Gas Giant Gambit: A Tale from Across the Cygnus Rift

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14: Aeolusian Vengeance

Laszlo’s quarters, still bathed in gawdy gold, still pleasantly warmed by the Sol-simulators, was filled with heavily armored and armed company bulls. The administrator himself was standing at the window, looking out into the overcast night. He stood with his back to the room while Junior, looking more like Laszlo’s brother than son, explained how he had found Aaron.

Laszlo shook his head when Junior finished. “And how is the boy?” he sneered.

“I-” Junior hesitated. “He’s fine. He’s in the medi-pod now. It was a clean cut. She keeps her piece well-maintained; I’ll give her that much.” Junior glared at Gus from across the room.

Gus struggled against the irons clasping her hands behind her back. Junior had delighted in making them too tight. She very much wanted to tell him where he could shove Aaron’s severed arm but managed to bite her tongue instead.

“She could have killed him, Dad.” Junior spoke low, pleading.

“And where is her weapon?” the elder Leconte asked. Junior snapped his fingers and a bull brought Delilah to him. Laszlo lifted the big gun and examined it, turning it over in his hands. “Magnificent!” he cooed and held Delilah up, pointing the business end at Gus. He dropped the gun to his side, clapped Junior on the shoulder, and smiled. “Son, if she had wanted to kill Aaron, he’d be dead.”

Laszlo raised his voice to address the roomful of bulls. “You are all dismissed,” he announced. “Yes, yes, that’s right. Tremendous job, everyone! Really great! Can someone be sure to get those cuffs off this charming woman there before you all go? Thanks, you guys are the best!”

As the room emptied, Laszlo handed Delilah back to Gus with a smile. “I know you boys like to play tough out here in the clouds,” he said to Junior, “but this one’s like your old man. We’re cut from the same cloth, she and I.” That dark, predatory smile split open his face again.

“But- Dad!”

“Shut up, Junior.” Laszlo’s unwavering smile was threat enough. Junior did as he was told but did nothing to hide the open hatred on his face.

“You and I are nothing alike,” Gus said. She snatched Delilah from Laszlo’s hands and dropped it back in its place on her hip.

“Mhmm,” he hummed. The smile never left his face. “Why don’t you tell me what happened before my overly ambitious son here arrived.”

Gus crossed her arms over her chest and looked out the window over the town below. “Aaron was drunk.”

“And whose fault was that?” Junior asked and took a threatening step forward.

Laszlo turned on his son in the blink of an eye. He moved like lightning and lifted the young man into the air by his throat. “Will you shut up! I asked the lady to tell me what happened. If you can’t keep your tongue locked away, I will tear it out!” He dropped Junior to the floor in a heap. With his son rubbing his neck and gasping for breath, Laszlo turned his attention back to Gus. “You were saying?”

These people really are crazy, Gus thought as she watched Junior slowly get to his feet and straighten his suit jacket. He then stood there, staring at his own shoes with a look of irate defeat plastered on his face.

Gus swallowed hard.

For now, Laszlo’s crazy seemed to be working in her favor. She could only tell him what happened and hope it stayed that way. She would just have to frame shooting his son’s arm off in terms his brand of crazy would understand.

“Like I said,” she started again, “your boy was piss drunk. He tried to kill a miner and the mercantile genie, whatshisname – Walter - for the crime of standing around a heating unit.”

Laszlo’s smile was unfaltering. “The mining levels are under special lockdown right now, and our miners know there are consequences to breaking curfew while the mining operation is being retrofitted,” he explained. “As I understand it, we’ve been having a particular problem with this lurker - Gretchen is it? As captain of the Company Police Force, I trust Aaron to impose our laws as he sees fit.”

“By indiscriminately killing your workforce on the eve of such an important deal? Especially with replacement workers so difficult to come by? Given the circumstances, even considering Gretchen’s… history… there must be a more measured approach to discipline.” Gus held her hands up in defeat. “But what do I know? I’m just a void-drifter. I’m not trying to tell you how to run your town.”

