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The Horizon Girls

Chapter 1

Ramona

 

Rural transit unit 51-B kicked pebbles and clouds of dust into the air as it sputtered through a quilt of farm plots. Neither the noise from the kids sitting in the front nor the scent of afternoon sweat throughout the interior of the vehicle could undermine my enthusiasm on the last day of school. The dilapidated bus screeched to a halt outside my family farm. As the door opened, I raced down the aisle and jumped over the stairs. My boots splashed into a thick brown puddle, splattering mud on my overalls, but I ran through the main gate and paused next to the mailbox. I pulled out a handful of envelopes and thumbed through the mail. Between two unsolicited catalogs, a golden slip of foil glistened in the sun.

“Dad! Mom! It’s here!” I ran into the house and dropped the rest of the mail.

The television was on, blaring an advertisement. “Lets go! Let’s go Lasko!” The ubiquitous, unforgettable theme song of Lasko Computers filled the living room, but no one was in sight.  

“What is it, Mona?” Mom looked at the envelope, already oily and crinkled in my fingers.

“I got a response from the internship people,” I explained.

“What does it say?” Mom asked.

I tore it open, unfolded the vellum page, and read the letter aloud. “Dear Miss Slate, We are pleased to inform you that you have been selected to be one of the participants in the Horizoneers program!” My voice broke in excitement. I jumped up and down, rattling the dishes in the adjacent kitchen.

“Sweetie, I’m so proud of you.”  Mom clutched my torso. I squeezed her so hard her feet were not touching the floor. She let go, ”You should tell your father about this.”

“Where is Dad?”

“An hour ago, he was fixing something in the mycosynth plant. I think he’s still there.” I took the letter and bolted out the front door. The late spring day was hot with only a single cloud lounging in the sky like a fat white manatee. I jogged to an adjacent field and entered a massive building with aluminum siding. Its roof, like the coverings of all the buildings on the farm, was made of photovoltaic slabs. Formerly a barn, the facility contained hundreds of meshed shelves along which fibrous fungi encircled themselves. They resembled the tomato plants or grape vines that grew on the other side of the farm. A couple of hired workers lifted a tray full of the genetically engineered organisms and team lifted it to the processing room,where it would be cured. I looked for Dad in the cultivation room, but no one had seen him. After some searching and asking, I spotted him next to the loading dock, next to a production line where sheets of the cured, leathery material were normally measured, cut, spooled and wrapped for the customers. This afternoon, one of the loading robots was out of service, and Dad had dismantled it. As he fumbled with the components, a yellow light flashed next to an open shutter on the loading dock. “Hey, Dad! I’ve got something to show you.”

 His face brightened as I approached. “Ramona! Thank God! There’s something wrong with this loader.”

I looked at the robot that had come to a halt with a ream of mycosynth in its mechanical grip. “Why don’t you just use one of the other loaders?”

“That one has the server. When it goes out, they all go out!” Dad shouted and kicked the tempered metal side of the inert robot. I had never seen the interior of one of these new loaders, but the proper form was hidden somewhere in the pieces lain around on the floor. I took handfuls of them and let them fall to the ground. Seeing them in free fall helped stimulate my thoughts.

“What’s going on? I’ve been waiting here for over an hour!” Apparently the truck driver had lost patience with us and came into the room when I wasn’t paying attention.

“You be quiet and let her think,” my father said quietly.

I never noticed what the frowning man in the camouflage trucker cap said in response, because I was busy replacing the burnt out power cells, clearing jams and refilling the refrigerant tank. The process took about five minutes. The robot lit up and rebooted, releasing the last ream of mycosynth. A digital screen displayed the number four hundred. A pleased expression appeared on the truck driver’s face, and it evaporated as an frustrating sound came from one of the motionless mechanical arms. I turned off the robot. “What the hell was that?” The truck driver asked.

 I shook my head, “There was a D-57 installed backwards, if it had been the ostensibly similar Y-54, the feedback cycle would have been disastrous.”

