"Whoa down, steady on girl." Tyler patted the big mare's nose gently as she put her ears flat and snorted. "I know," he said quietly into her ear, "it'll be over soon." Tyler looked at the government vet darkly. "How long will this take anyway? She doesn't much like this."
The government vet looked up at Tyler and smiled. "Shouldn't be long now, the sequencer is almost done. I'll have the IV out of her ankle in just a minute."
"Ankle?" Tyler looked suspicious. "Just what the hell do you know about horses anyway?"
The government vet looked up and smiled. "Very little actually. This is the first one I've ever really seen. Not many people keep horses these days." He carefully removed the fat IV needle and brushed off his pants as he stood up. "A magnificent animal, really. Quite magnificent." He busied himself by coiling up the IV tube and tucking it back into a pocket in the sequencer's folding plastic case.
"They're called fetlocks," Tyler said absently.
"What?" The government vet looked puzzled.
"Fetlocks. A horse's ankles are called fetlocks."
"Oh. Thank you." The government vet pulled out a little notebook and scribbled on a blank page. "Fetlocks, huh?" He smiled again. "Learn something new every day."
The sequencer beeped and began to spit out a thin roll of paper. The vet studied it closely, inch by inch. "Damn," he muttered, "this is a real animal isn't it?" He looked up at Tyler in disbelief. "Nobody told me it was real!" He rolled up the paper strip as if it were some kind of religious document and put it carefully in his pocket. "Damn."
Tyler took hold of the mare's halter and rubbed her nose. "What do you mean, real? Of course she's real."
"No. I mean she's real, like really real." The government vet took the strip out of his pocket and looked at it again. He shook his head. "The sequencer analyzes genetic structure and hers is all chaotic. No maker's signature anywhere in the genome; she has to be a natural." The vet still looked mildly shaken. "Where the hell did you get a real horse? I mean, there aren't any more!" He paused. "There aren't supposed to be anyway."
"What do you mean: aren't supposed to be?"
The government vet flushed. "They're illegal Mr. Rolley." He rubbed his hands together nervously. "Naturals can carry the disease. You must know that."
Tyler scowled. "Did that thing," he pointed to the sequencer, "find any disease?"
"No," admitted the government vet. "But that doesn't matter. It could happen any time." He shuddered. "You look old enough to remember the war, Mr. Rolley, the bio-weapons, the plague bombs. Some of that stuff is still floating around out there." He gestured in the direction of the far wall of the colony dome. "What would happen if that got started again?"
"Won't," Tyler said simply.
"Might," countered the government vet. "That's why I have a job. I travel to all the colonies and check the animals. To be honest I don't expect it to happen, but it could." He sighed. "Almost all the naturals died off in the plague, and those that didn't, we put down ourselves."
Tyler looked distant. "I remember. First you killed them all and then you engineered the fake ones."
"They're hardly fake Mr. Rolley. We went to great effort to do that." He shrugged. "We could have made only one model of food animal, perfectly nutritiously balanced and engineered for easy maintenance; but we didn't. We thought it was important to maintain farm culture; and we did it for people like you!" He gestured around Tyler's farm. "Look around you, the chickens, the goats, the sheep, they're almost genetically identical to their natural models."
"That almost is what saved the human race, Mr. Rolley. The synthetics are genetically incapable of carrying the plague. Have you ever had a sick animal Mr. Rolley? Even putting the safety issue aside, compared to the economic risk of naturals, synthetics are a safe and efficient option. "
"Sure," said Tyler. "That almost is also why they're all like robots isn't it? They have no spirit, no soul; they're all as fake as my shoes." He patted the mare's neck.
The government vet looked disgusted. "Really, Mr. Rolley. The synthetics are better behaved, healthier, and they're happier for God's sake! I'd expect a man like you to appreciate that!"
