User:Eirik/Saddled With Debt
Saddled with Debt
Richard sat stiffly in the chair, plucking nervously at his battered wrist phone. He accidentally touched the call button, briefly filling the quiet room with the sound of a dial tone before he was able to push the button again, earning him a slightly annoyed look from the woman across the desk. The interview, he already knew, was not going well.
"Mr. Hill," she said after a long silence, "I don't believe that you'd make a good employee for Merriweather Financing, I'm sorry."
He rocked back and forth a couple times in the chair, feeling his anger boil up. It was the third interview this week alone, and God only knew how many before. "Please!" he practically shouted, "I need the work! I'm highly skilled! I've got an MBA from Case Western Reserve! All I want is a chance!" When she didn't respond, he felt lost it, "You don't want to hire me because I'm not..."
"Mr. Hill!" she said loudly. The dowdy older woman looked over the top of her glasses at him, "I'm afraid that this interview is over. Good day."
With an angry grunt, he heaved himself out of the chair and pushed through the door, ignoring the stares of the office staff. They all knew that he hadn't gotten the job, and it didn't take much for them to see why not. The tiny silver bracelet the health department made him wear over his left wrist, exposed at all times, told the whole story. He wasn't Nited.
Richard grimly remembered his basic science from way back in his early days of school. The lessons about the old days of disease, when people actually were injected with weak diseases to prevent the real thing from happening, or when people died from things like cancer or AIDS. The days when a life span of a hundred years was considered old, ancient even, and not middle aged.
He pushed through the glass doors and went to the corner to wait for the tram. He looked with disdain at the wrist band he wore, the band that identified him as one of the tiny number doomed to die young. no older than seventy or eighty if he was lucky. One of the few to whom an injection of nanites meant bizarre deformations and death.
The tram came and Richard stepped on, barely noticing how empty it was. His mind drifted from the unfairness of it all to his more pressing problems. He had bills to pay, and in a big way. He was barely making the rent money with his unemployment check, and his medical bills were taking more than what was left. He had been buying food and clothes on credit for years, shuffling the debt from creditor to creditor as much as possible. Even his student loan payments were in danger of going in arrears.
If at all possible, he wanted to avoid his education being repossessed. He'd worked far to hard for that to happen, and it was a painful procedure anyway.
The tram dropped him off in front of the old tenement that he called home. He trudged up the escalator and into his dingy apartment. The sound of his footsteps echoed off the walls as he walked over to the communications panel. He slumped into his torn recliner as he pressed the button. How could this day get worse?
"Mr. Hill, this is Margaret Dawson from the State Board of Health. We need to inform you of some new diseases affecting your people. Please call, it's urgent."
He rolled his eyes. It was always urgent to people who had never suffered a cold or a flu. They probably wanted to warn him about tooth decay again. That was the urgent message the last three times.
"I'm calling for Richard Hill. This is the HR director at Capwissh-Millner. We've reviewed your interview, but we've decided to go with someone else. Sorry."
He just closed his eyes and shook his head. Of course.
"This is Karlton Gershwin from Intercontinental Communications. We need to speak to you about your mobile communications bill. I'll call later."
Richard eyed the small wrist phone, ancient by today's standards but one of the few luxuries he had left. It was time to get rid of it.
"Yes, Mr. Hill, this is Benji Tallweather from Tallweather Enterprises. Your name came to me by way of Professor Fikes at Case. He told me that you were looking for work and from what he said you're perfectly qualified. Please contact me at your earliest convenience."
A couple more messages played from creditors looking for money, but Richard barely heard them. He was getting a job offer? That seemed incredible to say the least. He was almost going to pass it off as a joke, but his few friends wouldn't have known to invoke Fikes name. In thinking about it, he'd heard of Tallweather as some point, but he couldn't recall how. Could it be legit?
With a trembling hand, he reached for the link. A job. His first job since he graduated over two years ago. He couldn't imagine what he was qualified for specifically, but he remembered Fikes seemed to think he had a knack for projections and a firm grasp of patent law. Always said that he'd go places, if his handicap didn't stop him...
"Tallweather Enterprises, how can I help you?" came the pleasant woman's voice.
It was so surprising to hear a human voice on the line that he almost hung up. Cooperation's never had that extravagance anymore. After a split second, he smiled, "My name is Richard Hill, I'm returning Mr. Tallweathers call."
There was a long pause on the line. "Mr. Hill, you said?" she asked quietly. He could hear the tapping of a computer button. "One second, sir."
He heard the link click, then almost as quickly, "Mr. Hill! I'm delighted to talk to you! I'm Benji Tallweather. How are you today?"
Richard felt a lump in his stomach, but a smile was still plastered on his face. "I'm not bad, sir. I'm very interested in the phone message that you left, though. I honestly don't think I've applied to your company."
Tallweathers nod was almost audible on the phone, "I know, I know. I was talking the other day to one of your old professors and your name came up. He told me a little about you and it sounds like you'd be perfect. That is, if you don't mind a job that pays incredibly well."
Dollar signs flashed in Richards head. "Mr. Tallweather," he said quickly, "just tell me when and where."
