2: Once Upon a Time in the Clouds
She’d managed to pull Tilly’s nose up, but they were still falling too fast for the thrusters to fight. Fire licked at the canopy as the heat on Tilly’s hide flared.
“Come on, come on,” the drifter pleaded, yanking uselessly on the reins.
A shadow passed over the canopy, so briefly she thought it was a trick of the light. But then it was back, matching Tilly’s speed as she fell through the clouds. It was enormous, dwarfing the tumbling Tilly in its shadow. It orbited the falling pony, like a cat circling an injured mouse. And like a cat, it was gone as suddenly as it had arrived.
It was quickly replaced by a new shadow; this one much smaller - smaller than even Tilly – and moving with much more purpose. A voice crackled over the open comm array and fought to be heard over the static. “H-y Gu-! -an you -ear -e?! If you -an, cut y-u- thr-ster- on th- count -f…”
She slammed her fist down on the transmit button and screamed into the intercom. “Unidentified vessel, this is Steeldust Transport Matilda requesting immediate assistance! Please repeat your last!”
The speakers crackled again, “-3! N-w, -us! Cut your thru-ter- now!”
Cut thrusters? What was this fool on about?
Before she could decide if her would-be rescuer was crazy or just plain stupid, her canopy was suddenly draped in coiled steel netting. That’s it, he is crazy, she thought and quickly shut down Tilly’s atmospheric thrusters before they could burn through the net she was now caught in. And the crazy bastard is gonna drag us both down.
Immense blue lights flared in the murky clouds above Tilly. Her rescuer’s atmo thrusters were huge, easily three or four times the size of Tilly’s. Maybe he wasn’t as crazy as he seemed. Tilly’s fall slowed until it came to a gentle stop, hovering in the clouds.
“Wow!” The comms squawked again. “That was a close one! You alright down there, Gus?”
Gus? “Yeah, just a few bumps and bruises. Nothing a drink won’t fix. Thanks for the save, friend.”
“Happy to be of service! I’m reading damage to your flight systems. How ’bout a tow? The chief and I have a chore to attend to, but then were heading back home for some breakfast. You’re welcome to join us.”
She checked Tilly’s gauges. Minor hull breaches, secondary systems down across the board, But the worst damage was reserved for the engine gimbal. The smallest ring was seized, which had caused the bearings in the center ring to warp, the coolant system had a leak the size of her fist, and the FTL fuel cell was almost dry. Thruster fuel was efficient and was still at 67%, but to top everything off, she’s burned the thrusters themselves so hot on reentry their housings on were melted. She slammed her fist down on the control panel and cursed. She wasn’t going to be getting out of there any time soon.
“Yes, thank you. Can you take me to Las Ráfagas?” She didn’t like being in people’s debt, but this was one favor she’d be happy to repay.
There was a pause and then, “Maybe you should come back to the homestead first. Come on up. You’ll be more comfortable with us.”
Grumbling, the drifter took a few moments to find her boots’ EVA booster attachments; she didn’t use them often and had to hunt for them in Tilly’s small living quarters. After shimmying out the spent escape pod hatch and using the boosters to reach the hovering mule above, she met her rescuer face-to-face. He was a rob, an android model - human sized and shaped - with soft cloth concealing the rough edges of the joints and hinges at his shoulders and chest. It gave the impression he was wearing a snug, well-tailored vest. “Name’s Maurice, but my friends call me Moe! Put ’er there, Gus,” he said and extended a long, elegantly crafted hand. His silverly fingers were scratched and corroded with years of hard work.
She pulled her hood down and shook his hand and looked into the gentle eyes projected onto Moe’s “face.” Everything north of where a man’s jaw would be was a screen – a screen with the image of a human man’s face on it. It was calm and sun cracked, with deep crow’s feet and laugh lines. She knew that behind that screen was a 9-lobed multiquark IPU. Probably an older model tetra-, by her reckoning. The multiquark artificial brains far outperformed the older positronic models, but they had a bad habit of developing emotions after a few years. Those emotions often led to robs “reevaluating” some of their core Asimovian programming. Sometimes they turned into dangerous psychopaths. Most of the time they just got a taste of free will and did something unexpected, like shipping out to the frontier to become a farm hand. Either way, it was only a problem if they came from the CCO, which still hadn’t recognized artificial sentience.
Thus, the war.
“Thanks for the save back there, I thought I was going to be chewing gravel for sure. But who’s ‘Gus’?”
