Jane’s Cowboy’s Father’s Secret Space Ranch

{Olivia never met a fake romance title she didn’t immediately want to write. This story title was found during a magnificent workshop given by Courtney Milan and Alisha Rai during RWA 2016. Enjoy!}

Something was wrong with the cows.

Jane glared at the GPS monitor, which showed the location of every animal the Bar Sinister Ranch owned on the plateau. Normally the herd moved as an amorphous, amoeba-like blob within the boundary fences, drifting to and fro in search of water and good grazing.

Today, they were making patterns. Human patterns. Clear, recognizable shapes no cow should know anything about. It was, to Jane’s mind, odd.

She crested the final rise and brought the Jeep to a skidding stop. Sure enough, there they were. Three hundred head of Flying Guernsey, standing precisely in the outline of a giant cartoon heart.

One thing the GPS hadn’t been able to show her: they were glowing.

The setting sun made it hard to be sure at first, but as Jane strode forward with boots crunching on the dry summer grass, she noticed faint silver outlines on horns and hooves. The closer she got, the brighter they became.

This was more than odd, Jane decided — this was downright spooky.

When she moved a few steps closer, she spotted the cowboy.

He was tall and lanky and absurdly hatted, wearing a Stetson with enough silver sequins to embarrass even Autry. He leaned lazily against the boundary fence while Jane approached. As questions and curses elbowed each other aside behind her clenched teeth, he hooked one thumb beneath the brim of his hat and raised it to fully show his face.

Crap, the man was gorgeous.

Long nose, sea-blue eyes, just the right amount of stubble on a rugged chin. Lips that looked sweet enough when still, and even better when the corners turned up. “Evenin’, ma’am,” he drawled, all black velvet and whiskey. “I suppose these cows belong to you?”

“They sure do.” Jane kept her tone firm, though she couldn’t help letting her eyes wander along the sling of his hips and the long of his legs. The boots were silver, too, she noticed — almost like aluminum foil, but stiffer. “What the the hell have you done to my cattle?”

The cowboy glanced skyward, then pushed away from the fence. Suddenly the laziness was gone replaced by a steely sense of purpose. “Sorry to tell you, they’ll have to come with me.”

“Sure,” Jane snorted, since there was not a wheeled thing in sight besides her Jeep. “Are you planning to ride them all into the sunset?”

“Nah.” The cowboy smiled, and despite herself Jane’s mouth went dry. That smile was trouble, and she’d always had a weakness for trouble. “We got something a little more technical planned.” He put finger and thumb up to those lips — oh, those lips, Jane, stop staring — and let out a piercing whistle that carried a bit farther than Jane expected it would.

The sky lit up, bright as day but twice as cold. White light poured down onto the earth, giving every blade of grass a shadow like a bared knife.

Cows rose gently from the ground, bobbing like balloons, some of them lowing in irritation at being moved and others stretching their necks to keep lipping at the grass.

“Son of a bitch!” This couldn’t be happening. Jane had leveraged every last cent of credit she could squeeze out of the bank to buy this herd and put the Bar Sinister back in the black. Without these cows, she’d have nothing.

She’d worked too hard to have it all vanish now.

A callused hand clasped her shoulder, not ungently. “I’m afraid you’ll be coming along with us, ma’am,” said the cowboy. “Can’t leave any loose ends.”

