Fear, it’s a primal emotion. Coop Thornton, a future rancher with a penchant for Western stories, must overcome it when he finds himself in a showdown with an alien beast. — ed, N.E. Lilly
by Robert Neilson ©2008
illustration by G. W. Thomas ©2008
It was alone. It was a billion light years from home. It was scared. And it was hungry; very, very hungry.
Coop Thornton threw the magazine onto his bunk in exasperation. What a load of crap. He should have known by the abstract mess on the cover that he wouldn’t enjoy it. But Coop liked to read and there had been nothing else around the bunkhouse and out here on the Lazy Z ranch, a two hour flight from the nearest town, it could be a week before he got the chance to pick up some paperbacks.
“I just don’t know what you see in this,” he said in his unhurried drawl. His remark was aimed at the magazine’s owner, the foreman of the Lazy Z. “Space ships and aliens. You know it’s all impossible.”
“I know nothing of the sort,” Will Turner replied.
“If there was aliens we’d have found them by now. All the scientists agree on that.”
“Not all,” said Turner. “Not the ones with imagination.”
“Imagination,” Coop said, elongating the vowels, making the word sound faintly disreputable. “Science Fiction,” he said, tossing the magazine across the room to its owner. “Crap.”
“It’s just a matter of taste. You like Westerns. I don’t put you down for that.”
“Westerns are like history,” Coop said. “At least they could have happened. What’s in them is possible. The stories are about real people.”
Turner shook his head. “Real people,” he chuckled. “Cardboard cut-outs. Caricatures. It’s all just romance. None of that stuff ever really happened. Not even nearly.”
“But it could have. You know the smell of the horses and cattle, Will. You know how a gun feels in your hand. You know the feel of sweat running down your back when you’re riding fences on a hot day. You know the taste of good, cool, clean water cutting the dust of the trail.”
“The chafe of your Levi’s and a chaw of tobacco.”
“Little green men, and women with three titties,” Coop scoffed in reply.
On the far side of the bunkhouse a small red light flashed on a console. Turner crossed the room in three strides and slid into the chair before the bank of screens. Coop followed to stand at his shoulder.
“Sector 14,” the foreman said, punching a series of buttons. “Two head down. The other steers in the area show signs of distress.”
“Mountain Lion?” suggested Coop.
“Two more gone. It’s no Mountain Lion, that’s for sure. Anyway, there’s nothing showing on the sensors.” Turner switched his attention to a radar grid. He adjusted its focus to display a sweep of the skies above Sector 14. “Nothing in the air, either,” he said. “We’d better get a body down there to check it out.”
“You want me to go, Will?”
“No,” said Turner. “Tony Simon’s on patrol near the boundaries of 10 and 14. He’s closer.”
“OK. I’ll be outside if you need me.”
Coop left the bunkhouse and walked slowly to the stable, a small wooden affair with three stalls, only one of which was occupied. Coop was the only hand who still kept a horse. Partly it was out of respect for tradition, partly because a horse was a better all-terrain vehicle than any mechanical one he’d ever ridden in. But mostly it was because he couldn’t talk to an ATV on a long sweep for strays; or maybe feed it an apple just to feel the buss of its lips on his palm. He took a lot of ribbing about his preference for horseflesh over technology. Occasionally it got out of hand and Coop was forced to dish out a black eye or a split lip.
Gypsy, his current mount, was a bay mare just over sixteen hands. She was eight years old and Coop had owned her for five of them. Her head nodded and she snorted when he entered the stable. She stamped her feet as he opened the stall and led her out. He ran his hand down her neck and mumbled a series of meaningless sounds into her ear, his tone gentle and loving. She nudged his shoulder affectionately.
Coop saddled the horse and checked out his communications pack before strapping it across her withers. He dropped Gypsy’s reins onto the ground and left her standing quietly outside the bunkhouse. Inside, Turner was still at the console, hands playing expertly across the keys like a latter day Phantom of the Opera. Coop could see that there were more red lights showing.
He went to his locker and took out his gunbelt. It was another affectation of the Old West that his colleagues liked to laugh about behind his back. He knew they did and never let it bother him. The lack of respect was mutual. Turner was about the only one he had any time for, the only one he reckoned would have been able to pass muster on a real ranch.
Coop strapped on the gunbelt and checked that the weapon was loaded. He slid it in and out of the holster a couple of times, staring at his reflection in the mirror on the back of the locker door. There was no denying he looked the part.