The office was in the top floor of a downtown tower. Richard stepped off the elevator and into the reception area to be treated to a view of the entire city. The dÈcor gave the impression that Tallweather was into a lot of industries: Pictures of oil wells in Arabian deserts, factories in jungle enclaves and a garishly lit hotel in Las Vegas with a very fake Viking ship in front were just a few of the decorations. The most massive picture was a grainy photo finish of a horse race he couldn't identify, the nose of a brown horse just out in front of its competitor. A woman sat at a desk below it. She looked up at the open door. "Good morning, can I help you?"
"I'm here to see Mr. Tallweather..."
"Oh, you must be Mr. Hill. You're his only appointment today. Go right through that door and straight down the hall. He's at the other end."
Richard nodded his thanks and stepped through the door, straightening his tie. He had a good feeling about today. It couldn't get any worse, after all. He was tens of thousands in debt. His first dozen paychecks would go to cover that and little else. With a little luck, he'd be able to afford a few luxuries.
He reached up to knock on the door, but it swung open too fast revealing a huge, smiling man. He almost jumped back in shock. This man was enormous! Almost seven feet tall and fat as a hippo. His wide, ruddy face held no secrets, either. The smile and tiny eyes were filled with a strange kind of joy. He looked like a cartoon carticacture of an overgrown baby giant. He reached a massive hand down. "Richard! Delighted to meet you! I'm Benji."
Nervously, Richard grasped the huge hand. "Nice to meet you, too," he said simply. Words seemed somehow inadequate.
He was practically pulled into the office and led to a chair. "Please, sit, sit! Coffee?"
"No, thanks," he said politely. He had always felt that eating during an interview was unprofessional even when offered, and he needed all the help he could get. "I'm fine."
The man settled into a massive leather chair, somehow seeming all the larger when he sat. "I'm sure that you're wondering why I'm offering you a job," he said with a grin.
Richard nodded curiously. "That, and what it is."
He smiled even wider, if that was possible. "Believe it or not, you're one of the few who is uniquely qualified for this. You've got an impeccable education, far better than mine I'm sure. Professor Fikes spoke very highly of you." He touched a few keys on his computer and leaned back. "You're not Nited, are you?"
Richard blanched, fearing that the question was a sudden realization. He desperately wanted to hide the bracelet now. "I'm not," he said honestly, mentally preparing himself to leave.
The huge man nodded, to his surprise. "Excellent!" He leaned forward, "That's exactly what I needed. A man with smarts and no nanites."
Richard was honestly confused. "I'm not sure I understand. What kind of job is this?"
"How much do you know about the nanites? About why you can't have them?"
Richard sighed, repeating what the health department had told him. "I've got a combination of genetic mutations that don't cause any problems for me directly, but for some reason set off the nanites. If I have them administered, I'll undergo physical deformations and it could cause death."
Tallweather nodded, "That's what I was hoping. Do you know the nature of that deformation?"
He shrugged, "Not really, no. I know there were problems with ears and the face, as well as unusual hair growth. I guess a couple died from heart abnormalities before it was caught. That's about all I know."
The huge man chuckled, "Rats and mice."
"About one in five million started to take on aspects of rats and mice, because that's what the nanites were most familiar with. All the development was done on rodents with a new kind of self-learning software. They reprogrammed them on humans, extremely well I might add, but that initial training stayed put. To stamp it out utterly was to start from scratch. It was okay at first, but when the nanites were hit with a virtually unique series of circumstances, they started to revert to their original programming. It should have been an easy problem to fix, but it's been confounding the drug companies for two decades." He leaned back, "Until now."
"What?" Richard asked suddenly. "You mean I can be Nited now?"
"In a manner of speaking, yes. A branch of my company has been working on the programming of these things for animals for years. Based on the old nanites, but slightly different. Eventually, we think we can create nanites that will protect cows, chickens and all other farm animals. Should raise production thought the roof. Right now, we can't. Legal problems in the EC and Australia, coupled with the fact that they don't deactivate quickly enough and could interfere with human nanites. They leave the meat with a metallic aftertaste, too. But we are working on Nighting non-food animals, like dogs and cats." He smiled, "And horses."
Richard was completely lost. "I'm sorry, I don't understand. What does this have to do with me? I'm not a scientist, I don't know the first thing about nanotech. Do you need someone to work on the patent papers or something?"
The man got serious for the first time, "I want to administer you with horse nanites."
Richard cocked his head, thinking. "What?" he asked loudly. He put it all together, "You're going to make me into some kind of half horse freak?"
"No, no! Into a horse completely!" Tallweather corrected. "Thoroughbred champion, actually. A completely engineered horse from gene one, you'll be the fastest ever on four hooves..."
"Look, I don't know what kind of game you're playing," he said as he stood up, "but I'm not going to be some kind of guinea pig..."
"You haven't had a job since you got your MBA. You've been turned down for 29 jobs that I'm aware of, and I'm sure several others that I haven't ferreted out yet."
Richards eyes narrowed. "No one will hire me because they're afraid that I'll take sick days." He started to stand up. "I'm not sure what kind of game you're playing, but I'd rather flip burgers than..."
Tallweather chuckled. "You won't find a burger job or you'd already be doing it. Nited teens are more reliable than you, health code violations aside."
"I'll find someone who'll hire me, eventually," he turned and started for the door. "I'd rather do that than be a freak."
Tallweather leaned back, a strange grin on his face. "For five years of service, you'll be paid ten million dollars flat fee no matter how this turns out. If you're the winner I expect, you'll get a bonus at the end. "He shrugged, "The more money you make me, the more money you earn."
