Gas Giant Gambit: A Tale from Across the Cygnus Rift

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21: Ghost Town Renegades

“As some of you know,” Gus said, and nodded to Ray, Moe, and Bernadette, “we already tried one plan, paired up with our little jailbreak.”

“The copperheads showing up fouled it up, didn’t they?” Stonewall scoffed. “How come you got the day wrong?”

“How was Gus supposed to know? They weren’t scheduled to arrive for two more days!” Moe shouted. More murmured conversation broke out. Ray stepped forward and gave the group a stern look until the chatter ceased.

Gus tried to continue. “The basics of our plan are still good. There’s no way we can win a straight fight with a battalion of the Confederate’s finest. We need help.” All eyes were on her. “The way I see it, we need to do four things: free Oscar Vega, disable the Shenandoah, and cause a big enough distraction to allow the vulnerable to make a run for it before the copperheads can get their weapons back online. I figure, with a little help from Ray and some of you in town, I can do all of that by hitting the Shenandoah.

“How will that help Oscar?” Bernadette asked.

“The bulls have been on high-alert since we broke Moe out. Right, Walt?”

“I’ve never seen them so jumpy!” Walker said. “I don’t think they suspect I was involved in the jailbreak, but they’ve stopped letting me in to feed the prisoners. Any of ’em.”

“We got ’em off balance,” Gus said. “That’s why they moved Oscar to the Shenandoah.”

“What?” Bernadette was surprised. “How could you know that?”

Gus gave her a sly smirk. “My lucky coin? It’s got a tracker in it. I’ve been keeping tabs on Oscar since they took him.”

“But how could you know…?” Bernadette asked.

“He be taken?” Gus said and winked. “I didn’t. But with how much the Lecontes hate him, I thought it would be a good idea to keep an eye on you guys.”

“Alright,” Wagner said. He looked like he was starting to come around, but there was still doubt in his voice. “But how, exactly, do you plan on boarding that thing, breaking that fool Vega out, and getting back off alive?”

“In this dense atmosphere, getting on board will be the easy part. I can use the tracker in the coin to find Oscar. And as for disabling the weapons…” Gus pulled a shock-resistant bottle the size of her fist from one of the cargo pockets on her fight suit and held it up.

“Mrs. Santiago’s nitroglycerin!” Daniel cried. He had clearly hoped to never see it.

“There’s enough here to ruin the copperheads’ day,” she said. Gus gently turned the bottle to let the light catch the liquid inside. “Enough to disable the Shenandoah long enough for to make a break for Holliday Station, anyway. And for me to collect my payment.”

“Wait,” Richard said, “your payment?” A fresh round of murmurs rippled through the miners, ranchers, and townsfolk. “You’re not seriously still planning on going after the gold?”

Bernadette didn’t look terribly surprised. “The fourth part of your plan.”

Gus looked to Moe. The cobbler nodded solemnly. “A deal’s a deal,” he said, “I’ll help you. But I’ll tell you now: if it comes down to the boss’s life or your gold…”

Gus cut him off. “Agreed.”

Tarnation! You can’t still be thinking about going after that gold!” Ray bellowed.

Gus only shrugged. “A girl’s gotta get paid,” she said. Her eyes met Bernadette’s. The farmwife’s freckled face was filled with disappointment. She shook her head and looked away.

“And our agreement? To help my people?” Aurora asked.

“I haven’t forgotten,” Gus said. “As soon as we get Oscar as the families are on their way, we’ll fight our way to the refining level.”

“That’s a lotta promises. How’re you plannin’ on pullin’ this off, girl?” Stonewall asked.

Gus took a deep breath. She had one chance to convince them. “Three teams. One in town, one hitting the Shenandoah, and one sprinting out of the system.

“Ray’ll be in charge of the team in town. Everybody able-bodied’ll be with him. As soon as the copperhead inspection team steps foot in town I need you guys to create a distraction. Slow them down.”

“How?” Stonewall asked. She could see he was walking the line Gus needed them all to cross – they wanted to fight, but they also didn’t want to die for nothing.

“This is technically UCET territory, ain’t it? Have a protest for all I care. Just keep them focused on you and away from the mining levels for as long as you can. Bernadette and Brother Richard will be in charge of the families-”

“Now, wait just a minute!” Brother Richard cut in. “If there’s going to be fighting on the esplanade, I should be here.”

“We already talked about this,” Gus said and shook her head. “I need you with the families to help them convince the bluebells.”

