6: Young Guns of Aeolus
As dusk settled over the Aeolusian clouds Gus found herself standing outside the batwing doors of Cirrus House. A bulky personal vehicle of some kind was parked haphazardly out front, blocking the empty street. No one seemed to mind, as the street was quiet and still.
The casino, by contrast, was an oasis of noise and activity. Gus pushed through the swinging doors and was assaulted with a thick, tangy aroma – a mix of tobacco and cannabis smoke, spilt liquor, and hot, unwashed bodies. She breathed deep and relished the familiar scent.
The main floor was broad, smoke filled, and dimly lit. Tables with all manner of games of chance littered the casino floor. Compared to the main lobby and tavern of the Hotel Irma, the Cirrus House gaming floor was a palace. The room was festooned in reds and golds, with fringes and tassels as far as the eye could see. Gaudy crystal chandeliers bathed the gamers in a sickly yellow glow. A few robs and genies milled about, but they seemed to all be waitstaff – or worse. Gus watched a woman with tentacles instead of the usual batch of limbs lead a drunk and horny patron up the stairs and into one of the private rooms.
Despite the emptiness of the town, Gus was not surprised to find Cirrus House busy – damn near bustling by this backwater’s standards. Vice was always successful, no matter the financial forecast. Gus sidled up to the bar – an old-fashioned thing with an actual brass foot rail – and caught her own eye in the mirror. She looked tired. Tunk, she was tired. Her hair was greasy and frizzy. Dark bags hung under her eyes.
She ordered a shot of whiskey and a bowl of water and turned to survey the room. Gus quickly spotted the Razz tables in the back corner. She hated games of chance – only suckers expected to win playing against the house – but Razz was a game of skill and cunning. A game she liked very much. If she played her cards right, in three days she could have enough winnings to pay Emmitt a handsome price for his fuel; enough he wouldn’t be able to refuse.
And maybe a little left over for herself to boot.
When the rob tending bar wordlessly delivered her water and whiskey, she shot the one back and splashed her face with the other. She rubbed her eyes, trying to remove at least some of the grime from her face and hair. Gus ran wet fingers through her tight curls and did her best to comb out the worst of the tangles. She ordered another round and tied her hair back once again while the ’tender poured. She fired the shot back, replaced the whiskey grimace with a look of girlish innocence, and headed for the Razz tables.
It only took the time to cross the smoke-hazy room for Gus to pick out which of the five tables was the high-stakes game. The whales stuck out in a place like this. Finely tailored suits, rings with gems so big they could glint even in this gloom, and a certain glow to their complexion that only Sol-simulation lamps could provide set them apart from the drab, dirty, and pale rabble. There were three men seated at the table, plus an old rob card dealer. The oldest was Willoughby, still wearing the same white hat and suit combo as that morning. The other two men were younger, and based on their strong resemblance, brothers by Gus’s reckoning.
“How is it that you’re always here, but no one ever sees you coming or going?” the youngest asked Willoughby after the former had won a sizable pot.
“That’s for me to know, and you to go right on wondering about,” Willoughby said with a scowl as Gus stepped up to the table.
“Evenin’, gents,” she said and flashed a bright smile she hoped reached her eyes. “What’s a girl gotta do to join a game around here?”
Talk at the table came to an abrupt halted and every eye in the game turned towards her.
The older brother’s dark hair was slicked back, giving him a weaselly look. The way his eyes darted around the room suspiciously only added to the aesthetic. He wore a dark blue suit with an elaborate burdle pin in his lapel. The younger brother was blonde with more mousy features and a look of general joviality. His clothes were lighter and more casual, yet no less expertly tailored.
“Sorry, little lady,” the older brother said darkly. “This is a closed game.”
“Now hold on a minute,” the younger brother interjected. He smiled up at Gus. “Let’s see what the lady has to say.”
“Aaron,” the first brother warned.
Neither Aaron nor Willoughby seemed to hear him. “That’s an interesting piece you’ve got there, ma’am. What’s its story?” the wealthy gunsmith asked.
Gus gently patted Delilah but didn’t draw the gun from her holster. “Pain and death, like any others’. But she does right by me.”
Willoughby nodded sagely. “True enough, I’m sure. But I’ve never seen anything quite like it.”
