To the Horizon
by Ian Cordingley
part 1 of 2
What would happen to Pathfinder? They never said what they would do with his horse, but they assured him when they arrived at the new world a brand new one would be waiting for him. As though he were a kid and his parents were surreptitiously trying to replace a dead goldfish.
He had many, many fond memories of going riding. Pathfinder always launched forwards like a rocket. Dawson laughed, leaning forwards in his saddle as if he was a kid again. Behind him, echoing through his mind, were the memories of the shouts of his father and uncle: “Slow down, damn it, stay where we can see you!”
Despite being declared a man it was difficult to control the larger horse. Dawson’s resolve evaporated. His father laughed: “You said you wanted to be a pioneer!”
“I do,” Dawson Clark protested. The horse was obeying him, but it was still difficult to manoeuvre the larger animal, who seemed to regard Dawson’s presence with mild indifference or contempt.
“His father came over, accepting the reigns Dawson was clutching. Hold them gently, properly. Don’t wrench the poor thing’s neck.”
“That’s okay. You’ve got plenty of time to learn. Let’s see how Bryan is doing.”
Bryan’s horse, an older mare and therefore safer for a boy unaccustomed to animals, was trotting behind them. Bryan was scanning the horizon for anything that fascinated him. If you did not interest him, he would make sure he could find something that would.
“Come on, Bryan.”
Bryan’s eyes snapped back at Dawson’s father. The second boy fumbled, kicking the horse a little harder than was required. It trotted faster, snorting louder. Dawson had been broken in on that horse when he was a boy, and in her eyes you could see the weariness of having to put up with energetic human boys.
Bryan didn’t mind the unintentional disgrace. He calmly waited for the horse to walk over. Dawson’s father gave him some pointers on how to control the horse: since she was old, it was unlikely he would try to race her. Bryan was enjoying his friend’s company more than the ride. Dawson’s father looked excited to be teaching Bryan basic riding.
Dawson noted his dad had come back from town two nights ago in a foul mood. Henderson had clearly not given him good news. Dad went into the barn, where the animals were moaning, spent five minutes alone, and came out, going straight to his room. Unlike their neighbours, in the same situation, his mother was keeping his dad from using a bottle to mollify his foul mood.
What his dad needed was to go for a ride, and Dawson was eager to go with him. Dawson never saw his father when he was angry: displeased, annoyed, but the wrath of a frustrated farmer was not something Dawson should have to see. His father’s horses, and his family, were healthy. He had time enough to spend with both. Dad gave Dawson a broad smile, the kind he hadn’t shown in a considerably long time.
“Let’s see the ocean,” Dawson’s father said.
Dawson eagerly took point, as if he knew how to get there by instinct. His father trotted behind, not too close but not too far either. His son needed to know the country, passed down throughout his family. It would be his to keep, sooner rather than later. Times like this would be over before anyone knew it.
Those were good days. Good to relive while Henderson hammered out a deal.
* * *
“Hey Doc.” Clark Dawson had spent a prolonged period addressing people as merely “Doc.” He had lived in a forest of white lab coats for weeks.
“Hmm?” Old Doc Henderson replied. He was fussing over his tablet: a healthy horse needed a good home. A healthy horse needed healthy land, feed and water: Dawson had done his best to provide those things, but it was not easy to do.
Dawson ran a hand over his bald head, the way he did because somehow it felt good to do whenever he was thinking. Damn, it would feel good to have hair again. Hair, along with almost everything that made life pleasant, was a luxury. Luxury was forbidden.
“About Pathfinder, what with leaving him behind?”
“Go on.” Henderson didn’t betray an expression. He had been the vet for Dawson’s family as long as both parties had been alive. Tended to more than a few human injuries in his time as well. Dawson had been a ball of energy as a boy. Eager for any challenge, if only some of them were realistic.
