Gas Giant Gambit: A Tale from Across the Cygnus Rift

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12: The Ballad of Emmitt Smith

Tuco fell back and brought his hands to the river of blood freely flowing from his nose. There was no sign of the swelling or bruising on the wrist Moe had broken. In fact, it looked good as new.

“I guess that means you didn’t take the deal?” Tuco’s voice was nasally and muffled.

“You stupid, sorry, son of a bitch,” Gus said, standing over Tuco. “Did you tell one of those idiot brothers about Moe as soon as you got back, or did you wait until they were together so you wouldn’t have to repeat yourself?”

“Be reasonable, hermana-” Tuco began to protest, but he shut his mouth when Gus drew Delilah and held the big gun at her side.

“Do you remember what happened the last time you told me to ‘be reasonable,’ Tuco?”

His eyes widened. “Si,” he said, but even so, he couldn’t keep his mouth from running. “But this is different! Don’t you see that? Estos pendejos estan locos, but they are rich. If we take his deal, we can be free of them. And each other.”

Gus sighed and reholstered Delilah. He was right. But she found that she just didn’t care. “Get back down to the mining levels and lick some more Leconte boot, you sniveling rat. We’re still contracted for a job. Let’s just do it and get the tunk out of here.”

#

Gus grumbled to herself as she dropped into her spot by the window and flipped her tobacco tin open. She was running low but needed a smoke now. Ray looked up from his paperwork. “So?” he asked. Moe quietly moved to his cell door to listen.

“Leconte offered me the bounty plus ten percent to turn Moe over to him.” Rutting tunk. She was making a mess of her cigar.

“What?” Ray’s brow furrowed. “Why would he want to do that?”

Gus looked up at the marshal. She wasn’t sure how much to tell him. Leconte was, after all, paying her a lot to keep Ray out of his business. She decided on “I don’t know,” and left it at that.

“Well,” Ray said and threw a sheepish glance towards Moe, “I hate to say it, but you should think about taking the spoons. It’s not wise to cross Laszlo, and you’ll be free to spend your earnings that mush sooner.”

“Trust me,” Gus said as she finally managed to roll a decent cigar, “the thought had crossed my mind. And Tuco wants to take the deal.”

“What happened to sticking together?” Moe asked darkly from his cell. Gus ignored him but Moe persisted. “You gave me your word you would do everything you could to help me! How will turning me over to that… man help anyone but you?”

Gus lit her cigar and took a long, deep drag. “I already turned him down,” she said. She rubbed her left fist thoughtfully. “And gave Tuco a little reminder of who his partner is.”

“Why?” Ray’s mouth hung open.

Gus stood from her perch at the window and walked to Moe’s cell door. “Can’t rightly say,” she said. She squinted at the rob through the bars. “But Moe’s my responsibility now. I’m not turning him over to anyone. Especially Laszlo Leconte.”

The silence that fell over the room was broken by the sound of a small, angry fist slamming against the cellblock door.

Knock! Knock! Knock!

“Raymond Gascon!” It was Bernadette Vega. “You open this door this instant! Do you hear me?!”

Knock! Knock! Knock!

“Here we go.” Ray rolled his eyes and lifted himself out of his chair. “This is likely to be a real corker.” He pointed back to his office. “You might want to have a seat.”

Ray opened the door and Hurricane Bernadette blew in like a storm of pure fury, with poor little Hector pulled along in her wake. “What is the meaning of this?” she shouted into Ray’s face. “Why has my family and our employees been targeted for such harassment?” Then her eyes fell on Gus. “You!” she snarled. “This is all your doing, isn’t it?” Bernadette moved to slap Gus again, but Ray caught her arm on the backswing. “We were doing fine until you showed up!” she shrieked. Tears rolled down her cheeks and her curls bounced with each sob.

“Bernadette Vega!” Ray chided. “Your husband brought trouble on his own head by breaking town law constantly. And as far as Moe here is concerned, I may not be able to prove it, but I’ll be damned if you didn’t know what he was when you took him in!”

