Gas Giant Gambit: A Tale from Across the Cygnus Rift

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13: Spoons, Women, and Guns

The day had passed exceedingly slowly, but now that the evening had come, Gus was starting to feel a little better. A hand or two of Razz with the local riffraff, and few disappointingly weak drinks at Cirrus House were all it had taken. All she needed now was a little physical comfort. She felt bad that Emmitt had died, and that she hadn’t done more to help him. But she took some solace in the fact that if she had, she’d likely be dead too. Laszlo and his boys held the town in an iron grip. She’d seen it before. Suffered through it even. There was no fighting men like that. Not in a place like this. Better to do the job they were paying her for and keep her mouth shut long enough to get far away from here.

Gus was sitting at the Cirrus House bar, sipping a watered-down whiskey, and scanning the room for an available and attractive rent-girl, when the Leconte brothers blew in through the batwing doors. Physical comfort is overrated, anyway, Gus reminded herself and tried to get the bartender’s attention for one last drink. Even that ended up pushing her luck too far. The same moment her whiskey was poured, Aaron and Junior stepped up to the bar on either side of her.

“Put this one on my tab. My brother’s got the next round,” Junior said to the barkeep. He didn’t seem too happy about it - a dark cloud hung over his sharp features.

“What can I do for you, boys?” Gus asked without looking up at the men.

It was Aaron that spoke up this time. “Our father says we should apologize for our behavior the other night.” Remarkably, when Gus finally looked up at him Aaron actually did look contrite. Junior, on the other hand, glowered into his glass and said nothing.

“And, I suppose, convince me to take his deal for Moe? Thanks for the drink, boys, but I was just on my way out.” Gus downed the rest of her whiskey and pushed back from the bar. Aaron grabbed her wrist and they locked eyes. “If you’re really here trying to make things right,” she warned, “repeating the way the other night’s unpleasantness began isn’t a great approach.” Aaron’s eyes widened and he released her wrist without a second thought.

“Let her go,” Junior said, a smile finally coming to his face. “This void-drifter wouldn’t know hospitality if it spit in her face.”

“Another interesting tactic to get into my good graces: insulting me,” she said and turned towards the batwing doors.

“The bounty, plus twenty-five percent,” Junior called after her. “Is that insulting?”

Gus stopped dead in her tracks. That was a lot of spoons just to turn the reward – and the prestige – over to someone else. What kind of deal was Laszlo working that would warrant such an expensive cherry to sweeten the pie?

There was only one way to find out.

Gus turned back to the brothers at the bar. “That is generous,” she admitted. “I’m not saying I’m taking the deal, but maybe we have something to talk about after all.”

Aaron’s face quickly brightened. “Then like my brother said, the next round’s on me!”

The following hours were a blur as Gus matched the Lecontes drink for drink. She had hoped alcohol and a little ego stroking would at loosen at least Aaron’s tongue. But every time she tried to steer the conversation towards Laszlo’s deal, and why offering Moe to his potential business partner was so important, Junior was there to change the subject.

They haggled over price, and Gus got Junior to agree to 33% over the bounty reward. “But I gotta know what I’m turning all the prestige down for. Bringing in a bounty-head that’s been out for as long as Moe has will get my name out in the right circles,” Gus pointed out late into the evening. “I give that up to your father, or whoever he’s giving it up to, and that’s literally spoons out of my pocket,” she took a drink of the harsh amber liquid in front of her, “in the long-run.”

“True,” Aaron admitted, “but you’d gain a powerful friend in our father.” His words were starting to slur.

“And I’m sure any bounty hunting opportunities lost would be made up for, ten-fold, if you stay in our father’s good graces,” Junior said coolly. He was still completely in control.

Despite herself, even Gus’s head was starting to swim. She couldn’t hope to keep this up for much longer, and Junior showed no sign of intoxication. It was time for a change of tactics.