Moe adjusted a scuffed bowler cap and tugged on his trousers in a remarkable recreation of nervousness. “I, er- ah, that is to say-”
“Moe was in a crash a few years ago, and now some of his wires are a little crossed, that’s all. Whenever he tries to say anyone’s name is always comes out ‘Gus,’” said a little boy who had stepped out from behind the rob. He was maybe nine or ten.
Moe sighed, blushing slightly. “It’s a name-specific form of aphasia, and an embarrassing side-effect of the treatment I received. Besides, all you doppels look the same, anyway! Don’t worry, none of my cognitive or behavioral programming is damaged. This is Gus Vega, the son of my employer.”
The little boy stepped forward and offered his own hand. “Hector Vega.”
An aphasic rob and his little boy sidekick. And she had thought she had seen all the Orion Arm had to offer. She took Hector’s hand. “Doppels?”
“It’s what the robs and genies here call regular humans,” Hector said, rolling his eyes.
Gus snorted. Doppel. As in, doppelganger.
“Can’t say I’ve heard that one yet. But I’ll admit, you had me worried for a second there with that rescue,” she said and looked up into Moe’s face. “But only someone with all their nuts tightly screwed could have pulled that off. I thank you.” Moe blushed again. “As for the name,” she locked eyes with Hector and winked. “Gus will do fine.”
The mount Moe and Hector had saved “Gus” with was quite small. But as she has seen first-hand, its atmo engines were overpowered, designed for use within the gas giant’s gravity and dense atmosphere. It was all of twenty feet long, and nothing but a saddle, a ring-shaped engine room wrapped around an FTL gimbal a quarter the size of Tilly’s, and those massive atmo thrusters. It was a farm mule – small, powerful, and probably mostly used for chores around the Vega homestead. A quick glance over the engine room told Gus the old mule’s tiny FTL engine hadn’t seen any maintenance in a while. The gimbal axes were caked with dust and grime, and the coolant system control panel was dark and being used as a workbench. Still, there were handprints in the dust around the axis housing.
“You’re lucky we spotted you. We don’t usually come out this way but we’re chasing a wayward juvenile greenbottle jelly that got lost in the hydrogen flats,” Moe said has he climbed into the mule’s saddle. “We’ve got the get this calf home before she’s burdle food. Once she’s safely with her brood-sisters, we can talk with the boss about getting your pony to Las Ráfagas.”
Great. With the repairs Tilly needed, Gus was going to need every second of the head start she’d gotten on the bulls. And now she had to waste more of that precious time playing cowgirl. “Any way I can convince you to take me straight to town? I can pay,” she lied, knowing it was a longshot. These agro-types got pretty attached to their livestock.
Moe’s face lit up with a smile. “Sure thing! If it’s that important, we can get you there-“
“Moe, what about Gussy?” Hector interrupted.
Moe’s face flickered. “Sorry ma’am. I’m not only responsible for corralling our lost calf, I’m also answerable to this boy’s parents when it comes to his wellbeing. If it’s all the same to you...?”
Tunk, she thought and waved him off. It had been worth the try. Sometimes these emotional robs could be erratic, and if it weren’t for the boy it might have worked. She’d tussled with robs like this one before and knew she had little chance to overpower him. Even if she did, then what? Gus leaned against the bulkhead and gazed out the window. Her only choice was to help and hope it made the task go faster. “What’s a greenbottle jelly?” she asked.
“That,” Hector said and pointed through the window to a fluorescent green dot in the hazy orange-brown clouds. As they got closer, Gus realized the green dot was some kind of animal. Keeping it aloft was a bright green, sail-shaped air sack that must have been at least ten feet across. Beneath the green balloon structure was a relatively small, bulbous body and dozens - if not hundreds - of filament thin tendrils flowing in the air currents behind the animal. From the tip of its balloon-sail to the end of its tendrils, the thing had to have been over a hundred feet long.
That’s a juvenile?
“Oh, Gussy,” Moe cooed tenderly to the monstrosity outside. He pulled up alongside it and put the mule into another parking hover. “You’ve got to learn to stay close to your brood-sisters when the wind picks up.” Then, to Hector, “Ready, Chief?” The little boy nodded. is smile brightened the room. Moe slid out of his saddle and Hector climbed up into it. “Now,” the lines in Moe’s kind face deepened when he smiled at the boy, “remember to be gentle with the yoke reins. But wait until I’ve got the lariat on her securely. This isn’t like when we caught her with the net last week. If you pull too hard it’ll tear-”
“I knoooow, Moe,” Hector whined.
