THE SEARCH FOR ASTRA PALACE by Gregory KH Bryant
Once well underway, Mud set the ‘Charon” on a course that circled the asteroid that housed Ed’s place from a distance of ten thousand miles. Then he stepped back to the stowage bay where Illara and Hardy were keeping the man called `Rat’ entertained. Steel crates lined the bulkheads in stacks.
“So, hey, boys and girls,’ Mud shouted. “Are we playing nice now?’
Hardy stood up, his once boyish eyes now growing old before their time. Grinning, he said to Mud, “Nah, we’re just keeping him warm for you. Now the party can get started.”
Mud threw his head back and laughed loud and merrily.
Rat’s yellow eyes shifted. The man was in mortal terror, but give him credit, he bore up well under it.
“Whatcha gonna do?” he sneered.
“Aw, relax, friend,” Mud said. He reached into an inside pocket in his jumpsuit, and pulled out a crude bag shaped from aluminium. He ripped a corner of the bag off, revealing a dark and soft mass of the drug for which he was so-well known for shipping, a drug called mud.
With the utility knife he carried in his belt, Mud cut off a generous portion of the drug, filling the bowl of a pipe with it. He lit the pipe, drew a deep drag from it, and then he handed the pipe to Rat.
“Go ahead, friend. Light up.” Bouncing the aluminium bag in his hand, he said, “Got two pounds here. They’re yours.” He tossed the bag to Rat. Rat, his eyes large with stunned disbelief, caught the bag.
“Ahem,” Illara ahem’d. Rat glanced in her direction. Seeing that she had caught his attention, Illara crossed her very shapely legs, and with the same motion, she smoothly unholstered her laser pistol, and with her hand on the grip, she laid the pistol on her lap with the barrel of the pistol aimed most pointedly at his belly.
Hardy cleared his throat. Rat turned his head to see Hardy holding a very impressive pulse cannon. Small enough to fit into a pocket. Powerful enough to render a six-foot man into a handful of ash.
Everyone in the room, Rat noted, was smiling, except for him.
“Well?” he asked.
“I’m gonna tell you what it is,” Mud said.
“You can live to see your friends again, maybe. Or you can die. That’s all up to you.”
Even jaded as he was, Rat was taken aback at the careless, offhanded way Mud said, `Or you can die’. In the course of his own wild and adventurous life, Mud had ushered over a hundred of his fellow humans into the next world. His words rang with the casual authority that comes with expert experience.
“And I s’pose, on t’other hand, there’s no reason you gotta be leavin’ my ship all broke and pauperish. Just answer our questions (Mud nodded toward Hardy and Illara), and we’ll letcha go with another couple pounds for you to peddle back home.”
Rat scowled as he gave consideration to what Mud was saying. At last he spoke up.
“Whatcha lookin’ for?” Rat asked. “Whatcha want?”
“Couple things, mainly. Maybe a few. You can tell me.”
Rat’s eyes shifted back to Illara. Hardy had moved to a position somewhere behind Rat’s left ear.
Mud thrust his hand into another inner pocket, this time pulling from it a metal flask holding an appreciable amount of malt whiskey. This he did not share.
“Like I told ya. I got a couple friends I’m looking for,” Mud said, after taking a stiff slug from his flask.
Rat’s nostrils flared. Partly from the potency of the whiskey, which he could smell from where he sat, and partly from tension.
“Yeah?” he asked.
“One of `em you know already, I’m thinking. Cute lookin’ hooker, really brightens up the room when she walks in. Likes to talk.”
“The other guy, real quiet. Quick with a gun. I been knowin’ him a long time. The boy gets himself into trouble, on account of he’s a soulless bastard and he don’t care who learns it. And you’re gonna tell me where he is. `Cause I know you know where him and Lacey are now.”
Rat grunted. He studied Mud for a moment, and weighed his chances. Mud was serious. Crazy serious. Nah. Rat wasn’t going to get away sweet talking this guy. Mud wasn’t going to be suckered.
Rat didn’t need much more convincing. But there was still Horst Dal, who would kill him just as dead for talking to Mud as he would Lacey.
“Look,” he said. “I’ll tell ya ennything ya wanna know. But here’s the thing. Horst Dal will kill me fer talkin’.”
“Horst Dal?” Mud asked. “I heard that name…”
Rat’s eyes shifted. Then he looked Mud in the eye.
“He’s the guy who runs Astra Palace,” he said.
“He don’t need to know anything,” Mud quickly said.
He was careful not to question Rat too closely. That would just make him skittish. Just make a mental note and come back to Astra Palace later.
“Tell ya whut,” Rat replied, after muttering silently to himself for several minutes.
“Get me the hell outta here.”
“Anywhere that Horst Dal can get me.”
“And where are the places that he can get to you?”
“Astra Palace, obviously,” Rat answered.
“Yeah, well, Callisto’s out, of course.”
“Ah, but of course,” Mud answered grinning.
“I can’t go anywhere near Jupiter, or any of the asteroids,” Rat said, counting on his fingertips.
“That purt’ near leaves you just Mars,” Mud concluded.
“Not even there,” Rat replied.
“Where, then?” Mud asked. “Seems like you dun’t got much left.”
“Earth, I guess,” Rat said. “Or Venus.”
“The Cloud Cities?” Mud asked. “Yeah, I been there. Real purty. Lotta lights, y know? It’s never night-time over there. But if yer lookin’ to be hidin’ out, mebbe Earth is your better bet. It’s easy to get yerself hid, ya git twenty billion people all around ya. And a couple pounds of mud will fetcha a lot more on Venus— `bout four times more, I’m thinkin’—than it will on Earth. A fella could do real good, selling his mud on Venus, then retiring to Old New York, or some other such crowded party town.”
“Yeah, sure,” Rat agreed.
“But it don’t make no difference any-hoo, on account of I can’t be taking you to either place, Earth nor Mars. Far too far, my friend.”
“Then I can’t help you,” Rat said.
“Then I’d better toss you out the airlock before you breathe up any more of my oxygen. That shit’s not cheap, ya know?”
“Better get it done, then, before you bore me to death. I’m sick of you shit’s playin’ with me.”
Mud laughed. Loud and hard.
“Sure, sure, we can get around to that. Yer not the only person I can be puttin’ these questions to. I can always helly on down to Ed’s place and scoop up a couple ore. But mebbe I can get you on your way to Venus. Give ya a good head start before this Horst Dal fellow even knows he’s got a reason to be angry witcha,” Mud said.
“How far?” Rat demanded.
Mud scowled, staring at the toe of his boot as he considered the problem.
“I can getcha to Mars,” he said at last.
It was now Rat’s turn to consider. His choices were raw. Die now, or later, after possibly enjoying some of what life has to offer for a time?
“Yeah, all right,” he said. “Get me to Mars. And I’ll tell you all about Lacey, and yer friend and Horst Dal, and whatever else ya wanna know.”
CONTINUES NEXT ISSUE