Gas Giant Gambit: A Tale from Across the Cygnus Rift

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3: El Dorado

It was still morning on Aeolus and the farmhouse kitchen was bathed in a warm glow. The room was shockingly tidy, despite the recent and ongoing baking the sweet smells wafting from the oven implied. A short woman with set shoulders was busily moving about the neat kitchen when Moe showed Gus into the modest home.

“Come in, come in! Make sure that damned door latches behind you, Moe!” she called over her shoulder, never looking up from the dish she was preparing.

“Gus, may I present the lady of the house, Mrs.-”

“Bernadette Vega.” She had put down the bowl she had been whisking, crossed the room, and extended a small, pale hand, saving Moe from another embarrassing misnaming - all in one graceful motion. “And you are?” She had a mane of ginger and eyes the color of wild clover.

Gus shook the calloused and flour dusted hand with her gloved one. “Gus will do fine, ma’am.”

This gave Bernadette only momentary pause. She shot Moe a questioning glance, but his serene face seemed to give her all the reassurance she needed. She nodded to no one in particular and turned back to her work in the kitchen. “I understand you had a spot of engine trouble on reentry?”

“Yes, ma’am.” Gus looked around the familiar and comfortable atmosphere of the family house. It had been a long time since she had been in a home like this. “I was hoping I could borrow your, er-,” she glanced at Moe, “farmhand and mule for a tow into town.”

“Moe is free to do as he pleases – when his work is finished,” she said and nodded to the rob. “As for the use of the mule. Again, once the day’s chores are complete.”

“Ma’am, I appreciate you’ve got a busy day ahead of you, but if it’s all the same to you-”

“But it’s not all the same,” Bernadette said, cutting Gus off. “As I understand it, Moe had to burn a significant amount of fuel in his rescue, and then more to drag your powerless mount back here after doing what he was sent out to do. Hector has already told me how you helped wrangle our lost calf, so I know you’re willing to pitch in to get your way. I think a day’s worth of labor ought to be enough to cover our expenses for saving you.”

Gus folded her arms across her chest. A day. At least another eight or ten hours lost. Minimum. Assuming the San Juan-Paul bulls had continued on towards Las Ráfagas after she dumped Tuco, that wouldn’t leave her a lot of time to make Tilly’s repairs. She shifted her weight uncomfortably. What choice did she have? “Alright.” She practically spat the word through pursed lips.

Bernadette put her baking down and faced them from across the kitchen. “Very well. If you can continue to show me and my family respect, you are welcome in my home for as long as you need to stay. But the beam-shooter ain’t.” She nodded towards Delilah. “I ask that you allow Moe to stow it until you’re ready to go.”

Gus’s ire rose once more. Tt was never a good idea to be more than a few feet from Delilah. She had learned the hard way. Gus looked up into Moe’s digital face. He merely smiled, nodded, and held out his hand. Could she trust these people? Again, what choice did she have? With an exaggerated sigh, she unbuckled the ancient gun belt and handed Delilah off to Moe.

“Ma’am, I need to speak with the boss right away. I’ve got a message for him from our,” Moe glanced quickly at Gus, “neighbors, that he needs to hear right away.”

“Alright then, you best meet Oscar out in the barn. He’ll have seen your pony by now.” Then, to Moe, “You know how he is about those old Steeldust cayuses. Get him to work,” she said and rolled her eyes.

Moe tipped the brim of his bowler. “Ma’am.”

“Moe.” She nodded, smiling in reply. When Bernadette’s green eyes met her brown, Gus felt a spark. “Gus.”

“Ma’am. Thank you.” Their eye contact lingered for a moment.

Bernadette nodded and returned to her baking, breaking the gaze.

Gus followed Moe back out into the morning air. The atmosphere within the Vega’s shielding was Earth-normal and pleasantly warm. The sunlight glinted off Moe’s arms as they crossed the courtyard back to the barn. “The boss’ll be in the barn. He’ll likely be fawning over your mount by now. He loves older Steeldust transports. I’ll be with you in a moment.” The lanky rob strode across the yard to a secure storage locker and placed Delilah inside.

