Gas Giant Gambit: A Tale from Across the Cygnus Rift

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29: The Marshal of Las Ráfagas

The shot from Delilah had come from Gus’s right – from the roadway between Santa Barbara and the Marshal’s Office. Gus spun to face the new threat: Tuco.

The short, greasy outlaw stood in the road alone, with Gus’s big gun clutched in a hand wrapped with a pink-stained rag. Gus expected the fat little man to shoot at her, so she was surprised when he smiled and sort of hop-ran to Santa Barbara’s doorway and shoved her back into cover. The instant they crossed the old chapel’s threshold the barrage of laser fire from the regrouping soldiers resumed.

Inside, Tuco slammed his back against the chapel wall and gasped for breath. “I changed my mind, hermana,” he said. That ugly, crooked smile bloomed on his face. His chest was still heaving, but he held Delilah up butt first and offered it to Gus. “You can have this pedazo de mierda back.”

“Speaking of ’pedazos de mierda’…” Moe said.

“What’s this pendejo doing here?” Oscar asked with undisguised disgust dripping from his voice.

Aurora’s eyes lit up with a protest Gus didn’t need Moe to translate.

“What in tunk are you all still doing here?” Gus yelled.

“There’s no way we’d make it back to the hotel in time to save them,” Oscar said. “At least here, if you fell, we could have tried… something.” He shrugged.

Gus snatched Delilah out of Tuco’s hand, dropped it into her holster, and glared at her friends. “Well, all it means now is that we’re all gonna die right here. Moe, keep a lookout. At least that way we’ll have some warning before they tear this place apart.”

“You know,” Tuco said. He was trying to sound smooth, like an old friend confiding in Gus, “there is another way.” She eyed him carefully, already sure she wasn’t going to like this. “This situation’s gotten out of hand. We never should have been on opposite sides; I see that now. Lo siento. Weren’t things better before?”

“What are you getting at, Tuco?” Gus said and slammed him into the stone wall.

“You and me, hermana. We take the rob, help ourselves to a ride, and get our asses back to the Old Colonies. I’m sayin’ we wash our hands of this place.”

Chinga tu madre!” Moe said from his place by the door.

Gus couldn’t help but smile at the rob, but her face turned to stone when she turned back to Tuco. Looking at Tuco’s hopeful eyes, she had to admit that some part of her was still tempted by the little man’s offer. The two of them probably could cut a path to the engineering corral if they moved now and didn’t concern themselves with the gatling gun. They had made it through worse scraps than this together.

But not this time.

She gave him another sharp slam into the wall. “I don’t think so, Tuco. Laszlo started something out here, and I plan to help these folks finish it. You can help,” she said and offered him Aaron’s Beaumont-Adams, “or you can save your own skin.” She nodded towards the open back door. “If you go now you might even make it.”

Tuco slowly took the gun from her with a look of utter disbelief on his face. “You know you’re only going to die along with ’em, right?”

“Probably. But I’d rather die at a friend’s side,” she said and nodded to her companions, “than keep running with the likes of you.”

The look of confusion on Tuco’s face only deepened as he took a few unsteady steps towards the back door. “¿Te has vuelto loca? There’s no spoons in this.” The confusion on Tuco’s face broke down into panic. He took another half-stumbled step backwards, abruptly raised the Beaumont-Adams and pointed it at Moe. “Fine, but the rob comes with me.”

“Woah, now,” Oscar said and pointed his own gun at Tuco.

“Gus?” Moe asked nervously.

“Stay where you are, Moe. How’s it looking out there?” Gus said. She faced Tuco with her hands up.

“They- uh, they’re just about in firing position.”

“You hear that Tuco? We don’t have time for this.”

But Tuco had given himself over to the panic. His eyes were wide, flitting around the room as Gus, Oscar, and Aurora slowly closed in around him. A shot rang out from outside, and for a moment everything stopped.

“Moe?” Gus asked. Moe hesitated, unwilling to turn his back on Tuco. Another shot rang out, and finally the rob tore his eyes from the bounty hunter to sneak a peek out the doorway.

After a third shot the rob confirmed what Gus already suspected. “Someone’s shooting at them. Looks like a high caliber rifle.”

“Ray,” Gus said and grinned. The old marshal wasn’t done yet. “You hear that Tuco? Our ace in the hole just showed up. I’ll give you one more chance. Give us a hand or beat feet.”

Tuco’s panicked eyes darted back and forth between Moe and Gus. They fell still on Moe and his whole body seemed to tighten.

He had chosen option three.