“Would it have exploded or something?” Dad looked nervous.

“Not a literal explosion, but it would have created an enormous magnetic field that might have effectively destroyed the factory.

I turned to my father, “One of the servos is unsalvageable. We’ll need to replace it tomorrow.”

“Want some help over there?” Dad called.

“No thanks, I can do this.” I said with hands on the industrial sized cylinder. I grabbed the nearest forklift and picked up an properly sized palette. Once the vehicle was in place, I wrapped my arms around the coil and rocked it back and forth, gradually easing the mass forward. The freight came closer and closer to the edge of the platform as my hips swung left and right. Once I produced a large enough gap, I wedged myself between the cylinder and the wheeled robot. Bracing my back against the cold metal of the autoloader, I pushed my legs against the load and pressed them against the short, thick roll of mycosynth.  Sweat dripped from my reddening face as my legs straightened. The cargo gradually slid onto the pallette. I stood up and put my forklift key into a slot on the side of the dark gray skid. A mechanism shocked the shape-memory material into a form with more friction so the cargo would be less likely to slide around in the truck. I used the forkilft to place the last of the order into the truck container. I turned to the truck driver after closing the door. “Sorry about that delay, sir, but if you sign this document, everything will be in order. “ I passed him a tablet with a mercantile form loaded. He signed it and passed it to me, wide eyed. “Uh, Thanks,” he said and scurried out the door. After he was gone, Dad burst into peals of laughter. “You sure shut that guy up! Did you see his jaw drop when you leg pressed that mycospool?”

I shook my head, “That weight was only four hundred pounds.I can’t believe that it was so hard for me.”

“Ramona, the scale was set to metric. Four hundred kilograms is eight hundred eighty pounds!”

Annoyance turned to elation; I just beat my last 1 RM record. I hopped up and down, despite the fact that my legs were burning. “This day just keeps getting better!”  

“So what was that thing you were talking about?”

“What? Oh, you mean that,” I looked for the shining envelope and picked it up off the cement floor. “I got selected!”

“Selected for what, Ramona?” I heard a masculine voice behind me. My brothers had arrived home from school. They were twelve and thirteen years old, but they looked like identical twins.

I held the acceptance letter high above my head. “I got accepted into the internship!”

“Despite the shower incident?” Clifford asked.

“Indeed, I can’t believe it either,” I said, shrugging.

“Congratulations,” he said.

“Good on you, Rammers! You must be chuffed!” Pete added.Pete was Clifford’s identical twin brother, distinguishable by a minor dent in his nose and an affected British accent. He rarely incorporated any British English into his speech, though, garnering confused looks from American and British people.  

“I knew our heifer could do it!” Dad tousled my hair while the boys punched my sides.

I shoved my father and siblings around in response. “Thanks. I’m glad you talked me into applying.” I said. “So, what do y'all want me to fix for dinner tonight.”

Dad pointed at me, “Don’t be ridiculous! We’re going out to eat tonight?”

“Really?”

“I insist. We can even go to a steakhouse, if you want.” My eyes widened as I salivated.

The boys stared at each other. “You’re going to take us somewhere that serves actual honest-to-God steak?” Cliff asked.

“Of course!”

“Can we afford a steak dinner for five people?”

“Well, we can’t make it a yearly thing, but I think your sister deserves it.”