“Alright, but watch out for-”
“Moe!” Hector rolled his eyes so hard Gus was surprised they didn’t fall out.
Moe smiled again and turned to Gus. “Are you any good with that?” he asked, pointing to the gun on her hip.
She nodded slowly. “Good enough.”
“I could use your help. If you don’t mind,” Moe said. He pushed passed her and headed towards the rear of the mule. “We usually use that net for wrangling lost greenbottles, not rescuing core-bound ponies in distress. I gotta to get up top and do this the old-fashioned way, and I could use a lookout.”
Standing atop the small mule Gus readjusted her hood against the gusting wind. The hood’s heads-up-display struggled to make heads or tails of the soupy clouds. She was on a small platform with the magnets in her boots clinging to the steel hide. Moe stood on another platform about ten feet from her. From her vantage Gus couldn’t see Tilly, dangling like so much salvaged scrap beneath the mule, but she could hear the mule’s overbuilt atmo thrusters roaring as they fought to keep both mounts in a stable hover.
“I’m gonna lasso Gussy,” Moe called out to her over the din of the engines. “You just keep an eye out for-” Gus lost the last word in a violent gust of wind. Her hand instinctively dropped to the gun on her hip.
She watched as Moe opened a panel on the mule’s back and pulled coil after coil of braided steel rope from the hidden compartment. Tying it into a loop, he swung the lasso over his bowler cap in a wide arc before tossing it at the giant green jelly with a smooth, practiced motion. As the lariat landed neatly around Gussy’s sail, a dark shadow moving through the gas caught Gus’s HUD’s attention.
Speaking to Hector over the comms, Moe shouted to be heard over the thrusters and blowing wind. “Okay Chief, let’s reel her in. Easy now, Gussy.” The big animal bucked and rolled as a winch hidden inside the mule began pulling her in. Hector showed skill keeping the mule steady as the much larger animal thrashed.
Another shadow moved through a dense cloud of gas nearby. Gus squinted through the gloom, trying to catch a glimpse of what might be out there. The HUD couldn’t identify it – the atmosphere’s particle density was too high for an accurate reading. Another greenbottle? Maybe not. It was smaller than Gussy and moving against the winds. She slid Delilah out of her holster as yet another shadow circled. “Ah, Moe?” A third shadow glided through the gas clouds, but as this one passed near the mule Gus caught a glimpse of strange, dull flashes of light within the shadow. It definitely wasn’t a greenbottle jelly.
“Hey, Moe!” she shouted. The mule was officially surrounded, and all the shadows were silently blinking intricate patterns of light into the gloom. One of the shades began approaching, cutting through the thick clouds like a bird. Gus raised Delilah and began to squeeze.
“It’s alright!” Moe was suddenly at her side with one hand on her shoulder and the other on the big gun. She could feel the power in those delicately crafted hands. He could probably rip her arm from its socket if the fancy struck him. But his eyes remained calm and reassuring, his touch gentle and almost comforting. She reholstered Delilah but kept her guard up. When Moe smiled at her his eyes practically disappeared into the deep wrinkles at their corners. “You might want to shield your eyes for this next part.”
“I’ll be fine. I’ve been in enough fights.”
Moe’s smile somehow deepened. “That’s not exactly what I meant.” Then his face-screen when completely blank, like a light burning out.
The rob turned from Gus to face the approaching shadow, and a series of flashes of brilliant color exploded from his face. The incredible display of colors from across the spectrum, some Gus wasn’t sure she’d ever seen before, was so bright every wisp of gas cloud was exposed in minute detail. Gus’s HUD reacted immediately and dropped the solar filter to protect her eyes.
This light show was met with a replying display from the approaching shadow. Finally, it burst from the clouds. It was a skiff, purpose built for gliding and hovering through the thick Aeolusian atmosphere. It was perhaps fifteen feet long, and about three or four feet wide, with four pairs of nearly silent helicopter rotors running from stem to stern, and a single, gigantic harpoon gun on the bow. Inside the open-topped dinghy, six creatures stood. The flashes of light were coming from what Gus supposed could be considered their heads.
“Sorry about the fireworks, I had to let them know who we were as quickly as I could. The Deiopeans don’t like it when folks from Las Ráfagas drop in unannounced,” Moe explained as his face continued to blast out flashes of color. Gus’s hand again drifted to her hip. And again, Moe’s hand found its way to her shoulder. “We aren’t from town.” The skiff sidled up to the mule and three Deiopeans hopped from one to the other.
