15: Plunderers of the Hydrogen Flats
Gus plunged end over end through the clouds, struggling all the while to gain control of the fall. She desperately engaged the EVA boosters on her boots, but they sputtered and died. Out of fuel.
Tunk! How could she have been so stupid!
Finally managing to right herself, she flipped over onto her back and pulled her hood her head against the gasses rushing past her. She fumbled at her belt, found a small, U-shaped device, and jammed it into her mouth just before her flight suit registered the pressure change.
“Dangerous atmospheric change detected,” the vaguely electronic voice said in her ear. “Enacting emergency protocols. Please prepare for pressurization and life support initialization.” As her flight suit inflated, the energy field dropped down in front of her face.
She took a deep breath and blew through the gadget she had pulled from her belt. A sharp shriek cut through the dense clouds flying by her. She knew the screech would also cut through communications transmissions within a twenty-five-mile radius like a plow. Anyone using their comms system in the vicinity of Las Ráfagas was sure to get a moderate case of tinnitus for the next couple of days. But there was one who would know what it meant.
With the shriek ringing in her own ears, Gus could only hope they were listening.
Still she fell, further into Aeolus’s dense atmosphere. The clouds had become so thick she could barely see her own hands and the light from red Hippotes was dim and distant. Yet, as she fell deeper and deeper into the heart of Aeolus, she felt she could see shapes and shadows moving in the gas, just beyond sight.
Come on, come on.
Panic was beginning to set in as she fell past a giant, silently gliding shadow. It seemed to follow her descent, before flitting off into the gloom with a grace and calm that made Gus question if she had seen it at all. The pressure on Gus’s flight suit was mounting quickly and alarms rang inside her hood. “Warning: Atmospheric pressure approaching the Equuleus A1C Pressurized Flight Suit manufacturer recommended threshold. Please return to an environment with an atmospheric pressure between 0 and 15 bars, immediately.”
Where are you?
She could smell ozone in her hood. “Warning: Critical system failure imminent. Please return tokkzzz…” the electronic voice fizzled and went out. More systems would follow in short order. This wasn’t exactly how she had pictured going out. Somehow, she had always thought there would be more gunplay involved. And maybe a little thrilling heroics. She always knew it would be alone, she just figured at least Tilly would be there.
Somewhere in her suit a gasket blew, and with no audio systems left to warn her, her head-up-display lit up with angry amber warning lights. Oxygen leak. An image of Moe and the Vega family blossomed in her mind like one of Tilly’s flowers. What would become of them? With the clouds rushing by, her head pounding from the pressure, and now her lungs burning, it all seemed so unimportant and far away.
Another shadow appeared in the gloom, this one smaller, yet somehow familiar. Its movement was anything but silent, and it screamed through the dense gas towards her as she fell. The shadow seemed to lock in on her fall as it approached and went into a steep dive, fighting the gas giant’s atmosphere to get beneath her. It was smaller than the other shadows, but still dwarfed Gus as it got beneath her at twisted its bulk into something of a barrel roll.
It was only when she was gently cradling Gus on her upturned belly that Gus was able to recognize the blue glow of Tilly’s atmo-thrusters through the gloom. She had heard Gus’s whistle and come to her master’s aid. Like any good steed.
Huffing and gasping for beath inside her leaking hood, Gus crawled along Tilly’s belly and into the open airlock lift. When she was safely inside with the atmosphere cycling that Tilly gently pulled out of their death dive and into a parking hover. Inside the small cargo hold, Gus whipped off her hood and gasped. She breathed the fresh, sweet air circulating inside the little mount deep into her lungs. Gus spared a moment to send out a simple prayer of thanks to Emmitt, wherever he may be.
But Gus wasn’t given long for that moment. Proximity alarms sounded throughout the pony, blaring in her ears. She scrambled for the saddle. For the proximity sensors to be tripped in these clouds, whatever it was had to be big and close. She leapt into the saddle, yanked back on the reins, and glared through the dark canopy for any sign of what approached. Tilly responded instantly, veering up and away from a gigantic shadow that silently glided by them through the dense clouds. At first Gus thought it was whatever she had seen during her fall, and visions of monster manta rays rose in her mind. But this shadow was different. Smaller and boxier somehow.
It broke through the clouds in front of Tilly. It was roughly four times Tilly’s size, with a shimmering, chrome hide wrapped around a blocky body. The beast was held aloft by oversized atmo-thrusters.
This was no legendary monster. It was a rubidium freight-wagon. The kind that would ferry refined Rb-87 to the Cygnus Trail waystations.
