Gas Giant Gambit: A Tale from Across the Cygnus Rift

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8: For a Few Spoons More

A bloodcurdling scream built up within Tuco and came exploding out of his mouth. He raised his pistol and got off a single cobalt shot before Gus was able to grab his arm. But to her horror, Tuco’s aim was true despite his abject panic. The blue beam of concentrated light struck the stranger square in the chest before any of his rob-entourage were able to react.

But instead of turning the man’s suit into a bloody crater, the beam struck a spot a few inches in front of him, fractured, and flowed around him in a thousand unstable streams, its energy dissipating along the way. A high-tech cold-plasma shield, Gus realized, like the one Junior wore. The combat-robs, each an eight-foot-tall, autonomous, humanoid tank, raised their military grade rifles in response. But the man only smiled and waved them off.

“Hold your fire,” he said and casually stepping forward. “We simply startled this gentleman. There’s no need to execute him in the streets. Especially after showing off some impressive reflexes. Allow me to introduce myself.” He shook Tuco’s hand with an odd yanking motion. “Laszlo Leconte, owner and head administrator of this facility. And who might you be?” he asked. He took Gus’s hand more gently, and even brought her dirty glove close to his lips in a pantomime of a kiss.

Laszlo looked too young have been schoolmates with Ray, who had to be in his 60s, let alone be Junior and Aaron’s father. This man looked closer to forty-five, with golden blonde hair, healthy, tanned skin, and only the beginnings of crow’s feet around his eyes.

“Mr. and Mrs. Guadalupe,” Gus answered quickly. Tuco smiled greedily and slid next to her, placing his hand on her hip.

“Married?” Laszlo asked, clearly disappointed.

“Yes, but not to him,” she said and gave Tuco a sharp elbow to the stomach. “This is my brother-in-law, Tuco.”

“Ah,” Laszlo smiled, “you wouldn’t go by ‘Gus,’ Mrs. Guadalupe. Would you?”

Tunk. So much for that. With no point in lying now, she nodded. “As a matter of fact, I do. Now, how did you come to hear that?”

“Let’s just say my sons were very impressed with you. For different reasons, of course. Now I can see they both indeed take after their father.” He paused to take her in with gluttonous eyes. A shiver ran down Gus’s spine, but Laszlo released her hand and stepped back. “Well, Mr. and Mrs. Guadalupe, it does appear that you have a small dilemma.” He nudged Kurtz’s body with an oxford-clad toe. “Indeed, two problems, if you intend to find this bounty-head in my town while avoiding the sector authorities. But as I said, I may be able to help you, with both.”

Gus and Tuco exchanged a glance. “We’re listening.”

Laszlo smiled. “As it stands, I’m in the middle of some delicate business negotiations that will help bring this once grand town back from the brink. My daughter Mackenzie is off world finalizing the details with the concerned party as we speak. Once the particulars are ironed out, she will escort them here so we can sign the contract. I could use some people with your particular,” he sneered at the body, “talents, while I complete this transaction. You’ll be paid handsomely, of course, in addition to all the Rb-87 your mount can carry. And your bounty-head, of course. Assuming this runaway rob of yours is even here. I have my doubts.”

Tuco was already grinning from ear to ear. Gus knew what he was thinking: easy money. But she wasn’t so sure. “You’ve got a marshal in town. Not to mention a private police force. What do you need with two more hired guns?” she asked, squinting against the dawning red sun.

Laszlo smiled and looked at his feet. “Ah, yes, Raymond. Such a great guy. He’s actually one of the reasons I do need you. You see, Raymond and I have a long history, we go way back. I even asked him to come to Las Ráfagas, did you know that? But with that history comes some baggage. Raymond is, shall we say, ‘rough around the edges.’ And the people I’m dealing with are very serious people. The most serious people.

“Honestly, and I hate to say it because he’s such a terrific friend, but I’m afraid Raymond will put his nose where it doesn’t belong and ruin a good thing for everyone. I’m trying to put Las Ráfagas’s best foot forward. I need someone to help him keep the restless townsfolk in line and keep his focus away from my negotiations. For now. As I understand it, you’ve already developed a bit of a rapport with our dear marshal.” He raised his eyebrows at Gus.

“You’re very well informed, Mr. Leconte,” she said. “But you haven’t answered me. Why do you need us? You could have anyone distract Ray.” Laszlo answered questions without actually answering them - and Gus didn’t like it. It seemed calculated to distract and confuse.

Laszlo sighed. “You’re going to make me say it? Fine. Raymond and I aren’t on great terms anymore, but I still worry about him. You’re right, I could send anyone, but if a pretty face like yours will provide a pleasant distraction for an old man while I try to make his life better, then I would like to provide him that. Clearly you can handle yourself in a fight, which will make you useful to Raymond during this time of unrest. With business down, the remaining townsfolk have become despondent, depressed. There have been more fights as of late, and I’m worried Raymond won’t be able to handle the violence alone.

