Gas Giant Gambit: A Tale from Across the Cygnus Rift

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27: Savage Guns

“Well, isn’t this peachy?” Junior said. His stony expression broke into a smirk. “I knew I had to get to you first. We’ve got to finish what we started. And lo and behold, here you are, at the scene of the first offense!”

“I guess I’m your huckleberry, then,” Gus said. She stood up behind the bar and gestured for the others to stay where they were. She slowly inched her way out to face Laszlo’s eldest son.

“I’ve got a little wager for you,” he continued. “If you can out-draw me, you get this.” He wagged the kit in the air. “You lose, and I kill all of your little friends.”

“And if I refuse?”

“Then Uncle Ray will be the last of you to die.” Junior’s smirk widened. “I don’t blame you for being afraid.” He slid his Colt Prism M2265 into his shoulder holster and held his trigger finger up. “This little finger has killed more men than I can count. Women too! And when you lose, it’ll have been this little finger that has sent you and your little friends here to hell.”

Gus looked at her stolen handgun. It was a standard issue Confederate repeating laser pistol. It wasn’t Delilah, but it was a reliable piece of hardware and it would have to do. She dropped it into Delilah’s oversized holster and followed Junior to an empty area of the casino floor between Razz tables. The pair took position, standing about ten paces apart. Smiling sadistically now, Junior laid his hand flat against his slim chest.

Gus’s pink dusted left hand twitched near her hip. “Say when.”

Junior’s eye’s narrowed, but the grin on his face did not. Silence, like a void, filled Cirrus House. The sounds of fighting in the streets outside seemed distant and unimportant.

Junior moved first. His hand dipped to the grip this concentrator pistol nestled in his armpit.

Gus, however, was faster.

Before Junior could pull the barrel of his Colt from the holster under his arm, Gus had already fired twice. For an instant, a pair of angry red beams filled the casino floor with an ephemeral glow.

But both beams stopped dead less than a foot before reaching Junior’s chest. The beams fractured into a thousand tributaries of light and flowed harmlessly around an invisible barrier like water raining on glass. His personal shield crackled as it bore the brunt of the energy.

Junior laughed took his time drawing his own weapon. “I’m impressed,” he said. His eyes were wide with something that resembled respect. “Most people get a little… flustered when they’re forced to fight fast. They tend to fire wide in their rush to be first. Or just lose their nerve altogether. Somehow, I knew you’d be different. I knew that just being fast wasn’t going to cut it this time.”

It was Junior’s turn to fire, and Cirrus House was this time filled with the deep purple glow from his Colt Prism. Gus dove and knocked a Razz table to the floor for cover. Even so, she still took a grazing shot to the shoulder as she scrambled to get behind it. The wound was deep, but Junior took care of his weapon, and the clean beam had cauterized the damage as it carved out a small chunk of flesh and poncho.

Junior, laughing maniacally, began to advance, and fired beam after beam into the steel-backed card-table. It wouldn’t stand up under this kind of barrage for long.

Gus!” Hector shouted. He was standing behind the tattered bar and pointing up, over their heads. She followed his outstretched finger to the chandeliers dangling over the gaming tables. The indigo of Junior’s shots were reflected a million times in each elegant crystal shard.

Of course. She flashed Hector a smile and waited for Junior to take another few steps.

“Whatcha hiding from there, Gus?” he shouted, gleeful in his clear victory. “Ain’t you my huckleberry?” He fired again and again. The table finally began to slinter under the salvo. He paused to load a new coolant capsule into his gun, and Gus took her opportunity. Standing from her cover, she drew her commandeered pistol and took aim at Junior’s head. “You void-drifters sure are dense, ain’t ya?” he spat as he fumbled to reload the cartridge. “Don’t worry, you just stand there a moment longer and I’ll make sure you won’t have any more troublesome thoughts running through that pretty little head of yours.”

Gus only smiled, raised her pistol until it was pointed at the ceiling, and squeezed off a single crimson shot. To Junior’s horror, Gus’s beam sliced through the chandelier’s chain and cleanly separated it from the ceiling overhead.

The crystal chandelier fell to the floor with a deafening crash, and crushed Junior in a shower of metal and glass.

In the hush that followed, Gus barely had time to think it was over before the crinkle of broken glass gave Junior away. The mining foreman wasn’t quite dead. Shards fell from the twisted wreckage as he tried to pull his broken body out from beneath the heavy debris. Gus stood over him and pushed his shooting hand to the floor with her heel. “Was this the finger?” she said. “The finger you’ve killed so many men and women with? The finger you were going to send my friends to hell with?”

