9: The Law and Oscar Vega
By the time Gus and Ray had made it to the front door of the Marshal’s Office Hector was already halfway across the square. Gus had to shield her eyes when she stepped onto the porch; the sun was high and bright even though the clear sky that had greeted the dawn that morning had been replaced with patches of dark clouds the color of old blood. It was clear where Hector was headed: the farmers’ market. They could see signs of a scuffle from their place on the jailhouse porch. Ray hitched up his pants and disappeared back into the office with a look of irritation painted across his face.
“What’s going on?” Gus could see a mass of dark uniforms near the middle of the crowd but couldn’t make out any faces.
“Looks like Aaron’s overstepping his bounds again,” Ray said as he reappeared in the doorway with his scatter-beam laid over a shoulder. His Marshal badge gleamed in the noon sun. “Better let me do the talking on this one, Gus. Just stay ready.” She nodded, pulled up her hood, and followed him into the square.
When they got close to the crowd, Ray fired an amber shot into the air. The distinctive crackle of the energy discharge filled the square, interrupting the fighting and demanding the crowd’s attention. For the briefest of moments Gus was terrified Ray shot would pierce the dome, but the scattered beams’ power dissipated well short of the barrier. “What in tarnation is going on here?” Ray hollered into the fresh silence.
“Ray? Ray!” a familiar feminine voice called out from within the crowd; Bernadette Vega.
Then another familiar, but far less pleasant, voice said, “Ah tunk. Stay out of this, old man. It’s none of your business.” Aaron Leconte.
The crowd parted and revealed an overturned booth. Meats and produce had spilled to the market floor. A group of men wearing dark uniforms sporting a fancy looking badge on their breast pockets and big, military grade concentrator rifles in their hands held the crowd back. They formed a rough circle within the mob. Gus recognized some of them from the scuffle at Cirrus House. Two more had a pair of Deiopeans in bulky, six-ringed irons. And Aaron Leconte, also decked out in his Company Police uniform, was in the process of clapping irons on Oscar as well. Oscar, his eyes red with fury and spittle flying from his lips, was struggling as best he could. His prosthetic leg was turned out at an odd angle, the knee joint jerking sporadically.
Only one man, other than Oscar and Aaron’s bulls, stood within the ring of Company Police. He was of average height and build, with a square jaw, thick eyebrows, and a gungy five o’clock shadow. He stood just outside the overturned booth, his hands deep in his stained coverall’s pockets, gaping openly at the scene.
With Hector in tow, Bernadette ran through the crowd to Ray. Tears ran down her cheeks. Gus melted into the onlookers where she found Moe, stooped over and helplessly trying to pick up his boss’s overturned goods among the townsfolks’ feet. She put a hand on his mechanical shoulder and was surprised to see tears in his simulated eyes as well.
“I said, what the hell is going on here?” Ray said once Bernadette and Hector were safely behind him.
“I didn’t do anything wrong, Ray! I’m just trying to make ends meet, and this bastaro keeps sticking his nose where nobody wants it!” Oscar yelled.
“Shut up!” Aaron screamed in Oscar’s face. “You know the law! And I told you to stay out of it, old man!” Aaron spat back at Ray. He struggled against the still fighting Oscar.
Ray rolled his eyes, sighed, and lowered his long gun. “Aaron, we’ve been over this a thousand times. The town, which includes the farmers’ market, is under the jurisdiction of the Marshal’s Office. Now, why are you arresting that man in my jurisdiction?”
Aaron was finally able to lock the irons around Oscar’s wrists and he tossed the bound and crippled man to the ground. “You want to know what’s been going on in your jurisdiction, Uncle Ray? Fine. Since you’re not paying enough attention on your own, I’ll fill you in. This bottle-breeding parasite has been selling to the spiders – again. You know the town charter as well as I do. You’ve been too easy on him. I’m only doing what you should have a long time ago!”
“Is that Laszlo I hear speaking with your tongue? I’ll remind you, and your father, that I was brought here to keep the peace in town, as per the UCET Statute on Pan-Orion Arm Territorial Colonies and Outposts. If Laszlo doesn’t like the way I conduct business, he can have the bluebells send a new marshal. One without our unique history.”
