Gas Giant Gambit: A Tale from Across the Cygnus Rift

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28: Guns of the Confederation

The small group stood in a loose circle around the fallen mining rob. The six little lights that made up Gretchen’s face were dimming, and her pincer-like hands open and closed weakly. Walter knelt at her side and did his best to cradle what remained of her central brain box. Neither of them spoke as he held her. Deliberately, and with extraordinary grace, Gretchen wiped a tear from the folds in her husband’s face. Slowly the remaining light in her eyes faded until, at last, it was gone.

Hector turned away and hugged Bernadette, who began quietly weeping before burying her own face in Oscar’s chest. The rancher held his family close. Aurora and Ray, the hunter still supporting the marshal’s weight, looked on as Moe knelt next to Walter and placed a comforting hand on the sobbing genie’s back.

Gus stepped away from her grieving companions and turned her attention, and rage, towards Aaron’s lifeless body. The Chief of the Company Police sat in the road, folded in half at the waist, with his broken nose in the dust between his knees. The hole Ray had blown through him was no longer smoking, but the smell of charred flesh was strong. Gus was furious; with Aaron, but also herself. If she had just taken care of Aaron herself, Gretchen would still be alive. Breathing through her mouth to avoid the smell, she lifted Aaron’s lifeless shoulder with the toe of her boot and pushed him onto his back.

When Gus knelt to pick up the little, single-shot, disposable handgun Aaron had kept in a boot holster, she noticed something else lying in the road next to the dead man’s head: a comms earpiece. She tossed the now-useless pistol aside, wiped the earpiece off on her poncho, and stuck it in her ear.

“-ally Point Beta. Repeat: This is your final warning. All troops retreat from the casino and residential quarter. Fall back to Rally Point Beta,” an unfamiliar voice said. Then the line went dead. Gus took the piece out and looked at it, puzzled. But before she could decide if it was malfunctioning or if the transmission had simply ended, a new sound rolled over Las Ráfagas from the far end of town. It had a distinct, rapidly repeating quality to it, like a starter motor clicking as it tried to turn over. But this sounded more sustained, and somehow electrical to Gus’s ears.

She realized what it was at the same instant a salvo of scarlet laser beams tore through the administration tower and shredded the façade along Cirrus House’s ground floor. The damn copperheads had the gatling gun powered up again. As the group dove for cover behind Jacob Wagner’s overturned surrey, the barrage of beams stopped just short of Willoughby’s Gunsmithy & Emporium, then backtracked, further splintering the casino’s wide front porch before decimating the old homes on the far side. They were raking the gatling gun back and forth through the town, doing untold damage.

How many people were hiding in those buildings? Gus couldn’t guess. Too many.

“What do we do?” Moe yelled from cover.

“We take it out,” Gus yelled back.

“Are you crazy?” Oscar said.

“It’s in our way. Looks like they’ve got it set up right outside Emmitt’s office. We kill it, or we’re as good as dead anyway,” Gus said. “They’re leaving this side of town alone – probably don’t want to rut up the business district. We’ll go through the market and into the Hotel Irma, as planned. There’s a back door in there, right?”

Gus had expected Walter to answer, but the genie was still in the road, kneeling next to his still wife. He seemed completely unconcerned with the path of destruction the gatling gun had carved out behind him.

“Yes!” Moe answered. “It opens on the empty lot behind the mercantile and Santa Barbara.”

“Then we flank it. That’s our play. Somebody grab Walter.”

“You better rethink that plan, girl,” Ray said and groaned. He was pale, nearly the same color as the Stetson that sat askew on his head. “I ain’t in any condition to go runnin’ all over Hell’s half acre.” Gus opened her mouth to argue, but Ray wouldn’t hear it. “Besides, ain’t no way you’re getting close enough to that thing to do anything without a distraction. Walter and I’ll see that you get it.”

Gus didn’t like it, but she could see he was right. Aurora’s Deiopean bandage had stopped the tide, but he had lost a lot of blood. Trying to drag him along would only slow them down and put everyone else in danger. He was also right about their chances. She planned to cut through the cemetery and chapel to attack the Confederate position from the side. But there was a lot of open ground between the chapel’s front doors and where she suspected the gatling gun was set up. Without some sort of distraction, she would get one shot, maybe two, before they turned the barrels on the chapel.

