Episode #54: “Oh, Give Me A Home” by Nicole Kimberling

April 14, 2018

 

Episode 54 is part of the Autumn 2017/Winter 2018 issue! (Yes! It's actually out now!)

Support GlitterShip by picking up your copy here: http://www.glittership.com/buy/

 

Oh, Give Me A Home

By Nicole Kimberling

 

Up along the edge of the ridge, Gordon could see them gathering. The mass of bugs formed a ragged silhouette against the hazy lavender sky. Each critter stood only ankle-high—about as big as a yappy dog—six-legged, like ants, with azure exoskeletons hard as crash helmets. Individually they posed little threat, but if only a few of them spooked, panic could ripple through the herd, bringing all thirty thousand of them swarming down.

The stampede could crush him and Paint flat.

From his position at the bottom of the crater, Gordon gave a long chirping whistle. Amplified by his hardsuit’s external speaker, the trill echoed through the crater. Gordon imagined it lifting up through the thin atmosphere to reach the three rings that encircled New Saturn. Here, near the equator, the rings bisected the sky in a thin, glittering band, shining apricot and peach, reflecting the light of the G-class star that shone down on him.

A few of the bugs—called microbe-seeding terrestrial injectors or MSTIs, by the terraforming corporations that had genetically engineered them—turned their attention toward Gordon at the sound, but still hesitated. The bugs were naturally fearful of new territory, preferring to follow the scent trails previously laid down by other bugs.

Gordon had loaded new scent into Paint’s dispersal unit before riding down into the crater, so he knew a perfectly good trail existed. The bugs should be following him to the center of the crater, where Gordon had spread a banquet of feed—so many white pellets they almost obscured the fine pink sand.

[Full transcript after the cut]

 

Hello! Welcome to GlitterShip episode 54 for April 10, 2018. This is your host Keffy, and I'm super excited to be sharing this story with you.

After a long wait, the Autumn 2017/Winter 2018 issue is now available, and you can purchase that at www.glittership.com/buy or via some of your favorite ebook sellers.

Our story today is a reprint by Nicole Kimberling, "Oh, Give Me A Home," read by Dave Liloia.

Nicole Kimberling is a novelist and the senior editor at Blind Eye Books. Her first novel, Turnskin, won the Lambda Literary Award. Other works include the Bellingham Mystery Series, set in the Washington town where she resides with her wife of thirty years. She is also the creator and writer of “Lauren Proves Magic is Real!” a serial fiction podcast, which explores the lesser case files of Special Agent Keith Curry, supernatural food inspector.

Dave Liloia is a voice actor and narrator from Seattle, WA. He co-hosts both the Warp Drives podcast with his wife TJ and Rat Hole podcast. His day job is to move electrons. You can find him on Twitter @warpdrives.

 

Oh, Give Me A Home

By Nicole Kimberling

 

Up along the edge of the ridge, Gordon could see them gathering. The mass of bugs formed a ragged silhouette against the hazy lavender sky. Each critter stood only ankle-high—about as big as a yappy dog—six-legged, like ants, with azure exoskeletons hard as crash helmets. Individually they posed little threat, but if only a few of them spooked, panic could ripple through the herd, bringing all thirty thousand of them swarming down.

The stampede could crush him and Paint flat.

From his position at the bottom of the crater, Gordon gave a long chirping whistle. Amplified by his hardsuit’s external speaker, the trill echoed through the crater. Gordon imagined it lifting up through the thin atmosphere to reach the three rings that encircled New Saturn. Here, near the equator, the rings bisected the sky in a thin, glittering band, shining apricot and peach, reflecting the light of the G-class star that shone down on him.

A few of the bugs—called microbe-seeding terrestrial injectors or MSTIs, by the terraforming corporations that had genetically engineered them—turned their attention toward Gordon at the sound, but still hesitated. The bugs were naturally fearful of new territory, preferring to follow the scent trails previously laid down by other bugs.

Gordon had loaded new scent into Paint’s dispersal unit before riding down into the crater, so he knew a perfectly good trail existed. The bugs should be following him to the center of the crater, where Gordon had spread a banquet of feed—so many white pellets they almost obscured the fine pink sand.

“How’s it going down there, Gordy?” Henry’s voice poured into Gordon’s earpiece, smooth as cool water.

“Not great,” Gordon’ replied. “We’ve got a bunch of shy Shirleys at the front of the column when what we really need is a couple of bouncy bold Bonnies to start moving down the trail.”

Though learning the personality of every bug would have been impossible, Gordon had broken the herd down into a few basic temperaments. Shirleys were the workhorses of the MSTIs, processing feed quickly and more efficiently than any other type. But they were also the most recalcitrant. The Bonnies showed distinct initiative and curiosity, behaving as scouts. They also got lost a lot. If Gordon had to negotiate some rocky ledge at a suicidal angle during a sandstorm, nine out of ten times it was because a Bonnie had gotten herself into a jam. A few other personality types had emerged in this, the first-ever free-range experiment: lusty Leroys, deceptive Daisys, lazy Lorraines. But there was only one Queen Elvira. She stayed in the enclosure at their homestead, laying eggs.