Jane cursed a navy-blue streak all the way up from the ground.

~~~~~~~

The ship itself was round and silver and every surface was studded with rhinestones. “Light collectors,” Ed explained. (The cowboy’s name was Ed.) Everything sparkles on the moon.”

Jane floated by a porthole, fuming, as the great grey sphere drew nearer outside. Ed had gone to change — Jane had yakked all over those silver boots as soon as they reached zero-g. It wasn’t exactly her proudest moment, but then again it kind of was.

The door hissed open as Ed returned, boots freshly wiped and gleaming. “I brought you something to wear for when we land,” he said. “One of my sister’s spare outfits.” It was as silver and glittery as Ed’s clothes, but with considerably more puffiness around the shoulders.

Jane hurled the thing to the floor. Tried to, anyway. The suit rebounded off the tile in the low gravity and careened ceilingward. “Put me the fuck back down!” Jane demanded.

“Could do that,” Ed said, unflappable. Jane swore to herself she would flap him before this was through. “But the Men in Black would have to kill you to keep the secret safe.”

“What secret?” But just then the ship rounded the curve of the moon, and the question answered itself.

Below was a vast complex of domes, spheres, and spires — a sprawling, bubblous city that covered nearly half the moon’s surface. Slender antennae swiveled to track them, and eerie neon lights flashed in cryptic patterns.

“What,” said Ed, as Jane goggled. “You didn’t think we came all the way up here and then just turned back around?”

It took Jane a minute to catch her breath. God, but it was beautiful. “What is it for?”

“Mining, at first,” Ed said. Pride and, yes, love warmed the whiskey of his voice. “Helium-3, other minerals. But later science got a foothold. Some things are easier here than waybelow: nanotech, diamond synthesis, artificial intelligence. Some of it’s been up here since Grissom. My grandmother came up around then.”

“So you’re…”

Ed tipped his hat. “A space cowboy, born and raised.”

Jane rested one hand on the window, glass cool against her palm. Chilled by the vacuum of space just outside. “What on earth does a city like this need with my cows?”

“What else? We eat ’em. Moon-raised beef’s not the same, trust me. Of course, I’ve got something a little different planned for this herd. You’ll see.” Klaxons began to sound, and Ed waved at the suit that was still bobbing cheerily around the cabin. “Gotta bring us in, but soon as you’re outfitted I’ll give you the ten-cent tour. Considering you’re a resident now.” He nodded, and something sheepish softened his features. “Welcome home.”

~~~~~~~

Jane had only known about Artemis for an hour now, but that was plenty long enough to have developed certain expectations. The city had looked so dazzling at a distance, but up close the flaws queued up to introduce themselves. “You said your family’d been up here since the 70’s,” Jane snapped. “I didn’t think you meant the 1870s.”

“It’s rotten, I know,” Ed said, all apologies. “Dad’s a little old-fashioned.”

Old-fashioned didn’t quite cover it: they were standing in the middle of what looked like an old movie set from a spaghetti Western, with swinging hinged doors, wooden beams, and honest-to-God ropes hanging from hooks on the walls. Mint-green grass grew hopeless and humble on a layer of washed-out topsoil. Above them, in unsettling contrast to the decor, was a glass dome ringed with solar panels. The lower panes of glass were half-blocked with the soft grey lunar dust Jane had already learned to loathe. She wrinkled her nose against the taste of that dust in the back of her mouth. They’d better have whiskey here, or she would damn walk back to Earth. “Ed, honey, this is just not going to be enough space for three hundred head of Flying Guernsey. They’re a nervous breed if you pen them up — they need room to roam.”

“They’re going to get it,” Ed said. He’d gone all steely again. Determination suited him, and Jane’s heart kicked up in spite of her irritation. She let herself enjoy the view as he strode to a broad pair of doors in the dome’s wall and flung them open. The room beyond had the too-full, harried air of all storage sheds, but from out of the piles of spare parts and equipment Ed rolled a giant hollow sphere of iridescent plastic, taller than he was. “I mentioned the nanotech?” he said, grinning at Jane’s confusion. “A friend of mine’s been working on something for me. It’s going to be a game-changer.” He tapped his fingers on the side of the sphere, and grass sprang up along the lowest curve of the sphere. Ed put a hand on the side of the sphere and pushed — instead of rolling up the side, the grass slid along to stay at the bottom as the sphere rolled over the dusty ground. Another tap of the fingers and a stream appeared, clear water making a flowing circle around the grass. “Space is at a premium up here, and of course we can’t get real grass to grow on the surface,” Ed said, beaming with pride like a miniature sun, “so I thought: what if the cows could take the grazing land with them when they moved?”

Jane squinted, skeptical. “So you put the cows … inside? Like a hamster ball?”

