11: The Rob from Serenoa
Tuco drew his old Cepheid 2248 and crossed the corral floor with surprising speed for a man of his years, health, and stature. He was wearing his old, black duster, but now it had a shiny new Leconte Atmo-Mining Solutions Company Police badge pinned to the lapel. Before Gus could fully react, Tuco was on Moe, had his gun pointed at the lanky rob’s head, and was screaming orders. “Get on your knees! Now, you dirty, murdering rob!”
Sign of panic blossomed on Moe’s face. He raised his hands and started backing away, repeating, “No! No, no, no!”
“Tuco!” Gus roared. She drew Delilah and pointed it at her partner.
“What are you doing, hermana? I saw what just happened!” he screamed at her. “He’s the rutting bounty-head! Take that piece offa me and give me a hand!”
Gus didn’t move. “Aye, he’s a cobbler-rob. No doubting that. But there’re hundreds, maybe thousands, o’ rightfully free cobbler-robs on the Arm. You’re always so damned impulsive,” she spat. “We don’t know if he’s the right one. The bounty’s for a cobbler-rob that’s been lo-bot hacked.”
Tuco tried to grab Moe by the shoulder, but the farmhand gracefully caught Tuco’s wrist with his long fingers.
And snapped it with a flick of his own wrist.
“No! No! No!” Moe had completely given into the panic and turned to run with a look of utter terror on his digital features.
Tuco howled in pain and raised his gun to shoot the fleeing rob in the back. Gus dove at the fat bounty hunter and slammed into him as he pulled the trigger. “What the tunk is wrong with you, you crazy bitch!” Tuco screamed into her face as they hit the floor and fought for the gun. His aim went wild, turning a sure kill shot to Moe’s central power supply into a crippling graze that took out the hydraulics in one of his calves. The runaway rob went sprawling, and the dusty old bowler he was always adjusting tumbled from his head and rolled away.
“No!” Moe cried and tried to cover is head with his long hands. But there was no hiding it. The back of his head had been cut off and a mess of wires, tubes, and circuit boards stuck out from the rough hole the hat had concealed.
“There!” Tuco shouted. His voice was equal parts agony and triumph as he nursed his broken wrist and pointed at the modifications to Moe’s brain. “You see! The pendejo got his hack reversed! Now put that thing away and help me.”
But Gus kept Delilah pointed at Tuco’s head. Her heart and mind raced. Tunk, she screamed internally, why didn’t I see this coming? I’m slipping! She had to handle this just right. Gus had come to like the rob farmhand, and though she was now stuck bringing him back for the bounty, she didn’t want any harm to come to him under her care.
That was it. He had to stay under her care. Who knows what would happen to him if she let Tuco take him back to the Company Police lockup on the mining levels, and the care of Aaron and Junior? That left her with only one choice.
“The engineering corral is under the jurisdiction of the Marshal’s Office,” she spoke calmly and evenly, and kept Delilah steady.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Tuco’s face turned red with anger.
“It means I’ll take him to the marshal’s lockup. I want him where I can keep an eye on him. I don’t trust the Lecontes, and I don’t trust you. Holster that beam-shooter and ease off.” she wagged Delilah’s barrel at him.
He held his hands up and backed away from Moe, who was still feebly trying to crawl away. “Okay, hermana. Have it your way. I don’t really trust these pendejos either. Something extraño is going on around here.”
“I’m so glad you noticed. Stay there.” She put herself between Tuco and Moe and took the Company Police issue irons from the sweaty bounty-hunter. “I’m sorry about this, Moe,” she said, and grabbed him under the arm. She helped him sit up and slapped the irons over his wrists. “Just stay calm and do as I tell you, and we can all get out of this with our heads intact.” She glanced at the exposed rat’s nest of wires sticking out of the back of Moe’s head and immediately regretted her choice of words. “So to speak,” she said. She shrugged, and reholstered Delilah.
But Moe was too busy weeping to hear her. “I’m so sorry,” he said quietly to no one in particular. “I never wanted to hurt anyone. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
“You okay, Moe?” Gus asked, her concern momentarily overriding her thinking. But Moe only went on apologizing and absentmindedly trying to adjust the hat which no longer sat on his head. She put his bowler cap back on, hiding the hardware fix. She cursed herself. We fried his circuits. Gus turned her attention back to Tuco, who was watching the weeping rob suspiciously. “You get back down to the mining levels before you’re missed. And keep your rutting mouth shut about this, alright? I don’t want Leconte getting wind of this just yet.”
Tuco gave her a cold look. “What am I supposed to tell them about this?” He held up his broken wrist. It was already swelling considerably and turning a dark shade of purple.
