25: Saddle in the Wind
Tilly flipped and twirled, dipped and climbed, rolled and tumbled. At times she looked like a horseshoe tossed towards a peg in a friendly game. But this was no game, and Gus’s opponents were anything but friendly. The air all around Tilly blazed with laser fire as she pushed the small steed beyond her limits. The atmo-thrusters screamed in defiance with every maneuver, every mid-air dodge. Somewhere in the back of her mind it occurred to Gus that she was likely undoing all the hard work Emmitt had put into fixing the thrusters after her fiery arrival on Aeolus.
She threw Tilly into a hard barrel roll, deftly dodging another volley of fire from the pursuing cavalry. This was going better than she had expected, but that was only because the Shenandoah had yet to turn its main artillery battery on her. “Come on, you bastards. I’m right here. Shoot!” She turned Tilly around and headed straight for the big pulse-rail battle-train, hoping to provoke her into firing her big cannons. If Gus could just get those guns to fire, all their attention would be on her. The Vegas would have their opportunity.
But the cavalry mounts forced her to break away from her collision course before the Shenandoah was pressed to defend herself. “Dammit!” Gus pulled Tilly away and into another dogfight with the copperheads. Why weren’t they shooting?
Desperate, Gus pressed the transmitter Ray had given her into her ear. “Ray, if you can hear me, I’m sorry. I’m sorry I dragged you out from behind your rutting desk and away from your coffee machine. I’m sorry I pushed you into this mess. I-”
A voice, one that was not Ray’s, interrupted her. “How heartwarming. Asking for forgiveness right before the end. It’s all very romantic. Even if it is pointless.”
“Where’s Ray?” she demanded. She pushed Tilly into a steep climb through the wind and rain.
“Oh, don’t worry about our dear Marshal Gascon. He’s been handled,” Laszlo said. “Why don’t you hitch up and come see for yourself?”
Gus let Tilly’s rifle turret answer for her. She swooped back down and fired ineffectually into the Shenandoah’s defense shields. Still the cruiser refused to return fire.
“What do you think you’re going to accomplish anyway?” Laszlo shouted over the transmitter. “It’s over! There’s already a garrison here in town. Your little uprising has been effectively put down. But you don’t have to share the fate of the rabble you’ve roused. Let me make you one last offer.”
The fire from the cavalry ceased, as if on cue. Gus didn’t reply. Laszlo took that to mean she was listening.
“Stand down, Gus. That’s all I’m asking you to do. Just stand down and give me Oscar’s coordinates. That’s it. You can keep all the gold you took from the Shenandoah’s vault. Consider it, and the fuel cell fill-up I will see that you get, payment in full for all your services. Think about it.”
Gus couldn’t help but glance back over her shoulder. Her mind’s eye cast back through the engine room, around the bend and into Tilly’s cargo hold, where bar after bar of the gleaming gold sat and waited. She couldn’t be sure just how much they had managed to get away with, but it was more than Moe’s bounty. More even than what Laszlo had originally offered her to work for him.
It was everything she had come to Las Ráfagas looking for. It was freedom, and enough of it to last her a long time too. All she had to do was what she had always done before: mind her own damn business.
“Oh, I’m takin’ your gold, Leconte. And before this is done, I’ll have your life too.” Gus ripped the transmitter from her ear, shut it off, and jammed it deep into a pocket. Right on cue, the cavalry opened fire again and forced Gus to dodge away into the lower, denser atmosphere.
Tilly rocked under the barrage. Something in the engine room gave way and a shower of sparks was followed by some important fluid erupting from its hose and dousing the controls in thick orange sludge. Still she pushed Tilly, dodging and weaving, through the storm.
Finally, Tilly’s sensors registered an immense energy bloom coming from the Shenandoah. At last, she was powering up her main cannon. This was it. If Gus could draw the cruiser’s fire, the Vegas could sprint away in the time it took to recharge. She yanked back hard on the reins and pulled Tilly up through the rain to give the copperhead rutters a tempting target.
But when the cannon was finally fired the great beam cut a swath through the storm far off Tilly’s left shoulder, on a steep trajectory. Gus screamed into the comms, “Oscar, break off! They’ve got your location! Do you read me? Moe? Bernadette!” But it was too late for warnings, and Gus only got static in reply.
They were gone.
And with them went all remaining rational thought in Gus’s head.
Again, she turned Tilly to face the Shenandoah and charged to attack her head-on. Both Tilly’s small rifle turret and her atmo-thrusters blazed; the former glowing white hot under the stress of repeated fire, the latter screaming to keep the pony aloft in the driving wind and rain. The cavalry mounts had regrouped and formed a defensive line between her and the cruiser. Tilly barreled through them like they were tenpins.
Alarms blared in Gus’s ears as critical systems failed all over the small mount. But it didn’t matter. There was nothing between Tilly and the Shenandoah’s command level now. Even as her thrusters failed Gus confirmed the collision course. She has always known this was how she’d go out: riding Tilly into a blaze of fire.
But if she was going out, she was taking them with her. Too bad Laszlo and his bastard sons were in town.
Another volley from the Shenandoah’s cannons lit up the stormy sky brighter than any flash of lightning. Gus tried to dodge, but Tilly’s thrusters were all but burnt out and couldn’t force the falling pony far enough out of the way. The beam skimmed off Tilly’s belly, but even a glancing blow was enough to toss the mount into the storm, tumbling end over end like a coin.
Gus yanked hard against the yoke reins, fighting to regain control of her plummeting companion. The deafening alarms suddenly stopped and for a horrifying moment, Gus thought the power had failed. But the console display was still lit, with a red, blinking message:
ESCAPE POD 2: READY FOR LAUNCH
“No!” Gus roared and slamming her fist down on the screen. “You’re not finished yet! Come on!” She yanked back on the reins with all her might, but Tilly didn’t respond. A moment later the lights went out and threw Gus into tumbling darkness. The saddleroom lights flashed. Then the engine room, the cargo hold, and the saddleroom again. Tilly was trying to lead her to the remaining pod.
“No, God damnit!” she yelled, but her spurs were forcibly ejected from the rudder control ports and she was thrown from the saddle. As Tilly tumbled past the Shenandoah and Las Ráfagas into the deeper atmosphere, Gus was thrown bodily from the saddle and back into the engine room. Tilly slammed the saddleroom hatch closed behind her. When Gus slammed a fist against the door, every alarm at Tilly’s disposal erupted at once, and drowned out Gus’s ability to even think.
Covered in coolant and foul-smelling orange sludge, with klaxons ringing in her ears and showers of sparks dazzling her tear-filled eyes, Gus finally did what she was told and scrambled for the pod. She stopped at the entrance to Tilly’s meager cargo hold, once only home to a small beehive and a little contraband, now laden with more riches than she had ever dared imagine.
Was there time to salvage something? Anything? Probably not, but that had never stopped her before.
A moment or two later she reemerged from the cargo hold and raced the final steps to the pod. She threw herself into the can-shaped escape pod and Tilly closed the hatch behind her again. With Gus was safe inside the pod, the alarms stopped and were replaced with a low whickering. Gus pulled her hood up and activated the life support systems. She put her hand against the glass and took one final look at what had been her home, and her friend. “I love you too,” she said, and the tears finally overflowed.
The pod was launched upwards, into the storm, and Gus watched her oldest and only companion left tumble into the churning dark.