Gus stepped into the shade of the barn. It was cool and brightly lit. The big room was a haphazard mess, with tools laying where they apparently fell, even if some of those things clearly hadn’t been used in years. Oscar Vega stood with his hands on his hips, looking up at Tilly, still caught in the mule’s netting. “Hey Moe, how’d everything go with Gussy this morning?” he asked as his farmhand stepped into the barn behind Gus. He never took his eyes off Tilly.

“No problems with Gussy, boss, but-”

“But I see you brough home another stray.” His round face broke into a broad grin. He grabbed Gus’s hand in a fierce but friendly embrace. He was an inch or two taller than Gus, with broad shoulders and a short crop of thinning jet-black hair. Like his wife’s, his hands were deeply calloused, though splashed with grease instead of flour. “Your pony, ella es bella. 2221?”

Gus nodded. “You’ve got a good eye.”

“‘Gus,’ right? That’ll be an easy one to remember, eh hombre?" he said winking at Moe, who blushed slightly. “Oscar Vega, glad to meet you.” Oscar’s attention turned back to Tilly. He patted the hull tenderly. “I love these old workhorses. They just don’t build ’em like this anymore. But I guess that’s probably for the best, eh Moe?” He chuckled. Moe smiled nervously. Tilly had been built in the years before the UCET had recognized artificial sentience, largely using rob labor. “I see you’ve made some modifications; you just can’t do that with the newer models.”

“You an engineer?” Gus felt hope rise in her. Maybe she wouldn’t need to go all the way to town at all.

Yo? No, retoco un poco – I tinker - but I’m no engineer.” He surveyed the damage to the thrusters and engine gimbal and shook his head. “You’ll have to talk to Emmett in Las Ráfagas to get the repairs you’ll need.”

So much for hope.

An intercom over the door squawked. “Husband,” Bernadette’s voice suddenly filled the barn, “I sent Moe in there to get you moving, not so you could stand around and talk tack. The ’bottles are getting restless to be put out to pasture. Moe, didn’t you say you had an urgent message for Oscar?”

“Yes, dear!” Oscar called up to the intercom. He took one last look at Tilly and gave her hide a gently stroke. “No rest for the wicked, mi amigos,” he said and sighed through a smile.

The trio stepped back out into the light. Oscar’s gait was oddly labored. “Servo’s acting up again, boss?” Moe asked as the older man stooped to roll up his pant leg.

Si, por supuesto.” He tightened a few screws behind the kneecap of his travel-worn robotic prosthesis. “It’s the damn gas particles, they gum up the works.” Oscar stood and tested the knee. “Moe and I have got to see to the herd, but if you’re as handy with a wrench as your mount suggests I’d appreciate it if you’d take a look at the mule’s gimbal axes. They seized up last year and I haven’t had time to bring her in to Emmett.”

“I saw. I’ll see what I can do,” she said.

Bueno. Hector can show you where the tools are, eh chico?” he called back into the barn. Hector popped up from a grate in the barn floor, grinning ear to ear. “You know you’re not supposed to be playing the foundation ducts! I’ll be getting an earful if tu madre finds out you’ve been mucking about in there again.”

Hector’s smile faltered. “Lo siento, Papi.

Oscar rolled his eyes comically. “Think you can help Gus here find everything she needs to fix the mule’s gimble?”

Si Papi, de nada! Come on, Gus!” he shouted and scampered into the barn.

#

“Alright, let’s see what there is to see,” Gus said as she cleared away loose scraps and screws from the coolant console-turned workbench. Hector sat in the mule’s engine room chair, gently turning back and forth as he watched her work. She flipped on the main breakers and gave the console a hard smack for good measure. The mechanical guts protested, but the coolant’s pump system screeched to life and the readout console lit up, dimly. “Coolant levels are at 74%. That should be good enough. Hmm. I’m not reading any clogs in the lines.”

“Told ya,” Hector sang. “I was there when it happened. Papi turned it off right away and dumped the coolant that was in the lines. I remember because it stank.