Junior looked as though he might say something, but after a quick glance at his father thought better of it. Laszlo, on the other hand, seemed to consider her point. “You may be on to something there,” he said as he stepped up to a well-stocked bar. He poured a pair of whiskeys, and a tall glass of water. He handed one whiskey to Junior, and Gus the other. “Aaron’s always struggled with his temper,” he said as he sipped the water. “It’s a family curse. I always knew it would get him into trouble one of these days.

“But I don’t want this incident to leave you thinking we don’t treat our workers with the utmost respect and dignity. After all, some of my best friends are robs.” He chuckled and gestured around them. It was only then that Gus noticed the room concealed half a dozen of the big security-robs Laszlo had had with him the night they met. One was tucked into a closet there, its blank eyes peering out of the darkness beyond the door. Another masqueraded as a decorative pillar holding up the archway to another room . Yet another sat in the corner, curled into a ball Gus had mistaken for art.

“The answer’s still no, Laszlo. I don’t really care how you run things in this town, or how many old widows you let your boys make to help them feel big.” Junior’s head whipped around but he held on to whatever comment had come to his mind. “Moe’s staying under my care.”

Laszlo poured Junior another whiskey and another water for himself. “Junior, aren’t you heading out for a hunt tomorrow morning?”

The look on Junior’s face slowly changed like the tide going out. “Yeah,” he finally said and broke into a reluctant smirk.

“Why don’t you tell our guest what it is you’re hunting.”

But Junior was looking at Gus with distrust and distain. Even so, with a topic he so obviously cared about, he couldn’t keep his mouth shut for long.

“When my father first arrived on Aeolus, the spiders told stories about a great beast that lived in the lower atmosphere and fed on the burdle flocks. The called it the ‘Stormrider.’ Their legends said it was enormous, with a wingspan as wide as Las Ráfagas. They said flocks of them once roamed this cloud band, chasing the great storms. But only a few remain.” Junior was getting himself worked into a frenzy.

“And you believe that?” Gus said flatly,

“I’ve seen it.”

“Uh-huh,” Gus rolled her eyes and drank her whiskey in one gulp.

“I’ve got a great idea. Why doesn’t Gus here join you for the hunt tomorrow?” Laszlo suggested, as though the thought as just occurred to him. “That way we can show Gus there’s no hard feelings, and the two of you can see if we can get through this logjam when it comes to our dear Moe – without Aaron’s temper getting in the way. What do you say?”

Junior looked more than a little skeptical, but he buckled almost immediately under his father’s stare. “Sure. Great idea, Dad.” He seemed to physically swallow what he wanted to say. “I’m sure we can work something out. It’ll be great.”

Gus, however, was entirely unconvinced. “I’m not interested in your wild goose chase,” she said. “Now, if it’s all the same to you, I’ve got a prisoner to keep an eye on.” She put her empty glass down on the bar and headed for the lift back to the esplanade.

“Gus,” Laszlo said. His voice prickled with thinly veiled aggression. She turned back to face the business tycoon. “I insist you join the hunting party. Even if your mind is truly made up with regard to Moe, consider it a part of your contract. I do so worry when Junior goes out on a hunt.”

“He’s a big boy, Laz. I’m sure the great white hunter here can take care of himself.”

Laszlo smiled and he took another sip of water. “You know,” he mused, “I used to hate water. Never drank the stuff. But my love for the drink started to dull my mind, and I couldn’t have that. Bad for business. Do you know what else is bad for business? Letting UCET officers murdering criminals roam my outpost freely. For now, I need your services, but that situation is not permanent,” he gently reminded her. “Now, will you please keep my son safe on his hunting trip tomorrow?”

“Fine.” Extorting bastard. Still, she tried to convince herself, it might be a good chance to smooth things over with Junior enough to keep her alive until this job was over. If nothing else, it would be nice to get out of town for a little while. The lift chimed and the doors slid open.

