July 2020

George’s voice crackled over the headset radio. “You going tonight?”

“Not hardly. Pa fined me hard last time. Claimed I forgot to plug Bessie back in and cost us a day’s work.” Zeke spit a glob of bright orange newbacco juice into a can he’d taped to the inside of the tractor’s cockpit. “I plugged her in. Just didn’t have time for a full recharge.”

“Like your Pa would know anything about a day’s work,” George said. “He don’t remember the last time he done one.”

“He weren’t always like that.” Zeke moved the control sticks in unison, and Bessie reached out to grasp a four-ton bale of threefalfa in her heavy metal arms. The tractor hefted the bale, servos whining as it moved the load into position and added it to the neat, two-story stack on top of the crawler. “Used to be he worked as hard as anybody.”

Zeke’s pa hadn’t been the same since his wife died of Scylla, a native virus that seemed to take every Terrestrial mammal with two X chromosomes as a personal insult.

The red giant overhead baked the community farmlands, the remnants of a small mountain range pounded into submission from orbit a century before. George’s tractor picked up a bale and set it across from Zeke’s. They worked with their canopies popped so they could see each other and catch what little breeze there was. “Too bad you ain’t going. Got a couple of boys from over the creek looking to brawl. Jake says they got money.”

“How much money?”

“Enough to make it interesting.”

“Any girls coming?”

“There’ll be a few girls along. Whether they’ve already made their picks,” the arms of George’s big farm mech dropped its sides with a crash, “you take your chances.”

Zeke and Bessie maneuvered another bale to the top of the stack. “Wish I could go.”

“Sneak out.”

“Bessie ain’t what you call ‘sneaky.’ “

George let his tractor answer for him. The whines, clanks, and hisses blended into the familiar sound of preparations for the long winter ahead. Soon, the stack of bales atop the crawler rose to the tractors’ three-story limit.

George swabbed sweat off his face with a red bandanna and squinted at the blue-green sky. “You see Perserpina yet?”

Zeke took a long look. The big moon, Ceres, was almost always in sight, but Perserpina, tiny and erratic, didn’t show until she was good and ready—usually long after he was willing to call it a day. “Close enough. Besides, we wait much longer, we’ll be travelin’ in the dark, and the bunyips will get us.”

The yips were much less a problem than they used to be, but they made a good excuse for knocking off work. George and Zeke walked their tractors to the back of the crawler and clomped up the ramp into riding position. The crawler’s autopilot blinked awake, and the big vehicle shuddered into unhurried motion.

Zeke propped his feet up on the tractor’s control panel and rolled a cigarette. “Is everyone going?”

“Everyone I talked to.” George glanced sidelong at his friend. “Pomona might be there.”

“What’s that s’posed to mean?”

“I know you ain’t goin’ with her no more, but,” George shrugged, “someone will. Probably soon. Might be one of those boys from across the creek.”

Calling it a creek would have been laughable on any other planet. It was two miles wide, with class-four rapids along most its length, but it was still a baby compared to most of the rivers and streams on the world.

Zeke scowled. Two months before, he and Pomona had been tight as snicks. He still wasn’t sure what had set her off, asking questions about the future, wanting him to buy himself free of his pa, like it were that easy. He hadn’t put up much of a fight when she broke it off. “None of my business.”

“Hope that makes you feel better when you’re pullin’ your own pecker in back of your Pa’s barn.” George had one leg draped over the side of his tractor’s cockpit and was sipping something clear from a jar. “Suit yourself. Maybe I’ll let you know what happens.”

The crawler piloted itself to the co-op silos, and George and Zeke herded their tractors down the exit ramp. The crawler took care of the unloading itself. It would be recharged and ready for work in the morning. George waggled his jar at Zeke. “You come out tonight, you might get some.”

Zeke lifted Bessie’s arm in a wave. “I go out tonight I might as well not come home.”

George turned his tractor toward his small homestead about five miles southwest. Zeke watched until his friend’s green-and-yellow mech was nearly out of sight.