Richard stopped at the door, his hand on the knob. Ten million! He could pay off his debts and be on easy street for the rest of his life! A thousand thoughts ran through his head, most of them of the saner notion to get out of here fast, but for that kind of money..."What happens to me at the end of the five years?"
"You'll be made human again. My people already know how to do it." He shrugged, "Takes about six months."
"Why?" he asked. "This doesn't make sense. What good is a human horse?"
"Horse raceing, my friend, horse racing." He nodded his head toward the door. "You saw the picture in the waiting room, right?" Richard nodded. "That was Duster, the finest racehorse since Secretariat, winning at Churchill Downs. My Duster. That horse alone earned me close to thirty million two years ago. He's making me a bigger fortune with stud service. That money financed my other endeavors for over a year." He leaned forward, his eyes glinting, "With a human brain to go with an engineered body, it would be money in the bank." He rubbed his fingers together devilishly, "Played right, it would be worth much, much more."
Richard frowned. He had known that horse racing had undergone a sea change in recent years, for a sport only the wealthy could play it had become obscenely popular with the masses, but he hadn't realized that the purses were so high. "I won't do it," he said flatly, "even for ten million."
Tallweather smiled, but this time the expression was cold. "Then I'll see to it you're homeless by the end of the month, no matter where you go. You work for me or no one, that's how uniquely qualified you are." He leaned back in the chair, the steel framework straining against his weight, "You are the key to all my plans."
He sagged. What choice did he really have? In just days, he'd be on the streets. He had no family to worry about, no real friends. That alone probably is what made him so valuable. It'd be like a five year vacation. "I need to think about it," he said.
Tallweathers smile got a little wider, more jovial, and the dangerous glint faded from his eye. "Take all the time you need. You'll come to me when you're hungry enough."
In the end, it took two weeks.
Richard was staring at an eviction notice, his worldly possessions dwindled to what could fit into a couple suitcases, his bank account too empty to buy a decent meal at McDonalds. The three rejection letters in a single day were the final straw. It was pretty clear to him now that he was never going to get work. With his bills coming fast and furious, his credit nearly gone, he'd had only one choice.
"You'll never regret this," Tallweather had nearly shouted joyfully into the phone. "It's going to be great!"
Richard sat now in the huge mans office, signing papers. He'd already signed over his power of attorney and most of his debts, Tallweather would be taking care of them all now. He called it a "signing bonus". When he was done, he looked fearfully at the man. In this day and age, he was virtually a slave now.
In time, he'd be property.
Tallweather explained everything as he signed, but Richard almost couldn't hear it. It was going to take a few weeks, possibly as long as three months, in a nutrient bath to complete the transformation, and several months in the equivalent of physical therapy to learn how to use his new legs and body. He'd race as long as he could, then once he was effectively retired, it would be a few weeks to be turned back. Only a tiny number of people would know the truth. "And if you try to communicate it," he said darkly, "you'll regret it."
"What if I want out?" he asked at one point.
Tallweather never answered the question, but it was pretty clear what it was. Once he was a horse, he was stuck for the duration.
"He's a beauty."
Richard's head was still swimming as it had been for almost a week. He was only now piecing together what sounds came into his ears with their meaning, and his eyes were only partly working. He had the sense that his new body was pumped so full of narcotics that he couldn't feel a damn thing anyway. He felt as weak as a baby, or foal in this case.
"When will he be up and about?" he heard Tallweather say.
A higher pitched voice replied, "A few days at least. It'll take that long just to clear the painkillers out of his system, and the nanites are still doing some final connections. There are a few things they can't do in the bath, too much electrolyte interference." There was the sound of keys being tapped on a computer. "Then you can get a trainer to start working on him."
"Can he understand me?"
"Hard to say. His heart rate went up a bit a few moments ago, and his brain is a bit more active, so I think so."
Richard had the sense of a hand stroking his nose. "You're perfect, my friend. You'll make us both rich. You're no longer Richard Hill. You're Dust Storm now. The next winner of the Triple Crown."
The world seemed to fade out again, and he slept.
When he woke again hours or days later, he found that he was alone in a darkened lab. His body and neck were wrapped in some kind of harness that allowed his feet to barely touch the floor. In the dim light, he could make out the traces of the hooves and had the faint sensation of them dragging on the floor.
Richard wanted to rub his eyes, but dimly remembered that he no longer had hands, much less arms.
He was awake long enough to decide that it wasn't a nightmare, that the human body he had worn his entire life was gone, then dozed off again.
The next several weeks passed in a sort of dreamlike nightmare.
He didn't see Tallweather much again, which didn't bother Richard at all. The man may be his bankroll, but he was more than a little frightening.
The one thing that he did want to know more about was how many people knew what was going on. Outside of the two lab workers he had seen and Tallweather, he had the distinct impression that no one knew the truth. For the two weeks that he was fully conscious, Richard never saw anyone else. Even the chore of cleaning the lab were done by the two scientists, neither of whom seemed to appreciate it. Neither ever spoke to Richard, either. To them, he was little more than a lab rat.
Once he was able to stand and walk a few stiff steps he was loaded into a totally enclosed trailer. No one spoke to him at all, and he spent so many hours back there that he had no idea where he was. He could pick up scents and sounds, but none of them made sense to his still human frame of reference.
