Gas Giant Gambit: A Tale from Across the Cygnus Rift

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23: Shenandoah

“Come in Ray. Do you read?” Gus pressed the comm deeper into her ear. “We’ve got our pickup and are heading in to make our delivery. Ray! Do you copy?”

There was no reply.

Moe and Gus exchanged a look but said nothing. Ray was probably just busy and couldn’t talk.

She led them deeper into the bowels of the Shenandoah, staying careful to avoid any passing soldiers or crew. Through the maze of corridors they moved, until at last they found themselves standing on a catwalk overlooking a massive engine room. From there, Gus could see access points to at least eight celerity-class engine gimbals. Each of them four times the size of Tilly’s modest engine.

“What now?” Oscar asked.

“Now, we give ourselves a chance to get out of here,” Gus said. She had already spotted the power junction terminal between the closest two engine gimbals. “There.” She pointed. “If I can set off an explosion there, it should start a chain reaction that’ll knock out the power transfer system.”

“Will that destroy the train?” Moe asked. He peered nervously over the catwalk railing at the drop to the engine room floor.

“No,” Gus said, “but it should disable her cannons for a few minutes and scuttle her in Aeolus’s atmosphere for at least a few hours. More than enough time for the families to make it out of the system safely.

“What do you need?” Oscar asked.

“For you and Aurora head back to Tilly.” Gus held up a hand to preempt his protests. “Even with that leg properly seen to, you ain’t exactly a scrambler. Once this goes boom,” she said, and held up the canister of nitroglycerin, “we’re gonna have to move fast. If you get killed in this mess your wife’ll have my hide. No, you stay start back now and take the head start.” Gus turned to Aurora. “Do you think you can find your way back to Tilly?

“Yes, but-”

“No time. When this this goes off, run like hell. Meet us by that big round door near the brig. Moe and I may have to find a different way back.”

“The vault?” Oscar asked.

Gus nodded. “Don’t worry. I promised Bernadette I’d get you out of here, and that’s what I’m going to do. Get ready to run. Moe, let’s go.”

“W-What?” Moe stammered. “What do you need me for?”

“I need your eye and your arm,” she said and smiled at the nervous rob. “Let’s go.”

#

“This is insane,” Moe said as they descended a narrow staircase to the engine room floor.

Gus didn’t exactly disagree with him, but what other choice did they have at this point? “Shhh,” was all she could think to say. The engine room was a lot busier than the corridors outside it. There were dozens of people - all clad in dark gray uniforms, some wearing a distinctive copper helmet - busily moving about the enormous room, checking on systems here, regulating power flow there.

“Ray?” she whispered into the comm again. “Ray, come in!” There was only static at the other end, then a sharp electric discharge that could have been gunfire. Moe and Gus exchanged another dark look. There wasn’t supposed to be any shooting in town. Not yet anyway. They had to move faster.

They reached the bottom of the stairs and slowly moved along the wall, careful to stay hidden behind large and complicated looking pieces of equipment. Moe’s nerves had his head twisting about, like he was trying to see in every direction at once. Gus, on the other hand, was focused on a single spot as she peered out from their cover. “There,” she said. She pointed to a computer terminal nestled between the two nearest engines. “That’s the power junction terminal. Do you see it?” It had huge conduits running into it from each of the engines, and a third running to the terminal between the next pair of gimbals. Moe nodded. “How far would you say that is?” Gus asked. She leaned up against the power module they were using for cover and pulled out the shock-resistant canister.

“Eighty-four feet, give or take a half-size,” he said. He shrugged and smiled.

“Think you can toss this so it lands on that terminal?” she asked and handed him the nitroglycerin. It wasn’t so much the distance Gus was worried about covering, it was the wires and tubing that hung from the high ceiling like high-tech spiderwebs. To throw the nitro accurately would mean threading the proverbial needle. Who better than a cobbler? She could only hope his injured shoulder was up to it.