Gus’s skin crawled.
When humanity had expanded from the cradle of Earth, it brought all sorts of animals with it out into the Arm. Many of those animals were brought on purpose – pets, livestock, beasts of burden. Many more were brought by accident – the creepy crawlies that find their way into everything humans do and make. These had always given Gus the willies. Few things sent a cold shiver down her spine more quickly than opening a shipping crate to see a fat spider run out of it and into Tilly’s nooks and crannies.
Besides, spiders were bad for the hive.
So, when child-sized, bipedal spiders scurried over the mule’s back, her hand again instinctively reached for Delilah. Moe squeezed her shoulder gently. Hold, that squeeze said. Hold, all is well. The Deiopeans were fuzzy and ranged in color from reddish brown to deep black. The walked upright on their hind-most legs and wore long and armless hooded robes. They each carried a long object it took a moment for Gus to identify as a rifle meant for four arms. A gust on the breeze shifted their robes and revealed a third pair of smaller arms concealed beneath the material.
Only the lead creature had its hood down, and Gus could see the flashes of light were coming from its eyes, which dominated its head. There had to be at least 10 pairs, each set a different size and shape, all with an odd crystalline structure. The leader had a distinctive white line running between their eyes from the top of their “head” – which was little more than the top of their torso - to their mandibles. Equipped with impressive fangs, those mandibles clicked loudly.
The leader held a lightshow “conversation” with Moe, both gesturing vaguely towards Gussy. The greenbottle had calmed down and was gently bobbing next to the mule, still securely lassoed. The conversation seemed to come to an amiable close as Moe extended his hand. But to Gus’s surprise, Moe’s hand split between his middle fingers and continued to part up to the elbow. Now, with two forearms from the elbow down, Moe clasped wrists with the Deiopean. They flashed colors at each other in a clear call-and response, before the spider-like creature released Moe’s wrists and turned away, directing their companions back to the skiff.
“What was that? What did he want?” Gus asked as they secured Gussy to the mule’s flank. The wind was picking up again. The clouds parted, moving westward fast. A vast vista of table-flat clouds in the gas layer below, slowly swirling in red and orange hurricane-like mesas, and crisp, clear blue skies above met Gus’s eyes. The sun was slowly rising over Aeolus. It was breathtaking. Six or seven Deiopean skiffs were rapidly disappearing into the distance.
The image of the cheerful old cowboy returned to Moe’s face. “’They,’” he corrected. “The natives don’t have gender the same way dopels do. They come from Aeolus’s moon, Deiopea,” he said, and hook a thumb on a hand that had clicked back into form over his shoulder at the moon. It hung in the sky, massive and close. “We’ve chased Gussy here into the hydrogen flats. We’re in their hunting grounds and they wanted to know why. They’ve been having problems with poachers from town.”
Gus watched the skiffs descend into the lower layer of gas and vanish into a swirling cloud the color of new rust. “What do they hunt?” As if to answer her question, an enormous flock burst from the mesa-like gas layers below, gushing into the sky like a green and blue iridescent geyser. She squinted and brought her hands to her brow The HUD zoomed in. The Deiopean skiffs were chasing the flock – no, they were directing it, herding it, like a pack of wolves stalking buffalo.
As the flock zigged left, a single member zagged right. The Deiopeans were on it, chasing it towards another skiff waiting for this precise moment. Gus zoomed in further, straining the get a clearer image of the creature they were hunting. Moe finished tying off the greenbottle jelly and joined her to watch the hunt. “There’s really no human word for them,” he said. “The Deiopeans call them-” Moe’s face was momentarily replaced with swirling blue and green dots moving like a flock of birds or school of fish, “-but we’ve mostly taken to calling them burdles.” It sounded like something Hector would have come up with when he was still a toddler. But as Gus finally managed to center the creature in her field of vision, she had to admit, it was a fitting nickname.
Riding the winds on six shimmering wings, the largest set roughly twenty-five feet across, it darted to and fro, nimbly changing directions in an effortless display of aerial acrobatics. Blinding glints of blue and green were thrown with every flick of its reflective, feather-like scales. The main bulk of its body was covered in a shell-like carapace. With no legs or feet to speak of, and a beak the shape of a needle, Gus guessed they were native to the air currents of Aeolus, and almost certainly fed on the greenbottle jellies. She wondered what, other than the Deiopeans, hunted the burdles. Those shells suggested something even bigger, with powerful jaws. She thought of the giant shadow that had tracked Tilly’s fall. No wonder Moe had wanted a lookout.
