To the Horizon
by Ian Cordingley
Part 1 appears|
in this issue.
A star was indicated, and then Dawson was instructed to look down two degrees, and across by three thumb widths. Dawson settled on a star and pronounced it good enough. All pictures revealed the planet as a blue-green crumb. Imagination believed it to be a paradise. What else could it be?
“Things aren’t getting any easier here?”
“No,” Dawson confessed, to his shame. His labour only went so far. He was only so resourceful; his creditors only so lax; his father only so lucky.
“Before long, people are going to be clamouring for the opportunity. Why not get in on it while you can? Before things get even worse.”
Dawson was quiet. He still had his old rifle, though he had run out of things that he could hunt ages ago. If any desperate migrant was coming in, fleeing the encroaching seas or the migrating pestilences... He hadn’t seen one, so why worry?
“You’re healthy, right?’
“No thanks to you,” Dawson replied.
“Not afraid of a challenge?” Bryan smiled as he asked the redundant question.
“Well,” Massey said, “what are you waiting for?”
Dawson’s grunt was uncommitted.
Massey, giving a chuckle, arced his head back and recited: “‘Warm yourselves against the night of ignorance, the long snows of superstition, the cold winds of disbelief, and from the great fear of darkness in each man’.” Massey stared into the sky with a large smile on his face. “You know, from the books we read as kids?”
“I read them too.” Dawson finished his coffee. “Bradbury.”
The battered and well-enjoyed paperbacks had been a favourite read, snuggled with him under the covers when it got cold and infinitely dark. A pleasure made the sweeter because his parents were resolute about strict bedtimes.
“I’ll need time to think about it,” Dawson asked.
Bryan nodded. “I understand.”
Bryan returned to the project several days later. Dawson bumbled around the farm. Nothing was growing except thin, brittle weed. He hadn’t harvested anything edible in two years. He burned the ruined crops to the ground one night, and, once he sobered up, hunted down Bryan’s contact number.
So he made his choice. He called Bryan up and said he was in. That was the start of a battery of tests and assessments, and he passed every one. He would go for specialized training, and then he would be on his way.
Dawson was poked and prodded, and his hair shaved. Everyone he told gaped in awe: leaving the planet was not a thing someone from around here would have done. Those people went to the good schools, had families that could support their esoteric educations.
Nobody joined him. They turned back to their infertile farms, their failing stores, their businesses. Maybe they would move to somewhere where the soil was still moist and fertile, or maybe they would rot. Dawson would be far, far away when that happened; he put no thought to the consequences of staying behind.
The sun had turned to purple from black. Cold, metallic blue was creeping into the sky. A few slivers of cloud traced above the horizon. It would be a good day to ride, once the sun came up and brought the heat with it.
Dawson finished his coffee, feeling the heat as it raced down into his stomach. He could still see his breath. Wasn’t the world getting warmer? Wasn’t that what Bryan had told him? Didn’t feel like it this morning.
Tomorrow Pathfinder would be led away. Not long afterwards, Dawson would leave the farm. It was half-collapsed anyways: the small clump of fruit trees twisted and gnarled, their branches shorn of leaves and fruit. His grandmother’s famous pies lay dormant in their recipe books, awaiting the fruit of his farm. It would never come.
His pad was set up to let him know if there were any takers. Price so low it was an insult to his family’s toil. But it just had to go. Simple as that.
He enjoyed a quick breath of the only cigarette in the house. A luxury, and a pernicious one at that. Probably the last one of his life. No word on whether tobacco would accompany them, whether the old vice could take root on a new world.
He walked into the barn. Pathfinder grunted from his stable. Dawson led him out.
“We’ve got all day.”
He unwrapped some sterile hay, and Pathfinder chomped into it. Dawson fished out a couple of healthy, hydroponics-grown vegetables. Tasted like pulpy cardboard to Dawson: a vegetable had to have a thin taste of dirt for him to consider it a vegetable. Pathfinder was not so discriminating.
He heaved the saddle onto Pathfinder’s back and fastened it; he climbed on, his feet finding the stirrups by memory. He took the reigns, giving a gentle pull and nudge with his stirrups. “Come on. We’ve waited long enough.”
Pathfinder snorted in agreement. He trotted out of the barn, through the gate, onto the trail. Pathfinder’s powerful muscles rippled; they had lain dormant for far too long.
“Let’s go have a good one.”
Pathfinder snorted appreciatively.
Dawson guided his horse across the empty paddock. Past the farmhouse, past the orchards, their trees standing withered like witches’ fingers, past the rusting hulks of farming equipment that had given up the ghost and were too far gone to repair. Everything useful had long been stripped away. Dawson found the trail.
The trail met open country. A rut had been worn into the ground from past excursions from the farm. Grass was beginning to claim it, tall and yellow. It had been that long. Shame on him.
The uninitiated saw a vast stretch of wild, uncultivated land. The trail faded behind them. Dawson could have been forgiven for thinking he was lost, but he had grown up knowing every square inch. Out here it felt wild. Nothing, no power towers or paved roads to suggest they were anywhere near civilization. Just wide fields, a tree in an odd place.
It was still his family’s land, believe it or not. They had never tried to cultivate it: nothing they could do could make plants take. Animals, maybe, but they gave up on that after they put their last herd down. Some damn brain fungus or something.
He remembered the grim expression on his father’s face. An entire row of blackened cattle were being consumed by flames. Dear Lord, the smell was hideous. His father had raised the majority of them from two blue-ribbon winning calves. He remembered watching his father ball his fists, and then unfold them, defeated.
The next day, Dad folded: paid the subscription for a resistant breed of cattle. Cost way too much, he said. Made his money back, which was what mattered, more or less. Never was the same man again.
Nobody would buy the farm. Dawson had tried and tried, lowering the price almost to the vanishing point. No takers. Not even from the greedy people who had poisoned the land. Just sand and dust. No profit in that.
His family had come from the east. They rode through the country, endured countless hardships, and planted their family tree here. For several generations his family had lived here and thrived. Dawson was the man who broke the chain. He winced a little when he thought about it. No matter how often he reminded himself that he had no other options, it still hurt.
They raced along the trail. It hugged the coast, which magically appeared to his left. If he hadn’t known better Dawson would have sworn he was on level ground. The coast always seemed to sneak up on you, as if it was pulling a trick. Had he been a newcomer he could have sworn the land would continue endlessly up to the very edge of the horizon.
The trail led down a small hill. If he wanted to, he could follow it all the way to where it ended on the beach. He didn’t feel like it. From his vantage point the ocean was level and grey. It enveloped the left and the right, and stretched immeasurably long to the vanishing point. He turned Pathfinder around, guiding him back to the farm. Best to not exhaust him with the sale not yet complete.
Enough time on the way back to be alone with his thoughts. He couldn’t fight back thinking about the good old days. About the first time he had come down the coast.
Dawson peered out at the rippling grey water. It gently rolled against the beach; they had guided their horses onto the beach. The slate grey sand, well moistened by the waves, was indented by their hooves.
They never came down to this beach: too small, cold and rocky. They wouldn’t stay for long. But it felt good to find nevertheless, like finding buried treasure.
His father beamed. “You can come down when you like when you’re older.”
Dawson awaited that day. To be older, to have the entire expanse of land for himself... Dawson felt the sun on his face, smelled the air and felt satisfied. He felt like an explorer. He felt so large and so wise.
On the new world would he feel that way again? Or would he feel small and afraid, an imitator and not a proper pioneer? Would whatever he got to replace his horse rumble the same way Pathfinder did? Pathfinder snorted, and Dawson shared the sentiment.
Copyright © 2013 by Ian Cordingley
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