THE BATTLE FOR CALLISTO by Gregory KH Bryant
Turhan Mot was not one to let the grass grow under his feet, though it is true he had never in his life seen a single blade of grass, nor would he have known, or cared, what the expression, ‘Not one to let the grass grow under his feet’ meant.
But, having received Horst Dal’s permission to recruit for his planned campaign against the Jovian bases, and most particularly Callisto, Turhan Mot wasted no time rebuilding his crew.
A thin and tall man, he towered well over six feet, with pale and icy blue-white skin. His fingers were long and sinuous, the long nails painted purple and gold. Every inch of his body was embellished with patterns of ritualistic scars and beads of pearl, steel and silver embedded in his flesh.
Whorls of ink, of scars and of pearls ornamented his sallow cheeks, his forehead, his skull, his arms, his chest, and his legs. Except for a single ponytail of hair that sprouted from the back of his head, Turhan Mot was otherwise completely hairless. The ponytail he allowed to grow to its own natural length. It fell to a point between his hips and his knees, and his servants carefully cultivated and tamed it with an elaborate series of golden threads tied about it. Only the final four inches of the tail were allowed to flow free.
When he was not actively in command of his ship, the “Grand Marquis” (at which times he wore the very functional jumpsuit favoured by most space travellers), Turhan Mot dressed himself in a simple vest of human skin embroidered with eye-dazzling patterns of precious stones and golden threads. Covering his waist and legs, he preferred the ample silks favoured by Horst Dal, which gave his lower body the most freedom of movement. His silken pantaloons varied in colour, from a bloody crimson, to a deep viridian or an ultramarine with gleaming highlights that danced when he strode through the halls and narrow streets of Astra Palace.
With the dissolute Mokem Bet at his side, the slinking elegance that was Turhan Mot could not have found a more pointed contrast, which of course was how the cunning Turhan Mot wanted it.
Mokem Bet, a blunt and stupid instrument of Turhan Mot’s will, was a not-too-subtle reminder to all those who signed on with Turhan Mot, that the alternative to Turhan Mot’s suave command was the brutal stupidity of Mokem Bet.
Mokem Bet stood several inches shorter than Turhan Mot, a hairy man with a huge belly. His beard was slovenly, and often littered with remnants of his most recent meal. Like Turhan Mot, Mokem Bet had covered his body with ritual scars and tattoos. But unlike the studied elegance of Turhan Mot’s designs, everything stitched into the body of Mokem Bet was crudely rendered, all as if done on a dare by a drunken companion in the midst of a long binge.
Mokem Bet wore the vest and ample pantaloons favoured by Turhan Mot, but his were worn and stained in places that told much of the habits of the unkempt man.
And the two of them, with Horst Dal’s permission, set about signing on new crew, to replace those lost during the battle of IPS-3.
Turhan Mot set up offices for himself at the Cafe Duclos, at the far end of the asteroid 53-102-AT inside of which the hideaway, Astra Palace had been built, where he interviewed those recruits Mokem Bet sent to him.
As the elongated asteroid spun rapidly on its axis, orbiting between Jupiter and Saturn, it gave those who lived in Astra Palace, or those who simply visited, a semblance of a gravity resulted from centrifugal force. Objects left carelessly unbound often floated in the air for many long moments before they settled to the floor, and those who inhabited Astra Palace could easily leap long distances and to great heights before the weak gravity of asteroid 53-102-AT brought them back to the floor.
But the rooms, cubicles, flophouses and bawdy houses all had ceilings that remained ceilings and floors that remained floors, always a relief to deep space travellers who spent many long passages in prolonged weightlessness. To the amusement of many who visited, those surfaces that were ceilings at one end of the asteroid became floors at the opposite end, and in the centre, the axis upon which the asteroid rapidly spun, was weightlessness. And in that weightless centre, a huge bawdy room that made imaginative use of that weightlessness.
The asteroid was honeycombed throughout with tunnels and hallways, tubes and walkways. Prostitutes, slaves, smugglers and pirates all mingled through the always crowded and labyrinthine alleys. Odours of stale beer and sweat, roasting meats, heavy perfumes, lubricating jellies and vomit were thick in the air. Smoke from incense and cigars and the dozen or so opium parlours wafted through the sinuous halls all lit with bright flashing lights—pulsating yellow, gold, and amber, shades of turquoise and ruby.
