Gas Giant Gambit: A Tale from Across the Cygnus Rift

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5: Cloud Town

The trip from the El Dorado to Las Ráfagas wasn’t long, but as Moe flew the mule down into the lower atmosphere, there wasn’t much to see. Clouds engulfed the small mount, and visibility was limited to only a few feet.

“How do you ride in this soup?” Gus asked. All the flight sensors seemed to be dead or otherwise useless.

Moe chuckled. “You get used to riding blind out here. We’ve got the route to town programed into the mule’s navi-com, so it’s mostly autorider.”

“But how do you hitch without the proximity sensor?”

“The old-fashioned way.” Moe smirked as he flipped on the mule’s comms. “This is short-range transport Burra, to Las Ráfagas Stable Control. I am on approach and requesting two stables in the engineering corral.”

“Confirmed, Burra,” the intercom squawked. “You are approved for hitching at engineering stables six and seven. I have your approach beacon now. Transmitting hitching signal,” a pause, and then, “now.”

Suddenly, Moe’s dim control panel lit up with data. Their position relative to the outpost was being triangulated and transmitted to them. It was an old system that relied on the incoming mount bouncing a signal off two receivers on either end of the mining facility’s hide. “Thanks, stable control,” Moe replied and flipped the intercom off.

They broke through a dense layer of cloud and Gus got her first glimpse of the mining town. “Welcome to Las Ráfagas Rubidium-87 Mining Outpost and Depot. Constructed, owned, and operated by Leconte Atmo-Mining Solutions,” Moe said as the town came fully into view.

“How big is it?” Gus had been on atmo-mining outposts before, but never an operation of this scale.

“From end to end, the outpost is exactly one mile long. She’s got 20 mining and refining levels, along with six mining rings: four 2,880-foot diameter primary rings, and a pair of 1,920-foot secondary rings. When operating at peak efficiency Las Ráfagas can produce 150 megatons of rubidium-87 superfluid per week.” But, for now anyway, the enormous vertical hoops that extended out from the face of the crescent shaped outpost sat dark and still. “Above the mining levels, sits the esplanade – the town proper,” Moe continued. He pointed out the various features as the mule made its approach.

The town was encased in a hard glass-like shell, like a snow globe. “What’s that?” Gus pointed to a huge black tower rising from the town, and the squat building at its top, which sat atop the town’s dome.

“That is the Administration Tower, as well as the Leconte family’s private quarters,” Moe said with distain leaking into his electronic voice.

The mule glided through the clouds over the town and Administration Tower towards the rear of the town and the stables. The main livery stable, a long pier extending into the clouds with hitching posts that provided power and Rb-87 fuel, was practically empty. A town this size, even this far from the Cygnus Trail, should have been bustling, with wagons and carriages coming and going like bees to a hive. But here there were only a few rundown and rusted out wagons waiting silently.

Yet, one wagon did stand out. It was long and narrow, and reminded Gus of a gold-plated animal skull, maybe a cow or horse. It was definitely some sort of pleasure craft, but she had never seen anything quite so opulent before. She silently cursed Tuco. There was money to be made here, but thanks to that impulsive pendejo, she couldn’t risk sticking around to sniff it out.

Moe directed the mule past the livery stable and maneuvered both it and Tilly into the engineering corral at the far end of the town.

#

Las Ráfagas’s engineer, an old codger named Emmitt Smith, met them as they stepped off the mule. He didn’t seem too pleased to see them and simply grunted when Gus extended her hand. “Oscar mentioned you’d be paying me a visit this morning.” He squinted at her, as if trying to decide something. “’e said to do what I can for ya.” He spat a dark wad to the corral floor.

Gus withdrew her unshaken hand and glared right back at him. “I’m glad to hear it.”

After a tense moment, he grunted again. “A’ight, let’s have ourselves a look-see.” Emmitt flipped open an access panel on Tilly’s hitching post and pulled a thick cable from it. Straining under its weight, the old man dragged the cable to Tilly and plugged it into a port beneath the saddleroom. “Come on,” he said without looking at them. He led them through the cluttered engineering corral, past wagons missing engine gimbals, burnt out hides, and huge machines Gus couldn’t identify. Before long they arrived at the old engineer’s office, a largish room built against the wall and overlooking the entire corral.