He imagines a stranger all dressed in black, face drowned in shadow, facing him down. The rim of the stranger’s Stetson tilts back. Eyes like chips of diamond pin him with their stare. There is no honourable way of backing down. Without honour he’s better off dead. His gun hand freezes above the butt, unable to draw the weapon and defend himself. The stranger doesn’t care; he grins, pulling his matched Peacemakers in slow motion.
Coop shuddered, blinking away the waking dream. There were two empty holes on the gunbelt and he pressed a couple of shells into them, restoring the symmetry. He reached into the bottom of the locker and lifted out an old Winchester. It really should have been in a museum, but it could still do the job for which it had been built over two centuries ago. He took out a handful of ammunition for the rifle and dropped it into his breast pocket.
Turner swiveled in his chair and grinned at him. “You rounding up a posse to take after those varmints?”
“Getting ready in case you need me,” he said, refusing to be drawn. “And if you don’t... well, I guess I’ll just take Gypsy out for some exercise.”
The readouts on the console changed. “Don’t go anywhere for a while, Coop, we may have a situation on our hands.”
Coop’s eyes scanned the console. “Where’s Simon?” he asked. The hand’s telltale was no longer on the board.
“Could be just equipment failure.”
“You believe that, Will?”
Turner shook his head. “I’ve alerted the main house,” he said. “Miss Whittaker’s on her way over.”
Paula Whittaker was the owner’s daughter and the real boss of the ranch. She was the one who kicked ass if the animals went for processing below optimum weight. If breeding targets were missed it was she who had to be answered to. She handled staff disputes, set manning levels and negotiated salaries. There were nine hands and two million head of cattle in her charge and she took her responsibilities very seriously. When she said jump, nobody argued.
She was also one hell of an attractive woman. If her staff respected her, and even feared her a little, most of them would also probably kill for a smile. She was twenty-eight years old and had worked her daddy’s spread since she was sixteen. In that time she had taken occasional lovers from amongst the hands. Once discarded they left; nobody in his right mind wants to work for an ex-lover, particularly one who can be a bitch when you’re on her wrong side. But there would always be someone who would aspire to the promise behind that smile.
Coop had been at the Lazy Z since he was a boy. He’d known Paula since she came back from college with her fancy animal husbandry qualifications and started running the show. Twice she’d offered to make him foreman and once she’d invited him to her bed. Coop had refused all three propositions. He liked the Lazy Z. It was more his home than anywhere had ever been and he wanted to stay. Paula’s foremen and lovers all had a habit of moving on. He wondered how long Turner had left.
It had been difficult refusing his boss. She was not an easy woman to deny. But Coop had explained his position in his deliberate, forthright manner: he had a deep affection for her, he wanted to marry her, and he was prepared to wait. That had been five years ago. She hadn’t exactly laughed in his face but neither had she offered him any encouragement. Her reaction, or lack of it, hadn’t bothered Coop; he figured he knew her better than she knew herself. In time she would come around.
The door to the bunkhouse flew open and Paula marched in. “What’s going on, Turner?” she demanded. “Hiya, Coop,” she added distractedly.
“We’ve lost Tony Simon. Dead or equipment failure. Under the circumstances I have to assume that whatever’s got at the cattle got to him as well.”
“Stock report,” Paula snapped.
“We have nineteen head down, including one with an implant which is a break,” Turner said. “Or at least should have been a break.”
He held up a readout. “It’s not really much help. See for yourself. Overloaded neural circuits.”
“Damn thing died of fright,” Coop said.
“That’s a possible interpretation,” Turner replied.
“You trying to tell me that something frightened nineteen head of cattle to death?” asked Paula.
“Something like that.”
“Shit!” she said, taking in the readouts across the console. Two other men were converging on Sector 14 according to the manpower display. “Call them off,” she said. “I’m not jeopardizing any more of my hands. We’ll take care of this ourselves, Will.”
Coop headed towards the door.
“Where do you think you’re going?” Paula said.
“Gypsy needs exercise.”
“I suppose it’ll be coincidence that takes you to 14.”
“I reckon that by the time I arrive it’ll either be all over or you’ll be about ready for the cavalry.”
“I don’t suppose ordering you to butt out would make any difference?” Paula said.
“I doubt it,” he smiled, letting himself out.
She glanced over to Turner. “Load up a bird. We’ll fly. And throw in a couple of pulse guns. I want to be prepared for anything.”