But on the other hand, he looked rough. She didn’t want to leave him to die alone. If they brought him with them, maybe…

Tunk!

Ray seemed to read her thoughts and smiled. “Don’t worry, I’m not ready to give up this cushy job to some void-driftin’ beamslinger. Not yet. Just give me a tap on the comms when you’re in position,” he said and touched his ear.

Gus couldn’t help but return the smile. “I’m holding you to that, you old coot. Alright, the rest of you; let’s go before the marshal here changes his mind and one of you has to carry him.”

Free of Aurora’s support, Ray was wobbly but leaned against the gun shop wall and stayed on his feet. Bernadette stopped to give him a tight hug before she, Moe, and Aurora joined her family at Gus’s side.

Gus pulled the copperhead sidearm from its place tucked into her belt and handed it to Hector. “This is a simple, semi-auto laser pistol. The safety is off. That means you keep your finger off the trigger unless you plan to aerate somebody. In that case, just point and squeeze.” Hector held the pistol like it was a venomous snake and nervously looked up at Gus. “It’s okay,” she said and put a reassuring hand on his small shoulder. “You probably won’t have to use it, but it’s safer if you’ve got it. Just don’t point it at anything you’re not ready to end.” Hector swallowed hard but nodded. He pointed the gun at the floor and his finger stayed far away from the trigger.

Gus and Ray exchanged a final nod before the group split. As Gus ushered her team towards the market, she chanced one final glance back at Cirrus House and Willoughby’s Gunsmithy & Emporium. In front of the wrecked casino and relatively untouched gun shop, Ray was hobbling around the burning surrey towards Walter. The genie was no longer weeping, but still seemed disconnected with events around him. Gus hopped Ray could snap him out of it. Again, as if sensing her thoughts, Ray looked up to see her hesitating. He scowled and shooed her with a flip of his hands.

Go.

#

The farmers’ market was dark and quiet; a sharp contrast to the blazing light cast by the gatling gun’s fire, and the din of destruction that went along with it. The group, now reduced to six, moved as swiftly as Gus could goad them on, which is to say, not nearly as quickly as Gus would have preferred. Oscar’s prosthetic was acting up again, Hector’s little legs were struggling to keep pace, and Moe was spending far too much time loudly worrying about Ray to pay attention to where he was going. Tunk, even her own leg was starting to get sore, despite the Deiopean drugs coursing through her system.

With a crash, Moe suddenly tripped over the body of Jacob Wagner, left where he fell at the start of the day’s festivities. “Shhhh!” Gus hissed. Her head pivoted around like an owl, trying to see everywhere at once. So far, they still seemed unnoticed.

Madre de Dios,” Oscar muttered and knelt over this neighbor. “I’m so sorry, Jacob.” The body was face-down in the dust between market stalls, although judging from the size of the entry wound on the back of his head, there wasn’t much face left to speak of. As if in a trance, Oscar reached out to turn Jacob over.

“Oscar, no!” Gus said, but it was too late. Oscar rolled Jacob onto his back, revealing the destroyed mess of flesh and teeth – and a small, egg-shaped object on the ground beneath him. “Everybody, down!” Gus yelled. The grenade exploded with a flash of blinding white light and a shriek like a banshee. Hands flew to cover vulnerable ears and eyes clamped shut against the glare. When the blast had subsided, Gus found that her legs were curiously wet. A glance at her gun belt, and then Oscar’s bandolier, confirmed her fears. The detonation had shattered all their exposed coolant capsules, leaving them with only what was already loaded into their weapons and Aurora’s solid slugs. Even Moe’s glass-covered display-screen of a face now had a subtle crack running from beneath his crooked bowler to his jaw.

“What in tarnation was that?” Ray called over the comms.

“A little gift from the copperheads. Sonic grenade for crowd control,” Gus answered sharply. “We’re fine. If we’re lucky, anybody that saw the flash will think it was lightning. But we should find cover, now.” As if to prove her point, a laser blast threw sparks as it passed through the stall to their left. A pair of copperhead soldiers were charging headlong through the town square towards them. Moe, Oscar, and Bernadette all raised their weapons to return fire. “No!” Gus yelled before they could shoot. “Get down and save your coolant. Aurora?”