Emmitt slumped down into a well warn chair behind a cluttered workbench that doubled as a desk. “Let’s see what we got,” he said. He picked up a tablet, and within moments, the handheld computer’s screen was filled with scrolling data from Tilly’s main computer network. “Tsk,” the old man clicked his tongue in distain, “you’ve got yourself quite a mess here, don’t you? Half a dozen small hide breached – one big one. Atmo-thruster control system’s fried. The thrusters themselves are melted. You’ve got a frozen engine gimbal and a massive coolant leak. Not to mention ruptured environmental seals in the empty pod shaft. Let’s see… Is this an aftermarket tractor beam? The way you’ve got it wired it is overloading your rear power regulator.” Emmitt squinted at the readout. He raised an eyebrow and looked over the tablet at Gus. “Pony’s a little small for salvage. What ya using the hide cutter for?”

“Don’t worry about that, old man.”

“Uh-huh,” he said knowingly. “No wonder you overloaded your engine gimble. You’ve got too many modifications pulling too much power. The wattage the hide cutter alone is pulling should have fried your electricals. Ruttin’ thing’s sucking enough juice to cut through armor plating.”

“Forget about the mods. Can you get her void-ready?”

Emmitt got up from his workbench to wash his hands in an oversized sink. “Sure,” he shrugged, “but the biggest o’ yer problems’re in that electrical system. Can’t do nothing ’til that’s fixed.”

Great.

Gus’s heart sank. It was even worse than she had feared. “Alright. What’s the damage gonna cost me?” Emmitt tapped his screen a few times, mumbled something to himself about carrying the one, then handed it to Gus. Her eyes nearly bugged out of her head – it was almost everything she had. “You’ve got to be kidding me!” she roared. “You call this going easy?”

But Emmitt kept his baggy eyes locked on hers and didn’t budge. “Supplies are scarce out here. Ever since fuel demand dropped the supply wagons don’t come out as often. You don’t like it; you can take your business elsewheres.”

“Look here, you senile old coot-” Gus waved a finger in the small man’s face, but Moe put his hand on her shoulder and tried to calm her.

“Emmitt, she’s stuck here without your help. Isn’t there something you can do?” he asked in a soothing tone.

Emmitt grunted again and gave the rob some serious stink eye before turning his back to them and poking at his tablet screen again. He turned back, keeping his eyes away from the rob’s, and handed Gus the tablet again, “’ere, ’s the best I can do.”

The cost was a little better - at least she would have enough for lodgings and some fuel - but – “Three days?” She looked out the office window at all the empty stables. “Why so long? It ain’t like you’ve got business piling up here!”

“Actually, girl,” Emmitt snatched the tablet from her hands, “Leconte’s got my crew working double shifts on the outpost’s retrofits. Like I said, ’s the best I can do.

Gus glared into the old man’s eyes, but he didn’t budge. “Fine,” she sighed. Three days was pushing her luck. By her math, she might have had as few as two days until the San Juan-Paul bulls caught up with her. And in a town this empty it would be hard to get lost in the crowd. But what choice did she have? She’d just have to keep her head down get out as soon as she could. Which left one more matter. “What about Rb-87? Tilly needs to be fed.”

“Can’t help ya there. Now if you don’t mind, I have work to get to,” Emmitt said. He put the tablet down and gestured to the door.

“Whoa, hold up a minute,” Gus said and grabbed him by the shoulder. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Emmitt brushed her hand off him. “It means I can’t help you. You got grease in your ears? The rings are shut down.

Growing frustrated with the engineer’s attitude, Gus grabbed him by his dirty leather apron and pulled him to her. Moe started to step forward with a worried look on his face, but Gus flashed out a hand to stop him and let go of Emmitt’s apron. Leaning in so close she could smell his singed stubble, she lowered her voice to a growl. “I don’t care if the rings are shut down. This is a mining town. There’s got to be rubidium somewhere.

With fear is his gray eyes, Emmitt tried to find his voice. “T-there’s n-nothing. Not since before the retrofit started. Nothing in the loading bays, nothing being shipped out. All I’ve got is my private supply, but I need it to run the corral.”

Gus’s mind raced. “The corral is an important part of town operations. They must keep your supply topped up to keep your crew working. Where’s it come from?”

But Emmitt could only shrug unhappily.

A rubidium-87 mining depot without any rubidium. What the tunk is going on out here?

