From the author: Gnat farming is difficult enough, what with isolation, drought and storms–let alone the predation of deadly “Whites”–but when the roof of Willy’s barn is sheared by high winds Freddy is called upon to pay his debt.
"Freddy, could you keep my gnat in your barn for a bit?" Willy asked. "The tide undercut my stable's foundations yesterday and it's collapsed."
"Willy, you know I can't do that." Freddy tightened a bolt on his aphid milker and watched Willy survey the windswept farmyard perched above the sea. Freddy was proud of his house, machine shed, aphid shelters and the massive, two-storied gnat barns with rows and rows of bins. The briar-grass prairies that fed Freddy's aphid grubs stretched, uninterrupted, to the apricot smudge of the horizon.
"Just for a few days, Freddy," Willy said. "There's a friend."
"My bins are all full as it is." Freddy checked the other bolts. "And you know my wife'd fuss about it no end."
"Martha." Willy said the name without inflection, but he leaned his gangly frame against the feed conveyor and squinted into the blustery sky with an air of reproof. "Is sherunning the farm, then?"
Freddy tossed an aphid hook into the bed of his pickup and wiped the grease from his hands. "She's right, Willy. We've got an extra male gnat until auction, as it is."
"It's just for a day or two, and you know my female will sleep during the day. No trouble. It'd mean a lot to me."
Freddy pushed the button on his remote and observed as the aphid strokers mimed milking a juvenile. Satisfied, he flipped the machine off and peered out at the restless waves foaming on the tide pools below the bluffs. "You need your own bins, Willy. You should have built your barn in the lee of the hill while your larvae were young."
"Shoulda, shoulda, shoulda." Willy touched the pad on his rain slicker and stepped up its water resistance. "You're free with advice, Freddy. But that does me no good now. You know I have no credit with the bank. I had to sell all my larvae, just to meet my payments."
"You can't keep coming to me for favors whenever something goes wrong."
Willy raised his brows. You owe me nothing, his look said. And everything.
Freddy sighed. "Where's your gnat now?"
"Tied to my dory with a rope."
"Is it a big one?"
Freddy powered down the milking machine and zipped up his oilskin against the chill wind. "Well, show her to me, then."
"You're a good friend, Freddy."
"I'm not saying I'll do it."
They walked down the bluff to the rocky beach where Willy's boat was drawn up on a spit of sand. Slate clouds rested on the ocean and salt gusts whipped up a fine spray.
Willy hauled the canvas from the stern. The gnat lay, all sticklike legs and proboscis, compound eyes and long abdomen, crumpled across the whole width of the boat, one lacy wing folded under the seat. Her waxy exoskeleton gleamed like ivory, etched with spidery hairs, pale and delicate.
Freddy's gut wrenched. "I thought she was a Dark."
Willy blinked at the insect. "She was. She was a Dark."
"Well, she's not now, is she?" Freddy took a step back and scanned the sky. Of course, there would be no wild gnats flying now. Sunset behind the clouds would not come for another couple of hours.
"By God!" Willy cried. "First the tide undercuts the piles bracing my barn, then Louise goes home to her mother. Now this."
"You've got to kill her," Freddy said. "Now, before she wakes. I'll get my axe."
"But she wasn't a white gnat," Willy protested. "Someone's taken my gnat." He looked up and down the beach. Back the way they had come, a rocky headland rose over the crashing waves, while in the opposite direction, a rickety wooden pier bobbed with the surge, deserted.
Freddy surveyed the cliffs behind them. "Not a soul's been here all afternoon, Willy. And it's five miles--of nothing--to the spaceport settlement." He walked around the stern of the dory and scrutinized the tattoo on the bony plate in front of the gnat's wing. "LC0042376."
Willy kicked the sand. "She's the one. Elsie."
"Then, this is your gnat," Freddy said. "No one took her."
"She was a Dark when I put her there this morning!"