Aaron’s face turned bright red, bordering on purple. “How dare you. He’s flouted the law time and time again, and you let him get away with it! My father gave you every-”
Ray cut him off. “Oh, shut up, Aaron. He’ll spend his night in jail and pay his fine, like always. Now turn him and the Deiopeans over to me, and scurry back down to the mining levels where you belong.”
Gus thought Aaron’s bulbus blonde head was going to explode. The young man took a menacing step towards Ray. Gus’s hand drifted towards Delilah. Ray caught her eye and shook his head. Aaron caught the look, followed it to Gus, and spotted her for the first time. The sight of her caused the rage in his face to intensify for an instant. But then he made a pained face, like he just remembered he forgot to feed the cat, and he forced it back. “Fine,” he spat. He gave Oscar’s spasming prosthetic a sharp kick. “But if he’s caught again, there’s gonna be more to pay than a night in the hoosegow and a handful of spoons. Let’s go.” He gave Gus a predatory wink that made her skin crawl before leading his posse through the crowd and away from the market.
As Ray bent to help Oscar up, the man in the coveralls came to them with hands still buried in his pockets and a look of horror on his square face.
“Why, John?” Oscar asked.
“Yer not supposed to be selling to the spiders. I was just doin’ me civic duty! I didn’t know Aaron’d come up here like a bat outta Hell and mess ya all up like that!”
“You’re a damned fool, Stonewall.”
“Hey! I wasn’t the one-”
Ray hoisted Oscar to his feet. “Dammit, Stonewall. Can’t you mind your own business?” he said, waving the farmer off. “I know damn well what happened. Same thing that happened last Thursday. And the Thursday before.” The marshal shot Oscar an accusing glance.
“What can I say? Nunca pude entender los jueves,” Oscar said with a smile.
“But Marshal, I-”
“Stonewall. John. Go home.” Ray looked tired. He collected himself and spoke to the crowd. “Sorry folks, you’ll all have to go home. Market’s closed for today.” The group sighed collectively. “That’s right folks. Head on home. The market’ll be reopened tomorrow.”
As the small gathering broke up, Bernadette ran to her husband and started fussing over him immediately. “Oh, you stupid, self-righteous, sanctimonious-“
“I’m alright, Bernie. I’m alright,” Oscar said.
“Hold him for a second, would ya?” Ray asked and passed Oscar’s weight to Gus. He approached the two still-bound Deiopeans and pulled a handheld tablet from his pocket.
“You’ve had the outpost rules explained to you.” As Ray spoke his tablet flashed intricate patterns of light, translating his words for the natives. “Both you and Mr. Vega have been warned several times that this is unacceptable.” There was pity in his eyes, but he continued nevertheless. “You’re free to go, but I’ll have to escort you to your skiff, and ask that you not return to town. I can’t promise I’ll always be here to put Aaron in his place.”
Gus realized that she recognized one of the Deiopeans. Their facial markings matched those of the leader of the hunting party she and Moe had met in the clouds. Their eyes lit up in reply, and the tablet translated into English: “We understand.”
“Thank you,” Ray said and removed their intricate handcuffs. “Please wait here a moment, and I will see you to your skiff.” He turned back to Gus and the Vegas. “Mrs. Vega – Bernadette – I apologize in advance for this, but…” He turned his full attention on the limping bottle-rancher. “Three times this month?! What is wrong with you, Vega?”
“They just want food, Ray!” Oscar protested. But Ray wouldn’t hear it.
“I don’t care if they want soda-pop and candy canes, you know the outpost charter prohibits trade with the rutting spiders.” He glanced at the pair of Deiopeans. They either didn’t hear the slur or didn’t understand it. “I’ve got no choice; I’ve got to file a report this time.”
Oscar glared at him. “You do what you have to.”
Ray shook his head in either disgust or defeat, Gus could tell. “Get him into one of the holding cells. I’ll be along shortly,” he said. He handed her the Marshal’s Office keys and shuffled out of the market with the gnome-like natives following closely behind.