“Me neither!” Aaron chimed in. What little suspicion was in those eyes when she had come to the table had been replaced with an unsettling hunger.
The older brother glared at Aaron but spoke to Gus. “The buy-in for this table is quite high, miss…?”
“Call me Gus,” she smiled and shook Aaron’s hand gently.
“I see you’ve met the Vegas and their cross-wired rob,” the older brother scoffed. He threw back a glass half full of some amber liquor and grimaced.
“No need to be rude, Junior,” Aaron chided, still holding Gus’s hand.
“Oh, that’s alright,” Gus giggled. “As a matter of fact, I don’t have many spoons to spare, so I was hoping to barter my buy-in.” She batted her eyelashes at Aaron.
“What did you have in mind, miss?” Willoughby said, eyeing Delilah. Gus had rarely seen a man get so impatient to lose his money.
“Well, I can see you’ve got an eye for sidearms. I was hoping my Delilah here would be enough to cover my way.” This time she did unholster the big gun, removed the coolant capsule from the grip, and placed it on the ragged felt table.
Junior began to reject her offer out of hand when Aaron cut him off with only a glance. He picked up the ancient gun and examined it closely. “This is really something special,” he said and handed Delilah to Willoughby to inspect. “But as my brother here doesn’t share our appreciations for unique weaponry, I’ll have to ask you to sweeten the pot a little.”
And now to seal the deal.
“You’re clearly gambling men. How ’bout a little wager?” Gus offered.
“What kind of wager?” Aaron asked. His eyes sparkled greedily. Junior literally threw his hands in the air in defeat.
Gus pulled an old gold coin from a pocket and flipped it into the air. It tumbled through the haze and twinkled in the low light. “Heads, you keep my Delilah and my lucky 24 karat gold coin for the trouble of my company, and I move on.” Gold, with its many uses, was still the standard on the Arm, and even Junior’s eyes widened at the thought of owning such a large, pure coin. “Tails, you give me the chance to win them back,” she finished and snatched the coin out of the air.
The three men glanced around the table at each other before Aaron agreed on their behalf. “Deal, but no funny business,” he said and pointed a finger at her with a wry smile.
“No funny business,” she agreed and flashed her own forced grin. Her right hand hung casually from her gun belt for the table to see and flipped the coin with her left. It tumbled high into the haze-filled air and fell back to the table below.
An hour or two - and several hands - later Gus pushed back from the table with a sigh of satisfaction. She reholstered Delilah and tucked her lucky coin back into a pocket. She stood, stretched, and collected her winnings. “’Scuse me, gents, but I think I need to wet my whistle.” None of the men at the table would meet her eye, except Aaron, who was looking at her with an expression close to awe. She rolled her eyes and headed for the bar.
Another whiskey or two would hit the spot. It had been a profitable evening. She had won enough to put her mind at ease. A couple of nights like this and she could buy all of Emmitt’s Rb-87. And then get out of this backwater mining town.
But as she put her foot on the rail, her mind turned back to the Vegas. Gus was glad she wasn’t in their position. It was their home, sure, but her life had taught her home was where you made it, and spoons always had a way of winning out in the end. Better to take the deal and get out while you still had a home to move. If for no other reason than the kid. Hector didn’t deserve this kind of stress in his life.
Still, Gus thought as she ordered her whiskey and pictured the Vegas’ kitchen lit by the morning sun. It is a fine home. It wasn’t a leap from the image of the kitchen to that of the lady of the house herself, Bernadette Vega. When those amber locks, green eyes, and full lips crossed her mind’s eye, Gus’s heart quickened. She threw back her drink, ordered another, and turned to face the casino floor. The warmth of the whiskey turned her thoughts to the curve of Bernadette’s aproned hip. The way her dress clung to her chest. The way her hair had shined in the morning light.
Gus tossed back her second whiskey and eyed the employees. She wasn’t interested in the casino workers or waitstaff, though she did give Walter a subtle nod as he passed with a tray of drinks. She was in the mood for rented flesh. Robs were good for some - they could certainly have some interesting modifications - but Gus was old fashioned in that way. She preferred something breathing take her to bed.
