Gas Giant Gambit: A Tale from Across the Cygnus Rift

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7: The Desperado

Gus’s eye’s snapped opened after only a few hours’ sleep. It was still dark outside her room at the Hotel Irma. Perfect. She quickly pulled her poncho on. The HUD confirmed it was still early. She hoped it was still before too many of the townsfolk were up and about. Leaving her hood up she slid out of her room, down the Hotel Irma’s painfully creaky staircase, and into the cool morning.

She had hoped not to resort to this, but after sleeping on it she knew she had no other choice. She would just have to be discreet. Gus made her way along the square’s dim boardwalk and ducked down the street Moe had led her through next to the townhouses where she assumed Cirrus House’s high rollers lived.

The engineering corral was already open. Gus had hoped Emmitt would still be in bed, but she wasn’t surprised to see activity in the corral – she had a habit of tinkering a little herself when insomnia struck. Lucky for her, Emmitt and his crew’s attention was focus on whatever they were doing at the far end of the bay. She stuck to the shadows and quietly boarded Tilly.

As soon as she set foot on the mount, lights began to flicker on, and Tilly nickered a greeting to her. “I know, girl. Easy, easy.” She patted the bulkheads as she stepped from the airlock lift into the pony’s small cargo hold. “I’m trying to get us out of here as fast as I can.” At one end of the narrow, hallway-like hold, near the chemical-head, was a small but well-kept flower garden. Gus breathed deeply and enjoyed the subtle smell of the plants and soil.

There was a low but persistent buzzing coming from the wall panel directly behind the flowers, and Gus quickly found a wedge-shaped tool to pry it open. As she worked, she cooed gently to the wall panel. “It’s okay, it’s okay. I know what you guys want.” She carefully pulled back the panel and placed it on the floor, revealing a hidden compartment half filled with honeycomb. Fat, lazy bumblebees drifted from the hive and began sampling from the flower garden.

Satisfied the bees were happy, Gus grabbed a large, lunchbox-shaped container from her hidden contraband hold and popped it open. It was full of things the UCET had deemed “too dangerous” for the general population. Strictly controlled substances like peanut butter, strawberries, mushrooms, and, of course, honey. Not to mention a few banned medical supplies, like penicillin and ibuprofen. All of which the UCET had seen fit to prohibit due to their potentially deadly allergic reactions.

But it was the bees themselves that would have gotten her in the most trouble.

Thanks to the number of people who had become allergic to them, and their protected status on Earth, smuggling bees was exceptionally dangerous. If Ray found out she had a hive this size, he would have no choice but to put her away for the rest of her life. And if someone were stung… Gus didn’t like to think about that. But people on this side of the Rift would pay through the nose for real, pure honey. So, as far as Gus was concerned if she kept the hive safe, what was the harm?

She sprayed a pheromone mixture into the wall compartment, and the bees floating around the flowers followed it back into the hidden hold. Gus closed the panel, grabbed her contraband lunchbox, and stepped back onto Tilly’s lift. But it didn’t activate. Instead, Tilly’s air ducts snorted sharply. “I don’t like it either,” Gus reassured her old travelling companion. “But as much of a pain in the ass Emmitt is, I think he’s a halfway decent engineer. It’s just a few days’ work. Now, let’s go. Open up. I gotta sell some of this is you want to get fed any time soon.”

Tilly made a sound like a sigh and the lift activated, lowering Gus to the corral floor. Sticking to the shadows, Gus quietly made her way through the mostly empty corral. Emmitt and his team were still at the far end of the big room, still working feverishly away on something. Bastard better not forget about Tilly, Gus thought, and absentmindedly watched the crew work as she stepped from shadow to shadow.

She couldn’t tell what it was they were working on, but it didn’t look like a mount. Gus shook her head to focus her mind. It didn’t matter. She had more important business to attend to this morning. From her hiding place beneath a rusted-out fuselage, Gus spotted Emmitt looking towards the door. She readjusted her grip on the lunchbox and waited for the right moment to sprint the final stretch to the corral door.

