Eighteen registered Thoroughbreds went missing from the farm of a dead man one Saturday night.
The man on the furthest edge of darkness was the only one who actually remembered the dead man. He had never felt compassion toward such people, but today he almost sighed. He himself was dying, and that made things almost different.
He smoked by habit and by force of stubborn will; the doctor who had suggested he quit was no longer breathing, anyway. The man watched the stable quietly and wondered who cared about all this. Who really cared about all this?
They were just horses. Fifty thousand a head, and hard to replace if you ran a breeding program ... but they were just horses nonetheless. They wouldn't thwart danger and they wouldn't cure cancer. They would do nothing more than munch on their hay and be horses.
He was out here because of the man to his right. He did not know the name of the man who thought there was some significance to the violation of the dead man's farm. He would never know and it would never matter. They would take orders from their superiors, and never a spare word would be extended between them.
This, too, had never bothered him. But tonight the air felt as it had when he was 10 years old; the night was clear; the stars were bright; he was noticing things he had forgotten existed, and it scared him and it thrilled him. The stars. And the sound of a hoofbeat somewhere in the night.
For a wild moment he wondered what it would be like to speak to this man beside him; to just suddenly speak of the weather or their names. He thought that if he did that, maybe he would feel human for one scant night before he reached the end of life.
But he had a reputation to uphold, and he did not speak.
Horse rustlers. Like something out of a cowboy novel, the kind he used to read when there was nothing else. And nothing more than that; not meaning. Certainly not aliens, at any rate. So why --
It was a word he had not used in a very long time.
He played around with the word in his head. "Why." Why were they out here? Why did he care? Why did this strange man with the hollow face seem to think there was danger from cowboy-esque horse-rustlers? Why would someone trying to thwart the project steal horses from a dead man? Why did he care?
And then they were there, and the hollow-faced man was ushering him back into the deeper shadows of night. So this was it. It had something to do with them.
As usual he watched them as they got out of their rental car. Her hair floated red and tangled and it was all of her he could see in the muted light. Her partner was no more than a shadow, and one visible hand on the small of his companion's back.
The man on the furthest edge of darkness put out his cigarette lest they see him here. And then he wondered why he didn't want them to see him here.
"What might have brought them here?" asked the hollow-faced man in little more than a breath.
The man in the shadows did not answer. He didn't know. He only knew in a sudden flash of overwhelming unfamiliarity, that he was jealous of the FBI agents who were now questioning the night-duty guard. They would get nothing from the guard, who had been paid off less than five minutes ago by the man with the hollow face.
Jealous of them because he could almost smell the life in them, and it was less because he was dying than because he hadn't lived at all.
Her red hair was hopelessly messy from sleep, and her partner brushed a strand of it from her eyes as the guard told them they would have to leave. The agent must have picked this up from his conspiracy friends, and woken her from sleep that wouldn't have been too sound anyway. And he probably hadn't asked her directly to come. He had simply stood in her doorway trying not to study too closely this creature, so sleepy and shivering in her robe, who fascinated him. He had told her where he was going, and why, and she had told him she would be dressed in five minutes, and neither one said it outright.
There was that word again. Why. Why didn't they say it? He knew they didn't have to say it to know it, and that, as well, made him jealous. These two, they communicated in some way that was foreign to him. He had seen psychics telepathically gain information from anyone and he had witnessed the effects of alien biology that allowed thoughts to be conveyed as simply as if they were spoken aloud. But these two spoke in breaths and gestures and the tiniest of sounds. Whole volumes could exist on the way she bit her lip, and on the way two of his fingers brushed one of hers as they walked slowly toward their car.
Sleepiness and dead ends was never all this was for them, and he thought, for just a moment, of living the way the two of them lived.
They lived because it was worth it.
The man on the furthest edge of darkness turned to the hollow-faced man at his side. "I want to know your name," he said at last.
14 March 2000