“Did you try a whistle?”

“Of course I tried a whistle,” Gordon said. “I did ‘Turkey in the Straw.’”

“I’m almost at the lip of the crater now. I’ll swing around and see if I can get them going from the back.”

“Roger that,” Gordon said.

Lifting his head to scan the crater’s rim Gordon spotted Henry mounted on his excursion vehicle, which he called Bucephalus, after Alexander the Great’s horse. In truth, neither Paint nor Bucephalus resembled horses so much as long-legged spiders, but a dearth of positive musical or historical arachnid names had naturally led them to choose equine names for the robotic transport vehicles.

Gordon raised his hand, and Henry returned the gesture. The sunlight glinted off the arm of his blue hardsuit. Henry pressed the MSTIs from the flank, urging them forward. Still they balked till the jostling from the back pushed one over the edge. Instinctively the MSTI rolled into a tight ball. Another tipped over the edge and another till a steady stream of bugs rolled toward Gordon.

Being given to spontaneous musicality, Gordon began to sing:

 

See them tumbling down

Pledging their love to the ground

Dusty but free I’ll be found

Drifting along with the tumbling MSTIs

 

I’m a rovin’ cowboy ridin’ all day long

MSTIs around me sing their lonely song

Nights beneath New Saturn’s Rings

I’ll ride along and tunes I will sing

 

“Nice one, Gordy,” Henry said. Sitting astride his vehicle, encased in a hardsuit that could barely contain his muscle, Henry was hale and hearty as any old-time terraformer or wildcatter sent from a mining company.

Gordon couldn’t be more different. Having been born and raised in space, he’d simply never developed the muscle or bone to cope with the daily terrestrial struggle against gravity.

When they’d first started courting, Gordon had gone to great lengths to never fully remove that armature—not even when they were in orbit at the Free Station 19, where the pull of gravity wouldn’t cripple him. He felt sickly against Henry’s strappy, Earth-bred muscles and thick, sturdy bones.

But Henry’s three-pronged strategy of sincerity, sweetness, and song had eventually gotten him inside the hardsuit long enough to get a ring on Gordon’s finger. A homestead had followed soon after. Now they ran the only free-ranging herd of MSTIs across ten thousand acres of barren soil for Homesteads for Humanity Interstellar. They’d completed three years of a five-year contract. The MSTIs were part of the second phase of terraforming. Their job was to masticate and defecate, enriching the soil with microbes crucial to farming Earth-style plants. Once the soil was ready, he and Henry spread spores of beneficial fungus. Then, after the fruiting bodies emerged, their work was done. He and Henry would mosey along to the next homestead, leaving the land for the first-generation farmers. They would bring their pressurized greenhouses and be the true pioneers here on New Saturn.

In a previous life, Gordon had worked for Vanguard Commercial Terraforming as an animal wrangler and vet tech. After culling thousands of bugs that could have been useful given even the tiniest amount of medical attention, he decided to trade his fat paycheck for the grand experiment run by Homesteads.

By the time Henry reached him, the first wave of MSTIs had finished their spherical descent and were beginning to unroll and tuck into the chow.

Or most of them were.

A couple of lusty Leroys who’d landed by each other had decided to hump instead.

“They’re at it again,” Henry remarked. “You’d think they’d go after a Shirley.”

Gordon shrugged, “Some Leroys prefer the simplicity of other Leroys, apparently.”

“You should make a note of it in your log,” Henry said. “And get a VR image for documentation.”

“Yes, professor.” He did, though he couldn’t help feeling slightly perverted taking the time to film the luscious Leroy love.

Henry leaned forward on Bucephalus, scanning the far horizon while the MSTIs crunched and munched around the robot’s legs. Now and then one paused to squat and leave that shining pellet of pure biological enrichment. Being a hardware man, Henry wasn’t as prone to anthropomorphizing the MSTIs as Gordon. Instead he felt a strong attachment to the machines that kept Gordon ambulatory and kept them both alive in this prehuman environment.

After he’d finished the VR capture, Gordon glanced up to see Henry still scrutinizing the horizon.

“What are you seeing?” Gordon asked.

“A blip at the lip of the crater.” Henry squinted, reading the display projected on the inside of his faceplate. “Heading southeast.”

“One of the Bonnies again?” Gordon swung around to scan for a signal. Sure enough, a lone MSTI had left the herd.

“I imagine so.” Henry turned to face him. Through the visor Gordon could see fatigue setting in—mainly at the corners of his full mouth, which had settled into a frown. They were only supposed to use the suits for six hours at full power, and Henry had already been out for a full ten on half power, taking advantage of the warmer temperature brought by long summer days. Henry had a habit of running his battery down dangerously low, which vexed Gordon to no end.

“That little girl is really making some fast progress,” Gordon observed. “I bet she’s going close to fifty kilometers per hour.”

“I suppose you’re going to go after it?”

