by P. F. White
"T'aint right what yer cow's doin' to the corn," said the skinny Farmer Epsilon to his longtime neighbor Farmer Theta.
Farmer Theta just looked him square in the eye and spat tobacco juice from the corner of his mouth. The brown liquid arched perfectly in the sunlight then fell two hundred feet to the ground below their floating bodies. Farmer Theta turned back to his rival and folded his massive muscled arms even tighter across his barrel chest.
Farmer Theta did not bob or sway in the air. Neither did Epsilon. They floated perfectly still amidst the gentle summer breeze like two men without a care in the world. Both were held aloft only by the psychic powers of their superiorly engineered minds. Neither made a big to-do about it.
Below them a pristine pastoral landscape spread itself across the gigantic world they tilled and cared for. Behind Farmer Epsilon could be seen a vast cornfield stretching a hundred miles across the horizon, a massive path had been broken through the corn, the likes of which a Hollywood sized monster could have easily made. Behind Farmer Theta could be seen nothing but a dense forest chewed and destroyed for dozens of miles.
The cow in question, Betsy, could not be seen. But she could be easily tracked. She had eaten a path through the corn in a roughly straight line from the ruined forest. Her nine thousand tones required a fantastic amount of food per day. And she had a reputation for being stubborn.
"Well what yeh gonna do 'bout it Theta?" asked Farmer Epsilon in a reasonable tone. Folks around town called him "Ep" sometimes.
No one had a nickname for Farmer Theta. Not one fit to print anyway. He was too damn ornery.
Ep received no response and so he continued: "Cause I'm jus sayin --"
"You go on sayin," snapped Farmer Theta, "That's what yer good at. Not good at startin' trouble an' certainly not good at cows." He spat tobacco again. His red glowing eyes flared and his muscles strained evermore against his plain faded blue overalls.
Farmer Epsilon folded his own arms. They were scrawny by most meta-human standards but still powerful enough to uproot a tree without the slightest exertion of his mental powers.
"Theta, I don't want no trouble." said Farmer Epsilon, "But if'n this keeps up there will haveta be some, sure as sundown."
Farmer Theta spat again.
"I'd like to see that." he said.
"I reckon we're done here." said Theta. His red glowing eyes flared and with a noise like the discharge of lightning he disappeared in a puff of blue smoke.
He was the only one in the valley that could teleport. He thought that it made him better than most folks. Farmer Epsilon adjusted his straw hat and scratched his balding scalp. Epsilon didn't think teleporting made Farmer Theta special. Just gave a rude man an excuse to be rude.
"I reckon that's it then." said Farmer Epsilon to no one in particular as he began to fly back through the miles of corn to work on his next move.
Farmer Epsilon talked it over with Goldie (the super-computer what kept track of the mega-sized finances of the nine hundred square mile Epsilon farm,) and that's what she had suggested. Tess (Farmer Epsilon's late wife, who still hung around the place in ghost form and kept the lonely farmer company), suggested that Epsilon drop the matter. She said the corn could be replaced and that a conflict with the meanest farmer this side of the solar system was a mistake.
Epsilon waved her suggestions away and she sighed and folded her translucent arms. Robots: that was the ticket, he said to her. He needed big mean robots that would scare a cow, even one as big as Betsy, away.
He set ninety percent of his powerful sleeping brain to the problem as he got his eight hours, and through a neural linkup with Goldie he had a dozen working designs ready for construction by the morning.
"What in the sam-hell kinda idea is this?" said Farmer Theta as he gestured to his half burnt super-cow that was standing innocently and chewing on the top of a giant red-wood.
"Looks t'me like someone set some heat on that there cow." said Farmer Epsilon with pride, "Maybe it shouldn't go messin' with folks new scarecrows 'n' such," he suggested helpfully.
"Scarecrows? Is that what yer callin them half ton monstrosities you got littered round the fields? Them ones with the fusion cannons an' radiation projectors?"
"Scary, ain't they? I had Tess help wit' the faces and made 'em outta a coupla tractors yesterday. Then I set the ol' clone-o-vision on 'em, and Bob's yer uncle!"
He glowed with pride as he finished his explanation. He was literally emitting light from every pore as he smiled. He hung in the air like a new star. Farmer Theta wasn't impressed by the display in the slightest.
"Bull hockey." he said, "You cain't copy like that. You ain't that good. No one in this here valley's learned that trick."
Farmer Epsilon shrugged. He wasn't much one for bragging but he did appreciate a job well done. He said: "Then you explain it, friend. I could give a demonstration if'n you like --"
"Don't on my account," growled Farmer Theta. His face scrunched in anger, his red eyes glowing all the fiercer. He looked like he was about to say something or do something violent. Then suddenly he stopped. Then he smiled. Farmer Epsilon did not like the smile.
"If'n that's the way it's gonna be..." began Theta.
