Gas Giant Gambit: A Tale from Across the Cygnus Rift

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17: The Lawless Breed

Tunk.

Back inside the cellblock Gus’s mind reeled. Of course, Tuco would turn over Moe. Everything had happened so fast she had nearly forgotten about her good-for-nothing partner.

Moe saw her face change. “What is it, Gus?” he asked. Panic crept into the edges of his electronic voice.

“Something I hadn’t planned for,” she said. “But I gave you my word I would help you, and I’m going to do that. I swear.”

What?” Moe’s eyes were as wide as saucers. “What’s that supposed to mean?” He was nearing hysterics again as he backed away from the bars and held his hand up defensively.

Gus ignored him and turned her attention to Osar and Aurora. “You two: out the back. Now.”

“Boss, please, don’t let them take me,” Moe pleaded with Oscar.

Oscar looked from Gus to his panicking farmhand. “I-”

Now, Oscar!” Gus hissed. “We can’t help him if they find me alive back here.”

Oscar looked back into Moe’s digital face. “I’m sorry, mi amigo,” he said before turning and racing for the door.

Moe stood alone at the bars of his cell door. The panic seemed to have left his face, only to be replaced with a look of forlorn helplessness directed at his feet.

“This isn’t over, Moe. I promise,” Gus said, but the rob wouldn’t look up at her.

She stared at him, hoping he would answer her, but Ray opened the cellblock door slowly, caught her eye, and mouthed “Go!” Reluctantly, she went and closed the backdoor behind her.

The trio stood silently in the alley as the air grew dark with twilight, waiting for Tuco and the Lecontes to finish their business so they could safely move. Gus leaned against the door and tried to listen for any sign of what might be going on inside. The door was thick, but she heard the heavy cellblock door close as Ray and Moe moved back through it towards the front of the Marshal’s Office. She limped to the corner of the building and peer around it towards the town square.

“What are you going to do?” Oscar asked. He shuffled after her as best he could on his own busted leg. Aurora helped him, taking much of his weight on their short but stout shoulders.

“I really don’t know,” Gus admitted. They watched as Junior and Tuco stepped out of the Marshal’s office, with Aaron and Moe – the rob in reenforced irons, of course – following behind. They turned left once they hit the square and headed towards Genie-town, and mining level access lift. Gus turned back to Oscar and Aurora. “Round up whoever you still trust and meet me in the cemetery tonight at midnight.”

“You have a plan?” Oscar asked.

“Not yet. But I will by then.”

“I’m going with you,” Ray’s Deiopean translator squeaked. It was now affixed to Aurora’s robe.

“No, I-” Gus started to refuse.

But the small native was already helping Oscar stand on his own. “I’m going with you,” Aurora repeated.

“Best not argue with a Deiopean,” Oscar said. He smirked at his little friend. “Especially this one. You’ll find you and they share a common characteristic.”

“What’s that?” Gus asked. Her mind was already picking out cover to follow Moe and his captors unseen.

Stubbornness.”

Oscar was leaning against the wall, trying to put as little weight on his prosthetic as possible. Aurora’s shoulders were set in a remarkably human look of determination. Every moment she argued Moe got further away. “Fine,” she said. “Oscar, you stay out of trouble until we get back. Remember, the cemetery at midnight.”

#

Even with her limp, it only took Gus and Aurora a few moments to catch up to Tuco and the Lecontes. When they did, Gus could see why: every few feet Aaron would slow them down by getting in Moe’s face to taunt the helpless rob.

“You’re gonna get what’s coming to ya, ya rutting murdering pile of rust! Maybe they’ll let me do it! I always wanted to waste one of you walking circuit boards.” Aaron shouted into Moe’s face and danced gleefully around the farmhand.

Junior was about ten paces ahead of his brother, speaking to Tuco in hushed tones, when they reached the mining level access lift. “Hey, gas-huffer! Let’s go,” he shouted at his brother. “I would like to get back to the tower before dark.”

