Gas Giant Gambit: A Tale from Across the Cygnus Rift

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10: The Santa Barbara Social Club

Gus looked back up the street. No sign of anyone. Panic was beginning to set in. She stuck her whole head inside the old washing machine, looking for any sign of who might have come across her stash.

It wasn’t empty. Not quite.

Sitting at the bottom of the washer’s drum, hidden behind a bit of debris, was a worn-out old rosary. Brother Richard. This was bad. If Ray found out she had brought contraband into town - and intended to sell it - he’d have no choice but to lock her up in one of his holding cells. Exactly the sort of trouble Laszlo had warned them not to get into. She cursed Tuco’s timing. If only he had shown up after she’d sold her stash in Genie-town…

No use worrying about that now. Doing her best to keep her panicked haste hidden from the few townsfolk milling about, Gus raced back to Santa Barbara. Brother Richard was sweeping the chapel steps and waiting for her. “Ah! Miss Gus- excuse me, I see that it is officially Deputy Gus! My congratulations!” he flashed a smile that turned the young, boyish monk, into a charming and handsome man.

“Where is it?”

The young monk’s smile never faltered. Instead, he just nodded. “It’s inside, along with a few who might be able to use what you have to offer. If you’ll just follow me.” He descended the steps and led her around to a small, side-door and the basement beneath the old chapel. This was too good to be true. He not only wanted to give it back, he’d gathered all her buyers in one place. She readied herself as he took her down the steps into the basement.

It could be a trap.

But to what end? The only way to find out was to spring it. Her pink-dusted glove found Delilah on her hip, and she followed Brother Richard’s voice down. “This chapel was actually originally built in New Mexico in 1852,” he said and ran his hand along the cold rock wall. “My predecessor had it was moved here, stone for stone, when the town was constructed. These walls have seen much strife over the centuries, but Santa Barbara has always protected those within her embrace.”

What Gus found in the church basement was no trap. The walls were bare, with the outpost’s utility lines, life support systems, and other various high-tech baubles and blinking lights exposed. The far wall was hidden by a tall rack, heavy with bottles of sacramental wine. The center of the room was laid out like so many others across the Arm; rows of folding tables and chairs, a digital BINGO wheel collecting dust in the corner, and a handful of derelict human beings, robs, and genies. Her contraband lunchbox sat on one of the tables, still locked.

“What’s this?” Gus asked Richard. The bespectacled medic, Daniel Park, was kneeling in front of a coughing young woman at a table in the corner. John Stonewall stood over them with a concerned look on his broad face. A few people were sleeping in heaps along the wall. More sat in a tight circle, murmuring quietly to each other. She recognized a few from the Vega kitchen; Silas Mwangi, a small-hold rancher like the Vegas themselves, was there, along with a woman Gus took to be his wife, and three young children. Gus was surprised to also see Gretchen there. The hulking mining-rob seemed to have no trouble moving about the outpost without being seen. An impressive feat, even with Las Ráfagas’s population so depleted.

“This is where we do our best to care for the people Laszlo Leconte runs over on his quest to own and control every inch of land and sky in or around Las Ráfagas.” Brother Richard gestured to the unremarkable room. A look of sorrow had replaced the handsome smile.

“What happened to Mwangi? Why’s he here?” Gus asked and nodded to Silas. The rancher only watched as she and Richard passed, expressionless.

“The Mwangi homestead’s anti-grav foundation went critical early this morning. The entire thing fell into the lower atmosphere. They lost everything. The homestead, the crops, the cattle. Everything. The family was lucky to escape with their lives.”

Gus didn’t have to ask what caused the malfunction: more sabotage. She felt for the family, but a nagging feeling started in the back of her mind, and by the time they had crossed the room to the table on which her lunchbox sat she had to address it. “Brother, if they lost everything, they can’t pay. I’m sorry about what happened, but I’m not a charity,” she spoke softly and glanced around at the pitiful souls littering the church basement. “I told you that before. I can’t help you without the spoons. It’s not that I don’t want to help, but contraband smuggling is a difficult and expensive thing.”

