20: Invitation from a Beamslinger
Red Hippotes hung low in the bronze and gold of the overcast evening sky. The Vega homestead was quiet. Peaceful. It hid the deep unease and anxiety felt by all within the small farmhouse’s walls.
Gus sat at the kitchen table and rolled a cigar. Like the sunset, her relaxed demeanor hid a whirlwind between her ears. She pinched at her tobacco. Gus was nearly out now - only enough left for a day or two. They’d probably all be dead by then anyhow. She rolled the sweet-smelling tobacco and let her mind race, looking for a way out. Finished with her rolling, she stepped out onto the porch and brought the fresh cigar to her lips.
With the hot smoke filling her lungs she looked out over the Vegas’ little patch of sky. El Dorado, Oscar called it. The Golden One. And she could see why. It was beautiful. The flaxen clouds, a constantly shifting landscape, were like rolling mountains in the sunset. She hoped, one day when all her traveling was done, she could put up her feet someplace like this.
But that would first require surviving to retire.
The copperheads had arrived two days early and thrown all their careful planning into chaos. She had succeeded in breaking Moe out of Fort Leconte, but with nowhere to run it was only a matter of time before they were discovered. Laszlo was no fool. Aaron had already sent a detachment of bulls to check the Vega homestead for the fugitive rob. He and Gus had stayed onboard Tilly, hidden in the shadow of the homestead’s anti-grav foundation, until an irate Bernadette had been able to turn the thugs away.
But they would be back.
Moe came walking around the barn carrying two big buckets of jelly-feed. Gus shook her head, surprised at the ease in his stride. “What are you doing?”
The rob shrugged. “The jellies still need to be fed. No use in letting them suffer because of our problems.” Gus couldn’t disagree, so she offered her help and took one of the surprisingly heavy buckets. “Besides,” Moe said as they started towards the paddock, “there’s just something about these animals that calms me.” He smiled serenely to himself.
Gus followed Moe up a short flight of stairs and onto a long catwalk that extended out into the greenbottle jelly paddock. When they reached the end, hanging out over open atmosphere, they overturned their buckets of feed and let the nutrients flakes drift on the breeze. The herd of jellies gently floated towards the catwalk, but they stayed clumped together and kept the juveniles (including Gussy, she saw) protected in the middle.
“Moe…” Gus said.
“Storm’s coming,” he interrupted. They watched the clumped-up jellies begin to feed. The adults’ long tentacles gathered the drifting flakes and passed nutrients to the inner juveniles before taking any themselves. Gus didn’t know what he was talking about. It had been windy when they made the jailbreak - the gusts had pushed Tilly around like a toy. But now it was calm. Overcast maybe, but only the mountainous clouds on the horizon seemed like they were in a hurry.
Moe saw her scanning the horizon and smiled. “Look at the jellies,” he said. He pointed down to the huddled group of blimp-like cattle. “They only clump up like that when they sense high winds coming. It’s how they keep from being scattered by the storm. See how they keep the younger and weaker members of the herd closer together? They each work together to keep the whole safe. We could learn a lot from them.”
“The Lecontes are no storm, Moe,” Gus said quietly. She watched the jellies intertwine their tentacles, preparing for the unseen tempest to come.
“No,” Moe agreed and shook his head. “We can’t just huddle together and wait for them to pass, but…” He gazed down at the jellies gently bobbing in the breeze.
“But if we don’t bind together, they’ll scatter us like jellies in the wind,” Gus finished. Moe nodded solemnly, but never took his simulated eyes off the herd below.
Tunk. There was only one thing to do. “Has Oscar got a transmitter around here? How did he arrange his midnight meetings with the other troublemakers?” she asked.
Moe dragged his eyes from the jellies and squinted at her. “There’s an old low-frequency transmitter in the barn. What have you got in mind?”
“It’s well past time I called a little meeting of my own,” she said.
It was too risky to meet in the Vega kitchen again, even at this godforsaken hour, so Gus had put the word out to meet deep in the clouds, far from prying eyes. There, at the designated coordinates, shrouded in inky darkness, Gus, Moe, and Bernadette waited aboard Tilly for the others to arrive.
“After all that’s happened,” Bernadette said, breaking the silence of the saddleroom, “how can you be sure they’ll come at all?”