“Yep. It’s climate-controlled, UV-protected, and airtight. Waste gets broken down and recycled as fertilizer, or reconstituted into more grass. You can put one of those Guernsey of yours in here and set ’em loose for days on the lunar surface, no trouble. I’ve got five hundred of these all set — I was just waiting to snatch a herd that wasn’t being watched too closely. Finally, free-range beef for Artemis without the import markup and trouble of going waybelow.”

“Cow balls,” Jane said flatly. “You’ve invented cow balls.”

Ed laughed. “I guess I have, at that.”

Jane pinched the bridge of her nose. “Why are the pretty ones always so dumb?”

Ed’s face went still, and Jane had one moment to regret her thoughtless tongue. But then that smile appeared again, catching her breath. He stepped forward and rested a hand on the wall behind her, leaning in, all conspiracy. “You think I’m pretty?”

“Sure,” Jane said, not at all breathlessly, no matter how much her heart hammered. “And dumb.”

Ed leaned in one more inch, and Jane’s whole body tightened. That whiskey-velvet voice went even lower. “Maybe I just haven’t had the right teacher.”

Jane licked her lips, but then her defensive instincts kicked in. “Maybe kidnapping people isn’t a great way to convince them to trust you.”

Ed’s lean face sobered. “I’m sorry about that. And sorry I scared you.”

“Scared me? You pissed me off, is what you did. Maybe I’ll be scared when I have the time.” When this was over. Except it would never be over. She would never go home again. Never see the sun set behind the mountains, or smell the salt breeze coming off the ocean. No more oceans, ever.

Fingers brushed her chin, tilting her head up. Ed’s blue eyes peered down into hers. “Look, damn the Men in Black,” he said softly. “If you want to go home, I’ll take you back right now. Cows and all.”

It was sweet, but it was too late. “I’d have to spend the rest of my life on the run, wouldn’t I?” Ed nodded, his eyes still on hers. Jane shook her head. “I’m not the running kind.”

“You sure aren’t.” He bent, and his lips touched hers and were gone again before she even realized what he was about. He put some distance between them and stuck out a hand. God, Jane realized, with a silent laugh — he was blushing. It was adorable. “Partners?” he offered.

“Partners.” Admittedly, the moon wasn’t where she’d meant to end up as a rancher, but Jane had never been one to let the details get in the way of her dreams. She grasped Ed’s hand, callus to callus. Sparks flew up her whole arm.