She fired once, point blank. Junior’s scream was chilling. The beam cut Junior’s pistol clean in two, and completely vaporized his trigger finger to the first knuckle. She lifted her boot and Junior clutched his wounded hand to his chest. She squatted next to him. He was still half-buried beneath the fallen chandelier. “You’re a bully, Junior. I rutting hate bullies. This is for Emmitt and Gloria, you silver-spoon eating, thieving son of a coward.”

Junior coughed and tried to speak but groaned instead. He beckoned her closer. Tunk, this ought to be good. “What, Junior?” Gus asked. “What have you got to say for yourself now? Spare me the famous last words.” She leaned in close. The smell of death was already on him. It wouldn’t be long now.

He spat a wad of blood and phlegm to the casino floor and smiled. “My father will kill you.” His eyes wondered away from Gus to the Vegas peeking out from behind the bar. “Every… last… one of you!” He lunged at Gus with a shard of crystal and buried it deep into her left shoulder. Rivers of agony flooded the left side of her body, reaching deep into her chest and screaming into the fingers of her gun hand. She kicked back, throwing herself away from Junior, and somehow managed to not drop her gun. Gus hit the casino floor hard and fired blind. She didn’t stop until the coolant cap ran dry and the gun clicked uselessly.

Fresh silence fell over Cirrus House. Gus groaned and sat up. Her shoulder felt like it was on fire. Crafty bastard hustled me. But Laszlo Leconte Junior wouldn’t get another chance. Gus’s reaction may have been blind, but it was true. What was left of him would be hard to identify.

With Oscar’s help, Gus slowly got to her feet. Oscar grabbed the Deiopean first aid kit and tossed it to Bernadette at the same moment Moe came crashing through a door marked “Employees Only” with a scatter-beam held high and an expression of worry on his electronic face. “What was that? Is everybody okay?” he shouted and nervously pointed his gun around the empty room.

“It’s alright, Moe!” Bernadette yelled. “Put that thing down before you hurt yourself.”

“How’s Ray doing?” Gus asked and gingerly made her way back around the bar. Her entire left arm was slowly going numb. Not good.

Aurora’s eyes flashed and they applied a bandage from their kit to Ray’s oozing shoulder.

“He’s lost a lot of blood. The poultice needs time to work,” Moe translated. Aurora looked up from Ray and saw the shard of crystal still sticking out of Gus’s shoulder. Their eyes flashed disapprovingly, and they hurried to Gus to see to her injury. Moe blushed but chose not to translate.

“Can we move him?” Gus asked. She grimaced as Aurora helped her pull the poncho over her head. “If Junior found us that fast, it won’t be long before this place is crawling with bulls and copperheads.”

Aurora’s eyes flashed. “Yes, I think so, but we must make sure the bleeding remains under control,” said Moe. “Hold still.” Aurora grabbed the stubby end of the crystal and yanked. Gus gritted her teeth and for a moment her vision tunneled. The hunter-turned-medic slapped a fresh bandage down on the wound and pressed hard. Gus’s head swam, but she held onto consciousness and waited for the drug’s euphoric effect to kick in.

“Is the gunsmithy clear?” Oscar asked.

“Yeah,” Moe nodded, “You wouldn’t believe the security Willoughby’s got on the front door. It’s a good thing he liked his easy access to the rented flesh, or we’d never get in!”

“Alright,” Gus said. She was already starting to feel better. “Moe, you lead the way with that blunderbuss. Hector, you follow Moe, and stick close to him. Bernadette, do you know how to use one of these?” she asked. She slapped a fresh coolant cap into her pistol and handed it to the farmwife. Bernadette closed her eyes and seemed to steel herself before closing her hand around the pistol. She nodded forcefully. “Good. ’Cause you and Aurora are gonna be covering our asses.” The drug from the Deiopean bandage was coursing through Gus’s veins again. She felt invincible, even if her gun hand was heavy and disconnected. Gus flexed it absentmindedly. She’d just have to make it work. “You don’t like the look of any face that comes through those doors, you put a beam through it,” she said. “You got that? Oscar, help me get Ray up.”

#

The side entrance to Willoughby’s Gunsmithy & Emporium was hidden in the back of a coat closet just off inside the casino’s counting room. “How’d you find the door?” Gus asked Moe as they passed Ray through the hidden opening.

“Walter pointed me in the right direction. He said Willoughby uses – used – it almost every day.”

Gus rolled her eyes. “The town’s dying around him, and instead of helping, what’s he do? Builds an express route to the spoons and skin. All the better to drown out the cries for help, I suppose.”