Turner opened wide the bird’s throttle and patched into the bunkhouse computer, scanning the updated readouts on his head-up display. He knew the terrain; he didn’t need the navigation aids the stats displaced. “The stock is moving out of 14 towards Sector 9, like it’s being herded. We’ve lost over fifty head so far.”
“Any of our people likely to be heading that way?” Paula enquired.
Turner shook his head. “That was part of Tony Simon’s patrol.”
“How far away is it?” she said. “I don’t want to get too close. I’d prefer if whatever it is doesn’t know we’re coming.”
Turner keyed a map grid onto his display. If he kept low, there was a hill that would give them cover. He could put the bird down behind it. Pushing the stick forward he took them down to fifty feet off the deck. He switched over to auto and programmed their flight-path. At this height he wanted the computer’s reactions taking care of them.
Paula unshipped the pulse rifles from the rack behind their heads. Both were on full charge. They had enough firepower to deal with a small, conventionally-equipped army. It was an offence for a civilian to carry a charged pulse weapon under any circumstances but, technically speaking, Paula and Turner were law enforcement officers while operating within the boundaries of the Lazy Z’s range. It wasn’t something the company’s lawyers would want to test in court.
As the bird settled onto the uneven ground, Turner caught a glimpse of a small dust cloud far to the rear. He tapped Paula on the shoulder and pointed downward at the black dot cutting across the parched undulating prairie. “Coop’s making good time.”
“I sometimes wonder if he isn’t right about that damn horse,” she said. “Come on, we’ve got twenty minutes before he gets here. Let’s take a look at the other side.”
They climbed the hill, covering the final twenty feet on their bellies. Below them fifteen hundred cattle milled about in confusion. A pall of dust hung in the air making it impossible for them to see what was agitating the animals.
“I’m going to work my way around behind the herd,” Turner said.
He slapped the stock of the pulse rifle and smiled nervously. “First sign of trouble and I’ll be spraying this at anything that moves.”
“Radios,” Paula said.
“Back in the bird. You want to waste time getting them?”
She shook her head. “Just be careful. Check out what’s going on then report back to me. Don’t try to make any moves on your own.”
“You don’t pay me enough for heroics,” Turner said.
She leant over and kissed him on the cheek. She liked Turner. They’d had companionable sex a couple of times. She looked forward to repeating it soon. He was easy to be with. Like Coop, she thought, except without the outmoded moral standards.
Coop revelled in the sensation of sheer muscular power beneath him as Gypsy galloped easily across open range. No man-made artefact could give such exhiliration. Ahead he could see the low hill where the Lazy Z recon bird had landed. Beyond that it was maybe a three days ride to the first decent break in the flat sweep of sun dried grassland. He shaded his eyes with a hand and stared up into the towering mountains whose snow-capped peaks belied the draining summer heat. In fall he would be detailed to ride into them searching for strays before the cold took them. It was one task nobody begrudged him.
He kept Gypsy’s head pointed towards the hill where Turner and Paula had landed their bird, easing the mare back to a gentle trot. He didn’t want to spoil their play by appearing at the wrong moment. Best thing he could do would be to ease up behind them. Retain the element of surprise should it be needed.
His hand fell to the pistol at his side. He’d heard Paula calling for pulse weapons. In comparison the revolver was a toy but it took more than a gun to make a man. Not that there was anything wrong with Turner, apart maybe from the shallowness of his values. But then, Coop knew, it was he himself who was marching to the beat of the different drummer.
Turner kept low. There was little cover except the dust from the herd. He hoped it would be enough to keep him from the attention of the intruder. Behind the herd he could see nothing that might be a threat to the animals, nothing that might have spooked them. Sweat ran down his forehead and into his eyes, blurring his vision. Mostly the perspiration was from the heat of the day though a deal of it was caused by anxiety.
He wiped the moisture out of his eyes. It didn’t quite clear the blurring effect. Looking at the cattle, it was as though he was viewing a screen with a grease smear at its centre. He realised it wasn’t his eyesight that was playing tricks on him. There was something between him and the herd. Something hazy, not quite transparent. As he focused on it, the shape began to change. His mind anticipated the alteration. It was as if he was drawing an outline which the shape was giving substance. Turner shook his head to clear it, blinking his eyes as though he’d gotten sand in them. He looked back at the smear. It was no longer opaque. It had shape and form and texture.