A tall woman with an unruly mop of curly white hair walked into Gus’s view and offered Emmitt a cup of coffee. He took the mug from her, his wife Gus assumed, and the two went to watch the work, turning their backs on Gus and the door.

Now.

She crossed the open space in moments and was inches from the door when it started to open. Someone was barging into the corral! Gus spun to her right like she was avoiding a tackle and just managed to keep the swinging door between her and Emmitt’s new guest. She launched herself against the wall next to the opening door and prayed whoever was coming through wouldn’t glance back over their shoulder.

She was in luck. Whoever it was, they were walking with serious purpose directly towards the working engineering crew. Gus didn’t bother taking the time to identify them and only caught a glimpse of a dark suit. As soon as they were clear of the door, she swung around it and out before it could close.

But before she could go more than a few steps, a nagging feeling took over. She’d only been in town a day and hadn’t met much of its population yet. But she knew that suit. Only one kind of person wore a suit like that in a town like this. And she had seen it before.

Why was Junior paying Emmitt a visit at this time of morning?

Gus shook her head, trying again to clear it. It didn’t matter. It wasn’t her business or problem. She glanced down at the lunchbox she carried. She had her own things to deal with right now. Besides, another dustup with Junior was the last thing she needed. She managed to make it another few steps before the sound of the working stopped and was replaced with a high-pitched scream of terror or pain - and Emmitt’s voice. “Gloria!

Tunk.

Gus doubled back to the door and opened it slowly, peering through the crack. The screaming had stopped, but the work hadn’t resumed. She couldn’t see anything. She slipped back into the corral and found cover as quickly as she could, but she needed a better angle on the work crew. She inched closer, staying quiet and hidden.

Junior and Emmitt were arguing, but Emmitt looked scared, not angry. His hands were up defensively, and his voice was pleading. Gus moved for a better view, and finally saw Junior himself. He was standing opposite Emmitt with his M2265 in one hand, and a fistful of Gloria Smith’s curly white hair in the other. The engineer’s wife sat on the floor, holding her head and sobbing.

“I don’t care about your problems, Smith,” Junior was saying. “We’re on a deadline here. You understand what a deadline is, right? This retrofit has already taken two weeks longer than you promised it would. If we’re not producing, we’re not making spoons. I’ve got logistical problems of my own to deal with. You think I want to come down here because you ‘can’t make it work?’ If the rutting spiders can do it, we can do it.”

“But, Mr. Leconte, please! Try to understand, we know why it’s not working. The, er… samples, you brought us were inert, um… dead. The process needs conscious effort! It will never work without a live, er… specimen,” Emmitt said. He tried to move between Junior and his wife.

Junior’s tone changed on a dime. “Well,” he said cheerfully. He spun his pistol on his finger like a showman. “Why didn’t you say so? If that’s all you need, I can get you live ones.” Gus couldn’t see Junior’s face, but she could hear the smirk on it in his voice.

“But Mr. Leconte!” Emmitt was appalled. “That’s-”

“It’s a business decision.” Junior’s voice was again low and threatening. “With my father’s authority and as mining foreman of the only rubidium-87 depot on this side of the Rift, it’s my decision to make. Do whatever you have to do to prepare for your new specimens.”

“Sir, I-” Emmitt again protested. Whatever Gus had thought of Emmitt, she had to admit the old coot had backbone. But before he could get any more out Junior was on him, pistol whipping him across the jaw. Hard. Blood, and maybe a few teeth, hit the engineering corral floor.

“You may think that because you’re the only engineer in this junkpile of a town that means I won’t kill you,” Junior said directly into Emmitt’s bleeding face. “But I’ve learned from my father that fear of death isn’t the only way to motivate people.” He raised his M2265 and pointed it at Mrs. Smith. His hand twitched, and a focused beam of purple light lit up the bay. The workers gasped. Emmitt yelped and jumped forward, too late to intercept the beam.