He had been trying not to think about Pomona. They’d met in the crèche years ago, when her name had been Paul, but memories of that awkward little boy had long been replaced by the freckled vision that had come back from the mothership with new pronouns and a big smile. They’d hit it off at the Harvest Dance and dated for nearly eight months before she ended it.

None of my business what she does. Zeke turned Bessie toward home.

Minerva met him at the gate. Zeke lowered the tractor to one knee and glared at the little girl from the cockpit. “Pa catches you outside the fence after dark, you won’t sit down for a week.”

“Pa’s not here.” Minerva folded her arms and glared back. “Trudi’s in the cistern again.”

The latest Scylla vaccine had saved barely fifty percent of Minerva’s crèche, but it had proved near a hundred-percent effective on hybrid cows like Trudi.

“Get up here so the bunyips won’t get you.” Zeke lowered Bessie’s hand so Minerva could climb on, and lifted her to the open-air passenger saddle he’d rigged up on the mech’s left shoulder. “Weren’t you supposed to be watching her?”

“I just looked away for a minute.” The girl stomped her foot. “She’s stupid.”

Or she’s tired of you fussing at her. The last time Trudi had ended up in the cistern, Pa had sworn up and down that he’d take her to the slaughterhouse if it ever happened again.

“It’s the manatee genes,” Minerva said. “Sometimes she forgets she ain’t s’posed to like swimming.”

Zeke brought Bessie to a halt at the edge of the big water tank.

“There she is!” Minerva stood up in the saddle and pointed. “In the corner.”

Sure enough, the cow was neck deep in the cistern, looking like she was about to drop dead from exhaustion.

“You sit back down and put your belt on. I’ll get her.” Like most of the multi-purpose mechs on Magna Mater, Bessie was roughly human shaped. Two arms, two legs, and a broad torso where the cockpit was. “You belted in?”

“Do I look stupid?” Minerva said.

“Stupid enough to let the cow try to drown itself.” Zeke made a tripod of Bessie’s knees and her left arm and carefully extended the right into the cistern toward the cow. “Don’t worry none, Trudi. This won’t hurt a bit.” Bessie spread her fingers wide before wrapping them like a steel cage around Trudi’s midsection. “Got her!”

Zeke lifted the cow carefully. Trudi only massed a half ton or so, but the position was awkward. He flipped a switch to extend Bessie’s outriggers. No sense sending the tractor into the cistern, too. He got the dripping cow to ground level and swung her away from the cistern. Minerva clapped her hands.

Zeke got Bessie back to her feet. “Where do you want her?”

“In her house, silly!”

Zeke walked the tractor toward the house and set the cow down inside the corral he’d set up for her there. He raised Bessie’s hand to shoulder level and waited for Minerva to climb on. “You let her get out again, Pa’s liable to turn her into dinner.”

Minerva stamped her foot. “He will not! She’s mine. He gave her to me!”

“Don’t put much stock in that, Mini Girl. He’ll take her away just as quick.” Bessie lowered her hand to the ground, and Minerva stepped off. “But he won’t hear it from me. You get inside now. Fence is on, but I reckon you’re pretty enough for a bunyip to go to some trouble to eat.”

Minerva flashed him a grin and ran to the front door. Zeke turned Bessie toward the barn and triggered open the tall door. Once he was sure the mech was locked down and powered off, Zeke descended the ladder rungs running down her body and plugged her in. He patted her leg. “Good work today, old girl. Few years, I’ll have enough saved up so I can buy you out from under Pa, and we’ll run off together. Start our own stead.” He checked the maintenance board, scowling at a row of yellow telltale lights. “Those leg units are thinking about going again. I told Pa we needed a new set, but …” He shook his head. “I’ll climb in there and see what I can do in the morning.”

He left the barn and took a look around the family compound. The lights at the top of the old silo were even closer to the ground than yesterday, creeping lower and lower as the structure listed. Pa kept saying he was going to take it down but hadn’t gotten around to it. Taken down neat there’d be plenty of salvage, but letting it crash to the ground would likely bust open the shell and ruin the works inside. Zeke continued up the path to the house.

“Where’s Pa?” he said, careful not to let the screen door slam behind him.