He was unloaded into an indoor riding ring, the scents of other horses sharp in Richards nose. He was gently led back out and felt a gentle hand on his neck, the first time he'd felt such a touch. "What's wrong with him?" asked the man with the hand.
One of the scientists handed over some paperwork. "Rare case of equine encephalitis, new strain. Hit him as a foal. He should have been put down, but you know Tallweather."
The man chuckled, "I know, I know. Ever since Duster, he's been focused a bit too much on horseflesh. Thinks that every promising foal is the next coming. He's not still a carrier, is he?"
She shook her head, "No, we've had him in intensive care for months. He's got a clean bill of health, but all that time in the clinic took their toll." She handed him a clipboard, "If you just sign this, he'll be yours to deal with now and you can get started."
"From the sound of it, I've got my work cut out for me." He signed the papers and turned back to the horse, catching his eye. "Good to meet you, Dust Storm, I'm Matt. We're going to be spending a lot of time together."
Richard relaxed a little for the first time in weeks. He had a good feeling about this man. In the days that followed, it became clear that the trainer suspected nothing of Richards true origins. He certainly never spoke to Richard in human terms, never told him the news of the day, never even asked questions that could easily be answered with yes or no. It was purely the relationship between a man and an animal, and nothing more.
The facility that he was in now certainly wasn't a normal horse ranch, either. Even Richard could tell that. He spent his nights in a stable with a handful of other horses he rarely saw more than a glimpse of, but never interacted with. They would occasionally nicker here and there, a response that Richard learned quickly to mimic. He quickly got the impression that was all he was doing, however. It was like speaking gibberish. His attempts at friendly banter were typically met with stone cold silence. Eventually, Richard gave up trying. He'd need to spend more time closer to the horses when he left this rehab facility.
The days passed marked by ridged patterns, he was fed promptly at eight in the morning with therapy starting at nine. It took a good week before he could walk confidently without stumbling. Slowly, in a way that scared Richard on some level, he became more sure of himself on four legs than he ever was with two.
The only thing that made the time pass more quickly was the kind voice and touch of the trainer. Matt was a solid older man who had obviously seen his share of horses. He seemed a little taken aback by Richard, committing quietly to himself often of the dichotomy. He was a fantastically built horse with no coordination. He seemed to doubt that he would ever race, much less win. Strangely, he never expressed that opinion directly in Richards presence, only when he was away from the stall, and presumably felt he was out of earshot.
In his long hours alone in the stall, Richard wondered what he had gotten himself into. He only now began to realize that he had done nothing to hedge his bets. He had told no one what he was doing, no one knew where he was, and no one knew when he'd be back. The few friends he had he told only that he was going to be away on a new job for a while. If he never contacted them again, they probably wouldn't even notice. Conceivably, Tallweather could keep him a horse forever.
The memory haunted him of a comment made during their first conversation, that Duster was still earning a fortune as stud. Never mind how the thought of mating with a mare turned his stomach, there was certainly no incentive for Tallweather to ever turn him back.
So, one night, the horse known to the world as Dust Storm stood alone in his stall, practicing. It took a little work, but soon he found he could trace a few simple words, like "help" and "human", in the dust. Not enough to tell his story, but enough to get noticed. For now, it was his only ace in the hole.
"Good morning, Storm," said a gentle voice. Richard opened his eyes slowly, nickering a gentle reply to Matt. "Let's get you fed. Big day today. Big day."
Richard ignored him to an extent. There wasn't much reason to pay attention, after all. It wasn't like he could reply. He had a suspicion what it was, though. After three months of just learning how to walk and run and learning how to take a saddle and bit it was time to take a rider. He chewed slowly on the flavorless dry hay, longing for the day he could make pancakes again, and waited.
A few minutes after he finished, Matt returned to groom Richard. Standing still, his bridle attached to the crossties, he waited. He was long past the initial self consciousness of someone else cleaning his body. There simply wasn't any way for him to do it anymore anyway. Within a very short time, he was completely saddled up, chewing idly at the metal bit in his mouth. The metal tasted as bad to his senses as the hay he ate everyday, but he was getting used to it.
Matt led him out of the stable and into a large indoor ring. The place was deserted, and the sound of his hooves on the dirt floor actually echoed slightly off the walls. Matt spoke soothingly into the horses ear, which earned him a frustrated sigh. Richard was just ready to go. Now.
With a heave, Matt was suddenly on his back. For a moment, the weight startled him, but he calmed quickly only taking a few steps before coming to a stop. Richard only now realized that this could be a short training time. One of the reasons that Tallweather had wanted a human in the mind of this animal was to make it more independent of the jockey, more able to anticipate commands rather than react to them.
He decided to play the part of the star pupil and quickly figured out what Matt wanted. It helped that he used short voice commands as well to give Richard meaning to the gentle tugs on the reigns and movements in the stirrups.
He was making a circle around the ring when he looked toward the door and saw the massive form of Tallweather for the first time in weeks. He almost jumped out of his horseshoes.
With some difficulty, Matt guided his reluctant mount to a meeting with their mutual boss and owner. "Good morning, sir."
Tallweather nodded curtly, his chins jiggling. "He's looking well, don't you think?"
