32: Stars Over Aeolus
It had been nearly a month since what the townsfolk had started calling the Battle of Las Ráfagas, and word around town was that the UCET 7th Army would be arriving that very day. The general attitude seemed to be “better late than never,” but Gus thought most of the remaining population would be happy to see the supply wagons dropping through Aeolus’s atmosphere.
After the initial shock of the fighting had worn off, the last few weeks had been spent rebuilding what was left of Las Ráfagas and burying their dead among the shelves behind Santa Barbara. All, that is, except for the Laszlo and his sons, whose bodies were jettisoned into the void. Of Mackenzie Leconte there was no sign. With several of the Company Bull ponies missing, it was assumed she had fled. Gus had a feeling Las Ráfagas hadn’t yet seen the last of her.
The Deiopeans had been more than generous, offering aid in the form of medics, laborers, and nearly all the resources needed to rebuild. Gus had stayed, both because she now felt a connection to these people, and because she had no means to go. With Tilly lost to the gas giant, Gus was stuck. But now, with Las Ráfagas rising from the grave and the 7th Army on its way with aid - and probably a warrant for her arrest - she was getting itchy to get back to the void.
Gus stepped from the bright, sunny day into the comfortably dim environment of the freshly rebuilt Cirrus House. The chandelier she had dropped on Junior had been dragged away and replaced with something a bit less garish. The gaming tables stood empty but come nightfall the floor would be crowded with the remaining townsfolk, eager to continue celebrating their survival and victory. Not to mention reward their labor as Las Ráfagas slowly rose from the ashes.
She slid onto a makeshift barstool fashioned from a shipping crate, and for the umpteenth time pulled her tin from her pocket. She hadn’t even realized what she was doing until she had opened it and found it empty, with only the lingering aroma left to tease her. Right. Dry. As she sighed a shadow fell over her. Walter stood behind the bar wearing a ribbon tie, sleeve garters around each of his many arms, and a bittersweet smile on his melted face. Since rebuilding, Walter was now the sole owner and proprietor of Cirrus Hotel, Bar, & Gambling House. “What’ll it be, Marshal?” he asked. He gazed lazily over Gus’s shoulder towards the batwing doors.
“Pair of overalls, Walt,” a gruff voice replied.
Gus turned on her crate. Ray had sauntered into the casino and was dusting off his big, stupid hat just inside the swinging doors.
“What are you doing up? Aurora’ll have both our hides if I don’t get you back to bed,” Gus said and chuckled.
The old marshal smiled as he limped to the bar. “I’m free on doctor’s orders. Somethin’ about movin’ around helping the circulation, or some such.” Ray unbuttoned the top three buttons of his shirt and pulled it open to examine the Deiopean bandages on his chest. He and Walter had seen the gatling gun being turned on the casino’s balcony and managed to get out of the way in time. But Ray had taken a lot of shrapnel when the high-powered beams had ripped through Cirrus House’s upper floor. He’d been hit half a dozen times across the chest with what should have been lethal wounds. But Aurora had found him in the rubble and, with the guidance of a team of Deiopean medics, had nursed the marshal back to health. Once he was satisfied the fresh bandages were okay, Ray sat down on the crate barstool next to Gus and Walter poured their whiskey.
“Still,” Gus said and give the old man a smirk and a sideways glance, “I doubt drinkin’s part of your recovery routine.”
“Well.” Ray tossed the whiskey back in one gulp. “I’ve recently learned sometimes you just got to do what feels right.”
Gus snorted and drank her own.
A smallish rob, with dozens of arms, just like Walter, and a spherical central brain box stamped with the LCR logo and six little blue lights standing in for a face, came zipping out of the counting room. It ran laps around the Razz tables, giggling innocently all the while. Walter’s eyes followed the little rob around the room and a melancholic smile played across his features. He seemed filled with grief for his lost wife and brimming with joy over the birth of his daughter, Augustine, all at the same time. Gus twirled the last of the amber liquid in the bottom of her glass. She couldn’t help but smile at the child-rob. Augustine was a welcome sign of life returning to the town.
“There you are. I’ve been looking all over town for the two of you,” Moe said as he stepped into the cool casino. The star-shaped badge pinned to his cloth chest glinted in what little sunlight crept in through the shuttered windows.
“What is it, Deputy Maurice?” Ray asked good naturedly. He pointed to their empty glasses and Walter poured.
“It’s the mayor. He wants to see us.”
Gus, Ray, and Moe stood in silence as they rode the lift to the top of the Administration Tower. Although the fight was over and the battle had been won, there were still some lingering issues that weighed heavily on each of their minds.
