Gas Giant Gambit: A Tale from Across the Cygnus Rift

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18: The Insignificant Eight

Las Ráfagas’s cemetery was like most in the Territories. Nestled behind Santa Barbara and hidden away from the town square, row upon row of shelves heavy with urns containing the remains of townsfolk and travelers alike stood silently in the midnight gloom. Dark shadows hunched together and spoke in hushed tones among the shelves.

“That’s ridiculous,” Ray scoffed.

“Ray, I saw it with my own eyes. I talked to Gloria Smith myself,” Gus whispered.

“Could she be mistaken? Emmitt was the engineer, after all,” Brother Richard asked.

“Does she even know a pulse-rail train from a Steeldust mount?” Stonewall added.

“No,” Oscar chimed in. “It may have been Emmitt’s name on the sign, but esa mujer es inteligente. I’d wager she’s got it right. And who invited you anyway?”

“Easy, Oscar,” Richard said. “I invited John. This concerns his family as much as yours.” Oscar harumphed, but kept his mouth shut.

“Just so we’re all clear,” Bernadette said, “you’re actually saying that Laszlo Leconte has taken over a Deiopean mining outpost so he can steal their refining technology, and kidnap dozens of natives-”

Hundreds,” Gus corrected.

“Yes, excuse me, hundreds of Deiopeans, to use as, what? Slave labor as part of the town’s retrofitted refining process?”

Hidden beneath the hood of her robe, Aurora’s eyes flashed once: “Yes.

“Why?”

Gus felt every eye on her. A cool draft blew through the cemetery shelves, carrying the stale smell of old ash with it.

“Emmitt seems to have had a notion on that as well,” Gus said. “Seems Laszlo ordered some work done on the livery stables a few months back. Nothing drastic, just shoring up some structural issues and getting ahead of the maintenance schedule.”

“So?” Ray asked skeptically. “It’s not like fixin’ the place up’s a crime.” He looked uncomfortable to be there.

“Raymond Gascon!” Bernadette chided. “When have you ever known that man to care about town maintenance? The only reason he let Emmitt repair that pressure leak in the mercantile last year was because no one wanted to have to decompress to shop!”

“Exactly,” Gus continued. “Alone, this maintenance work probably doesn’t mean anything. But when you combine it with this ‘deal’ and the rush to make a deadline, morality be damned, Emmitt had a theory. He thought Laszlo was expecting some big company.”

“What do you mean?” Oscar asked.

“A CCO pulse-rail train. One that runs on highly refined Rb-87 instead of whatever quantum crap the Campbells run on.”

A murmur of excitement and disbelief rippled through the small group.

“You don’t really believe that bunk, do you?” Ray asked.

“A pulse-rail train, and this close to the Cygnus X colonies,” Oscar murmured and looked to his wife.

“It could turn the tide of the war.” Bernadette met her husband’s gaze.

“We have to do something!” Brother Richard said, raising his voice to a chorus of shushes.

“What do you have in mind, Brother?” Stonewall snorted. “Pray the copperheads into surrender?”

A hushed argument bubbled up between the urns. Gus let them squabble for a few moments before quieting them. “Stonewall’s right. This is officially too big for us.”

“What are you saying?” Aurora asked. “You won’t help my people?”

“And what about Moe?” Bernadette added.

Gus rubbed the bridge of her nose. “I said I would help, and I will. But we’re going to need backup. That means someone has to go get it,” she explained. She stared at the Vegas.

Oscar’s eyes widened at the suggestion. “I will not run. If there is a fight coming to Las Ráfagas, then we will be here to meet it!” he said. But Bernadette looked worried.

Gus, on the other hand, was losing patience. “You want to be here for the fight? Fine. But there won’t be much of a fight if you don’t bring it back with you. I’ll get Moe out, if only because I’ll need the help disrupting things here. Buying you time.”

“Who are we supposed to bring?” Bernadette asked.

“The whole bluebell army, if you can swing it,” Gus said gravely.

Oscar looked around the small group, his uncertain gaze lingering on Stonewall, then back to Gus. “What’s your plan?”

But Gus was peering through the shelves that surrounded them. “Where is he?” she muttered.

“Who?” Brother Richard asked.