Richard could almost hear the smile on Matts face, "Storm is at that, he is at that. Smart animal, too."
Tallweathers eyes glinted darkly, masked by a jovial smile. "Oh? How so?"
"Not sure I can explain it. He's picking up things pretty fast, though. Ever since he finally got the walking thing down, he's been a dream to train. If things keep up like this, he'll be ready to race in maybe two months, four at most."
"I see," said the big man, reaching a hand out to touch Richard on the neck. Instinctively, he pulled back slightly, not letting the pudgy fingers do more than brush the hair on his neck. "I see..."
Tallweather turned away without another word and walked out.
Darkness had long since fallen outside and Richard was already dozing. Living the life of a horse, he found, made one appreciate the circadian clock. When night fell, it was time to sleep.
His dozing was interrupted by the sound of heavy footsteps down the hall. Richard felt his heart race, knowing who it was before the visage of Tallweather filled the half door of the stall. "What do you think you're doing?" He paused as if awaiting a detailed explanation.
Richard just stared at him, cocking his head, and waited.
"You're making Matt suspicious, and Matt isn't supposed to know anything. If you want this to pan out, you sure as hell better make things a little harder on him. Don't be a genius." He paused and jabbed a finger at the horse, "I own you, remember. If I sold you tomorrow to the highest bidder, no one would care and no one would notice. You're my horse now and you'll behave like it!"
Richard nickered curiously, wondering what had brought this change in mood. Tallweather always seemed a little off kilter, but he'd never seemed to lose his temper before.
The huge man fished into his pocket and pulled out a small device. The black plastic case looked like a garage door opener. "You see this?" he asked quietly.
Richard could do nothing but nod his head in an exaggerated way and wait.
He fingered the button, "This is a self destruct device. Yours, actually." He played at pushing the button, "One click and poof, no more Dust Storm." He smiled evily, "It's a nanite self destruct device, you see. Cross me, or fail me, and I'll cut my losses. Got it?
Tallweather left without waiting for an answer, leaving a confused and worried Richard behind.
For all his training as a racehorse, Richard was a poor substitute for the real thing.
Richard wasn't sure exactly how long it had been, he'd spent most of his time in the rehab facility with Matt and a few stable hands, but it had to be months before he was face to face with another horse.
Richard had never given horses much consideration, even in the months he had spent in training. He'd been raised in the city and the few horses he'd ever seen had been carriage horses on city tours, usually older, calm animals with plodding gaits. The few he saw at the rehab center were broken animals, their owners trying to preserve stallions for stud or mares for brooding, their eyes usually hollow and pained.
The horses that he saw when he backed off the trailer at the ranch were anything but that. These were sleek animals, high strung with energy to spare. A few eyed him curiously from the other side of the fence, but most ignored or simply didn't notice him.
"This is Dust Storm?" asked a man leaning against the trailer.
"Sure is, Clive, sure is," replied Matt. "The big man thinks that this one is a real winner."
Clive looked a bit suspicious, "What do you think?"
Matt shrugged. "He's a strange one, I'll admit, but he's got speed. Considering the state he was in when I first saw him, he's in fantastic shape. He might pull it off." He punctuated it with a shrug.
"You don't seem that convinced."
"I'm not," he said truthfully. "He doesn't have the spirit of a racer. He does what you ask, but he doesn't seem to have the instinct, the drive to run. He'll do well, don't' get me wrong. But will he be like Duster? I doubt it."
Richard listened with a cocked ear while he idly chewed on grass from the roadside. He hoped he could prove them wrong. God help him if he couldn't.
They led him to a stable toward an empty paddock. Richard walked around a bit, getting the feel of the open air for the first time, and taking in the smells. He almost gagged on the strong scents of manure around him. It was a lot stronger than at the small rehab center. He wasn't sure how the other horses could stand it!
A curious wicker drew his attention to a distant fence where a roan gelding was eyeing him. He almost smiled, swishing his tail playfully. Finally, some company! Even if he wasn't going to talk with them, at least the horses here would help fill the long hours.
Richard walked over to introduce himself, as it were. He approached at a slow trot, noting only absently that the ears of the other horse slowly bent back and his head lowered. By the time Richard was spitting distance away, he suddenly realized that this wasn't a good situation.
The other horse suddenly screamed out a challenge and reared up. Richard, startled at the reaction, stumbled as he tried to back off. In moments, he had raced to the other end of the pasture, panting hard. He calmed his nerves and tried to approach again, only to get a similar reaction. Confused, he retreated.
It was the start of a trend. Richard knew nothing about how to act as a horse, and he had no guide. He had no instinctive knowledge of herd dynamics, no way to know when he was doing something right or wrong. The horses seemed to know that he wasn't right, seemed to know that he was nothing more than a weak willed man in an elaborate horse suit, and treated him justly. He tried watching them, tried to understand, but no matter what he tried he always got a cold or hostile reaction from them.
By the end of a few weeks at the stable, even as his ability to run with a jockey on his back improved, he had completely withdrawn from other horses. The humans around him didn't know what to make of it, but none of them suspected the truth.
Richard became truly alone.
He knew that this vet check was something a little different. To start with, Tallweather was there. More than that, the veterinarian was one of the lab workers who had injected him with the first treatment of nanites.
Richard stood still and reacted very little. Neither man spoke to him directly even though they knew the truth. They just did some physical checks and drew blood.