Bernadette glared up into Ray’s eyes but said nothing. Her lips practically disappeared as she pressed them tightly together and held her tongue. After a defiant moment or two, Bernadette broke the eye contact and looked at Moe. “Isn’t there anything you can do, Ray?” she pleaded, but kept her eyes away from the marshal. “You paid Oscar’s fine, couldn’t you…”

Ray sighed and hung his head. “Were it so simple. But Maurice here needs to take responsibility for his past. Actions have consequences. A lesson I hope your husband starts to take more seriously.” He turned from them, no longer willing to look either farmwife or farmhand in the eye.

Hector tugged on Gus’s poncho and held up the screwdriver Oscar had used to fix his leg. “Papi wanted me to give this back to you,” he said as Gus took the tool. “He said to tell you, ’Gracias’ for letting him borrow it.”

Gus knelt and smiled. “Tell him ’de nada.’”

“Can I ask you a question?” Hector said quietly and stole a glance at his mother, who was speaking rapidly to Moe through the cell bars.

“Of course,” Gus answered and put a reassuring hand on Hector’s shoulder.

“Why didn’t you just fix Papi’s leg? I know you could have done it. It would have been easy.” he asked. Tears starting to well up in his eyes.

Gus was struck speechless. “I-” she tried to reply, but the sound caught in her throat.

“Let’s go, Hector,” Bernadette grabbed his arm and pulled him towards the door. “There’s nothing to be done here.” She scowled at Gus. “But I swear, this isn’t over.” Then to Moe, “I will get you out of here, Moe. Just sit tight for now.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Moe replied. He even managing a small smile.

And just like that, Hurricane Bernadette blew out as fast as she had blown in.

Once she was gone and Ray had retaken his place behind his desk, Gus lifted herself from the window. “Watch him for a minute?” she asked as she heaved the big cellblock door open.

“Sure. Where ya goin’?”

“If it’s all the same to you, I’m gonna bunk in the next cell while I’m here. The rent’s cheaper than the Hotel Irma, and the beds are at least as soft.” Ray nodded and chuckled. Gus pointed to Moe. “This way I can keep an eye on you. And anybody else who might have an opinion on what to do with you.”

#

“Gus,” Ray spoke gently and nudged the cot she slept on. “Gus, wake up. Emmitt wants to see you.”

Gus eased one eyelid open. Ray’s office and the lockup were soaked in the warm oranges and yellows of another Aeolusian morning. Moe was sitting on his cot in the next cell picking at the buildup in his finger joints with a toothpick. Gus groaned and sat up. She had been wrong about how comfortable the cot would be. “What time is it?” she asked and rubbed sleep from her eyes.

“Just past seven. You overslept!” Ray chortled.

Gus groaned again and stretched. “What does Emmitt want?”

“He didn’t say, but I think it’s about your pony.” Ray eased into his place behind the desk. “You go on ahead, I’ll keep an eye on Maurice, here.”

The morning was warm and bright, and Gus squinted when she stepped out of the Marshal’s Office. She brought a cigar to her lips, lit it, and headed for the engineering corral.

Emmitt Smith was already waiting for her when she stepped through the corral’s big doors. “Give me good news, Smith,” she said when he shook her hand.

“You’re in luck,” he said and led her deeper into the corral towards Tilly, “repairs are complete.” He handed her a tablet which listed every major and minor repair his team had made to Tilly. They had been thorough. It looked like no system had gone untouched. One item stood out.

“You fixed the rifle turret?”

“Ayuh,” Emmitt nodded.

“Who told you to do that?” Gus’s temper flared. That hadn’t been part of the original quote. None of these repairs had been. She grabbed the old engineer by the apron. “What are you trying to pull, old man? I paid you to get her void-ready. That’s all. You’re not getting a spoon more.”

“L-Leconte ordered it!” Emmitt stuttered in his defense.

Gus let go of him. “Laszlo ordered you to fix all my systems? The rifle? Why?”

“Not exactly,” Emmitt tried to explain. “He said that you were working for him now, and I should fix everything that needed it. He paid for all the extra repairs.”