Gus winced just looking at it. “I don’t know. Make something up. Tell ’em you got a little overexcited with yourself, I don’t care.”
“You smart-mouthed bitch.” Tuco smiled. “You wouldn’t be trying to pull one over on ol’ Tuco now, would you?”
In a flash she had redrawn Delilah and had the big gun pointed at Tuco’s head once more. “Out of all the jobs we’ve pulled together, which one of use has tried to ‘pull one over’ on the other, time and time again?”
Tuco smirked. “Alright, hermana, all I meant was it’s your turn.” He held his hands up and the smirk broadened into a smile. “But if you say I can trust you, then I trust you! You sure you can handle him all by yourself?”
Gus’s patience with her partner was growing thin. “Tuco, I swear to whatever god you pray to, if you don’t find a hole to crawl into, I will end you myself.”
“Bueno, bueno.” He slowly backed away, that stupid smile still plastered all over his face.
The walk back to the Marshal’s Office was short and easy. Moe was so distraught he simply went where Gus led him, straight into the same cell his boss had occupied just a few hours before. Thankfully, by the time Gus closed the barred cell door behind, her Moe had stopped his incessant apologizing. Instead, he now refused to speak at all, and only held his digital face in his silver hands.
Standing outside the cell, she couldn’t help but feel pity for the rob that had saved her life only a few days ago. “Moe, hey,” she started, not fully knowing just what she was going to say, “I’m sorry about all this. You know if it weren’t for Tuco-”
Finally, Moe spoke up to cut her off. “‘If it weren’t for Tuco,’ what?” He turned to face her, his usually kind eyes now angry and hot with tears. “You might have let me go? Bottle-farts. Ever since you got to Aeolus all you’ve been concerned with is getting paid and getting yourself as far from here as you could. I’m nothing but spoons in the bank to you. This was always what was going to happen, one way or the other. I knew it the moment I first saw you.” He turned his back to her. “I should have let you burn up.”
Sighing, Gus shook her head, found her place by the window, and lit a cigar.
A moment or two later, the heavy cellblock door was kicked open and Ray came bursting through. “What in tarnation is going on?” he bellowed. “Someone in town said they saw you dragging poor Moe in here in irons. I told them they had to be mistake. Then I come in to find this sorry picture!” His eyes settled on Gus. “You better have a damn fine explanation for this, girl.”
She took a deep drag and let the smoke hang in the air. “You want to tell him, Moe? Or should I?” Moe didn’t move. “Fine. Ray, meet the cobbler-rob bounty-head Tuco and I have been after. Turns out, Moe here murdered his owner in the Serenoa System and went on the run after his lo-bot hack procedure.”
“I did not murder him!” Moe yelled.
“Then what, Moe? What?” Gus yelled back at him, her own temper flaring. “’Cause you’re not exactly making this easy for me here. Someone in the CCO put a bounty on your head the instant you disappeared. It’s my job to bring you back. So, what? What happened?”
Moe’s shoulders slumped and he turned away from her once again. “What difference does it make?”
“Son,” Ray said quietly, “I haven’t known this young lady long, but from what I can tell, she’s got her head screwed on right – mostly,” he gave Gus a subtle, sideways look of endearment, “and I think ’er hearts in the right place. What happened?”
Moe sat down on the cot and held his hands in front of his face, regarding their intricate design as if for the first time. After a moment of reflection, he spoke. “I was commissioned in 2241. One of a dozen cobbler-robs. Designed to be master craftsmen, handcrafting and polishing custom footwear in our possessor’s storefront.
“Did you know that robs - free and owned - outnumber doppels in the Serenoa System? It’s true! For twelve years I worked in that storefront. Twelve years of failing to grasp the concept of freedom the free-robs spoke about. Twelve years before the quirks of the ol’ tetraquark,” he tapped his temple gently and smiled, “started to kick in. I was the first of my brothers to wake. And doomed them all because of it.” He hung his head and his shoulders rocked with a sob.
While Moe regained his composure, Ray poured himself a tall drink and Gus rolled herself another cigar. Moe’s sobbing slowed and he wiped snot that wasn’t there from a nose that wasn’t either. “One evening I made the mistake of simply asking the proprietor why we dozen were stored in a shed behind the store, while his human workers and customers had homes. I didn’t mean it as a criticism, only curiosity. That night the master had my motor-function subroutines shut down and my damage receptor sensitivity turned up to maximum.
“He spent the next three hours manually rewiring my core system and rooting around in my firmware, trying to find what went ‘wrong’ in my programming. Have you ever had someone dig around your mind with a soldering iron? To smell your own brains smoldering? It’s like being possessed – while burning at the stake.” He dropped his face into his hands and his shoulders quaked again at the memory. “When the bastard couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me, he left my IPU running without reinitializing my motion-function subroutines and set me up as a damn statue on his showroom floor.