"Now friend --"
"Don't you come back wit' that Epsilon! Jus you look at ol' Betsy! She's in as bad a state as you did ever see. She's positively out of her mind wit' depression!"
The cow had dull eyes and chewed mechanically... just like it always did. The burns were superficial at best and would heal in a day or two. Epsilon shook his head.
"She's fine, Theta, I --"
"None of it!" snapped Farmer Theta. "She's hurtin', and you can see it in her eyes, yah big stupid..."
He clenched his fists. Epsilon looked confused. Suddenly Theta exploded into lightning and disappeared in a puff of blue smoke.
"Nice talkin' to you too, neighbor." said Epsilon as he scratched his head. He tipped his hat to the cow and began flying away.
The following day Farmer Epsilon found his new scarecrows destroyed and an even bigger path cut through his corn. He scratched his head and looked closer with his microscopic vision: (just as good as it ever was thank you kindly) the path looked like each scarecrow had been impacted by something heavy and solid moving at an incredible velocity.
He went out in search of Betsy but was stopped by a series of basketball sized iron balls that orbited the cow at breakneck velocities and attacked him as he came close.
He swatted half a dozen out of the air, disintegrating them easily with atomic mind bolts and deflecting the others with kicks and punches before retreating to a safe distance.
They were persistent certainly, but not terribly bright. Whether Betsy herself had control over them or they were some kind of robot he didn't know. He did know they were operated by some sort of lingering psychic energy and were frustrating as hell.
"Disruptor drones," suggested Goldie back at the house when he told her about the new attack spheres.
He nodded his head as he did the dishes absently in the radiation-stream sink.
The disruptor drones were a simple solution and worked two fold. He could animate a series of psychic blackout robots and send them to tend and repair the scarecrows. The drones could power themselves with corn and as long as they were tending the scarecrows they would cause any spheres that flew at them to drop dead from the sky. It was genius, really.
"Is Theta still with Greta?" asked Tess. Her ghostly form was still as pretty as when she was alive. But she did tend to have an irritating feminine view on these manly matters.
He finished up the dishes before answering.
She already had his drink and pipe ready in hand.
"Hell if I know Tess, and the devil if I care." said Epsilon as he sipped from his evening moonshine and reclined in the rocker on the porch.
"Ep, you know that ain't no way to talk about your neighbor!" scolded Tess from her own rocker beside him.
"Well, he ain't bein' very neighborly." retorted the farmer. He folded his arms and she laid a ghostly kiss on his cheek.
She knew there was no arguing with him in one of these moods. He was so stubbornly male some time.
Disruptor drones, thought Farmer Epsilon. That's the ticket, for sure.
Two days after the disrupter drones had done their job they were smashed as well. Farmer Epsilon had figured out a way to put super-magnets inside the attack spheres. When the spheres were cut off from power then they would home in on the psychic blackout and smash them with almost equal velocity. It was quite clever.
Farmer Epsilon countered this by adding a series of Goldie-controlled fast action iron buckshot cannons to the drones. The iron buckshot cannons would trigger when the spheres flew in, fire big wads of magnets into the air and the spheres would hit them instead.
That solution lasted three days.
Then the bots got a virus. Farmer Epsilon checked them thoroughly and found a series of tiny bees laden with a deadly USB drives instead of stingers had plugged into the bots and deactivated them. Epsilon had never seen such clever use of biomorphic field technology before and showed the bees off to Tess and Goldie with an almost proud look on his face.
Folks in town were starting to get wind of the conflict and talk had begun to spread.
"Honey, I been askin around --" began Tess.
"Don't be!" said Farmer Epsilon, "I got this one licked! Goldie suggested birds. Big mean ones with directional sounds programmed into their call. I ain't much good at biomorphic manipulation myself but she said she can whip 'em up outta the chickens, an' I can clone ‘em with my vision after I give 'em a nice micro-chip for tastin' bees. We'll have this licked, I tell yah!"
"Honey, that's not it," said Tess. "It's about Greta, remember her? I think --"
"Darlin', don't you worry," said Farmer Epsilon with a kiss for his ghostly wife, "That Greta is a straight shooter and a good girl. She has the sense to stay out of this just like..." He caught his wife's glare and shut up.
"That is to say, my sweet flower-petal, I --"
Then a jug of moonshine was emptied on his head and his wife stormed out.
One week later and folks in town were taking bets on the escalation. Birds and bees had given way in the natural fashion to neural attack nets, semi-sentient flowers and viral space cannon.
Some of the other farmers from the valley came by to give Farmer Epsilon their own Super Science ideas or offer their unique powers for his use. No one much liked Farmer Theta and so, much as they respected him, no one was really on his side.
Farmer Epsilon listened to their suggestions and offers of help good-naturedly, but turned them down politely and stuck to Goldie for his next tactical move. Tess always insisted on making them a pie and some shine when they talked though, so no one got too upset at being turned away.