“0630 at the livery stables,” Junior called as the doors closed behind her. “Don’t be late.”

#

At six o’clock the following morning Gus was already up and getting ready to head for the stables.

“I’m really glad you’re doing this,” Ray said from his desk. The smell of fresh brewed coffee filled the small jailhouse. “It’s real big of you. Should go a long way towards making the rest of your stay with us here more pleasant at least.” He blew on his coffee before taking a cautious sip. “Ooo, hot.”

“Well, I think it’s a terrible idea. Not that anyone asked for my opinion,” Moe said gloomily from his cot. “Aaron Leconte got what he deserved. Some small measure of it, anyway. You should have killed him,” he said. His voice was flat. Bleak. “Now Junior’s going to try to kill you. Going on this hunt is nothing more than lining yourself up for the slaughter.”

“Oh, shut up, Moe.” Ray brushed him off before offering Gus a mug. “You want some before you go?”

“Better not, I’m already running late.” But Gus stopped at the bars of Moe’s cell before leaving. The rob sat on his cot with his head in his hands. “I’ll be alright, Moe. I can handle myself. I made you a promise, and I intend to keep it. Just sit tight.”

“Goodbye, Gus,” was all he would say. He refused to even lift his face from his hands.

“Don’t worry, I’ll keep an eye on him,” Ray called as she left the cellblock. “Catch something big!

The walk from Ray’s office to the stables wasn’t long, but it was enough time for Moe’s warnings to stir up her mind. On the one hand, she was already well aware of how dangerous Junior was. She had yet to see him in a real fight, but he behaved with the arrogance of a man who knew the rules didn’t apply to him. Best case, he was only arrogant and unpredictable. Worst case – the boasting was earned, and the erratic behavior was calculated.

Either way, he was dangerous.

On the other hand, Laszlo had proven himself at least as dangerous, and capable of keeping his son in check. At least while they were in the same room. And that was the real risk. Would the leash Laszlo had on Junior slacken while the two were apart?

If you were to strip away all the mystery, the combat-robs, and the violence, Laszlo was just a businessman. A businessman in the middle of some important - and expensive - negotiations. He had already invested in her helping him conclude his business smoothly by paying for Tilly’s extra repairs. And he had shown restraint when she refused his offer to buy-out Moe’s bounty no fewer than three times. If her roll in his plans were trivial, he would have let Junior kill her last night. There was no need for this kind of pretense. Just what had she gotten wrapped up in?

#

The morning was overcast and dark. The wind had picking up and the clouds, both above and below the town, raced towards the horizon as if fleeing some terrible danger. Still, as Gus stepped onto the livery stable pier, she felt an emotion that wasn’t quite relief – but was close. She would have to keep her guard up, but maybe Ray was right. Maybe this really was a chance to smooth things over enough for her to survive this storm. Gus watched the clouds galloping through the sky and had a moment of vertigo. A shout from further down the pier broke the spell and brought her back.

Junior.

His customary three-piece suit had been replaced with tall, greenbottle skin boots and a dark hooded duster that looked like this was the first time it had left his closet. He was standing with a group of men who were preparing a small fleet of open-topped skiffs that looked somewhat like the Deiopeans’. But where the natives’ skiffs were small, efficient, and utilitarian, these were bulky, extravagant sub-orbital pleasure-wagons.

“Right on time. I like that,” Junior said. He snapped a gold pocket watch shut and smiled. When he led her to the nearest skiff his duster opened and Gus took note that, even though the suit was gone, Junior’s Colt Prism M2265 was now strapped to his hip.

There must have been a dozen wagons in the hunting party, each with five or six men on board. “We gonna play nice today, Junior?” she asked as they stepped onto one of the ridiculous “skiffs.”