The Scroungers were brawlers, which temperament forced them away from polite society to seek out their fellows of like temper. Brawls broke out often in the alleys and the bars. Laughing Scroungers broke jaws and snapped arms with comic force. Hilarity was loud in the halls of Astra Palace.
And in his headquarters in the back rooms of the Cafe Duclos Turhan Mot found the ideal setting for recruiting new crew members to serve upon the “Grand Marquis” and plotting his campaign against Callisto.
The Cafe Duclos was at the furthest end of asteroid 53-102-AT, with only one narrow hallway leading from it to the wider alleys beyond. Here, Mokem Bet at his post within the cafe could watch all who approached and all who left.
And the Cafe Duclos appealed strongly to Turhan Mot’s exotic tastes.
Brawls were rare here, for Cafe Duclos offered itself up as a place where the Scroungers could find respite from the ceaseless fighting that made up the lives of the Scroungers. Here they could drink, eat, and amuse themselves with many diversions. Captives were chained to the walls of the cafe for the amusement of the cafe’s clientele. Rare was the captive who survived forty hours inside the Cafe Duclos.
Entertainment of many sorts—including exotic diversions that would send any decent soul fleeing in horror—was performed upon the central stage of the dining room. And at no time did the entertainment cease.
The blood flowed freely at the Cafe Duclos. The air was heavy with the stench of sweat and ozone, vomit and reeking carpets stained with countless spilled drinks and dried blood.
And in the back rooms, for paying visitors, were entertainments even more colourful than those out front.
It was there in those back rooms, that Turhan Mot had established his offices. Muffled laughter and screams came through the thick walls. Those walls, Turhan Mot had covered with black silk. Thick cushions lay heavy upon the floor, but there were no servants here. Turhan Mot was alone in his sumptuous offices. He would have no eavesdroppers as he made his plans and recruited his burgeoning crew.
Word got around, of course. There were few who had not heard of Turhan Mot’s humiliation at Interplanetary Station 3. And of those who did know of Turhan Mot’s defeat, there were two schools.
There were those who considered Turhan Mot a fool, and who would have nothing to do with him and his idiot ambitions.
And there were those who admired Turhan Mot’s audacity, his boldness and his vision. And these latter formed the larger of the two schools. That he had failed at IPS-3 was, to them, only a confirmation of the man’s greatness, for one must fail, it is said, before one can succeed. And better to fail at something great, than to succeed in something small.
For Turhan Mot was, among the Scroungers, a man of great charisma. And among them, he could persuade many, simply by the force of his calculating personality.
Many among the Scroungers shipped only with one commander. Their loyalties were to that commander. Those loyalties were not transferable, except on those unhappy occasions when the commander died or was otherwise rendered unable to command. Then those Scroungers either remained with the next commander voted in by the crew, or, if they were not on good terms with the new commander, they would then be forced to seek to sign on with a new commander, a new ship and a new crew.
Many others among the Scroungers moved often from ship to ship. These were too restless to stay in one place, or with one crew for more than a single run. Many hoped to win it big, and moved freely between commands, following fortune as she fleeted among the asteroids.
Others, like Horst Dal, did not travel, but remained at a single base, catering to the Scroungers. They freely bought stolen goods, and provided hubs for smuggling. Still others led quasi-law-abiding lives. They counted the Scroungers as one of many of their customers, acting as middlemen for them with the very legal banks and brokerages of Mars and Earth.
When word spread among the Scroungers that Turhan Mot was seeking recruits, many thronged to the Cafe Duclos to sign up.
Turhan Mot was most particular in this matter, that no one who signed on to his ship should do so, without Turhan Mot himself laying his own eyes upon that person and hearing that person speak, that he might gauge the competence of the recruit.
For Turhan Mot knew that, even as the memory of each interview faded for him, still the singular memory that audience would linger long and vividly in the mind of every member of his crew.
Seeing their Cafe Duclos crowded with paying customers, as each awaited his and her audience with Turhan Mot, the proprietors of the Cafe Duclos were pleased. They extended to the pirate commander every courtesy of the house.
One of those courtesies was to allow Mokem Bet to the use of the banquet room to interrogate all those who came here, seeking to sign on with Turhan Mot. An expansive series of low tables laid out upon a stepped and carpeted floor. Each table surrounded by sprawling cushions and couches. Heavy purple curtains hid the walls and the ceiling.
Servants wearing only but jewellery, necklaces, bracelets, ankle chain and beads, or decorative feathers, attended those who sat in the cushions surrounding the tables. The tables were all heavy laden with canisters of wine and beer and liquor, fruits and meats and breads and sauces, and platters of stolen gold.