“Why don’t we call it 40%, and this one and I find a quiet place to seal the deal?” she asked. She traced a gloveless finger under Aaron’s stubbly chin.

Junior’s face tightened. “I’m not sure that’s a good idea.”

Shut up, LJ,” Aaron hissed. Gus smiled and put her hand on his thigh. “We’ve got a deal,” Aaron said excitedly. His mind was already turning to more physical matters. “Let’s go shake on it.”

I can’t shoot him until he tells me why Laszlo wants Moe, she reminded herself and smiled at him instead of drawing Delilah.

“Aaron,” Junior warned.

LJ,” Aaron shushed. “Go tell Dad the good news.” The brothers glared at each other over Gus’s shoulders,

“Fine,” Junior said. He lingered, searching his younger brother’s eyes. “But you be careful. I don’t trust her.”

Aaron was already somewhere else. “You won’t hurt me, will you, Gus?” he asked, grinning drunkenly.

“Well,” Gus smirked coyly, “maybe only a little. How about some shots to celebrate, and make things more interesting?” She leaned in and whispered the last word into Aaron’s ear.

“Why not take the bottle?” Aaron’s excitement was beginning to bubble over as he called the bartender to them. He took a bottle of tequila from the genie working the bar, drank straight from it, and passed it to Gus.

She took her own swig, grimaced at the burn, and pressed her body against Aaron’s. “Do you know a quiet place we can press the flesh, and make this deal official?”

Aaron’s boyish face turned bright red, and his ears nearly purple. “Y-yes!” he managed through the anticipation, “I-I know just the place.”

Gus stole a glance back at Junior as Aaron escorted her towards the swinging doors of Cirrus House. He was glaring at her suspiciously, but rather than follow he turned back to the bar and ordered another drink.

Good.

#

Aaron led Gus through a part of town she could tell had been seedy even when Las Ráfagas had been prosperous. It felt as though wary eyes watched them pass each apparently abandoned building. As they walked, they passed the bottle of tequila back and forth. Without his brother looking over his shoulder, Aaron’s tongue began to wag almost at once.

He looked up through the dome at the dark sky above. Deiopea, full tonight, cast her bright light through a dense curtain of clouds. Even through the cloud cover, the carefully planned, web-like cities of the Deiopeans stood in sharp contrast to the dull red of the moon’s surface. Aaron spat a curse at the sight of it. “Damn spiders. You know what they were doing with this cloud band when my father got here? Hunting in it. If you can even call it that. The used to use rocket propelled tin cans to get here.” He laughed. “Those savages were sitting on enough Rb-87 for half the Arm to run on for decades, and they wouldn’t dare touch it. For ‘ecological reasons,’” he said with a mocking tone.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Gus asked. She laughed along and took another swing from the bottle. Her head spun. Slow down.

“Who knows? Some primitive nonsense about a beast that lives in the clouds and comes with the storms.” Aaron threw the bottle back and almost fell over. He laughed hard and drenched himself in the liquor.

“That’s not true, is it?” she asked, feigning fear. “The town’s not in danger, is it?”

He pulled her close. “Don’t worry, baby. It’s just a stupid superstition. But Junior sure seems to believe it. He’s always taking hunting parties deeper into the atmosphere.” He took another short swing. “Even says he saw it once.” Aaron stared off into space of a moment or two, then seemed to remember where he was. “But now that they think they’re so smart, they’ve changed their tune. Now they won’t share, so they’re gonna get what’s coming to ’em!” He led them to a wide platform and stumbled when he tried to step onto it.

Gus helped him steady himself. “That’s selfish,” she egged him on once he had his balance back. “What won’t they share?”

“Their refining tech! The little eight-limped freaks figured out how to supercharge the rubidium. And when they wouldn’t share, we took it from em. Serves ’em right. Furry bastards.”

Gus’s mind focused in an instant. “Why?”

Aaron pressed a big, industrial looking button, and the platform began to slowly drop. It was only then that Gus’s tequila-soaked mind realized it was the mining level access lift.