“But I thought we were going to Cirrus House tonight?” Aaron whined. He dragged Moe towards the lift.

Christ’s rutting blood!” Junior was losing patience with his younger sibling. “You gamble and rut every night. Mackenzie’s coming home soon and there are things we need to finish before she gets here.”

Aaron smiled and shoved Moe. “That’s right! Mackenzie’s coming! Then all you parasites - robs, genies, and those lowlife human miners – you’ll all get what’s coming to ya!”

Aaron!” Junior snapped as he hit the button to send the lift down. “Shut up!

Gus watched the lift drop from cover. Tunk. She hadn’t thought this far ahead. How were they supposed to follow now? If she called the lift back up too soon, the Lecontes would hear her coming. If she waited too long, she’d lose them. Chances were good they were just heading to the Company Police lockup, but Gus wanted to make sure they didn’t have any surprises in store for Moe.

There was a flash of scarlet light followed by the electronic voice of the translator, “Hey!” Aurora was standing at an open manhole hatch. It was an access ladder, probably for servicing the lift. Gus nodded and followed Aurora down.

The pair reached the mining level only a moment after the lift. Silently, they followed Tuco and the Lecontes through the dark corridors. Aaron was still harassing Moe, but the jabs had turned to more generic questions of Moe’s design, intelligence, and murderous intent. Gus found herself dwelling on that last comment before they had descended.

They’ll “all get what’s coming” to them. When Mackenzie arrives.

They wouldn’t execute Moe here, in the Territories, without a trial… would they?

She wasn’t sure anymore.

After a few twists and turns through the cluttered mining hallways they came to a wide, open area that roughly resembled the town square above. To their right, rising four stories and spanning far beyond the square in either direction, was the miner’s barracks. Like Tilly’s hive, it was bustling with activity as miners of all shapes and sizes, organic and rob – and some combinations of the two – milled about with nothing better to do. On their left, their quarry led Moe towards a flat building that was flush with the outpost’s outer hide. The Company Police lockup. The jailhouse’s porch was littered with bulls, some in uniform, other lounging around off-duty. Most kept a wary eye on the barracks across the square.

Gus and Aurora kept to the shadows of an alley-mouth. They watched as Tuco and Junior, followed by Aaron dragging Moe by the forearm, disappeared inside the lockup. Gus fell against the alleyway wall and slid to the ground. Although it was what she had expected, this was going to be a problem. Under the deep hood, Aurora’s eye flashed. “What is it?”

Gus peeked back out at the jailhouse porch. A sign hanging from the roof, like some kind of bad joke, identified the jailhouse as “Fort Leconte.” Every bull was armed, even the plainclothes loitering about. Some wore heaters on their hips, other had long guns and beam-splitters laid across laps or resting on shoulders. This was not police force. It was a militia. An army. Laszlo’s army.

“That’s a lot more firepower than I was counting on.”

The crackle of rubbish underfoot had Gus on her feet with Delilah in hand in an instant. A hulking shape gracefully stepped from the shadows and Gus readied herself for a fight.

It was Gretchen. Her clamp-like hands were held up defensively. “Whoa there, friends,” she said in a low voice. The lights on her face blinked in the gloom.

Gus was relieved but also surprised the see the big mining-rob. “What are you doing sneaking around?”

Gretchen shrugged her massive shoulders. “It’s what I do. Rumor has it the Lecontes were bringing Moe down here. I came to see for myself.

“That’s one rumor I can confirm. What else have you heard?”

“That you’re dead,” Gretchen said with a hint of amusement in her light voice.

This time it was Gus’s turn to shrug. “Glad to see the rumor mill is just as sharp out here as it is back home. But let’s keep the truth behind this one between just us, alright?”

Gretchen mimed closing a zipper over her mouthless face. Gus peered around the corner at the jailhouse porch again. How am I going to pull this one off?

