THE SEARCH FOR ASTRA PALACE by Gregory KH Bryant
Her eyelids fluttered, then closed again. A long, endless murmuring came to her. Sometimes softly, gently. Sometimes it was an urgent whisper. She did not know what this murmuring was. She did not know anything. But this ceaseless murmuring seemed to carry with it some demand upon her, or some appeal to her, a plea to her that she respond.
She could not respond. The merest fluttering of her eyelids drained her entirely, left her exhausted and unable to make even the smallest movement.
What she felt was heaviness, an inexpressible heaviness. And that was all. Had she any knowledge left to her, any capability of attaching names to things, she could then be able to think to herself that her legs, her arms, and her head all felt heavier than she could describe.
Sometimes she sensed a presence. To her, it was an ancient presence, something more ancient than she could comprehend. There were other presences, too, all of them, she came to understand, were somehow associated with the murmuring. The presences seemed to grow large, and then small again, and then they disappeared, only return, to grow large again with their urgent whispers.
If she were capable of knowledge, of words, she would be able to recognize that the murmur, part of it, came from a woman named `Mother’, Mommy’ and sometimes, `Mom’. To the rest of the world, she was known as `Joyce’, mother of eleven-year-old Emily and the seventeen-year-old Jeffrey.
Jeffrey, who was Emily’s brother, and who added his own murmur to the endless petitions for Emily’s recovery, when he was not labouring his twelve-hour shifts at Callisto Base 1, assisting with the rebuilding of the base after its near destruction in the Battle for Callisto. It was her father, the aged Story Talbot, a man in his seventies, who was the ancient presence, the one who gently caressed Emily’s arm, who ran his fingers through her hair, but who scarcely trusted himself to talk.
The brief flickering of her eyelids was so slight, so brief, it had gone unnoticed by Emily’s mother, who happened at that moment to have been the sole person standing vigil at Emily’s bed at the hospital at Callisto Base 2. Nor did the flickering register on any of the monitors that were tracking body’s functions as she lay unconscious upon the narrow bed.
So there was no change in the attention given to her. The doctors attending her- roughly a dozen—had suggested only once, several Jovian months back, that the Talbot family might want to consider removing her from the multitudes of machines that monitored her. When they found that Emily could live without machines keeping her heart pumping, her lungs breathing, or her kidneys functioning—she was not brain-dead, after all, but in an extended coma—when they learned that removing her from the feeding tubes meant that the child would slowly starve to death, they had Emily immediately placed back on life support, and the subject was not raised again.
And Emily lay, unable to move, unable to respond to the murmurs and the whispers that touched her ear, or the soft caresses that stroked her wrist, or the blonde locks that still grew upon her head.
And though she did not know what those murmurs were, or those caresses, though she was scarcely aware at all, still they kept her alive.
For otherwise she found herself in an infinite ocean of nothingness, a place of no duration, of no depth or distance, a place of neither sight nor sound, but one of endless darkness. It would not be correct to say that she was surrounded by this darkness, for that would suggest she felt herself an individual inhabiting an environment.
But she was not even that much. The darkness did not surround her. It was her. She was it. The emptiness which that darkness was—it was her.
Only except for that murmuring, that hoarse whispering that touched her from somewhere without. That murmuring, and the gentle caresses told her, somehow, that there was something other than the vast and boundless emptiness that was her. And that murmuring wanted something. It craved something from her, and in that craving, there was something—if she were capable of putting words to it—vastly enriching. It was something that, if she were to respond to it, would give back to her infinitely more than her gesture of responding required from her.
Then, through all the murmurings, and the infinite silence that muffled the murmurings like a shroud, came what Emily would have recognized as a voice, had she only the knowledge to put that name, or any name, to the sound. It was flatter than any other of the murmurs, yet sharper. Like the others, it seemed to want something, but what it was the sound wanted, she could not know.
There was in this voice something different. There was in it something like a suspended threat, something deadly, but something which had made for her an exception. Were she anyone or anything else, that sound, that voice, would have filled her with terror. But now, for her, she found something of profound comfort. The force behind this sound would never harm her, nor would anyone or anything else with this voice present.
And when the words “See ya, Emily,” touched her ears, spoken by Carter Ward, and the last words he uttered to her as he left Callisto, they roused something within her heart. The gentle whisperings from her mother and father, and her brother Jeffrey aroused in her an almost tepid craving to respond to them.
But the three words spoken by Ward as he was leaving her caused an urgency to arise in her. If only she knew how, she wanted to respond, to let the will, the mind, whatever it was behind those words, to let it know that she was real, alive, something that was part of the world. Those three words, “See ya, Emily,” filled Emily with a need, a craving to exist.