Rent-robs, -boys, and -girls mingled among the gathered gamblers, placing a gentle hand here, or a soft kiss there. Gus ordered another drink and scanned the room for what was on offer as she rolled a fat cigar. But instead of a pleasant distraction, her eyes fell on Aaron approaching the bar with a look of lust in his own eyes. A look that told her she wasn’t going to like the way the way the rest of this evening was going to go if she didn’t beat feet quickly. She tucked the fresh cigar into a small breast pocket on her poncho and turned back to the bar, away from the approaching trouble.
Gus tried to get the bartender’s attention, but it was too late; Aaron sidled up to the bar next to her. “You’re not running out on us now, are you?” he asked, smirking boyishly.
“As a matter of fact, it’s getting to be well past my bedtime.”
“Another?” the old rob bartender asked.
“Make it a pair of overalls, and put her bill on my tab,” Aaron said. The rob buzzed in the affirmative and began pouring two whiskeys.
“That’s kind of you kid, but I don’t like owing people anything. And like I said, it’s past my bedtime.” Gus dropped a spoon into a slot on the bar and pressed her thumb into it. She stood from her stool and moved to leave, but Aaron stopped her, grabbing her wrist as she passed him.
“Don’t be like that,” he said in a sickly-sweet voice. “Stay. Have one drink with me. If only to show me that I can trust you’ll be back to give us a chance to win our money back.”
She forced the corners of her lips into an awkward smile and spoke in a low, dark voice. “Oh, I’ll be back to bleed you blue bloods of every last spoon. That you can count on. But if you want to keep that hand for holding your cards, I suggest you removed it now and let me be on my way.” Aaron let go at once, but seemingly more out of shock than in response to her specific threat. He had the look of someone who wasn’t used to hearing the word “no.” She took the opportunity to make for the doors. But before she could make it more than a few steps, Aaron regained his composure.
“Nobody talks to Aaron Leconte like that, you rutting quim!” he screamed at her retreating back. It may have just been the area around the bar, but to Gus it sounded like the entire casino had stopped what they were doing and were now watching Gus and Aaron. Tunk, she cursed herself. A Leconte. So much for laying low. She had to defuse the situation, and quickly.
Gut put on her very best smile and turned back to Aaron. His hand hovered near the grip of the Beaumont–Adams M2142 concentrator pistol on his hip. “’Leconte?’” she gushed and moved back to her place at the bar. “I had no idea you were someone so important.” Men, she sighed. Such fragile egos. Reassured he was the center of her attention, Aaron’s ruffled feathers smoothed over remarkably quickly, and he started to lay what he thought was “the charm” on her. He complimented her Razz skills and compared her beauty to the sun setting over the Aeolusian clouds, before launching into the same old stories of conquest and prowess that have been repeated in countless bars and saloons across the Arm for millennia. Gus rolled her eyes, nursed her drink, and wondered how much whiskey it would take to make him shut up.
After two more rounds, the inevitable finally happened. Aaron, now with enough liquor in him to make any man feel ten feet tall, stood from his stool and again grabbed Gus’s wrist. “Let’s you and me get a place upstairs and have some fun, eh?”
Gus grabbed hold of his wrist with her free hand. “Aaron, you’re drunk. I think you’re a great guy, but I think I’m going to turn in for the night. Alone. Let’s not ruin this evening, nor tomorrow night’s Razz game with this kind of drama now. Let me buy you one last drink before I go.”
He glared at her with glassy eyes full of self-important petulance. She could practically see the wheels in his head trying to turn through all the whiskey. “Fine,” he said at last. He let go of her wrist and clumsily sat back down on his stool. Gus quickly ordered him another whiskey and gave him a chaste kiss on the check to ease his rejected heart before once more making her way for the batwing doors.
But, once again, before she could make it more than a few steps there was a crash and commotion, and the sound of Aaron yelling, “Goddamn, genie!” Gus turned back to find Aaron, drenched in so much whiskey the stench stung her nose, standing over a fallen Walter. The young man’s face was flush with drink and rage. “I was hoping for a rut tonight,” Aaron growled as he began to draw his concentrator pistol, “but I’ll settle for finally ending your useless genie life.”
Rage flared in Gus, and before she knew what she was doing she had already crossed the distance back to the scuffle. She grabbed Aaron’s wrist before he had the chance to fully draw his weapon, hooked a spurred heel behind his ankle, and shoved him square in the chest. The result was immediate. Aaron fell backwards onto his ass, and instinctively dropped his gun back into its holster so he could catch his fall.