"Happy like lambs to the slaughter," Tyler said quietly. "They're not animals, they're biological machines. No difference between an elephant and a goat except the shape." He looked out across the engineered animals grazing on the fields of his farm. "If they didn't earn me a living I'd shit-can the lot of them."
The government vet looked horrified. "I should hope not!" He patted the pockets of his coat and took a deep breath. "Anyway, it doesn't matter what you think Mr. Rolley." He pointed at the mare. "She'll have to be decompiled."
Tyler dropped his hand from the halter and let it hang by his side. "You're not taking my horse!"
"Oh, don't worry Mr. Rolley. We'll have her back to you in a week or two, good as new. Better in fact!"
"What do you mean?"
"Well, we'll decompile her and simply incorporate her traits into a new matrix." He held his hands out. "See, you have nothing to worry about."
"Sure. We'll measure her every parameter on the genetic level, plasmatize her tissue and..."
"Yeah, it's kind of like melting plastic," he made mushy motions with his hands. "It'll break her down to the raw materials we can use in the new matrix."
"You're going to kill her."
"Well, technically she'll die in the process. But," he held up one hand palm out, "not before we've got everything she is right now all coded up."
Tyler swung a stable-hardened fist at the government vet's jaw before the man could blink. It landed with a satisfying crack and the government man folded up on the floor.
Tyler shook the hurt out of his knuckles as he looked at the unconscious man at his feet. "You didn't even ask her goddamned name." He spat on the unconscious man's coat. "It's Maria!" He took hold of the halter again and led the mare out of the stall. "Come on girl, you and me have some work to do."
Tyler felt peculiarly calm while he tacked her up. "I don't give a damn if they get the others, old girl," he muttered as he hauled up on the girth. "But they aren't going to get you, not today anyway." He punched her lightly in the ribs. "Breath out." He pulled the slack out of the thick leather as she exhaled and did up the last of the three buckles. "There," he slapped her flank, "we're just about ready."
A moan from the stall reminded Tyler of the vet and he strode over to the dimly resurfacing man. "Don't even think of getting up Mister." Tyler said. "I'm still not in a very good mood."
"Why did you hit me?" The man propped himself up on one arm and wiped the blood from his lip. "Damn," he said looking at the evidence on his hand. "You'll go to jail for this! Was it really worth it Mr. Rolley? It's just a damn horse!"
Tyler squatted down and hit him again.
The man sagged back into the straw covered floor as Tyler stood up. "You're right," he said softly, "it's just a damn horse." He turned around slowly and closed the stall door behind him as he left the stall. "The thing is though," he added as an afterthought, "this damn horse is the last one." He walked back down the hall slowly, taking in the smells of the barn as he went.
It was time to go. He put a boot into the stirrup and swung his leg over the saddle. Maria stepped as his weight settled in the worn leather. Taking the reins in one hand he gave her a little light heel and clucked twice. "Come on girl," he said patting her neck. "It's time to leave." She bobbed her head gently and nickered as she moved off out the door.
The government vet awoke slowly for a second, and equally painful, time. He struggled to a sitting position and gathered himself. A sudden fear gripped him and he held his breath as he listened to the silence in the barn. Nothing stirred, and slowly, he let his breath out. This has not been a good day he thought as he rubbed his jaw.
After a moment he worked his back up against the wall and managed to stand; his head hurt and his jaw throbbed in time with his heart. "They must be long gone by now," he muttered as he reached into his jacket pocket for his phone. Leaning on the stall wall, he flipped the small instrument open and dialed the emergency number. A few moments later he folded the little phone closed and lay back against the wall. Help was on the way.
Clutching at the rough framing of the barn he worked his way back to the table that held the sequencer and put both hands on it as he took a breath. Rolley must be long gone by now, but that was alright. Where could he go? The dome hemmed him in on all sides. The government vet smiled grimly and took a quiet pleasure in knowing that sooner or later he would see Tyler Rolley again; this time under vastly different circumstances.