She glared at the console, scanning the display for any sign of a problem with the coolant system. But she already knew there wasn’t one. Oscar was clearly a competent and skilled mechanic – more than he gave himself credit for. Despite the mess, his tools and machines were generally well maintained. The mule, though small and cramped, was in surprisingly good shape – and it was even older than Tilly. If this had been a simple issue, he would have spotted it and fixed it before the engine seized. And even if he somehow missed it, Gus knew he could have solved such a straightforward problem. That meant she would have to get a little dirty.

“You were onboard when the engine seized?” she asked.

Hector nodded.

“What happened?”

“Me and Papi were going to the market on Holliday Station. You know, the big pulse-rail station? Papi had an appointment, and then he said we could watch the wagons and the big Campbell 440 pulse-rail trails come in from across the Rift while we ate lunch.

“We got into orbit and Papi turned on the engine. The noise it made was horrible! It sounded like when Moe slipped and fell down the foundation steps last spring.” He imitated the sound of a metal body tumbling down a flight of stairs.

“Sounds like the main axis gear threw a couple of teeth. Hand me that coil ratchet- no, the thing with the yellow handle- yeah, thanks.” Hector handed Gus the tool and she began removing the axis housing.

“What are you doing?” Hector was watching her every move intently.

“Well, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, when a gimbal axis seizes it’s because it’s not getting any coolant. That means a clog in the lines. When it’s not a coolant problem, it usually means something got caught in the axis gear itself. Usually, it’s a broken piece of the assembly, but I don’t know-” She pulled back the outer housing and reached into the axis’s inner workings, feeling around carefully. There was a lot of damage. Far more than what could be caused by a few broken gear teeth. “What the tunk?” She laid her hand on a chunk of twisted metal stuck in the gears. As Hector inched closer to get a batter look, Gus wrapped her hand around it, braced a foot against the axis housing, and yanked with all her might. It gave way and she tumbled backwards, crashing into Hector, and sending them both sprawling.

“What is it?” Hector asked as he got to his feet.

Gus opened her hand to find a tool she didn’t recognize. “I don’t know.” The hunk of metal had been badly mangled inside the engine axis before it became stuck.

But the look on Hector’s face told her he recognized it, even as he clumsily tried to cover his surprise. She has spent enough time out on the Arm to know what the look on Hector’s face meant: sabotage.

#

Hector had stayed quiet for a while after they had discovered what had caused the engine trouble. But the job of repairing the damage was both difficult and time consuming. It wasn’t long before his young mind was distracted enough for him mouth to start babbling once again. He watched everything Gus did, asking about each replacement part and telling stories about his misadventures around El Dorado.

Now, with both of them covered in engine grease and coolant vapors, his curiosity had turned to her.

“I’ve never heard your accent before. Where are you from?” he asked, smearing grease across his forehead.

“The Granum System,”

“Where’s that?”

“It’s in the Old Colonies. About 40 parsecs from Earth. It was one of the original off-world outposts. Didn’t you learn that in school?”

“Don’t go to school. Mama teaches me book stuff and Papi teaches me about the ranch.”

Gus rolled her eyes. Imagine being that tied down. That stuck.

The interrogation continued. “Why’d you come to Aeolus?”

Gus grunted as she tightened a lug nut into place. “I had some work in Las Ráfagas, but it fell through on my way. Didn’t see the point in turning around when I was already low on fuel and heading towards a rubidium depot.”

“What kind of work? Are you a miner? I’ve never seen a miner carry a gun before.” Hector furrowed his brow.

“I’m no miner.” Gus slid the axis housing back into place. She flipped a few switched on the coolant control panel and engaged the engine’s test mode. The newly repaired axis hub hummed pleasantly. Gus shut it down and wiped her greasy hands on her flight suit.

“You fixed it! Ace-high!” Hector cheered. “If you’re not a miner, you must be an engineer! If you don’t have a job in town, maybe you can stay with us. We’ve always got stuff breaking down. Papi can’t keep up with it all, and Mama says she doesn’t like getting the grease under her fingernails.”