“If she strays onto Vanguard property, she’ll be thrown into a hopper.” Liquidated—they called it. More like liquefied. Mashed into pellets and turned into feed. “She’s valuable.”

“I don’t like you going close to the property line,” Henry said. “I think you should reassess the value of that asset. We have 29,999 more, at least. I don’t see the point in risking yourself, particularly not when you’re already tired and your strength is flagging.”

“Well, I don’t like you running your power down so low,” Gordon retorted. “I told you to head back three hours ago, yet here you are.”

“If I had gone, who’d stay with the herd while you went after a straggler of dubious monetary value?”

“It’s not about the damn money,” Gordon’s voice betrayed the edge of anger that always reared up when Henry make any remark about his physical stamina. He didn’t like having his limitations pointed out any more than Henry enjoyed Gordon’s incisive commentary on his stubborn nature.

“You’re too tenderhearted about the bugs. It makes you reckless,” Henry chided.

Gordon found that rich, coming from a man who genuinely worried about hurting his robot transport’s feelings.

Gordon sighed and said, “I’m going after her. It shouldn’t take too long.”

Then he tapped the foot control on Paint, and the robot went into cross-country mode. The main body lowered slightly to give Paint’s six legs greater stride and maneuverability. Gordon switched from manual and gave Paint the Bonnie’s signal to target. Then he clamped the legs of his hardsuit firmly to Paint’s sides and away they went, scampering up the crater’s soft side. The MSTIs lifted their heads as he passed by, then went back to grazing.

Just as he reached the rim of the crater, he heard Henry say, “Be careful.”

 

 

Once over the rim of the crater, Paint lit out across the boulder-strewn sand at top speed. Gordon hunkered down and hung on, keeping his eye on Paint’s screen. The MSTI really was a mover and seemed determined also to be a trespasser, which Gordon found strange. MSTIs didn’t like being separated from the rest of the herd. Even adventurous ones, who had strong scouting instincts, never ran like this.

Could something be chasing it? But what? New Saturn had no indigenous life. It had the components, minerals and plenty of water—though that was mostly frozen at the poles right now, waiting for the atmosphere generators to finally provide enough greenhouse gasses to heat the surface. But that would happen generations from now.

Now it was just Homestead and Vanguard and the UN reps who refereed their frequent clashes.

As Paint raced to the top of a small rise, Gordon saw tire tracks. But not just any tire tracks. These marks had been made by massive machines plowing directly through the cryptobiotic soil fields he and Henry had seeded the previous year. Huge ruts rent the soil three meters deep in places. Pink soil showed through like gashes in the dark, knobby surface. They’d worked all year to get even that thin layer of cyanobacteria to grow and prosper, and now some asshole had destroyed weeks of work on one destructive joyride.

“Hey, Henry?”

“Yeah, Gordy?” Henry sounded tired but not necessarily apologetic.

“Bad news on the southeast forty.”

“Did you break Paint’s leg in it?”

“No, but I think Vanguard drove their earthmovers right through it.”

Henry swore—which was something he rarely did. Then he said, “Make sure to get—”

“—the documentation,” Gordon finished. “As soon as I find the Bonnie. I think she’s running along one of the ruts.”

“I’m taking the herd back in now. There’s some dust on the eastern horizon that troubles me.”

“Roger that. I’ll see you there.”

Gordon urged Paint down the steep incline and followed for a few more kilometers until he found the Bonnie. The MSTI was trying to climb the side of the rutted wall but the steep, sandy soil kept collapsing beneath her.

Gordon let out a whistle as soon as he thought she was in earshot. The MSTI swiveled her head around to look at him.

“There you are, little girl,” he said in the singsong voice he always used around the bugs. “You come on up here now.”

The MSTI cocked its head and tried again to scale the wall only to fail and come rolling down, curled up into a ball.

“Okay, then, have it your way.” Gordon switched to manual and urged Paint forward. Leaning down, he scooped up the MSTI before she could fully uncurl. Out of reflex, the bug retracted its legs and again curled into spherical defense mode. Which made it easy for Gordon to stuff her in his saddlebag.

He felt a sense of achievement that bordered on joy. He’d saved one more genetically engineered life-form. Never mind that it was probably defective—chasing out cross-country heading toward nowhere. But the MSTI having a screw loose didn’t diminish his pride.

He spent longer than he thought he would documenting the damage, making sure to get good pictures of the tire tracks—just in case. He knew Henry would dutifully file a complaint with the governing board of New Saturn, and that board would turn around and fine Vanguard a stupidly small amount for damages. But if they didn’t file, the harassment would continue.

Vanguard had never been on board with Homestead being allowed to develop human habitation sites for the planet. Not that they were against colonization—far from it. But they preferred to be able to choose which humans were allowed to come down to the planet’s surface and which had to continue the confined existence on the overcrowded chain of space stations that stretched across the galaxy.