For the second time that night, Aaron looked up at her with an expression of awe. Only this time it was tinged with a dangerous mix of fear and anger. “What the rut?” he cried from the floor.
“Stay down, Aaron. At least until you calm the tunk down,” she said and helped Walter up.
“Bitch, nobody talks to me-” Aaron said and started to get up. Gus cracked him across the jaw with a left hook. The youngest Leconte toppled like a stack of poker chips, out cold.
“I told you to calm down,” Gus spat and rubbed her sore wrist. It was only then the fog of rage fully cleared, and Gus realized every eye in Cirrus House truly was on her.
“Alright boys. Have at ’er,” Junior’s voice called out in the fresh silence, and the crowd collapsed in on her.
Gus was grabbed at and punched by what felt like dozens of hands. A few got some good kicks in too. Finally, with a sharp whistle from Junior, the assault stopped, and she was dragged to her feet to face him. His suit was so well-tailored it looked like a second skin, and he wore a belt buckle as wide as Gus’s fist made from what looked like a burdle scale.
“You’ve got some nice moves, for a void-drifter,” Junior said and smiled into her bruised face.
“You haven’t seen my moves yet.” She spat blood to the floor from a split lip.
Junior’s face darkened. “Girl, you’ve no idea who you’re rutting with do you? The only reason you’re not already bleeding out on the floor is that you never went for your weapon. This intrigues me. We’ve seen how good you are with a deck of cards – I must admit, I’ve never been hustled so completely. Now we’ll see if you’re any good with that relic. Or just too scared to draw. Let ’er go.” The mob’s hands fell away as the crowd retreated, making room for the gunfighters. Someone dragged Aaron’s groggy form away.
Gus wiped blood from her lip. This was not how the night was supposed to go. Junior stepped back until there was a good twenty paces between them. He unbuttoned his suit jacket and revealed his own weapon: a small, but powerful Colt Prism M2265 - cutting edge laser tech– in a shoulder holster. “I’ll even make it a fair fight,” he said, and pressed a button hidden behind his oversized belt buckle. There was a strange shimmering effect around him, like an aura or mirage, and new insight leapt in Gus’s mind: Junior wore a personal shield, one probably strong enough to stop any handheld focused beam weapon when activated. Expensive tech.
“Now we’ll see how you stack up against the finger that’s killed a dozen men. Three women, a rob, and two genies too, but who’s counting?” Junior wagged his index finger in the air as he paced back and forth. He can’t be serious. But when he brought that finger to his lips and kissed it, all her doubts melted. He stopped his pacing and faced her with his feet shoulder width apart, and his hand flat against his chest. He looked like a man about to swear an oath. “Draw,” he said calmly.
“Look, Junior, I didn’t come here looking for trouble.” Gus put her hands up and tried to bring the intensity level of the room back down. But Junior wasn’t having any of it.
“Draw!” he roared.
Gus’s eyes narrowed. Fine. She set her shoulders and pulled the cigar from her poncho’s breast pocket. Flinging the poncho over her right shoulder, she exposed Delilah’s place on her left hip, and lit the cigar. After a deep drag she blew a plume of smoke and lowered her hand to her hip. The smoke danced on invisible air currents between them. “Say when.”
Junior grinned sadistically.
Suddenly the batwing doors exploded inward, and a newcomer stepped into Cirrus House. “What in tarnation is going on in here?” the stranger hollered. He stepped purposefully into the space between the fighters. He was an older man, with deep lines in his face and a paunch that preceded him as he walked. He wore a floor length duster the same shade as the clouds outside and an old-fashioned Stetson the color of fresh cream. The hat sat upon salt-and-pepper hair that had gone mostly salt a long time ago and he had a bristly moustache to match. A star stamped with “Marshal” was pinned over his heart. He carried a big scatter-beam casually over his shoulder.
“Just settling a small dispute, Ray. No need for you to get involved,” Junior said in a low and vaguely threatening voice.
“Ayuh,” Ray replied and shifted the long gun from his shoulder to his hands. “Well, the thing about that it is, if you draw that weapon, you’re gonna cause all manner of headaches for me. I’m gonna have to arrest you for unlawful use of a firearm in a place of commerce. Then I’ll have to file a report, and you know how long it takes to get a reply out here. Sure, sure, Laszlo’ll probably have you out of my holding cells before morning. But there’s procedures that need to be followed in these situations, and none of us want to go through that if it can be avoided. Am I right? This’s one’s not worth it,” Ray said and nodded in Gus’s direction.