The Deiopean’s eyes flashed in agreement, and Aurora used the stall countertop to steady the Hammer. Slowly and calmly, the seasoned hunter took aim, waiting until the opportune moment to take the shot. Closer the soldiers came, beams from their own weapons cutting holes through the market’s empty stalls like swiss cheese.

“Any time now,” Gus urged, but still Aurora waited.

The soldiers had crossed the square with impressive speed. But as they bared down on them like a pair of dogs flushing quail, Aurora fired two quick shots, the barrel of their rifle barely twitching between them. Both men fell as if choreographed, and their momentum sent their limp bodies crashing into a stall only a few feet from the Vegas. Gus wasted no time. She pounced on one of the dying soldiers, flipped him onto his back, and started digging through his pockets.

“What are you doing?” Moe was horrified.

“We need his coolant caps.” Gus sneered when she found the soldier’s extra capsules. He only had three. “Oscar, ditch the Mare’s Leg,” she said. “These capsules won’t fit it. Grab his sidearm and coolant,” Gus said and waved at the other fallen soldier.

Oscar didn’t move. He was just as appalled as Moe. Bernadette pursed her lips until they nearly disappeared. She gave Hector her derringer in exchange for his Confederate sidearm, pressed that gun into her husband’s hands, and promptly knelt before the second soldier and started looking for his coolant capsules.

“Bernie!” Oscar said.

“Oscar, I love you,” she snapped, “but you wanted to fight, and I stood by you. Well, this is what fighting is like. It’s bloody, it’s messy, and it’s ugly. Now shut your mouth and keep your eyes open.” For a moment, Oscar appeared hurt. His expression changed when his eyes again fell on Jacob’s body. Oscar’s neighbor had been executed, likely as an example, to keep the townsfolk under control. Gus thought Oscar had probably known this was always a possibility if he pushed back against Laszlo, but to see it up close – to be confronted with it, and realize your hands are just as filthy with Jacob’s blood as those that did the killing – was something else entirely. It was possible, even likely, that both Gretchen and Jacob would still be alive if Oscar hadn’t roped them into his little resistance movement. The dilemma facing Oscar now was, was it worth it? Gus couldn’t speak for Jacob, but she thought Gretchen would say that it was. And despite herself, she was starting to agree.

A yell rang out from the far side of the farmers’ market. Gus spun towards the call and reflexively drew Aaron’s Beaumont-Adams. There was a woman standing in the doorway of the Hotel Irma, waving a red handkerchief in the air.

“Martha?” Bernadette said when she saw her. “It’s Martha Wagner.”

Good, Gus thought. That likely meant the hotel was safe. For now. She rushed the group across the road and into the darkened hotel lobby.

The humble hotel was filled with signs of struggle. A few table lamps were smashed. The lobby’s only couch was overturned and shredded. The bar was wet and sticky from all the broken bottles of cheap liquor. Fresh scorch marks peppered the walls. And a pair of soldiers and a mining-rob lay on the lobby floor, all three still oozing vital fluids. As Gus stepped into the lobby and closed the door on the street, those hiding in the hotel anxiously poked their heads out to see.

Martha Wagner was there with her son, a pockmarked young man of about 13 or 14, as well as Silas Mwangi, his wife, and their two small daughters. All looked harried and haggard. “Oh, Bernadette!” Martha said. “Come quick, you’ve got to help! Is Daniel with you?” She was bordering on hysterics.

“No, Daniel is… gone,” Bernadette said and allowed Martha to guide her into the office behind the clerk’s desk. Mr. Russo, the Hotel Irma’s mountainous proprietor, lay on a couch that strained against his considerable weight. Sweat and blood soaked the cushions. Gus gestured for Aurora to come along and they followed the women into the office.

Martha sat on the edge of the couch and pressed a damp rag to Russo’s brow. He had been shot in the gut and was delirious, calling out for Irma, his long dead wife. Tunk, Gus thought. We don’t have time for this. Walter and Ray were preparing to create a distraction and if she weren’t in position, they would miss their chance. With the way the day was going, it would be their only chance.