“Alright, Oscar,” Gus said quietly and leaded Oscar away from the overturned stall. “Let’s get you settled in.”
The walk back across the square was short, but with Oscar’s leg malfunctioning it took some time. Plenty of time, in fact, for Bernadette catch up.
“Gus. Please. You’ve got to let me take Oscar home. He isn’t safe here.”
“You know I can’t do that, Mrs. Vega. You heard the marshal, same as me. I don’t want to get in trouble on my first day.” Gus caught Oscar as he stumbled on his spasming prosthetic.
“Bernadette, go get Hector and have Moe take you home. It’ll be alright,” Oscar said.
“Be quiet husband. I’m not talking to you,” she said, matter-of-factly. “Do you even know what you’re locking him up for?” she asked. A rough, biting tone had seeped into her pleasant voice.
“He broke town law, ma’am. Right now, that’s all I need to know.”
“Town law prohibits trading with the natives. The people who all this belonged to in the first place.” She gestured broadly to the town, outpost, and clouds outside the dome. “Does that seem right to you?”
“Frankly, no. But I-”
“Then is it not right to break a law that is wrong?”
“Look, I’m not here to judge your crappy little town’s laws; I’m just trying to get paid,” Gus said as they reached the Marshal’s Office door and she juggled Oscar and the keys. She managed to handle both and pulled Oscar through the foyer and into the holding cells in the back. Bernadette followed.
“Bernie, por favor,” Oscar begged his wife. He sat on an empty cell cot and waited patiently as Gus unlocked the irons. “Leave the woman alone. She’s already shown us where she stands. This isn’t her fight.”
But Bernadette continued to ignore him. “If spoons are all you care about, then I’ll pay you. Whatever it takes. Just let my husband go.” Her big green eyes wavering with unshed tears. The cell door closed and locked with a thud and an electronic “ding.”
“Ma’am, with all due respect,” Gus said, shaking her head, “you don’t have the spoons it’ll take. Leconte’s offered me more than I’ll bet you folks see in five years. All to do nothing more than help old Ray out for a spell. I’m not going to mess it up by letting a prisoner go on my first day.” She led Bernadette back out into the foyer area, hoping to persuade her to go home.
Instead, the moment Oscar was out of sight, Bernadette threw herself at Gus. Her lips found Gus’s and she pressed her body against her. Bernadette’s hands were on her hips, sliding up her sides, then her back as the kiss deepened. It had been so long since Gus had felt this kind of embrace it took her a moment to come to her senses. But back she came, with such force she pushed Bernadette back a step or two. “What are you doing?!” Gus hissed and stole a glance at the heavy cellblock door.
“I’ve seen the way you look at me. If you won’t listen to reason, and can’t be bought, maybe you’ll take payment in flesh.” Bernadette moved towards her again. Gus recoiled.
“You’re a married woman!”
“Yes,” Bernadette agreed, “who will do anything to protect her family.”
“From what?” Gus jeered. “The company bulls can’t get to him here. You heard Ray; you’ll have him back tomorrow.”
Bernadette slapped Gus across the face, hard. “You damn fool. You don’t see what’s going on here, do you?” She called to her husband, “Don’t worry, Oscar. You’ll be home soon,” and stormed out into the square.
Gus came back into the cellblock to find Oscar sitting on his cot waiting for her. He had his jerking prosthetic in his lap and was examining it as carefully as its spasms would allow. Gus stepped into the neighboring cell and sat on the cot. They sat in silence for a few minutes, Oscar fiddling with his leg as best he could with his fingers, Gus watching and thinking about Bernadette.
Finally, Oscar broke the awkward silence. “Are you going to give me a hand with this, or just watch me rut with it?” Gus pulled a set of small screwdrivers from one of her pockets and handed it to Oscar through the bars of his old fashioned, low-tech cell without a word. “Thanks.” Oscar’s voice dripped with sarcasm.