Most of the land under the dome was farm land and Tyler knew every inch of it. He rode regularly out to the edge of the dome and trotted around the perimeter because it was the longest ride he could take and held the most challenging country. The builders had purposefully left the land around the dome wall craggy and uncertain to discourage the colonists from spending too much time there. As a result, knowledge about the wall was scarce, and few people gave it a second thought.
Tyler, though, knew a lot about the wall and over the years had become familiar with it's ins and outs. He pointed Maria out across the lower fields toward the closest base of the wall and kicked her up to a canter. That damn vet would get up soon and then all hell would break loose. Tyler didn't intend for either of them to be around when that happened.
They covered the two miles to the wall quickly and the familiar outlines of the disused maintenance door emerged from the climbing vines and scrubby underbrush at the base of the dome. Tyler brought her as close as he could and dismounted her near side onto a scrabble of rock. Letting her reins fall from his hand he scrambled up the rock pile and examined the door in detail. Maria stepped back and forth nervously as he ran his hands over the unfamiliar latch mechanism.
It didn't look as if it had been opened since the dome went up, Tyler thought. Thick rust clung to the metal parts and the handle lever was bleached and cracked from years of disuse. The opening was some twelve or thirteen feet high and Tyler was swept with a wave of doubt as to whether he'd be able to muscle it open. "Well," he said to himself, "they didn't build it to stay closed. All I have to do is push."
Planting his feet as best he could Tyler put both hands on the blunt handle and began to pull. At first it wouldn't budge, but then, slowly, it began to give way. With a sudden screech and a metallic bang that threw Tyler off his feet, the latch snapped open. "I'll be damned," he said as he picked himself up. He looked at the horse and grinned. "It worked!" Maria layed her ears flat and snorted.
"I know." He picked his way through the rocks back to Maria and patted her cheek. "I don't know what's out there either. But if we stay here we've both had it." He sighed as he looked back out across the fertile green expanse of the land under the dome. "Nothing here anyway but fake animals, fake weather, and fake crops." He looked at his boots. "I'm living a fake life. I'm not really farming, it's a game; all worked out by the government to keep us busy and out of their hair. I'd rather die real, out there," he gestured to the door, "than live forever in here."
The thin wail of a distant siren reached across the fields and Maria perked her ears at the sound. "Damn," Tyler swore, "sooner than I figured." He scrambled back to the door and put his shoulder to it and pushed for all he was worth. It opened an inch or two and then ground slowly open.
Tyler Rolley stood framed in the door unable to move, transfixed by a lush green countryside that seemed to stretch out forever; the sky above clear, blue, and infinite. His sleeves flapped in the rush of air leaving the dome as he stood there. "My God," he whispered. "My God." The vision still clear in his mind he tore himself away and scrambled down to pick up Maria's reins. The sound of the siren got closer.
"Come on girl!" He clucked and pulled lightly on her halter. She made her way hesitantly over the tumbled stones and let Tyler lead her out the door. She too froze for a moment, but just outside the door Tyler swung himself astride and gave her a little kick. Tyler urged her up to a gallop immediately as he scanned the unfamiliar landscape trying to decide which way to go.
He thought as they ran. He wasn't sure if they would follow him or struggle to get the door closed. It would be interesting to see what they chose. If they came right after him it would confirm what he had always suspected; that the domes were not necessary anymore. It would prove that the government had kept the people split up in the domes because they were easier to handle; like synthetics. It would prove that the lie lived outside the domes as well as inside them, and now that he'd gone outside they'd be after him for more than just the horse.
The ground was firm and Maria's sixteen plus hands form stretched out as Tyler took more and more weight on his legs and leaned into the run. As if to answer his questions the siren burst out of the dome and filled the tranquil landscape with a stark confirmation of Tyler's fears. He looked back over his shoulder and saw the dull green of a government flitter slip out of the dome and accelerate in his direction. They did not stop to close the door. He tucked his shoulders down and leaned down onto her neck. "Come on girl," he whispered into her mane, "time to show them what you've got!"