“They’ll come,” Gus said. There had been some concern when she had put out the call earlier that evening. With Oscar disappeared away to the administration tower, the Shenandoah standing guard over the town, and Gus effectively “dead,” the remaining townsfolk had little reason to stick their necks out now.
Bernadette’s hands balled into tight fists at her sides. “But how can you be sure?”
No sooner had the question crossed her lips than a small mount, like the Vega’s mule, broke through the clouds and came to a halt fifty feet off Tilly’s right shoulder. Then another. And a third. Before long, more than half a dozen small ponies and skiffs were hovering in the dark.
“How…? Why?” Bernadette asked.
Moe, his usual broad smile projected onto his face, answered for her. “She told them the cabinets were open; that she would share her contraband freely, as long as they listened.”
Bernadette’s jaw hung open. “Why would you do this?”
“It’s no good to me if I’m dead. Besides,” he glanced at Moe, “if we’re going to survive this storm, we’ve got to pull together. If this is how I get them to listen, then so be it.”
Moe nodded his approval, but the comms crackled before Bernadette could reply. “Okay, we’re here,” Jacob Wagner’s voice broke in. “But we ain’t trading goods nor barbs out here in the breeze. What’s your play, girl?” A chorus of voices competed to agree.
Brother Richard cut through the static. “Gus, it’s time you showed them.”
Without a word Gus, flipped on Tilly’s belly floodlights and revealed the dark and abandoned Deiopean mining village below them.
“What will you say to them?” Bernadette asked.
“I don’t know,” Gus said. Her dark eyes met the green of Bernadette’s.
Fifteen minutes later they were standing in the Deiopean Village. With a little help from Aurora, Gus was able to the tweak the atmospheric conditions so their meeting could take place without the need for environmental hoods. Within moments, what was left of Gus’s contraband hold was being picked through by those who were brave enough to come. “What the hell is this place?” Wagner demanded as he swallowed a spoonful of peanut butter. His eyes were darting to and fro as he tried to reconcile the familiar and alien designs of the village.
“Would you shut up for five minutes and let the lady speak?” Silas Mwangi snapped.
“It’s actually not for me to say. Some of you already know Aurora of the Deiopeans,” Gus said. Bernadette smiled warmly at the Deiopean, then sent a scowl towards Stonewall. He either didn’t see it or pretended not to.
Aurora stepped forward. It was they who had confirmed for Gus that the village was abandoned and a safe place for them to meet on. “This facility was built and maintained by my people. The Leconte family has stripped it of its technology and its workers,” the Deiopean’s translator chirped as it interpreted the dizzyingly complex pattern of light coming from Aurora’s eyes.
For a moment it looked as though Wagner would argue, but under Mwangi’s glare he shut his mouth. It was an undeniable truth. The octagonal motif was everywhere. And village’s layout was unmistakably the same as the cities on Deiopea’s surface.
“What’s the matter, Wagner?” Gus said. “Don’t like the look of things around here? Looks a bit like Las Ráfagas’s future, doesn’t it? Abandoned. Empty. Lost.”
Gus turned to face those she had gathered. It was a small group. Bernadette had stepped among them and was greeting people and thanking them for coming. Moe stood on Gus’s left, smiling brightly at the fact so many had come. But his smile was tinged with something else: a hard resolve. Ray was there, standing to her right. He still looked doubtful, even as his old eyes darted around the room. She could tell he was uncomfortable with even this small, secret act of rebellion. He had managed to sneak Gretchen and Walter out of town with him and the odd pair were holding hands and waiting for her to speak. There was Wagner and Mwangi, the small-hold ranchers, sharing a jar of peanut butter between them. Daniel Park had come alone and was staring around the room in naked awe, the contraband offering completely forgotten. If he had been impressed by the Deiopean bandages, Gus was sure there were things here that would blow his mind. Brother Richard had brought Aurora. When Gus had asked about the eight hiding Deiopeans, the young man made an unpleasant face, shrugged his shoulders, and would only say they were gone. Gloria Smith had come too. She was standing awkwardly to the side of the group, wearing her late husband’s scarred leather apron. John Stonewall stood among the crowd with his arms folded over his chest and his face matching his name. Finally, there were a few faces Gus didn’t have names for, but she had seen around in her short time on Las Ráfagas. Farmers. Miners. Outpost workers.