“I’ve been thinking,” Dawson said. “You know how we’re taking animals in test tubes, right? Can we... can we arrange it so we can take, like, Pathfinder’s genes or whatever with us. Implant them in one of them artificial wombs? Since I know Bryan Massey, he can pull the strings...”
Old Doc Henderson put down his tablet, folded its cover, rested his hands on the desk and looked Dawson dead in the eye. Dawson knew that look intimately, whenever he frequently said something that ran against the grain of human knowledge.
“You know what a clone would mean?” the vet had asked him.
“I’d have Pathfinder.”
“You’d have a horse identical to Pathfinder,” Henderson clarified. “You’d have to raise it from a foal and teach it everything all over again. It would be a new experience for the pair of you. But you wouldn’t have it for very long anyway. There is the high risk of premature cellular deterioration: it would be dead before the natural life expectancy of a horse.”
“I didn’t think of that,” Dawson said.
Henderson sighed. When would the man think?
“Since I heard of clones I figured we’d have an abundance of animals and...”
“Quite,” Henderson said, picking up his tablet. Buyers for horses preferred them from the blisters out east, where the paddocks were fortified against the cruel world. But Pathfinder was a sturdy horse. It could go for cheap. Dawson didn’t need money anymore.
“There’s a buyer in what’s left of Connecticut,” Henderson said.
“Fine by me.”
“He’ll arrange transport.”
“How long will we have?”
Henderson double-checked the competition’s bids. Henderson tweaked the particulars of the sale a little, reasonably fudging some of the margins. Not lies, per se. Henderson didn’t lie. He loved to tweak though.
“Two days. He’s quite eager to get a horse like Pathfinder. He’ll pay a lot.”
“I know I would,” Dawson said. “Put in a lot of work with that horse.”
“It shows,” Henderson admitted.
Pathfinder, all told, was in splendid health. Not perfect, but he was getting on in years. Still virile, if the buyer was interested in genetic stock. Dawson felt proud at the reminder that all the work spent puttering around taking soil samples to make sure they weren’t too crapped out and buying water clear as crystal had not gone to waste.
Dawson long ago had given up livestock. Crops were easier to manage, and he had enough money in the bank to ride out the harder times. Unfortunately, despite every corner he cut, Pathfinder’s cost was beginning to outweigh the sentimental benefit the horse brought in. Time to cut the poor thing loose.
* * *
Dawson’s skin was paler, traced with arrows indicating where the plugs and tubes would go. Now he was waiting for the next phase to kick in. Enjoying his furlough in the final few days of his life here where he was born. Trying to avoid the many restrictions: no alcohol in excess or otherwise; and sticking to a regimented diet as if the shade of his vengeful mother was repaying him a thousandfold for difficult dinners.
Definitely enjoying the last few days he would have with his horse. Above all else, that was his greatest priority. His only priority; the farm had rotted anyway. Hadn’t seen a cent of profit in many a moon. No sense in staying.
“We just need your signature and biometric,” Henderson said, concluding the transaction with a tap of his finger. Made a pretty good commission on this sale, if Henderson thought so himself.
Dawson accepted the stylus. He made a slash on the pad. He pressed his thumb on the appropriate box. Done. Their fates were sealed.
“Pleasure doing business with you,” Henderson said.
Dawson rose, nodded, said, “Thanks.” Henderson awaited the next poor fool who thought he could raise non-subscription livestock here.
* * *
His father said Bryan Massey had a head on his shoulders with room enough for three people’s brains. Nobody was surprised when he went away in search of greener pastures. Practically all of the young with a sense of ambition did just that. The town shrank, its former citizens joining the crush in the few places where you could still live. Only the old and the stubborn remained; the ones who couldn’t leave and the ones who couldn’t imagine leaving.
One day Massey came home. Now, why did he do something dumb like that?
“I’ve missed you guys,” he said. “I want to see you again.”