“Walter?” Ray said as the genie store-clerk-cum-waiter appeared in the dark. “What are you doing out at this hour?”

“Darkness rises. The wind howls. The storm approaches,” Walter said flatly, then added, “Gretchen told me to come. Said I could help a friend.” He smiled crookedly at Gus.

“I asked Gretchen to send him,” Gus said and returned the smile. Now that they we all there, she lit a cigar. “Alright, here’s how I see it-” she started, but Brother Richard interrupted.

“If I may,” he pulled his robes tightly around his body, “it’s rather chilly tonight. Would anyone mind if we went somewhere a little warmer while we discuss our little rebellion? I know a place.”

With no objections, and a little curiosity on Gus’ party, five minutes later the small group were facing a dusty and mostly empty wine rack in Santa Barbara’s basement. Brother Richard touched his sandaled toe against a particularly murky bottle of sacramental wine near the floor. In response, the entire rack slid back about foot with surprisingly little sound. “Gus, a hand please?” Brother Richard asked and pointed to a spot near the edge of the rack. Bewildered, Gus stepped forward and the pair slowly pushed the thick hidden door inwards. “Shhh…” Brother Richard held a finger to his lips, “they’re probably sleeping. Let’s try not to disturb them.”

What lay beyond the false wall was a small but cozy room bathed in the warm glow of a heat lamp. Eight small bodies stirred. The Deiopeans Gus and Aurora had saved from the fate of their kin down on the refining level. “So, this is where you’ve been keeping them,” Ray said with a hint of amusement on his face. “And I’m guessing this ain’t the first time this room has been used like this, has it?”

“No,” Richard replied without an ounce of apology in his voice. Instead, his secret laid bare, he proudly looked Ray right in the eye. “I’ve helped many wayward souls move through these walls. Our friend Moe even spent a few days safely hidden away here when he first arrived in town,” he said. “But we mustn’t stay too late into the morning. Even a town as empty as ours had eyes. There’s no need to draw his attention with a group of strange people leaving the chapel together. Especially when we haven’t held services in months…” He trailed off as he cleared space around a small table at the center of the room.

“Alright,” Oscar said and limped to his place between Gus and his wife at the table. “Let’s hear this plan of yours.”

Gus rolled a fresh cigar and ignored Oscar. She was eyeing his misbehaving prosthetic instead. “Aaron really did a number on it, didn’t he?”

“It’s fine,” he said, brushing her off. “Let’s have it.”

But Gus could see he was leaning on his good leg and putting a lot of his weight on the table. She rolled her eyes. “Christ’s blood, has he always been this stubborn?” she asked Bernadette.

Caught off guard, Bernadette smiled. “As a matter of fact, yes,” she said. She glared at her husband, but the loving smile remained.

“Sit down, and give me the damn leg,” Gus ordered. She lit her cigar and filled the small room with the sharp smell of tobacco. With a soft hum, the environmental systems kicked in and fans whisked the smoke away.

“We don’t have time for this!” Oscar looked around at the other faces for backup. Instead, Ray pulled out a chair for him.

“Hey, mi amigo,” Gus said. “I can do two things at once.”

Seeing he was outnumbered, Oscar sat, removed his leg, and crossed his arms over his chest. “There,” he said defensively, “how much is this going to cost me?”

Gus flinched, but she knew she deserved that. “For the leg; not a thing.” She pulled a few small tools from a pocket on her flight suit. “But breaking Moe out of that fort of a jailhouse, causing a big enough ruckus for you to bring the cavalry and free the Deiopeans – that ain’t gonna be cheap.”

“I knew it,” Stonewall scoffed. “And if we can’t pay?”

Gus stopped working on Oscar’s prosthesis to shoot the rancher a dark look through the thin line of smoke rising from her cigar. His anger was justified, but, Christ’s blood, a girl had to live. “Don’t worry, payment won’t be coming out of your pocketbooks,” she said and turned back to the leg’s complicated robotics. “In fact, Moe’s already offered a source of payment. And to help me get it.”

“The gold the copperheads are paying Laszlo with,” Ray suddenly chimed in.

“Penny for the smart old man,” Gus said and smiled as she worked.

“That’s- That’s insane,” Bernadette said.

