4: Invitation to a Beamslinger
As she inched closer to the kitchen Gus could make out a few different voices, but it was only when she heard Oscar’s that she realized this wasn’t an invasion. But it was an argument.
“And what would you have us do, Oscar? With those new Campbell 440 pulse-rail engines, demand for rubidium has never been lower. The mining rings have been shut down for weeks. They say for retrofitting,” someone sneered, their voice barely contained to a whisper.
“Bah! I don’t know what they’re doing down there, but it ain’t nothing as simple as no retrofit!” a feminine voice scoffed. “They got Emmitt rewiring so many systems I can’t keep track of all the changes!”
“Either way,” the first voice continued, “Leconte’s offer may be small, but it’s the only one on the table. We either take it, or die out here forgotten by the rest of the Arm. What else would you have us do?”
“I would have you fight for what’s yours, Wagner! Your father staked his claim in these clouds just the same as mine. You raised your family here, just like I did. How can you turn over everything you’ve worked for to Laszlo Leconte?” Oscar fired back. The small kitchen erupted in hushed argument.
Gus shifted her weight, trying to find a more comfortable eavesdropping position. The floorboards creaked beneath her stocking feet. Conversation in the kitchen halted at once. “Hector?” Mrs. Vega’s voice called out.
Her cover blown, Gus stepped into the kitchen doorway. Around the small table sat an odd assortment of people. In addition to the Vegas and their rob farmhand, there were six other individuals of varying size and shape. “Gus. I’m sorry if we woke you,” Oscar said.
“Is this the stray pup you saved, Moe? My, she is a pretty piece of calico!” an odd looking rob Gus had initially mistaken for a piece of farming equipment said from the corner of the room in that light, feminine voice.
“What’s going on here?” Gus asked.
Oscar sighed. “Come on in, I was hoping to spare you from these fools, but now that you’re here I may as well make introductions. This here is Jacob Wagner and Silas Mwangi. They run the nearest small-stake ranches.” Two men, about Oscar’s age, one pale and bald, the other dark skinned with short, dense curls, nodded to her from the table. “This handsome young man is Walter,” Oscar said and put a hand on the “shoulder” of one of the most misshapen genies Gus had ever seen. “He runs the mercantile and moonlights as a waiter at Cirrus House.”
Descendants of Earth’s earliest colonies, who used genetic engineering to overcome the harshness of prospecting new worlds, genies came in all shapes and sizes. Walter’s trunk was roughly human shaped, but each shoulder sprouted a number of arms, which Gus was having a hard time counting thanks to Walter’s constant fidgeting. The lower half of his body was mercifully hidden by a floor-length skirt. Walter extended one of his many hands. “Charmed!” he said through a crooked smile on a face that looked half melted and not unlike a bulldog’s.
“Gretchen has already spoken up.” Oscar guided Gus to the big rob lurking in the corner. “She’s Walter’s wife, and our ear on the mining levels.” Gretchen was eight feet tall, with shoulders that nearly scratched the ceiling. Her “head” was a ball, roughly two feet across, with a small “LRC” stamp to the side. This ball was positioned at roughly eye-level, but she didn’t have a face, per say. Just four blue, bottle-cap sized eye lenses and a speaker grill, from which her light and feminine voice flowed.
A lurker, Gus thought, mystified. She’d heard about them, but Gretchen was the first she’d met. A rob built by Legion Robotic Constructs - “Free Robs Built by Free Robs.” LRC robs were “born” free and were basically nothing more than a brain in a box. Everything was modular, which let them change their bodies the way doppels change clothes. It made them well suited for whatever lifestyle struck their fancy.
Gretchen was set up for atmospheric mining, with an articulated track-and-wheel base and powerful grasping pincers extending from those tall shoulders. She held out a pincer in an approximation of a handshake. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, dear!”
Finally, Oscar turned to the last pair of men. “This is Daniel Park, town’s medics.” The older man in spectacles and a light blue tunic that failed to hide a paunchy body nodded. “And lastly, Brother Richard.” Brother Richard was easily the youngest person in the Vega’s kitchen. Gus wondered if the kid was even shaving yet. But when he stood - his dark, wooly robes flowing around his small frame - and took her hand in both of his, she could see a spark of something in his eyes. Something that he shared with Oscar:
He was a fighter.
“What’s this all about?” Gus asked again, looking around the crowded kitchen. A familiar cold feeling was beginning to spread through her body.
“Vega says you found proof the company bulls tried to kill him,” Wagner spoke up.
“And my son,” Oscar snarled. Bernadette placed a reassuring hand on his knee.
“There was something in the Vega’s mule’s axis hub that shouldn’t’ve been there, but…” Gus began, but Oscar interrupted.
“Moe, if you would?”