The Beaumont-Adams once again came up and a flash of light filled the small chapel. Pink, grapefruit light. The barrel of the Beaumont-Adams wavered, then fell as Tuco dropped the gun to his side. He gave Gus one final look of greed-tinged confusion and turned on his feet like a drunkard. He managed three lurching steps towards Santa Barbara’s back door before he fell flat on his face with the hole in the back of his battered black duster oozing.

Another shot from Ray’s rifle broke the stunned silence inside the chapel. “Ray! You hear me, you old coot? Come in!” Gus said over the comms. When no reply came, she turned her attention to Moe. “What’s going on out there?”

“Uh, uh…” Moe said. He ducked away from a shot thrown towards the chapel door. “They’re, uh, they’re turning the gatling gun back towards Cirrus House.”

“Ray’s giving us our chance,” Gus said. She checked Delilah’s coolant. Nearly full. “Cover me!” Again, she leaned out from the cover of Santa Barbara’s protective walls and tried to find the gatling gun’s battery amid the horde of bodies. As each of her friends fired their own weapons into the mass of soldiers, she spotted her target. Ignoring the pain raging through her arm, she aimed and took her shot.

And scored a direct hit! But there was no explosion. Instead, the gatling gun opened fire and hurled its deadly beams in the general direction of Cirrus House. The battery was dented, even melted a little, but at this range Delilah hadn’t been powerful enough to pierce its protective housing.

Tunk!

“What now?” Oscar yelled. But Gus was fresh out of ideas.

Movement in the corner of Gus’s eye caught her attention and she whirled around, half-expecting find Tuco had somehow overcome his injuries and gotten to his feet. To her surprise, it wasn’t Tuco; it was Bernadette. The farmwife’s hair had come undone, and the tight curls bounced around her head like a fiery halo. She held the Mare’s Leg and raised it to her shoulder to take aim herself. The large caliber beam struck home on her first shot, and the shockwave from the explosion was enough to knock them all to Santa Barbara’s dusty floor.

Gus was the first to her feet. She chanced a look out into the plaza and found a smoking crater where the gatling gun had been, and the remaining soldiers dead, dying, or running off. She wanted to be mad at Bernadette, but it was hard to argue with her results.

Oscar had no such qualms. “What are you doing here? Where’s Hector?”

“Calm down, Oscar,” Bernadette said, chiding her husband. “Hector’s fine. Martha’s looking after him. She needs something to take her mind off Jacob and it sounded like you needed more help.”

“Cut the chatter,” Gus snapped. “You’re here now, and that was a hell of a shot.” She flipped Tuco onto his back. Tunk. Just her luck. The bastard had landed on his bandolier and there were only three coolant caps left. She slipped them into loops on her gun belt. “We need to go. Now.

They followed Gus’s lead and raced from the chapel to the big engineering corral doors. As they ran, Gus stole a glance towards Cirrus House. It was hard to tell from here – most of the casino was concealed behind the extensively damaged Administration Tower – but what she could see didn’t look good. She hoped Ray was alright, but she had a bad feeling she really was responsible for what happened to Las Ráfagas and its people now. The silver star on her chest suddenly seemed much heavier.

They reached the engineering corral doors in a flash and fanned out in a semicircle to cover Moe as he tried to get the door open. But the damn thing wouldn’t budge. “Come on, Moe. What’s taking so long?” Gus pushed.

“It’s not the lock. There’s something- the door’s barricaded or something.”

Of course, Gus thought. They could get in the same way Gus had gotten out the day Junior had murdered Emmitt. She spun her head around. No, that wouldn’t do, the jerry cans Tuco shot were still burning. A beam sent sparks flying off the wall near Aurora’s head. The surviving copperheads were regrouping and making a clumsy counterattack. They were sitting ducks.

“Hey!” a familiar voice called out. Gloria Smith was standing in the open office door a few dozen feet away and waving them in.

With the five of them and Gloria crammed in it together, Emmitt’s spacious office seemed cramped and claustrophobic. “Thanks for the save, Gloria,” Gus said, “but we’ve got to keep moving. The Vegas are taking Laszlo’s wagon and you should go with them. It’s still hitched back here, right?” She peered through the office windows into the dark engineering corral.

“No,” Gloria said and shook her head.

“What do you mean ‘no?’ Where’d it go?”

“I mean I ain’t going nowhere,” she said sternly. “This was where Emmitt and I made our home, and those bastards took it all away. This is where I make my stand. You’re more than welcome to stay here with me, though, ’cause you ain’t going nowhere in Leconte’s wagon.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“I fried the FTL gimbal. That thing’ll never leave this system again.”