“Maybe,” Gus agreed, “but it’ll be impossible to buy the time we need without your farmhand, so we gotta start with him either way. I plan to have him out of there, and you out of town, before Mackenzie Leconte arrives with the copperhead inspection team. Losing the bounty-head probably won’t be enough to bugger the deal, but it’ll be a start. Then we’ll cause a distraction in town. One big enough that you should be able to get out of the system with that little mule of yours. Then you sprint like hell to Holliday and bring the cavalry. Rich? I want you with the Vegas.”

Brother Richard puffed up his chest. “I may be a monk, but my order has some pretty specific things to say about protecting the innocent. I’d like to stay and fight.”

Even though Gus had been expecting this from Richard, she was impressed. She hadn’t met many trustworthy religious types, but she would take ten Brother Richards into battle if she could have. But she also knew where he would do the most good. “I need you with the team going to Holliday. They’ve got one tunk of a tale to tell, and a man o’ the cloth’s voice will go a long way towards convincing the bluebells.”

Richard looked like he might argue more but nodded instead. Good. The Vegas would need his steel. Besides, she didn’t want the death of a holy man – especially one so young and idealistic as Richard – on her conscience.

“And what are you going to do in the meantime?” Bernadette asked.

“Moe, Aurora, and I, with a little covert help from Marshal Ray and Stonewall here, will do what we can to skuttle the copperheads’ wagon when they get here so they can’t go after you. After that, it’s just a matter of staying alive until you get back, guns blazing.”

“And, somewhere in that chaos, you’re going to try to steal a hold-full of copperhead gold?” Brother Richard said. He may not have approved, but that couldn’t stop from smiling.

“That’s for me to worry about, Brother,” Gus said with the barest hint of a smirk playing across her own lips. “But for now, we start with Moe. And for my plan to work, we need someone who has access to the company jailhouse.”

Every eye at the table turned towards Walter. The genie nodded. “What do you need me to do?”

#

“Thank you, Gus,” Bernadette said quietly. Hours had melted away as they had planned Moe’s jailbreak and the Vegas’ subsequent sprint to Holliday. It was nearly dawn now. The gathering was breaking up and the group was leaving Santa Barbara as inconspicuously as possible. With his part understood, Walter had returned to the mining barracks where he stayed with Gretchen. Stonewall had just skulked off into the early morning light, and the Vegas were waiting their turn. Oscar stood by the big false door and fidgeted with his freshly repaired leg.

“Don’t mention it,” Gus said. “Aaron only bent a support rod and kinked an oil line. The leg should be good as new now.” She dug into one of her pockets and pulled out her lucky coin. “Hey, Oscar,” she said, and flipped the coin to him when he looked up. He caught it and gave her a puzzled look. “For luck,” she said and winked.

“That’s not what I mean, and you know it,” Bernadette said bluntly.

Gus pulled her tobacco tin from another pocket and gave the farmwife a cynical look. “Don’t read too far into things,” she said. “My options for getting paid and getting out this garbage scow of a town have been reduced to exactly one. I still think you should have taken Laszlo’s offer and left this god-forsaken gas ball a long time ago.”

Gus wasn’t sure what kind of response that would illicit, but she wasn’t expecting what she got. Bernadette smiled and said, “I don’t believe that for a second,” before leaning in close to kiss Gus tenderly on the forehead. “But whatever your reason for helping us, thank you.” With that, she turned and followed her husband and Brother Richard out.

That left only Gus, Ray, Aurora, and the sleeping Deiopeans. “Now that they’re gone, we’ve got a bit more to discuss,” Gus said. She sat back down at the little table.

“What’s that?” Ray asked. He had been uncharacteristically quiet throughout the night.

“Just what you’re willing to do,” Gus replied. “I know Laszlo’s an old friend. And what you’ve learned over the last few days can’t be easy.” Ray looked down at his boots and said nothing. “I need to know, right now, if I can count on you when things go pear-shaped. Even if everything goes smoothly, it will go pear-shaped. And people are going to die. I know keeping the status quo is sort of your thing around here, but one way or the other there’s a lot of change comin’. When the shooting starts - when the killing starts - are you going to have my back?”