“If this is his way of trying to convince me to give him the bounty, you can tell him it won’t work,” Gus said angrily as she poured over the list of repairs.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Emmitt said. His voice was gruff. “I just do what I’m told and keep my head down.” They reached Tilly and the old engineer put his hands on his hips and looked up at the pony. “And in this case, it was an actual pleasure.” Though you wouldn’t know it from the stern expression that remained in his face. “It’s been a while since I had a chance to work on a classic like this. Your ‘modifications’ gave me just enough of a distraction right when I needed it most.” He patted the hide lovingly. “Had one just like her myself, once upon a time. Ah,” he sighed, “to be young and free again.”

It was then Gus noticed something odd about the list of repairs Emmitt had handed her – not exactly something on it, but something not on it. Namely, there were no repairs listed for the cargo hold.

The hive.

When she looked up from the tablet, Emmitt was staring at her. Tunk. “That’s an interesting water reclamation system you got there.” His face was stern and calm. “Clever irrigating the flowers with the gray water.”

“What do you want?”

Emmitt opened his mouth to speak, but before any words could come out his eyes welled up with tears and the old man’s body shook with a sob. Surprised, Gus stole a quick glance around the bay, and led Emmitt behind a big piece of rusty machinery. Emmitt sat down on a box, held his face in his hands, and cried. Gus, unsure what to do, awkwardly patted him on the shoulder. “’s’okay. I’m okay,” he said and waved her arm off when the sobbing had subsided.

Gus leaned against the complicated looking machinery and crossed her arms over her chest. “What do you want from me?” she asked when Emmitt had regained control of himself and was wiping his nose with an old rag.

He looked up at her with eyes ringed with red. “It’s Junior.”

Gus had a flash of memory: Junior standing over Emmitt’s wife with a handful of her white hair. She sighed and held up her hands. “Look, I don’t like the prick either, but I’m not getting paid to get tangled up in your little town’s problems. Thanks for seeing to Tilly, but if you so much as mention my flowers to anyone else, it won’t be Junior you’ll have to worry about.” She turned her back on the old man and started to walk away.

“He’s forcing me to build something!” Emmitt called after her. “Something terrible.”

She stopped and took a deep breath. No matter what she did, she seemed to get dragged further into whatever was really going on. “Fine,” she said, and turned back to him. “I’ll bite. What’s he got you working on?”

“It’s the refinement process. The Deiopeans, they’re the secret! With your help it might not be too late to put a stop to all this and make things right.” He spoke quickly. His eyes darted around as if afraid they’d be caught.

Gus was getting irritated. “Spit it out, old man.”

The big door slammed shut with a crash that echoed off the wagons littering the corral floor. Emmitt’s face went white as a sheet. “Emmitt! Oh, Emmitt!” Junior called out. “Where are you, old man?”

Gus slid back into the relative safety of the shadows and drew Delilah from her holster. From their hidden position she could see Junior wasn’t alone. He had four Company Police goons with him. All had their weapons drawn. “Is there anybody else in the corral?” she whispered to Emmitt. He nodded and pointed deeper into the unorganized mess of old wagons and spare parts. There was a shower of sparks as someone welded and a few short snippets of yelled conversation. She nodded. “Alright, you go get you team outta here. I’ll distract- Hey!

Emmitt brushed by her and stepped clear of their hiding place. “They aren’t here for my crew.” He sighed and his shoulder slumped. “Now that I’ve solved their problem, they’re here for me.”

“Emmitt!” Junior called again. “Where is that old bastard?”

Gus tried to grab Emmitt, but he was already out of reach. “Stay here until it’s over. Tell my wife I love her. And if you can, tell the spiders I’m sorry,” he said quietly. He stepped out and started walking towards Junior.

“Emmitt, wait! Tunk!” Gus hissed, but it was too late. Junior had already spotted him.

“There you are, you old codger. Come ’ere. I’ve got something for you.” Junior beckoned Emmitt to his side. His smile had a twisted, sinister quality to it. “You’ve done such a great job figuring out how the spiders do their little trick, my father wanted to give you your reward a little early.”

Gus looked around frantically. Junior was a braggart, but there was no way to tell if his arrogance was earned yet. Even if he was all bluster and she killed all four of them, then what? There had to be something…

But before she could even start to think, a shot went off and the corral flashed with violet light. Emmitt tumbled like a sack of potatoes as smoke poured from a fresh exit wound in his back.

