Deep in the Arizona desert lay a ranch called the Durga Ranch. As far as the people of Jefferson County knew, only two people lived on the Ranch, Henry Zane and his wife Missy Zane, which was baffling, for the ranch was very large and held hundreds of animals: cows, horses, sheep, and dogs.
Guests often expected to find two sad elderly people, knee deep in manure, and seriously bruised from being gored, kicked, and bitten by their animals. However, the Zane’s were very friendly, and they had remarkably well-behaved animals. The Durga Ranch always looked pristine, through all seasons. It looked like an advert for ranch living. Even coyotes, crows, and rodents seemed reluctant to desecrate it.
A simple, low, white painted wooden fence marked the edges of the ranch, but as far as anyone could tell, there were no other structures on the property to keep the animals under control, just a very large mansion somewhere at the centre.
How Henry and Missy Zane maintained it was anyone’s guess.
The Zane’s had no kids, always paid their taxes on time, and went to church every Sunday. Their clothing was immaculate, and according to them homemade, and they were more than willing to tailor a few clothes for their neighbours and business partners, at a fair price.
Where they found the time…
The people of Jefferson County gossiped often about The Durga Ranch, especially the kids. On many nights they planned excursions to the property, carrying cameras, binoculars, and telescopes, hoping to spot illegal immigrants sprouting fully formed from the ground to work on the ranch, like Uruk-hai, but as soon as the kids got within sight of the fence, they found themselves quickly getting bored and losing interest, all except Jessie Bryram.
On one warm night in July, Jessie marched all the way long after his friends had abandoned him. He couldn’t understand why they always acted like this, they would come along, eager and excited, like him, then decide to turn back when they were so close.
Jessie also felt himself getting bored sometimes, but tonight he powered through it. He had tried to force his best friend, Tank, to continue with him, but Tank had started crying as Jessie pulled him. A very distressing sight for Jessie given Tank was really a tank; at twelve, Tank (real name Alan Prince) was very muscular and about a head taller than Jessie, who himself was tall for his age.
Jessie went on alone, slowly, and constantly looking back at his friends who were glumly walking away. He stopped at the fence and put on his binoculars. After a quick scan of the grounds he couldn’t see any people, but there were the animals, left alone unattended. He could understand why the cows and sheep would have no desire to jump the fence, they’d probably fail, but the horses and dogs he felt could jump over with ease, just as he did.
Some of the dogs he’d spotted looked at him, but they didn’t bark. All the animals were eerily silent. Jessie lived on a cattle farm and knew there was something strange about the cows, they were acting too mechanically, when they weren’t eating they were standing almost completely still, not even reacting to the movement around them.
He creeped forward, the binoculars to his face. The lights were on at the mansion, but no head was peeking out to check on the free range animals. Vandals could easily destroy part of the fence and cause enough commotion to scare the animals away. How did the old man and woman keep track of all the livestock, and if they worked alone, why weren’t they losing the battle against weeds on such a large property?
Jessie didn’t know, what he did know was that his parents needed the help of all their four children to look after less than a quarter of the cattle he’d already seen on the Durga Ranch.
The animals continued to ignore him.
Jessie picked a rock and threw it at two sheep close by. The rock flew harmlessly between them as he’d intended, but the sheep didn’t flinch or run away, even when they heard the rock crashing.
“No way,” Jessie uttered, now smiling. He knew there was only one explanation for this: telepathy.
Knowing this made him want to go and knock on the front door, but now all of a sudden, every eye on the ranch was on him. The animals advanced on him at once. Jessie chuckled in disbelief as he watched cows, horses, dogs and sheep all rushing him at an almost choreographed pace. It was amazing they didn’t trample each other. Jessie wondered if the Zane’s would turn out to be the most powerful telepaths he’d ever met, controlling so many minds _ inferior minds, but hundreds of them _ so meticulously would require incredible power.
Jessie backed away slowly from the approaching animals, the moon reflected hauntingly in their emotionless eyes.
This was a scene straight out of a horror movie, but Jessie didn’t run, he wasn’t afraid. He stopped retreating at the fence and placed one hand on top of it in case he needed to escape quickly. The animals were obviously under telepathic control, so he didn’t expect them to hurt him. As expected, they didn’t gore or bite him when they reached him, they used their heads and faces to try and encourage him over the fence. It was futile, they were being too soft. Jessie laughed, he was enjoying the attention. Even now the animals weren’t mooing or barking. A bull decided to give him a not very gentle prod with its horn which made him yelp and leap over, falling painfully on the other side.
