Gas Giant Gambit: A Tale from Across the Cygnus Rift

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22: Three in the Saddle

Tilly’s saddleroom was cramped, crowded, and growing dark as dusk fell and the stormfront approached. The small pony’s three riders waited in patient silence. Mostly.

Gus was used to the waiting. Life was waiting. Waiting for the next job. Waiting for the right moment to act. Waiting for the bulls to finally catch up. Waiting for the draw. She was good at waiting. She leaned back in the saddle and stretched.

Aurora seemed to have no problem with patience. The Deiopean had sat down in the small space between the saddle and canopy and had set to cleaning the short-barreled rifle they called “the Hammer.” Aurora methodically dismantled the rifle, carefully cleaned each piece, and set them on a small rag.

Moe, however, was not handling the anticipation with the grace of his companions. The tall farmhand was pacing from the saddleroom to the engine room and back again, wringing his long hands all the while. He had to duck his head every time he crossed through the hatch. Back and forth he went. His heavy feet fell to the floor plating over and over.

Clang. Clang. Clang. Clang.

Clang. Clang. Clang. Clang.

Moe’s metal footsteps became a rhythmic pattern as he stepped into the engine room, paused, spun on one heel, and walked back into the saddleroom to stare out the canopy for a moment before repeating it all in reverse. Occasionally, he’d reach up and rub his injured shoulder.

Clang. Clang. Clang. Clang.

Clang. Clang. Clang. Clang.

“Moe,” Gus said when the rob had paused on his umpteenth circuit to stare out the saddleroom canopy into the darkening clouds, “would you please sit down. You’re starting to drive me crazy.”

He tore his gaze away from the window. “They’re late,” he said. The corners of his simulated eyes wrinkled with worry.

Gus nodded. “Yeah. But only a little. It’s probably the inspection team. They move at the speed of bureaucracy. Don’t worry. Have faith in Ray. He’ll do his part.” At least, she hoped he would.

“But,” Moe said, again running his shoulder, “shouldn’t we go now? What if they’ve already been caught? This isn’t going to work!” Panic was eating away at the edges of his calm.

“Moe-” Gus was interrupted by the communications system crackling twice, as though someone had double-tapped the transmit button without saying anything. Ray’s signal. The copperhead inspection team was on Las Ráfagas, and the “distraction” was about to begin. “There!” she said. “Ya see? Ray’s got it covered. Now it’s time to do our part. Go strap in, both of you. This is gonna get a little rough.” Without a word, Aurora snapped the final piece of the Hammer into place and stepped out into the engine room. Moe, on the other hand, took a moment, perhaps to steel himself for the job to come. “You ready for this, Moe? Your arm doin’ okay?” Gus asked.

Moe’s hand dropped from his shoulder, and again he had to rip his eyes from the saddleroom canopy to look at her. But this time his eyes were set; the worry replaced with resolve. He nodded. “For the boss? Yeah, I’m ready. The arm’s fine. It’s nothin’.”

Gus nodded back solemnly. “Good. Go grab a seat.” She hoped he was right.

The lanky rob spared one final moment to gaze out the canopy and into the clouds before disappearing into the engine room after Aurora.

“Alright, Tilly,” Gus said. She snapped her spurs into the rudder control ports and took up the yoke reins. “Time to go to work.”

She took the pony into a steep and fast climb that pushed both of her companions back into their chairs. What started as a low rumble in the floor plates slowly grew until the entire mount was rattling uncontrollably in the turbulence as Gus piled on the speed and Tilly galloped through the clouds.

“Tell me again why we have to do it like this?!” Moe yelled over the bone-rattling turbulence. Gus grinned and pushed faster. Tilly was almost perfectly vertical now, streaking up through the clouds like a rocket.

She had never dealt with this class of vessel before, but she had snuck aboard a Confederate craft or two in her time. Although every class was unique, there were certain design elements they all shared. Either thanks to a lack of diverse technologies, or a lack of imagination, Gus didn’t know, but she was counting on that design continuity today.

“The copperheads use a proximity sensor that cycles at forty-two MHz Usually, it’s impossible to penetrate without setting off every alarm on their command level,” she yelled back over the growing din. She pushed Tilly harder still, forcing the atmo-thrusters to their limit.

Usually?!’” Moe yelled back.

“The sensor is always mounted on the upper hide, near the withers,” she said. “Atmospheres with high particle-density create a small blind spot on the belly. But it can only be exploited at high velocity!

Tilly burst from the lower cloud layers, on a direct collision course with the Shenandoah’s underside. Gus gritted her teeth and pushed Tilly more, trying to coax every ounce of speed from her old companion. They would only have one chance at this.