Moe examined the trajectory the jar would have to take. “Sure,” he said, and leaned back into cover next to Gus, “but these jars are pretty impressive. Even from this distance I don’t think it’ll be enough of a shock to blow.”

“Let me worry about that,” she said. Gus unholstered Delilah and held the big gun up. “I want you to throw it – and run. Don’t wait for me. I’ll be right on your ass.”

“What if somebody sees me?” he asked and stole one more look around.

“They’re gonna have bigger problems on their hands.” A sadistic grin broke out across her face. “Ready? We’ve only got one shot at this.” Moe nodded. “Alright. Remember: toss it and run. On three. One. Two. Three!

Moe rolled out from behind their cover, cocked his arm, and heaved the canister. The moment the jar left his long fingers, something beneath the cloth covering his shoulder popped, and dark hydraulic fluid sprayed from the burned hole left by the bull’s laser beam. Moe screamed in agony, but, cradling his right arm, he still sprinted for the nearest open door. The jar twirled end over end, sailing through the netting of power conduits and sundry tubes effortlessly. Gus tried not to think about Moe’s injury. She had a job to do first. She tracked the jar’s full flight with Delilah’s barrel, waiting until the last possible moment to squeeze the trigger.

The momentary flash of pink light was obliterated by the white-hot explosion of the nitro. Gus didn’t wait to see how bad the damage was. She raced out the nearest door after Moe with Delilah’s rosy exhaust trailing behind her. She caught up with him in moments, just in time to pull him back before he was trampled by a mob of crewmen rushing towards the chaotic engine room. None of them so much as spared them a second glance. Gus had been right, they had bigger problems on their hands right now.

“What do we do? Where do we go?” Moe asked frantically. His back was black and slick with hydrologic fluid. His eyes were wild, darting this way and that.

“Hold on, hold on,” Gus said. She peered into the hole in his “vested” chest. Whatever had blown seemed to have run out of fluid to leak. “Are you okay?”

Moe frantically flexed the servos in his right hand. It seemed weak, but otherwise still functional. “Yeah, I think so,” he said. The panic was slowly draining from his voice and face. “It’s just the hydraulics for my tool-changer. Hurts like tunk, but not a critical system.”

Gus sighed with relief. “You scared me for a second there, pal.” Again, she pressed her fingers to the transmitter in her ear. “Ray? Ray! Do you read?” No reply. “Ray! It’s done, do you copy? Tunk! Ray, if you can hear me, signal the families to go! Get them out now!

“What’s going on over there?” Moe asked.

Gus could only shake her head. “We got our own problems,” she said and pulled the tracking tablet from a pocket again. Assuming Oscar and Aurora didn’t run into any issues, Gus could still use the coin to follow them back to the vault. “This way.”

All the corridors looked the same. Gu knew they were running through different corridors than those they had come through, but every hallway was the same dull grey. She had no choice but to rely on the coin tracker to guide them. Left and right it led them, through familiar yet novel hallways and up and down nondescript staircases. “Are you sure that thing’s taking us the right way?” Moe asked as they waited for a group of crewmen to rush past.

“Trust me,” Gus said. She turned the corner in the direction the rushing crewmen had come from and opened a hatch. “It’s gotta be-” They had come to an enormous room - obviously some sort of cargo hold. But rather than crates of goods or munitions, it was filled with legions of silent, deactivated robs.

“What is this?” Moe asked. He stepped up to the nearest sparklingly new rob. Identical to the rest, it was short and bulky with articulated treads and a complicated array of tools at the ready. Gus was struck by how much they looked like little Gretchens. But where Gretchen’s body was modular, ready to change at her wish and whim, these robs were purpose-built for atmospheric mining. Moe’s hands touched the still mining-rob’s face gently. “These’re brand new. Probably hexaquark IPUs. They’re advertised as lo-bot hacked before leaving the factory floor. And hardened against the fix I got.” He absentmindedly fiddled with the brim of his bowler. “What does this mean?”

