19: Escape from Fort Leconte
Hidden away in the secret room behind the wine rack, the day passed excruciatingly slowly for Gus. The night was even longer. Despite her help and Aurora’s companionship, the eight Deiopean miners had learned to be wary of humans and had largely kept a polite distance. Gus didn’t blame them. Only Aurora had attempted to speak to her, but her dark moon had sent the hunter back to their people after only a few words. Mercifully, after what felt like an eternity in the dark, the heavy wine-rack/door creaked inward, and Brother Richard’s handsome face appeared in the doorway. “It’s time.”
As Gus pulled her poncho on over her head, Aurora’s eyes flashed. “Be careful,” the translator chirped from the table.
Gus nodded, but didn’t reply. She stepped out into the cellar proper and helped Richard close the wine rack behind them. Ray stood at the foot of the stairs. His old-fashioned cowboy hat was pulled low and hid his face. Gus knew he wasn’t happy with how things were playing out, but she felt a strange sense of pride that the old marshal was with them. Bernadette, in a homely traveling dress, stood next to him with Hector by her side.
“Everything’s ready? You spoke with Gretchen?” Gus asked Richard.
“Yes.” He nodded. “Walter delivered your ‘package’ to Moe with last night’s supper.”
Bernadette gripped Hector’s shoulders tight. She looked tired. The bags under her eyes were dark and heavy. Yet, Gus saw no doubt in those emerald rings.
“Good.” Gus lit a cigar and looked into Bernadette’s weary eyes. “You know what to do. Let me hear you say it.”
Bernadette sighed impatiently but did as she was asked. “Hector and I are going to the livery stables. If anyone stops us, I tell them we stayed here in the chapel with Brother Richard last night.”
“Why?” Gus asked.
“With both my husband and farmhand locked up, I was too distressed to get us home,” she replied flatly.
“Good.” Gus took a deep drag. “Then what?”
“I take the mule into the clouds and wait for your signal. Then we run hard for Holliday Station.”
“Good,” Gus said again as they climbed the cellar stairs. “But there’s one small change. I’m bringing Moe to you and you’re going to take him with you.”
“I thought you needed him?” Bernadette said. The surprise was naked on her face. “To get paid?”
Gus scowled but was careful not to let either Hector or Bernadette see. “I do. But with Oscar taken, you’ll need him more. Don’t worry about me. I’ll manage.” The group was quiet as they climbed the old chapel’s stone stairs. “Alright,” Gus said when they had stepped out of Santa Barbara into the cool, pre-dawn air, “let’s get to it. Get to the rendezvous and wait for me.”
Richard took Gus’s hand in his own. Again, she was struck by his boyish good looks, and the fire they hid. “Go with the blessing of the blood of Christ,” he said solemnly.
Gus forced a smile and gave the holy man a slight nod. In Gus’s experience, those that relied on divine intervention invariably ended up dead.
“One last thing,” Ray interjected. “Don’t engage the FTL engine until after you break atmo. The outpost’s proximity sensors may work for tunk, but an FTL neg-mass discharge is hard to miss.”
Bernadette nodded tersely and turned to go, but Hector tugged on Gus’s poncho. “Are you going to help mi Papi? And Moe?” he asked. His eyes brimmed with tears.
Gus knelt to look him in the eye. “I’m going to do everything I can for them, but you have an important part to play too. You need to look after you mother now. Keep her safe. Can you do that? For your father? For me?” The tears in his eyes overflowed, but he nodded. Gus pulled him into a tight hug. “It’s okay to be scared. I’m scared too,” she whispered into his ear. “But we can’t let that stop us from doing what we have to do, right?” He nodded again and wiped snot from his nose with a dirty shirt sleeve. “Alright then,” Gus said. She stood, put her hands on the boy’s shoulders, and looking around at her coconspirators. “I think it’s time we went our separate ways.”
The quartet of adults nodded silently and melted into the dim Aeolusian dawn; Ray headed to his office, Richard, Bernadette, and Hector to the livery stables and the Vega mule, and Gus to the engineering corral, and a waiting Tilly.
The corral was dark. The crew must have been down in the mining levels putting the final touches on the retrofit. All the better for Gus – she was running low on things she was willing to bribe with. Still, she boarded Tilly as quietly as possible. Happy to see her companion again, Tilly immediately responded to her presence. Lights throughout the small pony flickered to life and the environmental system kicked on. The old mount’s ventilation made a series of sounds like rolling grunts: nickering to greet her friend.