“No more talking, baby. I want you so bad” he whispered and leaned in for a sloppy kiss. Gus barely managed to redirect him into her neck. As he slobbered all over her collarbone and dry humped her thigh, she tried to think through the haze of liquor. She was far drunker than she had intended be. But things were starting to fall into place.

With the demand for Rb-87 at an all-time low, a supercharged product could rejuvenate this ghost town. That must have been the work Emmitt and his team were doing; retrofitting the mining levels to replicate the Deiopeans’ refinement technique. But there had been a problem. Something only “live” specimens would solve. Something Emmitt had wanted to apologize to the Deiopeans for.

Gus’s blood ran cold. It couldn’t be as bad as she was thinking. If the UCET ever got wind Laszlo was abusing a native lifeform that egregiously they would shut him down, seize his businesses and assets, lock him up, and lose the key. There was no way a man like Laszlo Leconte would risk that. Unless…

When the lift reached the bottom, Gus pulled Aaron’s lips to hers and ground her hips against him. She took another swing from the tequila and handed Aaron the bottle. He grinned and polished off what was left. “That all seems so complicated,” she teased. “Why not just sell the whole town and let it be someone else’s problem.”

“Because Mackenzie’s convinced the copperheads to make Las Ráfagas their last pulse-rail station on the way to Cygnus X!” he slurred and dribbled the last few drops of liquor on his shirt. “The supercharged Rb-87 for their new pulse-rail engine could change the war. There’s still a lot of spoons and power to be had on this gas ball, and if you play your cards right, you might be on the arm of one of the most powerful men this side of the Rift.” He tried to wink, but ended up drunkenly blinking, and leaned in for another messy, open-mouthed kiss.

Ugh, “Not here, Aaron,” she whispered in his ear. “Anticipation makes it that much better, trust me. And you promised me somewhere private. I don’t want anyone to see what I’m going to do to you.”

Aaron’s face, already red from the liquor, turned and even deeper shade of scarlet. A savage, predatory grin spread over his face and he led her off the lift and into the mining levels without another word.

The CCO. Their involvement would certainly be enough to make a man like Laszlo feel untouchable. But a pulse-rail station at Las Ráfagas? That didn’t make any sense.

Gus’s drunk mind was doing its best to fit the few pieces of the puzzle she had together when Aaron led her around a corner and ran smack into a group of four or five miners huddled around a sparking heating unit. Aaron’s face twisted from horny anticipation to startled surprise, and then a shade of embarrassed anger in the time it took him to fall back and land on his ass. The genie he had run into fell forward and was caught by a large lurker-rob Gus immediately recognized as Gretchen. That could only mean – yes, the genie using dozens of hands to lift himself out of Gretchen’s arms was her husband, Walter.

From the floor, Aaron’s temper didn’t just flare; it ignited. “All of you rutting freaks are out past curfew!” he said. He leapt to his feet and clumsily drew his gun. “You know you’re not supposed to leave the barracks after sundown. Or have you all got your brains too scrambled from inbreeding and bad wiring to properly understand that?”

“Aaron, baby.” Gus pulled on his arm. “Forget about them, let’s go.”

There was a moment where she thought the thing in his pants might win out over the booze in his brain, but at the last instant he seemed to recognize Walter and his liquor-fueled rage won out. A disturbing grin spread across his boyish face. “You sit tight, beautiful. This rob-rutter has been begging me for this lesson for years. I’m finally going to give it to him.” Aaron raised his weapon and pointed it at Walter’s head. The others fled without a second glance, but Gretchen stood her ground with her husband.

With the alcohol dulling her reflexes Gus was almost too late. She reached for Delilah, drew the heavy weapon, and fired just before Aaron was able to squeeze his trigger. The pink beam tore into the triceps on Aaron’s gun arm, and as she dragged the Delilah’s barrel upwards, it sliced through the flesh, cleaning cutting his arm off above the elbow.

