26: The Boss of Boomtown
The pod hatch hissed and popped open with a pressurized whoosh! Before Gus had time to get her bearings, hands flew in through the open door and dragged her out.
Almost as soon as Tilly had jettisoned the pod, she had been picked up by the circling cavalry mounts and carried back to town through the raging storm. There, waiting for her with their weapons drawn, were Aaron, Junior, and Tuco. Aaron grinned from ear to ear as he dragged her out by the arm. Junior’s face remained as flat and expressionless as stone.
Tuco, on the other hand, looked like a rat caught in a trap. “I don’t know what’s gotten into you, hermana, and I don’t care. You’ve cause me a lot of trouble on this trip, you know? So, I’ll just take this,” he said as he pulled Delilah from Gus’s holster, “and we can call it even, si?”
“You better kill me now, Tuco. ’Cause if I get free, I’m coming for you first, hermano.” Gus said with a voice that was barely above a growl.
Aaron laughed. “Better watch out, Tuco. This kitty bites.” He rubbed his bicep where the cloned replacement had been attached.
They led her at gunpoint through the farmers’ market, passed Jacob Wagner’s prone body – right where Bernadette said it would be. Finally, they shoved her into a heap on the dusty ground of Las Ráfagas’s town square. New hands, these more friendly than the last, helped her to her feet and dusted her off. It was Walter. Gus looked around to find the entirety of Las Ráfagas’s population, both those a part of Gus’s plan and not, held hostage in the square. The only folks missing were the miners. Of them there was no sign.
“Where’s Gretchen?” Gus asked.
“Don’t know.” Walter looked scared. “Once the inspection team came back up, they locked down the mining levels and brought us all here. The storm is nearly here, Gus. Can you feel it?”
The mining levels were locked down? That didn’t bode well. Something about ‘divide and conquer’ fluttered across Gus’s mind. She glanced up at the dome above and the cyclonic storm pounding against it. It looked to her like the storm had already arrived. But first thing first. “Ray?” she asked. “Is he-”
“Jonsin’ for a good cup o’ Joe? Yer damn right I am! Ruttin’ copperheads won’t even let me get a mug from my own damn office,” the marshal spoke up.
Gus spun on her heel to face him with relief naked on her face. “Ray!” she shouted and grabbed him in a bear hug that surprised them both. “Bernadette said you’d been shot. She thought you were dead!”
“Near enough, girl.” he said and grimaced. Gus released him and stepped back. His left shoulder was heavily bandaged but still bleeding badly.
“Are you alright?” she asked. She squinted at the bandage. It looked like Daniel’s work; clean and professional, but it was soaked through and needed changing.
“Ayuh, I’ll live,” he said. “Or at least, it won’t be the shoulder that kills me. Where’s your little native friend? Or Oscar and Bernadette?” he asked with hope in his eye. “Moe?” But Gus could only look at her feet and shake her head. Ray sighed with defeat and patted Gus on the shoulder. “You did everything you could, and I thank you for that,” he said.
“What happened? Bernadette thought someone betrayed us.”
Ray’s face darkened. He looked to the far side of the town square where the Administration Tower loomed. Gus followed his gaze to a small, hastily build platform in front of the Admin Towner lifts. Upon this crude dais stood three figures: Laszlo Leconte, a beautiful young woman with high cheekbones and long blonde hair, and John Stonewall.
“He rolled on us. Bastard’s been running back to Laszlo with every morsal of information like the rat he is,” Ray said. “They knew everything before the copperheads set a single boot in town. We never stood a chance.”
“Why would he do this?” But Gus knew the answer before the question came out of her mouth. Stonewall’s daughter was sick. The high-tech medical equipment Laszlo kept in the Admin Tower could probably save her. It would have been an easy deal for Laszlo to make, and impossible for Stonewall to pass up. Even through her rage Gus couldn’t help but pity the man. But pity alone wouldn’t absolve him of offering up every life in town in exchange for his and his daughter’s. Every life lost today was on his hands, and Gus intended to make sure he paid for them. One way or another.