“Up to the hollow with Uncle Pranav.” Tim, the youngest of Zeke’s six brothers, was at the kitchen table doing his homework. “Said he won’t be back ‘til late.”

Late morning most likely. Uncle Pranav ran a distillery in the hollow, and Pa went up there a few times a month to “help out”. He’d be back close to noon, stinking and aching, his fancy new tractor hauling him home on autopilot.

“Minerva come through here?”

“Went up to her bedroom. She was swearing a streak at that cow of hers. You get her out?”

“Don’t tell Pa she fell in again.” Zeke took a seat and inspected the auto-cooker in the center of the table. Soup again. “Where are the rest of the young uns?”

“Everyone’s inside, Mother. Don’t get your skirt in a knot.”

Zeke cuffed his brother on the back of his head, barely mussing his hair. “I had a skirt; I’d give it to you. Closest you’ll ever get to a girl.” He pulled a bowl out of the stack and filled it with the nondescript soup. “What you working on?”

“Calculus. It’s pretty easy.”

“Never got to it.” Zeke spooned soup into his mouth. “Dropped out the year before I would have.”

“Why do I have to stay in, then? I hate school.”

“I’m the eldest. It’s my job to help Pa run the farm,” Zeke said. “Your job is to get good grades and do something better with your life. Be a freighter captain, maybe. Or a doctor.”

“What if I want to be a farmer?”

“It’s hard work, little man. And tractors don’t come cheap.”

“I can do it!”

“You can, but you don’t have to. Get your learnin’ in and move to the city.” Zeke shoved his bowl into the recycler and stood up. “I’m going up to bed.”

Zeke showered, then climbed the narrow stairs to the second floor and the ladder that led to his little room in the attic. Age had its privileges. He and Minerva were the only ones besides Pa with private rooms. Zeke crawled onto his mattress and stared at the bare beams a few feet above his face. Tim was eleven. Minerva would be seven in the fall. In another eight or nine years she’d start getting marriage proposals and offers for eggs. It would be up to Pa to negotiate a price, with a healthy cut for himself, of course, but the final decision would be hers. She could ignore the whole thing, marry for love, or never marry at all, but the money was always a temptation, and Pa would surely pressure her. Pomona would probably be hitching up soon, too. No sense sticking around, with her options.

He put his hands behind his head. No wonder Pa drank so much.

Zeke’s wristcuff buzzed, and he pulled his arm free so he could see it. It was George. Zeke poked the screen to answer the call. George’s face was sweaty and excited. “You got to get out here! There’s a Vidcom crew here filming. Mech Mayhem. They’ve got a half million to split among the top three fighters.”

“You’re funnin’ me.” Zeke’s heart raced. Vidcom was the most popular network in the system and had money to burn. They liked to film the mech brawls, but they’d never been as far out as Magna Mater.

“Like hell I am.” The image on Zeke’s wristcuff spun as George moved to show the Vidcom camera crew setting up. A tall blonde man in the latest system fashion was directing them. “They’ve got a brand-new brawler mech here taking on all comers. They’re giving a thousand just for agreeing to fight it on camera, plus first, second, third prizes. Get out here!”

“Shit!” A thousand credits wasn’t enough to matter much, but even a third-place finish might give him enough to buy Bessie out from under his Pa and claim his own stead. Zeke slid out of bed and put his work clothes back on.

“Make sure Minerva stays inside,” he told Tim as he passed by. “I’ll be back late.”

“Where you going?” the boy said.

Zeke closed the front door on the question and hurried to the barn, glancing left and right. The fence was usually enough to keep the bunyips out of the compound, but sometimes one slipped through and spent the night prowling outside the buildings. The really big ones had all been killed off years before, but the leftovers were fast and angry, more than enough to take down an unarmed man.

He entered the barn through the side door and flipped the switch that turned on the light. “We got a chance to make some money, old girl.” He punched the wake-up command into the maintenance board. Bessie was only up to a half charge, but it would do for a few fights and the jog to the ring. Zeke climbed up the ladder to the cockpit and strapped in. “This could be it.”