“What happened?” Gus asked.

“After Jacob…” Martha paused, and tears welled in her eyes. But she pushed on, “When everybody started running, he saved us. He got a gun away from one of the soldiers and got us all back here. Then, when those… two… came in… he… he…” she broke down sobbing and Bernadette hugged her tight. Gus got the picture.

She sighed and turned to Aurora. “See if you there’s anything you can do for him,” she said, then called for Moe to join them. They would need his translation skills. After a brief examination, Aurora stepped back from the couch. Their eyes flashed a series of muted colors, and Gus got the idea before Moe had a chance to translate; Russo was already dead, his mind just hadn’t caught up with his body yet.

“Is there nothing you can do?” Bernadette asked.

Aurora’s shoulders sunk, and their eyes flashed dimly again. “‘All I can do now is make him comfortable,’” Moe translated.

Gus nodded, and waved for Bernadette to follow her and Moe back out to the lobby. There, she called Oscar over. What remained of her little group stood in a tight circle. Their faces were dirty, bloody, and tired. But the day wasn’t over yet. “We’ve got to keep moving. We won’t get another shot.” She sighed and looked at the floor. They weren’t going to like this part. “Hector should stay here.”

Oscar’s reaction was immediate. “No ruttin’ way!” he rumbled.

“Oscar, he’s safer here, with Martha and the Mwangis,” Gus said and tried to get Oscar to keep his voice down.

Safer? You said our only chance was to get out of town! Now you’re telling me my boy’ll be safer here?” he said and gestured to the destroyed hotel lobby and tavern.

Gus looked to Bernadette for help, but it was Moe who spoke up and put a reassuring hand on Oscar’s shoulder. “What Gus is trying to say, boss, is that what we have to do next – where we’re going – it’s no place for a boy.”

“They’re right, my love,” Bernadette said and laced her fingers into her husband’s hand.

“And you should stay too,” Gus added.

“You’re joking, right?” Bernadette’s demeanor changed on a dime.

“If this goes south, Hector can’t afford to lose you both,” Gus said bluntly. This simple fact cut through the argument and both Vegas fell silent. “Besides,” Gus added, “if I can’t get these two out of town in one piece,” she hooked a thumb towards Oscar and Moe, “you may be Las Ráfagas’s last hope.” That put the final nail in the argument and Bernadette’s eyes fell on her son as he sat at the ruined bar with the two young Mwangi girls. She nodded without another word and Oscar hugged her close.

A moment or two later, Aurora reappeared from Russo’s room, wiping two pairs of hands on a rag. The small Deiopean’s eye’s flashed questioningly. “‘Are we going?’”

“Yeah,” Gus nodded. “You, me, Oscar, and Moe. Russo gonna be alright?” she asked and throwed her chin back towards the small office.

“‘He won’t feel any more pain,’” Moe said as Aurora’s eyes flashed.

“Good. Oscar, it’s time to say your good-byes. Moe, round up as many coolant caps as you can. Time’s wasting.”

As the Vegas embraced for what might have been the last time, Gus poked her head out the Hotel Irma’s front door and stole a glance up and down the dark, empty street. She could still hear the rapid, repeating sound the gatling gun made as it hurled volley after volley into what remained of the residential quarter. They didn’t have much time if they wanted there to be anything left worth saving.

When she pulled her head back in and closed the door, she found Bernadette and Hector waiting for her. Hector grabbed her around the waist and buried his face in her poncho. “You can’t go!” he wailed; his voice muffled by the fabric. She gently peeled his arms from around her and knelt.

“I’ve got to, Hector. But once I’ve got Moe and your father out of town safely, Aurora and I will be right back here.” Of course, if she survived that long she had already promised Aurora she would help free the captive Deiopeans while they waited for backup, but one thing at a time. “I need you to be brave, like you were with the mule. Since I’m taking your dad and Moe with me, I need you to help your mom and Mr. Mwangi keep everyone safe, okay?”

“With this?” Hector asked and brought a fingertip to his temple.