Gus’s attention was pulled from the deceiving rancher to the tall, aggressively beautiful woman on Laszlo’s arm. At first glance, from the way Laszlo was looking at her, Gus though she was his latest conquest. Then she turned to face the crowd and Gus recognized her from the bust in Laszlo’s quarters. It was his daughter, Mackenzie Leconte. Her features were sharp and fierce. She must have taken after her mother. The pair were joined by Mackenzie’s bothers, who watched as a group of copperhead soldiers dragged heavy equipment onto the platform and began constructing some complicated piece of machinery. Tuco shuffled nervously in the wings with Laszlo’s security-robs. Gus’s temper flared at the sight of Delilah jammed carelessly into the front of his pants.
An older man in Confederate grays stepped onto the platform and spoke to Laszlo. He wore a colonel’s eagle on his collar. Gus knew that meant he was likely in command of the Shenandoah. She didn’t like the look of this. The colonel finished speaking to Laszlo and stepped back to watch the crowd. Laszlo nodded and stepped forward and spreading his arms wide in a gesture of goodwill. “My friends! May I have your attention, please?” His voice boomed, echoing across the square. “That’s better,” he said, smiling innocently, when the crowd’s murmuring had ceased. Every eye was turned towards the town’s founder and head administrator. “My! We’ve had quite a little bit of excitement around here, haven’t we?” He chuckled. “I must say, I’m disappointed that some of you would choose this moment to act against not only me, but your own futures!”
Laszlo paced the edge of the platform. His smile faded and instead he regarded Las Ráfagas’s townsfolk with the eyes of a disappointed parent. “I am this close,” he held his fingers an inch apart, “from turning this backwater, forgotten town into one of the most important facilities in the Confederate Colonies of Orion! Las Ráfagas is going to be more successful than ever!” he shouted. “It seems, however, that there are some among you who don’t wish to profit from this new paradigm. But could you let leave well enough alone? No! And now I have to do something unpleasant.”
Throughout Laszlo’s speech Gus pushed her way through the crowd as close to the platform as she dared. As she approached, she watched one of the gray-clad soldiers hand the colonel something long and narrow. He turned it over in his hands to examine it, and Gus recognized it at once – a Deiopean rifle, just like Aurora’s Hammer.
The working soldiers finished their task and stepped back from the platform. The crowd gasped. The collective shock dragged Gus’s attention away from the colonel. The copperheads had put together a ZM390 Rotary Laser Cannon – a Gatling-style weapon designed for clearing battlefields of enemy infantry.
“Friends! Friends!” Laszlo said over the growing clatter of frightened voices. “Those of you who have been loyal have nothing to fear!” The colonel quickly leaned over and spoke into Laszlo’s ear. “What? All of them? That wasn’t part of the deal,” Laszlo said and pulled away from the officer in apparent disgust. The colonel handed Laszlo a tablet without another world. Laszlo glared at him but took the tablet and looked it over. A greedy grin spread across his sun kissed face. Laszlo brought his attention back to the crowd. “I’m sorry, it seems I may have misspoken. It appears, for a very generous additional payment, the Confederate government would prefer an empty outpost to move into.”
There it was. The reason the mining levels were locked down. And why the Shenandoah had so many brand-new mining-robs in her hold.
Panic erupted among the townsfolk. Several tried to break out from the square and were shot for their trouble. Gus saw the man she and the Leconte brothers had played Razz with the night she had arrived, Willoughby, fall with blood staining in fine white suit. He was dead before the dust settled around his body. A motherly-looking woman made a break for the alley between Ray’s office and the med-lab. She died shielding her children. Stonewall had turned a sickly shade of green but seemed rooted to his spot on the platform out of utter horror. But the chaos didn’t last. A few smoking bodies later and the crowd was terrified, but back under control. Gus wondered what it would take to provoke the townsfolk into actually fighting for their lives. She could only hope they had it in them.
“No matter what happens, you stick close to me,” she mumbled to Ray. “Got it?”