It was a mixed group, made up of robs, genies, and doppels alike.
She took a deep breath. “But this isn’t the future Laszlo’s got planned for Las Ráfagas. Not by a long shot. No, Laszlo’s got a deal coming through that’s going to put Las Ráfagas back on the map! But the thing is, he doesn’t want to share in the boon that’s coming. That’s why he’s lowballed so many of your neighbors. That’s why he’s been trying to force out the Vegas, and scuttled the Mwangi’s anti-grav foundation,” she said and shoot Wagner a dark look. “Don’t believe me? Try leaving the system for sunnier pastures now. The time for buyouts is over, ya see. Now it’s time to get rid of the witnesses.”
“Bottle-farts! There’s no reason to think Leconte will turn to violence,” Wagner said defiantly.
Silas Mwangi was dumbstruck by his neighbor. “Have you already forgotten what they did to my home? The Lecontes have taken everything from my family!”
The small group burst into murmuring and splintered arguments.
Daniel pointed out the sabotage to the Vegas’ mule. Gretchen shouted about Aaron nearly killing Walter. Someone said they could take care of themselves. To Gus’s surprise, Stonewall cut them off. “Ain’t you been payin’ attention?” he said. “Ain’t nobody gonna fight them alone and win. Some of us got more ’an ourselves to think about here!”
“Hear, hear!” Brother Richard agreed emphatically.
Another voice shouted that Stonewall’s daughter would be fine - everything would be fine - if they just waited for this to all blow over.
“You still don’t get it, do you?” Moe said, raising his voice for the first time. “The copperheads don’t care about your farm, or your family. Or you. They just want the town and the rubidium. And they will kill every last one of us to get it!” he shouted. Crosstalk and arguing erupted again.
Ray put his hand on Moe’s shoulder and tried to calm to the cobbler. He cleared his throat loudly, and when the talking had died down, he spoke. “I’ve known all of you for years now. We’ve built up a pretty good rapport here. You all know I’m not one to upset the applecart,” he said, nodding to the group. “I can’t be certain of everything that’s going on,” he looked at Gus, “but I trust this young lady. With my life. If she says we’re in danger, then dagnabit, I believe her. You all should listen to what she has to say.”
“She’s the one that said we had four days! I’m all for fightin’, but who put her in charge?” Stonewall shouted.
“I did!” Ray roared. “Now y’all are gonna listen up. ’Cause she’s my deputy, and I ruttin’ said so.”
A hush fell over the group. With all mouths shut and all eyes on her, Gus told them what she knew. “Laszlo’s made come kind of deal with the copperheads for Las Ráfagas. I don’t know all the details, but it looks like the plan all hinges on the tech stolen from the natives and this village.”
“Why? What’s so special about the spiders?” Wagner asked. “I’m surprised the savages could build something like this at all – no offense,” he added quickly when he remembered Aurora.
“You always sell them short, Jacob,” Mwangi said.
“The Deiopeans have found a way to refine the Rb-87 that makes it ten times more potent,” Gus said.
Wagner wouldn’t listen. “Then let them have it! Once Leconte finishes his deal and they take the tech-”
“What? Everything will go back to normal?” Gretchen shouted. “Come on, Jacob. Don’t be dense.”
“The refining tech they stole requires living Deiopeans to work,” Gus said. Some of the color drained from Wagner’s face and all hushed conversations stopped dead. Gus nodded. Finally, she had their attention. “Besides, it’s not just about the fuel. Why do you think Laszlo’s been giving you lowball offers and bullying your neighbors off their plots? Why he’s put families, like the Mwangis, like the Vegas, in danger just to send a message?” Gus shook her head. “It was never just about the fuel.
“It’s about the town.”
“What do you mean?” Daniel asked, finally tearing his eyes away from the intricate Deiopeans designs.
Gus paused to collect her thoughts. She sighed and nodded to herself. This was it. She had to convince them. “Emmitt thought they wanted Las Ráfagas as a pulse-rail station, or their version of it anyway. For more of those monstrosities,” she said, referring to the enormous CCS Shenandoah, currently hitched at Las Ráfagas’s livery stables. “And not just a station,” she continued, “the last station before the Cygnus X colonies. I think he was right. Las Ráfagas will be a boon town again. Built on the backs of Deiopean slave labor. That’s why Laszlo wants all your properties. That’s why he’s trying to push you all out. So he can rake in the spoons when Las Ráfagas becomes a major travel hub – for the CCO.”