The hunt continued as Moe gestured for Gus to follow him back inside. “Now that you’ve got Gussy squared away, could we revisit that ride to Las Ráfagas?” she asked when they had stepped into the mule’s small airlock.
Moe’s face flickered again, and when he replied his tone was almost sheepish. “I can tell you’re in a rush, and I’d love to help you out. But I can’t. I’ve got to get the boy home safely, and our Deiopean friends have given me a disturbing piece of news I need to pass on as soon as I can.”
Tunk. Still, the farmers out here often made decent engineers. If she was lucky…
Hector was waiting for them outside the leaking airlock. His smile beamed up into the rob’s face. “Can I drive us home, Moe? Please?”
Moe’s mechanical shoulders actually slumped. “Chief, you know your father said you’re only supposed ride with him. He’ll have my hide if he finds out.”
But Hector was persistent. “Please? He won’t find out, I promise!” He pouted and turned his eyes up towards Moe in a display so pathetic it would have moved Mother Nature herself. Moe put his hand on his hips and leaned in, narrowing his eyes at Hector. They stared at each other for a moment, one’s eyes huge and hopeful, the other’s digital and piercing.
Then Moe cracked and a broad grin broke across his features. “Oh, I was already going to let you.” Then the gangly rob seemed to remember Gus. “Buuut, that was before we had to see to this gentlewoman.” He winked at Gus slyly. “With her pony in tow, I think it’s only fair if we ask her permission first.”
Hector practically radiated faux innocence as he looked up at Gus. “Ma’am, I’m great in the saddle, I promise. You can ask anyone. Would you mind if I flew us back home?”
Gus glanced at Moe, who nodded slightly. “Sure thing, kid. Have at it.”
“Yay! Thanks lady! It’ll be real smooth, you’ll see!” Hector called over his shoulder and raced for the cockpit.
A little over an hour later they were gently gliding through the clouds towards the blue glow of a small homestead’s anti-grav foundation. The three of them were again crammed into the mule’s saddleroom, with Hector still at the controls.
Moe tapped his little charge on the shoulder. “Okay Chief, time to slide on down. I wasn’t kidding when I said you father wouldn’t be happy if he found out.” Hector obediently slid out of the saddle with only a hint of disappointment on his face. Moe mounted up in an oddly automatic-yet-graceful manner and took up the yoke reins. “Welcome to El Dorado,” he said. “Gus Vega’s homestead and greenbottle jelly ranch.”
“Oscar Vega,” Hector corrected kindly.
Moe blushed as the mule passed through the homestead’s protective energy barrier. There was a strange feeling of static electricity in the air as they crossed the threshold. “What kind of fence are you using?” Gus asked. She shook the tingling feeling out of her shoulders. With feedback like that it had to an antique.
“Oh, sorry. Should have warned you.” Moe glanced at Gus awkwardly. “We had to downgrade to a Type-2 cold plasma fence four years ago. Anything newer has trouble with the slower meteorites we get here on Aeolus. They’re really only any good for radiation and energy shielding out here. But we can calibrate the Type-2 more finely, letting us in and keeping the meteorites out. Let’s get you out to the boss.”
About ruttin’ time.
Now all she had to do was convince this Vega to lend her his rob for a few more hours. And she could finally get on to Las Ráfagas.
The mule floated into an outer building on the anti-grav foundation, gently lowering Tilly first, and then coming to a soft landing itself. Hector skipped down the ramp and out of the barn, announcing to the homestead that they were home at the top of his lungs. Moe and Gus made themselves busy seeing to Gussy. Once Moe had her free from the mule, he led her across the property to a giant paddock filled with lazily drifting jellies easily three times Gussy’s size.
Once their task was finished and Gussy was wafting back to her nest-sisters, Moe took a moment to lean against the corral’s railing and survey the herd. Gus sighed impatiently and reached for a cigar. As the juvenile jelly was embraced by the adults and shuffled towards the middle of the herd, Gus flicked open her lighter and brought it to her lips.
Moe’s silver hand shot out with unnerving speed and snuffed out the tiny flame. Realizing what he had done only after the fact, he quickly apologized. “Old habit. Fire in an artificial oxygen environment tends to make robs a little twitchy.” He laughed self-consciously. “Melted wiring and burning hydraulic oil are no laughing matter.” His smile was crooked, almost pained. “Come on inside and meet the boss. Then we can have a closer look at your pony and see about getting you to town in one piece.”