Three days later, Jessie returned to the Durga Ranch, again alone, this time in the afternoon. He planned to offer extra hands on the ranch in exchange for telepathic training. He was a budding telepath, and he wasn’t interested in trying out other psychic abilities. Most of the good psionic schools preferred to teach under eighteens all the psionic abilities, instead of just one, to give them the chance to find what they’re most talented in.
Jessie saw Henry waiting at the gate as he neared the front entrance. The old man was smiling. Jessie smiled too, impressed as he believed Henry had sensed him coming miles away. He hoped Henry woudn’t read his mind because he planned to get revenge one day, guessing that it was Henry who made the bull…
Henry opened the gate to let Jessie in, they shook hands. Henry’s grip was gentle, Jessie’s wasn’t, but it hardly mattered given the size of their hands. Jessie had walked awkwardly the day after the incident with the bull. He could sense Henry’s emotions, the old man was calm, with no sinister emotions.
“Afternoon,” Jessie said.
“Afternoon, young man,” Henry replied, smiling amiably.
“Do you know why I’m here?” Jessie asked hopefully.
Henry nodded, “Of course.”
Jessie’s eyes widened in awe. He hadn’t felt any kind of intrusion in his brain that would indicate a telepath trying to get in, so Henry had to have deduced Jessie’s intentions solely for reading his emotions.
To Jessie’s right, two horses were trotting up to them. Henry wasn’t even looking at the horses.
“Would you like a cup of tea, so we can talk?” Henry asked.
Henry climbed one of the horses, Jessie did likewise. Jessie knew his way around horses, but this one was being mind controlled. He held the leash tightly, just in case. The horses moved briskly, at a gentle trot. Now Jessie could study the animals from up close and in good light, they were fit and had healthy looking skin, which multiplied Jessie’s confusion, telepathy wouldn’t help the Zane’s against diseases.
Jessie caught sight of something that made him gasp. The grass, it was so well manicured it was fit for an NFL game to be played on. There was no way the Zane’s could make the animals bite with such precision. Right? Jessie looked at Henry, wide eyed.
Henry simply smiled.
“Uhm, sir,” Jessie said. Henry looked at him. “Will you teach me telepathy?”
Henry furrowed his brow. “How many people know we’re telepaths?”
“I… don’t know. I haven’t told anyone.”
“Good boy. I knew I was right about you, young man.”
Jessie noticed the relief on Henry’s face. So the Zane’s had something to hide. Jessie hadn’t checked if it was illegal to control livestock telepathically, he didn’t think it would be.
“How far along are you in your telepathy?”
“I can read emotions through touch. I’m mostly self-trained.”
Henry gave a nod. He then dismounted and walked to the now open front door. Jessie was excited and afraid at the same time. He almost fell when he got off the horse. He sprinted after Henry who had walked into the house, then came to a sudden halt after entering.
He was now in a large hall, and it was filled with people, over two hundred of them. People of all ages, infants, children, teenagers, grown men and women, and senior citizens.
The teenage girls were standing in ascending lines up the stairs, with their male counterparts just above them, like a choir. Missy Zane was here too, she along with her husband and the infants were the only ones looking directly at Jessie. Everyone else was either blindfolded or had their eyes closed. Jessie looked from face to face, astonished.
They all lived here in the Durga Ranch, he was certain, and this was all of them. They had been waiting for him. They were all so smartly dressed he was slightly embarrassed by his jeans and t-shirt. Every now and the Jessie saw some of the young ones open their eyes to look at him then quickly close them.
Henry had stopped next to an even older man, really ancient, bald, with deep wrinkles, and a clean shaven face. Jessie gasped when he saw him. It was Erlang Shen, a man of Chinese descent believed to be the most powerful telepath ever.
Erlang Shen had disappeared about twenty years earlier when The Hunters Alliance _ the ten most powerful hunters in the world _ had stormed The Hive’s sanctum and destroyed it. Jessie, like all training telepaths knew the story:
Five years after the discovery of psionic energy, in 1951, a group of ten men and women felt they had found a way to fast track the development of the recently discovered psychic ability called telepathy. They went deep into the Appalachian Mountains, with only the clothes on their backs. In the dark and quiet caves, they planned not to use their mouths and eyes, and rely almost completely on telepathic communication. This they felt was the future for humanity, because vocal communication is a drag.