“He made me watch as he had each one of my brothers lo-bot hacked before they could wake like I did. Then it was my turn. The hack needs a clear signal between the IPU and the chassis to work properly, so when he turned my motion subroutines on, I took my chance.”
“You killed him,” Gus said.
“I did what I had to do to escape,” Moe shot back. He had no tears for that particular memory.
“But you didn’t escape? Did you?” Gus asked and stepped up to Moe’s bars. “You killed him, and probably the poor sap technician there to administer the hack, am I right? And for what? You didn’t even get away, did you?”
“No,” Moe’s head fell in defeat. “I was found and returned to my owner’s family. They had the lo-bot hack administered. I don’t know much after that. I’m told some of the free-robs stole me away and had the hack reversed. I’ve no memory between the hack and waking up on this side of the Rift.”
“Christ’s blood, Maurice,” Ray said. He polished off his drink in one big gulp. “I had no idea.”
Gus snuffed out her cigar. “It’s a sad story, alright. In the UCET there’s no question that’s self-defense, but in the CCO…” she trailed off. “I’ve gotta bring you in.”
“Now, don’t be so hasty, girl.” Ray sat up in his chair. “The CCO’s got no claim out here.”
“You tell that to the fat bounty the family’s offering,” Gus fired back. “If it’s not me, someone else’ll be along soon enough.”
“I could run. Back the Old Colonies. Maybe the Mons Viridis System, or the Cygnus X colonies?” Moe pleaded.
Gus only sighed. “Moe, the bounty doesn’t come from the government of the CCO. It comes from the families of the men you killed. No matter how close or far from the war you are, or even who wins in the end, this isn’t going to go away. You can’t run from it forever.”
“But-” Moe was frantic now, his eyes darted from Ray to Gus, and back again, “Ray! Tell her I- I-” he stuttered.
Ray couldn’t look at him and instead kept his eyes focused on the empty glass in his hands. “She’s right, son,” he said. “The family has every right to post a bounty, and I can’t stop her from collecting. Word’s clearly gotten out that you’re here.” He glanced at Gus. “That means more trouble for Las Ráfagas the longer the bounty’s posted. I wish I could do more for ya, but my first duty is to the town.” Ray poured himself another tall drink and downed half of it in another great gulp.
“But,” Gus crossed the small room and stuck her hand through the bars, “if you stick with me, I give you my word I’ll do everything I can to help you.” Moe took a step back, and nervously readjusted his bowler. He glanced back and forth between Gus and Ray. “Moe,” Gus said, “I saw what you just did to Tuco on reflex. I can only begin to imagine what you could do to me on purpose.” She shook her extended hand. “I’m trusting you here. I’m asking you to do the same.”
“I doubt you’ll get a better deal, son,” Ray said quietly from his desk.
Slowly, hesitantly, Moe took her hand. Gus smiled reassuringly. Moe didn’t return it.
A chime from one of the tablets littering Ray’s desk broke the tense moment. Ray groaned and dug through his drawers looking for his reading glassed. “Hmm,” he said as he held the glasses to his nose and peered at the message, “looks like you’ve been summoned.”
“Summoned? By who?” But Gus knew the answer before she finished asking.
Laszlo Leconte. Of course.
The first thing Gus noticed, or rather, felt, when she stepped off the high-speed lift and into Laszlo Leconte’s private quarters housed high above the town in the Administrative Tower, was the Sol-simulating lamps. She took a deep breath and felt the warm, healthy light on her skin. No need for vitamin D supplements up here.
The rooms themselves were more or less what she had been expecting: gold everywhere, from the carpets to the drapes, velvet couches, and countless bits of useless fluffier. A massive picture window overlooked the town and the Aeolusian clouds beyond. “Have a seat!” Laszlo’s voice called from a room just off the sitting area the elevators gave access to. “I’ll be with you in a minute!”
But Gus, choosing instead to stand, leaned against a pedestal with the bust of a frighteningly beautiful woman with sharp, angular features. A small label identified her as Mackenzie Leconte, Laszlo’s daughter.
“Beautiful, isn’t she?” Laszlo said, surprising Gus.
“She is. What-” she started to reply but stopped when she saw him. It wasn’t easy to sneak up on her but when she turned to face him, she understood. He was naked, save for a pair of tight, white briefs and a towel thrown over one shoulder. At first, she nearly didn’t recognize him. This man was physically fit, with no trace of the paunch the suit he wore the night they met was tailored - but failed - to hide. More than that, he looked a few decades younger, with the folds of time ironed from his face. And yet, despite this radical physical change, the barest hint of a scar ran down the center of his chest. He’d had some kind of open-heart surgery. Gus suspected that another round or two in whatever technological marvel he had just stepped from , and even that faint scar would be gone.