Again, Gus could see the Leconte mind at work. Only where Aaron’s wheels turned through molasses and whiskey, Junior’s mind was a finely tuned and well-oiled machine – one built for calculation and cunning. He glared at the marshal for a moment, his gaze cold and blank, before breaking into a wide grin. “Just havin’ a little fun Uncle Ray. You know how I like a good challenge,” he said in a shockingly friendly tone as he buttoned his jacket over his shoulder holster. “But a bit of advice for the lady if I may: pack up your winnings and leave town. If I get word you’re sticking around causing trouble, we’ll finish this.”
Gus took another long drag from her cigar. “Count on it,” she said. Her smokey breath only thinly covered the sneer on her face.
When the crowd began to disburse Ray offered Gus a friendly hand and gave her a sardonic smile. “Welcome to Las Ráfagas. As I’m sure you’ve gathered, m’name’s Ray. Ray Gascon. I’m what passes for the law in this sector.”
Gus hesitated for only a moment. There was no way word of Tuco’s heist, and her escape, had reached Las Ráfagas yet. Better to take the opportunity to make an ally while she had the chance. “Gus,” she said and shook his hand. She wiped blood from her forehead. “That’s one hell of a welcome wagon you’ve got out here.”
He chuckled warmly. “What can I say? Folks ’round here are old fashioned: they like to get the pleasantries out of the way quickly. Why don’t you come on back to the Marshal’s Office? I got a first aid kit, and if we’re lucky I might even be able to get my old coffee machine running.” He led her to the batwing doors. “Gus, eh? I reckon you came to town by way of El Dorado?”
“Coffee sounds great,” she said, sidestepping the marshal’s question, and followed him into the cool night.
The sole of Gus’s boot slapped against the road with each step. It had been torn loose during the scuffle and it was making it hard to focus. Since leaving Cirrus House, Gus’s mind had been reeling. No way she had won enough spoons yet to barter with Emmitt for his fuel. If she couldn’t gamble her way to the funds, she had few options left. Few options that would keep her in Ray’s good graces, anyway.
Flop. Flop. Flop.
Ray led them through the front door of the Marshal’s Office and into a wide, lobby-like area with seating and a few desks. It looked like no one had sat at them in years. “This way.” Ray directed her through another, much heavier door at the back of the lobby that was secured with several impressive locks. The cellblock. Gus’s apprehension rose. “You know, Ray, on second thought, I should probably just get back to my room at Hotel Irma and sleep this off.”
Ray brushed her off. “Don’t be silly. None ’o those scrapes look too serious, but we should get you cleaned up just in case. Infection’s a bitch out here, and Doc Park’s only got so many meds.” He unlocked the heavy door with a keypad combination and thumbprint scan. It slid open with a screech. “This way.”
Flop. Flop. Flop.
She followed nervously, half expecting him to turn on her and toss her into one of the cells. But instead, he walked straight through to a small corner office that overlooked the jail’s four cramped, empty cells. She stepped into the dimly lit office to find him already digging through his desk’s drawers. “Now where did I put that blasted… Ah! Here it is.” He pulled a small box with a big red cross on it from the drawer and tossed it to her. He lowered his heavy frame into the chair behind the desk and started fiddling with an old coffee maker on the desk. “Have a seat. There should be some antiseptic in there.”
Gus did as she was bidden and opened the first aid kit. There was indeed a small bottle of antiseptic spray, as well as a handful of anesthetic syrettes, a few vacuum-bandages, and a three quarters full bottle of some dark liquid. She unscrewed the cap and took a whiff and recoiled immediately from the stench of some sort of homebrew booze. “Oh! I’ve been looking for that,” Ray said and took the bottle with a smile. “That’ll go well with the coffee.” He took a swig from the bottle, grimaced, and screwed the top back on.
With Gus’s minor injuries seen to, the first aid kit tucked away in a cargo pocket, and a scrap of gauze tied around her boot to secure the sole, Gus spared a glance around the small office. It was messy, but in a homey, lived-in sort of way. This was the office of a man with little to do around town - and liked it that way. The areas Ray obviously frequented, like the desk and the space in front of the small window, were clean of the Aeolusian dust that seemed to coat everything else. But the office’s small comms unit and gun cabinet looked as though they hadn’t been dusted – or even used - since the town had been built.