“Walter will be so happy to hear that you’re alive. He was afraid we’d never get the chance to repay you for the other night. I’ll tell him to let Moe know when he goes in to serve dinner to the prisoners,” Gretchen mused and carefully took her own peek around the corner.

Christ’s blood, Gretchen, what did I just say?”

Gretchen’s expressionless face somehow looked confused. “I’m not going to go around discrediting rumors. I just want to tell the people who deserve to know.”

“Dammit, Gretchen, you can’t tell-”

Aurora’s flashes interrupted. “You know the individual that brings food to the prisoners?”

“Walter? Oh yeah, he’s my husband. Why?”

“The ability to pass messages to the automaton may provide an opportunity for us to exploit,” Aurora replied.

Gus looked at Aurora, dumbfounded. Of course. She turned to the big mining-rob. “You know, Gretchen, there may be something you and Walter can do after all.”

#

“Do you really think this will work?” Aurora asked. The flashes from her eyes lit up the small hallway as the pair headed back towards the lift’s service ladder.

“Do you have a better idea?”

They walked in silent darkness.

I guess not.

She was starting to like Aurora. The Deiopean was small, but tough, and clearly a crack shot with that rifle. The ricochet they killed that final bull with during the shootout on the native’s outpost… Gus knew she couldn’t have made it. She knew few who could.

“What about helping my people? How will rescuing the automaton help them? Is the risk worth it?” Aurora asked turning a corner. Although Gus had not spent much time in the mining levels, this area looked somehow familiar.

“First off, his name is Moe. Secondly - I’m not rightly sure,” Gus admitted. Even a few days ago she probably would have agreed rescuing Moe wasn’t worth it. A few days. Had it really only been days since she had arrived on Las Ráfagas? “But I made him a promise, and I can’t leave him to these jackals…” she trailed off as they stepped through a darkened doorway.

She knew this place.

“Hold on,” she said, beckoning Aurora to follow.

Automated lights flickered on when they set foot in the familiar room. Her surroundings laid bare in the sterile light, Gus understood why she recognized them. They stood in the Leconte’s horrific recreation of the refinement room where she had overheard their squabbling on the Deiopean outpost. A massive raw rubidium-87 pipe snaked its way through the enormous room. There were dozens – no, hundreds - of the Deiopean-shaped indentations dotting the length of the pipe. Each station featured four pairs of old-fashioned iron shackles. And as the pipe left the room it passed between a pair of massive raw fuel vats. These, like everything else in the room, dwarfed their Deiopean counterparts.

There was, however, one design element that differed between the two refining facilities, and it was a display of flashing lights that drew Gus’s attention to it. There, beyond the pass between the vats, were row after row of small holding cells. Almost all of them contained one small, cowering Deiopean. Gus didn’t have much experience judging non-human health, but these people looked sick. Stripped naked of their robes, they were lethargic, with hunched shoulders and shrunken bellies. Even the light from their eyes was so muted Aurora’s translator didn’t pick them up.

But it did register Aurora’s surprise. “What is this?” they demanded. The hunter’s eyes continued to flash as they approached the nearest cell, but the translator stayed quiet – it apparently hadn’t been programed for profanity. The Deiopean in the cell was so weak they barely looked up at Aurora and could only muster the feeblest flashes Gus recognized as “Help.”

“Help me free them,” Aurora ordered and examined the small cell’s complicated lock.

Gus hesitated. “We can’t do this,” she said. Her head as on a swivel, trying to see the entire room at once. “Not right now anyway. There are too many of them. We’ll never make it off the mining levels.

“She’s right,” Gloria Smith’s tired voice said from a doorway to their right. “I can help you free them, but we’ll have to wait until the time is right.”

Aurora was on the widow in a flash. Their eye’s flashed with rage. “What is this?!” Gus grabbed Aurora by the back of their robes and dragged them off the old woman.