Gus could still feel Bernadette’s lips and body pressed against her own. The lustful desperation in her hands and hips. She just did not understand these people. She sat back down on the cot and watched Oscar work. “Why do you keep putting your neck on the line?” she suddenly blurted out. “I just don’t get it. Refusing the buyout. Holding secret meetings late at night. Breaking outpost law on the daily. Why? All you’re doing is putting your family in danger. And for what? Some small plot of cloudy sky? I don’t get it.”
Oscar put his leg down on the cot next to him and carefully placed the screwdriver on the mattress next to it. “Gus, have you never had anything in your life worth taking a stand for? Is there nothing more important to you than spoons?” he asked and looked her square in the eyes.
She held his gaze for as long as she could but had to look away. “Once. A long time ago. We had something good. But there was no one there to help, and it was all taken away.” Gus regained a bit of her confidence and looked back into Oscar’s eyes. “Besides, it’s not the spoons. It’s the freedom.” She reached for her tin and started rolling a cigar. Tunk, she needed a smoke.
Oscar started tinkering again. “Maybe you’re not as hopeless as you seem. But if it’s freedom you’re after, you’ve signed on with the wrong hombre.”
Tell me something I don’t know, Gus thought, irritated. But that thought led to inspiration. “Tell me.” She offered Oscar the cigar through the bars.
Oscar looked up at her, his eyes narrowing in a suspicious brand of surprise. “What?”
“Tell me about Leconte. This town. Why you insist on breaking the charter.”
Hesitantly, Oscar took the cigar and puffed slowly when Gus held up her lighter. He leaned back on his cot a blew a cloud into the air. “Bernie would kill me if she saw me smoking again.” He smiled. “It’s bad for the lungs and the life support, but there’s nothing quite like fresh tobacco. We’re did you get your hands on proto-tobacco?”
“I’ve got my sources,” she said vaguely. She rolled and lit her own short cigar. “Why do you sell to the spiders?”
Oscar took another puff and savored the taste as he collected his thoughts. “Did you know the Deiopeans were already traveling to, and hunting in, Aeolus’s atmosphere before we ever found this place? They’re a remarkable people. Beautiful culture. They focus on science and technology, but with an ethos of balance.” He puffed on the cigar. “They’ve got a special reverence for the burdles. They’re a staple in their food and art. There’re burdles all over Aeolus, of course. But their food – the greenbottle jellies - are attracted to pockets of dense Rb-87 clouds.” He tapped ash to the concrete floor. “And out the whole planet, can you guess why Laszlo hitched Las Ráfagas here?”
Gus’s eyes widened. Oscar nodded. “Smart girl. The densest concentration of rubidium-87 is right here. Which also made it the largest greenbottle and burdle feeding ground on the planet. But Las Ráfagas changed all that. By disrupting the clouds and rubidium density here, the outpost has completely changed thousands of years of migration patterns.”
“What’s that mean for the spiders?” Gus asked, and took a drag off her own cigar.
Oscar shook his head. “It’s not good. They’re smart, but their tech is 300 years out of date. They never stood a chance against Laszlo and his bulls.”
“And by selling to them - and resisting Leconte’s buyout - you’re hoping to do what, exactly?”
“I-“ Oscar began, but the cellblock door swung in and Ray’s heavy frame stepped through.
“Vega, I have told you over and over: you’ve got to follow the damn rules,” Ray chided as he stepped up to the bars of Oscar’s cell.
“The rules are wrong, Raymond. And you know it,” Oscar said without looking up from his work.
Ray seemed to deflate. “Oscar, you know I’ve done my best to keep you out of trouble. I promised your father I would.” He glanced at the photo of himself and the elder Vega hanging on the wall. “But there’s not a lot I can do if you continue to flaunt the law. Especially if you keep doing it right in Aaron’s face.”
“You also promised him you wouldn’t let Leconte run roughshod over the people of this town. And you promised me you’d bring his killer to justice. How’re those promises going, Ray?” Oscar’s eyes were red with anger and tears. “Laszlo’s driven every good man out of town, and he and his sons grow fat feeding off those poor souls that remain.” Oscar snuffed out what remained of his cigar. “And you sit in here and play their games.”