Moe snorted.

“What’s funny?”

Moe smiled, but there was pain in his eyes. “How’s it different from what you did when we asked you for help?” Like a slap to the face, Gus was rendered speechless. At this point, even she had to admit Moe was not wrong.

The shop was dark and quiet. With Ray resting as comfortably as possible on the floor behind the counter and Aurora inspecting the bandage, Bernadette gingerly handed the Confederate sidearm back to Gus. Moe was right about another thing too; the locks Willoughby had installed on his shop’s door were both impressive and numerous. They ranged from low-tech deadbolts to a cutting-edge shield system like the Shenandoah’s brig.

“Alright, it looks like we’re secure. But we can’t stay here long,” Gus said. “Oscar, get yourself and Bernadette something to shoot with. And Hector too.”

“Now hold on a minute,” Oscar began. His wife cut him off.

“Just do it, Oscar,” Bernadette said without looking at Oscar. “He’ll be safer if he can protect himself.” The farmwife saved her glare for Gus. “What danger are you planning on putting my family in now?”

Gus peered out the shuttered windows. The dusty road in front of the shop was empty and dark, lit only by smoldering wreckage of Wagner’s hyper-surrey and the occasional bolt of lightning from the storm still raging outside the dome. Sporadic flashes of color from the town beyond told her the fighting she had instigated with her bees was also still raging. But Gus was looking for something in particular; a pair or someones, actually: Walter and his hulking wife, Gretchen. Where are they?

“The plan’s the same as before. We gotta get you and your family out of town and on your way to Holliday Station,” Gus said.

“You’re joking, right?” Oscar said. He stood before an open display case with a bandolier of coolant capsules slung over one shoulder and a shortened repeater rifle with a pistol grip – a weapon Gus thought of as a “Mare’s Leg” – in hand. He tossed his wife a small, five-shot derringer pistol wrapped up in a leather holster complete with its own coolant reloads. “We’ll never make past that cannon in the mule.”

“We’re not going for the mule,” Gus said. She took a few coolant caps for her stolen sidearm. She missed Delilah. If I find Tuco… she allowed herself a short daydream.

“What then?”

“Laszlo’s pleasure-wagon.” Willoughby’s shop fell silent for the briefest of moments before erupting into a cacophony of voices, all telling her she was crazy. Gus put her gun down on the clerk’s counter, folded her arms across her chest, and waited for her companions to get the protests out of their systems. “You finished?” she asked when the voices finally died away. “Oscar, you know wagons. Is there anything on Aeolus that’s faster?” The look on Oscar’s face told Gus he wanted to say yes but knew he couldn’t. “Lookit here,” she said, and gathered them around the clerk’s counter. She pulled a blank receipt from behind the counter and sketched a rough diagram of the town in its back. “We’re here,” she said, and tapped one corner of her map, “the engineering corral is here.” She tapped the opposite corner. “I overloaded the damn thing’s atmo-thrusters. With Emmitt gone, and Laszlo’s big deal going down, I’ll wager it’s still in the engineering corral waiting on repairs. It sounds like most of the fighting is happening over here,” she tapped a third corner, “in the residential quarter. That’s probably by design, to keep the miners cut off. If we cut through the farmer’s market this way, we ought to be able to stay out of the fray.”

“You’ll ‘wager?’ We ‘ought to be able?’” Bernadette said. She looked considerably less than convinced. “It’s our lives you’re gambling with.”

For a moment, Gus was lost in those emerald eyes. “I only gamble when I know I can win.”

“Mr. Leconte’s pleasure-wagon is there. I saw it when I came in with the mule,” Hector said. “But it still looked busted. The thruster panels were open, and all guts were pulled out.”

“I can fix it,” Gus said.

“How can you be sure?” Bernadette asked. “You don’t even know-”

“It’s a simple overload. I can fix it.”

“But won’t it be guarded?” Moe asked. His tone suggested he was ready for a fight, not looking for an excuse to avoid one.

Gus glanced at the shuttered windows in time to catch a glimpse of colorful laser fire from a street or two over. “Right now?” she said. “I doubt it. And if it is, we’ll take care of it.”

“‘Take care of it.’ Now, I wonder what that’s supposed to mean?” a new voice sneered.

Gus snatched her gun off the counter, whirled on her heels, and came face to face with Aaron Leconte. He was standing just inside the false wall doorway with his arm slung around Hector’s neck. He held the boy close to his chest like they were old chums. The barrel of his Beaumont-Adams dug into the flesh at Hector’s temple.

