped out. Instantly, a horse head-butted him, knocking him back into the house, sore and freaked out.

A prisoner in his own home, Zack closed and locked the door, then retreated to the living room, slumping onto the sofa.

Roxie sat in the middle of the room, staring at Zack as he tried to make sense of the senseless. She seemed calm as she walked over to him, tail wagging, and put her head on his knee. He was comforted by that small, loving gesture, but then his head started to ache.

Who wouldn't get a headache after this?

Me. Me. ME! Zack's mind felt like it was going to explode.

Me who? Me what? Where is this "me" coming from? Have I truly lost my mind?

Yes. Yes. YES! The eye-watering pain receded.

"Me"? Now "Yes". What is this?

Me. Me. Me!

He understood.

Answers. "Me" and "Yes" were answers to his questions. With the little self-control and courage he had remaining, Zack asked the next question.

Who is "Me"?

The pain began to increase again. But suddenly it just stopped.

The one who controls you now.

What? Who controls me now?

Roxie lifted her head from Zack's knee, stood up, and looked him right in the eye.

Me.

Zack exploded out of the sofa as Roxie calmly walked to the sliding glass door. The horses outside seemed agitated, and then simply sat down on the deck like dogs would. Roxie turned around and walked back toward Zack, hopping on her back legs as the horses seemed to beg for treats.

Me.

No, no, no! Not Roxie. How can this be?

It is.

Question. Answer. He was so frightened that he began to shake uncontrollably and the part of his mind he still retained began to go blank, unfocused. Overload. Too much input.

Who are YOU?

I am WE.

That makes no sense. Who are WE?

This time there were no words. Just images. Visions of a vast consciousness. Beyond vast. Beyond intelligence as humans would describe it. Limitless space, limitless time, with no human constraints imposed. One endless consciousness built from countless points of sentience. The points were separate, but not. Confusing, overwhelming his being with the incomprehensible enormity of infinity.

He did not understand it all, but he understood enough.

They're each, they're one, they travel and now they are here in my mind. In control. Are any of these thoughts really mine? How would I know? I'm losing. I'm losing. I'm losing myself!

STOP! erupted in his mind, silencing the panic that threatened his barely-held sanity. He fell to the floor, soaked with sweat, shaking, sobbing, but somehow still aware he was Zack, not knowing if that was good or bad.

We have just begun to test you. Your mind must remain. How else can we know about you? How else can we plan our course? How else can we consume your fear?

With that, he knew that this wasn't about him at all. It was about humanity itself. They were using him to understand how to attack the consciousness of Earth. To consume it. Use it up. Then move on. This comprehension bred panic anew.

He had to resist, or at least mislead, this presence that imprisoned him in his own home... and mind. Yes, I am still self-aware. I can think. I can walk and talk. I MUST RESIST.

Horses are easy to control, but their usefulness is limited. Their minds can't communicate in the way that Roxie's or yours can. That's why the horse circle was necessary.

Zack, barely holding on to reality, listened, hoping that he would discover some opening that would allow him to begin to reclaim his mind. He didn't know if that was even possible now. Maybe (ME) was so much in his head that he couldn't hide any of his thoughts from this intruder. If so, he and probably all of humanity were well and truly fucked.

Where do you come from? How did you get here?

We come from the universe.

I don't understand.

We come from the last consumed planet.

A vision of a lush, warm, wet world burst into his head. Then images of creatures appeared, obviously not earthly. Some were mammalian-like, not so alien that they were hard to look upon. Zack realized he had something in common with them - horror.

But WHAT are you?

Travelers who consume the energy of thought. Our food. That is our food. Energy from intense emotions sustains us best, but sometimes that is not found and we must feed on lesser energy. These beings, your beings, should sustain us very well. But first we must test you so that we know how best to access and consume your energy. Your fear.

What happens when this energy is consumed?

We are nourished and travel on. The beings end.

Which of these beings end?

Eventually, all.

Where do you go, then?

Searching for thought. But enough of this test for now. There is another test that we must try.

What test?

This one.

And with that Zack abruptly stood up and slowly walked toward the kitchen. It was not his decision to do so.

He tried to stop. No luck. He tried to collapse to the floor. Nothing. He tried to veer off course even a little, but couldn't, and now he was seriously afraid. His hands began to shake violently and his legs soon followed. His stomach muscles were twitching, and his mouth was parched. His slow, unstoppable walk to the kitchen made him feel like a condemned man.