I was ecstatic at the thought of tasting steak again, but we still had some work to do before we could go. I started a visual inspection of the fields, making sure that the machinery was functioning properly. Then I went into a greenhouse that resembled a biology lab and injected some transgenic stem cells into newly sprouted melons. The inner rind acted as the first layer of cell scaffolding. If the grafting was successful, they would have meaty sarcocarps with texture and taste approximating beef or pork. Botanists were always working on ways to make varieties of meat and plant hybrids that were more savory and easier to grow, but currently this was the best approximation of actual meat that the average person could afford. Once the melons were watered and fertilized, I went to the hen house and checked on the chickens. Their food and water supplies were adequate, so I waved goodbye to them and continued to our garage, which had a obelisk shaped solar collector and a windmill jutting out of the roof. At the base of the tower, fully charged capacitors sat beneath protective panels. I slipped on a pair of electrostatic gloves and flipped a switch that retracted the panels and opened the relays, allowing the safe removal of the batteries. Each of the batteries as the size of a floor safe and weighed over two hundred pounds, but what made this chore so onerous was how gently they needed to be handled. Each of the batteries went onto a dolly for transfer to one of the vehicles while its cell went back to the recharger. I was covered on sweat by the time I closed the double doors of the garage.

After finishing up the remaining tasks around the farm, we went back to the farmhouse to tidy up for dinner while Dad called the restaurant for reservations.I squeezed out of my sweaty, muddy overalls and dumped them in a hamper. I then took a shower in my bathroom, letting the warm water ease my legs. I looked to the side and saw myself in the mirror and winced at the livid scar on my torso, a vertical strip of flesh that commemorated an accident that I barely survived last winter. For a moment I could see the blades of the vehicle bear down on me and the sound of the emergency drone, which flew in to stabilize my wound thirty minutes before the medical professionals arrived in a fortified green and white ambulance. I held my face in my hands as I reminded myself that the incident was over.

Drying off, I looked at my face in the steam bordered mirror. I opened it and rooted around the cabinet a while until I found what I was looking for: some metallic eyeshadow. I applied a a shining streak across the area between below the eyebrow. Then I blended it in until it was barely detectable. I considered a tube of lipstick that was next to the eyeshadow, but then I remembered that I would be eating. Besides the tube had petrified over the last year. The expired makeup flew into the wastebasket with a metallic clunk. I stepped into my adjacent bedroom and looked through the closet. We were going to a place that sold beef, so my normal attire wouldn’t cut it. I looked at the far corner of the closet and dug out a hip hugging cotton maxi dress. I brushed my hair. Sitting on the dresser next to my hairdryer, Gertrude stared at me with a pair of shining glass eyes. The toy was a gift from the wrestling team when I was in the hospital. They had all signed it. Who would coach them this Summer when I go into space? Who would manage the wrestling team next year if I graduate this time? College loomed in the murky future. Secondary education was more expensive than ever, and that was the reason I had even agreed to apply for the internship, because all the interns were promised a ten thousand dollar scholarship upon their return to Earth, I looked down at the cow and put it on the shelf with the other plushies. Then I put a clean pair of shoes on and joined the rest of them family in the living room.  

“Is everyone ready?” I asked.

Dad examined a checklist on a tablet. “Yep, everything’s done for the day.” The human workers had gone home, and the farming droids were going through their late day routines. My family had substantially more free time on their hands once we installed the smart farming equipment. Pete and Cliff were wearing ties. Cliff’s tie was solid navy blue, while Pete’s looked like an orange and magenta nebula. “So which restaurant are we going to?”

“I managed to get us a reservation at Beef Barn.”

“We’re going to the Beef Barn?” I exploded into laughter. The twins stared at me, heads tilted in opposite directions.

“We haven’t been there for a long time, but it used to be your favorite restaurant.”

“I remember, Dad, but I imagined that we were going to a much fancier restaurant.”

My father’s smile assumed a bittersweet edge, “The Beef Barn still sells genuine beef.” My eyes widened. “They don’t use beef melons?”

“Nope! Not a single myophyte. That’s why we no longer do business with them.” Dad shrugged his shoulders. We all piled into the family car, a tried and true SUV that my brothers and I had repaired and tweaked multiple times. We all worked on its paint job, and it reflected on my side of with van, painted with a blueprint for the van itself, which seeped into Pete’s frenzied orange storm which in turn encroached upon a meteorological model of the Midwest that was Clifford’s contribution. When I was not the driver, I occupied the back seat where I planted myself in the spacious middle seat, Peter habitually sat in front of me on the driver’s side, and Clifford sat beside him. Dad was at the wheel with Mom at his side. A classic rap song emerged from the speakers. Both of our parents were singing along, honking the horn in tempo with the refrain. My brothers and I silently shared our disdain. Suddenly hailstones began to tap the roof and windshield, but they let up after a couple miles.  