Ray, visibly stung, looked down at the pointed toes of his boots. He turned his back on the cell and went back to his desk, careful to keep his eyes away from Oscar. “Your fine’s been paid, and I don’t see any need to keep you here over night.” He pressed a button on the side of his desk. There was a sharp buzz and Oscar’s cell door slid open. “Moe’s at the stables. I told him to wait for you.”
Oscar sat on the cot for a moment longer in stunned silence.
“You heard me!” Ray suddenly roared. “Get out of here before I change my mind, you got’dang son of a whore. And for tunk’s sake, don’t let Stonewall see you out of your cell.”
Oscar’s face hardened from surprise to something closer to resolve. He refitted his prosthetic leg, nodded to Gus, and hobbled out of the room as fast as his still-faulty leg would carry him.
Gus watched Ray dig that bottle of homebrew, along with a glass, from the bottom drawer of his desk. “You paid his fine, didn’t you?” she asked. The fact that Ray wouldn’t meet her eye was all the response she needed. “And you let him talk to you like that?” She took her spot by the window.
Ray shot her an evil glance and fished a second glass out of his desk. He poured the amber liquid, threw his back in one big gulp, and poured another before handing Gus her glass. “I came here about fifteen years ago. Diego Vega - Oscar’s father - and I became fast friends when I helped them out of a pickle. But if Oscar’s got a problem with the town’s authority, he came by it honestly. Diego was one of the original stakeholders and had been putting pressure on Laszlo for years before I ever showed up.
“When Diego died, and Oscar lost his leg - must be five years ago now - it was under strange circumstances. Oscar was adamant the Lecontes had something to do with the accident, but there was never any evidence.”
Gus sipped her drink. She wasn’t sure what it was, but it was strong. She lit another cigar. “If he thinks the Lecontes killed his father, why does he stay? Why put his family at risk?”
Ray leaned back in his chair, kicked his feet up onto the desk, and rested his glass on his belly. The glass rose and fell with his breath. “I gather you’ve been out on the Arm for a while now. But didn’t you ever have a home? Something worth fighting for?”
Gus rolled her eyes and shot back the rest of her drink. She grimaced as it burned going down. “Spare me the sermon. I already got that one from Oscar.”
“Gus, whether you – or I – understand it, there are some things that, to some people, are worth fighting for. To Oscar Vega, that little plot o’ cloud he’s got staked out there, and the dignity of the Deiopeans, is worth more than all the spoons on the Arm.”
“What about you, Ray? What’re you fighting for out here?” She poured herself another drink.
“Me? I got no fight left in me. I’m just doing my best to hold the line. Keep the peace.”
“Well, I gotta tell ya Ray, you’re whistling a merry tune while sittin’ on a powder keg with a lit fuse, here.” She put out her cigar out on the windowsill and stood. “I don’t want to tell you how to do your job, but this place is going to blow sooner or later. I just hope I can get out of here before it goes. I’ll tell you what I told Vega: take what bits of precious you can’t bear to part with and get as far from this place as you can. You can’t hold the line forever.”
What is wrong with these people, Gus asked herself as she stepped off the Marshal’s Office porch. There was enough room on the Arm for everyone. That was the thing about space; there was always more of it. Why did people always have to bunch up and cause problems?
She found herself wandering back towards the residential quarter of town. Her feet carried her back to the scene of Tuco’s liberation, and her hastily hidden stash of contraband. In the fullness of day, she found the “abandoned” town to be remarkably full of life. A small group of children ran between empty buildings, old men drank on a porch, and a group of women chatting amongst themselves made their way towards the town square and, presumably, Walter’s mercantile or the town’s rundown business district beyond.
Gus gave the ladies a nod as they passed and ducked down the alley where she and Tuco had made Laszlo’s acquaintance. It looked different in broad daylight, but she easily found the pile of appliances she had stumbled over. She looked up and down the street to make sure she wasn’t being watched and opened the washing machine where she had left her lunchbox.
It was empty.