Once inside the kitchen, he stopped in front of the silverware drawer, heart pounding. Sweat poured from his underarms, forehead, and palms. His left hand opened the silverware drawer and his traitorous right snatched a grapefruit spoon from it. He watched as the beautiful spoon with the serrated edge glided from the drawer and gouged out his left eye.

Pain and shock consumed his being. Pain, white-hot fire, a salted wound, far beyond anything that Zack had ever experienced, exploded from the socket that once cradled half his sight.

Zack had no idea how long he stood there, bloody spoon in hand, gouged eyeball sightless on the counter top. The pain had eased slightly, but he had trouble seeing clearly from his remaining eye and he was trembling uncontrollably. He turned around, abandoning the accusing eye, walked to the bathroom and turned on the light. The sight was gruesome. Surprisingly, there was much less blood than he expected, but the eyeless socket nearly made him vomit, and he almost passed out. Get it together, he thought as he tried to remember the basics of first aid. Staunch the flow of blood, clean the wound, and treat the patient for shock. I don't know if that's even right, but it'll have to do.

After the horror of the bathroom, as Zack made for the recliner and the small comfort it would provide, he passed a window. Outside, he saw a startling sight... horses being horses. In the dim light it was hard to see at first, but a group of five horses was grazing on his lawn as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Zack collapsed into the recliner.

The feeling of being watched (my eye, my eye watches) returned. It was different now, restless. Stuffing his fear, Zack turned his mind toward the Presence and his eye toward what once was Roxie.

You fucking piece of shit! You stole my eye! Unreasoning anger overwhelmed caution.

No, the spoon was in your hand, the action was yours to take. We just made a suggestion. You take suggestion very well, it seems. The Presence seemed almost smug. Soon we will begin the final test, but first you must rest. The last test will take strength.

Pain and shock began to diminish. Sleep called and Zack answered.

Zack reluctantly climbed out of a coma-like sleep, until a stabbing pain shocked him awake with a sudden, sickening reminder of his loss.

If I cried, would my missing left eye shed a tear for itself? It was funny and he started to laugh. It was hilarious. He roared. It was -

STOP! This is not the test, burst into his mind from the agitated Presence. This is revealing, but it is not the test.

Zack snapped back to the present.

But it's in my mind. It knows everything that I know. Or does it?

He planned an experiment, fully expecting the Presence to experience his thoughts simultaneously. Perhaps he could hold two thoughts at once, one on the surface of consciousness, one buried deeper. Both true, one misleading. Or maybe he could present misdirection as fact. It was hard to think. Emotional and physical pain threatened to overwhelm him, but he pressed on. Zack had played around with meditation and found it to be relaxing, rejuvenating, and a little bit like being an observer of his thoughts, not actually part of them. Maybe he could use that technique. If it didn't work, well perhaps it would help with the pain.

He breathed slowly and deeply, focusing on that primal act until he was aware of, but not interacting with, thoughts and surroundings. The feeling of another presence was gone. Easy, don't think. And that fast, the effect was destroyed.

What did you just do? Where did you go?

Hope. Zack felt hope. I started to fall asleep again, he thought to the Presence as it seemed to become agitated.

Enough sleep! You must stay awake for the test. The last test, the big test. We start now.

Whatever this test was, Zack knew that he wanted no part of it. He began to meditate, then watched as his body shuffled to the kitchen table, picked up his cell phone and speed dialed Sheila's number.

"My god, Zack, what do you want at this hour?" asked a very groggy and disoriented Sheila.

"Sheila, please help me. I've been hurt."

"What's going on? Should I call 911?"

"No! I just need you to come over right now. I've accidentally injured my eye and now they're both watering so much I can't tell how serious it is. Look, I wouldn't ask for your help if it wasn't important. You know that, Sheila, so please, help me."

"I'm calling 911. You know I'm not a nurse or anything, so I don't know what else I can do."

"Wait! If you check me out and think we should call someone, I'll gladly go along. That's the whole point really."

"This just doesn't seem right, Zack."

"Please. Come over."

Stillness, then, "Okay. I'll be there in 15 minutes."

Zack's will crumbled and he could no longer remain only an observer.

Where were you? What are you doing?

I don't know what you're talking about.

Of course you do. I feel it. You are doing something with your mind to shield your thoughts. What are you doing? How do you do this?

I don't know what you are talking about, Zack responded wearily.

I understand. This is a way for you to resist, you think, but you're wrong. Did you in any way change the actions that We intended? No. Whatever you did, it failed. This is just more data. The test is working. Sheila is on her way.