Mom turned around, “How did you do with your online course?”

“I haven’t checked yet,” I shrugged and inwardly squirmed. Nobody said much of anything until we arrived at our usual spot in the parking lot. The Burger Barn looked almost identical to my childhood memories of it, except for a more elaborate sign that reminded the clientele that the food was myophyte-free. As we walked up to the front door, I spotted a man in a red Burger Barn uniform speaking to a couple outside a car. He moved toward the driver’s side. Does Burger Barn have valet parking now? More strangeness waited for us inside. Framed paintings of the restaurant’s famous menu items hung on the walls. One of the images notably varied from the others in style. While the others were photorealistic images, one picture of a chicken filet was painted in a hazy Impressionistic aesthetic. The initials XW were scrawled in the corner. My father looked around, trying to orient himself in the enigmatically renovated eating establishment, but there was no counter to receive our orders. Instead a doorman checked our reservations and ushered us through the main room past a live musical group with a harpist in a slinky evening gown that revealed her upper back. We were seated in a meeting room in a distant corner. I looked at the menu. All the classic options were there, and a few additions. The rest of the family was looking over the menu when a waiter appeared with our drink orders. It was time for us to order.

“So, have you decided what we’re having this evening?” The waiter asked. Everyone nodded in consensus. The man seemed to hesitate.

“Why don’t you start with Ramona?” Dad gestured to me. “She’s the reason we’re here.”

“Is it your birthday, madam?”

Dad answered for me, “No, she got an elite scientific internship!”

“Impressive,” he said. I blushed, wondering whether he knew about the launch of the hotel or was simply being professional. I wondered how much notoriety this endeavor had gained in the world at large until it was my turn to order.

“I’ll have a dozen poppers, a strip steak, a shrimp caesar salad, a medium-well T-bone steak, a Bonanza Burger, and a filet minion.”

The waiter’s surprise was betrayed by the upward quiver of an eyebrow. “Very good. Anything else?”

I glanced at the dessert section. “Could I have an order of Bananas Foster?”

“You certainly can. Very good.” The waiter entered the order into a tablet and moved on to Mom, who ordered a salad. She stared at the twins in such a way to make them do likewise. When the waiter was a safe distance, the family turned on me.

“Are you sure you want to order all that food?” Clifford asked.

“Yes, I had a light lunch, I’m extremely hungry, and I need to make sure I have enough protein today.”

“Mona, honey, that total is pretty high.” Mom only called people honey when angry about something, even if she were otherwise hiding it.

“Mom? I can’t believe you’re fat-shaming me at my own celebration!”

Something visibly clicked inside her head. She said, “Those totals aren’t calories.”

I contemplated the column of unformatted numbers next to each menu entry. There would be enough for over two of my usual meals, but I rarely overate that much. The realization hit me like a chandelier, “Oh No.”  I had forgotten how much of a luxury item actual beef had become. “I’m sorry.  I’m so sorry. I’ll call him and change the order.”

“Sit down, Heifer!” Dad was already halfway into his glass of champagne. “This is your day, and you will do no such thing!” He reached over and squeezed my hand. “Although,” he poked his chin with an exaggerated motion before he continued. “This is also going to be your birthday celebration, so you better enjoy it.” Everyone seemed placated by the ultimatum, but still felt my conscience weighing on my shoulders.

“How is this internship going to help you with your future?” Mom asked.

“I’ll learn so much about automotive engineering and flight systems up there!” I responded.

“You are going to take over the family farm, right?”