“That’s right. Think you can do that for me until I get back?” She was suddenly reminded how young Hector was as he wiped snot and tears onto the sleeve of his shirt. But he nodded and even tried to smile. Gus dug into her pocket and pulled out her lucky coin. She offered it to the boy, who took it with a perplexed look on his face. “For luck,” she said and smiled.

“But it’s not really lucky,” he said. His tiny forehead creased. “It’s just a trick.”

She nodded and pulled the coin’s control button from its place hidden among the loops of her gun belt. “We make our own luck,” she said, and handed him the button. She gave the boy one last hug and sent him back to play with Silas’s girls.

Bernadette was as beautiful as the day Gus had arrived, despite the knots in her hair and the blood and grime caked on her face and clothes. She looked up at Gus and again the beamslinger found herself lost in those emerald pool. Bernadette leaned forward and gently kissed Gus one last time, before drawing her into a tight embrace. After a moment’s hesitation, Gus returned the hug.

“No matter what happens today, thank you for trying to keep my family safe,” Bernadette whispered into Gus’s ear. She gave Gus one final squeeze and joined her son without looking back.

#

Gus’s team, now only to a quartet, stepped from the relative safety of the Hotel Irma into the alley behind Walter’s mercantile. The cemetery, with its rows of neatly arranged urns, and the chapel beyond it, were directly in front of them. And by the sound of it, the gatling gun was just beyond Santa Barbara’s front doors.

“Ray, we’re moving to the cemetery,” Gus said into the comms. “Almost in position.”

“Roger. Hurry the tunk up, wouldja?”

Moe had only been able to round up a handful of coolant caps from the folks back inside the hotel. It was all they could spare. Gus gave Oscar and Moe three each and took only one for herself. They would all need to pick their shots carefully. The group moved slowly towards the sound of the gatling gun, carefully keeping an eye out for any copperhead scouts watching the gatling gun’s flanks.

Streaks of white lightning lit the cloud filled sky above, and the resulting thunder cracks were loud enough to drown out even the intense sound of the big gun tearing what remained of Las Ráfagas to smithereens. Rain battered the dome in sheets that came in waves, obscuring the bruise-colored clouds that blotted out the sky. As they moved through the cemetery the rows of urn-filled shelves threw startling, moving shadows with every lightning flash. So far no one had overreacted and fired off a shot. Not much had gone right so far, so Gus chose to be thankful for that.

When they reached the backdoor to the chapel, Gus waited for a thundercrack to break the padlock chaining the big doors closed with the butt of her gun. Silently, they filed into Santa Barbara. Although Gus had spent some time hidden away in the basement’s secret room, she had yet to see the chapel proper. The main floor was nearly entirely dedicated to the small place of worship, with a humble alter and a few rows of short pew benches beneath an old, stained glass window. A few hymnals littered the floor, but the chapel seemed otherwise intact and undamaged. Something else to be thankful for. If Gus was right (and it sure as tunk sounded like she was), the gatling gun was only a few yards beyond the big double doors at the end of the row of pews. The chapel’s thick stone walls made it the perfect place to make a stand.

“Alright, let’s get a few of these benches stacked up in front of the door,” she said and waved Moe over to help her.

“These aren’t going to do much against that repeater,” Oscar said as he and Aurora stacked a pew on top of Gus and Moe’s.

Gus nodded. “Nope. But if we don’t take the big gun out quick, it won’t matter none. This is just to give us that chance.” Her voice was grave. Oscar’s face went pale, but he swallowed hard and went to help Aurora with another pew.

With their modest barricade constructed, Gus gathered her troops, such as they were. “We’re only going to get one good shot at this, and whether we make it or not, all hell is going to break loose,” she said. “If I get it on the first or second shot, we’re going to have a run-and-gun fight. When I give the word, we move up to the engineering corral as fast as we can. But if I miss, be ready to book it out that back door like your ass is on fire and your hair is catching. Got it?” Her eyes darted from face to face.

Oscar’s tanned face was a shadow of the jovial man she had met only a few days before. His smile had been replaced with a set jaw and cracked, bleeding lips. His laughing eyes were now dark and sunken. Determined. Moe, the most emotional rob Gus had ever met, now looked calm and ready. The crack running down his face even gave him a rugged, resolute look. Gus had not yet learned to read the expressions in Aurora’s many sets of eyes, but when the Deiopean placed a reassuring hand on Gus’s arm she knew they were ready.