“As for Mr. Guadalupe,” he said and turned his attention to Tuco, “the miners have been relegated to their barracks for weeks now as we retrofit the outpost’s rings. While we haven’t had too many problems – yet – I feel we could use a man like yourself. An infusion of new blood, new ideas at my sons’ side to help us keep it that way.

“With the two of split up - one in town, one among the miners - if your bounty-head is here, I’m sure you’ll find him.” Laszlo finished with charismatic smile that could melt the coldest heart. His perfectly straight and blindingly white teeth glinting in the morning light.

Tuco was already raising his hand to seal the deal with a handshake, but Gus caught his forearm mid-upswing. “And if we decide we don’t want the job?”

Laszlo’s winning smile faltered ever so slightly, and his eyes turned dark and cold. “You’ve just murdered three UCET officers in cold blood. It doesn’t matter what these men did or where you go, they’ll hunt you down. I can see to that. But,” his smile returned to its former glory in a flash, “I’ve no love for the bluebells myself. As long as you’re under my employ I would have reason to misdirect the authorities, should they arrive in my town. Besides,” he took a tablet from one of his combat-robs, “I think you’ll find I’ll pay a fair price for your services. I only ask that while you are here you abide by town law and do not run afoul of our dear Marshal Gascon.” He handed Gus the tablet and she and Tuco looked at it together.

One look at the screen and Tuco’s jaw dropped open like it had popped a hinge. Gus’s knees felt weak and rubbery. It was more spoons than she had ever earned for one job in her life. Tunk, it was more than she had ever made for five jobs. Enough to keep Tilly in repair and fueled, not only for the trip back to the Old Colonies, but for another year or two to come. Gus’s vision swam. It was hard to think. This man was clearly not telling them everything, but she had taken much bigger jobs for much less pay on roughly the same kind of information many times before.

Sure, Laszlo was a bit of a bully, but so was Tuco, and at least Laszlo seemed like he was trying to help the ghost town. So what if he makes a few spoons doing it? For an instant, Gus’s mind flashed to the small and crowded Vega kitchen, and a mangled flanged H-tube key sitting on the same table they had welcomed her to. She shook the image away; disputes between ranchers and miners had been going on for hundreds of years. It was nothing new, and it was none of her business. Nothing but dust.

“Do we have a deal?” Laszlo asked. A hint of laughter had seeped into his voice.

With three dead bluebells, what choice did they really have? At least Laszlo was making it well worth their while. She raised her own hand and Laszlo took it in his odd, jerky shake.

#

Red Hippotes hung high over Las Ráfagas. Ray’s small office was hot and stuffy. Gus opened the small window and sat on the sill while Ray unfolded the note she had brought him. She dug her tobacco tin out and silently rolled a cigar as Ray read Laszlo’s jagged handwriting.

Gus had had a few hours to reflect on the deal she had struck with Tuco and Laszlo earlier that morning, and she was not happy. She felt trapped, both by circumstance and her own stupid greed. She had basically been blackmailed into lying to the one person who had treated her with kindness since Moe had left her at the Hotel Irma. Not only that, but she also had the feeling she was helping a family of bullies buffalo more people for the sake of their pocketbooks. And her own.

But what other option was there? Gus sparked her lighter angrily and brough it to the cigar. She pulled the acrid smoke deep into her lungs. Gus wasn’t naïve enough to think this was going to be as easy as Laszlo said, but at least the payday made it seem worth the risk. She sighed and blew smoke out into the noonday heat. She already felt a bit more relaxed. The smell of fresh coffee filled the room as Ray’s decrepit coffee maker bubbled away.

“So, Laszlo’s contracted you to help me – whatsthissay – ‘keep the peace while ring retrofitting is completed.’” Ray squinted at the distinctive handwriting through a pair of cracked reading glasses. “I can’t say I don’t appreciate the help, but this isn’t exactly what I had in mind when I told you to stay away from the gambling tables.” He chuckled and leaned back in his chair.

“Yeah,” she mumbled darkly. Across the square the farmer’s market was open and a handful of townsfolk were browsing the stalls.

“What’s the problem? You said you needed rubidium, and this’ll be easy. I mean, things have gotten a little rougher around here, but it’s usually just breaking up a few drunks scuffling outside the ‘otel Irma or Cirrus House, and arguing with Jacob Wagner about where he parks his surrey. It’s not like I’ve ever had to break out the sonic grenades for crowd control. I’m getting’ too old for this, but it shouldn’t be more than you can handle. ’ere.” Ray reached into a desk drawer and pulled out something that gleamed in the sunlight. “We’ll make it official,” he said and tossed it to her. It was a silver star, stamped with “Deputy Marshal.”