The seconds dilated toward infinity as I contemplated my response. My father chimed in, “There are lots of uses for vehicular engineers on a farm. You’ve seen that girl around a tractor, and there is always innovation with farm equipment, what with the drones, and the robots, and the helicopters!”

I sighed with relief as the appetizers arrived and folded my hands and quickly started the preprandial prayer. I nibbled at the poppers, savoring the sharpness of the peppers as it contrasted with the creamy filling. By the time the entree plates landed, I was feeling better. A while later, the table was covered with empty plates. We were smiling as we left the restaurant. Just to be safe, I drove the SUV back home.

When we returned, I went to my room and booted up a laptop on my desk. I went directly to my portal for the online college courses. I went to the final grade line and peeked at the number.

“No,” I whimpered. The final grade was one percent under the minimum for passing. I clicked around the site and found the contact information for the teacher.

The profile identified the instructor as Christina Weston and provided an exhaustive list of her credentials. At the end, a an email address was shown for class related concerns. Her image stared cryptically at me from the right side of the screen. She wore a pair of sunglasses and an Islamic garment that obscured her face. The white arrow hovered over the link before returning to the back button. I applied myself, and I ultimately failed. I went downstairs. Pete looked up from the television. “What happened?” he asked.

“I failed the online course.”

“Really? But we did the flash cards and the ball and stick models.”

“I remember.”

“It’s just Chem 101. You can try again next time.” I glimpsed the crick in his nose and remained silent. The thought of trying again sent echoes through my memories, specters of my grade school years, where I had to repeat two grades. I ignored my brother and trudged into the next room. Mom was getting ready to return to the plumbing.

“You look sad.”

“Failure again,” I mumbled.

“That’s such a shame!” She said. “Want to finish the sink?” I took the wrench and squeezed under the sink as comfortably as I could. Thirty minutes later, the sink ran smoothly and I was feeling much better.

The next two weeks were surprisingly uneventful. We arranged a flight, purchased me some new clothes, and went through the routines for working out and trudging around the farm. As I went about my duties, I kept thinking about my future. Should I accept the burden of the family farm? It is certainly not a bad life, but the thought of doing this decade after decade until my body surrenders and my offspring would take over buzzed in my mind. I yearned to focus on the perfection of transportation at one of the great corporations with huge research and development departments. I went to the farmhouse door to inform my parents about my decision, but as I got closer to the entrance, I began to imagine their reactions. They would talk about the uncertainty of deviating from the path my family had trodden for innumerable years. They would certainly not want to wager thousands of precious dollars for an alien discipline. I retreated into the back fields and walked along the pathways, hoping to devise a clean cut answer. The summer heat seemed to become more oppressive each year, reminding me of the importance of the UMA project, a probe designed to produce data on global atmospheric conditions.

The number on the calender screen crept toward the day of the orientation. On the evening of the final day, I sat under a towering oak and stared at the stars. Aside from an odd delivery drone buzzing through the air and an unseen symphony of insects, the whole farm remained quiet and still. The plum, crepuscular sky became so vast and bewildering at this hour, adorned with ancient pinpricks of light. Within twenty-four hours, I would be up there in Commercial Earth Orbit, separated from Dad and Mom, Cliff and Pete, and all my friends on the wrestling team. This was going to be a challenge beyond anything I had ever encountered for myself and the rest of the crew. Then I realized I knew what I needed to do. If I did well here, it would act as a proof of concept for my potential aptitude as a full time engineer.

A sharp bark grabbed my attention. Paco sat down at my side. I scratched the basset hound’s head. “Hey boy, you can’t sleep either?” I continued sitting until Pete came out.

“It’s after midnight. Mum’s worried about you.”

“Tell her I’ll come inside in a couple minutes.”

“Alright. And Mona?”

“Yeah?”