When Gloria had regained her feet, she wouldn’t look at either Aurora or the holding cells. “This,” she said, “was my Emmitt’s greatest shame.”

“You knew about this? You helped them build this prison?!” The flashes coming from Aurora’s eyes took on a sinister hue and they took a menacing step back towards the old woman.

Gloria screamed. “No! I-I, that is, we- we had no choice!”

Gus put herself between the Aurora and Gloria. “Aurora!” she barked. “This isn’t helping! Laszlo’s tainted every part of this place. You can all assign blame later. Right now, I need her to tell me what this is.”

“I’ll tell you what it is,” Aurora’s eyes blazed. “It’s a work prison. Meant to subjugate my people for that-” the device’s voice shorted out as their eyes raged through an untranslatable epithet, “-’s personal gain.”

“Is that true?” Gus asked.

Gloria’s face twisted with regret. “Yes,” she sobbed, and burred her face in her hands.

Gus looked out over the twisting pipe with its row after row of shackle flanked indentations. “I’m not sure I understand.”

“It’s their eyes,” Gloria said and wiped tears from her own. “They can create a particular wavelength of light, in the upper gamma ray range, I think. When the rubidium gas is treated with that wavelength before it’s processed, the resulting product has something like ten times the potency. It’s some kind of chemical or photonic reaction. I don’t understand it at all. Emmitt was the one with all the talent.” Her body rocked with fresh sobs.

“But he couldn’t reproduce it artificially,” Gus said, a flash of the confrontation she had seen between Junior and the old engineer came to mind. “He needed live specimens.” She looked back at tiny cells and the pathetic beings they held.

“Emmitt was sure he could crack it if he had more time, but they ordered him to use the spiders!” Gloria was hysterical. “They threatened to kill us, and his whole team, and replace them with people who wouldn’t ask so many questions!” she explained in a flurry of words, desperate for absolution.

“Gloria!” Gus took the older woman by the shoulders. “It’s alright. It was Laszlo. It’s Laszlo. Emmitt was only doing what he thought was right. What he thought would keep you safe.” Aurora hunched their shoulders and move back to the cells, away from the two human women. Gus could understand Aurora’s anger, but right now they needed all the information they could get from Gloria.

“Why was it so important that it be done so fast? Why all the rush?” Gus asked.

“A pulse-rail train,” Gloria said quietly.

“What? No,” Gus said and shook her head. That’s what Aaron had said, but it didn’t make any sense. “The Campbell 440 engines don’t use Rb-87. It can’t power the negative mass reaction needed for that kind of space/time warp. Besides, the copperheads don’t even have a pulse-rail train.”

Aurora put a small hand on Gus’s back. “If we cannot free my people now, we must meet with our friends and tell them of our discovery here.”

Gus nodded.

“Gloria, we’ve got to keep moving. Do you know when the retrofits go online?” she asked and glanced back at the already weakened natives.

Gloria shook her head. “They were supposed to bring it online already. But the last delivery of…” she trailed off and looked at the few empty cells. “Something must have happened to change the timeline.” Damn straight, Gus thought. But still, with the CCO inspection looming, they would start the operation up soon enough. “Thank you, Gloria. You should find another place to be. It isn’t safe here.”

Wait!” the widow said and grabbed the hem of Gus’s poncho. “They murdered him.” Tears rolled down her cheeks, but she did not sob this time. “He did what they asked of him, and they killed him for it.”

Gus could only nod. She had been there. She had seen. Emmitt may have saved her life that day too.

Gloria’s eyes turned from sorrow to a dreadful grit. “I want you to kill that murdering son of a bastard, Junior. Will you do that for me? For Emmitt?” She paused and searched Gus’s eyes for something. “If you can promise me that, I’ll tell you something else. Something Emmitt only guessed at. What probably got my husband killed and will probably be the reason they’ll come for me soon.”

“Mrs. Smith. Gloria. You have my attention.”

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