Until Gus had arrived on Las Ráfagas, Moe had lived in anonymity. But now that his identity was known, it was only a matter of time before another bounty hunter showed up to claim the price on his head. Worse still, as marshal, Ray was still obligated to help any that came calling. As for Gus, Tuco may have been dead, but the UCET would still be looking for someone to blame for the coach robbery on San Juan-Paul Station, as well as the deaths of three UCET officers there on Las Ráfagas. The mayor had promised to smooth things over with the bluebells, but Gus had her doubts about how much influence there was there.
The lift dinged cheerfully, and the doors slid open. The room at the top had completely changed. Where once every surface was covered in gold and other useless symbols of wealth, a more egalitarian reception area now stood. The Sol-simulation lamps, along with Laszlo’s med-pod, had been redistributed to the medical lab to help the injured and sick recover (including a certain daughter of the Stonewall family). Leconte family portraits and busts were gone and in the process of being replaced with framed photos of the town and its people.
“Anybody know why we’re here?” Gus said as they stepped off the lift.
Before either of her companions could respond, however, the mayor appeared and limped in the room. “Ah! There you are,” Oscar said with a smile.
“Mayor,” Ray said and tipped his hat with a smile.
“What’s this all about?” Moe asked.
Ray turned his smile towards his deputies. “Me ‘n the mayor here, we been chattin’ with the UCS Cairo. They’re the 7th Army’s advance reconnaissance wagon – the rest of ’em will be arriving this afternoon. Cairo’s been in orbit for a couple of days now. Seems they’ve got some news the two of you might find interesting.”
“It appears, while we had our hands busy here, the president went and made some speech they’re callin’ the ‘Liberation Declaration,’” Oscar continued.
“Meaning what?” Moe asked. His eyes darted back and for the between his current and former bosses.
“The president set all the robs free, even those still in the CCO! And pardoned any that escaped! Your bounty’s been voided! If your freedom was ever in doubt, it isn’t any longer, mi amigo!” Oscar said.
Moe seemed stuck, like he was having a processing error. Gus smiled and put her hand on his shoulder. “It’s over. Nobody’s gonna come looking for you now.”
Moe’s smile grew slowly as the truth dawned him. But it then vanished in a flash. “What about Gus?”
“Well, in Gus’s case, there’s a lot to answer for,” Ray said. He took his hat off and fiddled with the brim.
Tunk, Gus thought. Still, she wasn’t surprised. Eventually everyone had to pay for their actions. Laszlo taught her that.
“But,” the marshal continued, “thanks to security feeds showing you had nothing to do with the coach robbery, and in light of the fact that those UCET officers had taken Tuco against orders and regulations for their own personal gain… And since the bluebells want to sign a trade treaty with the Deiopeans - who are big fans of yours - to supply the Cygnus Trail waystations with their refined rubidium - not to mention Stonewall’s testimony - they’re willing to drop all the charges and wipe your record clean.”
Gus stood in stunned silence.
Moe grinned and put his hand on her shoulder this time. “It really is over.”
“Not quite,” Oscar said, and beckoned them to follow him back onto the lift.
The trip down was just as silent as the ride up, as Oscar refused to tell them what was going on. When they reached the esplanade and the lift doors opened on the town square, Gus was surprised to find all of Las Ráfagas’s survivors gathered in a rough circle. There was Walter and Augustine, the Mwangis, Mrs. Wagner and her son. More she had only met in passing. There were too few of them left, yet here they all were, together. At the sight of her stepping off the lift, the small crowd burst into spontaneous applause, which rose to a cheer before the circle collapsed in on them and Gus was surrounded by a multitude of hands, all trying to shake hers and pat her on the back.
“What’s going on? What is all this?” Gus asked.
Hector and Bernadette materialized from the gathered bodies. “We know staying here for this long has been difficult for you,” Bernadette said. “And, well, we just wanted to say thank you one last time.” She leaned in and kissed Gus on the cheek.
“What do you mean, ‘one last time?’”
Bernadette only smiled as Oscar put his arm around her.
“Promise you’ll come back and visit?” Hector asked with tears in his eyes.
“I don’t-” Gus said and looking around at her friends. “I don’t understand.”
It was Aurora’s turn to emerge from the crowd. The hunter’s lost left arms were already growing back. Even after a month of seeing its power, Gus still marveled at Deiopean medicine. Aurora’s eyes flashed a complex pattern of colors, and the new translator clipped to their robe translated in a squawking electronic voice. “After the Stormrider had passed, my people found something in the lower atmosphere that you might find of great interest. Come with me, please.”