Brother Richard looked like he was going to say something more, but Bernadette appeared at his side and put her arm in the crook of his elbow. The monk looked from her to Gus and back again. “Very well,” he said with a resigned sigh.

Good man, Gus thought.

“Moe and I will hit the Shenandoah hard,” she continues. “Once their power is out getting back to town will be a chore, but one I’m confident we can handle. We’ll join up with Ray’s team and prepare for one hell of a fight. Aurora, I figure you’re gonna want to be on Ray’s team, that way you can get down to your people as fast as possible.”

“I will go with you into the snake den,” Aurora’s translator chirped.

Gus was too surprised to hide her emotion. “What? No. You’re better off-”

“You’ve made a promise to help my people. I intend to make sure you stay alive long enough to keep it.”

Well, Gus thought, Oscar did warn me about the stubbornness. She nodded. “Alright then. Once we’re back in town, the four of us will fight our way to the refining level. To Aurora’s people. Then we hold up until the cavalry arrives. Gretchen, Walter, think the miners could be of any help there?”

The pair huddled with the other miners who had come. Gretchen then spoke on their behalf. There was a wry, smirking quality to her light voice. “You can count on us, Gus.”

Gus nodded and turned back to Aurora. “What about the rest of your people? Any hunting parties in atmo? Is there any help they can offer?”

Aurora answered without hesitation, if somewhat cryptically. “The storm approaches. And with it the ’rider.”

#

An hour later, with the final details of the plan hammered out and the last of Gus’s contraband foodstuffs gone, the clandestine meeting had finally broken up. Gus, Moe, and Bernadette had seen everyone else off the abandoned Deiopean village, each with their own set of instructions for the coming conflict. Now, the trio made their way across the small stable back to where Tilly stood waiting.

As they approached the small U-shaped craft, a flash of reflection and a hint of movement inside the saddleroom caught Gus’s attention. “You two, stay here,” she said. She drew Delilah and approached her mount cautiously.

“What is it?” Moe asked. A familiar note of anxiety had crept into his voice. He rubbed his right shoulder, the one he’d taken a shot through, distractedly.

“Not sure. Probably nothing,” Gus said and activated the lift on Tilly’s belly. “Stay here,” she repeated and disappeared into the cargo hold.

Sure, she thought, probably nothing. Unless Aaron was smart and left a garrison behind.

Tilly nickered a greeting as the lights flickered on. Gus’s eye’s darted to and fro as she slowly moved through the engine room, checking for any signs of an intruder. “Tilly,” she whispered and typed a few commands into the environmental control computer, “is there someone else here?” A short grunt through the airduct worked as an affirmative reply. Tunk. From the engine room Gus killed all the onboard lights at once and threw the mount into near blackness. Even the control displays consoles went dark. The only light came in through the saddleroom canopy and windows.

¡A la verga!” a surprised voice whispered. “What did I do?” The saddleroom.

Gus took four lunging steps and launched herself through the hatch. Her right hand smashed down on a control panel, turning all the lights back on at full brightness, while her left hand leveled Delilah at the intruder.

Hector sat in the control saddle with his hands held up over his eyes to protect them from the sudden flare of light.

“Dammit, kid!” Gus slammed Delilah back into her holster and tried not to think about how close she had come to putting a beam through him. “What are you doing here?” Hector smiled sheepishly through the lattice of his outstretched fingers but said nothing. Gus flipped a switch on the control console and her voice was projected outside the mount to Moe and Bernadette. “It’s alright,” she said. “Come on up. It’s Hector.” The little boy’s face darkened at the sound of his own name. He seemed to suddenly remember his mother was coming aboard, and he wasn’t supposed to be there.

“Kid, seriously. What are you doing?” Gus asked.

Hector folded his short arms across his chest and slid from the saddle. His face twisted in a defiant scowl. “I want to help save Papi.”

“Kid- Hector,” Gus said and shook her head, “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

But it was going to take more than that to convince Hector. “I can fight! I mean, I can learn. You can teach me to shoot so I can come with you and help save Papi from the copperheads!”

Gus raised her eyebrows at the boy. “Not only a stowaway, but a spy too!”

“Hector Duncan Vega!” Bernadette shouted as she stepped into the small saddleroom. “Just what do you think you’re doing, young man?”

“I’m going to help, Mama,” he said with as much grit as his little body could muster.