“Gus!” Moe shouted from the engine room. She ignored him.

Not yet. The flat gray belly of the Shenandoah loomed in the saddleroom canopy as the small pony accelerated towards it.

Gus!” Moe shouted again. His voice was drowning in panic.

Not yet. Sixty yards. Then forty. Twenty.

Dammit, Gus!

NOW! With less than ten yards to the Shenandoah, Gus yanked back on the reins and throttled Tilly’s belly thrusters beyond the red line. Tilly rolled over on her back and halted her ascent in an instant with her thrusters firing hard against the Shenandoah’s hull. When they were mere feet from the massive train, Gus cut power to the thrusters and engaged the magnetic landing struts at the same time. Tilly came to a gentle rest, upside down, latched securely to the belly of the great battle-train.

Gus blinked her eyes a few times while her stomach finished doing summersaults. As nausea passed, she held her breath and watched the control display for any sign they had tripped the proximity sensor. When no threats came in over the comms and a team of cavalry mounts didn’t appear to scrape them off the Shenandoah’s hide like a tick, she relaxed and patted the control console lovingly. “Good girl.”

“You’ve done that before,” Aurora said when Gus stepped into the engine room.

“Once or twice,” she said. “But never on something this big. Or new. I don’t know how long we’ll have before we’re noticed. We’d better get moving.”

Moe was still struggling with his seat’s restraints. “A little more warning would have been nice,” he complained. “If I had guts, I’d be puking them up all over your diagnostics.” Gus rolled her eyes and released the latch on his restraints. “Thanks,” he said glumly and followed them to the cargo hold lift.

“What’s with the attitude?” Gus asked. She was annoyed with the farmhand’s sudden change. But Moe just shook his head as they stepped onto the lift.

“What next?” Aurora asked.

“Now, Tilly’s going to make us a bit of a back door,” Gus said. She tapped a command into the lift’s controls. Outside, a powerful laser ringing the underside of the lift blazed to life and cut a neat circle into the Shenandoah’s hide. “Let’s go over this one last time,” Gus said. She patted the shock-resistant jar of nitro tucked into a pocket beneath her poncho. It was secure. As secure as carrying something so dangerous could be. Satisfied, she pulled a card-sized screen from another pocket and squinted at it. A small red dot blinked. It was her luck coin. Oscar’s position. Luckily, it wasn’t far from where they were – another bit of design continuity Gus had been relying on. “When I activate the lift there may be a moment of discomfort while we pass from one gravitational orientation to another,” she said. “Get yourselves situated as quick as you can once we’re through. Then it’s just a short jog down the corridor to the brig.” She held up the tracker and showed them the blinking red dot.

“And your gold?” Moe asked. His tone was dark and disapproving.

There it was. That was his problem. She didn’t know what had changed, but Gus didn’t have time to deal with a cranky farmhand right this second.

“They always keep the vault near the brig,” she said, doing her best to ignore Moe’s attitude. “They keep both near the security sub-station. We’ll find it on our way out.”

“A deal’s a deal, but I won’t risk the boss’s life or the plan for your payment.”

Was that his problem?

Tunk, Moe. Agreed, alright? Are we ready?” Gus asked.

Moe nodded, his digital face set. Aurora’s translator squawked, “Yes.

“Alright, let’s go,” Gus said and nodded as well. “And watch for that gravity disorientation.” She hit the lift button and the platform – from their perspective - dropped into the Shenandoah. As they crossed the gravitational threshold Gus’s stomach did a cartwheel and she choked down the bile that rose in her throat. The powerful magnets in her boots kept her from falling back down/up into Tilly’s cargo hold. Aurora appeared to handle the shift in orientation well and they clung to the lift platform just like a Terran spider. The only sign if discomfort the Deiopean let slip was a flash of amber light that the translator didn’t bother interpreting. Only Moe passed into the battle-train completely unfazed. The rob flipped from the now-upside-down lift to the battles-train’s floor, landing gracefully on his feet.

With his help, and with remarkably less grace, Gus jumped to the deck and rechecked the tracking tablet. “Which way?” Moe asked. He glanced up the corridor one way and then the other. No sign they had been detected. Not yet.

“Where are the soldiers?” Aurora asked.

“We’re in the bowels of the beast. Most people don’t come down here unless they have to. This way,” Gus said. They followed the blinking red dot away as Tilly’s lift dropped back into the deck and out of sight. Gus pressed on the earpiece Ray had given her and readjusted its fit in her ear. “Ray, do you copy?”

“Ayuh,” the marshal replied from his place in town. “Yer comin’ in loud and clear.”

“Good. We’re heading for our pickup now. How goes the distraction?” Gus asked.