Senator Morgan put his highball down on the folding table next to the lunch tent and stared off into the distance. The mornings hunt had been magnificent, he had thirty-six quail in his bag and not a wasted shell. A cold gin and tonic was a perfect and fitting end to such an outing. He looked back toward the tent and saw Prime minister Mackinaw strolling out, his Browning broken on his left arm, chatting animatedly with his aide Sarah. He too had done well in the mornings sport, less well than Morgan, but creditably enough.
Mackinaw noticed Morgan's gaze and waved cordially, disconnecting as he did so, from his aide. "Morgan," he cried with a smile, "how are you?" He approached with an extended hand.
"Fine thank you, Prime Minister. Fine indeed." He took the proffered hand and shook it politely. "How goes the battle in the House?"
The Minister smiled. "As always Morgan, as always. The constant needs of the people and all that." He closed the breech and parked the Browning by the table. "What a day," he remarked staring out at the rolling green hills. "No dome here to dim that glorious sun eh?" They shared a smile.
"No indeed Prime Minister, but those who labor longest profit best. Wouldn't you say?" Morgan laughed.
The Prime Minister swirled his drink speculatively. "Speaking of which, how's that stable of yours coming? I have a couple of geldings that I think might put paid to your Arabian. Purebreds, absolutely magnificent!"
"Really?" Morgan smiled. "Surely not one of those awful synthetics that Harriman's been running I should hope."
The Minister looked hurt. "Me? Synthetics? Surely you must know better than that, Morgan. Wouldn't dream of it." He up-ended his glass and held it aloft. "Ah, that was just perfect." He looked at Morgan. "Another?"
Senator Morgan tossed the remainder of his drink and looked back with a grin. "This one's gone warm anyway. I'd be honored. Are you buying?"
Prime Minister Mackinaw gestured broadly with his empty glass. "What? With you owning all this marvelous property you're asking me, a poor public servant, to buy you a drink?"
Morgan looked speculatively at the vista that presented itself from the hillside they now occupied. It was vast and spectacular, he thought. Something caught his eye. "I say Minister." He pointed at a middle distance hilltop. "Is that one of ours?" "What?" The Minister peered off into the distance. "Not dressed like that he isn't. Look at those sleeves. What is he thinking?"
"No idea really." Senator Morgan looked harder. Just then the police flitter emerged in pursuit of the distant figure. "My God," he said softly, "it's a colonial!"
Prime Minister Mackinaw stared briefly. "Look at that animal," he said breathlessly. "My God, what speed! That's a real horse Morgan, too fast for a synthetic. Mark my words!" He picked up the Browning and broke it again. "I've brought some slugs." He said quickly. Fumbling in his pocket for the shells he loaded the Browning hurriedly. "Think I can pick off the rider without damaging the mount?"
"With a bird gun? Now," Morgan smiled. "There's a sporting proposition!" He put his empty glass on the table. "First barrel is yours. If you miss the second is mine. Which ever of us wins, takes the animal. Alright?"
"Completely," he said as he drew a bead. The Browning spat fire and the Minister quickly lowered it only to see the horse and rider speeding on. "Damn!" He looked sour as he handed the gun to Morgan. "Your go I suppose."
"That it is," said Morgan slowly as he brought the gun to his shoulder, "that it is." He aimed carefully and the Browning roared again. This time the rider disappeared from the back of the horse. "Ah ha!" Shouted Morgan as he raised the gun in triumph. "I am magic today!"
"That you are Senator," said the Minister dejectedly, "that you are." He brightened. "Shall we see what kind of recruit you've earned for your barn?"
Morgan picked up his empty glass. "Shall we have a drink first?"
x x x
It's over too soon, was my first thought when I finished this story. My second thought was that I had a winner for anotherealm. I think both of these thoughts were spot on (as my Bruitish friends might have said, once). Don't you? - GM