Many more weeks would pass as the girl strove to pull the pieces of her soul together, until she had strength sufficient only to make that small gesture, the fluttering of her eyelids. But she was able to do it, and the effort left her completely exhausted. Many more weeks were to pass before she would be able to make any such unconscious motion again.
Kharl Stoff was one cunning prick, Ward said to himself as he followed the signal from the man’s ship. Wouldn’t give Ward any clue where this derelict he was talking about might be found. Of course not. Ward would have dropped Stoff and his cronies and lit straight for the derelict himself.
But he couldn’t do that. All Ward could do was follow behind Stoff, at a distance of five thousand miles, holding on to the signal Stoff sent back to him.
Angry and frustrated as he was with Stoff’s manoeuvre, it was, of course, exactly what Ward himself would have done, had he been in Stoff’s position. But there was also that very faint, nagging signal from behind. Dimara told Ward about it. It was, indeed, unlikely that any human eye or ear would have even picked up on it.
“Dimara must inform the Carter Ward that he is being followed,” she had warned him in the cramped bridge of the O8-111A”
“That so?” Ward asked.
“Unfortunately, yes,” Dimara said. “It maintains a distance ten to fifteen thousand miles.”
“You sure it’s following us?” Ward asked.
“Dimara has sought to elude this ship when she was asked by the Carter Ward to pilot the O8-111A. This entity which follows the O8-111A has been most scrupulous in maintaining a constant distance of ten to fifteen thousand miles.”
“Most likely so.”
“Well, whaddya think?”
“The ship is most probably connected to the Scroungers with whom Carter Ward spoke before leaving asteroid AT-4442-ST.”
“That Kharl Stoff guy? Ward asked.
“Any idea how we can shake this guy?”
“While revealing to Kharl Stoff that Carter Ward knows of Stoff’s machinations? The Dimara still does not understand why it was Carter Ward undertook this venture with these Scroungers. It is most uncharacteristic of the Carter Ward to do such things.”
“He gave us the only clue yet, where we might find Turhan Mot,” Ward answered.
“And Carter Ward chose not to remain at asteroid AT-4442-ST to seek out any others who might have similar information?”
“It was maybe worth a chance,” Ward said, with a shrug.
“Tell ya what,” he said. “Let’s see what happens when I do this.”
He shut down the ship’s thrusters, while powering up the forward thrusters. This brought the O8-111A to a near stop. He held his ship in that position for over an hour. Ward studied his monitors closely. He saw nothing remarkable in them.
“Any change in our friends out back?” he asked Dimara.
“Dimara notes that the entity following us is slowing.”
“Dimara hesitates to project any motive, but it does appear that the entity following us is yet matching its own speed with ours… it is slowing further… it has stopped.”
A voice came through the communicators. It was Kharl Stoff.
“You all right?” he asked.
“Yeah,” Ward answered. “Just looking the ship over for anomalies.”
“Want us to come back and lend ya a hand?”
(“Whose hand?” he asked himself. But he kept that quip quiet.)
“Nah. I’ll just be a couple hours.”
“Couple hours?” There was a sudden edge to Kharl Stoff’s voice. “You sure you don’t need any help?”
“The man dudn’t like to be kept waiting,” Ward smirked to himself.
“Nah. They’ll just get in the way. I’ll hurry it up, as much as I can.”
“Yeah, (Kharl made no effort to hide the impatience he felt.) Do that. We don’t have time to piss around.”
That angered Ward.
“Then go ahead without me,” he said. “And you can fuck yourself, too, while you’re at it.”
A moment’s silence passed before Kharl answered.
“Talk to me like that again, asshole, and I’ll open your throat for you. Doncha forget, fuckwit, we’re doing you a damn favour, cutting you in on this deal.”
“Back atcha, prick. You wanna get pissy, go talk to someone else. I won’t be talked to like that. So like I said, go fuck yourself. I don’t need your shit.”
Ward turned to Dimara.
“Now, we’ll find out whether this is a set up or not,” he grinned.
Dimara smiled back at him.
A moment later, Kharl Stoff was back on the communicator.
“Yeah…” he said, slowly. “I guess I oughta be mindin’ my own manners, huh? Take the time you need. We’ll wait on ya.”
Ward looked at Dimara.
“Yup,” he said. “It for damn sure is a set up.”
“Yes,” Dimara agreed.
“And the only question is whether Turhan Mot is tied in to this set up, or not.”
CONTINUES NEXT WEEK