“Look, kid, your family seems nice and all,” in her mind there was a flash of Bernadette’s green eyes and the curve of her hip beneath her apron, “but I’m not an engineer, and I don’t do this kind of work.”

“What do you mean?”

“Staying in one spot. Let me tell you something your parents can’t teach you: The Arm is a rough place. Sitting still for too long can kill you. The only things in this life that matter are the stuff that keeps you riding – that keeps you free. Everything else is dust. And I’m sorry to say, but your jelly-ranching family hasn’t got the spoons to keep me here longer than I have to be.”

To Gus’s surprise Hector’s eyes welled up with tears and the boy fled from the mule before she could say another word.

Tunk.

“Don’t worry about Hector.” Oscar appeared in the doorway his son had just fled through.

Gus winced. How long had he been there? “I, uh. Sorry ’bout that.”

“He’s a sensitive boy. I’m worried he’s been too sheltered growing up out here. It’s good for him to meet people with different views of the Arm.” His smile was warm. “How’s the work going?”

She busied herself with putting Oscar’s tools away. “Finished. But I think you may have a bigger problem than a seized engine gimbal.” She dropped the warped hunk of steel into his hands.

Oscar’s eyes widened. “Now this is interesting.” Gus could see the farmer’s mind racing behind his gentle eyes. Finally, he seemed to make a decision and met Gus’s gaze. “Unfortunately, I’m going to need Moe here tonight. I’ll ask him to make up the spare room for you. He can tow you to town at first light. Come on inside; it’s supper time.” He walked out of the mule without another word, his mind clearly focused on the small hunk of metal he now held.

#

The Vega dining table was a small antique thing, with rusted metal legs and a scuffed laminate surface that may have been once been red. A feast it was not, but there was plenty of food to go around. Gus, however, had lost her appetite.

More time lost. She did the math in her head as the potatoes were passed around. If the bulls had taken Tuco back to San Juan-Paul Station before coming after her, she might be alright. That would give her a week or more. Plenty of time.

The Vegas were talking about the day’s work. Oscar said something about trouble with the fencing at the edge of one of their paddocks. Gus tried to look like she was paying attention but was still lost in her mental calculations.

If the bulls had retrieved Tuco and then tried to follow her right away, she would have substantially less time. Even so, their smaller engines would need a rest; especially after pushing as hard as they had to catch up in the first place. That meant they would probably arrive in 36 to 48 hours. Depending on the state of the town’s engineering corral, that might be enough time for repairs. If she was extremely lucky.

But relying on luck had never been her strong suit. She had always tried to make her own. That took careful planning and a talent for recognizing risky situations – and avoiding them. But this situation was riskier than she generally liked. And getting worse all the time.

Bernadette filled Gus’s plate with a variety of strange looking foods, all of which Gus assumed had been produced there on El Dorado. She was asking Gus something, and it took her a moment to drag her thoughts back to the meal.

“Hector tells me you’re from the Granum System. That’s quite a long way from here. What brings you to this side of the Rift?” She offered her a bottle of pills. Vitamin D. Gus shook her head, refusing politely.

Hector slouched down in his chair. His lip stuck out in an exaggerated pout and he wouldn’t meet Gus’s eyes.

“Work. I had a job opportunity in Las Ráfagas go belly up en route. Thought it was better to just refuel and be on my way,” she said and mechanically took a bite of something that looked like mashed potatoes but tasted more like fish.

Oscar smiled but he was more subdued than he had been that morning. “I guess you’re regretting that decision now.”

“It’s not the only one.” She cursed herself for ever taking the job with Tuco in the first place.

“If you’re opportunity has fallen through, what do you plan on doing next?” Bernadette asked.

It was an important question, more than Bernadette Vega could know. Gus was honest. “Make repairs. Get Tilly fed. And then I really don’t know. Maybe look for work in the Cygnus X colonies.”

At his mother’s beckoning Hector shoveled food into his mouth and glowered at his plate.