They called themselves The Hive.
They were right. Their unique lifestyle accelerated telepathic growth, and before long they were the most powerful telepaths in the world. They could sense each other and others from miles away, and send and receive complex thoughts with ease.
The world was less than impressed when they learned of all the drawbacks. Because The Hive lived underground in the dark, and wanted to recognise each other only telepathically and not by sight, they couldn’t communicate via body language, and adding emotional context to telepathic communication was tedious, so they learned to ignore it, their emotions atrophied. The Hive was seen by millions on television and people didn’t like how it looked like after a decade underground the members appeared to have forgotten how to smile and laugh properly, they smiled like someone trying it out for the first time, and when they laughed…
The Hive didn’t like the criticisms, they sealed themselves off in their caves along with a sizeable number of converts. They were left alone, until the year 1997, when a female member escaped after deciding that the outside world was far more interesting when she saw it through the eyes of a bird she was controlling.
She told the world some very horrifying details about life in The Hive. The Hive had very limited resources, so they practiced a very brutal version of eugenics. Every couple was allowed to breed as much as they wanted, just in case they had a prodigy, but anyone under the age of three whose telepathic growth wasn’t up to scratch, was terminated.
The Hunters Alliance had to intervene. It took the entire Hunters’ Alliance, plus many local hunters to overcome The Hive. Their sanctum was caved in. Most members chose to die fighting instead of being apprehended. They spooked many of the hunters because they never showed anger or fear when they fought, they just fought.
Jessie stared, his eyes and mouth wide open, shivering, as Erlang Shen, the last known leader of The Hive stood there, facing him, eyes closed, face blank, though Jessie felt Erlang wanted him to think he was glad to see him. Erlang was wearing a buttoned dark-blue suit, with a black shirt, and brown leather shoes. His wooden walking stick was shaking under his grip.
“Welcome to the Durga Ranch, Jessie,” Henry said.
Jessie looked at Henry, then back at Erlang.
Henry smiled widely. “Henry and Missy are not in the building anymore, they are under Father Erlang’s complete control, and have been for quite some time.”
Jessie was gobsmacked. An old man who had his eyes closed was talking to him through the slightly younger man next to him. This couldn’t be real life, this was fantasy. He considered running. He was sure they wouldn’t catch him if he tried, but…
“Yes, Jessie,” Henry said. “You never told us your name, Father Erlang read your mind. He can bypass The Law of Consent and read people’s minds without them knowing.”
Jessie’s face twitched. Erlang Shen was controlling a man and making that man address him as Father Erlang, but then, it would be just as confusing if he made Henry call him ‘I or me’. Jessie felt like he’d have an aneurysm if he thought too much about it, then he remembered something. His heart, which had already been racing was now threatening to burst out of his chest. If Erlang had already read his mind, maybe he already knew that Jessie planned to get revenge for molestation by bull. Jessie was serious about it.
Henry pointed at one of the girls standing on the stairs. “It wasn’t Father Erlang who did that, it was Kim.”
The girl in question turned to face Jessie and opened her eyes. Jessie’s eyes almost fell out of his head. The girl smiled. It looked odd, foreign, on her pretty face. Jessie smiled back at her.
“How do you climb the stairs if you keep your eyes closed?” Jessie asked, looking at Erlang Shen.
Henry sighed. “In the old days, back at our home, before the massacre, we developed our minds to a level where our spatial understanding was supreme. We could move in complete darkness effortlessly. Those of us who survived still have that ability. The young ones, unfortunately, are distracted by the light. They’re allowed to open their eyes when they want to.”
The more powerful the teacher, the better for the student, that was how it went with psychic abilities, especially telepathy. Jessie didn’t like that there were two people here who would go comatose when Erlang Shen died. The animals too, all the itches they never got to scratch because they were under constant control, absolute torture. But, like every boy his age, Jessie wanted to join The Hunters Alliance, and if he trained with this lot he’d be the most powerful telepath in the world by twenty-five, present company excluded.
“We don’t need any more workers, as you can see,” Henry said. “Father Erlang is offering to train you himself, in return for a small favour, two years from now. You’d be an honorary member of the Durga Ranch, able to come and go whenever you please.”
“Yes,” Jessie replied immediately.
Erlang Shen himself smiled, Jessie winced. It was hideous.
“Now, let’s talk about your parents.”
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