Gloria Smith sat trembling, but alive. Her fluffy white hair was singed at the temple where the beam had passed within millimeters of ending her life. A spot on the floor behind her smoldered where it had made contact.

Junior’s voice dropped even lower, and Gus strained to hear as he threatened the old engineer. “Get. It. Done.” He spun on his heel and headed for the door and sent Gus scrambling for cover. But Junior was too busy surveying the corral to notice her. What he did notice was Tilly. “And get that rutting piece of jelly manure out of my father’s town,” he called back over his shoulder as he reached the door.

From her hiding spot, Gus watched Emmitt yell at his crew to get back to work, before dropping to his knees and embracing his sobbing wife. What the tunk is going on in this town? Gus couldn’t help but wonder as she carefully followed Junior’s path back to the door. I gotta get outta this floating rust bucket. She eased the door open, made sure the coast was clear, and stepped out into the first rays of dawn.

#

From past experience Gus knew the best place to peddle her wares would be in the mostly abandoned residential quarter. Her best bet would be Genie-town. All these mining towns had them. They were usually located wherever the mining level access was – in other words, the bad part of town. But as she walked the dark streets, her thoughts turned back to what she had just seen.

What is Emmitt building for Junior? It had something to do with the mining rings retrofit, but it had to be more than simple delays. Who threatens people like that over routine delays? The meeting she had walked in on in the Vega’s kitchen was starting to make more sense. But she knew you couldn’t fight people like this – people who put spoons over everything. Against men like this the best you could do was take the payout and leave with your life.

She wasn’t far from Las Ráfagas’s Genie-town (she could hear voices and smell strange street meats), when a group of men stepped from an alley and into the road in front of her. The men had their backs to her, and Gus had just enough time to duck down a side street without being seen. She stole a peek the corner and found four men, three armed and dressed in long, dark coats that were so new there were still creases in the fabric.

There was something familiar about the fourth man’s silhouette, despite his somehow unnatural posture. Then he moved, turning to face one of the other men; his hands were behind his back, locked in the distinctly high-tech irons of the UCET. No, Gus thought, denying what her eyes were telling her. It can’t be.

But any doubt she may have held about who the fourth man was fell away when he spoke. “Hey, hermano, I kept up my side of the deal, si?” Tuco. Tunk. “Why don’t we take these off, eh? Maybe just loosen ’em up a bit?”

“Shut up, Tuco,” the man next to him said. “How do we know the bounty-head’s even here?”

“Where else would a runaway cobbler-rob go, mi amigo?” Despite his situation, Tuco was his usual good-natured self. “There’s not a lot of places to work out here!”

Gus retreated to the cover of the alley, and in her haste stumbled over a pile of abandoned household appliances some long gone resident had left in the road. The crash was echoed off the empty buildings.

“What the rut was that?” one of the men called out.

“Johnson, Hastings, check it out,” another commanded. “And take Tuco with you.”

“Hey! What?!” Tuco cried.

Gus’s lunchbox had opened in the fall and spilled contraband all over the street. She scrambled to gather it up and tossed the lunchbox into the corroded washing machine she had fallen over. The moment she closed the washer door Tuco stepped, hesitantly, into the alley. The instant he saw her his face broke out into a grin, but he didn’t say a word. Instead, his eyes narrowed as Gus saw a plan form in his tiny mind. He jumped up onto the pile of appliances, out of site of the approaching men, and started screaming like he was being beaten. On reflex, Gus drew Delilah and gaped at him.

Johnson and Hastings, presumably, came around the corner with their weapon’s already in hand. Tuco dove from the pile of appliances onto one of the men, knocking him flat. The other saw Gus and took aim while Tuco rolled around on the floor with his partner. Gus didn’t hesitate. A beam of bright pink light erupted from Delilah’s barrel and bathed the alley in a grapefruit glow for the briefest of instants. The man fell with a smoking hole in his chest. Pink-tinged gas belched from Delilah’s exhaust ports and soaked Gus’s glove in an ice-cold pink mist.