He nodded and opened his mouth, probably to ask what she had in mind, but his eyes went wide, and his jaw hung open in astonishment instead. Gus turned back to the dais to see five figures led up onto it for the crowd to see. Their hands were bound behind their backs and each had their head covered by dark black bags. But there was no mistaking Moe’s lanky mechanical limbs, and Aurora’s short, spider-like body. The hoods were ripped from their heads, revealing the stern and dogged faces of Oscar and Bernadette, and the sheer dread on Hector’s.
“We’re going to begin with the ringleaders of all this trouble,” Laszlo bellowed to the stunned crowd. “This family, and their little friend here, have caused more than enough problems for one lifetime. Colonel, at your leisure,” Laszlo said. He stepped back and ushered his grown children off the platform.
“Remember. Stick close to me,” Gus said again and reached under her poncho for the one thing she had managed to save from Tilly’s cargo hold.
The colonel nodded to a soldier who stepped up to the ZM390 and pointed it at the Vegas. The crowd gasped again as Oscar tried to shield his family. “Everybody, down!” Gus bellowed. She threw her poncho back over her shoulder to reveal a fist-sized slab of honeycomb, crawling with buzzing bees. The townsfolk parted like soil before the plow, and Gus hurled her hunk of hive at the gatling gun with all her might.
The honeycomb struck the copperhead square in the face and cracked into a dozen pieces, showering the unwitting officer with a rain of furious bees, and at least one very confused queen. The effect was immediate, and exactly was Gus had been hoping for. The swarm attacked the hapless soldier and then expanded outward, hunting for more threats to the hive. The buzzing chaos finally pushed the townsfolk’s panic beyond even the fear of the soldiers’ guns.
Anarchy consumed the town square and in the confusion everyone ran. Some were shot and died where they fell. Many more made it out to the relative safety of Las Ráfagas’s abandoned homes and businesses. Gus caught a glimpse of the back of Stonewall’s dirty coveralls as the turncoat hightailed it out of the square like his pants were on fire. She let him go. Gus had only one goal in mind for now: getting the Vegas to safety.
In the turmoil caused by the swarm Gus threw herself at the soldier who had been manning the ZM390. She tackled the panicking man to the ground and delivered a haymaker across his jaw. She relieved him of his pistol and tossed it to Ray. “Cover me!”
The Vegas were huddled together, trying to make themselves as small as possible amidst the yelling and shooting. Moe crouched between the family and the gatling gun and hugged the trio of doppels, trying to shield them. The farmhand’s simulated eyes were squeezed shut against the pandemonium raging around them, and none of them had seen Gus and Ray mount the platform. Aurora, on the other hand, almost seemed to be expecting it. At the same moment Gus tackled the Confederate officer, the Deiopean leapt from the platform onto the colonel’s shoulders and attacked with their powerful mandibles and a flurry of tiny fists. By the time Gus had tossed Ray the officer’s pistol, Aurora had already used the colonel’s sidearm to blast their irons off. With the Hammer retrieved from the dead colonel, Aurora barely hesitated before tossing the officer’s sidearm to Gus.
“Moe, we’ve got to go,” Gus said and put a hand on his cloth shoulder.
Moe opened one eye, saw her, and leapt to his feet. “Gus!” Both Oscar and Bernadette were shocked to see her. Hector’s eyes were wide, as if he were trying to see everywhere at once. An expression of utter terror was plastered across his young feature.
“How-?” Oscar asked.
“I could ask you the same question. But there’s no time for that now,” Gus said. “Let’s get you out of here. Then you can explain to me how you’re alive.” Gus was smiling despite the chaos around them. “Follow Aurora. I’m right behind you.”
Aurora and Ray led the Vegas off the platform and through the alley between the med-lab and the Admin Tower. With laser fire singeing the air around her, Gus ran to follow - and fell flat on her face.
“Rutting tunk! Daniel?” Bleeding badly from a wound she couldn’t see, Daniel Park had grabbed her foot as she had stepped off the platform.
“He-lp,” he gurgled. He spat out more blood than words.