"What do you think?" asked Tallweather as it became clear the check was nearly over. "Can he pass a track vet?"
The vet nodded absently. "It looks like it. I want to make sure with this blood test. They aren't testing for nanites just yet, so that won't be a problem. I don't think it will be, at least. There is usually an abnormal level of certain minerals in the blood, iron and copper mostly, but that's not a problem." He chuckled, "The tracks look for narcotics, not anemia."
"I hope you're right," he said with a small shake of his head. "I'm depending on this one to win next month, in a big way." He looked significantly at Richard. "How soon for the results?"
"A couple days. It'd be faster if you'd let me send this out to..."
"Just get me the results pronto." He reached out and tried to rub the horse on the nose, "He's my financing for the next year."
Richard paced to the back of the stall, keeping his distance from the man. When the scientist turned his back, Tallweather slipped the black remote device out of his pocket just far enough for Richard to see. When he reached out again to rub his nose, the horse didn't pull back.
He eyed the back of the starting gate nervously. The young jockey on his back seemed to sense his mounts nervousness and pulled back a little on the reigns. Richard paid little attention to the commands, but slowed anyway. He waited until the handlers reached for his bridle and led him in.
Richard couldn't believe what he was doing. He hadn't even been to a real horse race before and now he was going to run in one? Hell, he'd never even been in a real foot race before!
He noted absently that the other horses were locked into their gates and bunched himself up to run. It was only a matter of moments and he'd be...
The bell rang and all the pent up nervousness caused him to stumble on his first step.
Richard recovered quickly, but by then he was behind the pack, badly. He poured on the speed, trying desperately to catch up. He could feel the jockey pull back trying to slow him, but hell with that! He had to get up there! He had to win!
By the time they made it to the third turn, he was already into the middle of the pack, weaving slightly around the other horses. His ears were filled with the pounding of the hooves of the ten other mounts and the roar of the crowd in the stands. Richard poured on every ounce of speed that he had, pulling into second place before the next turn, feeling the bits of dirt kicked up by the front runner in his nose.
They rounded another turn, and Richard could sense there were other horses coming up behind him. He tried to put on the speed, but he simply couldn't do it. There was nothing left. He felt the warmth from the gray stallion pass him on the left as the front runner pulled even farther forward. There was another coming up to his withers before he crossed the finish line, a dismal third.
"I thought that you were a bright one," muttered Tallweather late that night. The behemoth was dressed in a pure white cotton suit that made him look like a landlocked Beluga whale. He leaned heavily against the stall door and stared at Richard. "You're an idiot."
Richard didn't have any other response but to keep eating.
"I wanted you because I felt you could anticipate the other horses and run the race with any jockey, but I also thought any fool knew not to give it your all in the first leg of a race." He shook his head slightly, "You cost me over a million today. Do it again and I'll cut my losses."
The horse tensed, but continued to eat calmly. There was really nothing he could do but try and win in the future. Not knowing what else to do, he nickered noncommittally.
"Don't give me that," he snapped. He pushed himself off the door and paced a little. "Maybe this will work in our favor," he said, the wheels in his head turning nearly audibly. "You not being a big winner, you'd have longer odds." He smiled again, "Yes, this could work nicely. Betting through some fake identities on the computer and with some bookies who don't ask questions, I could make a fortune." He stopped pacing and stopped at the door. "Excellent plan, my horsy friend. I don't know why you didn't come to me with it sooner. We'll plan on you coming in second in the next race. Everyone will assume that your promise was merely hype." He chuckled greedily, "Then we'll start cleaning up." He pounded a meaty fist on the top of the door, "Rest up, you've got a race coming up!"
Richard stared nervously down the hall as Tallweather left, It was seriously looking like he needed out, soon.
The plan was working perfectly, as far as Tallweather was concerned.
Richard had run his heart out, running a little more intelligently this time by holding back until nearer the stretch. The simple fact was that the horse that won, Corinthian, was faster. It would take more than smarts to beat him if they ever met again.
Matt took care to groom his charge gently following the race. The trainer had seen a marked improvement in the horse over the last few months, so the second place finish was something to be proud of, even if the stable hands, the jockey and most others considered it a loss.
One person that was overjoyed at the finish was Tallweather. He came down the walkway between the stalls positively joyous, humming loudly to himself. He quickened his pace when he saw Matt and Richard, stopping just short and slapping the trainer on the back. "Wonderful job you've done! Wonderful!" he said.
"It's going well. I'm not sure he's got much more in him, though," answered Matt cautiously.
"Nonsense, this beast has more going on under the hood than either of us know. What he won today paid off nearly all of my outstanding debts!" he said joyously. "One or two more races and I'll be able to buy into that skyscraper in Hanoi!" He slapped Matt on the back again, then spun on his heels and walked off.
Matt didn't get back to grooming Richard for a long time, instead he stood and stared after his employer. Finally, he turned and looked at his charge, "Something's not right here, Storm. Something's not right at all."
Richard just sighed and turned his attention away. All he had to do was win, and soon he'd be able to be human again. Just a few more races.
Dawn was just breaking over the ranch when he heard the sound of several trucks drive up. There was the sound of an argument outside the barn. Richard was awake enough to hear the shouts, but couldn't make out any words. After a few minutes of silence, the door was swung open and a small group of people came in. Richard looked curiously at them, not liking the looks of things at all.