Gordon stared up at those rings arching across the vast sky. Up there the space stations teemed with life and bustled with every kind of diversion known to man. But down here he had the whole, empty planet in its geological majesty, silent but for the wind and the sound of Henry’s voice. And he had the weather—the changeable, unstoppable, magnificent forces of day and night and wind and season. Being space-born, Gordon had at first been frightened by the power of it. Now he felt only awe looking at the rising storm on the horizon.

Thinking of it, though, he realized he should get back, before his battery got so low Henry would call him a hypocrite.

 

 

The official address was Homestead #99 New Saturn, Chiang System, but Gordon just called it Dome Sweet Dome. It was a series of domes, really, connected by walkways. The entire complex resembled a wagon wheel when viewed from above. Gordon entered on the southeast side, still riding Paint through the unpressurized tunnel that formed the complex’s perimeter until he reached the large dome where the MSTIs bivouacked.

Because the escaped Bonnie, whom he’d dubbed Screw-loose during the long ride back, could have something wrong with her, Gordon went to the quarantine zone. Being super-social, the MSTIs hated being left alone—especially when within scenting distance of the rest of their colony. So Gordon had made the place as comforting as he could, filling it with jointed toy animals painted blue to resemble the MSTIs. He’d also recorded himself singing all the cowboy songs he serenaded the herd with, as well as the weird chirping noises made by Queen Elvira. Still, isolated bugs felt real anxiety and usually chirped all night.

Gordon deposited the Bonnie behind the door. He felt bad about it, but he had to follow the protocols. He then made his way down the next spoke toward the human living quarters at the center. He dismounted Paint and began to remove his hardsuit, though he still wore an armature that helped support his spine and limbs in terrestrial gravity. Light and thin, the armature could have been mistaken for jewelry so long as Gordon wore clothes over it. The rings that helped support his fingers could look especially decorative in certain lights.

Gordon had never thought of it this way until Henry had pointed it out. He still only half believed Henry had any real physical attraction to him, because how could he? Then Henry would prove it with his body, which went a long way toward convincing Gordon it was possible to find a long, thin spaceman beautiful.

Because the day had been so warm, he wore only thin underclothes and these were stained with sweat. As the air lock door opened to the robotics workshop, a chill prickled at his skin.

“Go back to your stall, Paint,” he said. The robot gave a little whinny (which Henry had programmed it to do just for Gordon) and made its way between the tables of equipment to a battery-charging cubby toward the rear of the workshop, adjacent to the living quarters.

Gordon walked down the short hallway to the great room, which contained areas for cooking, eating, and socializing. The central dome sported ten such apartments, each with three bedrooms and private bath facilities, to house the families that would form the farming outpost.

Henry sat at the kitchen table, which was, as always, strewn with small machine parts. He didn’t appear to have cooked any food or showered, but set to tinkering with a machine straightaway. The entertainment center was on and tuned to the latest grav-cross tournament. Santiago seemed to be doing well—coming back from a spine-shattering crash in his last tourney.

“Do I want to have a look at the damage to the cyanobacteria?” he asked as Gordon entered. “Or just file the complaint right away?”

“You probably want to have dinner before you do either,” Gordon went to the refrigerator and surveyed the interior. They had some fresh veg and synth meat and chili paste. “How do you feel about fried rice?”

“I love anything you cook,” Henry said.

Gordon glanced around the edge of the door. Henry seemed sincere—and somewhat apologetic, which Gordon found suspicious.

“Why so sudden with the compliments?”

“I feel bad about saying your bug wasn’t worth enough to go after,” Henry said simply. “I know how attached you are. And they are cute in their own way.”

Gordon closed the door, closed the distance between them, and draped himself across Henry’s shoulders. He wrapped his slender, elongated arms around Henry’s sturdy body and planted a kiss on the side of his neck.

“I know. You were just worried,” Gordon said.

“You take too many risks for a man in your position,” Henry said.

“And just how much battery did you have left when you came back?”

“That’s beside the point,” Henry said.

“I don’t think so. You rely on those suits just as much as me out there.”

Henry shifted to be able to look Gordon in the eye and said, “But you’re more important than me.”

“No, I’m not.”

“You are to me.”

“You’re so sweet when you avoid answering my questions,” Gordon said but gave him another kiss anyway.

After dinner they conserved water by showering together, which was Henry’s stated favorite method of prudent resource management. Then they made their way to bed.

If they’d been in zero gravity, Gordon would have removed the armature to allow more flexibility in their position, but here on the planet’s surface, he didn’t want to force Henry to have to lift his arms and legs for him. He straddled Henry and moved so flesh met flesh without the intrusion of the hard resin that braced his muscle. Henry waited for him to settle, careful as always when Gordon was out of the suit.

Though Gordon had made himself a specialist in taking Henry inside his body, that night he didn’t. They were both too tired for any such procedure and settled for Henry holding both their cocks together between his big hands while Gordon pumped into them and against Henry’s own flesh as well. He hung above Henry, hands braced against the bed on either side of Henry’s shoulders watching his lover’s face.