“Just fix my pony,” Gus said and pushed past the old engineer. “We can talk about you selling me your fuel when that’s done. Don’t worry, I’ll make it worth your while. Let’s go, Moe. You can show me where a lady can get a room in this God forsaken backwater.”

#

After retrieving a few personal effects - including Delilah - from Tilly, Gus followed Moe out of the engineering corral and into the town proper. “Welcome to Las Ráfagas,” Moe said and spread his arms to gesture broadly to their surroundings. “It ain’t much, but it’s home. Come on this way. I’ll take you to the inn.”

Just outside the engineering corral office was a large residential area, taking up a large percentage of the land under the town’s dome. But it was practically empty; a small group of children went running down streets lined with abandoned buildings and empty lots, chasing a yelping stray dog. The buildings looked hollow and somehow sad.

Gus’s heart sank as she looked. Under normal circumstances this might have been the perfect place to lay low. But with the law hot on her trail, not only was this no place to hide, it looked like her options for making the spoons she needed for fuel were going to be extremely limited.

Hippotes hung high above the gas giant, bathing the town in an unforgiving light that revealed all its blemishes. The decades old town was covered in a layer of cream-colored dust – residue buildup from the planet’s atmosphere, no doubt. The dome protecting the town from the elements was cracked in several places. Nothing too serious, but it looked as though the outpost had seen a few meteorite impacts over the years.

As Moe led Gus away from the engineering corral her mind lingered on Tilly.

Three days? she screamed inside her head. And no fuel to boot. What the hell was she going to do? First thing first, she needed lodging, and cheap. She didn’t have many spoons left. After that, well, she thought, I’ll have three days to come up with something – and keep an eye out for the bulls. But there was one thing she already knew: something very strange was going on in this town. And while she didn’t want to know what it was, or have anything to do with it, she knew she couldn’t just take Emmitt’s fuel, by force or coercion. These people still had to deal with whatever was going on here long after she was long gone.

That left only one option: paying him for it. How the hell was she going to lay low and make money in this forgotten town? She looked up to find them crossing a small square towards a little chapel tucked between an empty lot and the corral wall. A small sign identified it as the Capilla de Santa Bárbara. Its rough stone walls looked ancient, even compared to the dilapidated state of the rest of town. Standing out front, fiddling with a huge ring of keys, was Brother Richard.

Next to him stood an older man that was nearly the opposite of the brother in every way. Where Richard was beggar thin, this man had the waistline of a man wealthy enough to ignore beggars. He wore a suit that was as white as his handlebar moustache, with a flat crowned gambler hat to match. A bollo tie with a silver burdle skull hung around his fat neck, and a pair of pearl handled pistols sat on his hips. He was urging Brother Richard to hurry up, and the younger man was clearly flustered.

“Good morning, Mr. Willoughby!” Moe called out to the older man and tipped his hat in a friendly greeting.

Willoughby glowered at Moe and briskly walked past him, careful to give the rob a wide berth. “Out of my way, fifthly rob!” he spat as he bristled by.

Free of the older man’s unnerving stare, Brother Richard was able to find the proper key, lock up the chapel, and descend the steps to meet Gus and Moe. He took each of their hands in a short but friendly shake, “Moe. Gus. It’s lovely to see you again on this blessed morning. I would love to stay and chat, but we’ve got another burial this afternoon. I need to see to the family right away.”

“Oh no!” Moe cried. “Don’t tell me it was Mrs. Santiago?”

“I’m afraid so. Her heart finally gave out on her. She passed in her sleep late last night.”

Richard!” Willoughby’s voice cut through the still morning air like a jackhammer.

“I am sorry, my friends, but I have to run. May the blood of the world flow through you.” He again took each of their hands in a short embrace and raced down the street after the impatient Willoughby.

Moe watched them disappear into the residential areas before turning back to Gus with a sullen look on his face.

“What was that all about?” Gus asked.

“Mr. Willoughby’s mother-in-law, old Mrs. Santiago. She’s been a staple in Las Ráfagas since the town was founded. Nearly thirty years ago now, back in ’38” Moe said, leading Gus past the chapel and across an empty lot between a row of townhouses and a stubby building with bars over its windows. The Marshal’s Office. “She’s been a leader in the community,” Moe continues. “She’s kept Willoughby in check for years. Even stood up to Leconte from time to time. Her death can only be a bad omen.”