“So far so good,” Ray said. “We’ve got the townsfolk protestin’ in the streets. Got signs an’ everything. I think we’ve got enough here to bottle-neck ’em some. Don’t worry, we’ll keep ’em occupied.”

“Good. We won’t be but a minute.”

Gus led them through the dim and empty corridors; a right here, a left there, a short pause as a pair of gruff voices passed in a perpendicular hallway.

When the soldiers had gone, the three intruders passed behind them silently and arrived at an enormous circular hatch secured with an impressive lock. But this wasn’t the brig. Her tracker was telling Gus that Oscar was around the next corner and down the corridor about twenty-five paces. Still, she hesitated. If this weren’t the brig there was only one thing it could be.

The vault.

“This it?” Moe asked.

Again, Gus hesitated. She could almost feel the wealth of gold hidden behind the giant door.

“Gus? Is this it?” Moe repeated. He was getting anxious.

A deal’s a deal, a voice in her head said. Oscar first.

“No.” She tore her eyes from the round hatch. “This way. Let’s go.” They followed her around the corner and finally the trio arrived at a set of thick blast doors.

“Cover me,” Gus said and handed Delilah to Moe. Aurora pulled the Hammer from their robes and the Deiopean hunter and cobbler-rob took up a defensive position around Gus as she inspected the doors.

“This it? Is the boss in there?” Moe asked over his shoulder.

Gus peered at the door’s complicated, high-tech locking mechanism. “This is the place,” she said and set to work removing the panel to expose the lock’s electronic guts.

Moe, however, had other ideas. “If this is it, let’s not waste time,” he said and pointed Delilah at the lock control panel.

“Moe, no!” Gus shouted. Too late. Moe squeezed Delilah’s hair trigger and a beam of pink light leapt from the barrel. The corridor was filled with a grapefruit flash. “Rutting tunk, Moe!” Gus shouted. The lock’s control panel was nothing more than a blackened and melted hole. Pungent blue smoke floated from the mess, but the doors didn’t open.

“What the hell?” Moe asked. This was obviously not the result he had been expecting.

“Did you think shooting the controls on an already locked door would somehow unlock it?” Gus yelled and snatched Delilah back from him.

“How am I supposed to know that?” he hissed back. “I’m a farmhand. Jailbreaks aren’t exactly a part of my daily chores. What do we do now?”

I don’t know. Give me a second to think.”

Aurora put down their rifle and placed all six hands against the metal surface of the door.

“What is-” Moe began, but Gus shushed him.

She wasn’t sure what Aurora was doing until the Deiopean stepped back from the door with a start and quickly shuffled to the other side of the doorway. “Two soldiers inside,” they said. “One coming this way.”

Maybe this was going to work after all.

“Alright, when that door opens, we rush ’em. We’ve got to take them both out before they can sound the alarm. If we’re found here too soon, it’s all over,” Gus said. She swallowed hard and steeled herself for the imminent violence.

The heavy blast doors shuddered and slid open and a young man in a dark gray uniform with copper shoulders stepped into the corridor. “What the hell-”

Now!” Gus roared. Moe stepped right up to the Confederate guard. His powerful arms moved with astonishing speed as he first disarmed the guard before he could fully draw his sidearm, and then delivered a knock-out blow to the hapless young man’s jaw.

As the first guard crumpled to the floor like a spilled bucket of bottle-feed, Gus and Aurora, flanking the doorway, entered the brig with their guns held high. The room was empty except for a desk for the guards to share, and Oscar, who sat on a cot in one of the six cells. At first glance the cell looked open, but Gus knew these units were much more advanced than Ray’s.

“I thought you said there were two soldiers?” Gus asked Aurora.

“I heard two. I don’t understand,” Aurora said.

Oscar was standing in his cell, waving wildly. His mouth moved excitedly but the room was deathly quiet. Some sort of new cold plasma, Gus thought. We’re not getting through that. She scanned the brig. There was no way Aurora heard Oscar through the shielding. Where was the other guard?

“Moe, let’s go. Shut the door,” Gus said. Moe spared one more glance out into the corridor, closed the hatch, and started checking the other cells for the missing guard.

“Could you have been wrong?” Moe asked. He stood in front of the last of the empty cells. “’Cause there’s no one else here!”

“I suppose,” Aurora said, but they seemed skeptical.

“Just keep your eyes open,” Gus said and sat at the desk. “I’ll see what I can do about getting Oscar out of there.” There was no way they could get through the cold plasma shielding with force, but if she could hack into the guards’ terminal she could maybe gain access to the locks. She typed a few exploratory commands into the interface and was immediately thrown out of the system. The copperheads had updated their security since she had last had reason to hack into one of their systems. That was going to make things tricky. But there was a work around. “Moe, the guard’s got a keycard on him. Find it.”