Ed, bless him, went stiff and steely again. “There’s only one more person you have to convince: my father, Edward Goodnight III.”

~~~~~~

Ned Goodnight’s only concession to appropriate lunar attire was the silver fabric of his suit. In every other respect he was the nearest thing Jane had ever seen to an Old West cattle baron — waistcoat and string tie, silver watch-chain, and a fussy calligraphy sweep of salt-and-pepper mustache. He’d been running the Mare Desiderii Beef Company the exact same way for thirty years, and from the stubborn gleam in his eye he looked forward to running it for another thirty. “I thought we put this cow ball nonsense to rest two months ago,” he said, chewing on the silver end of an electronic cigar. Beside him, his second wife Corinne took notes on a transparent clipboard, her brown skin looking smooth as velvet next to the shiny silver of her moon suit. Hers was a jumpsuit, impeccably tailored, and Jane was already planning to ask where she could get one of her own.

“It’s the best option we have, if we want to save the company.” Ed looked so much more boyish without his hat, his chestnut hair mussed and sticking out at all angles. His eyes had the same stubborn gleam as his daddy’s, though. “Face it, the MDC is a sinking ship. Profits are lower than they’ve ever been, and we can’t turn things around unless we start making changes. Big ones. Bringing in new ideas, new blood.” His eyes flicked briefly to Jane, then away.

“New ideas,” Ned scoffed. “You know how many new ideas I’ve seen in my time? They come and go, and you could lose a whole lifetime chasing after them, but let me tell you what never changes: people have to eat.”

“Sure,” Ed shot back, “but they haven’t been eating beef. The new GMO labs are producing plenty of tasty proteins at half the cost of imported steak.”

“Supply has also been an issue,” Corinne added. Her black hair was pulled back into a demure ponytail, and her ankles were crossed and tucked beneath her chair in the most ladylike way, but there was something confident in her voice that had Jane sitting up and paying better attention. Here was the power behind the throne. “Waybelow advancements in surveillance have made it more difficult to acquire the necessary numbers of raw product. It’s not going to get any better, either.”

“It’ll come back around,” Ned insisted. “Business is a cycle, you have to ride it out.”

“Excuse me,” Jane broke in, “but does this mean you brought my herd all the way up here just to slaughter them?”

Ned turned to face her, hands tucked into the blue sash wrapped around his silver suit. “I suppose you have a better idea?”

“Sure do,” she said at once. “You moon folks know anything about running a dairy farm?”

“Dairy?” Ed looked confused, then intrigued. “Nobody’s ever had a chance to try it in Artemis. We never had the pastureland to support a dairy herd. We get the dehydrated stuff from ISS transfers: powdered milk, crunchy cheese, astronaut ice cream.”

“Your cow balls mean we’ve got the pastureland now, don’t they?” Jane said.

“That’s right.” Ed drummed his fingers on the boardroom table, his enthusiasm building. “I’ve had the real stuff waybelow. Ice cream, pepper jack, sour cream. People up here would love it. They’d pay anything.”

“Don’t forget butter,” Jane added.

Corinne paused her note-taking. “Butter?” Her gaze drifted into the distance. “I had that once.” She smiled faintly, pen poised in the air. “It was the most delicious thing I’ve ever tasted.”

Jane leaned forward, her eyes on Corinne. “Those GMO proteins the competitors’ labs are making? They’ll taste even better fried in butter, I guarantee it. Why fight the competition when you can force them to collaborate, and corner a unique share of the market?”

“I can have projections made within the hour,” Corinne said, pen flying.

“This is all well and good,” Ned huffed, “but I’m the CEO here and what I say goes.”

“Not quite,” Jane said. She slapped both hands down on the table. “That herd belongs to me, even if we’re nowhere near my ranch. And I’m not handing them over just to be killed for a batch of steaks nobody’s even going to buy. So either we turn your pastureland into a proper dairy barn — no more of this frontier crap — or I’m taking all three hundred cattle and going back waybelow.”

“The Men in Black will find you within days,” Ned growled.

“And what good will that do you, all the way up here?” Jane pushed back. “You’ll be left with nothing and no hopes for the future. Bankruptcy on Earth is a vicious process, and I’m sure it’s no different in Artemis. Worse, I’d guess.”

From the angry spots in Goodnight’s cheeks, she’d guessed right. Ned chewed on his cigar, moved it away, chewed on his mustache, and put the cigar back in his mouth. Jane raised an eyebrow in challenge. Ed bided his time and bit his lip. Finally Ned’s eyes wandered to his wife, who was patiently waiting him out. “You think it’ll work, Corinne?”

“I think it’s the best idea I’ve heard in decades,” she replied.

The transformation in Ned was instantaneous. “Right,” he said, and shoved himself to his feet. Cigar vapor trailed him as he began pacing the office. “I’ll need a list of materials — technical specs, cattle feed, production specifics, you can give me all that, right?”

“Right,” Jane said.

“Do it. Meanwhile we’ll work on converting the slaughterhouse to a dairy barn, and you two’ll get those cows in balls and make sure they’re ready to go as soon as we are.” He stopped and waved at his son. “Ed can show you the city, find you some accommodations within the family compound. Easiest if you stay close — we’re going to be going at it 24/7 for the foreseeable future.”

Jane glanced out the window as Ned continued, Corinne easily keeping up with the list. Artemis spread out beneath her, glittery as a gem. A prize waiting to be seized.

“You hungry?” Ed said, and she glanced back to see he was looking nervous and adorable again. “Artemis food’s a bit different than what you’re used to. My fridge is stocked up right now — I could take you back to my place, show you what moon cooking is like. If you’re interested.”

“Oh, I’m interested.” She’d let her tone turn suggestive, making Ed blushed again. Jane wondered just how far down that blush went, and if he’d let her find out tonight or if he’d make her wait. Jane grinned — this was going to be fun. “Show me what you got, cowboy.”

THE END

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