“Ray, we’re in position. Are you ready?” Gus said into her comms earpiece. When no reply came her heart sank. “Ray, do you copy?” Still nothing. Tunk. They were on their own. They took their positions behind the pew barricade and Gus gave the big double doors a sharp kick with the heel of her boot. The doors flew open to reveal the small plaza in front of Emmitt’s engineering corral, and what looked to Gus like a whole battalion of copperhead soldiers loitering around the gatling gun and the pile of jerry cans Gus had once used as an escape route. A team of soldiers were still raking the huge gun back and forth, firing waist high death through the remains of the town.

Madre de Dios,” Oscar cursed under his breath. “There’s not going to be anything left to save!

With Aaron’s Beaumont-Adams in hand, Gus stood in the doorway and took aim at the gatling gun’s power supply. Although Aaron had taken great care to restore this classic sidearm, it was still an unfamiliar weapon to Gus, and with the drug in Aurora’s bandage wearing off, her shoulder was again screaming in pain. She took her time. She didn’t want to miss. “Come on, come on. Take the shot,” she heard Moe mumble, more to himself than giving orders. She sighted in on the battery as best she could and started to squeeze.

Before Gus could get her shot off, a shout rang out from the throng of soldier across the chapel’s modest courtyard. She had been spotted. Tunk! She took her shot anyway, but her concentration had been broken; the beam went wide, taking out a soldier or two, but missing the gatling gun’s battery entirely. The shower of laser beams that were fired in return tore Santa Barbara’s open doors to splinters and smashed through the pews like they were paper.

Gus dove back into the chapel for cover, tackling Oscar in the process and throwing them both to the floor behind Santa Barbara’s thick stone walls. Moe and Aurora had done the same on the opposite side of the doorway. Gus checked herself for wounds. There were a handful of new scorched holes near the edges of her poncho, but that was all. It was a small miracle, but she seemed to have made it back in one piece. The shooting suddenly stopped, even the repeating background noise of the gatling gun, and an odd hush fell over Las Ráfagas.

“What’s going on?” Moe asked. “Why did they stop?”

Gus chanced a peek through the decimated doorway and was rewarded with a few pot shots thrown her way. She ducked back. “Tunk. They’re turning the gun on the chapel.” She looked around at the old stone walls. Would they stand up to the concentrated power of the gatling gun? Maybe for a minute or two, but no more than that. Then there would be nothing to stop those scarlet beams from tearing through the cemetery and into the Hotel Irma beyond. Her eyes widened as she realized the danger “Go, go, go!” she yelled. “Get everybody out of the hotel! If I miss, this place will be swiss cheese in seconds.”

Without waiting for them to act on her orders, Gus stood and spun out into the open doorway with the Beaumont-Adams again raised high. She hoped a bold, one-woman attack would catch them off guard enough to get one last good shot at the gatling gun. It was their only chance. Standing in the doorway, her shoulder screaming in painful protest and completely exposed, she fired off a series of beams in quick succession. Bodies fell to the wayside as enemy fire erupted around her. Two cherry-colored beams smashed into the stone wall to her left. A third flashed by her right shoulder, close enough to feel the heat as it passed. Another beam, sizzling angrily, grazed her temple and the smell of her own singed hair reached her nostrils. The haze of battle fell over her, and all Gus could see was the gating gun’s battery, finally exposed. This was her last chance. She took aim, steadied her sights, and squeezed the trigger.

The gun clicked uselessly.

Tunk, this piece of crap goes through caps fast! she through and slapped her last coolant cap into the gun as she stood in the doorway, unprotected from the onslaught. But before she could raise the gun and reacquire her aim, a familiar pink beam lit up the air beneath the dome.

It carved through the soldiers shooting at Gus and struck the pile of discarded jerry cans outside the engineering corral. The trace amounts of Rb-87 fumes left in the cans ignited, and the resulting explosion wiped out half the soldiers, knocked the other half flat, and sent a small, black mushroom cloud crashing into the dome above.

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