The very sight of it made him want to throw up. An abomination like this was an impossibility, at least under planetary gravity. But Turner recognised it at once. Why, his mind screamed, had it come from its home amongst the satellites of Alioth? Had those civilizations crumbled at its feet? Was there no more tribute to be extracted from those peoples?
The being reached out its tendrils of revulsion towards Turner. His knees began to buckle. He attempted to raise his pulse weapon but knew the gesture was futile. Its outline shivered. It began to slither to him. His heart was racing.
It wished to embrace him. He could almost feel it on his skin. How was it possible for something to be both sticky and slimy? Its sulphurous breath washed over him. His stomach attempted to force itself upward into his throat. Turner’s racing pulse stumbled in its haste and his heart convulsed.
Coop picked his way to the top of the hill where Paula lay on her stomach watching the events below. As he closed in on her position it was apparent that she had something in the sights of her pulse rifle. She didn’t look up so he guessed she must have heard him coming. He’d been making more noise than he thought.
Before him lay a panorama of milling cattle and dust. He could barely make out the figure of Turner close to the centre of Paula’s field of fire. A wave of unease spread over him. Turner stumbled. The pulse rifle juddered upward in his hands but never came to bear on a target. He staggered forward a pace and fell face down onto the prairie. Above the noise of the skittish cattle Coop never heard the shot. He didn’t need to hear it to know what had happened.
Paula dropped her pulse rifle. One hand went to cover her mouth. “Oh, my God!” she whispered, climbing to her knees.
It had always been her worst nightmare and now it was at the bottom of the hill. It was as though a strip of prairie had detached itself and moved towards her. But the colour was wrong. It was black, as though it had been incinerated by a flash fire, but Paula knew better. Although she could not see individuals in the group, she knew what they were. A carpet of spiders — black, ugly, poisonous spiders — undulated towards her. They had fed on Turner and now they wanted her. She was powerless to resist them. Coop placed a restraining hand on her shoulder. She shook it off as though it was an errant strand of hair.
“Oh, my God!” she said again. Louder, each word enunciated more distinctly. Coop could hear the horror in her tone. Her face was flushed. She looked feverish. Her feet moved as though independant of her will. Helplessly, her body followed.
“This is my call,” Coop said.
She ignored him and continued to walk down the slope drawn helplessly by the repellant attraction of the scrabbling spiders. Apologising, Coop drew his gun and clipped her smartly behind the ear with the barrel. He grabbed at her, breaking the worst of her fall.
Coop checked his pistol one more time. He knew it was loaded, he just wanted to give himself some breathing space. It was all very well knowing that he had to face the stranger, the near certainty of his death could be accepted, but it didn’t mean he wasn’t going to delay as long as possible. It didn’t mean that he wasn’t going to relish every single breath of air that was left to him.
He holstered the gun, skidding down the slope. Somehow it was different from the way he had imagined it. The noise of the panicked steers was a distraction; in his mind there had always been silence. But the background was right. The sun, at high noon, blazed down upon the storefronts, boardwalk and hitching rails. The wide, rutted street was empty. The boardwalks were crammed with hushed and cowed townsfolk. Even before his adversary appeared, Coop was dry mouthed. His knees threatened to betray him, to dump him without prompting onto his backside. It was as much a fear of making a complete fool of himself as anything, that kept him on his feet.
From out of the dust cloud at the end of the street a shadow figure emerged. It was dressed in black from head to toe, except for the pearl-handled Colts hanging comfortably at its waist. A black gloved hand reached up and pushed back the brim of the figure’s hat. For the first time Coop got a good look at his opponent. As he had always feared, the man had no face. Out of a sea of nothingness the stranger’s eyes glinted with the coldness of deep space. There was no pity behind that stare. No soul.
Coop’s hand wavered above the butt of his pistol. His fingers flexed, like the death throes of some small, flayed animal. Now was the time to back down. All he need do was throw himself to his knees and beg the stranger for mercy. He would not be worth killing. He’d be better than dead already.
And who could blame him? He tried to persuade himself that he could live with the guilt.
Although the stranger had no face, Coop was sure that he was smiling. Coop’s gun hand trembled, the palm sweaty. Even if he managed to get the hand to the gun, it would slip from his grasp like a greased pig at the county fair. He knew that the stranger knew. And he knew that the ending was inevitable.
Coop’s whole body began to shake. Why didn’t the bastard draw and get it over with?