A moment of stunned silence was shattered by Aaron coming to terms with the fact that his arm, still clutching his Beaumont-Adams, was now lying at his feet. The screech was bloodcurdling. He held the bloody, half-cauterized stump with his free hand and fell over onto his back. In another moment, even Aaron’s cries were drowned out by blaring alarms. Someone had already alerted the company bulls of the shooting.

Gus reholstered Delilah and shook her head at the shrieking man-child. When Walter and Gretchen appeared at her sides, she shooed them away. “You two better get out of here before more trouble shows up.”

“What about you?” Walter asked.

“I’ll be fine. Somebody’s gotta make sure this fool doesn’t bleed out on the floor before his boys get here,” Gus said and waved them on.

But Gretchen wouldn’t go. “That’s twice you’ve put my husband’s safety – and life – ahead of your own. I cannot tell you how grateful I am to you. Thank you. If there’s anything you ever need, don’t hesitate to let Walter know. We’ll make it happen.”

Gus nodded, and the unusual pair disappeared into the complicated maze of the mining levels.

#

Once Walter and Gretchen were safely away, Gus turned her attention to the screaming ninny rolling around on the floor. She knelt, grabbed at Aaron, and tried to get a good look at the stump. “Will you shut up and let me have a look?” she shouted in his face. But on he went, thrashing and screaming.

Fine,” she muttered. “We’ll do this the easy way.” She pulled Ray’s small first aid kit from a pocket and jabbed a small anesthetic syrette into Aaron’s thigh. The effect was almost immediate. His shrieking dropped to a low mumble, and the thrashing slowed to a dull rocking and finally stopped. “Alright,” Gus said as she tried to pull Aaron’s free hand from the stump, “let’s see how bad it is.”

The cut was clean. She had sliced the bicep in two. The wound was mostly cauterized and only oozing a small amount of blood. “Oh, ya big baby,” she chided and stuck a vacuum-bandage over the stump. “Rich boy like you’ll get a cloned replacement in no time.” She jabbed him with another dose of anesthetic and Aaron slowly relaxed against the wall, quietly mumbling to himself.

Gus collapsed against the opposite wall and slid down to the floor. That had been way too close. The damn liquor had slowed her down and dulled her wits. It had all happened so fast. If she had been a fraction of a moment slower Walter would have been dead. Maybe Gretchen too. And Aaron. And then so would she shortly thereafter. At least with him alive, bandaged, and doped up there was a chance she could talk her way out of this. But she had made holding on to Moe a lot harder.

It was only a matter of minutes before a squad of black-uniformed, riot-shield carrying company bulls appeared with Junior at their head. Gus couldn’t help but notice Tuco wasn’t among them. The coward was probably hiding somewhere, waiting for the bulls to do his dirty work for him.

“Hey, LJ,” Aaron called to his brother in an oddly child-like sing-song voice. Then, when he had his brother’s attention, he pointed to his severed arm on the floor and laughed.

“What the tunk?” Junior shouted. The next thing he saw was Gus “You!” he roared. He grabbed her by the poncho and pulled her to her feet. “What did you do?” he screamed, spittle flying.

“I stopped his stupid ass from killing a couple of miners for no reason. And then I saved his fool life!” Gus shoved Junior back and found a dozen pistols pointed at her.

Junior turned his back on her before giving the order. “Kill ’er.”

“Hey, I’m working for Daddy now, remember?” she shouted at his back. “You better get clearance from on-high before you do anything stupid.”

Wait!” Junior’s order cut through the air. His frustration was palpable.

“She’s right, LJ,” Aaron said in a dreamy voice from his place on the floor. “Besides, you can’t kill her until I rut ’er,” he added, matter-of-factly.

Both Junior and Gus rolled their eyes.

Fine.” Junior was beyond furious. “Put the bitch in irons and we’ll see what my father has to say about this.”

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