Henry was a funny one. Gordon could see an idea moving through his mind the second before he decided to move his hands this way or that. A smug look would come over him, and he’d smile just a little so that the dimple showed in his cheek. Then he’d make his sly move, gazing up at Gordon. More often than not he’d say, “You like that?” or “What do you think of this,” or, should he have been tight inside Gordon, he’d be more tender, asking him how he liked it or whether he wanted more or less.

Though the feedback was necessary on account of Gordon’s fragility, answering Henry’s more intimate questions always embarrassed him, while somehow also making the feeling more intense.

Tonight Henry stayed mischievous and systematic, making a production of his motions until finally Gordon broke down and came into Henry’s hands in a series of sharp uncontrollable thrusts. Henry followed soon after, and Gordon rolled back down to the bed beside him—beyond spent yet still once the glow and a few final kisses had been finished—full of worry.

“I didn’t sing Queen Elvira her lullaby,” Gordon mumbled into Henry’s shoulder.

“I think she can survive one night without one,” Henry replied.

“But we should check on her—secure the enclosure at least.” Gordon started to push himself up, but Henry stopped him.

“You did a lot of riding today. I’ll do it,” he said.

“Thank you.”

“But I’m not singing.”

Gordon was asleep before Henry even left the bedroom.

 

The shrill pulsing shriek of an alarm sliced through Gordon’s dreams. His eyes flew open. The overhead lights blazed to life while a single flasher whirled yellow and red. Somewhere there had been a breach. Gordon jackknifed into sitting position, but he could see nothing wrong. No wind to indicate pressure escaping the habitat.

“Henry?” Gordon bellowed, his voice barely audible even to his own ears above the alarm.

He staggered to the living room console.

“Silence alarms!” he shouted at the screen. Abruptly the sound ceased. Its absence washed over him like cool water. “Show breaches.”

A diagram flashed on the screen showing two separate breaches: one in the outer spoke near the corral that held the MSTIs and one in the Queen Elvira’s enclosure. He could find no visual for either. Immediately he punched the icon for Henry’s hardsuit communicator.

“Henry, do you copy?” he asked.

No answer came, save some slight static. Heart in his throat, he punched up the vitals for Henry’s hardsuit, Those showed that he was still in it and that his vital signs were within normal range. Though the battery to his communication pack had flatlined and Henry appeared to be moving slowly away from Homestead #99.

What the flying hell?

Gordon loped through the robotics shop, yelling for Paint as he went. The robot scuttled out of its closet to stand at the ready. Paint’s battery charge was still only at 55 percent, as it had been plugged in for only three hours, but it would have to do. He pushed himself into his hardsuit so fast that he missed closing the seams twice.

After the second warning, he forced himself to take a breath. Whatever had happened, it wouldn’t help to get himself decompressed rushing out into the air lock with an unsealed suit like some kind of Earth-born know-nothing. He was a fucking native of space, damn it all. He shouldn’t be acting like this.

Though he felt the slowness of the extra minute might kill him, Gordon forced himself through the safety checklist before opening the air lock.

Outside the night sky shone as the rings formed by accretion discs blazed with blue-white light. Beyond the rings, stars in their millions glittered and danced with the distortion of winds high in New Saturn’s thin atmosphere.

Gordon rushed for the queen’s enclosure and found a rectangle cut into the canvas wall as neatly as if there had been a dotted line to follow.

He put on his external speaker and raised his bolt rifle. “Is there anybody there?”

Nothing. Not a sound.

He gave a whistle—Queen Elvira’s favorite tune, which she always chirped back at him. Again nothing.

Carefully he edged into the enclosure to find nothing. No queen. All at once the knowledge came upon him, and he rushed through the queen’s enclosure to where the rest of the herd was corralled. This too was empty of all MSTIs.

They’d been rustled.

Only one outfit on New Saturn had the ability to steal thirty thousand MSTIs—his old employer, Vanguard—or, more likely, someone bankrolled by them. Gordon did a circuit of the perimeter and easily found the three-toed tracks of several MSTI “dogs” heading southeast.

The dogs were quadruped robots that performed a function much like sheepdogs on Earth. With only a few dogs the rustlers could control tens of thousands of MSTIs—especially if they captured the queen.

But there was no way to drive that many MSTIs over a long distance. They needed water. So there would be a livestock mover somewhere close—perhaps just out of sight.

Gordon accessed his night vision and scanned the horizon.

But about three hundred meters from their homestead, the ground gave way to a frozen lake and the visible tracks disappeared. Gordon did a herd-location scan and discovered that the MSTIs locator chips were, like Henry’s coms, being scrambled by a frequency jammer. Once Gordon got past the soft sand he’d have no way of knowing which direction the rustlers had headed. But they couldn’t have gone far.

He needed some way to track them. Calling the orbital station to request a visual scan of the landscape via satellite would take too long—an hour at least just to get the permission to point the cameras at them. Henry could die any minute from power loss in his hardsuit.

Then Gordon realized he had a tracker.

Screw-loose—the Bonnie in quarantine. She’d followed the Vanguard track earlier.