The old tractor responded to Zeke’s commands and clomped through the big door. Zeke sent a coded message to the NavNet and got a ping back with the current location of the brawl. Mech fighting wasn’t illegal—not much was on Magna Mater—but it was dangerous and potentially expensive. The Homestead Council zoomed in to break things up anytime they could figure out where the brawl was, so the boys who put it on kept moving it. Bessie’s navscreen lit up with a location about two miles away at a nice, easy power-saving jog.

“Let’s go, girl.” Bessie lurched forward.

The off-world brawler mech looked smooth and alien among the local jalopies and tractors standing around it. “The hell is that thing?” Zeke said once he’d reached the ground and entered the pool of spectators.

George handed Zeke his jar. “They call it Galaxy Chrome. Latest model. Looking to make a name by taking on the local talent.”

“Sheeit!” Zeke studied the sleek, shiny mech. “None of us have the money for something like that!”

George collected the jar back and took a long swallow. “They’re not looking to sell to us. If it looks good kicking some hicks around, all the central-system rich kids will want one.”

The brawler mech was at least four feet taller than anything the locals had.

“You going to fight it?” Zeke said.

“Was until I saw it. A thousand wouldn’t cover the repairs I’d have to make, and I’d probably I’d have to rent a tractor to finish out the season. The winter would be mighty lean.”

“But what if you won?”

George patted his mech’s green leg. “That thing could put a hole right through my cockpit and wave at everybody on the other side.”

“Guess nothing runs away like a Deere.”

George snorted. “Ain’t runnin’, but I ain’t stupid, either.”

“Anyone else try?”

“Tom Riley. Lasted about two minutes. Thing picked his jalopy right off the ground and tossed it twenty feet.” He pointed. “He’s over there in the first-aid tent. He was thrown out of the cockpit.”

“Tom’s mech ain’t much better than a lawn mower. He shouldn’ta tried.”

“You be sure to tell him that when he wakes up.”

A thin man in a powder-blue jumpsuit climbed up the fancy mech and stood in its passenger saddle. He fiddled with something on his wristcuff, and his voice boomed out of the mech’s speakers. “Who’s next?” He looked around at the local brawlers. Most of their mechs had come straight from the fields, but a few of the better-off had built ones just for fighting.

“I’m in.” A tall mech lurched forward. Aamil Baig’s jalopy had started life as a firebot. It was still bright red in places, and Aamil ran the siren and flashing lights as he stepped into the ring. His mech had the longest reach of any in the settlement, and a secret weapon, but it was painfully slow. “But only if you raise it to five thousand.”

The slicker shrugged. “Done.”

“Start your cameras.” Aamil closed his mech’s cockpit and turned on its lights. The siren whooped as the slicker climbed down and shouted instructions to his camera crew.

Galaxy Chrome moved like its joints were made of oil and marched to a spot about fifty feet away where it waited for Aamil and his mech. The slicker walked between them and signaled for Aamil to cut the lights and siren. He looked at one of his camera bots and flashed a confident grin. “Fellow sentients, have we got a fight for you!”

Zeke tuned into the feed in time to hear the Mech Mayhem score swell.

The slicker grinned again. He was better looking on the feed than he was in person. “Magna Mater. The wildest planet the system has to offer. The land is hard, and it’s eager,” the slicker narrowed his eyes, “to kill.”

The feed switched to a recording of a bunyip swarm. The big reptiles thundered by the camera until one, probably baited by the operator, turned and roared directly into the lens.

“The natives have to fight every day just to survive. They’re tough, and their mechs are tougher.” He flung his arm up. “But are they tough enough to handle Galaxy Chrome?” The feed switched to show a close up of the big mech’s cockpit. “The newest mech from BrawlerBot, Inc.? Let’s find out!”

The feed switched back to the slicker’s face, and he grinned right on cue. “You boys ready?”

Half the screen filled with Aamil’s bearded face, the other with the bland good looks of Galaxy Chrome’s pilot. Aamil nodded and the other pilot lifted his hands from his controls to offer a double thumbs up.

“Then let’s get ready to ruuuuuuuumble!” The slicker ran straight ahead to get out of the battle zone. Aamil turned the sirens and lights back on and moved his mech’s left foot ahead for balance.