His mother sighed and put her hands on her hips. Gus spoke up before she could scold him. “Moe, do you think you can pilot Tilly back for me?” she asked, then with a nod and a smile to Bernadette, she led the boy back into the small engine room and sat him down.

From the chair, Hector looked up at her with a sort of awe in his eye. “You can teach me to shoot,” he said, “And I can go with you to rescue Papi. Then you can stay here with us, and I can grow up to be a beamslinger. Just like you.”

Gus pursed her lips and tried to decide what to say. This wasn’t exactly her strong suit. She knelt in front on the chair, and with Bernadette watching from the cockpit hatch, did her best to speak to the boy. “Hector,” she said and shook her head gently, “when we save your father, it won’t be this beam-shooter that does it. It’ll be our minds. It don’t matter how fast you are on the draw if the other guy can outthink you. Your father’s brave, Hector. And clever. Your mama, too,” she added and nodded towards Bernadette. “You’d be smart to listen to them. Learn all they can teach. And if you can keep your mind faster than the other guy’s draw, I’ll be happy to ride with you. When you’re a little older.” She tussled his hair. “Now, why don’t you go up front with Moe. I’m sure it’ll be a better view than where you stowed away.”

Hector nodded and got up from the chair with a bittersweet look on his face. To her surprise he grabbed onto her in a little-boy bear hug and squeezed tight. “You promise you’ll bring Papi home?”

Gus returned the hug, smiling despite herself. “I promise, big guy. I’ll get him home, safe and sound. Now, go on up with Moe.” Hector wiped snot and tears on the sleeve of his shirt. He smiled weakly and ran into the saddleroom.

With Hector busily asking Moe questions about Tilly’s systems, Bernadette closed the saddleroom hatch behind him. Gus slumped into the chair Hector had just left and made herself busy looking over the engine gauges. Bernadette peered at the galactic gunfighter. “I just don’t understand you,” she said finally and shook her head in frustration.

“What’s to understand?” Gus said flippantly. She started up a coolant system diagnostic and avoided looking at the farmwife. She had downplayed just how hard it would be to approach the Shenandoah, even in Aeolus’s dense clouds. Tilly’s systems would need to be locked down tight. Any unnecessary energy blooms or coolant leaks could make them detectable.

Bernadette began pacing across the little engine room. “You finally understand what’s at stake for us. You’ve formed strong bonds of friendship here. With Moe. With Aurora. Oscar too, thought I don’t fully understand it. And I know Ray looks at you as something of the daughter he never had. Even if you confound him as much as you do me.”

Gus scoffed. “I’m just doing what I always do: whatever it takes to keep riding.”

“Maybe,” Bernadette said softly, “but I don’t think Hector feels that way. We’re all fighting for our homes, our livelihoods. Our very lives. All worthy things to fight – and die – for. But you…” she trailed off.

“I’m still in it for the gold,” Gus said. She spun the chair around to face the Bernadette. “And you can’t figure out why I would risk my life, your husband, and the whole plan on a few bars of gold. Well let me tell you: I like you and Oscar. Hector too. But even if by some miracle we pull this off, I can’t stay when it’s all over. I need spoons if I’m going to survive. If I don’t keep moving I’ll die, just as sure as if I’m shot down. If this life has taught me anything, it’s that if it ain’t helping you keep ridin’ – it’s nothing but bottle-farts on the breeze.

“Don’t worry. I’m not so greedy that I’ll risk your husband, or your farmhand, for my payoff. If things go south, I’ll cover their escape.”

“You mean-”

“Like I said: if I don’t get paid, I’m as good as dead anyway,” Gus said and turned back to the diagnostics.

Bernadette’s hands were suddenly on Gus’s shoulders. “I don’t believe that.” She kissed the top of Gus’s head. “And I don’t think you do either. Not really.”

#

Gus woke in the same small room at the top of the stairs she had used on her fist night on Aeolus. The light outside was muted and dull. Slate colored clouds covered the sky, both above and below El Dorado. The wind whipping through the homestead stirred up small, whirling dust-devils that played across the homestead’s courtyard. Gus sat at the window and silently rolled a cigar. A storm was coming, after all. Good, she thought. It would give Tilly more cover for the evening’s exploits.

Her stomach churned uncomfortably. It was a familiar feeling; she never could eat much when she knew there was a fight coming. She took a deep drag from the cigar. It helped, but only a little. The butterflies would stay until the shooting started; experience told her there was nothing she could do about it. But when the butterflies left, they would be replaced by cold steel and colder calculations.