Gus, Ray, Moe, and the Vegas followed Aurora and left the square and the townsfolk behind. It was a short walk to the engineering corral, where Gloria stood outside the office that was now hers, still wearing her late husband’s burnt leather apron. She smiled when the group approach and embraced Gus in a tight hug. “Thank you,” she said hoarsely. “If you ever need anything, you know where to find me.” Gus’s confusion grew, but she returned the hug. Her heart rate rose in anticipation. It couldn’t be. Could it? Gloria released her, smiled again, and led the group deep into the shadows of the engineering corral.
They came to a section of the corral that had temporarily been taken over by debris salvaged from the wreckage of the Shenandoah for Las Ráfagas’s rebuilding efforts. Gus’s heart sank. What could be so damn exciting among this wreckage?
“Boys?” Gloria called out into the dimly lit bay. “Now, if you please.”
The bay’s darkest corner suddenly lit up and revealed a huge canvas tarp covering a familiarly shape. Two of Gloria’s engineering team stood on opposite sides of the shape and yanked on ropes at the same time. The canvas slowly rippled to the floor, gaining speed until at last, the old, horseshoe shaped mount was revealed.
“Tilly! How did you-? Where-?”
“We found her floating between atmospheric layers,” Aurora replied. “That’s an impressive mount.”
Gus was overjoyed. “You’re damn right she is.” She grabbed Gloria in another bear hug. “Thank you.”
“Even with the UCET dropping all your charges, we figured you’d prefer to be gone before they arrived,” Oscar said.
“But we do hope that you’ll think of Las Ráfagas as home. As family,” Bernadette added with a smile.
Gus nodded. “I can’t think of a better place to put my feet up when the void gets too big, and I need a respite.”
“Does that mean you’ll be back to visit?” Hector piped up.
“It does, little man.”
“Hooray!” he cheered and hugged her.
Next it was Moe’s turn, and although he didn’t have tear ducts, his simulated eyes overflowed all the same. He grabbed her in a pointy, mechanical hug, that also felt like home. “Don’t stay out there too long, ya hear?”
“I hear, partner,” she said and wiped a tear from her own eye.
That only left Ray, and when the big man held out his hand Gus put her deputy badge into it. He looked at it in surprise. “I told you,” she said and chuckled, “I’m no lawwoman. Besides, you’ve got yourself one hell of a deputy there.” Moe blushed. “Just let him bend a rule or two once in a while, alright?”
But Ray shook his head and handed it back. “Keep it. You can just think of it as a souvenir if you like, but as far as I, and everyone else in this town are concerned, you’ll always be a Las Ráfagas Marshal’s Deputy.”
Tilly’s systems had sprung to life the moment Gus had stepped aboard, and the pony greeted her with that familiar nicker through the environmental systems. It was good to be back.
Not twenty minutes later Gus was sitting comfortably in the saddle as they broke Aeolus’s orbit and slid through the dark passed the brightly lit cities of Deiopea. The Arm was calling, and Gus was eager to drift. She wasn’t sure where she would go, but Holliday station seemed like a fine jumping off point. She keyed in the waystation’s coordinates and prepared Tilly for an FTL sprint. But a small warning light lit up on her console. “Calculations invalid due to incorrect mass estimates” blinked on the screen. What the tunk?
Gus swung her leg over the saddle and stepped into the engine room. Everything looked normal and in its place. She continued to Tilly’s rear and poked her head into the living quarters. What few possessions that had survived the atmo-fall were neatly arranged on the small room’s shelves. Nothing out of the ordinary. That left only the cargo hold. Gus stepped into Tilly’s small hold and looked around. It was empty. What the…
The small flowerbed’s familiar scent brought her attention to the only place left – her contraband hole. She wedged her fingers into the panel behind the flower bed and yanked it off the wall. The space behind the panel that usually held her beehive, drugs, and other smuggle-worthy products, was filled with row after row of gold bars. Gus, laughing frantically, pulled every panel off the wall in the small cargo hold. Each were filled with bar after bar of CCO gold.
A single, small scrap of paper was laid with care on top of one of the stacks. In a fancy, looping script that could only have been written with Bernadette’s hand, were two simple words: “Thank you.”
Tilly’s tri-axis engine gimbal slowly came to life. The three tumbling rings built-up speed until they were a blur. With a brilliant flash of pure white light, and the sweet, rolling laughter of her rider, Matilda vanished into the interstellar void.
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