What the tunk is it doing out here? She jabbed calculations into Tilly’s console. The display flashed. The freight-wagon’s path had it on a direct heading to Las Ráfagas, but it was coming from deeper within the atmosphere. From within the enormous, mesa-like clouds of the Hydrogen Flats.
She leaned back in the saddle, finally able to catch her breath, and watched as the freight-wagon faded back into the twilight. Gus sighed with relief and patted the console lovingly. “Thanks, girl,” she said. “Thought I had finally done it there.” The wagon slowly disappeared from view. “What do you think, Til? Being dead is about as free as it gets. Do we wipe our hands of this place and be done with it?” Tilly’s fuel gauge blinked in reply. They had just enough Rb-87 for a short sprint. Maybe they could make it to the nearest waystation, Holliday. But then what? She would be in the same position: stranded in the middle of nowhere. The only difference was that here, now she was “dead.” On Holliday, she’d be alone.
It amounted to the same.
The wagon’s blocky shadow was gone, like it had never been there at all.
It would be easy to just go. She had nothing holding her here anymore. She could just leave Moe to Tuco and Laszlo. One way or the other they would get him back to the CCO in one piece. Ray would see to that. After all, the copperheads would want a good show for his trial. Eventually the Vegas would see the writing on the wall and take Laszlo’s offer. At some point they would figure out it’s not worth their lives.
She stared at the spot where the wagon had vanished. Details just out of reach nagged at the corners of her mind. Laszlo’s deal with the CCO. Missing Deiopeans and stolen technology. Living specimens. A pulse-rail station. The CCO’s last pulse-rail station before the colonies, according to Aaron. But that didn’t make any sense at all. Pulse-rail trains couldn’t run on rubidium. It was like trying to start a nuclear reactor with a lump of coal. It just didn’t work.
And now this freight-wagon rising from Aeolus’s depths. It wasn’t adding up.
Gus squeezed with her spurred heels, gripped the reins tight, and raced into the dark, backtracking the freight wagon’s path.
Visibility was only inches as she pushed through the clouds for what seemed like hours. At last, Tilly broke through a thick layer of gas and into open air. Finally, she could see her destination: the wagon’s origin point. It was another mining outpost, like Las Ráfagas but without the dome, and much smaller. There were also certain unique design elements. For one, the mining rings were octagonal. As they approached, Gus recognized some more of the distinctive features: shapes, symbols, and patterns she had seen before - on the robes and hunting skiffs of the Deiopeans.
“Well Oscar, I think there’s one mystery solved,” she muttered and thought back to the Vega’s kitchen. Gus wasn’t terribly surprised to see the open-topped hunting wagons hitched up at what amounted to the outpost’s stables. Laszlo’s ridiculous golden sport-wagon was also tied up.
Gus quickly checked her instruments. Good. The atmosphere may have looked clear in this layer, but the particle density was still too high for Tilly’s proximity sensors to pick up the outpost. That meant there was a good chance the outpost couldn’t see them yet either. Atmospheric pressure was surprisingly low as well, and back within the tolerance of her flight suit.
“Looks like I’m going for a walk,” she sighed. She pulled on the yoke and led Tilly into a parking hover high above the outpost. “You stay here,” she said to the pony. “But keep your ears open.”
Once again, she found herself digging through Tilly’s cramped living quarters, this time on the hunt for the EVA boosters refuel canister and a few choice replacement-parts for her suit. With that taken care of, she again scrambled up and out the spent escape pod tube and stood, hooded, atop Tilly. She followed the curve of the pony’s body to the saddleroom canopy and looked down on the little outpost below. It was going to be a long drop – 1500 to 2000 feet at least. Still, nothing compared to the dive she had just taken involuntarily. At least this time she’d be in control.
She gave the EVA boosters a test hop, patted Tilly’s hide one more time, more to reassure herself, and jumped. This time the boosters slowed her decent to the point it was almost pleasant. With a simple course correction here and there, the gentle plunge only took a few moments. She passed through the crude energy fence and landed softly and quietly on the small outpost’s stables. She wasn’t surprised to find more than a few short-range skiffs emblazoned with the company police logo hitched up alongside the hunting wagons.
It’s a regular who’s who of Las Ráfagas scumbags, she thought as she made her way along the stables and took whatever cover she could find. Gus paused when she got to the Laszlo’s distinctive golden wagon. It was even more ridiculous up close. Without stopping to think about what she was doing, Gus accessed the wagon’s systems through the hitching post and sent and electrical overload coursing into its atmo-thruster systems. Laszlo would have to have one of his men tow him back to the engineering corral. She smiled to herself as she snuck along the stables and into the main bulk of the small mining village.