Richard met her eye with a look that was somehow disappointed, sympathetic, and disgusted all at once. “Don’t worry Gus, you’ll be paid.”

“Forgive me, Brother, but I’d like to see the spoon before I start handing out any goodies.”

Richard cocked his head. “Life has made you cynical and untrusting. I am sorry that has happened to you. I supposed it’s all too common now. Very well.” From his robes he pulled a credit spoon. When he pressed his thumb to it a small display winked to life, showing the spoon’s balance. “Will that be enough?” the monk asked.

Gus shook her head in surprise. “How did you get your hands on that much?”

Richard smiled. “Folk are generous in good times, and like the proverbial squirrel, I hid away a little peanut for bad weather. Unfortunately, it’s everything I have left.”

“That’s some peanut. It should do, Brother. But there’s just one last thing.” She nodded towards the corner where Daniel was seeing to the ill woman. “Your friend Stonewall over there just sicced the company bulls on Oscar Vega for the high crime of selling food to the natives. You sure it’s a good idea to have him here?”

“The woman? It’s his daughter. She has cancer. Laszlo promises he’ll get us better medical facilities, then hordes the best technology for himself. I heard about what happened this afternoon. John can be… impulsive… But he’s mostly harmless.”

“You’ll vouch for him, then? ’Cause I’m going out on a limb here. If word gets back to Ray, or Leconte…”

“I swear it on my life,” he said and formed the sign of the cross in the air between them.

Gus eyed Richard. She liked him, but could she trust him? She thought so, but trusting Stonewall was a much harder pill to swallow after this afternoon’s performance. It was a risk. But when was she going to get another opportunity like this to offload her goodies? “Good enough for me,” Gus finally said, and laid her hand on the box of contraband. A sensor inside the lid responded to her biometric signature, and it swung open. “What do you need?”

#

The needs of the poor folk in Santa Barbara’s basement were simple. A little high-quality, non-cloned fruit could do a lot to repair not only one’s health, but their state of mind as well.

The toughest customers had been Gretchen and Daniel. Gretchen had snuck out of the miners’ barracks to buy on their behalf and had a wish list as long as Gus’s arm. “Geez Gretchen, what do you think I got in here? It’s a cooler, not a pocket universe. What are the ‘must-haves’ on your list? Maybe I’ve got a few things.”

“Okay,” Gretchen sighed, “it’s just been so long since we’ve gotten any supplies in from anywhere but the mercantile. You know I love Walter, but he can only sell what Leconte approves and has imported.” It was weird to see such a large rob slump her shoulders but slump them she did.

Gus could only chuckle to herself and pat the miner’s arm reassuringly. “The ‘must-haves?’”

“Right!” Gretchen held her list up to her four small eyes. “Let’s see. Okay, the doppel and genie miners need penicillin and aspirin. Anything with vitamin D if you’ve got it. They never set up the sol-simulators down there – like they promised – and the vita-D stores are running low.”

“Hold on now, I need those supplies,” Daniel cut in. “If any of the miners are having medical issues, they need to come to me for medications!”

Gretchen shifted her massive frame. “Park, you know damn well the mining levels have been on lockdown for weeks. We’ve got dozens of people basically held prisoner down there with nothing to do and nowhere to go.”

“But without the proper dosing knowledge, you’ll run through the supply too quickly!” Daniel protested. “We need to keep the supply centralized so it can benefit everyone!”

Gus left them to argue it out and drifted to a corner where Silas Mwangi and his family sat in a tight circle, quietly mourning the loss of their home. Gus knelt beside the young girls and gave Mrs. Mwangi a wink. “Have you ladies ever had real honey before?” she asked, keeping her hands hidden behind her back.