A low murmur hummed through the small group.
“If I’m right, they’re not going to want the bluebells to know about it until it’s too late to do anything. Which means fortifying Las Ráfagas. Which also means no one here will be allowed to leave to carry the message.” She paused. Stunned faces looked back at her. “And don’t think you’ll be safe once the deal is done either. Take it from me, the copperheads don’t take chances when it comes to possible troublemakers in their midst. A bunch of ranchers and miners who might just know too much about how a certain refining technology was acquired? Sounds like a whole heap of trouble for the CCO.”
Silence, like a blanket, fell over the group.
Gretchen was the first to speak. “I don’t know about stealing tech, but the retrofit has been focused on the refining levels. But Emmitt oversaw that work,” she said. The group turned as one to the engineer’s white-haired widow. She stood alone at the rear of the small group. “Gloria, is there anything you can tell us about it?”
Gloria tugged at her husband’s apron. She ran her hands over the old and pitted leather, before looking up at those gathered with tears in her eyes. She nodded. “It’s true. All of it. Emmitt didn’t know, not until it was too late to stop it.” Ray put a reassuring hand on her shoulder. “They took his designs,” she whispered, and the tears overflowed. “After they killed him, they stole his designs. There are already more of these pulse-rail stations, aren’t there?” she asked Gus.
“Very likely. Which means after they kill us all, they’re going to take Emmitt’s designs, along with some of the Deiopeans, to the other stations.”
“To work as slaves,” Gloria said gravely. It wasn’t a question.
“That’s certainly what the Deiopeans think,” Brother Richard said.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Stonewall asked.
“Gus and Aurora were able to save a handful before they were brought to the mining levels. They’ve spent the last few days in hiding with me and have corroborated much of Gus and Gloria’s stories.”
Gloria knelt before Aurora. Her face was wet with tears. “I am so sorry for the part my husband – and I - have played in all this. Can you ever forgive him… me?”
Aurora’s arachnid facial expressions were difficult to decode, and in this moment, Gus could not tell what her new companion was thinking. Aurora had every right to be angry with Emmitt, Gloria, the Lecontes – tunk, humanity in general. But instead of lashing out, Aurora put a small hand on Gloria’s soft, white hair. “Laszlo Leconte has made victims of us all. The past can’t be changed, but we can prevent more suffering. If we act now. Together.”
Again, arguments erupted throughout the small group of potential mutineers. “Why don’t we just hide here until the copperheads leave?” a small, boxy mining-rob asked in a low, husky voice.
“Have you got a processing error? They won’t leave this place abandoned for long!” a genie rent-boy Gus recognized from Cirrus House replied.
“We could run!” Wagner shouted. “They can’t get us all!”
Bernadette was appalled. “And whose family are you willing to sacrifice to save your own skin?” she snapped. “Mine? Walter and Gretchen? Silla’s girls? Your own son?” Wagner looked at his feet and ate a strawberry.
Gus looked at Moe and Ray. The marshal was getting more and more uncomfortable, but the rob was angry. “Don’t you people understand?” Moe shouted, cutting through the crosstalk. “There’s no hiding. There’s no running. We need to stand and fight! For our homes. For our lives. For what’s right.”
“Ray, you’ve been awfully quiet over there,” Gus said. “I need to know I’ve got you on my side here.”
Ray leaned again the wall. “You don’t know what you’re asking me. Not really,” he said. “This has gotten a lot bigger since the copperheads showed up. It was one thing when the plan was to get the Vegas out first. Now…” He sighed. “I’m an old man. My fighting days are long behind me.” He looked tired. Fragile. He scanned the group. His eyes moved from miner to rancher to townsfolk, and finally fell on Aurora. He sighed again and nodded. “But doing the right thing usually means doing the hard thing, don’t it? I say we fight.”
Gus nodded. “We fight. But only some of us.”
Stonewall leaned in and narrow his eyes. “You have a plan?”
“I do,” Gus replied, “but it’s risky.”