It was only when the space cannon had begun firing at night and kept both Epsilon and his long dead wife awake that she decided to speak up again.
"Honey..." said Tess.
Farmer Epsilon made a motion for his barely corporeal wife to move into his arms.
She did. The particles of her psychic form were barely visible to Epsilon's micro-vision and her touch as soft as a whisper. They held each other for a few moments and looked out the big bedroom window.
It was actually kind of beautiful to watch the flares of space cannon light the sky, striking titanium ground worms to pieces as attack thoughts circled the satellites' distant orbits like barely visible fireflies.
"Honey, what would you do if I had left you?" said Tess quietly.
Farmer Epsilon gasped.
She kissed him to calm him down. "I'm not going to sweetie...just for, well to think about: what would you do?"
Farmer Epsilon mulled it over.
"I guess...well I guess I would start drinkin' with my friends a lot, Farmer Beta and Farmer --"
"Well, what if they didn't like you? What if none of your friends liked you? What if they all liked me instead..."
"Well, darling, my friends do like you --"
"I know." She kissed him again, "But what if we split and all your friends didn't even know. And you knew they didn't like you and only ever were civil to you because of me..."
Farmer Epsilon watched a suddenly still sky. The air was quiet.
"I don't know what I would do," he said softly.
"Would you start drinking?"
"And do you think that would help?"
"Naw...jus' make me ornery instead o' hurtin'...like when m'dad went..."
She kissed him again; the feeling was soft and alien as she had to concentrate on her formless lips even to be felt.
He was used to it though. It was almost as good as it had been.
"Do you think you might pick a fight?" she asked, "Maybe over something stupid?"
Farmer Epsilon nodded his head. For a long while neither one of them spoke. Then outside came another blast from the space cannon.
"Tess, d'we still have those bottles of good Helios Whiskey?"
She nodded in the dark.
He could feel the movement more than see it.
"Good." He kissed her.
"I aim to use 'em tomorrow...I think I know someone who needs 'em."
She hugged him. It took all their combined power to feel it as tight as she wanted.
"I love you." she said.
"I love you too," he replied. Slowly he shook his head.
"No one had seen her for so long we just assumed...well."
"Shhh..." she said and kissed him.
"We've lived next to Ted Theta for over thirty years darling." continued Farmer Epsilon. He shook his head again, "I cain't believe I been so blind."
Tess kissed him again and said, "Then make it right you silly man."
Farmer Epsilon nodded and said, "I will."
The next morning Farmer Theta got up late, as he had every morning since it had happened, he found a visitor waiting for him on the porch.
Farmer Epsilon held a bottle of Helios Whiskey in each hand and smiled the sad smile of understanding.
Farmer Theta growled and his red eyes glowed, but not too bright that you couldn't see the bags under them from crying long into the night. The farmstead was a mess. Theta himself stank.
Epsilon floated over to him anyway.
The bigger farmer was too surprised to even say anything.
"It's okay, Ted," said Epsilon. "Greta figured it out last night. I understand."
Farmer Theta opened his mouth to curse, to teleport or fight...then he closed it instead. A tear rolled down his cheek before he could stop it and he turned away from his longtime neighbor.
"She left me for no reason at all." he said softly. So softly that it was almost telepathic.
Farmer Epsilon put down the bottles on a table already strewn with them and patted his neighbor on the back.
"It's all right, Ted," said Farmer Epsilon.
"She just said she didn't love me anymore..." Farmer Theta trailed off, his red eyes fading to a dull glow and his overalls looking all the more ragged for the dirty muscles that filled them.
"It's okay, Ted," repeated Farmer Epsilon. With his mind he opened the first bottle and poured them both a stiff glass. "You coulda' told me you know." added Epsilon softly. Theta shrugged.
"We ain't friends."
Epsilon shrugged at that.
"Yeah, but we are neighbors, Ted. And everyone needs a little help from his neighbors now and then."
He floated a glass over to Farmer Theta, and the man took it without hesitation. They toasted:
And before long they had got to some serious drinking.
Theta cried a little and talked more than Epsilon had heard him in thirty years, Epsilon listened without saying much and nodded his head. Not a space cannon nor attack robot was made and both bottles were eventually drained dry. It wasn't a good day but it was a necessary one.
And outside Betsy the super-cow chewed absently on a giant-redwood, with the same dull expression in her bovine eyes.
© 2012 P. F. White
Bio: P. F. White is a Navy veteran now residing in Oregon. This is his fifth Aphelion appearance; his tale of brothers each obsessed with winning the race to build the transcontinental railroad (by sabotaging each other in increasingly inventive and violent ways), A Confidential Correspondence in Capitalist Conflict appeared in the June 2011 edition.
E-mail: P. F. White
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