Gus swallowed hard. “It means it’s even worse than we thought,” she said. “All the more reason not to linger. This way. It’s not far now.” She slapped the door controls and rushed out of the hold, where she collided with another person standing outside the door. They fell in a pile of arms and legs. Gus reached for Delilah.

“There you are!” Aurora said. The Deiopean jumped up to help Gus to her feet.

“Yes,” Oscar said as he trotted to them, “we were starting to get worried.” He bent over and gasped for breath.

“We’re fine. I said to meet at the vault. What are you doing?” Gus asked, covering her surprise with anger.

“What are we doing? Looking for you!”

“Damn fool. You’re gonna get yourself killed,” Gus muttered and shook her head. Why did no one ever just listen. “Where are we? Which way?”

“This way,” Aurora said and ran down the corridor.

Oscar’s brow furrowed as he peered over Gus’s shoulder into the cargo hold. “What’s that?” he asked.

“No time. I’ll explain later. Let’s go,” Gus said. She grabbed his elbow and dragged him after Aurora. A few twists and turns later, and they were standing in front of the big circular vault door.

Gus didn’t want to waste any time. There wasn’t much left to waste. She gave Tilly’s whistle a sharp blow. “Oscar, Tilly’s just around the corner there.” She pointed but never took her eyes off the big door. “She’s opening the lift for you now. Get aboard and get in the saddle. We’re gonna be leaving in a hurry.”

“Gus, come on. The gold’s not worth your life and we still need you!” Oscar said. The jelly-rancher stood his ground.

Gus managed to rip her eyes from the door. Oscar stood just a few feet from her with his sunburned hand outstretched. He was right. So far, everything was going according to plan, Ray’s unresponsiveness notwithstanding. Was she really going to risk this clean getaway for a few bars of gold? If they left now, maybe even whatever was going on back aboard Las Ráfagas wouldn’t be enough to stop their plan from succeeding.

But then what? Even if the Vegas got to Holliday and brought the cavalry back, she’d likely be arrested on sight – if she even survived at all. And even a full tank of fuel runs out when the spoons dry up. Her eyes were drawn back to the big door. Gus shook her head. “You’ve done it, alright? You’ve convinced me. I’m gonna fight for your hopeless little cause. Because it’s the right thing to do. I’m willing to risk my life for you and your family. And to see justice come for Laszlo Leconte and his kin.

“But I’m not willing to risk my future. If I’m still here when the bluebells show up, I’m as good as dead. And without the gold, I won’t have far to run. I need this, Oscar.”

“You don’t, Gus,” Oscar said. “Don’t you see you’ve got a place here? People who care about you? Isn’t that worth more?”

Gus’s mind reeled with possibilities. Visions of kicking her feet up on Ray’s desk, the deputy star shining on her poncho. Of drinks shared with Oscar and Bernadette at the Hotel Irma. Chasing wayward jellies with Moe and Hector through the clouds. But the shadow of the UCET loomed over all of it.

“The gold – it’s freedom, Oscar. Without it, I’m either dead or in prison for the rest of my life. With it, I can come back. Once the heat has blown over. Don’t you get it? There’s no future for me – here or on the Arm, without as much of what’s behind this door as I can carry. Now, go! Get Tilly prepped and signal the families to sprint. Now!

Still Oscar hesitated, searching for the words that would change Gus’s mind.

“Go, Boss! I’ll get her out in one piece,” Moe snapped. That seemed to break Oscar’s indecision. His face grave, he nodded and ran for Tilly.

“You’ll get me out?” Gus said once Oscar had gone. She smiled despite herself.

“That’s a promise!”

“A responsibility we’ll share,” Aurora said.

Gus nodded. Let’s make this quick.

