There are only dead horses. The three of us and a burnt swath of land decorated with dead horses. I fear we are the only living things here. The horses are all fine looking and there is no evidence of a violent fatal struggle. They are each without a saddle and there are no flies cavorting around their corpses; they are not decomposing. There are only dead horses here. Dead horses and the three of us, we think.
We are looking for a secret genus of species. We are biologists sent by struggling universities with department scraps to find this never before seen creature, known only by its odd footprint that alludes to both hoof and massive didactic digits. I suspect we are the ones making the footprints. We don’t remember. We were once terrifically bored: there were no footprints. We did not believe we were the only living things here then. Now I fear we are.
The dead horses began showing up 19 days ago. At first it was just a handful when we returned to camp in the evening. The next morning it was like a herd had gathered for a great conference and collectively collapsed in the middle of the night. We inspected the horses tediously for some suggestion that they had been mauled by the genus we’re tracking—or anything really. We found nothing.
We have been here one year, four months and 12 days according to my count. The three of us do not agree on how long we’ve been here. My count says the footprints first began appearing eight months ago and the dead horses just 19 days ago. We had never seen any live horses here before. They left no footprints.
Science explains little or nothing of the genus we are tracking—a species we call simply The Genus—and reports of its appearance and ancestry are highly suspicious. It is rumored to be either a bird or a reptile or something in between. We have not seen it since we arrived and I fear we are the only living things here. I am reporting the dead horses now because they are not decomposing. They are still fine looking. At first the three of us attributed it to something with the clean dry air and lifeless sandy dirt. But now it has been 19 days and they are still as fresh as when they appeared.
When we arrived here we would hear strange barks in the morning and evening hours. Like blanketed wrenching coughs, the barks emerged from the bloody horizon and carried easily across the deserted plateau we are trespassing. We followed the barks on that first day and then the second through the seventh. We moved quickly then. We were energetic and well-rested and anxious. We would set camp at dusk and then the barks would reappear. There were no footprints trailing their patch. Each time the cries were just as far as the original disturbance. Never more and never less. The same calls every time. There were two or three recognizable voices. Sometimes there were other, more faint murmurs that rang hoarse beside the boorish proclamations of the most adamant inflections. The barks were never any closer or further.
We did not believe the conspirators of these sounds to be our secret genus—who by all previous accounts is silent—but we hoped they may lead us to some clue or even hypotheses.
By the seventh day of tracking the barks, our surroundings were foreign and unfamiliar. We didn’t notice if the change was sudden and abrupt or slow and meticulous. We marched through the sixth night hoping to gain on the howling band of creatures while they slept. We usually took to our sleeping bags just after dark and woke before dawn; we had not yet seen the night of this territory, or temporary home. The temperature dropped gravely once the last tinges of sunlight escaped over the horizon. We did not stop to eat or pull our parkas from the heavy knapsacks we hauled on our backs. We moved without words on the faded light of the moon, hidden by a blanket of suspiciously low clouds. We could see little of the earth in front of us.
After six days of precisely the same distance between our party and the creatures, we estimated their origin to be 14 kilometers northeast. Each day no matter how far we traveled the barks were 14 kilometers northeast. On that sixth night we carefully measured our steps and marched 13.3 kilometers northeast. When we traveled it, we sank our knees into the sunken earth to wait for the calls.
When the first pangs of dawn rung out behind us on that seventh day we saw that we had trespassed into a new landscape overnight. There were now trees: great leaf-less trees with hollow trunks and branches. They bore no fruit and were scattered almost pointlessly around us. The trees were dead and we did not see them come in the night.
That morning the calls we were chasing appeared 14 kilometers to the southeast, where we had just come from. They were more ravenous than ever, straying from the usual routine and conversation spliced with boastful monologues. Now they raged and heaved urgently like caged mules.
We were distraught and exhausted and on that seventh day we rested. The barks remained 14 kilometers southeast that night. And then they began following us. On the eighth day we marched 24 kilometers southeast. The land which two days before was an empty desert plateau was now too decorated with the sulking bone-like trees. The next morning the barks emerged 14 kilometers to the west, again where we had just come from. We bowed our heads to the creatures respectively and continued to march southeast to replenish our supplies at the base camp just north of our arrival point.