“We won’t be around when it happens, so happy early birthday,” Pete said and went into the farmhouse. I was used to being appreciably older than my classmates, but this particular age was the perimeter of adulthood. Would I be noticeably older than the other interns? When I went back to school for my senior year, I would be an adult surrounded by minors. The academic year would come and go, and I would have to deal with the crushing question of college. I looked at the faint stripe of the milky way and remembered that I was only a tiny speck among the stars and galaxies of the cold, sterile, and soundless universe.

As the sky went black, I went inside to get away from the vastness of outer space. I walked toward the house, stopping for a solicitous whine at my heels. “Really, baby? You don’t want to walk fifty nine feet?” Paco looked up at me and barked. “Rise,” I commanded. Paco took a portable stance, and a scooped him up in my left arm, gingerly supporting his body while he draped his front over my shoulder. I opened the front door, put the dog down, and took a shower, desperate to purge my thoughts with the sound of running water. After that, I attempted sleep.

A few hours later, It was an hour before anyone else woke up. I quietly put on some clothes in the dark and carried all my luggage at once. Bags and suitcases hung from wherever they would fit on my body, except for a rolling suitcase which trailed behind. In the hall, I tiptoed barefoot past the other bedrooms, a feat made much more difficult while carrying over a month’s worth of clothing and pulling a wheeled container with a medius and ring finger. At the stairway, I was too exhausted and encumbered to stealthily get the roller down the stairs, so I abandoned it until I had two free arms, stealing down the stairway. I reached out to the front door, but my foot bumped against a warm, furry mound, causing me to lose my footing. All of the baggage and my body slammed the floor in a crash that might have been audible from the neighboring farm. “Sorry, boy,” I whispered to Paco, who whimpered and plodded away.

The light flicked on. “What the hell, Ramona!” Clifford shouted. My family had congregated behind me with varying degrees of irritation on their faces.

Dad overlooked Clifford’s language as he stepped forth and said,“Were you going to leave us without saying goodbye?”

“I’m sorry. I really am. It’s just so hard for me to do this.” I looked at the four of them and felt a shot of regret. How could I have been so selfish?

“It’s painful for us too, Mona, but you should at least stay for breakfast.” Mom said.

“What’s in here? Did you pack a whole weight room?” Clifford asked. The twins picked up the bright yellow rolling case down the stairs.

“Don’t be ridiculous. I only packed the free weights.”

“Ramona, be reasonable,” Dad chastised me.

“I’m just worried that my muscles will atrophy in the low gravity.”

“The materials said that the spaceship has simulated gravity up there and a weight room.”

Tears brimmed around my eyelids again, threatening to fall. “I remember that, but I just wanted to have something to remind me of home.”

“Why don’t you take one of your cows then.”

“I’m twenty years old. Doesn’t that seem a little juvenile to you?”

“Part of being an adult is making healthy decisions for yourself.” My mother spoke up, “If a stuffed animal helps you with your loneliness, it would be immature not to take it.” I helped the boys put the weights back on the rack in our basement before we had breakfast. After replacing the weights, I grabbed Rachel from the shelf and placed her in one of the boxes.

“Whose turn is it on the egg list?” Peter asked from the dining room.

“Actually, Ramona, it’s your turn.” Mother said.

“Sunny side up it is then.” I cooked eggs and pancakes in the kitchen. On each plate I added two strips of a rubbery material that had an appearance and consistency of dried papaya but tasted very similar to bacon. Seated around the table, we said grace and tucked in. All our plates were emptied too soon. It was time to leave. I hugged and kissed each of my family members goodbye. We all piled into the SUV for the final time before my departure. I gripped the wheel, wondering when I would get to drive again.

With the rising sun at my back, we proceeded to the spaceport near the center of Chicago, driving past the Beef Barn and through several neighborhoods before approaching the palatial spaceport. The parking lot was nearly desolate. I jumped out of the vehicle, snatched all my baggage and ran away from my family before I could make eye contact with any of them again.


Submitted: April 06, 2019

© Copyright 2022 Jason Gretencord. All rights reserved.

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