She loved it and hated it.

Relished it and resented it.

She ignored her complaining stomach, snuffed out the roach, and headed down the stairs.

The rich smell of fresh coffee greeted her before she reached the kitchen. She was not surprised to find Ray already sitting at the Vega’s small table, sipping from a steaming cup. Moe sat across from him, but he had no mug. “Gus,” Ray said over the rim of his coffee.

“Good morning, Gus,” Moe said. His voice was dull and free from its usual joviality.

“Ray. Moe,” she said, nodding to the marshal and the cobbler as she prepared her own coffee. “What’s the word?” There was no sign of Brother Richard or the families that would soon be filling El Dorado’s walls. If everything was going according to plan, they would be arriving slowly through the day, so as not to arouse suspicion.

“The word is ‘go’ from Gretchen and the miners,” Ray said. “The Confederate inspection is scheduled for this five o’clock this evening.”

“What about you and the others?” Gus asked. She sipped her coffee and peered out the window. Aurora was standing in the courtyard. Their robe was flapping in the wind and their eyes were flashing a bright and complicated pattern at a handheld device – a transmitter Gus assumed.

“Ayuh,” Ray nodded. “We’re ready to play our part.”

“Are you sure?” she asked. She sat down at the table across from him. “This is going to get messy. We’re going to upset the apple cart pretty bad here tonight. I know that’s more than a little outside your comfort zone.”

Ray put down his coffee but didn’t take his eyes off the dark liquid. “It’s high time I do more around here than throw a few drunks in the cooler, pay a fine here or there, and hope it all gets better,” he said, finally looking Gus in the eye. “Laszlo and his boys need to be brought to justice for what they’re doing out here. I’m ready to do my part in seeing that happens.” He shot back the rest of his coffee like it was whiskey, and grimaced as it burned going down.

“And you, Moe?” Gus asked.

The cobbler nodded. “I’ve been ready for this day for a long time. We’ll get the boss. We’ll get your gold. And we’ll put the Lecontes where they belong.” Gus winced slightly at the mention of the gold. Bernadette’s words the night before rang in her ears. None of it was worth it if she didn’t get paid, right? Without spoons even a tank brimming with Rb-87 would run out. And so would she. As Tuco had pointed out when this all began – what felt like years ago now – she was down to the blanket. Broke. Without the gold, she was good as dead. But still, Bernadette’s voice echoed in her head. Did she really believe that?

“Are you ready? You look like someone walked over your grave. Having second thoughts?” Ray gazed at her over his mug.

“No,” she said, brushing him off with a glare. “Pre-fight jitters,” she said and took a hot swig from her own coffee mug.

“Alright then,” Ray nodded. “Now,” he reached into the deep pockets of his duster and pulled out a small box. Inside were two earpieces.

“What’s this?” she asked and held one up.

“A last-minute gift from Gloria,” Ray said. “Encrypted comms. Some kinda carrier wave piggy-backed off’a the copperheads’ frequencies, or some such. Tunk, I don’t know. She says we can stay in contact without anybody listening in.” Gus’s eyes widened. Clever. Clearly not all the engineering talent was Emmitt’s.

“You take one o’ these, and I take the other. Moe’s already been tuned into the frequency too,” he said.

The three stepped out into the gray, windy day. There was an awkward silence as Gus realized this could be the last time they would all be together. And she wasn’t alone. They traded uncomfortable glances but said nothing. Finally, Ray’s face cracked into a wide grin and broke the unease. “There is one more thing.” He had to raise his voice against the wind and pulled another small box from his jacket. This one held a pair of tin stars that shined despite the dreary day.

Deputy badges.

“Ray,” Gus said.

“They might not mean much on Las Ráfagas anymore,” he said as he offered them to the beamslinger and the cobbler-rob, “but I want Laszlo to know we did this together. That I’m not his token lawman anymore.” Ray carefully pinned one star to the cloth “vest” of Moe’s chest and turned to Gus. “I know law enforcement ain’t exactly your preferred career path, but there’s no one I trust my town with more. Please.” He held out the tin star.

Slowly, Gus took it. Though it was thin and dented, it felt as heavy as a plow. But when she pinned it to her poncho it didn’t feel like something to drag behind her. To her surprise, with it shining over her chest, she felt as strong as a draft horse.

Smiling, Ray shook Moe’s hand and then Gus’s, and then walked away to his little skiff without another word. It was nearly time to put their plan into action.

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