Gus and Moe stood on opposite sides of the doorway, each with a guard’s keycard, and swiped them through the matching terminals. There was a series of loud mechanical noises from within the door, and then the hiss of equalizing pressure. At last, the big door rolled aside and revealed the vault beyond. As lamps in the ceiling slowly blinked on, each bulb was dazzlingly reflected countless times by row upon row of shelves stacked high with shining bars of gold bullion.

Gus, Moe, and Aurora stepped into the vault as the last of the ceiling lamps came on, fully revealing the massive room and the bounty it held. Gus was overwhelmed. There was enough here to keep her riding and free for the rest of her life. Tunk, once Laszlo and his sons were gone, she could buy Las Ráfagas and use is as personal refueling outpost. It was far enough from the war that once this nastiness had blown over it would go back to being forgotten, yet close enough to the Cygnus Trail that work – both legal and otherwise – would never be far.

Yeah, she thought as she lost count of the rows of shelves, that could work.

Gus!” It took Moe shouting in her face and shaking her shoulders to bring her back from her daydream. “We gotta go! What do we do?”

Snapped back to reality, Gus’s mind raced. She never would have guessed they would have brought this much, and only a fraction of it would fit in Tilly’s hold anyway. If the nitro had done its job, they might have had fifteen minutes before the copperheads could restore power to the cannons. At least half that time was gone. Maybe more. There would only be time for one trip.

“There,” Gus pointed to a hand truck strapped to the wall, “load it up with as much as it can carry. Then grab what you can carry.” She looked around at the rows of shelves. If only there was more time.

As if to prove there wasn’t, a young man in uniform appeared in the open vault door. “Hey!” he shouted. “What are you doing? What the rut is that?” he shrieked when he saw Aurora loading gold bricks onto the hand truck.

Gus spun on her heel and fired from the hip. The soldier fell with a look of shock on his youthful face. Tunk. “Time to go. There’ll be more where that one came from. Leave that to me,” she said and grabbed hold of the hand truck. “Just grab what you can carry and go.”

Moments later the trio were once again racing down the Shenandoah’s corridors, this time Moe and Aurora each with an armload (or in Aurora’s case, several armloads) of gold bricks. Gus brought up the rear, with the hand truck dragging under the weight of her ill-gotten riches. Tilly’s lift stuck up in the middle of the corridor like a giant mechanical toadstool, rising from the hole it had cut in the Shenandoah’s hide.

Oscar’s face appeared in the hole. “What’s going on out there? Hurry up!”

The corridor was suddenly awash in red light as soldiers taking cover in adjacent corridors opened fire. Beams of scarlet light crisscrossed the hallway as they reached the open lift. Without stopping, Aurora dropped to the floor and slid into the waiting lift. Moe followed, diving head-first into Tilly’s upside-down cargo hold. Taking up the rear, Gus shoved the hand truck forward and into the open lift, where it immediately jammed in the hole.

“What the hell?!” Oscar shouted from inside Tilly. Madre de dios, Gus! It won’t fit, let’s go!”

“Make it fit!” she bellowed. She drew Delilah and did her best to take cover behind the lift rising from the center of the corridor. She fired twice in quick succession and the red glow of the copperhead fire was momentarily overpowered by Delilah’s fiery pink beam. The nearest two soldiers dropped to the floor like Razz chips. She spun around the lift and fired twice more. The hand truck was lodged in the open lift at an odd angle. Its load of gold brinks was spilled half inside Tilly, half strewn across the deck of the Shenandoah. Oscar and Moe wrenched the hand truck was back and forth in the hole. “Come on, come on, come on!” Gus shouted. She ducked away from a crimson beam, slapped a fresh coolant cap into Delilah, and returned fire.

Finally, and with more than a few grunts of exertion from inside Tilly’s hold, the hand truck fell forward and was hauled into the small mount. “Let’s go!” Moe yelled. The laser fire intensified and cut sizzling red lines through the air. More soldiers were arriving in droves.

“Don’t have to ask me twice,” Gus grumbled and dove for the opening, still trying to kick as many loose gold bars in as she went.

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