Gus pulled out her tobacco tin and began rolling. “Wow, is that proto? I haven’t seen non-cloned tobacco in years. How’d you come by that?” Ray asked when the aroma hit his nose. His eyes widened as he leaned in to get a good whiff from the tin. “You know what? Don’t tell me, it’s probably better if I don’t know.” He reached for the cigar she offered, but hesitated. “Actually, I better not.” He sighed and waved her offering away. “Thanks, but that’s a habit I broke a long time ago.”
With the smell of fresh coffee and tobacco filling the small office, Ray leaned back in his chair and gave Gus a long look. “If you don’t mind my asking, what’s your business in Las Ráfagas?” His tone was friendly and light. He poured two cups of coffee and gestured to the bottle of homebrew and the cream and sugar already on his desk. She shook her head and accepted the coffee black.
“Had a job offer out this way. It fell through. Then I had some trouble on atmo-entry. My pony’s with the engineer – he says it’ll be another three days. And I’m low on rubidium. There’s some kinda shortage?”
Ray shrugged. “Don’t know much about that. I spend most of my days breaking up fights, ticketing Jacob Wagner when he blocks the road out front of Cirrus House with his damned hyper-surrey, and getting fat behind this desk.”
“I thought you were the law in Las Ráfagas?” Gus asked and sipped her coffee. It was bitter – cloned crap. Still, it wasn’t terrible.
“Oh, I’m little more than an old guy with a gun. Outpost security is actually handled by,” Ray’s voice took on a high, haughty air, “the Leconte Atmo-Mining Solutions Company Police.” He sighed. “Which Aaron Leconte, coincidentally, is the chief of. You haven’t made any friends there.”
Of course, he is, Gus thought. Just what she didn’t want – local attention.
“No, my job here is mostly symbolic,” Ray said. “The UCET says you need a lawman to run an outpost in the Territories.” He spread his arms and smiled. “So here I am.”
“And Junior? What’s he do around here?”
“He’s the mining foreman.”
Gus sipped her coffee to hide her annoyance. This was getting worse all the time. “And how do you fit into this little world of nepotism, Ray? Junior called you ‘Uncle.’”
“Caught that, did ya?” Ray stretched in his chair and grimaced at his aches and pains. “Yeah, Laszlo and I go way back. Before he built this monstrosity of an outpost, we grew up together. On New Angoulême, in the Imperium system? I kept a bully or two off his back when we were kids, and he brought me out here after I was wounded on the job. To pay me back, I guess. Give me a cushy job to run out my golden years.”
Great, Gus thought. I’m surrounded.
“So, you work for Leconte, too?” Gus tried to keep her tone even, but Ray was no fool.
He smiled gently and sat up in his chair. “Miss, basically everyone left in or around this town works for Laszlo Leconte on one fashion or another. But even if you are just about the calmest glass of water I’ve ever seen, I know what you’re thinking over there. As long as you stay in the lines while you’re here, you’ve got nothing to fear from me.” He leaned back in his chair. “Though I can’t say the same thing for the Leconte boys and the Company Police. I suggest you find another way to raise your funds. Gambling with the town’s big-wigs is bound to get you in more trouble.”
Gus slurped the last of her coffee and stood. “Point taken. Thanks for the help tonight, Ray. I’ll stop in before I head out of town,” she said. She shook his hand and headed for the door.
The square was dark, and the dome overhead was littered with glittering stars and the vistas of the Milky Way. But as Gus made her way back to the Hotel Irma, she was too furious to look up. How could she have been so stupid? Saving Walter may have just cost her everything.
Why didn’t you just walk out? she asked herself. It was over. He wasn’t focused on you anymore. You could have spent the next three days stringing the little bastard along, emptying is damn wallet every night. But no, you had to play “hero” and rut everything up. Putting your nose where it doesn’t belong, again. What is wrong with you?
If Razz was off the table, that left only one option, and it spit directly in the face of her newest allies on Las Ráfagas. But it was that or wait for the San Juan-Paul waystation bulls to show up and turn herself in. Besides, if she were careful, Ray would never know.