Ray stared at the toes of his boots. Gus could see his mind churning like a hurricane. His face was dark, reflecting the storm within. Finally, he spoke, gesturing to the small, sleeping forms. “Do you know how they get from Deiopea to Aeolus?” he asked Gus. “They use a rudimentary FTL gimbal engine. Something they reverse engineered from one of the construction wagons working on Las Ráfagas that crashed. Before that, it was, what? Solid-propellant rockets?”

“That’s correct,” Aurora confirmed. “The discovery of the crash was a major event for our culture and technology.”

Ray snorted. “And then Laszlo refused to trade with them. Only now we find out, they’re even smarter than we are at this stuff. And when the bottom drops out on Laszlo, what’s he do? He steals the tech they would have shared with us if we had only treated them with the respect they deserve. Now, he’s threatening good people – likely killed a few. And for what? Gold? And all I’ve done is hide in my office and cash my own thirty pieces of silver.” The old marshal sighed with regret. He took off his badge off and held it up to the light. “Young lady, this town’s status quo had been untenable for far too long. And I’m ashamed to say I’ve been a part of the problem. Too old or too tired to see the truth: I’ve been helping Laszlo bleed this town – this whole planet – dry.

“No more. It’s time I start living up to this badge,” he said solemnly. “Whatever you ask of me, I’ll do my best to see it through.”

Gus nodded. “Good, ’cause I’m going to need you to drum up one hell of a brouhaha-”

Gus was interrupted when the heavy door swung inward and Brother Richard appeared, breathing hard. His face was red with exertion and panic. “Ray, you better come quick,” the monk managed to get out between gasps for breath.

“What is it?” Ray asked. He was already moving towards the door.

“It’s Oscar!” Richard huffed “Aaron was waiting for them at the stables!”

Without a word, Gus grabbed an old, dirty robe from a hook on the wall and threw it over her head and shoulders. With her makeshift disguise she raced up the chapel stairs after the monk and the marshal, and left Aurora to look after the other Deiopeans.

At the livery stables a small crowd had formed around Aaron Leconte and Oscar Vega, yet again. Although the first rays of morning should have been bathing the scene in a golden glow, the sky was an angry shade of purple that instead. The bruised light gave everything an unreal, ethereal quality. As Ray pushed through the excitement Gus took the opportunity to melt into the gathered bodies once again. There, hidden among the faceless townsfolk, she watched with one hand rested on Delilah’s grip.

“What in tarnation is going on?” Ray roared as he reached the center of the crowd to find a tight ring of Company Police. At the ring’s center Aaron and Tuco were struggling to clap irons around Oscar’s wrists. “I ain’t even had my coffee yet!”

But, as Gus found Bernadette and Stonewall in the crowd, it wasn’t Aaron who responded. “This man is a known menace!” Laszlo said and stepped through a gap in the ring of bulls across from Ray. “He flouts town law constantly, just like his father before him. And also like his father before him, he has a bad habit of sowing dissent! You failed to take care of the original, and now refuse to do anything about the sequel – except pay his fines for him.”

“Now, wait just a second-” Ray said. He pointed a stubby finger in Laszlo’s face.

“No,” Laszlo interrupted, “there is no more waiting. You had your chance to deal with this. Now I’m going to make an example of Mr. Vega here.” He lifted his voice for all to hear. “You all know this man,” he said and waved his hand towards the struggling farmer. “You all know he thinks the rules and laws of this town do not apply to him.”

“Oscar…” Bernadette said. She took a half-step towards her bound husband.

Stonewall grabbed her around the waist and held tight. “You can’t help him, or Hector, if you’re locked up too. Or dead,” Gus whispered into her ear.

Laszlo wasn’t done yet. “I am here this morning to assure him, and all of you, that yes, the rules apply to everyone,” he announced and nodded to Aaron.

The moment was the signal given Aaron swept Oscar’s prosthetic leg out from under him with a sharp kick. Aaron stood over the crippled farmer and smiled like a Coalsack rattler – hungry, full of teeth, and completely without humor. “I’ve been waiting a long time for this,” he said and cracked his knuckles.

Chíngate,” Oscar spat.

Aaron answered with his fists, drawing blood from Oscar’s lip with the first blow.

