THE SEARCH FOR ASTRA PALACE by Gregory KH Bryant
Ward’s appointment with the arena came quickly. The sole delay was only as long as was required to announce the event. Ward had already developed a reputation among the Scroungers at the Battle for Callisto, once he and Mud were identified as the two madmen who launched their insane attack on Turhan Mot’s Ship, the “Grand Marquis”.
In that single attack, Carter Ward and Mud broke the back of the battle. They had destroyed the landing deck of the “Grand Marquis”, effectively stranding all the fighter ships of Turhan Mot’s fleet in the Jovian neighbourhood. They could not return to the “Grand Marquis”.
So it was that Turhan Mot lost his entire fleet and almost all of his crew. Were there yet any loyalists to Turhan Mot among the Scroungers, they kept that loyalty to themselves.
And many there were among the Scroungers who had come to Astra Palace for a few hundred hours of gambling, fighting and whoring, who were keen to lay eyes on the man who had laid Turhan Mot low. Seats to the event, once announced, sold out quickly.
The arena itself bore only but a passing similarity to the arenas of Earth. Rather than a circle surrounding a field, the arena of Astra Palace was built within a sphere. The audience sat on long benches built into the interior wall of the sphere, while the playing field itself was the region inside surrounded by the sphere.
The audience was separated from the playing field by a plasma wall which could be sealed off completely, allowing nothing to pass through in either direction. A series of portals along several of the longitudes of the sphere allowed contestants to enter and leave the playing field.
Within the spherical playing field were a number of wire steel cages, each large enough to hold two fighting men. Knives, clubs, swords and any number of weapons were allowed into the arena.
Gates opened between the cages, creating a series of bewildering labyrinths inside the play field. Trip wires set off walls of flames, while traps in the cages gave way under the contestants, dropping them into pits filled with blades. Breakaway floors opened unexpectedly under the foot of incautious fighters, dropping the unwary into plastic pools of bleach.
A most unpleasant place for those condemned to die there.
All this was made the more bewildering, as `up’, in the very attenuated gravity of this asteroid, was any direction above the head, and `down’, anything below the feet. The two changed frequently, as the battle between contestants raged.
Always the showman, Horst Dal took great efforts with his arena, making sure that every seat in the house gave only the clearest and most unobstructed views. Box seats were plush, comfortable, and came fully staffed with servants, concubines and slaves. Benches of granite and marble served for most the public, with grills cooking and filling the area with the hot odours of spiced meats and fruits. Dancers moved among the audiences crowding into the spherical stadium. Drums and cymbals played loud a raucous music.
In his long hours waiting in a darkened cage, Ward’s captors gave him no indication of their plans. He had no idea what was in store for him. His captors fed him in silence, and threw water on him periodically, in a ritual that substituted for a shower, again, all in silence.
Neither did he ask any questions. He knew, from long experience, that to ask a question was to reveal an ignorance, and to do that was to reveal a weakness. For those reasons, Ward almost never asked questions of anyone, and he certainly never once asked questions of those who made their hostility toward him unambiguous.
The only clue he had that his time in captivity was about to change was in the hours before he was removed from his cage. From the end of the dark and narrow hallway lined with steel came a series of sounds, faint and distant at first, but with a cadence that suggested these sounds were not accidental, but intelligent in origin.
As the minutes passed, the sounds grew in volume. They began to sound like a chant of some sort. Three women came to Ward’s cage, accompanied by six guards armed with plasma pistols.
“These pistols are set on `Kill’, man,” one of the guards shouted at Ward. “So step the fuck back. Got it? Just step the fuck back. The ladies are gonna give you a bath, and damn if you don’t need one.”
Ward did as the guard had told him, and moved to the far side of the cage.
“Turn yer back to me, man, got it?”
“Yeah,” Ward answered, turning his back to the guard.
Three more women came, and with them were six workmen, carrying a large and polished brass tub. The guard who had spoken to Ward opened the gate to his cage, and the workmen carried the tub inside.
The women, all dressed solely in purple thongs, showed the workmen where to place the tub and, once the tub had been put where they wanted it, began filling the tub with water which they carried into the cage in glass buckets which they filled from a set of spigots at the end of the narrow hall.
The six guards and the workmen positioned themselves outside the cage, and kept a narrow watch on every move Ward made. Seeing that, Ward made no trouble. He resigned himself to the bath.
All six women crowded into the cage and with a series of signals and gestures, they made Ward to understand that they meant him to climb into the brass tub. As Ward had no clothing, he made no reason to make any trouble over the demand, so he climbed into the tub. The water was hot. It steamed and scalded, but still, the man made no complaint, spoke no words.
The women brought with them pouches and bottles filled with ointments and soaps, conditioners and lotions. Some gave off a very pleasant scent, others were thick and heavy. Ward had never taken such a bath before—for him, bathing was always strictly functional and efficient. A shower of fifteen minutes was a squandrous waste of time, and a bath was something absurdly decadent.
He stared at the huge bubbles that floated on the surface of the water while the very athletic women scrubbed his flesh hard with sponges and cloths, balms, soaps and oils. Pink suds rolled down his heavily scarred body. The women bathing him took note of the scars, but professionals that they were, they said nothing. If the client wished to speak of them, he would. Otherwise, they would not pry.
Pink suds were washed away with water poured from glass buckets. Green suds took their place. The surface of the water in the gleaming brass tub began took on a deepening iridescence. The women scrubbed Ward down hard. Streams of soapy water spilled down his body. Ward was very close to losing all patience in one howling burst of rage when finally, after a tortured twenty minutes, the bath came, mercifully, to an end.
The women signalled to Ward to stand, which he did. He climbed out of the tub at their direction, and they rubbed him down, first with rough towels, and then with silks. They then produced a pair of short pants to wear, which were viridian in colour. The pants were held up with a green belt, studded with emeralds.
Cleaned, dried and dressed, Ward was carefully handcuffed by the guards, with his hands behind his back, then ushered out of the cage. Half-walking and half-swimming through the attenuated gravity, three of his six guards preceded Ward. The other three followed him from behind. The six workmen broke themselves into two groups of three each. One group of three took up a position behind Ward and his guards, the second group marched before them.
Leading the procession were the six women who had bathed, dried and dressed Ward. As they marched forward through the widening hallway, the sounds from the hall grew louder, clearer. It was a series of chants, chants with a thousand voices behind them.
CONTINUES NEXT ISSUE