“Ah, ah, ah!” Aaron said and turned the barrel into Hector’s scalp.

“Let ’im go, Aaron,” Moe warned.

Shut up, you filthy rob!

“I’d listen to him if I were you Aaron,” Gus said and cocked her sidearm.

“Or what? My shield can take a hit from this distance,” he said and tapped his belt buckle, “and you ain’t got no chandelier to drop on me in here.”

With speed Gus would not have thought possible from someone of her stature and dress, Bernadette drew her derringer, stepped forward, and pressed it against Aaron’s own temple. “Think I’ll miss from here?” she asked.

Aaron smiled, but let go of Hector and raised his hands. Gus relieved him of his gun and compared it to the one she had taken off the copperhead. With a nod she tucked the officer’s pistol into the back of her belt and pointed Aaron’s Beaumont-Adams back at him. Hector ran to his father’s side, and Aaron, grinning savagely, turned to face Bernadette head on. He took a half-step towards her and pressed his forehead into her gun. “Sagebrush,” he said calmly.

“What?” Bernadette asked and glanced sideways at Gus. The sizzling energy shield barricading the door suddenly evaporated and Gus realized an instant too late Aaron had uttered its password.

“Look out!” was all Gus had time to shout before the door blew off its hinges with a deafening bang! and four company bulls charged into the small shop.

“Well, well, well!” Aaron shouted gleefully when the dust had cleared. “Now we’ve got ourselves a real party!”

Some party, Gus thought. It was an old-fashioned standoff. While Aaron continued to press his forehead into Bernadette’s derringer, Gus, Oscar, Moe, and Aurora each held a bull at barrel’s end, and was in turn each covered by one of Aaron’s men.

“It’s over!” he shouted. “This rob-lover ain’t got it in ’er.”

Bernadette cocked the little gun. “Try me.”

“Bernie…” Oscar said nervously. Sweat dripped from his brow, but the barrel of the Mare’s Leg did not tremble.

“I suggest you boys all back out of here nice and slow. You ever seen a man get between an Orion polecat and its cubs?” Gus warned the bulls.

“She wouldn’t dare,” Aaron said. His eyes were wild, staring daggers into Bernadette’s. “Take ’em!”

But his men didn’t move. A dull roaring sound had reached Willoughby’s Gunsmith & Emporium and taken their attention. It came from beyond Cirrus House, from the deepest corner of the residential quarter. It was coming from the direction of Genie-town and the mining level access lift.

“If you won’t listen to me, listen to that,” Gus said. She nodded towards the blasted door. “That is the sound of a whole hell of a lot of disgruntled atmo-miners. And it sounds like they’re headed this way.”

The bulls exchanged worried glances, but still didn’t move. But as the roar, and now distinct sounds of renewed fighting, grew, so too did the bull’s visible unease.

“Rut this,” one finally spat. He raised his hands and let his weapon hang from his trigger finger as he slowly backed out the blown open door. The moment he was across the threshold he bolted.

“Callahan, you coward!” Aaron yelled after him. But it seemed itchy feet were catching, and after another worried glance was passed around the room, the other three bulls followed suit. “Gas-huffing bastards!” Aaron screamed. He grabbed Bernadette’s wrist with one hand and gave her a sharp shove to the chest with the other. She felt back and he pulled the gun from her small hand. Aaron fired off two shots towards the door and the final fleeing bull. The first went wild, but the second hit the man square between the shoulders. He took too more stumbling steps and crumpled in the middle of the street.

By the time Gus could react to this act of betrayal and revenge, she and Aaron had their weapons pointed inches from each other’s heads, at a distance that most likely negated Aaron’s shield. Gus hoped, anyway. Aaron’s savage grin reappeared and spread across his mousy features like a plague.

In that moment, a massive shadow fell across the open doorway. Gus couldn’t dare take her eyes off Aaron but was relieved to hear a familiar feminine voice cry out, “Well, what do we have here?” Gretchen rolled into the shop, followed closely by Walter.

“If it ain’t the worthless genetic reject himself! And his blushing bionic bitch!” Aaron said gleefully. “You wait right there. I’ll be with you once I’m done with this one.”

“The storm has arrived, lawman,” Walter said as an enormous bolt of lightning lit the churning air beyond Las Ráfagas’s dome. “You’ll deal with me first.”

“Rut off, you gene-pool pond-scum. I’ll get to you when I’m done with her. Then we’ll get to all your fifthly miner friends. Genie, rob, and doppel alike.”