“I’ve got you. Come on,” she said and pulled his arm over her shoulder. She got him to his feet and half-dragged him a step or two forward when a familiar pink beam exploded from his chest and left a bleeding crater where his ribcage used to be. She dropped the lifeless body and spun around in time to see Tuco flinch and drop Delilah when her freezing exhaust billowed over his exposed hand. “Bastard!” she shouted. She shot twice with the copperhead sidearm, but Tuco managed to grab Delilah and find cover unscathed.
“Was that your medic?” he called over the din of the battle. “Sorry about that. Did you know this pedazo de mierda pulls to the left?”
“Why don’t you stick your head out and we can talk about giving it back?” she called back. He surprised her by actually leaping from cover to fire at her head on.
“You want it back? Here it is, manflor loca!” he screamed and fired wildly in her general direction, enduring the repeated blasts of Delilah’s exhaust. From cover, Gus watched one of Tuco’s errant shots strike the ZM390’s power supply, only a few feet from where she crouched. The battery sizzled, crackled, and then exploded, and sent both Gus and Tuco flying.
By the time Gus had regained her footing, Tuco, and Delilah with him, had fled into the fray. She cursed and followed Aurora, Ray, Moe, and the Vegas.
Gus raced headlong around the base of the Administration Tower and crashed directly into Walter coming from the opposite direction. The genie was bleeding from a hundred small cuts and held three copperhead rifles among his many hands. “Gus!” he said and helped her to her feet. “The storm has come! And with it, the rains of change!” His melted face lit up with a grin.
“Did Moe and Oscar come through here?”
“Sure!” he said cheerfully. He pointed back in the direction he had come from. “I told them to meet me in Willoughby’s Gunsmithy & Emporium. There’s a back way in through Cirrus House.”
“Where are you going?”
“To get my wife,” Walter said simply, and set off for the mining level lift with his rifles at the ready. Gus ran for the gunsmithy.
Just like the night she had first arrived in town, Jacob Wagner’s hyper-surrey was parked out front of Cirrus House, but the hover-cart had seen better days. At some point it had been overturned and set on fire. It now sat in a pile of its own burning debris, effectively blocking Gus from reaching Willoughby’s shop.
There’s a back way in through Cirrus House.
She burst through the batwing doors with the colonel’s sidearm held high, but the usually bustling casino floor was dark and quiet. The crystal chandeliers quietly clinked in a draft. A groan, followed by a sharp “shush,” came from behind the bar. Aurora’s many-eyed head popped up over the bar and flashed a series of colors Gus had come to recognize as her own name.
“What is it?” Oscar asked before his own face appeared over the bar. “Gus! Ray’s hurt bad, get over here!”
Ray was sitting on the floor behind the bar. He was pale and his tan duster was dark with blood. Bernadette had removed Daniel’s bandage and was pressing bar rags into the wound in Ray’s shoulder. Hector was cowering in the corner with his arms wrapped around his knees. Tears ran down his cheeks as he watched as his parents try to keep Ray alive.
Gus leapt over the bar and took over for Bernadette. “Christ’s blood, Ray.”
“Whatsamatter?” he slurred. “Dontcha think red looks good on me?”
“Where’s Moe?” Gus asked.
“Walter said there’s a back way into Willoughby’s through the counting room. Moe’s checkin’ in out,” Oscar said. Worry had crept into the rancher’s voice.
“Aurora’s first aid kit, where is it?” Gus asked.
Aurora’s eye’s flashed, but the translator was gone.
“The soldiers…” Bernadette said. Of course. The copperheads would have taken everything. “Where’s Daniel? Did you see him out there?” Bernadette asked.
“He’s- Are you sure?” Oscar asked.
Gus nodded. “I’m sorry, Oscar. I know he was a friend. But Aurora’s kit might be Ray’s only hope now.”
“Do you mean this kit?” a new voice called from the casino’s doors.
He looked ragged. His suit was rumpled and untucked and one jacket sleeve had been torn at the shoulder. There was a dark stain splashed across his chest that could have been wine, but probably wasn’t. But his eyes were alight with a fire Gus had not seen in them since he had challenged her the night she had arrived in town.
In one hand he held his Colt Prism M2265 concentrator pistol, and in the other, Aurora’s octagonal first aid kit.