“Ray, I-” she started as she turned the badge over in her hands nervously.

But he cut her off before she could say more. “Put it on and tell me what the problem is.”

“It’s just that- Hey, I don’t want to be stuck with your job if you keel over before I breeze back on out of town.”

Ray laughed hard and spit liquor scented coffee all over the desk. “Don’t you worry about that none,” he said when he regained control of himself. “It’ll be a cold day in hell when I turn my badge over to some void-driftin’ beamslinger.” He smiled at her over the rim of his mug. He leaned back and took another sip. “But what’s really on your mind?”

Gus snuffed out what remained of her cigar and slumped into the chair opposite Ray’s desk. She fiddled with the badge instead of putting it on. Ray poured two fresh cups of coffee and put his feet up on the desk. Gus followed suit. Her spurs rattled when she crossed her feet. “I just don’t like being pushed into deals, is all. Can I trust Laszlo?”

Hell no! He’ll definitely try to cheat you out of what you agreed on. But if I know Laszlo, even what he does give you will be a small fortune. The man is sneaky, but you can rely on him for exactly one thing: to look out for himself. If you help him do that, you’ll profit. If you get in his way, well…” he trailed off and gazed at an old photo hanging on the wall. It was of Ray, much younger, and another young man that could have been Oscar Vega’s twin, standing with a gigantic burdle. A trophy kill. “If all he’s asking you to do is help me out for a bit while the town gets situated, I’d say don’t rock the boat. If there’s more, well, I’m no coward, but sometimes it’s easier to go along to get along when it comes to the Lecontes.”

“That what you’re doing out here? Going along to get along?” Gus asked quietly.

Ray seemed surprised by the question but smiled. “You could say that. The bluebells say you need a marshal, a post office, and a charter to settle in the Territories. Laszlo’s mining operation wrote the charter, Walter and the mercantile act as the post office, and when Laszlo’s original marshal died, he brought me in so the government didn’t send someone he didn’t know.”

“So, you’re nothing but a strawman. A puppet for Laszlo to make it all seem legit,” Gus said casually, hoping to gauge Ray’s reaction.

But again, he just smiled sheepishly. “Twenty, maybe even ten years ago that would have ruffled my feathers, girl. But you’re not wrong. Oh, I do my part, keeping the drunks from killing each other, kicking the occasional rabble out of town. But Aaron’s Company Police don’t really need me, and Junior’s got an iron grip on the miners. Did you know Laszlo’s taken to paying them in vouchers they can only use at Walter’s store?” He shook his head in what might have been shame but was more likely simply exhausted submission. “What can I say? I’m an old man. It’s a paycheck, and I do my best to keep the peace. Any help I can get, even if it’s temporary, is much appreciated.”

Gus looked from Ray to the silver star in her hands. Finally, she pinned it to her poncho. Ray smiled. “So, what’s this about a bounty-head in my town?”

“Ugh!” Gus groaned and rolled her eyes. That was another problem. She had done bounty jobs with Tuco before. He usually had the goods when it came time to grab the bounty-head. This time, of course, was different.

Once they had made their deal with Laszlo, Tuco shared what he knew about the rob they were after so they could both look for it. But what he knew was shockingly little. “I don’t know why we’re even bothering with that,” she said. She was beyond frustrated with Tuco’s impulsiveness. Not to mention her own willingness to get wrapped up in it, once again. “Some cobbler-rob killed their owner and got lo-bot hacked for their troubles. And then a week later – poof. The damn thing up and disappears. That was three years ago. Tuco’s information says it was here, living in town, fourteen months ago. But that’s all he’s got.”

Ray sipped his coffee. “A bounty from the CCO, then? Didn’t think you’d be the type to get mixed up in that war.”

“What can I say? I’ve got a bad habit of letting Tilly’s empty belly override my better judgement.”

Ray raised his eyebrows and took another sip of his coffee. “Well, that is a problem. We’ve got plenty of robs on the outpost, but Susan in the mercantile is the only one that’s been lo-bot hacked. It’s possible one of the ranching families is keeping it hidden. But if that’s the case you’re not going to find it paling around with me in the town. Of course, I don’t get down to the mining levels often, so maybe your friend Tuco will have more luck.”

Gus was in the middle of grumbling a noncommittal reply, something to the effect of “Not worth the fuel and effort,” when the cellblock door burst inward and little Hector Vega ran into Ray’s office, sweating and gasping for breath. Both Ray and Gus were on their feet in an instant.

“Marshal!” he gasped. “Marshal Gascon, come quick!”

“Easy now, Hector. Deep breaths. What’s going on?” Ray asked. He did his best to comfort the boy who was stuttering through gasps for breath.

“P-Papi told me to bring you right away! Come on, let’s go!” And back out the door he raced, leaving Gus and Ray staring at each other.

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