“Well, now,” Gus said. A smile played across her lips as an idea began to form in her mind. “You’re a gamblin’ man, Aaron. Let’s make this interesting.” She slipped her lucky coin from her pocket and held it up. “Heads: it’s just you and me, draw for draw. You want it, you got it. It didn’t go so well for your brother, but” she shrugged, “that’s not my problem. Tails: you and Walter go mano y mano. No weapons.”

Aaron’s eye lit with the same cocky fire he shared with the rest of his family. “Flip it,” he said with a scowl.

Gus, however, smiled and dropped Aaron’s Beaumont-Adams into the holster on her hip. She hooked a thumb into her gun belt and flicked the coin high into the air. As it tumbled through the air, Gus noticed Hector looking at her instead of the coin. She gave him a wink and clicked a small cylinder nestled into one of her belt’s capsule loops. She smiles as she caught the coin and revealed the flip’s result: Tails.

Aaron protested immediately. “Rut you, I ain’t fighting the damn genie. We got something to finish right here.” Still brandishing the derringer, he took a half-step forward. Gus reacted quickly.

Grabbing his gun hand with her left, she spun against his outstretched arm, dropped one spurred heel down on his toes, and delivered a sharp elbow to the would-be lawman’s nose. It broke with a satisfying crack. Aaron dropped the derringer into Gus’s palm as his own hands flew to his bleeding nose. Seizing her opportunity, Bernadette’s hands shot out, gripped Aaron’s belt buckle/personal shield generator, and ripped the belt from his waist as he fell to his knees.

“Fucking quims!” Aaron screeched. His voice was unusually high and nasally.

“On your feet, lawman,” Gus said and yanked him back up. “You’ve got a debt to settle.” She dragged him through the wreckage of the front door and threw him into the street. Walter followed him almost eagerly. Aaron wiped blood from his nose and reluctantly squared up against the genie. It would have been a comical sight, if not for the backdrop of violence and destruction: Aaron Leconte standing to one side in a classic boxer’s stance, Walter on the other, with his many hands balled into what looked like dozens of fists, all raised like an angry octopus.

The fight was short. Although Aaron managed to get a few shots in, and even bloody Walter’s melted lip, he was no match for the sheer volume of blows Walter was able to deliver in short order. After only a few moments, Walter stood over his bloodied long-time abuser. He looked down at him with a mixture of pity and contempt. “Finish it!” Aaron screamed at him from the dust.

Instead, Walter looked up. The clouds beyond the dome were the same angry purple as the bruises darkening on Aaron’s face. Gale-force winds dragged them across the sky at breakneck speed, yet the storm seemed stuck; hellbent on tearing Las Ráfagas from the sky. Sheets of rain pelted the dome. White lightning flashed so bright every detail – every crack in the sidewalk, every lose pebble in the road – stood out in sharp contrast. Thunder cracked almost simultaneously, and the world was filled with the rolling sound of the very atmosphere being ripped apart.

Smiling, Walter looked back down at Aaron. “The storm has arrived,” he said, and turned back to his wife. Gus released the breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding. Keeping Aaron alive was a risk, but she was glad Walter hadn’t killed him. Killing was a hard thing. Especially if you were new to it. If they managed to survive this, he shouldn’t have to carry that burden. As Gus watched Walter and Gretchen embrace in what had to be the most awkward, yet heartwarming, hug she had ever seen, her mind was already working furiously.

Their next step was getting through the farmers’ market unscathed. If they managed that, they might be able to catch their breath in the Hotel Irma, before making a break for the Santa Barbara chapel and the engineering corral beyond. Bringing Aaron along was out of the question. His only worth to them was as a hostage, but Gus didn’t think Laszlo would offer much for his safe return. And even then, at best he would slow them down, at worst he would give them away the first chance he got. So, what to do with him?

Gus’s thoughts were interrupted when Gretchen, still embracing her husband, abruptly lifted Walter off the ground in a bear hug and spun around on her treads. A flash of electric blue light Gus first mistook for more lightning filled the roadway. It sliced into Gretchen’s central LRC “brain box,” but stopping short of passing through the heavily shielded sphere and into Walter. Gus drew Aaron’s Beaumont-Adams, but another deadly laser beam passed over her shoulder her to strike the sitting Aaron square in the chest. As the youngest Leconte slumped forward, the exit would in his back smoking, a small pistol fell from his hand. He had drawn it from a hidden ankle holster. Gus turned to face the shooter, and found Ray, supported by Aurora, standing in the gunsmithy doorway.

He held a rifle to his uninjured shoulder.

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