Oscar!” Bernadette screamed. This time she almost pulled free from Stonewall, but the jelly-rancher held firm. Even Tuco winced at this naked display of aggression.

Ray stepped in for Bernadette and caught Aaron’s arm before he could deliver too much of a beating. “That’s enough!” he yelled into Aaron’s face before tossing the younger man to the ground like a child. “I won’t let you treat anyone in my town like this, Laszlo. I don’t care if you are the administrator!”

Your town, is it?” Laszlo bristled. “Your town. That’s funny,” he chuckled. He put an arm around Ray’s shoulders like they were best friends again. “I know your little friends have been having back-alley meetings all over town. Why, just thing morning I heard tell of a few suspicious characters skulking about your fair town at daybreak. Should I have Aaron send some of his boys up here to attend to the situation? Or is that, perhaps, something the marshal would like to deal with?”

Tunk. Tunk. Tunk.

It was all coming apart at the seams. Panic rose in the back of her mind and Gus unconsciously started to draw Delilah beneath her borrowed robe. If she was going to die in this backwater town, she was going out guns blazing. And she was taking these gas-huffers with her. The Lecontes for being the authoritarian bullies they were, and Tuco for getting her into this mess in the first place. Too bad Junior wasn’t here; leaving that score unsettled would be her biggest regret.

But at the last moment before panic took over completely, Oscar managed to catch Gus’s eye. His bruised and bloodied face was stern. Stubborn. His eyes flicked from Gus to Bernadette, and back again. There was subtle squint. An intense stare. The barest of head shakes. Gus stopped. She could feel Bernadette trembling against Stonewalls arm at her side. Gus still needed to get her and Hector out of the system so they could bring back help if any of them were going to survive this. She dropped Delilah back into her holster and nodded to Oscar.

“Ray!” Oscar said hoarsely. He spat a wad of blood. “That’s enough. We always knew this day was coming. Just see that my family is safe while I’m away.”

“There!” Laszlo said gleefully. Tuco hauled Oscar to his feet and Aaron punched him in the gut. “You see? Apparently, you can beat reason into a man!”

Tuco, Gus saw, wasn’t really paying attention to Laszlo. Instead, he had been squinting at Oscar warily. The crafty bastard had followed Oscar’s gaze to his wife and was now glaring suspiciously into the crowd around Bernadette. His stare fell on Gus, hiding beneath the dirty robe, and his eyes widened before he was hit in the face with a black cloth sack, thrown by Laszlo. “Put that on him, and let’s go,” Laszlo barked. Gus ducked behind Bernadette and Stonewall and melted back into the crowd.

Had he seen her? She couldn’t be sure.

Tuco tore his gaze from the crowd and put the bag over Oscar’s head without a word. Laszlo leaned in close to Oscar’s bagged head, whispered something in his hear, and then delivered another sucker-punch to the rancher’s unprotected stomach. Aaron and Tuco caught Oscar before he fell to the ground and the posse departed, carrying Oscar off to the administration tower.

#

Tunk!

Gus, Ray, Brother Richard, and Bernadette barged into the hidden room beneath Santa Barbara’s chapel. Gus hunched down at the table and began rolling a cigar. Her hands were shaking so badly she was spilling tobacco everywhere. “Tunk!” she repeated.

“What happened?” Aurora asked.

“Oscar was arrested,” Brother Richard said. The worried expression on his face made him look ten years older.

“What’s the play here, Gus?” Ray asked. “They’re not going to waste any time once they get him back up in that tower. They’re probably roughing him up already.”

I know!” Gus snapped. “I just need to think.

Bernadette, who had remained surprisingly quiet since her husband had been dragged away, finally spoke. Her voice was low and husky, but it did not waver. “We go on with the plan.”

“And leave Oscar to Aaron and his thugs?” Ray said He was shocked at the suggestion. “No, we need to regain control of this situation.”

Gus lit her cigar and peered at Bernadette through the rising smoke. Bernadette’s eyes were red, though Gus had not seen her shed a tear. “Are you sure?” Gus asked her, ignoring Ray. The farmwife closed her eyes and nodded. “Then we go on. At 4:30 tomorrow morning we’ll have ourselves a good old-fashioned jailbreak.”

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