Tell me about it, Gus thought as they stepped into the corner of Las Ráfagas’s town square. To their left was the façade of the small Marshal’s Office. Next to that was Daniel Park’s med-lab and apothecary. Across from them stood the enormous Administration Tower, which threw a dark shadow across the heart of Las Ráfagas. Like everything Gus had seen so far, the square was deserted. There was nothing in this rat hole town. How was she supposed to get out of here?

But Willoughby’s fine suit and finer sidearms told her there was money here. Somewhere. “Moe? What do people do for spoons around here?”

Moe chuckled. “I was wondering how long it would take you to get to that.” Gus followed him along the square towards the mercantile, and the inn beyond. “Mr. Willoughby is one of the few businessmen left. He owns Willoughby’s Gunsmithy & Emporium on the other side of the Tower, next to Cirrus House. He’s not hiring. His shop’s been closed up for almost as long as the mining rings.”

“What’s he waiting around town for?”

Gus shrugged. “Who knows. He’s close with the Lecontes. He can usually be found at the Razz tables – or Cirrus House’s rooms - if you care to ask him yourself. Your best bet is probably odd jobs and the like, I reckon. Only problem is there ain’t many folks left looking for a helping hand.” He wasn’t kidding. A few people were milling about in the closed farmers market at the far end of the square, and an old woman sat in a rocking chair with a spittoon in her lap in front of the inn. But Gus saw no other signs of life. “Well, let’s check in on old Walter. If anyone knows of anyone looking for some help, it’ll be him.”

The pair ducked into the shade of the mercantile and found a small but well-organized general store. Walter seemed to sell everything, from chewing tobacco and a little booze, to groceries, clothing, and even spare mechanical parts – all stamped with the Leconte Atmo-Mining Solutions logo, a smiling little storm cloud wearing an old-fashioned lamped miner’s helmet. Gus thought she even saw a small selection of refraction pistols tucked away in the corner.

There was an old, boxy merchant-rob near the door, staring off into space and trying to restock a shelf already overflowing with cans of protein paste. She wore a faded nametag labeling her “Susan.” Gus nudged Moe with her elbow. “What’s up with this one?”

“Poor thing was lo-bot hacked,” Moe said. The sympathy in his voice bordered on pity his voice. “Walter is kind enough to make sure she stays busy and has a purpose.”

Of course. Gus had only come across a few lo-bot hacked robs on the Arm. Essentially a computer virus, it effectively lobotomized any rob it infected. It left them passive, submissive, and emotionless. In a word: robotic. Some of the newer models being manufactured in the CCO left the factory floor pre-lo-bot hacked to prevent that pesky free will from developing in the first place.

“Can’t Emmitt do anything for her?” she asked. Her eyes lingering on the pathetic rob.

Moe adjusted his bowler cap, his face plainly saddened for Susan. “Reversing a lo-bot hack is tricky. The hack itself is all software, but the fix needs a hardware patch. It’s delicate work, and Emmitt just doesn’t have the tools. Or, I’m sorry to say, the skills.” He placed a gentle hand on Susan’s shoulder as they passed. “Good morning, Susan. Keep up the good work!”

Walter was taking inventory and counting products on the shelves. With his many hands, it was quite a sight to behold. “Morning, Walt,” Moe greeted the genie.

“Ayup, ’morning to ya both. Anything I can help you with, Moe? Oscar didn’t mention you’d be dropping in. Everything alright? Did Gussy get out again?”

“Oh, no, no, nothing like that,” Moe reassured him, “I’m just showing Gus here around town on our way to the inn. She’s looking to make a few extra spoons. Know of anybody looking for a hired hand in town?”

Walter considered the question for a few moments, his various hands tapping on surfaces and fidgeting with his products. “You know, now that you mention it, I haven’t gotten any handyman requests in a few weeks. Mrs. Santiago’s grandson was looking for someone to take a look at her ventilator, but I suppose you heard that’s not really a problem anymore.” Walter hung his head and wrung several pairs of hands. “You could always try your luck at Cirrus House,” he suggested and shrugged his crowded shoulders.