It was interpreted that meant the project was nearing its completion. Massey would leave them behind, all of them, including the world, very soon. So they hit up the old bars and visited the old joints as once they had done. It had been a very rare fun occasion.
Massey and Dawson cruised down the main street in the rusty junker that was left to him. There wasn’t anyone for miles around, so they had plenty of company. Just as when he was younger, Massey had his elbow on the open window, taking in the scenery.
“Things have really changed,” Bryan said. He didn’t need to say for the worse.
A lot of storefronts were boarded up. The “Vacancy” and “For Rent” signs still hung in a few places either as testaments to optimism or desperation. Periodically someone would repaint the old signs, too traditional or poor to afford neon or LEDs. It was like keeping the room of a deceased relative dusted and clean, as if you were expecting them to return at any time.
The local carnival and associated other festivals were well attended and enjoyed. But as Dawson grew older he saw them as hollow puppet shows, routine pageants to fill time. The old stories of the pioneers who came from the east to settle and thrive were retold, but in a weary, exhausted tone. Almost if no one believed those days had ever happened.
It wasn’t the town of his grandparents. They made that clear. Before they passed, much of their time was spent talking about the good old days. When the town, while never wealthy, was at least prosperous, and everyone knew the value of hard work, and all the other things the old complained about. Not the way it was now, with half the population on the dole. Back then they would’ve blanched with shame at the prospect.
Mercifully, Bryan spared them the obtusely technical details and the sciences that went over their heads. But it was obvious he was bursting with pride. On the news broadcasts, Dawson learned of the broad strokes of the project. It seemed distant, foreign like the other side of the world.
Dawson regaled him with the travails of those who stayed. Bryan had been brought over for coffee: he lovingly patted Pathfinder on the nose, and followed Dawson as they retraced their childhoods on the farm. How hard their lives had been and were becoming, and their pride, now indistinguishable from obstinacy.
They started off by talking about old friends and people they knew, who had stayed and who had left and where they had gone. Bryan mentioned the project in measured doses, understanding now that not everybody knew it as thoroughly as he did. He spoke in generalities: the principles of the technology behind it, the basics of the science. Dawson sat politely quiet, trying to be enrapt.
“It’s not easy,” Bryan explained, “trying to keep people frozen without long-term harm. We only managed to master it recently.”
Dawson nodded. “Like a ship full of prairie dogs, more or less.”
“More or less. Sad to say it’s the only thing we got. But we can’t wait for anything better. It’s for the best if we go now.”
He chuckled, shaking his head. He remembered something he knew Dawson would find amusing.
“Still short of people, if you can believe it,” Massey said. He stirred his coffee, letting the cream and sugar settle.
Bryan nodded. “We’ve got plenty of interest. We just need to... actually, you know... recruit people. Harder than it sounds.”
“Aren’t you holding out for the best and brightest?”
“I’d like that,” Bryan said. “But too many of the best and brightest want to remain here, in their laboratories and lecture halls. Being smarty pants and getting paid for it.”
Dawson chuckled. “I suppose.”
“What do you think? There’s plenty of space. More than I’d like.”
“About going with us?” Dawson was surprised he had been asked that. He figured if Bryan Massey had run away he would have slated Dawson as a hopeless case, too proud and determined to die on his parched land.
“Wouldn’t have made the offer otherwise.”
“Me,” Dawson said, “a spaceman?”
“Yep.” Bryan said.
That was a new thought for Dawson. Granted, he fantasized about it, and he had enough unusual terrain around for childhood games of astronaut and alien.
“I don’t know.” Dawson poured himself a cup, feeling hesitant to reply with anything more substantial. He felt appreciated that the invitation had been extended to him. He had never thought himself worthy to be an astronaut, either by education or inclination.
“I don’t like the idea of running away.”
“This is a migration, not an evacuation. We’ll need someone like you.”
Dawson glanced up into the sky. “Where is it, exactly?”
Copyright © 2013 by Ian Cordingley