Moe placed a heavy, linen wrapped object on the old kitchen table. As he opened the linen, there was a collective gasp. Gretchen carefully picked up the tool Gus had removed from the mule’s engine and examined it carefully.
“Is that what I think it is?” Daniel asked. He adjusted his glasses for a better look.
“Yes,” Gretchen said. The blue of her eyes darkening several shades. “It was a flanged H-tube key. They aren’t supposed to leave the mining levels. Oscar. This is a message.”
That cold feeling continued to spread, and Gus knew what was coming next and tried to head it off. “Look, you guys have clearly got some sort of beef with this Leconte guy, and frankly, I’m just passing through. So, if you don’t mind, I’ll be heading back to upstairs for a few more hours in the sack. It was nice meeting you all.” She tried to beat a hasty retreat through the kitchen door, but it was too late.
“Please, ma’am. Won’t you hear us out? These people are desperate and afraid.” Brother Richard’s voice was quiet and calming, belying the fire in his eyes.
Gus folded her arms over her chest and glared at him. His eyes were hard. Determined. She knew he wouldn’t take no for an answer. “Fine, let’s hear it.” She dropped into an empty chair. Hey, she thought, maybe I’ll at least learn something useful. “But I’m not promising anything.”
After a hesitant silence, it was Oscar who spoke.
“For more than twenty-five years, Las Ráfagas was a boomtown. The rubidium-87 mined in these clouds fueled the waystations from the Rift to the colonies. But that all changed when those new Campbell 440 pulse-rail trains went into service with the retrofitting on Holliday Station last year.”
“I read about that. When they’re done with the midpoint station it’s supposed to only take two weeks to get to the frontier from the Old Colonies,” Gus said.
“Which is why demand for the celerity coaches is dropping off, and demand for Las Ráfagas’s rubidium along with it,” Gretchen said.
“Since then,” Oscar continued, “Las Ráfagas has slowly turned into a ghost town. Most of the town’s residential quarter has been abandoned. The mining rings have been shut down for weeks, with the miners locked up in their barracks. Yet no one can get a straight answer about what’s going on out of the town’s administrator, Laszlo Leconte.
“Instead, he bullies and threatens us with crude means like these.” His voice rising above a whisper, Oscar grabbed the twisted H-tube key and squeezed until his palm bled.
“Oscar, please,” Bernadette said softly and eased her husband’s hand open.
He sighed and let her take the warped hunk of metal from him. “He’s been forcing our neighbors to sell their land and shares in the outpost for a fraction of what they’re worth, even with the town’s troubles. And now he’s got his sights set on El Dorado and my family.
Gus was, in a word, unmoved. “There’s a simple solution to this: take the deal.”
The uproar that followed was quickly shushed by Bernadette.
“I told you!” Wagner spat. “It’s not worth dying over!”
“But there’s more to it than that, Jacob.” Silas Mwangi spoke up for the first time. His voice was deep and rough. “Tell them what you told me this afternoon, Oscar.”
But Oscar turned to Moe instead. “Better you tell it, amigo. They gave the message to you.”
Gus took out her tobacco tin and started to roll but stopped when she caught Bernadette’s glaring eye. Moe looked around the room nervously. He had managed to stay mostly invisible among this group crew of misfits, and clearly preferred it that way. He fidgeted with his bowler cap, but never took it off. “Well, y-you see, the boss sent be and the little chief out this morning to wrangle Gussy, our youngest greenbottle jelly. Well wouldn’t you know it? We came across Gus here in all manner of distress.” Moe looked around the room nervously. Oscar gave him a small smile and twirled his finger. Get on with it.
“A-anyway,” Moe continues, “we ran into a Deiopean hunting party. It, ah, it seems some of their people have gone missing recently.”
Gus sat up straight. This was news to her. “People from the moon are missing? It’s covered in cities; people must go missing all the time.”
“Ah, no. People here on Aeolus,” Moe clarified.
“Do they have an outpost or something nearby?” Gus asked.
“No one knows.” Oscar shrugged. “The cloud density in the lower atmospheric layers where the town is makes proximity scanning impossible. And since Leconte banned trade with the Deiopeans decades ago, they aren’t exactly eager to share information.”
“They must lose people on hunting trips. Why is this significant?” Gus still wasn’t convinced this was important, but you never knew when information could come in handy.
But, again, all she got was a shrug and a sigh from Oscar. “It’s only significant because they’ve never discussed it with us before. Thanks to my father, we have a-,” he paused, searching for the right word, “-warm relationship with the Deiopeans. But they don’t exactly drop by to borrow a cup of sugar.”
“So, what?” Gus’s brow furrowed. “You think this Leconte is snatching natives, trying to force down the price of your land and shares, and drive you all out of the system?”
They all nodded, some more enthusiastically than others.
“Why?” Gus’s question hung in the air like a fog.
Silence filled the room.