Gordon wheeled Paint around and galloped to the quarantine. Screw-loose was predictably happy to see him and climbed right up Paint’s leg to butt her head against Gordon’s faceplate.

“I know, I know. I’m sorry to have left you in there. Now you’ve got to help me.”

Gordon knew he couldn’t just trust Screw-loose to come when he called. She’d already wandered off once. So he took a length of lightweight cord and knotted it firmly around Screw-loose’s abdomen. He gave her enough lead to go a couple of meters ahead of him and Paint. Then he went to the caterpillar track and set her down.

Screw-loose didn’t hesitate. She took off after the big machine, yanking on her leash like an eager terrier. Gordon set Paint to follow, and then he did what no human should ever do in this situation—he headed into the darkness alone.

They reached the frozen lake in a matter of minutes. The flat black expanse of its surface stretched for at least five kilometers. Screw-loose hesitated for only a moment before lunging out onto the ice.

Paint followed more cautiously, shifting to adjust its gait on the slick mass. Looking down, though he knew the water to be frozen solid right down to the lakebed, Gordon still felt trepidation crossing the glassy surface.

New Saturn had many lakes and even whole frozen oceans. Many, like this one, were situated near geothermic founts that occasionally melted the water, sometimes all the way to just a few feet below the surface. During these melts, pale gasses became trapped in the dark ice like gleaming bubbles in champagne. Riding across felt like striding through the stars.

Henry would have thought it was beautiful.

For a moment terrible fear for Henry seized Gordon. It was so easy to die in this inhospitable world. But Gordon refused to think that Henry could be lost to him already. He couldn’t have kept going if he did. He had to believe Henry was still alive.

After this was all over, he would show this lake to Henry, he decided. They would come out here together and see the center of this beautiful sight together. Suddenly Paint slid and Gordon lurched, nearly thrown. Gordon held on till Paint righted itself, and they kept going, straight across until they finally neared the far shore. If the sand on the other side showed no tracks they would have to turn around and start again.

Anxiety formed a hard knot in his gut.

He should have called the station, he realized, before setting out. Now he’d gone too far from the signal booster for his suit’s messages to reach orbit.

He nearly cried from relief seeing the familiar pattern of a three-toed dog tracks starting up from the other side.

“Screw-loose, you’re my girl.”

When the MSTI didn’t answer, he whistled a tune. This got her attention for a moment, then she chirped and tried to keep going, but he hauled her back up into his saddlebag. He had the fresh track to follow now.

Once Screw-loose had balled up and been secured, Gordon switched Paint to auto and set the speed for full. They scuttled along the track, kicking up dust behind them until finally a massive machine came into view.

Bigger than their entire living quarters, the livestock mover stood several stories high. It was set on caterpillar treads capable of handling anything the New Saturn terrain could offer as an obstacle. The MSTIs docilely climbed the lowered ramp and filed into the multitiered vehicle. Because the rustlers were most likely used to the cowed and frightened industrially herded MSTIs, they’d only covered the sides of the vehicle with lightweight mesh. It was strong enough to keep the MSTIs from falling out the sides of the mover, but Gordon could see that a few of the bored and mischievous Bonnies had already begun to sample the netting and, finding it weaker than their mandibles, chewed the stuff to pieces.

Once that livestock mover started running, a fair few of them were going to fall out the side and become separated from the herd.

That notion only increased Gordon’s feeling of urgency. He had to stop this mover right here, somehow.

But no way could he simply assault a thing like that. And he had no means of calling the authorities.

He focused his attention on the livestock mover. Though it was possible to automate this entire process, he knew that there must be at least one human here—only high-grade military robots could be programmed to harm humans, and these dogs were definitely on the lower end of retail availability. So at least one human had to have overpowered Henry.

Gordon just needed to find them and work from there.

Could negotiation actually be an option? It would be a ballsy move, but could he bluff the bastards into thinking he’d already relayed their particulars? That a team of marshals would be on their way with the next launch window?

And where was Henry, anyway? Getting him back was the priority, no matter how much Gordon liked Queen Elvira.

Fear coursed through him when he realized there was no guarantee that the rustlers had taken Henry with them. They could have killed him and dumped his body. Gordon might have ridden right past it and never seen it in the darkness.

He reined Paint to a walk and together they crept closer to the livestock mover. A steady stream of MSTIs filed into the mover’s holding tank. When one Bonnie strayed, a dog chased it back into line, blaring a god-awful siren that caused all the MSTIs to cringe.

The loading had only just commenced, it seemed. Gordon could still see Queen Elvira far in the back. He edged along, careful to keep himself and Paint out of the light. Then with a rush of relief he saw Henry. The man was clearly unconscious, hanging over the back of a one of the dogs like a carcass, his limbs bouncing as the dog loped toward the head of the livestock mover.

And there, Gordon saw the operator. He wore a hardsuit and cradled a plasma rifle. Gordon couldn’t see the man’s face, but he instantly recognized the custom paint job decorating the hardsuit. His blood boiled at the sight of the man’s back, sporting the words “Big Shot” topped by a blast pistol firing one suggestive blob of plasma across the boundary of the fiery corona that ringed the entire stupid design.