Gus’s temper rose. “If you’re suggesting I become some mining baron’s painted whore for a handful of spoons-”

Walter, in an amazing imitation of a leafless tree in winter, raised all of his hands defensively. “Oh no! Cirrus House is a brothel, no doubt, but there are many games of chance as well! A void-drifter like you should have no problem getting in a game of Razz or Follow-Stanley-Home.

Her temper cooled as quickly as it had flared. A casino? Now there was an opportunity. “Where is this Cirrus House?”

“Across the square, other side o’ the Admin Tower,” Moe said. “But I don’t think-”

Gus cut him off. “What else am I going to do? Besides, I’ve played a few hands of Razz in my day. I’ll be fine.” She turned back to the defensive clerk. “Thanks for the tip, Walt.” She nodded to him and stepped back into the warm sunlight of the square.

#

Gus had already lit a cigar and hidden her lighter away by the time Moe joined her on the boardwalk outside the mercantile. He eyed the smoldering cherry warily but didn’t bring it up. “This way.”

Next door to the mercantile, at the corner of the square, sat the squat Hotel Irma. It was a crumbling tavern and guesthouse that looked well past its glory days – if it had ever had any. Gus followed Moe through the swinging doors and stepped onto the dusty tavern floor. It looked like any of a dozen frontier inns she’d had the pleasure of visiting. The tavern had only a few battered tables and chairs, but, of course, a full complement of stools at the bar. The rooms for rent would be upstairs, and if they were as finely furnished as the tavern, Gus got the idea that “Hotel Irma” was too grand a name for such meager lodgings. In all honestly, she was pleasantly surprised. She should be able to haggle the innkeeper down to a reasonable price for three nights. He’ll be needing the business.

Moe tapped the small bell on the clerk’s desk. Within moments, a giant of a man appeared from the inn’s office. A moving mountain, he must have been nearly seven feet tall, topping four hundred pounds. His skin was pale, and one arm was in a gigantic cast.

“Good morning, sir. How’s the arm?” Moe asked the innkeeper as he settled in behind the clerk’s desk. A small nameplate identified him as the establishment’s proprietor, one Stefano Russo.

Russo grunted and barely looked at Moe. Instead, he stared at Gus greedily, his eyes lingering on the lit cigar dangling from the corner of her mouth for the briefest of moments before moving downward to the more obvious parts of her anatomy. “Well, hello there, little lady. How can I help you on this fine morn?”

Gus tried to ignore the feel of his eyes washing over her body. “I need a room.”

“And how long will you be staying with us here at Hotel Irma?” He managed to tear his eyes away from her long enough to flip through a visitor book.

“Three days,”

“Fine, fine,” he said. “Room 13 is available. Three days will be…” He slid a credit transfer pad across the desk towards her.

“You’re joking, right?” she scoffed. It was more than she had left. Hell, it was more than she would have paid for three nights in the Old Colonies.

“Ma’am, as you can plainly see,” he pushed the messy ledger towards her, “we’ve few vacancies-”

Gus unholstered Delilah, placed the big gun on the desk. “Oof, that thing is heavy,” she said, and gave her hip an exaggerated rub. “Now, look here, Mr. Russo, is it? I don’t want to be here, but I’m stuck until my pony’s repaired.” She tapped ash from the end of her cigar into a coffee mug on the desk. “And I’m not exactly happy about it, understand? So, instead of selling me this line of tunk in your obviously forgotten town, just give me the room for a fair price and be happy to have what might be your last boarder.”

Russo’s eyes darted from her to the big gun and back again. He snatched the transfer pad back and made some adjustments with his fat fingers. “Ah, yes, of course, my mistake. I see we got a few last-minute cancelations my assistant forgot to tell me about. I’m sure this will be a bit more to your liking?” He slid the pad back. The price was substantially less, but still accounted for just about all her remaining spoons.

She paid Russo and took her room key. Grumbling, the giant that was Stefano Russo disappeared back into the office. When he closed the door behind him, Gus shook Moe’s hand. “Thanks again. Will I see you around town before I push on?”

Moe tipped his dusty bowler cap and nodded. “The farmer’s market opens tomorrow morning. The boss and I’ll be here first thing.”

“Maybe I’ll drop by to thank Oscar one last time.”

They said their goodbyes and Moe set off to attend to his errands. As the gangly rob left the inn, Gus’s mind was already looking forward to a few hands of Razz and making a little extra bank as soon as she could.

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