“Have you been there before?” Moe asked. He was sitting at the table with his hand folded politely in his lap, an empty place setting in front of him.

With her mouth full of some deliciously sweet steak she assumed was greenbottle jelly, Gus shook her head.

“Bernie’s from the colonies,” Oscar said around a mouthful of dinner roll. “Her grandparents were some of the original Cygnus pioneers back in the ’20s. This was before the waystations were built, of course. Tell ’er, mi amor.”

“The colonies are beautiful. Like how I imagine Earth was an age ago. But if you’re looking for work, we may be able to offer you some. Oscar may be a decent mechanic,” Bernadette said and smiled at her husband, “but the maintenance is backing up. We can’t pay much, but we can offer you room and board, maybe even help you make your repairs.”

“Bernie…” Oscar started, but was interrupted when Hector suddenly pushed back from the small table and stood.

“Staying too long to help poor jelly-ranchers like us would kill her!” Hector shouted and ran from the room with tears in his eyes again. The table was left in stunned silence.

“I-” Gus began, but was swiftly stopped by Oscar.

“No need to apologize. He just likes you.”

“He doesn’t know me,” she muttered to her plate.

“Maybe not, but this life is all he’s ever known. You’re something different. A different way,” Bernadette said softly.

“My father staked his claim here in the Aeolusian clouds over forty years ago, before the town was even built. I was born here, in that very room.” Oscar gestured to the small living area next to the kitchen. “It was my father that tamed the greenbottle jellies and forged relationships with the Deiopeans. The clouds are in his blood. It’s only natural Hector’d be curious about how other people live.”

“What happened to him? Your father?” Gus asked.

Oscar was quiet and stared at the crumbles on his plate. After a moment Moe spoke up, “There was… an accident.”

“It was the same day Oscar lost his leg,” Bernadette said in a low tone, as if she didn’t want Hector to overhear. Oscar’s fists clenched around his utensils.

An “accident?” Gus thought. Like how that tool “accidentally” ended up inside the mule’s axis hub? There was a lot more going on out here than a maintenance backlog, and she wanted no part of it. Gus had her own problems to deal with. She could practically feel the bulls breathing down her neck.

After an uncomfortable silence, Gus took a chance. “Look, I appreciate the offer. You seem like very fine folk, but I don’t belong here. I think it’s best for all involved if I just be on my way. How about we take that ride into town now, Moe?”

Moe and Oscar exchanged a look. “I’m sorry, Gus, but I have a job for both Moe and the mule this evening. He can take you first thing in the morning.”

Gus’s mind raced. She could try to steal the mule. She could disable Oscar, no problem, but Moe would still be a problem. And fighting them together, without Delilah, on their home soil? Those were long odds. Plus, there was Bernadette and the kid to think about. They didn’t deserve to have their home shot up because of the trouble Tuco had gotten her into. Once again, Gus found she had no choice. She chewed on the inside of her cheek. “Thank you. I think I’ll bed down now if it’s all the same to you.”

#

The spare room was small and spartan with only a cot, a small table, and a dim lamp. Gus opened the room’s tiny window and looked out at the Aeolusian sunset. The gas giant’s atmosphere created some of the most spectacular colors she had ever seen. She reached for her tobacco tin and rolled another cigar. She took a long drag and leaned out the window for a better view. As the sun sank beneath the horizon, Deiopea slowly rose in the west. The lights of its weblike cities twinkled like firelight.

This day had definitely not gone as planned, and all she wanted to do now was get some sleep. The morning couldn’t come soon enough. Her cigar burned down to the butt and she watched the mule, presumably driven by Moe, leave the barn and pass through El Dorado’s fencing. She put out the burning cherry and climbed into bed.

#

Gus woke with a start and reached for Delilah before remembering the big gun was locked up outside. It was pitch back both in the small room and outside its window; Deiopea and its cities’ light had set hours ago. She listened for the sound that had woken her.

Voices; low, trying to be quiet, in the Vega’s kitchen.

Quietly, Gus eased the door open and made her way towards the intruders.

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