"Which ones are they?" asked a man in a well made suit.
A woman with him looked at a sheet, "Roustabout, Sutter, Kentucky Spirit and Quaker. I've got photos and copies of their lip tattoos, so make sure."
The men with the pair started looking at the horses at the far end of the barn as Clive walked in. "What the hell is going on here?"
"It's called a repossession, sir." The well dressed man produced a paper, "Benjamin Tallweather Enterprises is in default on a loan to the First Bank of Little Gulch, and these horses were used as collateral. We're taking them."
Clive looked over the paperwork and seemed to visibly sag. "All right, take them."
Richard watched nervously from his stall as the four racehorses were led to waiting trucks to be taken to parts unknown. In the back of his mind, he suddenly knew that he wasn't going to meet a good end. Chances seemed high that he was collateral somewhere. It was coming close to time to get out of here. First chance that he had, he'd try and get Matts' attention. Money be damned, he wasn't going to be a horse the rest of his life.
There wasn't a chance while he was still at the ranch. Richard didn't want to risk Tallweather coming in at a the wrong moment. When he was taken to another track for his third race he began looking for any chance he could find. He spent the time in the trailer practicing the motions he would need to make. It wasn't easy, a horses foreleg wasn't built for writing, but it would have to do.
Richard was led from the truck into a paddock to stretch out after the long trip. He thought seriously about trying to scratch out a message here, the ground was very soft and gave easily under his shod hooves, but decided to hold off. It was too public here. Even if he could get something written and noticed, he wasn't sure who would read it, and he could be sure Tallweather would know in an instant. Better to wait until he was in the stall later. Matt, he felt, he could trust.
His trainer came out and clipped the lead line to the halter and led Richard to his stall. He walked in and dropped his head. The stall floor was covered in clean, fresh hay. He had hoped that there would be some saw dust or dirt that he could cut into easily. He pushed some of the hay aside with a hoof and found only the wooden floor of the stall. There wasn't anything to write on! He turned frantically toward Matt, but the trainer had already left after locking the door. Richard tried a few times to pull open the lock, but it wasn't any use: the lock was a complex mechanism that required the dexterity of fingers to unlock.
Richard didn't sleep at all that night as he tried to chip "help" into the wooden slats with the tip of his horseshoe. It was slow, frustrating going. In the dark he couldn't even see his hoof, much less what he was writing. Several times he had to stop and pace back and forth to calm himself down, and other times when guards or grooms happened by, attracted by the odd noise.
By the time dawn came and he could see what he'd been writing, it was an unholy mess. It was nothing more apparent than the random tapping of a nervous animal. If you had a lot of imagination, you might get a letter or two, but no words.
Matt came to the stall moments later, "What in the world?" he asked quietly. He gently stepped into the stall and ran his hands along the horses neck. "Good lord, you're burning up." Richard hadn't even realized it, but he'd been so worked up all night it felt like he'd just run a marathon. The chilly morning air hit his sweat covered body, causing him to shiver.
With a deep look of concern, Matt muttered under his breath. After a running his hands along the horses side a bit more, he pulled out a cell phone and tapped a button. "Dr. Meadows, sorry to call you so early but it's about Dust Storm. He's got some kind of fever. I'm worried that it might be a relapse of that encephalitis.... No, he was fine last night. What? What are you doing in Flagstaff? You're supposed to be near the track! Great, just get here as fast as you can." He hung up the phone. "Damn doctor. I don't know what Tallweather sees in that guy. Not even a full time vet." He looked at the horse and ran a hand over his neck, "I don't care what that bastard says, I'm getting the track doctor."
Within the hour, Richard found himself being poked and prodded like he hadn't been since this whole thing started. Through it all, he kept trying to signal in some way that he was a human in this body, but his efforts were dismissed repeatedly as the actions of a sick or overly affectionate animal. Eventually, fearing for his safety, they forced Richard to lay on the floor of the vets barn, bound his legs, and bagged his head. He struggled for a little while, but eventually gave into it. It wouldn't do any good to struggle anymore.
After almost an hour, he heard a loud shout, "Dr. Phar! You're not going to believe this!"
The vet finished taking another blood sample from Richard. "What is it?" he asked finally.
The breathless assistant paused a second, and Richard could hear a paper being handed over the rail. "This horse has nanites in his blood!" Richard froze. It was the best sign that he could have hoped for. "I wouldn't have thought to check for them, but his iron and zinc levels were sky high. On a hunch, I checked the copper levels. It's all there."
"Are you sure?" asked the doctor, then only a moment later, "God damn, you're right."
Richard started to whinny as loudly as he could, straining at his bonds. He had to make them understand what was going on!
The doctor was at his side in a moment. "They must be malfunctioning, or he wouldn't be so sick and panicked. Quick, hand me the sedative!"
Richard screamed again in a wholly equine way as he felt the needle plunge into his side. He'd never make them understand if he was asleep...
By the time he came back around, he sensed that his situation had gone from bad to worse, despite his best hopes. They'd untied him and removed the bag, but the vets were almost jubilant, and there were a lot more of them. They had something on their hands that they had never seen before and wanted to make the most of it. Richard feared that not a one had the vaguest suspicion what he was.
Richard stood up in time to see the track officials leaving the barn.