Junior put his hands on his hips, revealing his idea of “hunting attire:” khaki pants and a faded blue chambray shirt. He looked like he had just stepped off a catalog photoshoot. Gus stifled a smirk. You play nice too, she reminded herself. “My father has asked me to put aside any misgivings I may have for the time being,” he reassured her. “He says you’re playing a critical role and I should trust his judgement.” He said the right words, but he still didn’t look entirely convinced. The wagons, fully loaded with men and equipment, ignited their engines – powerful atmo-thrusters that made the Deiopeans’ propellors look feeble in comparison – and pulled away from Las Ráfagas.

“Besides,” Junior continued as the outpost disappeared into the clouds, “you might prove yourself useful on the hunt.”

“Yeah, about that,” Gus said. She turned to face the nose of the skiff as they approached Las Ráfagas’s shimmering energy fence. “You’re not really dragging me out here to hunt some kind of imaginary monster, right?”

“On the contrary,” Junior laughed as they passed through the plasma fencing. Grates in the floor snapped open and Gus could hear the whirring of fans spinning to life beneath them. A column of breathable atmosphere rose from the skiff. She breathed deep as Junior continued. “The spiders are savage and primitive, that much is true. I mean, using chemically propelled projectile weapons against an armored prey? How quaint! But don’t let their regressive ways fool you. The Stormrider may be legendary, but it is also real.

With his back to her, Junior didn’t see Gus roll her eyes. But if humoring this jackass was all it took to smooth things over with the Lecontes, then humor him she would. A light rain started to fall from the dark clouds above, and everyone in the hunting party pulled up their hoods or sheltered under wide-brimmed hats. She sensed that it would only take a little coaxing to get Junior to talk. If there was one thing she was certain the Leconte men shared, it was a love for the sound of their own voices. “What makes you so sure?” she asked. She sat down on the floor with her back to the falling drizzle and started rolling a cigar.

Junior sat down himself and leaning again the hull. “This cloud band is subject to periodic storms. Massive cyclone systems. But they only last a few days. They come on without warning and fade away just as quickly. It has something to do with the rubidium flow of the clouds.

“Nearly ten years ago I was leading a burdle sport hunt, on a day very much like today,” he said and watched the clouds rush by. His eyes were distant as he looked back on what was clearly an important memory for him. “We had already made a few good kills, but I wasn’t satisfied yet. The flock we’d been stalking dove for safer clouds in the deeper atmosphere. And we gave chase.

“It wasn’t long before the clouds blotted out the sun and we chased our quarry through twilight. But deeper I pushed, until the party’s spotlights started popping from the pressure. I finally called for the boys to climb out of the gas when the only spotlight left was here,” he patted the steel hide of their pleasure-wagon, “on Icarus. I ordered them back, but we lingered with the light.”

Gus offered Junior the cigar, but he wrinkled his nose and refused. Gus shrugged and lit it herself, bidding him to continue.

“With the flock lost, and the rest of my party already ascending, I was just about ready to order our own return when a gigantic shadow moved through the clouds in front of the light. At first, we thought it was a trick of the atmosphere; pockets of dense gas or something. At least until it struck Icarus. I lost two good men just on that first impact. Another three when the beast’s tail flipped us like your ‘lucky’ coin.”

Gus took a drag from the cigar. This was actually a surprisingly good story. Even if it was all bottle-farts.

“I found myself alone, my crew either dead or missing, the rest of my hunting party long gone.” Junior was hitting his stride now. Gus could tell this was a yarn he enjoyed spinning, and one he told often. “I struggled to reach the helm and steady the wagon and prepared for a rapid ascent. But just as Icarus started to climb, the clouds parted and I finally saw my attacker,” he paused, staring off into the clouds as if expecting to see it again.

Gus puffed at her cigar impatiently. “Well? What was it?” She had actually been drawn in by Junior’s tall tale.

He smiled, and the expression changed his sharp, suspicious features into something closer to charming. “Have you ever seen the great skates of the Gum Nebula?” he asked. “Or the manta rays of Earth? Sort of like that, but much, much bigger. The beast could swallow a burdle flock whole.”