Gordon could not believe he’d ever slept with this man, nor that he’d once found this hardsuit charming.

Horace Scott ran the MSTI program for Vanguard. Even among the roughnecks who took up terraforming, Horace stood out as the kind of man who’d break any rule or backstab any friend to turn a profit for his corporate masters. Horace was a true believer, and he loathed Homestead for Humanity above all else.

During their last fateful argument, when Gordon had told him that he’d been thinking of leaving Vanguard to join the Homestead organization, whose chief goal was to reduce overcrowding and ease station life, Horace had only said, “New Saturn is a beautiful, unspoiled world. Why would you want to bring down a bunch of station rats to ruin it?”

Gordon wasn’t surprised to find Horace supported sabotage of Homestead properties, but he was curious as to why a man so invested in management that he painted the words “Big Shot” on his back wouldn’t have delegated this dangerous and illegal task to one of his underlings. Then again, maybe he had tried and not been able to convince anyone to do it for him.

The discovery that the rustler was Horace did clarify one thing for Gordon, though. He no longer had any desire to hide in the shadows. Not that he thought Horace wouldn’t shoot him or try to get an EMP on his suit. The sight of the man just made him so hopping mad that he started Paint running before he even had a chance to think.

The dog carrying Henry swiveled around immediately and sounded the alarm. From his place alongside the livestock mover, Horace whipped around and saw Gordon bounding across the pink sand toward him.

It took a couple of seconds for their coms to link frequencies, so when they did Horace was already talking.

“… an idiot thing like this, Gordon?”

“What did you do to Henry?”

“He’s fine. I just gassed him out.”

Paint skidded to a halt beside the dog that held Henry. Looking through the faceplate, he could see that Horace told the truth. Relief coursed through him. But as he reached out to touch Henry, Horace called the dog to him. The robot trotted forward and, at Horace’s command, dumped Henry on the ground at his feet, where he lay like a discarded doll.

Horace brought his rifle to bear on Gordon and Paint immediately, and Gordon stilled and raised his hands.

Now that Gordon came into the circle of light surrounding the livestock mover, some of the MSTIs had caught sight of him and Paint. He turned on his external speakers and could hear them chirping to greet him and gave a long, trilling whistle in return. That triggered a wild cacophony of chirps and whistles from the MSTIs.

Even from three meters away, he could see Horace wince. But glancing to the side he could also see that the MSTIs were gathering at the breach in the netting that had been chewed away by one of the Bonnies.

They had responded to his call. Could he just get them to turn around and go down the ramp? If they all rushed down together, the dogs would be overwhelmed at once.

“You and that lousy whistling,” Horace ground out from between clenched teeth.

“Don’t forget the singing,” Gordon added.

“No way I can forget the singing. I had that stupid song of yours stuck in my head for months after I kicked you out.” Horace hoisted his plasma rifle.

“You didn’t kick me out. I left you.”

“That’s not the way I remember it,” Horace said, as if there were anybody else out here to impress. Maybe he just needed to impress himself.

“You know you’re going to have to give me back these MSTIs,” Gordon said.

“No, I don’t think I do,” Horace said.

“Look, I understand your bosses want us shut down—”

“This isn’t about my bosses. This is about keeping New Saturn unspoiled,” Horace said.

“The point of terraforming is to bring human beings a new world to live on.”

“No, the point of terraforming is to bring deserving human beings a new world. Your Homesteaders are nothing but trash chosen by lottery. They’re unqualified scroungers.”

“You take that back.”

“I didn’t say you were one of them,” Horace said, as though the fact that Gordon included himself among the station rats might be the only real problem with his argument. “But the rest of them—unemployed and lazy. Handing them this place would be like handing a baby over to a pig.”

“It’s not your choice who gets to live here.” Gordon tried to keep his cool. “Look, we’re never going to agree on this, so let’s just call it even. You give me my MSTIs and Henry, and we never need to mention this again.”

“If only I believed you would do that, Gordon, I might take you up on that deal. But you won’t. You’ll be radioing the marshals the second you get within amplification range.”

“How do you know I haven’t already?”

“Because if you had, you’d have told me right away.” Horace flipped a lever on his rifle—setting it to EMP. “I tried to keep you out of this, but you had to come running out into the night like the idiot you are. Now I have to kill you too.”

“What the hell do you mean ‘kill me too’?” Gordon demanded.

“Well, this one was always in the plan.” Horace kicked the side of Henry’s hardsuit.

“What have you got against Henry?” he said. “Far as I know you two have never even met.”

“And yet there his name was at the bottom of every single grievance against me and my crew.” Horace’s voice rose and turned nasty. “Right down to the last one that got me fired.”

“Fired?” Gordon couldn’t keep the amazement from his expression. “How could they shoot down the Big Shot?”