Gus patted the bulkhead as she made her way through into the saddleroom. “We’ve got some work to do, girl,” she said and swung into the control saddle. “Think you can handle it?” A snorting sound through the environmental system acted as a reply. Gus took up the yoke reigns and led the pony up and out of the unusually quiet engineering corral. She kept close to the outpost, following the curve of the enormous hide down towards the mining levels and “Fort Leconte.”
It was only a short trot from the engineering corral to their destination, but the going was slow and rough. The gas giant’s winds had picked up and Gus had to fight the controls to keep from being blown off course, or worse, into Las Ráfagas’s side. At last, they reached their goal: a small area of the hide just outside Fort Leconte’s cellblock. Gus put Tilly into a parking hover and made her way the rear of the mount. Tilly was buffeted by the winds, rocking to and fro as she tried to maintain her position relative to the outpost on her own. Gus stumbled to the cargo hold, tapped a few buttons on a control panel, braced herself against the bulkhead and waited.
“Hmmm…” she said aloud and squinted at the tractor beam control consol. Like much of Tilly’s systems, the tractor beam was an after-market modification Gus has done herself. And like the escape pods, it hadn’t exactly been designed for this kind of mount. But it had been on Emmitt’s list of repaired systems. She poked at the buttons again. Still nothing happened. “Come on! Bottle-farting, piece of…” she slammed her fist against the bulkhead next to the panel. It remained dark. She ran a quick diagnostic, but everything checked out okay. At least, on her end.
She was starting to get worried. If the problem wasn’t here, then it had to be with Moe. Gretchen had reported the handoff had gone smoothly. Did the bulls find it at bed check? Did Moe not know how to use it properly? Christ’s blood, it was simple. All he had to do was put it against the outer wall, and turn it on…
All the lights on the tractor beam control console suddenly flickered green, a deep hum started rumbling behind the wall, and the words “BEAM ACTIVATED” flashed on the small screen.
“Yes!” she grunted. She raced back to the saddleroom and mashed a few commands into the control terminal. A grainy image looking back over Tilly’s tail end sprang to the screen. The tractor beam was clearly visible; a brilliant beam of white light connecting its emitter to the outpost’s hide, and the matchbox sized receiver Walter had smuggled into the jailhouse for Moe. “Here we go.” She pushed on the yoke reins and squeezed her spurred heels.
Tilly’s atmospheric thrusters raged against the conflicting forces of gravity, the gusting Aeolusian winds, and the tension of the tractor beam. “Come on, come on,” Gus said as she tried to coax more power from the thrusters. Tilly groaned and squealed with displeasure, but they weren’t done yet. Gus gritted her teeth, squeezed her heels, and pushed Tilly’s thrusters well past the red line.
Just as she was starting to doubt her plan, the scream of tearing metal cut through the morning air. Tilly lurched forward and took a chuck of Las Ráfagas’s silvery hide away with her. Hastily, Gus dropped below the fresh hole she had created – keeping Tilly out of sight - spun the pony around and cut power to the tractor beam. As she looked up through the saddleroom canopy and waited for Moe to appear and jump to safety, she spared a fleeting thought for the tractor beam receiver. It was still attached to the chuck of outpost wall and was falling deeper into the atmosphere. It wouldn’t be a cheap part to replace.
Electric green laser fire erupted from the fresh hole. Yet there was still no sign of Moe. “Come on, Moe,” Gus muttered. More laser fire exploded from the hole. At last, Moe’s digital face appeared over the edge, a look of confused panic plastered all over it. “Come on, come on!” Gus shouted and waved frantically to him to jump down.
Instead, the cobbler-rob’s face disappeared again, and for a terrifying moment the shooting stopped. Gus had a brief vision of Moe, collapsed on the cell floor with oil and hydraulic fluid pooling around his smoking body. But her horrid daydream was cut short when the Moe’s gangly form came leaping from the jailcell, followed by a barrage of fresh fire. Moe landed on Tilly’s back with an incredible clatter. Gus flipped a switch opening the spent escape pod’s exterior hatch and gently guided Tilly under the outpost’s belly and into the clouds, away from any chasing eyes. Gus typed in the coordinates for their rendezvous with Bernadette and went to the back to meet Moe as he climbed through the pod hatch.
“That was something!” Moe said cheerfully. The smile on his face shone brightly and he clapped Gus on the shoulders affectionately. “Where did you come up with something like that? We better get moving. Even if they didn’t see you, they’ll be after us quick!”