The boat that brought us here was captained by a man named Tolby and a first-mate who insisted we always call him First-Mate Shroeder. We knew them only by our conversations on the radio and not by their faces. We never saw them duck out of the cloistered landing on the steer from where they piloted the small vessel. The trip took four days and the fog was so treacherous that we were rarely ever able to glimpse the sea beneath us when we peaked our heads outside the cabin windows. Tolby and First-Mate Shroeder did not wish us goodbye when they dropped us at the jutting stalactite shore. There was no place to dock on the rocky banks so we waded some thirty yards out with our bags of supplies meant to last four months.
Our first expedition, done for both curiosity and to familiarize ourselves with the land yielded no results or clues about our genus or any others. The entire way back the barks followed us from the horizon 14 kilometers away in the morning and at dusk. It took us eight more days to retrace our steps back to the base.
We returned to our original encampment just after nightfall on the 17th night. We still had a few stocks of gruel in our traveling packs but were in need of thicker hats and blankets for the falling temperatures and shortening days. We arrived back to the base early that afternoon. The food and supply stock was still robust. The grey trees were here now too. Like the barks, they had been following us. We had grown use to be shaken at dawn by the primitive howls from the horizon, but they did not echo that morning and we slept through the early morning hours. And when we first gathered ourselves and stepped out of the tent well into the day we found all our supplies gone.
There was no trace of their weight on the soil and we were no longer were sure the supplies were ever there. The gruel in our knapsacks remained and we did not panic. We switched on our radio to phone the port from which we departed. “We have had our supplies stolen,” it said. “Contact K.G. Mather, Department of Biology, North Little Rock University. Need food and winter supplies. 4 months.” We kept the radio on for two hours to await confirmation. No transmissions were heard from the portsmen or anyone else. We turned it off to save batteries.
We rationed the gruel for four days while awaiting the supply shipment. The barks continued twice a day 14 kilometers to the northeast as they had before. We did not track them anymore. We had three cans of gruel left when on the fifth morning our supplies reappeared at the base exactly as they had been before. “No, no, no,” one of us said, “They were over there before. It’s not the same spot.” We said that Tolby and First-Mate Shroeder must have delivered them to our camp while we slept. The trees we had grown so accustomed to had vanished overnight with the return of the supplies and the empty plateau returned. The shrieking barks were not heard that evening and we have not heard them since.
We did not venture more than a day’s walk from camp for the next four months and grew very bored. We chose a new direction to walk in each day—every direction but northeast—and would roll a die to choose how many kilometers to venture. Three and five and six and sometimes just one. The three of us would pace the precise distance and then stop and sit on our knees and look out upon the endless sand until it was time for us to leave and make a fire before dusk. It was a very cold winter but it never snowed. We had nothing to report. We dug a well for our water. It was thick and bitter. As our supplies dwindled through the fourth month we again radioed for replenishment. It again appeared suddenly, in the middle of the night, when our cans of food had dwindled to less than a dozen. The shipment had tripled, providing enough food to last us a year.
We decided to leave camp again, preparing for a longer journey. For two months we traced a path up and around the great plateau we sat upon, beginning westward and then heading north beside the uprooted cliffs of the shore. We saw nothing. We could not find the genus. When we returned to old campsites there was no trace of our fire or footsteps. We began leaving markers—rags tied to metal stakes. Those too would disappear and we eventually ran out of stakes. We returned to the base and radioed that we had nothing more to report. Again no one responded. We were to wait at base camp and hope The Genus found us.
For one week after the expedition we remained sedentary. We paced aimlessly and kept meticulous notes about how we found nothing, simply proposing theories, each more dubious than the next, regarding our study. And then the footprints appeared. We had seen them on old slides many times before and recognized them for The Genus’ immediately. They were small—smaller than we expected—and light. They etched themselves back and forth across the dusty territory. When we followed the tracks they always returned us to their origin. Each was a longwinded circle. They would branch off each other and bring us to the identical-looking far corners of the plateau, eventually bringing the three of us back to where we started. For two weeks we followed the tracks, spinning ourselves around. And then we quit. We remained at base. But the footprints continued to make their way through our camp. Sometimes we would turn around suddenly and there would be a new set behind us. We never heard anything.
We passed a year here and then four months. Our second shipment of supplies was nearing its end and we radioed for more. No one responded but we thought they would come. We had been reporting the footprints. We wondered how long they would keep us here for.
We could only ration so much. We ran out of supplies 19 days after we radioed the port—19 days ago, when the dead horses appeared. They are not decomposing. We are starving. When a week had passed since we ran out of food we tried to butcher one of the horses. It broke the knife when we cut into its flesh. And then it broke two more.
There are nothing but dead horses here and I fear we are the only living things.