Galaxy Chrome bent low and charged straight at Aamil.

Zeke grinned. The off-worlder was playing right into Aamil’s game. The bearded miner knew his mech was slow and usually waited for the other fighter to make the first move. The jalopy crouched and raised its arms to meet the charge. Chrome closed the distance fast, the ground shuddering with every running step.

Zeke knew the move Aamil was about to make; most of the brawlers on Magna Mater did, but there was no way the off-worlder would. This was going to be good.

The rockets mounted on the fire mech’s wrists roared into life, and its big red fists shot forward … and kept going, trailing steel cables. The arms on Aamil’s mech could extend seventy yards in less than two seconds, part of its rapid-rescue package. Aamil called it his “Telescope Punch,” and it was usually enough to take out an unwary opponent. It had to be, because it took Aamil two minutes to reel the arms back in and get the fists back into place.

Galaxy Chrome pivoted on one foot—it moved so fast Zeke wasn’t exactly sure what happened. Both the red fists missed their marks and shot to the ends of their cables before thumping to the ground. The off-world mech took two more steps, grabbed the cables, and ripped them out, leaving Aamil with sparking stumps.

The Mech Mayhem score swelled, and Zeke’s vidscreen showed the move again in slow motion. “Who’s next?” the slicker howled.

Five-thousand, about enough for a beater mech, was the magic number for the boys with custom-made brawlers. The Lajoie twins stepped up. They piloted their jalopy, a souped-up construction machine, as a duo. Galaxy Chrome ripped it right in half, spilling the Lajoies to the ground in a shower of sparks and jagged metal. If he was lucky, Trevor Lajoie would keep his right arm.

The brawl continued and broken mechs piled up on the sides of the field. The slicker threw his arms in the air as Galaxy Chrome’s latest victim was hauled away. “Who’s next?”

“You gotta fight him,” George said. “You’re the only one who stands a chance.”

Zeke shook his head. “Not even. You saw what he did to the twins!”

“You’re better than they are!” George said. “You’re better than all of us.”

“Not good enough,” Zeke said. “That thing’s taken out seven brawlers without getting a scratch.”

“We’re raising the ante,” the slicker announced. “Ten thousand just for stepping in the ring with the mighty Galaxy Chrome!”

George swore. “They must be taking orders for those things right and left.”

Zeke’s head swam. Ten thousand was a lot of money. Half again what it would cost to by Bessie away from Pa. Enough to file for a small stead. He raised his hand. “I’m in. We’ll fight.”

Zeke unplugged Bessie from the network’s big generator. The forced charge wasn’t good for the tractor’s batteries, but he needed them as close to full as possible to have any hope of keeping up with Galaxy Chrome. The slicker put his hand on Zeke’s back. “You ready?”

“If the money’s still good.”

“The money’s fine. We’ll drop it into your account soon as the cameras start rolling. Win or lose.”

“Make sure to keep the prize money ready, too. I’m taking your pretty bot down,” Zeke said. “You ready, girl?”

Bessie couldn’t answer, but it seemed like she moved a little quicker whenever she was in the ring, responded better to the controls. Like she enjoyed fighting.

The slicker stepped between the two mechs and raised his arms in the air. “Sentients, I am proud to present the next fight of the night. The mighty Galaxy Chrome and, fighting for the honor of Magna Mater, Zeke Liu and his Battlin’ Bessie!”

VidCom graphic enhancements made it seem like an audience of thousands surrounded the ring, baying for blood and twisted metal. In reality, a few dozen farmers, miners, and builders yelled themselves hoarse and made as much noise as they could.

Bessie pounded the hammer side of her right fist into the cup of her palm, banging her own war drum. The local mechs left standing picked up the beat, and the field echoed with the clash of steel on hardened steel.

The slicker signaled for silence, and the beat tapered off. “You boys ready?”

Zeke nodded, knowing his face would be on millions of screens around the system. The pilot of the off-world mech shrugged and pretended to yawn.

The comm unit in Bessie’s cockpit stuttered to life. “Zeke!” Tim hollered through it. “Minerva’s outside the fence! She’s gone after that fool cow again!”