Gus couldn’t help but return the smile. “We’re already on our way. You alright?” she asked. “That was a lot of shootin’ going on in there. You’re not hit?”
Moe held his arms out and examined himself. There were a few carbon scars – what would have been a gaze if he were flesh and bone – but the worst was the smoldering hole in the canvas that covered the joint in the right side of his chest.
“How bad is it?” Gus asked. She touched the still smoking cloth gingerly.
Moe flexed his right arm and tested the mechanics in his fingers and wrist. “Seems okay. Missed my central power unit. Wouldn’t have made the jump if they had got that. But if it hit my brachial hydraulic tube, I’ll start to lose function in the arm. Nothing seems to be leaking, so we’ll have to wait and see. What’s the plan? Back to town? When’re the copperheads getting here?”
Gus shook her head. “There’s been a change in plans, and that injury just sealed the deal.”
Moe looked skeptical. “What kind of change?”
“Oscar got picked up by the Lecontes yesterday morning when they left our little planning session for this escape.”
Moe exploded. “What are we waiting for? Let’s go get him! What’s the plan? Where are they holding him?”
Gus held up her hands. “Whoa there, big guy,” she said and shook her head. “It’s not that kind of change. I’m gonna worry about Oscar. You’re going to see Bernadette, Hector, and Brother Richard to Holliday Station quickly and safely.”
Moe wasted no time considering his reply. “No,” he shook his bowler cap clad head, “I won’t leave the boss in the hands of these men.”
“Plan’s already been decided, Moe. This is what has to happen. Oscar needs you to look after his family now. Like they’ve always looked after you,” Gus said and stepped back into the saddleroom. Moe’s shoulders dropped. He looked like he wanted to argue more, but he nodded instead. Good, Gus thought. The last thing she needed was to argue about battle tactics with a rutting bootmaker. She peered out the canopy. A small, dark shadow had come into view. The Vega’s mule. “Besides,” she muttered, “we’re here.” Gus swung back into the saddle, took the reigns over from the autorider, and maneuvered in close to the mule to dock belly-to-belly with the smaller mount. The mule’s powerful atmo-thrusters raged against the extra weight but held both craft aloft with ease.
Moving from one gravitational orientation to another always made Gus’s stomach do backflips, but she swallowed hard and awkwardly lead Moe through Tilly’s lift and onto the mule. The tractor was small to begin with, but with both Moe and Gus now aboard there was barely room to breathe. While the bottle-ranching family had their reunion (minus one important member), Gus gave the old mule’s FTL systems one final check with Brother Richard looking over her shoulder. Satisfied everything was working properly, she turned to the broken family. “Alright. You know what to do,” she said to Bernadette.
She nodded. “Wait for your signal, then sprint as hard as we can all the way to Holliday.”
Gus offered a small reassuring smile. “You got it. I’m counting on you to bring the fire back with you. Oscar’s counting on you,” she said and put a hand on Bernadette’s shoulder.
“I know. But…” she said, and that determination flared in her eyes again.
“What are you going to do?” Brother Richard finished.
Gus wasn’t sure herself. “Me and Tilly have got a few tricks up our sleeve yet,” she said with a grin that had twice as much confidence in it as she actually felt. Bernadette pursed her lips skeptically but kept her doubts to herself. “Alright, look. The coolant system is still a little sticky, so you’re going to have to watch it,” Gus said and pointed to a display on the main control console. “You’re going to be running hot, so it’ll have a tendency to gum up. You’ve just got to stay on top of flushing it.” She turned to Hector. “You can be in charge of that, okay pal?”
Before the boy could answer, a brilliant flash of pure white light lit up the sky like a new sun’s explosive birth. When the moment had faded an enormous shape hung in the sky above them. It was long and narrow, and dragged a gigantic fireball with it as it came screaming into the atmosphere. The mule’s radio suddenly crackled to life on its own. “Attention: Las Ráfagas Outpost,” a stern voice ordered. “This is the CCS Heavy Pulse-Rail Cruiser Shenandoah. By the authority of the Confederate Colonies of Orion, this outpost is hereby placed under immediate lock-down until further notice. Any craft attempting to leave the system without proper authorization will be fired upon and destroyed.”
As they watched, the immense fireball cleared as the shape slowed and approached the liver stables. It wasn’t like anything Gus had ever seen before. There were three heavily armored and armed modules, the first of which was clearly the drive section. It looked like they had strung no fewer than eight celerity drive engines together. The CCO had their pulse-rail train.
Tunk! Gus slammed a fist down on the mule’s controls. “They’re early.”