“You fried…” Gus trailed off. She was dumbfounded. All the work to get this far, and the only wagon fast enough to outrun the Shenandoah’s guns was now as useless as the man that owned it.

#

Time crawled in Emmitt’s office. With nowhere left to go, and only a few shots left in each of their guns, they had done their best to dig in. The copperheads, so far, hadn’t tried an all-out assault on them yet, but they made their presence known with a few shots thrown her way anytime Gus dared to show her face in the window.

Each of them was dealing with the stress in their own way. Gloria had asked about Junior, and once she was reassured her husband’s murderer was dead, she had taken the Mare’s Leg to the window and peered out into the plaza with hardened eyes. Gus was impressed with how careful she was to stay in cover. Aurora tended to the group’s minor wounds, then stayed busy with organizing their first aid kit over and over. Moe paced along the office’s back wall, mumbling to himself. Every once in a while, Gus would hear him say Ray’s name. They hadn’t been able to raise him on the comms and all feared the worst. Oscar picked at the callouses on his hands. Bernadette had taken Gus’s poncho and done her best to mend the holes and tears. She was now washing the old dirty-gray fabric in Emmitt’s small sink. Gus herself had taken the time to roll the last of her tobacco into half a dozen small, tightly packed cigars.

Gus opened the window at looked out onto the engineering corral floor. She selected one of her fresh cigars, ran it under her nose and savored the earthy aroma. Her silver lighter clicked. She took a deep, calming drag, and blew the smoke out into the shadowy corral. Things looked grim. Cirrus House was a smoldering wreck, and Ray and Walter were very likely gone. The miner uprising had seemingly been put down by the gatling gun before they could get to it, and it was only a matter of time before the soldiers out there got up the nerve to rush the office. They still outnumbered Gus and her friends by at least four to one.

Oscar joined her at the window, and she offered him the cigar. He hesitated for a moment, then shrugged and took a deep drag of his own. His exhale was interrupted by a coughing fit. Gus patted him on the back until he breathed easy again. Oscar smiled sheepishly and handed the cigar back. The pair sat in silence. Blue smoke hung in a haze around them.

Oscar opened his mouth to speak but changed his mind and closed it again. When he did it a second time, Gus spoke for him. “I don’t know, Oscar.” The cigar was clamped tight between her teeth. The cherry bobbed with each word.

“What?”

“You were going to ask what our next move is.” She shook her head. Smoke drifted lazily to the ceiling. “I don’t know. Do you?”

“We’ve got to do something. Ray’s-” Moe said.

“Ray’s dead,” Gus said. “And so is the damn town. For all we know, we’re all that’s left.” Gus bit her tongue, realizing too late what she had implied about Hector. Bernadette didn’t react.

Oscar, on the other hand, did. “No. There are survivors. There has to be. We can’t let Laszlo get away with this.”

Gus snuffed the cigar out on the windowsill and flicked the butt into the engineering corral. “How, Oscar? I’m not usually one to give up, so if you’ve got a plan to get us out of here, I’m all ears. Moe? How ’bout you? Aurora? Where’s that surprise your people promised?”

Aurora’s eyes flashed and Moe translated. “‘They will come through. The storm has arrived.’”

“Oh, for tunk’s sake. I’m tired of all this mystical ’the storm’ crap!” Gus threw her hands in the air. So far, the only thing that had arrived with the storm was pain and death.

“Maybe,” Gloria quietly chimed in, “we just let them in.”

“You mean surrender? That’ll just postpone the inevitable.” Gus lit another cigar. She was more agitated than she cared for.

“That’s not what I mean.” Gloria, wearing Emmitt’s dirty leather apron, held the Mare’s Leg over one shoulder. Her white hair was unruly and stuck up at all angles. The clump Junior has ripped out was obvious. So was the wild look in her eyes.

“No.” All eyes turned to Bernadette, standing with a folded white linen in her hands. “Hector is alive. And so are others. You’re going to get us out of this,” she said and give Gus a small smile.

“How do you know there are more survivors?”

“Why are you so sure there aren’t?”

“Because we haven’t heard from anyo…” Gus trailed off.

Son of a… Gus thought. Bernadette smiled.

“Gloria, you got a working comms unit in here?” she snapped.

“Right here,” she said. She leaned over Emmitt’s desk and flipped the switch on a small gray box just like the one in Ray’s office. There was a burst of static, then nothing.