On the opposite side of the control panel a red light started flashing, and a siren howled. A bunyip-swarm alert. Everyone in town would be getting the same signal and securing their steads in response.

“Let’s get ready to—!” the slicker began.

“What do you want me to do?” Tim sounded breathless.

“Shit!” Zeke put Bessie in motion, using the newly charged battery to bring her up to speed. The entire VidCom audience, millions of sentients on dozens of planets, watched him flee the ring. “I’m on my way!”

Zeke jumped Bessie over a ravine. “You stay put and keep the other young uns inside,” he told Tim via the comm. The mech’s worn leg servos sent her telltales flickering into the red zone as she landed on the other side. “I’m going to find our little sister and skin her alive.”

If the bunyips don’t beat me to it. Minerva had barely been walking the last time the monsters went on the move. Three or four times in a generation the yips spawned, moving across the land to a new river or stream, killing and eating everything in their path. Smart people got out of their way. NavNet was predicting the swarm would be going through the biggest cluster of steads, right past the one claimed by Zeke’s Pa.

Zeke pushed Bessie to run faster and powered up her leg extenders to gain a few extra meters with each stride. The warning lights for her leg servos went further into the red, a harbinger of failure, but the mech ate up the distance faster.

Zeke heard the bunyips before he saw them: a slithery mass of low growls, angry roars, and heavy footfalls. He activated Bessie’s vision enhancements and zoomed in on the swarm. He’d never seen so many of the things. Little ones just a little bigger than a standing man and others that stood taller at the shoulder than Bessie did. Zeke’s headset radio crackled.

“I thought we’d killed off all the big uns,” George said.

Zeke craned his neck to see George’s tractor jog up behind him.

“That’s a lot of lizards,” George said. “Let’s get to high ground and wait it out.”

“Can’t. Minerva’s out here somewhere. She ran out after that cow of hers.”

George cursed. “That ain’t good. Both likely to end up yip shit.”

Zeke cranked up the magnification and scanned the grounds of the stead for any sign of his sister.

“I see her,” George said. He pointed with his mech’s hand. Minerva had climbed to the top of the old silo and was hanging on for dear life a couple of meters above the reach of the tallest bunyip. “She’s safe.”

“No, she’s not,” Zeke said. “That silo would fall over if the wind blew hard. It will come right down if one of those big bastards bumps up against it.”

A new voice cut into their conversation. “I’ll get her.”

Galaxy Chrome darted out in front of them and ran into the swarm, trailed by a flock of camera drones.

“Sentients,” the slicker chortled over the VidCom feed. “This is unprecedented. BrawlerBot’s latest masterpiece is taking on an entire flock of the most dangerous creatures in the system, and you’re seeing it here, live!”

“That ain’t a good idea,” George said. “One or two of them is about all …”

Galaxy Chrome’s pilot yelled in fear as the gleaming mech became a target of several of the smaller bunyips. They swarmed up the mech’s legs to the cockpit and began raking it with their claws. The pilot made the mistake of trying to take a long step out of the scrum, and the bunyips’ weight made the big mech topple to the ground with a crash.

“Well, that done it,” George said.

One of Galaxy Chrome’s thrashing legs grazed the silo, and Minerva’s precarious perch tilted closer to the feeding frenzy below.

“Get up! Get up!” the slicker yelled over the VidCom feed.

The feed from Galaxy Chrome crackled. “There’re too many of them! I can’t get loose!”

The big mech’s thrashing was attracting the attention of some of the bigger bunyips. It would take time, but they could crack the brawler mech’s cockpit like an egg.

“Hold still!” Zeke said. “I’m coming in!”

“That ain’t smart,” George said.

“No choice.” Zeke made sure his canopy was locked tight, and jogged to the edge of the swarm. He’d taken Bessie through rapids and rock falls before, and figured a shuffle step was the best approach. He moved the tractor forward slowly, barely lifting her feet.

“They’re coming at you!” George said.

Zeke caught the first bunyip in mid leap and tossed it back toward his friend. “Make yourself useful and step on it.”