“And you want to hunt this thing? You’re crazier than I thought.” Gus laughed, then bit her lip. Tunk, so much for playing nice.

But Junior only laughed. “No, I would have to be crazy to hunt an adult!

Gus stopped laughing. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“I noticed one more thing about our big friend that day, oh so long ago.” Junior’s smile changed back from charming to sinister. “Egg sacks. The beast was with child.”

The atmosphere got darker and thicker as they descended further into the clouds.

“Wait,” Gus said, waving the glowing ember of her cigar through the air, “let me get this straight. You saw this thing, what? Ten years ago? And you’re assuming, one – that it’s still alive. And two – that its eggs not only hatched but are still a size you think you can handle. You said last night the spiders said they used to be everywhere, but now they’re rare. So, what? You want to bag one before they’re all gone?”

Junior was looking out into the growing gloom around them. “It’s here. I can feel it. The spiders also say no one has ever hunted a Stormrider and lived to tell the tale. I’ll be the first.”

Okay,” Gus said skeptically. Sure, she thought. Even if the damn thing were real, the chances of meeting one seemed impossibly low. So, what was the harm in letting him play Great White Hunter? “What’s the plan?” she asked as she got to her feet.

“We recreate the original hunt!” he laughed. “We’ll stalk a burdle flock and pick off a few of the young or weak. Enough to force the flock to dive for the lower atmosphere. That’s where the Stormrider feeds. There!” he shouted and jumped to his own feet. He pointed over Gus’s shoulder into the clouds. She whipped her head around in time to catch a glimmer of blue-green scales. They had found a flock. It was immense, with hundreds or even thousands of the giant turtle-birds moving as one like a school of fish.

From the first sighting things moved very quickly. Junior pointed Gus to one of half a dozen hull-mounted tractor-cannons. The Icarus’s crew manned the others, and the fleet of wagons gave chase to the enormous flock.

Before long, the wagons began picking off some of the slower animals that stuck to the edges of the flock. Gus even managed to get a shot off, but her tractor beam bounced harmlessly off an iridescent shell. “You’ve got to aim for the wings!” Junior advised before firing a beam of his own. His aim was true, and he howled in triumph and pumped his fists in the air as the burdle was pulled from the flock and killed under a blaze of laser-fire.

Junior’s kill seemed to be the last straw for the herd, and the big animals collectively dove as one, disappearing into a wine-colored cloud. “Dive! Dive!” Junior hollered to Icarus’s helmsman. With the atmo-thrusters screaming, the pleasure wagon’s nose plunged after the retreating swarm. Gus’s face hurt, and she suddenly realized she had been smiling since Junior had first spotted the burdles. Whether she wanted to admit it or not, she was having fun. More fun than she had had in a long time.

Junior, fighting the rushing air, appeared at her side, and leaned in close to be heard over the roar of engine and atmosphere. “I wanted to apologize for last night. Both for myself, and on behalf of my brother. Aaron can be,” he paused as they flew into a dense cloud and the air around them darkened, “intolerant sometimes. And I- well I might be a little overprotective. But Dad was right, you’ve held your own today!” The clouds were so thick Gus could no longer see the glow from the other wagon’ engines. “And Dad was right about one other thing,” he shouted.

“What’s that?” she shouted back. The air grew thicker still, and she could barely see the man at the next cannon.

“Aaron and I only play tough out here. You,” he said and leaned in closer, “you’re the real thing.” She felt his body tense and press up against hers.

Great, she thought and rolled her eyes. Now it’s both of them.

“Which is why Dad will have to take me serious now.”

Gus realized only too late that in the excitement and fun she had forgotten this was the same man she saw murder Emmitt Smith in cold blood, and she had let her guard down. Junior braced against the Icarus’s hull and shoved Gus with all his might, tearing the deputy’s badge from her poncho as she fell back.

“No hard feelings.”

It was too late to react, and Gus could do nothing to stop herself from tumbling over the edge and headlong into the Aeolusian clouds.

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