The girls gazed up at her, their big brown eyes shining. They had the same tight curls as their father. Mrs. Mwangi managed a small smile and answered for them, “They don’t even know what honey is. Even the fake stuff is too expensive this far from the Old Colonies.”

“Well then, you’re in for a treat,” Gus said and smiled. She revealed the small jar of golden jelly she held and handed it to Mrs. Mwangi. She glanced at her husband, who nodded, and she led the girls away to enjoy their treat.

“I can’t pay you for that,” Silas said. His voice was husky with loss.

“Call it a gift,” Gus said and sat down next to the former rancher.

“You don’t strike me as the type to give gifts.”

“Yeah, well, these are special circumstances.” They watched Mrs. Mwangi and the two girls giggle as they enjoyed the sweet treat at the next table. “What happened?”

Silas sighed and lowered his head into his hands but said nothing.

“Leconte?” Gus asked.

“We should have just done what you said. We should have taken the buyout and moved on. It wasn’t enough for us to settle in the Cygnus X colonies, but we could have made it to Carson Station. I’ve heard they’re in need of seasoned agros out there. But now…” he trailed off and refused to look at Gus.

Gus patted him in the back sympathetically and stood. “I hope the girls enjoy that honey.” Silas nodded his thanks but didn’t looked up at her.

Quietly, Gus returned to the still bickering medic and miner. “Have you guys got this figured out yet?” she asked. It was getting late, and she was itching to get back to the Marshal’s Office before Ray started wondering where she was.

“This isn’t everything you’ve got, is it?” Daniel asked and pushed his glasses up his nose.

Gus raised an eyebrow. “It’s all I’ve got that you can afford.”

Daniel shuffled on his feet nervously. “We’ve all seen your tobacco tin. What about, er, more mainstream plant-based pharmaceuticals? If you’ve got anything like that, I’d be willing to let Gretchen take the meds you’ve got here.”

“What? Like salves? I’m a smuggler, not an apothecary.”

“No, er, do you have any,” Daniel’s voice dropped to a whisper, “cannabis? I can make several medications from the flower extracts. Susan Stonewall could-”

“Daniel,” Gus said, cutting him off, “cannabis is strictly controlled by the UCET and can only be bought at licensed dispensaries. Do you have any idea what the penalty for selling without a license is? With how much they take in on taxes every year, the UCET takes the illicit cannabis trade very seriously,” Gus chided the medic.

Daniel shrugged and looked at his feet. “Oh. Well, it was worth a try-”

“Of course, I have cannabis, Doc. What I’m trying to say is it won’t be cheap,” Gus interrupted him again. “What the Brother is offering is enough for what I’ve got here. If you want anything more, it’s gonna cost extra.”

“Will you take a trade?” Daniel asked.

For a second time, Gus raised an eyebrow skeptically. “That depends. What did you have in mind?”

Daniel retreated to his medical bag and came back with something small wrapped in a rag. “Will this do?” he asked and pulled back the scrap of cotton.

Gus’s eyes widened. Daniel held a shock-resistant bottle the size of her fist. “Is that what I think it is?” she whispered, hesitant to even touch the black cylinder.

Daniel nodded. “Liquid nitroglycerin.”

Gus flipped the rag back over the bottle. “Why do you have this?” she hissed. “What could possibly have possessed you to keep this on a floating fuel depot?

“Calm down,” Daniel whispered back. He stole a glance around the room. “I’m licensed to both mix and store nitroglycerin. For medical purposes. I have a reinforced rom in the med-lab’s basement to prepare it safely.”

What medical purposes?”

“Mrs. Santiago took it for her heart,” he said very matter-of-factly. “So, I got certified to manufacture the medication myself. I made this batch the day before she died and never got the chance to stabilize it into pills. I figure you’ll get more use out of it than Mrs. Santiago now. So,” he offered the rag covered bottle, “will you trade cannabis for this?”