From the way that the word "banned" was floating around the stable, he was sure that the great racer Dust Storm had seen his last track. Good riddance, too. Little did any of them know how welcome that kind of news was.
It was also a good bet that Tallweather was going to be banned himself, if not already then very soon. He'd been placing illegal bets at the least, not to mention entering a fraud in two races. Unless he was good at hiding it, Tallweathers dealings would be public knowledge very soon. Richard only hoped that his plight would as well.
For the moment, he still hoped to get the attention of one of the vets or technicians still poking and prodding him. He stopped struggling against them, figuring he'd have a better chance if he bided his time a little. While nuzzling one young woman, he managed to lip a short penlight out of her pocket and hide it under his tongue. It was all he could do to resist chewing on it. Now that he had an instrument, he hoped to find a chance to use it.
He held the small light in his mouth for hours, waiting as the small cluster of vets thinned as the dinner hour approached. There were only a handful of people at all in the barn at that point. Finally, after hours of waiting patiently, he realized that he had his chance. For a few minutes, all the vets walked away from the stall, leaving him alone. One of the technicians had left behind a battered laptop set up and running on a stool outside the stall door. Cautiously, Richard leaned out to touch the keys, but couldn't reach. With a frustrated twist of his head, he pulled up the simple latch on the stall door and stepped out, intent on putting some kind of message in there before it was too late.
There was a shout from outside the door. "Hey! You can't go in there!"
Richard looked up in time to see Tallweather bursting through the door. "The hell I can't, that's my horse in there, damn it, and you can't keep me from him." The massive man walked purposefully toward Richard, only seeming to notice incidentally that he was about to type out a message. The two security guards as well as a couple of white coated workers were in tow, all exchanging worried glances.
The big man stopped in front of the suddenly petrified animal. "You think you've won, don't you?" he asked. "I'll have you know you lost the moment I got your name. I wasn't going to let you return and ruin me when the story became known. I'd have lost everything." He shook his head grimly, "Hell, I have. I've already had my accounts frozen. It's all civil so far," he said with a small smile, "and I'm not planning on going to jail."
Richard tried to bolt away as the man pulled something out of his pocket. He didn't need to look to know what it was. He managed get a couple of steps before a searing pain wracked his whole body. He felt like his mind was going to explode, and his knees buckled under him. He fell to the floor a quivering mass, dimly aware of screams filling the room.
Matt ran a brush through Storms thin mane slowly. The poor thing had always liked that, and that at least hadn't changed. So much else had.
"Hey Matt, he's looking good."
He turned from his grooming and smiled, patting Storm on the side. "Hope so, I've been doing it long enough."
The stable hand rubbed the horse on the nose. "How's he doing?"
"Considering what he's gone through, pretty damn good. Hairs almost all back, though the tail and mane will take a while. He's walking again, but slowly. He'll never race again, that's for sure." Matt sighed, "What a waste. Damn fool got what he deserved."
The young stable hand looked shocked, "Storm?"
"Hell no, Tallweather," Matt corrected. "He had some device to cause nanites to self destruct. Seems he thought it was tuned specifically to the ones he had in Storm here, but..."
The stable hand waved a hand dismissively, "I know the rest of it. It wasn't that specific. He killed himself and, what, half a dozen people around him?"
Matt nodded. "Storm's the only one for about a hundred yards to make it out alive. He's different, though. He's not nearly as sharp as he was." Matt sighed, "I'm just glad I was able to get him from the estate sale. I always like him. He deserved better than to just be put down." Matt sighed and rubbed the horse a little on the head. "Poor thing was nearly killed. Vet said that he's got pretty bad brain damage."
"How bad?" asked the stable hand curiously.
"If he'd been a human," answered Matt, "vet said he'd be about the level of a toddler now."
"What are you going to do with him? Stud service?"
Matt shook his head. "Can't. The accident made him sterile. He's tainted goods in any case. Anything that bears his lineage wouldn't be allowed to race." Matt shrugged, "I'll just hand onto him and see if he gets better."
When the stable hand left, Matt unclipped the harness and led his horse to a paddock. He stood at the fence for a few minutes and watched Storm wandered aimlessly around, occasionally picking at bits of grass growing near the fence posts, but usually just standing and staring off into space. There was something in that stare that seemed vacant, distant.
"Matt?" he heard Clive call from the barn as he stepped out.
He turned, "Yeah Clive, what's up?"
Clive was ashen faced and looked nervous. He handed a small notebook to Matt. "We got this in the mail this morning from Dr. Meadows. It's about D-d-d-dust Storm." He nervously ran a hand through his hair. "I already called the Feds," he added apologetically, "I really had too."
Matt recognized the name of Storms private vet, who hadn't been seen since everything hit the fan. He studied his boss curiously and took the envelope. He noted briefly that the stamps were from Brazil as he pulled open the torn flap. He skimmed the contents. At first, he thought it was a joke, it couldn't be real. Then he noted the deadly serious look on Clives face. He turned the letter over and looked through the notebook.
It took only a few pages to decide that it was legitimate. He lowered the notebook and turned back to the paddock. It took a moment for him to find his voice, "Hill?" he asked, "Richard Hill?"
The horses ears twitched, and for a split second there seemed to be recognition there, but it passed just as fast. Instead, the horse just kept looking toward the horizon, unmoving.