"She's been bitten by a wild White, Willy. You've gone and let her fly at night with them."
Willy whirled to face him. "Well, I had no bin to put her in last night, then, did I Freddy?"
"Cut her to bits and throw her into the sea!"
"I can't!" Willy ran his bony fingers through the shock of lank hair that continually fell into his eyes. "Freddy, she's my last gnat. I sold the others before auction. But Elsie's a female. She's full of eggs."
Freddy shoved his hands deep in his overall pockets. "Your last gnat?"
"She's all I've got, Freddy. Once I've got eggs, I can get a loan for a new barn."
"And your aphids?"
"Sure, I have a few. A dozen, to feed her young."
"Willy, your farm used to be profitable--"
"Shut it!" Willy bent over, all elbows and knees, fingers clutching his hair.
"Well, now." Freddy stood over the dory, uncomfortable at Willy's anguish. He shuffled the pebbles, waiting for Willy to get control of himself.
But how could he? It was easy for Freddy to stand there, watching and helpless. His farm churned out four million gnat larvae a year for sale all over the galaxy, feeding them on the honeydew of fifty thousand aphids, five to seven prime females and at least two stud males every breeding cycle. He didn't have the problems Willy had.
Willy straightened, gazed out to sea, sniffing back his outburst. "She's just tired," he said huskily. "Her color'll come back. Just a few days, Freddy. 'Till she lays her eggs. Then I'll be on my feet again."
What could he say? Hadn't he told Willy to build his barn on the cliffs, not by the sea, where the footings could be undercut? Hadn't he told Willy to keep breeding his first mating pair instead of buying and selling gnats at market? Hadn't he told Willy that Louise was too young, too flighty to be a farm wife?
Willy turned and eyed him.
Freddy brushed at a wayward mist of salt water carried from the surf by the squall. "Willy . . ."
"Freddy, I'm a proud man," Willy said hastily. "I would never have come to you--"
"Willy, she's been bitten by a White."
"She's been bitten by a White. She's dangerous. I can't keep her after dark. She'll bite my males and suck the blood from them; she'll bite the females and turn them White. She'll even bite you, Willy, if she sees you after dark."
"She wouldn't. I've raised her from the egg."
"She's a gnat. There's no difference between Elsie and a Wild but a few dozen years of breeding." Freddy puffed out his frustration into the salt air. "Listen. You can stay with Martha and me until you get on your feet again. You can--"
Willy shoved the canvas over the back of the dory. "Never mind."
"A bin. Just a single bin, for a couple of days." He bent to the bow of the boat and pushed it toward the sea.
A flush of anger washed over Freddy. "If I let a White in my barn for even an hour past sundown, I'll have no farm left!"
Willy grunted with the effort of pushing the boat across the rocky beach. The waves lapped her stern.
Freddy recovered himself. "Now, don't be going off pig-headed."
A swell washed around the back of the boat and, returning, sucked at the dory.
"Look, dark's coming on. Leave the boat. Come and spend the night."
Willy gave a final push, wincing with the strain, and the boat lifted on the water.
"Willy, come back."
Willy sloshed through the waves and steadied the boat.
"You stubborn goat!" Freddy waded into the foam and pulled at Willy's rains slicker. "There isn't time to get back to your place before dark."
"Get off!" Willy shoved his elbow into Freddy's stomach and knocked him into the water, almost unbalancing himself.
Freddy took a mouthful of salt water with the next wave then dragged himself, spluttering, out of the surge. He staggered to shore as Willy hauled his long legs into the boat and adjusted the oars. The fool! "I'm calling the settlement sea patrol."
Willy glared at him and pulled on the oar to turn the boat into the surf. He pulled again, pulled again, and the dory made way toward the ocean. Before long, Willy was only a speck, bobbing on the waves.
Freddy trudged up the bluffs to his house. He took one last look at the sea and cloud, darkening to charcoal, before slipping into the warmth and light of his home.