“He knows something. Something he’s not telling us. Something he plans to use to fill his own pockets, no doubt,” Brother Richard said, barely above a whisper.
“Well,” Gus leaned back in her chair, “that’s not much to risk my neck on.”
These would-be revolutionaries sat in uncomfortable silence. They had to have known this would be her answer.
Oscar, wringing his hands, glanced across the room at the mishappen genie. “You’ve been awful quiet, Walter. You’ve worked for Leconte the longest. The townsfolk talk to you in the general store. I know tongues wag in Cirrus House-”
“In more ways than one!” Gretchen cut in and snickered at her own bad joke.
“What’s on your mind, hombre?” Oscar asked the genie who sat sulking next to his wife.
Walter seemed to gather his thoughts and took his time before answering. “There’s an oddness to the town lately. Energies flow darkly. The company bulls are tense – like a powder keg just waitin’ on a spark. Shadows move about. A storm’s a-comin’.”
Gus gawked openly at him. Damn genies, she thought, but what can you expect from generations of gene splicing? “Look, I don’t know what that’s supposed to mean, but do you people even know what you want to do? Fight? From what I can tell the only fightin’ experience you lot have got is from squabbling amongst yourselves. Ain’t no way I can do all the fightin’ for you, and I ain’t got time to train an army of agros. And most importantly,” she picked up an odd-looking fruit from a bowl on the table and wiped it off on her flight suit, “how’s a bunch of jelly-ranchers, a company-man genie and his gas mining wife, a blind medic, and a holy man gonna pay for my services?” The fruit crunched like a fresh apple, but the pleasantly citrus flavor was unlike anything she’d ever had.
A murmur rippled through the kitchen. Pay? Little arguments cropped up around the room with table neighbors trading barbs. Gus stood, rolled her eyes, and made for the door.
“Where are you going?” Oscar asked as she crossed the threshold.
“Back to bed. Ruttin’ agros don’t know what you want. I’ve got my own troubles to deal with. In Las Ráfagas’s engineering corral. First thing tomorrow morning.” The look on Oscar’s face told Gus he took her meaning. He sighed and nodded, defeated. Gus looked around the room at the anxious faces. “I suggest you people pack up what you can’t bear to part with, take the spoons, and start a new life. Elsewheres.”
The kitchen erupted into a fresh round of murmured argument. Gus turned on her heel and headed back to her cot, shaking her head in disbelief.
Ruttin’ agros, Gus grumbled to herself as she made her way back to the Vega’s spare room. She’d known this was coming from the moment she had found the shrapnel inside the mule’s engine axis hub, but the request still bothered her. She was no hero. She had her own problems to deal with. With only a few hours until dawn, Gus needed a quick smoke before catching a bit more sleep.
But when she reached for her tin, it wasn’t in its normal pocket.
She had left it in the kitchen. As she weighed how badly she wanted a smoke against the idea of going back into the quagmire that was the Vega kitchen, Bernadette appeared, tobacco tin in hand. When their hands met there was a spark, and Bernadette didn’t let go.
“The others may not see you for what you are. But I do.” Her green eyes flashed in the darkness.
“And what’s that, exactly?”
She looked away before answering and dropped her hand from the tobacco tin at the same time. “A coward. There’s a million like you in the colonies. All running – telling yourself it’s towards something when it’s really just running away.”
“If your goal is to get me to change my mind, you’re not gonna do it like that.” Gus tucked the tin away in its familiar spot and looked Bernadette up and down.
“You’re right – we can’t pay you. Not to fix your mount. Not even to fuel it. But whatever it is you’re running from? Maybe we can help you come to terms with it.” Gus snorted, but Bernadette continued. “These are good people here. Hardworking folk. They don’t deserve the lot they’ve drawn. I’ve seen your kind before, aye. I’ve seen ’em run, and I’ve seen ’em stand. And even them that fall, fall knowing they’ve done what’s right. When you fall - and make no mistake, your kind always falls, eventually – will it be the past coming to claim you, or a fight of your own choosing?” With that, the small woman vanished down the hallway she had come from.
Two hours later, Gus sat at the small room’s window smoking. A smaller tin she used as an ashtray was filled with cinders and butts. She hadn’t slept a wink. Gus watched the blue-gray smoke rise and dance in the gentle air currents. Aeolus’s star, the red giant Hippotes, was just starting to come up over the horizon. It painted a stunning sunrise across the clouds - that Gus was completely ignoring.
Instead, her mind lingered on the events of the previous night. Greedy bullies threatening and cheating common folk out of their hard-earned money and hard-worked land. Strange disappearances. And a mining outpost that wasn’t doing any mining. Something very strange indeed was going on out here.
She shook her head, trying to clear her mind. What was she thinking? Strange or not, it was none of her business. What did little miss housewife know anyway?
There was a knock on the door. Moe. Finally, it was time to go.