30: Gas Giant Gambit
Gus stepped out into the plaza to a flash of lightning and deafening thunder crack. She paused long enough to light another cigar, her little silver lighter flashing in pale comparison to the storm still raging just outside the dome. She braced herself for the work to come and headed for Las Ráfagas’s town square and the Administration Tower.
The moment she set foot in the square she found herself flanked on either side by battle weary copperhead soldiers. Instead of threatening her, they fell into lock step with her. An escort. The square itself was a disaster. The small dais that has been set up for the executions was still there, splattered with blood and other unidentifiable stains. Bodies lay where they fell, both soldier and townsfolk alike. Daniel Park’s lifeless eyes watched her cross to the lift behind cracked and mud-caked glasses. Willoughby lay face down in the muck, the back of his once-white coat now stained a deep burgundy. Both the privileged and the impoverished were there, but between lighting flashes, when the world was dark and still, Gus could no longer tell them apart through the dirt and blood.
The Administration Tower was riddled with holes from the gatling gun, but the lift was somehow still intact enough to work. Gus wondered what the lift shaft was made of to withstand the assault. Her line of thinking was cut off when she finally got a look at what was left of Cirrus House beyond the tower. The casino’s façade was just… gone. Only the building’s splintered frame remained. Gus could see where fire had been concentrated on the second-floor balcony. The site Ray and Walter’s last stand. But, from Gus’s vantage anyway, there was no sign of either of them.
How many had died for Laszlo’s avarice? She didn’t know. She did know Laszlo’s copperhead friends wouldn’t stop until every last person not named Leconte was wiped from Las Ráfagas. She wasn’t convinced they would stop there.
When she stepped onto the lift her escort did not join her, and instead took up a defensive position on either side of the lift’s sliding door. The doors closed and she was carried swiftly into the air. She let the smoke fill her lungs and anxiously chewed on the cigar. She loaded a fresh coolant cap into Delilah and dropped the big gun back into its holster.
Gus shook some of the tension loose from her shoulders. She couldn’t help but think back over the last few days. It felt like a lifetime. Only a lifetime made sense. There was no way she had changed this much in only a few days. The more she thought about it, the more she didn’t recognize herself. What in tunk was she even doing on this lift? Why was she putting her neck on the line for a bunch of people she had never heard of a week ago? Tunk, she was even trying to protect the bounty-head she’d come to collect! This job had cost her nearly everything already. Her oldest and most trusted friend, Tilly, was gone, and with her everything but the clothes on Gus’s back and any chance of getting out of this with more than just the lint in her pockets. And yet, here she was, putting all she had left – her very life – on the line for these stubborn jelly-ranching agros.
She sighed. They may have been stubborn agros, but they didn’t deserve all that Laszlo’s greed had brought down on them. They were good people – a dying species out here on the Arm. Gus found that that was all the reason she needed now.
The lift reached the top and Gus pulled her hood up. The heads-up display lit up.
Here we go.
A cheerful ding! announced Gus’s arrival, and the doors slid open with a barely audible whoosh. Again, Gus was struck by the sweet smell of fresh, unrecycled air, and the way the warm glow of the Sol-simulation lamps reflected off every golden surface.
Laszlo stood alone with his hands draped at his sides. There was no sign of his usual combat-rob entourage or a CCO presence in the tower. He even appeared to be unarmed. Gus stepped off the lift, rested her hand on Delilah’s butt, and glanced around the room.
“Feeling awful trusting tonight, aren’t we?” she asked once her HUD had confirmed they were alone.
“Not really. My personal shield is still active. And my security team is just through there,” he said and waved a hand towards a dark hallway.
“Alright,” Gus said. She was already getting impatient. “Let’s get this over with. What’s this deal of yours?”
“First thing’s first.” Laszlo’s eyes narrowed. “I know Junior and Aaron are dead.”
Gus’s jaw clenched. “Your boys got what they deserved, Laz.”
“Maybe so. Junior has always struggled with his… confidence. There was always a chance he would pick a fight with the wrong person. As for Aaron,” Laszlo shook his head in a mock display of regret, “I always knew that boy’s prejudices would be his undoing. But what can a father do?” He shrugged like all he had lost was a hand of Razz. “What I mean to say is, there’s no hard feelings. I understand you were only doing what comes natural to one such as yourself.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
Laszlo smiled. The same too-toothy snake-smile as his eldest son. “You’re a killer.”
Gus rolled her eyes. This was getting tiresome. “What do you want, Laszlo?”
“I want you to work for me. Full time.”
“And why would I want to do that? You’ve done nothing but try to kill me all day.”
Laszlo spread his arms. “And yet here you stand, alive!” He stepped to the big picture window overlooking the town below. “I’m going to need someone to protect me from these backstabbing copperheads. Clearly my family isn’t up to the task. But you might be just the beamslinging bitch I need.”
Gus joined him at the window and gazed down on the remnants of the town. “And what do I get in return for this ‘job?’”
“How about a suite here in my private quarters?”
Gus looked around at the finery sparkling and shining around them. It wasn’t exactly her aesthetic, but a girl could get used to it. “It’s a start.”
Laszlo’s smile widened. “I can see to it you never want for anything. Spoons, ponies, rubidium… companions. You know, Mackenzie even commented on your impressive skills. And your void-weary beauty.”
While Laszlo spoke, Gus noticed movement in the streets below them. What was left of the Confederate forces were pulling back, retreating from the town to the Shenandoah. “And the Vegas?” she asked.
Laszlo’s face twisted into a grimace for the barest of moments. He exhaled with irritation. “Mr. Vega may keep his worthless plot of sky, provided he and his family can stick with the program.”
Despite everything, Laszlo’s offer forced Gus to pause. This could be the best solution to all their problems. Laszlo was, above everything else, a businessman. As such, he would be willing to deal. If she played her cards right, there was still a chance she could save what remained of the town and still get everything she wanted out of the deal.
“What about Moe and the rest of the townsfolk? Or the Deiopeans you’ve got locked up on the refining levels?”
“My, my, my. When you first arrived in my dusty little town all you cared about was making your spoons and getting back to the Arm. Have these simple-minded folk really got you so turned around that you’re willing to turn your back on this opportunity? I’m offering you everything you’ve ever wanted. The only thing you’ve ever really cared about.”
“And what’s that?” Gus asked. She lit another cigar.