Here, Mokem Bet held forth. He kept his eyes on the alley by monitoring all the outdoor surveillance cameras on his wristband. With that, and with the vigilant eyes of his spies who stood outside, Mokem Bet knew everyone who came through the doors, even before they stepped into the cafe.
“I heard Turhan Mot was lookin’ for crew,” came the question. And whoever it was to whom the question was addressed—servant or server or hooker or barkeep—replied with the same answer, “Talk to Mokem Bet.”
Then a gesture, a raised chin, a tilt of the head or an outthrust thumb, and the Scrounger seeking to sign on to Turhan Mot’s crew was directed toward the banquet room. Pushing through two closed curtains, and the Scrounger found himself looking upward and past a series of opulent tables to the repugnant Mokem Bet, surrounded by servants.
Depending on the impression made, Mokem Bet finished the interview by saying either, ‘Turhan Mot has all the crew he needs. Take a canister of beer with you when you leave,” or “Turhan Mot will be most pleased to speak to you. This boy will direct you. Follow him.”
And in short order, Turhan Mot rebuilt his crew.
When he was not recruiting new crew, Turhan Mot turned his whole attention upon his plan to take Callisto and all the other Jovian bases. He now had a crew of one hundred and sixty, which brought the number up that that it was, before Turhan Mot’s disastrous assault on IPS-3.
But he would need more. Ten times more. For though the bases on the moons of Jupiter were all of a scientific nature, and the inhabitants peaceful people, unversed in fighting, yet still they outnumbered Turhan Mot’s command by an order of magnitude.
Hernan Cortez overthrew the Aztec empire, starting with a force of only five hundred men, but Turhan Mot was not facing a conflicted empire, one cobbled together of conquered and restive slave states. No, unlike the Aztecs, not one of the two hundred thousand people who lived in the Jovian system would have any reason to support the invaders.
So to carry out his audacious plan, Turhan mot would need a much, much larger crew. And, of course, more ships.
To be sure of victory, Turhan Mot must destroy all Jovian Base Security, which had bases on every moon with a colony. And he must launch a swift attack on each of the bases throughout the system to confound all. Even a single pass of one of his ships, firing plasma cannons and blasting holes into the geodesic towns and bases on Europa would be enough to confuse and terrify the populations within—sufficiently so to make it impossible for any to render aid to any others.
Thus, by seeding terror and confusion, Turhan Mot expected to win Callisto and all the other bases of the Jovian system. Those he could capture and hold, he would, for so long as it amused him. Those he could not hold, he would simply destroy. It made no difference to him.
“Word has come, oh my commander,” Mokem Bet informed Turhan Mot, speaking into his commander’s ear, “That the ship, from Earth, the “Bellerophon” approaches Callisto.
“Indeed so?” Turhan Mot answered.
“Aye, my commander. It is so.”
Turhan Mot was familiar with the “Bellerophon.” Though he had never engaged the “Bellerophon” himself, he knew well the reputation of the ship. He knew that the ship carried a complement of fighter ships even greater than that of his own ship, the “Grand Marquis.” He knew that the pilots who flew with the “Bellerophon” were among the best trained combat pilots of Earth Space Forces. Had they not made nearly a half dozen trips from Earth to Callisto, defeating the Scroungers who did attack them every time?
Turhan Mot lowered his purple eyelids until his eyes were nearly closed as he considered this news. Should he wait until the “Bellerophon” had left Callisto, and returned to Earth? Many thousands of hours would pass before the “Bellerophon” was so far out of range that it could not return to the succour of the Jovian bases in response to the inevitable distress signals that would be sent within moments of Turhan Mot’s attack.
That would certainly give Turhan Mot time to build his armada. But the temptation was too great. The “Bellerophon” would be a great prize, and its capture or destruction would do great damage to commerce between the Jovian bases and the inner Solar System. Indeed, the “Bellerophon” was one of only three ships that had sufficient armour, weapons and fighting crew to hazard the very dangerous routes between Mars and Jupiter.
The only others who routinely dared those dangerous distances were the space rats, men and women like Carter Ward, his friend ‘Mud’ (or, ‘Big Mud’).
Without raising his eyelids, Turhan Mot spoke after a long silence.
“We must consult with our brother, Horst Dal, on this matter,” he said in a nearly silent whisper.
CONTINUES NEXT WEEK