Moe nodded and started rifling through the unconscious soldier’s pockets. “Got it,” he said and tossed her the card. “Is this gonna work?”

“Yeah,” she said, “as long as we find the other guard. We need both their cards to get into the system.”

“You said you could do this!”

“I can! There’s always two brig guards on duty. I don’t understand…”

Aurora was mostly ignoring the squabbling and was standing in front of Oscar’s cell, watching the farmer. He was trying to communicate something to them, pointing to an empty space along the brig’s wall, but they were all too preoccupied to pay him much attention. “Can’t we just break the glass?” Aurora asked and raised the Hammer. Oscar’s expression flipped from frustration to surprise to horror in an instant.

“It’s not- wait, no!” Gus shouted, but for the second time she was too slow, and Aurora fired into the cell’s cold-plasma shield. The crack of the rifle was deafening in the little room. But the electric crackle and ricochet whine Gus was expecting never came. Instead, to their collective surprise, rather than bounce off the shield, or be completely vaporized by it, Aurora’s slug had passed straight through and was lodged in the cell’s back wall.

“What the tunk was that?” a disembodied voice shouted. A section of wall swung out and the second guard stepped out of the toilet with his gun in one hand and his still unzipped pants in the other. “Who the rut are you?”

“Prisoner transfer from cell-block 1138?” Gus said.

“What?” the guard said. He raised his sidearm and shuffled towards the desk. “That’s not- Hey!” He had finally seen his partner, face down on the floor at Moe’s feet.

Gus shrugged. “Well, it was worth a shot.” Her left hand dipped, and before the guard could blink, she had drawn Delilah and fired once from the hip. When the pink flash had faded and the freezing cloud of exhaust had dissipated, an expression of surprise had bloomed on the guard’s face. First, he dropped his gun, and then his pants. Then he collapsed in a heap.

“Get his card and get on the other terminal,” Gus ordered Moe. “The cards have got to be swiped at the same time.” Moe quickly retrieved the card and got into position. “Ready? One. Two. Three.” They swiped their cards at the same time and both terminals unlocked at once. “Alright, see where is says cell security? The lock controls are in there. Get the shield down while I check to see if we’ve been spotted yet.”

“I don’t know…” Moe said and squinted at the screen in front of him. “Dammit, I’m not a computer engineer, I don’t- Ah, there it is.” A sharp, buzzing siren rang twice before the shield shimmered like water and vanished.

As Oscar stepped from his cells and embraced both Moe and Aurora, Gus was busily typing away at the guard’s terminal. She had already confirmed they hadn’t been noticed yet and was now digging into a detailed map of the Shenandoah. The brig guards’ clearance was minimal, but it was enough to confirm the big circular door they had passed was the vault, and looked like it would get them in. Now to find the best way to the engine room…

Oscar put his hand on her shoulder. “It’s good to see you, mi amiga,” he said with a smile. “But I hope the rest of your plan goes smoother than that.”

“Hey,” she said as a smirk played across her lips, “so far so good.”

Oscar picked up the dead guard’s gun. “What is the plan?”

“You three are going back to Tilly right now. I’m heading for the engine room to disable their propulsion and weapons. That’ll give the families a window to run,” Gus said.

“No way,” Oscar said and shook his head. “We stick together.”

“We got no time to argue about this, Vega,” Gus shouted. “Four’s a lot easier to spot than one.”

“There’s no way you’ll be able to carry the gold by yourself,” Moe said.

Gold?” Oscar shook his head, “You’ve got to be kidding me. After all this, you’re still going after the gold? Mujer loca.

“Yeah, maybe I am, Oscar,” Gus said. “But this is the plan, and I’m making sure your ass gets off this monstrosity. I promised your wife and son I would. Now get going. Moe and Aurora can lead you back.”

But none of them moved. “You still don’t get it, do you?” Oscar asked. “We stick together. It’s the only way we can win. And if that means we stop for your damn gold, then we all stop for the damn gold.” He folded his arms across his tree trunk of a chest. Moe nodded his agreement and crossed his own arms in imitation of his boss.

“And you?” Gus said, turning to Aurora.

Aurora’s eyes flashed. “Yes. I vowed to keep you alive long enough to keep your promise. We stay together.”

“Fine,” Gus said. It wouldn’t be long before the brig guards were missed. She didn’t have time to spare arguing with them. Besides, more arms meant a bigger haul from the vault. “Load up. This isn’t going to be a walk through the park,” she said. With a glance out the heavy doors, she led them out of the brig and into the maze of corridors beyond.

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