Sheila is on her way. He had to prepare for whatever the Presence had in store for her. With all the will he could muster, he tried to penetrate the consciousness holding him hostage. Nothing. There wasn't the slightest glimmer of an opening. It was like trying to open a perfectly smooth, diamond-covered orb. There was no seam, not a hint of a flaw. It was impervious to his fledgling probe. He could not attack this thing directly.

Zack began his meditation routine with a sense of urgency and got nowhere. His eyeless socket throbbed insistently. He started again.

As soon as Zack felt the Presence, he attempted to envelop and isolate it. He had no experience with psychic warfare, and he thought his meditative state would collapse at any moment. He was operating on instinct alone.

He mentally surrounded the Presence with razor wire. The razor wire held, but only for a microsecond, then it shattered and the Presence was free. Zack created a block of ice around the Presence, and instantly it was melted, evaporated. A glimmer of hope streaked across his thoughts and he acted. He created a perfectly smooth, diamond-covered orb around the Presence. It held.

Not trusting that this was reality, Zack continued to maintain the orb by force of thought, but he knew he couldn't do so for long. Was there some way to make this permanent without the need for constant effort? He imagined that the orb was without beginning, without end, perfectly smooth, indestructible, timeless, and permanent. He took a mental step back from his work, ready to act at once if need be. The orb remained solid with the Presence contained inside. Zack collapsed to the floor, breathless, sweating and weak, but hopeful. He felt the Presence stir, but only that. Nothing more. Zack passed out.

Wham!

Wham!

Wham!

"Zack! Zack, are you there? Open the door! Zack, it's Sheila, open the door."

Slowly, Zack awoke, clawing his way back to consciousness. As his mind became more alert, the pain became more acute. He hurt all over, especially his head - inside and out. Gingerly, he rose to one knee.

"Zack, open the door!"

He staggered to his feet and fumbled with the deadbolt. Sheila burst through the door, then she stopped cold, color draining from her face.

"Oh my god, Zack, what happened to you? Are you okay? Here, sit down. Sit down! YOUR EYE! What happened to your eye?"

He knew the scene was gruesome: he was splattered with blood, his empty socket was covered with a crude bandage, and his eyeball was still on the counter.

"What happened, Zack? Tell me. What the fuck happened here?" Sheila, near panic, was close to fainting.

The force of everything that had happened in the last 12 hours came rushing into him like a stampede. Zack felt as though he had just finished running a marathon... a particularly long and violent one.

"I don't know how to tell you what happened, Sheila. I remember everything, but I can't explain any of it. Not really. I'm tired, hurt, afraid, and you shouldn't be here. It may not be safe. Go. Go now."

"Don't be ridiculous," she shouted, voice rising. "I can't leave you like this. Besides, you called me. You want me here. You're in shock and need to go to the hospital. I'm calling 911."

"NO, DON'T!" The power of his command startled him. "Look, I need to talk to you first. Please, just get me a glass of water and then I'll say what needs to be said. After that, you call. Please."

"All right, tell me what you need to, but when you're finished I'm calling for help. So. What went on here?"

He related the horror of the last night beginning with his walk with Roxie. Uneasy horses, bitten, that strange horse circle, captivity, the Presence, Zack told it all. When he was finished, he looked at Sheila with a combination of relief and deep, deep love.

"Zack, I'm getting us some help right now."

No, we don't think so.

Helpless, Zack watched with his one good eye as he grabbed Sheila by the neck, and with his thumbs on her windpipe, he strangled the love of his life.

You passed the test. Your species is remarkable. Hope. You have hope even when it makes no sense. Hope is dashed, but then it returns. Such a find. Hope is a strong force. Almost as strong as fear or anger. We will enjoy this planet for centuries before you are useless to us. By then, you will be headed for extinction. We will move on and you will die out.

NO! We will never stop fighting you. Humanity will never submit. We will find your weakness and defeat you. YOU will die, not us. Humanity will never give up.

We know.

We will overcome. We will destroy you.

No. You have already lost, said the Presence with the undeniable certainty of a predator that has trapped its prey.

Outside, horses, beautiful horses, were grazing on the lawn, unaware the ending story of humanity had just been written, while inside, a sightless eye stared at the shaking, shattered human that once was its home.

5 comments:

  1. Excellent piece of sci-fi horror. The idyllic opening with the lovely and peaceful descriptions of autumn made the violent turn of events even more effective. Loved the title and the ending, too.

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  3. A very good story. I really liked the spooning out the eye scene.

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  4. Great story I do love sci-fi the tell was excellent I was even trying to think how to help or what I would do. Good Job!

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