The shot had gotten the engineering team’s attention, and they came running. Gus ducked down and watched as they passed and found their boss lying on the floor. There was shouting, but Junior and his men’s drawn weapons were enough to keep the unarmed engineers at bay.

I gotta get out here, Gus thought, and looked around for another way out. Her only option was a small window, set high in the corral wall behind her. While Junior argued with the engineers over their boss’s still smoking body, Gus scrambled up a pile of scrap to the window. It was bolted, the lock itself rusted closed. She gave the latch two sharp cracks with Delilah’s butt-end and it disintegrated into a coarse sand.

“What the rut was that?” Gus heard Junior shout. “You got more people back there?” Then, “Go check it out.”

She tried to ease the window open quickly and quietly, but it screeched like fingernails on a chalkboard and spewed rusty dust everywhere. “Over here!” a voice shouted, uncomfortably close. She shoved the window as hard as she could, tumbled out, and rolled down a small mountain of empty jerry still reeking of rubidium fumes to the road below.

A soon as she hit the ground, Gus jumped to her feet and dove for cover in an adjacent alley. Out of sight, she slammed her back against the wall and gasped for breath. The window screeched again, but the crash of a body sliding down the pile of jerry cans never came. Instead, someone swore under their breath, then yelled, “Whoever it was, they’re gone!” And then, “O-of course not, sir! Yessir!” More hushed cursing, and then the sound of feet sliding down the cans. Gus chanced a glance out of cover and saw one of the goons anxiously look around, trying to decide which way she had gone.

Once he had ran off in the wrong direction, she followed the alley away from the engineering corral. When she reached the closest intersection end and checked to see if the way was clear she nearly smashed directly into another company bull, this one leading a small group of Deiopeans towards the engineering corral.

“Hey! I-” he said and started to raise his rifle. But Gus, acting on instinct and reflex, was faster. Without thought, Gus drew Delilah and fired the big beam-shooter from the hip, leaving a bloody crater in the bull’s chest. Delilah discharged a plume of freezing cold exhaust and the bull collapsed.

The moment the body hit the ground Gus was surrounded by short, hooded bodies, all flashing the same incoherent pattern of colors with their eyes. “No!” Gus shouted and recoiled from their touch. “Get away from me!” All those skinny, harry limbs were too much, and she bolted up the abandoned street, leaving the Deiopeans, Junior, and poor Emmitt behind her.

#

Gus burst through the big door and into Ray’s small lockup gasping for breath. “You alright?” Ray asked and gave her an odd look. “What did Emmitt have to say for himself? Bet he delayed your repairs, didn’t he? I swear, that man’s been busier than a one-eyed cat watching nine rat holes.”

Gus opened her mouth to tell him Emmitt was dead but found herself lying to the marshal instead. “Yeah, he’s busy,” she said as her breath slowly came back to her. “Said it would be a few more days.”

“Oh well.” Ray smiled and put his feet up on the desk. “His prosperity means your misfortune. Whatcha gonna do? Coffee?” he asked and pointed to the old machine.

“Sure,” Gus said curtly, and found her place by the window to roll a cigar. As much as she wanted to tell Ray that Junior had killed the old engineer, it had occurred to her that this was exactly the kind of mess Laszlo was paying her to keep Ray’s nose out of. She lit her cigar and tried to relax. At least Laszlo had the courtesy to wait until Tilly was finished. But she somehow suspected that was a coincidence.

Moe was watching her from between the bars of his cell. “Are you alright, Gus?” he asked after a few moments of scrutiny.

“Fine,” she said, brushing him off. “What about here? No problems while I was out?”

“Not a peep,” Ray answered cheerfully and poured their coffee.

As she smoked in silence, with the cobbler-rob watching her suspiciously, Gus tried to count the things that had gone wrong since she had teamed up with Tuco.

First it was the San Juan-Paul bulls. Then the three bluebell officers they killed. Which had led them directly into Laszlo’ employ…

This was, without a doubt, the worst job she had ever pulled. And it was still getting worse all the time. She looked up at the big clock hanging behind Ray’s desk. Half-past eight in the morning and she already needed a stiff drink, a rut, and maybe a fight.

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