The aroma of roasted meat filled the kitchen.
"Isn't Willy staying over, then?" Martha stood by the counter, cutting through the carapace of a tender young aphid grub. She looked up at Freddy. "Oh. I see you two have had a falling out."
Freddy patted her cheek then rang up the sea patrol.
They ate their dinner. With every gust of wind or creak of the wooden house, Freddy's eyes were drawn to the window, hoping to see Willy through the glass, but the grey day slipped toward night, and Willy did not return.
"I shouldn't have let him go." Freddy peeled the meat from the inside of the shell and dipped it in melted butter. Rain spattered on the window.
"You tried to get him to come," Martha said. "You called the sea patrol. You did what you could."
"I didn't give him a bin for his gnat."
Martha put down her fork. "How long are you going to let the man continue to bleed you?" she asked. "How long has it been since Willy killed that White for you? Fifteen years, Freddy."
"He saved my life. That White had her proboscis in my leg and she was sucking--"
"Sure, and since then you've lent him money, you've paid his gambling debts, you've given him aphid eggs--"
Freddy raised his hands to stop her words, but had none of his own to fill the space.
"You're a good man, Freddy. Too good." She rose and took his plate. "You did the right thing. It's all we can do to cling to this rock. Let Willy stand on his own two feet."
Freddy pressed his lips together and shook his head. He pushed away from the table and sat in the living room with a newspaper on his knee. The panes of glass in the window turned black and reflected the lamplight.
Martha finished the dishes and stood in the doorway. "Come to bed, Freddy. He'll not be coming now. If he stays out after dark, the Whites will swarm him."
"Just another minute." Freddy adjusted his newspaper as though he had been reading it. Rain rapped on the windows.
"Turn out the light," she said. "It just attracts the gnats."
As if to prove her point, a slap sounded against the wall and a white wing flashed momentarily outside the window.
"Freddy." Martha's face paled. "Turn out the light. You know I don't like them."
He switched off the lamp. "You go on up. I'll be there in a bit."
She tugged on his arm. "The Whites are out," she whispered. "It's too late. Come up."
Reluctantly, he followed her up the stairs, but he couldn't sleep. He lay under the covers listening to the rain and wind beat against the house, playing out possibilities in his head. Had the sea patrol reached Willy on time? Would he pass the rocks at the headland so the surf didn't hurl him on the cliffs or sweep him out to sea? Would the Whites find him, tossing in the waves? Freddy dozed off and woke a handful of times, dream and imagining melding together with the roar of the storm.
Freddy woke to someone shaking him. Martha. "Freddy!" she whispered. "Freddy, wake up! What's that sound at the door?"
The room was still pitchy black and the rain struck the windows in sheets. But, yes, there above the storm he heard the sound of pounding. And, was that a voice, or just the wind calling out?
"It's Willy," he said. "He's come back."
She gripped his arm. "It can't be Willy. It's hours since he's gone."
The pounding came again.
"There, that's him," Freddy said. "He's calling." He flung the quilt back.
"No!" Martha cried. "Don't go down! Stay with me!"
"It isn't! Don't open the door!"
Freddy flipped on the light. Immediately, something hit the bedroom window. A gnat.
"Turn it out!"
"It's a swarm," he said. He turned out the light, but in his mind he saw Willy at the door, the swarm gathering.
Slap, and slap again. Wings hit the windows, glinting momentarily, pale against the black of night.
The pounding came again, followed by a scream of anguish.
Freddy bounded down the stairs and turned on the porch light.
"Don't!" Martha called from the bedroom, her footsteps scurrying behind him. "Don't open the door!"
He reached for the knob, but Martha wrapped her arms around his waist and pulled him back.
Above the beat of the rain, there was a sudden cry and the pounding ended abruptly. Something scraped across the gravel.