Gus thought hard. Nitroglycerin was hard to come by, even in the Old Colonies. Its use as a medication had fallen out of fashion with the rise of genetic medicine. Liquid nitro was dangerous under any circumstances, and more stable compounds were preferred in the unpredictable environment of deep space. That said, it still had its uses, and this amount was more than fair trade for the few ounces of cannabis she had stashed away in Tilly’s hold.

But was it worth the risk? Gus had little experience handling it, and on the one occasion she had, the job had gone sideways, fast. She wasn’t sure she wanted that kind of potential catastrophe casually sitting on one of Tilly’s shelves.

Still, she thought, could have some serious fun with this much. And the shock-absorbing bottle Daniel had stored it in made it as safe as it could be.

“Why don’t we leave it up to chance?” Gus said and pulled her lucky coin from a pocket.

“But-” Daniel started to protest, but it was too late. With a practiced flick of her thumb, the coin flew into the air, tumbling end over end.

“Heads, I take the nitro. Tails, we end our business right now.” With one hand she hitched up he gun belt, and with the other she caught the coin in mid-flip. She opened her hand to reveal the ancient profile of some ruler. “You’ve got yourself a deal, Doc.” She took the bottle gently and shook the medic’s hand. “But you’ll have to come with me back to the engineering corral to collect your… goods.

#

Twenty minutes later, the shock-resistant bottle of nitro was sitting in Tilly’s carefully hidden contraband hold, and Daniel was walking out of the engineering corral and into the warm Las Ráfagas evening with six ouches of medical grade cannabis in a hermetically sealed jar hidden in a messenger bag under his arm.

Gus had her eye out for the elderly engineer when a familiar face walked through the door Daniel had just left through: Moe the rob farmhand. He was headed for the engineer’s office and carried Oscar’s prosthetic leg in his arms. “Hey! Moe!” she called. He waved and crossed the bay to her in long, even strides.

“Hello, Gus!” A broad smile hid his eyes in an avalanche of wrinkles. “I never got a chance to thank you and the marshal for stepping in this morning. I didn’t know what to do.”

Gus smirked. “I’m sure you would have thought of something, big guy. What’re you doing now? Didn’t Ray tell you to get Oscar back home?”

“Don’t worry, the boss’s gone back to El Dorado. The missus will come back for me tonight once I’ve finished my errands,” he said and held up the still-jerking robotic prosthetic.

“I’ll join you. I was hoping to catch Emmitt to get an update on Tilly’s repairs.” But the pair only got a few steps before the gauze tied around Gus’s boot tore and the sole flopped loose again. “Tunk. Just give me a minute here.” She bent and tried to fashion a new lashing from the torn pieces of scrap.

“Oh! How could I have missed that!” the rob cried apologetically, “I can fix that up for you in no time. Take off your boot.” He pointed her to a cargo crate. As she sat and handed over her damaged footwear, an odd, sinking feeling grew in the pit of Gus’s stomach. She was suddenly reminded that she didn’t know that much about Moe. Only that he wasn’t built to be a farmhand. His delicately crafted fingers were designed for finer work. Not lassoing greenbottles.

Moe held the boot up to his eye and examined where the sole had come apart. His free hand suddenly folded back on itself and a simple cobbler’s shoe stand unfolded from his forearm to take its place. He placed the boot over his shoe stand-hand and dispensed a strong-smelling glue from his index finger onto the exposed sole. With a vice-like grip, he pinched the boot’s sole and toe back together. Gus could only stare. After a moment he held the boot up again and regarded it with the eye of an expert craftsman. “There!” he exclaimed. “That should hold for at least a few more years.” He handed the boot back to her with that same broad smile on his face, clearly proud to once again do what he was designed to do.

“Tunk, Moe,” Gus shook her head as she put the boot back on. “I really wish you hadn’t done that.”

“What?” his smile faltered, ever so slightly.

A cry rang out from across the corral. “Sonovabitch!

It was Tuco.

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