The second bunyip hit Bessie in the back and stuck, clawing for the soft meat inside. Zeke shuffled faster, punching away the yips he could catch and ignoring the ones he couldn’t. A mid-sized bunyip hit Bessie behind her knees and nearly bowled her over.

“Watch it!” George said.

Zeke didn’t have the breath to respond. He moved without thinking, dodging with as much flexibility as Bessie allowed and putting her hardened fists into the heads and torsos of any bunyip he could see. He made it into the shadow of the silo and craned his neck to look up. Minerva’s face was tear-streaked, but she looked more angry than afraid. Her knuckles, where she clutched the railing, were white. He switched on Bessie’s loud speakers. “I’m right under you, Mini.”

“They killed Trudi!” she said. “Ripped her all to pieces!”

The anguish in her voice made him ache. He would have done anything to keep her from having to see that. “You hold on!” Zeke considered his options. He could use Bessie to brace the silo and hope he could hold it long enough for the swarm to pass or… “George, I’m going to need you to come in here.”

“The hell I will!” George said.

“I gotta get her down from there, George!”

George swore softly but repetitively as he shuffled his tractor into the swarm. He played it safer than Zeke had, but he was at his friend’s side in minutes. “Now what?”

“Just keep them off me.” Zeke dropped Bessie’s outriggers and extended her legs to their full height. He got an extra three meters out of it, putting himself just under Minerva’s perch. He opened the canopy in time to feel Bessie nearly fall out from under him as she shook under a sharp impact. “George!”

“Sorry about that. One of the middling ones got by. Hurry it up. There’s a lot more coming.”

Zeke unfastened his safety harness and stood in the seat to grab Minerva under her arms. The passenger saddle didn’t offer any protection, so he swung her into the cockpit with him and sealed it back up. “Squeeze behind the seat and stay there. We’re not out of this yet.” He refastened his harness as Bessie rocked again.

“Hurry, Zeke!” George said. “I’m not funnin’ you.”

Zeke retracted the outriggers and returned Bessie’s legs to normal, bringing the cockpit back in range of the scaly swirl below. “Let’s see what we can do for Chrome before we get clear.”

He led the way, pushing against the bunyips until he got to the frenzied pile that covered the off-world mech. He grabbed a double handful of bunyips and tossed them aside. George joined him, and, when they got Galaxy Chrome clear enough to see, they grabbed its arms and pulled it to its feet. “Let’s go,” Zeke said. “Shuffle until you get to the edge of the swarm.” He glanced over his shoulder at his sister. “You okay back there?”

“I need to pee,” she said.

“You’ll wait on that if you know what’s good for you. You pee in here, and I’ll put you right back up in that silo.”

He shuffled Bessie after George’s tractor and Galaxy Chrome. Bunyip swarms were single-minded, moving from waterway to waterway over whatever land stood in the way. Funny, they were never as thick in the mountains as they were over the land the colonists had terraformed. Once the mechs were out of its path, they would be largely out of danger. Galaxy Chrome got to the edge of the swarm first and sprinted to a safe distance. The big mech was a mess, its hull battered and dented, shiny finish dulled and gouged by the bunyips’ claws, pieces of its decorative superstructure torn away and left behind

“Look—!” George’s warning ended in a blast of static as his green-and-yellow mech tumbled sideways into the swarm. The biggest bunyip Zeke had ever seen roared and gave chase, knocking smaller yips aside like puppies.

“George!” Zeke turned Bessie around and pushed back into the swarm in pursuit of the giant bunyip. The others had cleared off, letting the big yip claim its prey. One of the green tractor’s arms had come away in the tumble, and its left leg was twisted underneath it.

“Git outta here, Zeke!” George broadcast. “It’s no good both of us getting’ kilt.”

Bessie muckled on to the big yip’s tail with both hands, halting its teeth and claws meters away from the damaged tractor. The bunyip dug in its claws and lunged forward. Zeke extended Bessie’s outriggers again and held on, trying to ignore the flashing red lights warning of leg-servo failure.