“Try another channel,” Moe suggested. Gloria clicked the knob a few times, but they were met with static with each click.

“See? I to-” Gus said, but was interrupted by a fresh squelch.

And a voice.

“-kkzz’m’s safe. Don’t want to give away my position, but I’m alive.”

“Who was that?” Oscar asked.

“It sounded like-” Bernadette started, but a new voice cut her off.

“Good, stay where you are. Hold tight until we can figure out what’s going on,” they said, cutting cleanly through the white noise.

“That’s Silas!” Oscar cheered and hugged his wife.

Over the following minutes they heard familiar voices from all over Las Ráfagas. They were careful not to say where they had found cover, for fear of being hunted down by the remaining copperheads, but there were survivors. More than Gus could have imagined. And they were all looking for the same thing: someone to take charge and tell them what to do next.

Gus could think of no one better for that job than Oscar.

She lifted the transmitter out of its cradle and handed it to the rancher. “Your people are waiting to hear from you.”

Oscar took it and looked at it, unsure of what to say. After a moment or two of silence, Oscar squared his shoulders and handed the transmitter back to Gus. “No,” he said. “It may have been my conscience that got us into the mess, but it’s you we need to lead us out of it.”

Gus was so surprised she nearly stumbled over backwards as she raised her hands and took a step back. “Woah now. I told you before, I’m no leader.”

“This badge says otherwise,” Bernadette said over Gus’s shoulder.

The beamslinger was suddenly surrounded by expecting eyes, and when she turned to face Bernadette, she saw that it wasn’t a linen the farmwife had. It was her poncho. Gus had forgotten it was white. With the grime of thousands of lightyears washed from it, it almost looked new. The dark stains – her and Ray’s blood and Moe’s hydraulic fluid, among many older ones – were faded but still there. A grim reminder of the path that led her there. The deputy’s badge, still pinned to the poncho’s breast, shined in the dim light of the office.

“Marshal,” Oscar said. He held out the transmitter.

“Marshal,” Moe said and gave Gus a smile and a nod.

Aurora stepped forward and her eyes blinked patterns of blue, red, and white.

“Marshal,” Gloria chimed in.

“Marshal,” Bernadette said last, and held up the poncho for Gus put on.

Still Gus hesitated. She looked around the room at each set of eyes looking back at her. She wasn’t a leader. But maybe that didn’t matter so much. These people had taken her in when they didn’t know her from Eve. And although there had been conflict between them from nearly the beginning, they had stuck by her through all the chaos Las Ráfagas had suffered over the last few days. Through her reckless greed, and the danger it had put them in, they had stood by her.

She wasn’t really sure when it had happened, but she knew now that their cause had become hers. She wanted Laszlo to pay. Not just for what he had brought down on Walter, Gretchen, Ray, or Tilly, but for the destruction his unrelenting avarice had brought down on all these people. And more, she had to keep this adoptive family of hers safe. Somehow.

Finally, Gus nodded, and Bernadette helped her pull the poncho over her head. She took the transmitter from Oscar and spoke into it.

“Citizens of Las Ráfagas,” she said. “Some of you may know me as Gus. As Ray Garcon’s deputy, I guess I’m the acting Marshal now.” She swallowed hard. Public speaking wasn’t exactly her forte. Her companions encouraged her on. “I know things aren’t looking too good for us right now, but if you can hear this, it means you’re still alive. And if you’re still alive, it means you can still fight. But you should know what it is you’re fighting for. Because it isn’t just your lives. Laszlo Leconte has decided you, your families, and your friends all have to die. For spoons. He sold your lives to the CCO. He had something they wanted, and he wants you to pay the price.”

She looked around the office again. Her eyes settled on Aurora. Oscar nodded for her to continue.

“The Deiopeans have perfected rubidium refining. Laszlo stole the tech – and as many Deiopeans as he’ll need to keep it working – and now he’s selling it off to the copperheads so they can turn Las Ráfagas into their own pulse-rail station. From here it’s just a short sprint to the Cygnus X colonies with a monstrosity like the one they’ve got hitched up outside. With the Deiopeans’ Rb-87 refinement, the CCO with have the resources to build more of them. And the Lecontes will get fat off the profits wrought by your dead bodies.

“I know you’ve all been through a lot in the last few hours, but we can’t let them get away with this. So, wherever you are, if you’re able-bodied, I’m asking you to fight. Fight your way to a mount. Get out of town. Carry word of what happened here into the void. And make sure Laszlo Leconte pays for what he has brought down on your home.”