It was laid out in roughly the same manner as Las Ráfagas, and Gus found herself on a dome-less esplanade that was about a quarter the size of the human town higher up in the atmosphere. There was a smattering of cone shaped buildings standing to the side of pathways arrange in a web pattern like those on the Deiopean moon. She carefully picked her way across the small village, following the odd pathways towards where she assumed the lift to the mining levels would be.
She approached the lift quietly and did her best to stay hidden. But she could have walked out in the open banging on a pot. The village was even more deserted than Las Ráfagas. Gus reached the wide lift and its screech echoed off the abandoned buildings as she took it down into the mining levels. What she found was mess of tunnels and corridors, crowded with pipes and machinery, all leading deeper into the maze of mining and refining levels.
Unsure of where to go, or even what she was looking for, Gun picked a big pipe and followed it deeper into outpost’s underbelly. She followed it through corridors, over catwalks, and down flights of stairs. Eventually the pipe led her to a wide room deep within the mining level’s guts. The pipe ran beneath the catwalk on which she stood, and both passed between a pair of giant vats of raw rubidium-87. This must have been the refining area. Whatever technology Laszlo had been interested in had to be here.
She followed the pipe beneath her feet through the gap between vats of unrefined fuel. A few feet in front of her, the pipe rose from the floor and snaked its way across the wide room. Eight times the pipe ran the length of the room before making a U-turn. And on each of these eight lengths of pipe were eight strange indentations. Each depression had several pairs of glass lenses looking into the tube, arranged in a pattern that Gus recognized. Each of these little hollows was designed for a Deiopean face. The lenses matched the patterns of their eyes exactly.
What the tunk? Gus ran a hand along the inside of the nearest face-slot. Why they would want thirty-six individuals looking in on the raw gas was beyond Gus. But before she could consider it any further, the sounds of footfall reached her ears. And something else: familiar voices.
Laszlo Leconte’s voice.
Quickly, Gus raced across the wide refinery floor, out a side door, and into a poorly lit passageway.
“No one told you to kill her!” Laszlo was roaring at Junior as they appeared between the vats.
“But, Dad,” Junior whined, “she nearly killed Aaron!” He pointed to his brother, who was a step behind them. “We have to respond in kind. Send a message!”
Laszlo’s hand flashed out and slapped Junior across the jaw. The rings on his fingers drew blood from the younger man’s lip. “I had plans for the bitch, you half-witted gas-huffer,” Laszlo said in a low, threatening voice. “Besides,” he turned to his younger son, “Aaron’s fine. Aren’t you, boy?”
Aaron hadn’t really been paying any attention to the conversation. Instead, he had been looking intently at his right arm. He turned it this way and that, and watched as the light caught the hairs. “Huh? Oh, yeah. I’m fine. But are your sure about that cloning machine? This arm feels funny. It itches.”
Laszlo rolled his eyes. “It’s fine, Aaron. Quit fiddling with it.” He turned his attention back to Junior. “If this were any other situation, I would be agreeing with you.” He put his arm around Junior’s shoulders affectionately, and then pulled the younger man into a tight headlock. “But right now, I’m trying to secure our future, and your boundless need to make this slight ‘right’ might rut everything up!” He threw his son to the floor in disgust.
“I’m sorry, Dad!” Junior said. “I didn’t know. Tell me what I can do to make this right.”
“And just how are you going to do that?” Laszlo raged. “The moment that bitch doesn’t come back from your little hunting trip, what do you think Ray is going to do? He’s going to start sticking that self-righteous nose of his where it doesn’t belong. Exactly what I was paying that broad to keep from happening.”
“Why don’t we just kill him, too?” Aaron asked. He scratched at where his new arm met his old bicep. “He’s just going to be a liability, anyway.”
Laszlo sighed with frustration and rubbed his temples. “Ray is well liked. If we are involved in his death in any way, we’ll lose the support of what few townsfolk remain. We can’t afford that again. Not now.”
“So what?” Aaron asked. “We own it! We should be able to do whatever we want!”
But understanding was starting to bloom on Junior’s face. “You were going to have her do it, weren’t you? If she killed Ray… The outrage…”
Gus couldn’t believe what she was hearing. It had been a setup from the beginning.
“That’s right, you blithering idiot,” Laszlo said through a sneer. “If an outsider came in here and killed our beloved Marshal Ray, I could present our little deal with the copperheads as a security measure.”
“Of course!” Junior was smiling now. “We would be providing security the bluebells couldn’t!”
“But you’ve screwed that up now, haven’t you?” Laszlo snapped. Junior’s face fell.
“Let me take care of him, Dad,” Aaron piped up. He held up his new index finger and thumb and mimed firing his gun. “No one will ever know it was me.”