The stranger’s hands moved slowly toward the Peacemakers. Coop’s breathing stopped. He felt an excruciating pain along his left arm. It spread to the shoulder and down into his chest. Paula screamed his name. He gasped for air.
It had feasted and was strong. The fear of the quadrupeds was sufficient to its needs but that of the upright creatures was infinitely more satisfying. Perhaps the interruption in its journey was fortuitous? A staging post toward the edges of this reality would be a boon to future generations of travellers.
There was an anomaly on the lower frequencies. Ah, the third upright had regained awareness. He experienced a distortion of the gasses about him caused by a vibration within the body of the third biped. The second creature, momentarily on the verge of extinction, was recovering. The pattern had been broken. In its coalesced form the creature realised its vulnerability. The fear transferred.
The pain eased. Blackness that had sought to claim him, receded from the edges Coop’s vision. He sensed the stranger sneering at him and looked up. The coldness of death was gone from those eyes. In its place was something near to uncertainty. If it was his time to die, Coop was determined that it would be at the stranger’s hand rather than by his own weakness. He fought the vice that clamped his chest. His hand moved towards his gun butt.
A tumbleweed blew onto the street. For an instant Coop thought it was a second gunfighter. He coughed, claring alkali dust from his throat, and spat it at his feet. Behind him, Coop heard slow draggging footsteps. He did not need to look around to know that Paula had begun to make her way down the slope at his back. What did she think she was doing? He needed all his concentration to deal with the black-clad gunfighter. He heard her fall and then climb erect again but could not force his eyes away from the stranger. Panic began to rise in his chest again. Lives other than his own depended on his play.
No matter how often he had dreamed or imagined a scene like this he had never been able to bring himself to draw. Sometimes the gunfighter would allow him to live, to leave town humiliated, a broken man without self-respect, without anything worth living for. More often he had come awake screaming as the empty eye of a Peacemaker’s barrel lined up on the centre of his chest, as the stranger’s index finger contracted on the trigger to squeeze out his death. Coop could feel himself beginning to hyperventilate.
The stranger didn’t move. The absence of light beneath his stetson wavered as it seemed to focus on the girl. Coop heard Paula’s sharp intake of breath. Her sliding, stumbling footsteps stopped. She made a choking noise as though someone was strangling her with his bare hands. Still Coop could not bring himself to look away from his deadly adversary. The stranger seemed to half turn, dismissive of Coop. Had he so little respect for his opponent?
Anger began to push back the icy tendrils of fear that caused Coop’s muscles to seize. He screamed at the shadowy gunfighter. The words were without form or meaning, a primal scream of terror and hatred. The outline of the stranger flickered. At last he was making his move. Coop threw himself forward, drawing as he fell. He got off three shots before he hit the dirt and rolled. Straightening for a moment he loosed off the remaining bullets before continuing the diving roll.
Through his pain, Coop felt exultation. When the chips were down he had performed. Faced with death he had made his play successfully. All six shots had hit the stranger in the centre of the chest; a saucer could have covered the spread. He lay in the swirling dust and looked at his victim. The dark stranger dissipated like smoke on the wind. He turned towards Paula. She was unconscious. There had been no witnesses but that wasn’t important now.
Coop rubbed at a stiffness in the back of his neck and wondered just what had happened. Had it not been for the dead cattle and the presence of the huddled shapes of Turner and Paula he could have convinced himself it was all in his imagination. But plainly it had not been; at least some of it had been real enough to kill cattle and people. It was something unexplainable and to the pragmatic Coop therefore not worth further consideration. Anyway, there were more important things to be done.
Nearby, Turner lay in a heap, dead. There was nothing Coop could do for him. He went to Paula. Her breathing was ragged but her pulse was strong. On impulse he kissed her lightly on the lips and her eyes opened. She smiled at him.
“Coop,” she whispered before succumbing to unconsciousness once again. He liked the way his name had sounded on her tongue, as though it were something special.It would be a long trek around the base of the hill to the bird, especially if he had to carry Paula. He placed two fingers in his mouth and let out a shrill whistle. Within a couple of minutes he heard Gypsy’s hoofbeats approaching. That was another thing you couldn’t do with an ATV.
Robert Neilson lives in Dublin with his wife and three children. His work has appeared extensively in the UK, Ireland, the US, Greece and Denmark. He has had three SF radio plays performed on Irish radio and his second short story collection, That’s Entertainment, was published by Elastic Press in 2007. He is a founding editor of Albedo One magazine.