Gus released the transmitter button and placed it back in its cradle. “How was that?” she asked. Before anyone could answer, a sound came rolling over the town like a wave. The sound of cheering. There were so many of them.

Moe, that broad grin back on his simulated face, put a hand on Gus’s shoulder. “What now, Marshal?”

“Yeah,” Oscar said. “Great speech and all, but we’re still sorta stuck in here.”

Gus smiled. “Oh, don’t worry about that. I’ve got a feeling we’ll be getting some direction soon.”

“What do you mean?” Bernadette asked.

The comms unit crackled. “‘Marshal’ Gus, is it then?” Laszlo asked.

“That’s right, Laz. What can I do for you?” she replied.

“Very well.” The irritation was apparent in Laszlo’s voice, even through the static. “I have a deal for you, Marshal.”

“I’m listening.”

“No, not over comms. I prefer to do business face to face, don’t you? It’s so much more… dignified. Why don’t you and Oscar Vega, if he’s still breathing of course, come on up to the Administration Tower, and we can hash this out? Our dear friends in the CCO have promised a cease-fire, as long as you can promise the same.”

Pendejo,” Oscar spat. “It’s a trap.”

Gus clicked the transmitter button. “Deal. I’ll be at the tower lift in two minutes. Alone. Make sure none of your boys take any pot shots at me. That would make me very unhappy.”

“‘Alone,’” Laszlo repeated. “Shame. Very well. You have my word.” The frequency went dead.

“Alone?” Oscar asked. “It’s clearly a trap!”

“I heard you the first time,” Gus said. She shook her head. “It’s the only way I’ll get close enough to that clown to do anything that’ll make a difference. I’ve got to go. You’ve got to make sure you get your family out of here.”

“But if it’s a trap you’ll need backup,” Oscar protested angrily. “You might be the marshal now, but I did get us all into this mess. Let me help!”

“No,” Gus said.

Oscar’s anger, helplessness, and fear boiled over. Gus knew the feeling and was well prepared when the big rancher took a swing at her.

“Oscar!” Bernadette yelled.

Gus sidestepped the haymaker and delivered a quick jab to Oscar’s kidney. He doubled over briefly, but his rage overrode the pain, and he came back swinging. Gus dodged again, this time kicking the inside of his robotic knee with a sharp strike from the heel of her boot. He fell to the office floor, spitting Spanish curses. “Look at you.” It hurt Gus to say, but she had to keep him as far from Laszlo’s tower as she could. “That leg of yours is nothing but a liability. If you come with me, you’ll just get yourself killed. Or worse yet, get me killed.”

“Why you arrogant, void-drifting-” Even from his knees, Oscar was defiant.

Tunk. Gus had hoped the knee would have done it. Oh well. She wound up and threw a left-handed hook across his jaw. Oscar crashed to the floor like a felled tree, out cold. Bernadette ran to her unconscious husband’s side with tears in her eyes. She knelt and cradled is head. Gus saw tear drops dampen Oscar’s shirt before the farmwife lifted her face to meet the beamslinger’s gaze.

“Thank you.”

Gus nodded and turned towards the door, where she knew her next obstacle lay. Right on cue, Moe stepped between her and the office door. “Christ’s blood, Moe. We don’t have time for this.”

“If you won’t let the boss go with you, let me. I am a deputy, after all.” Moe puffed out his chest and showed off his own badge.

“Moe…”

“I had a feeling that wasn’t going to work.” His chest deflated and his shoulders sagged. “So how about this instead? That bastard was willing to sell me off to the highest bidder. If I’m ever going to be free, I need to see this through to the end. And you can’t do it alone.”

“What you need to do is stay out of Laszlo’s snare, and see these good people to safety. I think Las Ráfagas is more important to the CCO than any of us realize. If we stop this here, the end of the war might not be for behind it. Help me do that by living. If I don’t make it out of whatever trap Laszlo’s got set up for me it’ll be up to you to get as many people out of town as you can, Deputy.”

“What about the Shenandoah?” Moe looked unconvinced.

Gus nodded to Aurora. “Aurora says the Deiopeans will come through. When they do, that’ll be your chance.”

“But, I-”

“Your family needs you, Moe. It’s been a pleasure.” She smiled and held out her hand. Moe’s digital features strained to protest, but instead his eyes softened, and the corners of his mouth turned up in that friendly, familiar smile. He shook his head slightly, but took her small, gloved hand with his long, elegantly crafted fingers. He looked deep into her eyes.

“Good luck, Marshal.”

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