“That’s what I want to know! I’ve done everything—everything those sons of bitches have ever asked of me. And then this guy comes along and I’m out? Terminated? Ordered to leave New Saturn to go live crammed onto some filthy station while this fucker gets this whole planet to roam?” Horace kicked Henry again for good measure.

Gordon understood Horace enough to know that he didn’t mean to ever go back into space.

“So what are you planning to do? Try and buy your way back into the company with my MSTIs? Or do you have another outfit you plan to buy your way into?” Gordon asked, though he supposed he already knew the answer. New Saturn was a big place with plenty of colonial interests. From mining companies to isolationist religious communities to people just like him and Henry.

“Let’s just say that other parties are interested in my services—provided I have something to offer,” Horace replied. He lowered his rifle, taking aim at Henry’s head.

“Wait!”

Horace glanced up but didn’t change his aim. “What? You want to kiss him good-bye or some such thing?” Horace stepped closer to Gordon and angled the rifle at him. “Or maybe you want to go first so you don’t have to see him die?”

“I want you to think about what you’re doing. You can’t shoot me and Henry and expect no one will ever find us.”

“There are plenty of bad guys out here. One of them will be found guilty, I imagine,” Horace said.

Gordon considered his options and decided he only really had one. He jacked up the volume on his hardsuit and began to sing:

I know when this guy is gone

This new world’s gonna be born

You’ll keep rolling along

Tumbling down with the tumbling MSTIs

At once the Bonnie up high in the livestock mover let out an answering chirp and launched herself from the breach in the netting. She curled into a ball mid-fall and bounced to the ground a few feet behind Horace.

Horace whipped around, taking in the spherical creature, then with a single foul utterance, punted the Bonnie back toward the ramp. He looked up just in time to see the next one falling straight toward him. The MSTI nailed him in the shoulder. The third hit immediately after and drove him to one knee.

The MSTIs were on a roll now, shouldering past each other to pour down. The big dog rushed toward Horace but was soon overcome by the MSTIs pouring out in their dozens, bouncing and uncurling.

Pinned now, Horace would be a goner—crushed under the weight. And so would Henry if Gordon didn’t get to him. He urged Paint forward, and the robot bounded across the sands at top speed.

“Attach hardsuit!” Gordon commanded. “Unconscious worker.”

Paint bent and gathered up Henry immediately, clipping Henry’s hardsuit close to its underbelly. Gordon hefted himself into the saddle just as the first wave of blue MSTIs reached him. He hung on for dear life, as Paint scuttled back toward the periphery.

Once at a safe distance, Gordon watched the MSTIs pile up on one another, trying not to look at the cracked hardsuit that he knew no longer protected Horace from New Saturn’s deadly atmosphere.

He whistled for the MSTIs and heard Queen Elvira answer, along with a little echo from Screw-loose in his saddlebag.

All that remained was to lead them all back home.

 

The inquest into Horace’s death lasted too long. For six weeks Gordon had to sit in the orbital station to answer questions and have his hardsuit recorder examined. Homestead stood by him all the way, paying for his legal representation and even a couple of sessions of counseling. Not that Gordon needed it; except for the claustrophobia he now experienced at being crammed onto an orbiting station with another hundred thousand people, he felt fine.

He missed Henry keenly. And New Saturn’s weather almost as much.

He returned to New Saturn along with the first five families of homesteaders who would jointly take possession of #99. They seemed to be a nice mix of planet and space-born people, and so giddy with excitement about their lives on the new frontier that it brought tears to Gordon’s eyes to watch their awe as the shuttle descended.

Henry met him at the landing site, along with Paint, who Henry claimed had missed him.

“I’ve got a surprise for you,” Henry said. He led Gordon to a new, small dome on the periphery of the compound. Inside Gordon spied the long legs and bulging abdomen of a Queen MSTI—but not Queen Elvira. The new queen swung her head around to him and whistled “Turkey in the Straw.”

“She started metamorphosis into a pupa the day after you left. Turns out Screw-loose had a plan all along,” Henry said. “She was trying to break off and start her own colony.”

“But the MSTIs are not supposed to be able to do this on their own. Their modifications shouldn’t allow it. Did you document it?”

“Isn’t that my line?” Henry asked. He gave a little shrug. “Ours have gone through several generations of natural breeding now. Guess nature found a way.”

“But what about Queen Elvira?”

“They keep their distance from each other,” Henry said with a chuckle. “The bosses want us to split the herd. Take one queen and leave the other for the homesteaders. But I told them I wouldn’t make any decisions till you came back. What do you think?”

A pang of sentiment moved through Gordon as he thought of his years with Queen Elvira. But he felt equally bad forcing her to move. MSTIs were, by nature, a colonizing species. So he put on a brave face and said, “I think it’s time for you, me, and Screw-loose to move on.”

As if she understood, Screw-loose let out a loud chirp, but when Gordon looked over he saw that she was just announcing production of her latest egg.

END

 


“Oh, Give Me A Home” was originally published in Once Upon a Time in the Weird West (Dreamspinner Press) and is copyright Nicole Kimberling 2016.

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