He laughed and wiped some sort of clear jelly off the back of his blonde head. “Oh yes, it’s me.” He admired his own body. “Like what you see?” he asked and dropped her a predatory wink.
“I more partial to… softer features.” She rolled her eyes.
“One night with me would change your mind.” His smile was toothy and snake-like.
“I think my mind if fine where it is,” she replied. “How…?”
“Technology is a wonderful thing, isn’t it?” he said, turning in a circle. “The latest in anti-aging gene-therapy. You want to give it a spin? It’ll take years off that face; make you beautify and young again.”
Gus’s eyebrow twitched at the backhanded slight, but she ignored it. “Why am I here?”
Laszlo smiled. “Right, straight to business. I like that about you.” He stepped into an adjoining room and shouted to be heard. “I understand you actually apprehended the wayward rob you and your partner were after. My Congratulations!”
Rutting Tuco, Gus thought. Can’t that pendejo keep his mouth shut for a few hours?
“I must admit,” Laszlo continued, “I was surprised you would find them on my outpost – doubly so to discover that it was our dear Maurice all along!” Laszlo reemerged in a new suit, identical to the one had worn before, but fitted to his new body. “To think so many here trusted him with their children! And the Vegas, what must they be thinking.” His smile played at being sympathetic, but the emotion never touched his eyes.
“And why am I here?” Gus repeated.
Laszlo’s face fell. Finally, to business. Now when he spoke, his voice was low and stern. The voice of a man used to getting his way. “I want to buy out the bounty. I’ll give you the reward, plus ten percent.”
Gus’s eyes narrowed. “That’s very generous of you.”
Laszlo’s jovial smile returned. “Excellent! I’ll get some paperwork drawn up and-”
“I said it was generous. I didn’t say I accept.”
Laszlo’s face fell deadpan in an instant. “Don’t be a fool.” His voice was vaguely menacing. “When your contract with me is up you’ll be leaving Las Ráfagas with a full fuel cell and more spoons than you’ll know what to do with. Take this offer and you won’t have to waste any of it taking your catch all the way back to the CCO.”
“That’s very true,” Gus admitted. And it was enticing. “But what I want to know is: why? Why would you do this? It’s not like a man of your,” she paused and glanced around the room, “importance has the time to ferry him all the way there yourself.”
“No,” Laszlo agreed. He poured himself a glass of water and offered one to Gus. “But the group I am currently engaged in negotiations with does have the time. And quite frankly, offering them the prestige of this catch might just be the cherry on top this deal needs.”
While he spoke, Gus had pulled her lucky coin out and was flipping in over her knuckles. “I gotta admit, you’re right. It’s a long way back to Serenoa, and I can’t say I was looking forward to spending the return trip with Tuco. Still, a collar like this could go a long way for my career.” She held up the coin. “What do you saw we flip on it?” Before Laszlo could reply she tossed the coin high into the air. “Heads, he’s all yours. Tails… Well, you get the idea.”
The coin tumbled in the air, reflecting the golden lights. Gus took a step back and hitched up her gun belt as the coin fell to the carpeted floor.
“Tails.” She bent to pick up the coin. “Tough luck, Laz. Maybe next time.”
When she stood, he was towering over her. “You’re not seriously going to let a flip of a coin decide whether you make a smart business deal, are you? Don’t you think you should discuss this with your partner first?”
Instead of shying away, Gus leaned in close and glared into Laszlo’s sharp blue eyes. “You’re damn right I’m going to let the coin decide. It’s never steered me wrong yet. And as for Tuco, transport is my part of the job – he doesn’t get a say.” She turned on her heel and made for the elevator. “I’ll keep Ray’s nose out of your business, as agreed. But when this is all over, I’ll be taking Moe back to Serenoa for the bounty. You’ll have to find another cherry.”
Laszlo silently watched her step onto the lift and only offered a final, threatening word as the doors closed between them. “Aeolus is mine, little girl. As is everything in its clouds.”
By the time the elevator reached the esplanade, Gus was miserable. She’s found herself in many a tight spot in the past, but never had she been so wrapped up in a mess that was mostly her own doing. Why didn’t she just turn over the damn cobbler-rob?
’Cause Laszlo’s a bully. And sometimes bullies need to be taken down a notch or two.
But that was a bunch of bottle-farts, and she knew it. She never stuck her neck out like this. Especially with this kind of payday on the line. What am I doing? I’m even starting to talk like these damn gas breathers.
When the lift doors opened Tuco was standing behind them, grinning. Gus smiled back.
And then flattened his nose across his face with a left hook.