“Would you shut up!” Laszlo said. “This might work out in our favor. With the bitch gone, her idiot partner will hand over the cobbler-rob and stick around long enough for us to pin this on him. If we play this right, we might be able to do something about those troublesome Vegas at the same time.”
That got Aaron’s attention and he smiled deviously. Gus’s mind again flashed back to the Vegas’ picturesque kitchen. She had to get back to Las Ráfagas to warn them. Maybe Tuco too.
“Have you spoken to Mackenzie?” Laszlo asked Junior.
“This morning,” Junior said sheepishly. “The details have been finalized. The Shenandoah will arrive in four days with an inspection team. If they like what they see, they will transfer the gold bullion in their hold to the administrative vault, as agreed.”
Gus’s ears perked up and any thoughts of rushing back to town evaporated. But before Junior could say more, Gus felt a slight tug on the back of her poncho. She whirled around, drew Delilah, and found a lone Deiopean standing with her in the dim corridor. She recognized the distinctive white markings on their face immediately. It was the same individual that has spoken to Moe while they had wrangled Gussy, the Vegas’ wayward greenbottle jelly They had also been escorted off Las Ráfagas by Ray after bartering with Oscar.
“You!” Gus hissed in surprise. She turned back to the door, but the Lecontes’ voices were fading as they disappeared through a doorway on the far side of the refining floor. Gus’s first impulse was to follow them, but the Deiopean gave her poncho another sharp tug. The small native’s hood was down, and their eyes were flashing in a familiar sequence. She recognized it as the same combination of colors the group she had run into outside the engineering corral had displayed as it lit up the dark corridor. Gus still had no idea what it meant. When Gus didn’t move the Deiopean seemed to realize she didn’t understand them and tugged on her poncho again, this time pointing wildly into the dark instead.
“What do you want?!” But Gus found she understand. They obviously wanted her to follow. Urgently. Gus took one last look back at the door the Lecontes left through. They were gone, and with all the twists and turns down here Gus doubted she’d be able to find them again. Frustrated, she turned and followed the light thrown by the native’s eyes into the maze of mining pipes and passageways.
Gus followed the Deiopean through the confusing twists and turns of the dim mining levels until Gus lost all sense of direction. Finally, the hunter came to a halt at the foot of a greasy ladder. They waited for Gus to catch up before scrambling up the octagonal rungs in a way that made her skin crawl. Nevertheless, she followed up and out a small hatch where she found herself in a much larger hallway – one she recognized. This was just off the esplanade, near the stables where she had come in. The Deiopean was already racing headlong towards the hitched mounts.
“Wait! Tunk!” Gus hissed as she pulled herself up and ran after her small companion. It was only a short run to the edge of the hitching stables, and as soon as Gus got there she had to leap for cover behind a fuel barrel. A quartet of burly-looking and heavily armed Company Bulls were leading a group of eight Deiopeans towards a waiting carriage. Her guide had run headlong into the stables and although the bulls hadn’t seen them yet, it would only be a matter of seconds.
But it was the captives that spotted Gus’s companion first. Eight faces turned to see, and dozens of crystalline eyes began flashing the same, familiar pattern her new friend had used to get her attention; the same pattern they had tried to communicate to Gus outside the engineering corral. At last, she understood what it meant.
The light show the captive Deiopeans were putting on acted as a decent distraction and the bulls gathered around them, shouting. They never saw the newcomer, or Gus watching from cover. Her new friend took the opportunity to pull a pair of objects from beneath their robe: one small and complicated, the other long and simple. When the two pieces came together Gus recognized the distinctive Deiopean four-handed slug-throwing rifle.
At last, one of the bulls looked up to see what their prisoners were reacting to. He had time for a short cry of “Hey!” before the deafening crack of the rifle ripped through the air. The bull collapsed. He looked as if he had only fainted, but the blood and brain matter that splattered the wall behind him proved otherwise.
The other three bulls reacted to the death of their comrade with surprising speed. They scattered like pins, each diving for cover and returning fire. With all three focused on the single Deiopean shooter, Gus took the trio by surprise. She picked one off with Delilah before they even knew she was there. Down to two shooters on each side, a firefight erupted and sent the eight captive Deiopeans running.
Gus, looking for better cover and clearer sightlines, raced across the open stables towards an abandoned cargo container. But either miscalculating the distance or her speed, she was caught in the open when the bulls came up from cover to fire. The lime green beams from their rifles cut through the air with a static crackle. The first was wild and wide. Panicked. But it was close enough to make her dive the final few feet to cover – an act that ultimately saved her life. The second beam sliced through her calf, instead of her heart, and cleaved through muscle like a skiff through the clouds.