"It isn't! It's a White!" Martha pulled with all her strength and he tripped backward onto her. She wriggled out from beneath him and struggled to hold him down. Tears streamed down her face. "Please, please, please--"
Sheets of rain slammed against the house.
Freddy disentangled himself and pulled the aphid hook from its place by the coat pegs. He flung the door open and plunged into the drenching night. He could make out nothing but wildly waving grasses and obscuring rain. He ran down the path.
There, in the gravel, a White hunched over Willy's long form, face down in the muck. Her compound eyes glittered in the light from the house. Her wings were folded and her body braced against the gale, but she gripped his legs with three of her claws. Her proboscis pierced his rain slicker.
With a shout, Freddy leapt forward. In one motion, he stepped on her mouth parts, locking them in place, and buttressing himself against the base of her wing, jammed the aphid hook through her eye into the soft place beneath, where her small brain resided. Still, she struggled to free her mouthparts, to open her wings and fly. Scrambling her brain didn't stop her; she braced her forelegs and clawed at him with a hind leg.
Freddy pulled the aphid hook out of her eye and stabbed at the joint between her head and thorax, repeatedly, trying to sever her body. He leaned on her bony hump to crush her down, to use the leverage to snap her head, and to keep her rear claws from raking his legs.
The carapace cracked and thick fluids gushed over his knees. The gnat crumpled, twitching in the gravel, her wings fluttering in the wind.
Panting, Freddy dislodged the proboscis from Willy's ribs. One of Willy's legs was amputated below the knee and blood pumped from the wound.
A clicking above the gale drew his gaze to the sky. Another White flicked overhead, battling the storm to land. A second gnat crawled toward him from the direction of the barn.
Freddy clasped his hands under Willy's armpits and heaved. Willy's long limbs dragged over the gravel as Freddy inched him up the path to the house.
A third gnat landed by the machine shed.
Adrenaline gave Freddy a burst of strength, and he pulled Willy's body to the door. He beat on the window. "Martha!" he called.
He shoved on the door but it held tight. No light shone through the window. "Martha!"
A fourth gnat appeared out of the gloom, creeping over Elsie's carcass.
The door gave, suddenly, and he tumbled inside, pulling Willy over the threshold. Martha kicked Willy's feet from the sill and slammed the door in the path of the attacking White.
Freddy lay back and panted in a puddle of rain and gnat guts and blood, Willy limp across his legs and Martha sobbing across his chest. By God. By God, they were alive.
Freddy paid Willy's hospital bills. He paid for Willy's prosthesis after his leg was amputated. He milked Willy's aphids and built him two sturdy gnat bins. He gave Willy a dead goat injected with gnat eggs and bought him a combination diagnostic and fungicide treatment computer for his aphids. He puttered around Willy's farm, mending a fence, tidying drawers of nuts and screws.
"I suppose you think this makes us square," Willy said when Freddy finally came to the hospital.
"No, Willy." Freddy said.
Willy coughed and held his ribs, frowning through the window at the desolate plain. His dinner lay on a table, untouched.
Freddy shook his head. "We'll never be square."
"Darned right!" Willy growled. "Me and my crippled leg. How am I supposed to milk the aphids now? I don't have a machine, like you."
"We'll never be square." Freddy's voice was hoarse and low and he held his lips tight. "But I've done all I'm going to do. Good-bye, Willy."
"No. I'm gone." Freddy slipped from the room.
"A curse on you!" Willy cried out.
Freddy stopped in the corridor, arrested by the words. He stared at the blank wall. He would not to go back.
A nurse rattled a cart down the hall, and some poor soul in another room moaned.
The wind beat at the window and the machines and hospital caregivers nursed their charges. No further sound came from Willy's room. Freddy stood back where Willy couldn't notice, and peered through the door. Goodbye, Willy. Pallid sunlight grayed the plastic floor and synthetic blankets. Willy had pulled his table closer and hunched over it, sucking his dinner through a straw.
This story originally appeared in Asimov's.