Tuco’s struggle continued for a moment more until Gus heard a sharp crack. He grumbled his way to his feet, untangling himself from the body of either Johnson or Hastings. He flashed a plaque filled grin at her. “Thanks for the save, hermana. You stay there; I’ll be right back.” He stooped, felt around for one of the dropped guns, and went running back out into the road with it hidden behind him. “Kurtz!” he bellowed as he rounded the corner with a look of feigned terror on his face. “Get your ass over here, pendejo! Get these damn irons off’a me. You’re boys’re down, Kurtz! Hurry!

What’s going on over there, Tuco? Where’s Hastings?” Gus heard Kurtz yell before the distinct sound of a UCET standard issue sidearm went off with a brilliant flash of cobalt.

Cautiously, Gus leaned out into the street. Kurtz was slouched over in the road, his body motionless. Tuco was crouched down with his back to Kurtz’s body and was rifling through the dead man’s pockets with this still bound hands. “Hey, mi amiga, help me find this bastard’s keys,” he called over to her.

Instead, she sat down on an abandoned stoop, pointed Delilah at him, and watched. “What are you doing here, Tuco? Who’re your friends?”

“What do you mean? This is the place. Now that we’re back together again, we can find the runaway rob and get back to civilization. Are you gonna help me here, or not?”

She stood and approached him again, but kept Delilah pointed at his chest. “After everything, you still want to partner up? You still think I want to work with you?”

“Hey, why not?” He grinned at her again. “Without a ride, I can’t get the rob back to the CCO. And splitting the bounty two ways is better than four. Though I doubt these pendejos would have even let me keep my share,” he said and gave Kurtz’s body a sharp kick with his heel. “Ah-ha!” he shouted and finally came up with the digital fingerprint fob that would unlock the irons. But struggle all he could, he couldn’t bend his wrists to unlock them himself. “Ah, a little help, hermana?” he asked.

“Just who were these generous new partners of yours?” she asked, ignoring Tuco’s request. She knelt and turned Kurtz over onto his back to get a batter look at him. It was a move she instantly regretted. Kurtz’s new jacket fell open to reveal the distinctive deep blue of a UCET Army Officer’s uniform beneath. “Tunk!” she cried and stumbled back from the body. “You stupid son of a whore! Did we just kill a bunch of bluebell soldiers?”

“Officers,” Tuco corrected.

Gus spun around, grabbed the little man by his duster’s lapels, and dragged his face into hers. “What did you get me wrapped up in here, you little bastard?”

“Easy! Easy, hermana. It’s nothing special. Just the usual violence. Don’t worry about these idiots. After you left me for the bulls, they brought me back to San Juan-Paul. These idiots were on shore leave or something – off the government clock, looking for trouble, and with more muscle than brains.”

Gus’s eyebrow twitched, “Just like you like ’em.”

Tuco’s grin somehow widened, “I bribed them to get me out with equal shares of the bounty, but for some reason they didn’t trust me enough to let me out of the binders.” He winked at her and gave the body another kick.

“And why should I be any more foolish?” she asked and stuck Delilah up under his chin.

“Think of the money, hermana. I’ll even sweeten the deal for you: you get me and that rob back to the CCO to get paid, and you’ll never hear from little ol’ Tuco ever again. Take your earnings and buy a beach on some moon for all I care.”

Despite her better judgement, Gus found herself considering his offer. It was a lot of spoons, certainly more than enough to pay Emmitt handsomely for his supply of rubidium. And less risky than trying to sell her contraband under Ray and the Leconte’s noses.

Tunk.

Knowing she would live to regret it, Gus took the digital fingerprint fob from Tuco and unlocked his hands. “Ah,” he said as he rubbed his wrists, “muchas gracias, hermana.

“It’s a big town, Tuco. How do you suggest we find this rob?”

“Maybe I can help you with that,” someone spoke up behind them. Startled, both Gus and Tuco turned with their weapons at the ready, only to find a tall, portly man in a pinstriped suit surrounded by heavily armed combat-robs.

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