The yip turned to get his teeth around for an attack on Bessie’s hands and legs, but its spine wasn’t flexible enough. Bessie hauled up, extending her arms and lifting the yip’s hindquarters off the ground by its tail. The scaly creature whipped its head wildly, snapping at anything it could reach. Bessie shuddered and pitched with every shift in weight.

“What’s happening?” Minerva said.

“You just hang on, Mini Girl.” Zeke gritted his teeth and fought to keep Bessie upright. If she toppled, if the leg servos failed, the bunyip would be on him in seconds, and he had no illusions how the test of claws and teeth versus the old mech’s hull would go. If he had a hand free, he could put a hardened fist right through the yip’s skull, but he didn’t dare let go of the tail for even a second.

An alarm squalled as the leg-servo warning lights went solid red. Bessie’s left leg buckled, and she started to topple. Zeke fought to keep her up by hopping on the right leg, but the mech wasn’t built for it, and the weight of the bunyip pulled it to the ground. Zeke’s teeth came together hard at the impact, and he tasted blood. Minerva screamed. He reached into the seat pocket for his sidearm, but the little gun would be of little use against an enraged yip. Minerva might go unnoticed behind the seat, her scent hidden by the odor of his own spilled blood. He flicked off the gun’s safety. The big yip charged. “You son of a bitch!” he said.

Its teeth were a foot away from the cockpit window when a steel fist struck, crashing into the top of the yip’s skull and driving its bottom jaw into the dirt. Galaxy Chrome pulled its fist out of the bunyip’s cranium and grabbed Bessie by the leg. He hauled her over to George’s wreck and grabbed it by the shoulder. Then, step by shuffling step, Galaxy Chrome pulled both tractors to safety in front of the largest viewing audience in Vidcom history.

It took another four hours for the swarm to pass. George shared his jar of hooch with the off-worlder while they watched. Zeke waved the jar away, more concerned with getting Minerva to stop fussing about Trudi.

“I’m gonna kill all of them,” she said. Her face was streaked with tears, tiny fists balled up like rocks.

“Hush, Mini,” Zeke said. “Leave them be, they’ll leave you be. Trudi was just too dumb for her own good.” And too tasty. Maybe breeding cows wasn’t such a good idea. The yips had no interest at all in threefalfa.

Later, neighbors helped him move Bessie to her maintenance cradle in the barn and gave George and his wreck a ride home. The check Vidcom gave George for rights to the video and a personal endorsement of BrawlerBot’s new mech put a grin on George’s face that lasted all the way to his pillow, which he shared that night with Brian Lance, Galaxy Chrome’s handsome pilot.

Zeke tucked Minerva in, commiserated with her some about the cow, and went out to the barn to see Bessie. She had several more gouges and dents, some deep scratches, but she’d already carried a fair share of them. Her frame looked okay in spite of the hard fall. Zeke winced when he ran a diagnostic on her legs. Most everything in there was going to need an overhaul before she could work again, and he’d taken months off her batteries’ life with that forced charge.

He was going to catch hell from his pa. Sober, Pa would rage. Drunk, he’d rage and maybe throw hands. Later, he’d cool down some and bill Zeke for the cost of the repairs and ask the Steader’s Union to levy a fine. It would wipe out everything Zeke had saved and then some.

Or it would have.

Zeke used his wristcuff to check his new bank balance. His own check from Vidcom had given him enough in one haul to fix Bessie up, buy her out from under his pa, pay his fine, and set up a nice little stead of his own.

In a season or two, he could petition the Union for custody of the young uns, give them a better living environment and maybe a few more life options. Hell, he might even give Pomona a call and ask her if she’d seen him on Vidcom. He had some answers to her questions about the future now.

In the testimonial the slicker had recorded, both Zeke and George had gassed on and on about how great the off-world mech was, how rugged and fast. Zeke, at least, had been lying through his teeth. He wouldn’t take one of the new bots if they offered it to him for free.

He looked up and down Bessie again, older than him by at least twenty years and not a shiny spot in sight. He patted the big mech’s leg.

“They can do what they want with the video,” he said, “but we both know who the toughest mech in the system is, girl.”

Bessie didn’t answer—she never did—but he heard her loud and clear. They built ‘em tough on Magna Mater.

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