THE SEARCH FOR ASTRA PALACE by Gregory KH Bryant
“Now, let’s get talking on where we’re goin’ and summa the people we’re gonna meet there,” Mud said, sipping on his beer.
“There’s Lacey,” Mud began. His face darkened with a scowl. He stopped talking and glared through his heavy beard at the space on the table top between his elbows. After a moment of meditation angry and silent, he looked up at Hardy and Illara.
“Nice girl,” he said. Friendly. Likes ta talk, y’know? She’s the one that yer man Talbot asked me to look after. Now she’s gone.”
Illara stopped smiling.
“Yeah,” she said. “We heard about it. I’m sorry.”
“Thanks,” Mud said. He gave his heavy head a shake. “She talked to me. Shudna done that. She talked to me about `Astra Palace’. Shudna done that, either. What I didn’t know, and neither did Lacey, was the table was wired. Every word we spoke went right back to the scroungers. Everything about Callisto, everything about Astra Palace. Astra Palace is a hub for the scroungers out here, but they don’t want a whole shitload of people knowing about it.
“And then she comes along, blabbing everything she knows to me. And of course the scroungers heard about it. Miriam.. she’s a barkeep with Ed, works his off hours, well Miriam tells me the table is wired. These places are sick with scroungers. Miriam tells me Ed has to play nice with them. So there it is,” Mud said, leading back on his stool.
“Yeah, out here, I guess you gotta do what you gotta do,” Illara said.
“So she disappeared on account of she blabbed herself empty to me. After I find Carter, I’m going after the rat-assed bitches who disappeared Lacey.”
“Do what you have to do,” Hardy replied. “Let’s hope that we can make it so her death isn’t pointless. Through her, we learned about the existence of Astra Palace, and with that, we’re learning about whole populations developing out here that we know nothing about. But our search now is for Astra Palace.
“And we wanna start that search, maybe, with a sharp-faced little wise guy. Says he wants to do business with me.”
“What kind of business?” Hardy asked.
“Said he likes the size of my cargo bay,” Mud said, smoothly avoiding the question.
“So whut I figger is we’ll catch up with Rat, maybe do a little business, and see what he has to tell us.”
“Sounds good,” Hardy said. I wish I knew what this business was.”
“We’ll just have ta find out,” Mud said.
The approach was routine, and asteroid AT-4442-ST was, on the surface at least, as boring and uninteresting as one could hope to find among the asteroids. Those who sought out the remote regions of were not especially keen on letting themselves be too easily seen.
So those who built these retreats sought out the more obscure craters. Like many other such tiny townships among the asteroids, the several dozen that populated asteroid AT-4442-ST were buried below the surface. Landing lights purposely dimmed with dust guided those who understood their significance.
Mud, Illara and Hardy were all in Mud’s ample bridge, watching as the asteroid grew large in Mud’s huge windows.
“Whatcha think, kids?” Mud boomed across the bridge.
“Beautiful view,” Illara said with a broad smile.
“It’s nice to have someone else do the driving for a change,” Hardy laughed.
“Always pleased to serve,” Mud said, as he started his close approach.
A reddish, rugged piece of rock, the asteroid AT-4442-ST rolled heavily on its side, relative to the plane of the Solar System. Far, far distant in the infinite night Jupiter was tiny, visible as a reddish purple pinprick of light. The Milky Way Galaxy was brilliant and bright, and shining deep and wide.
Mud brought the “Charon” to his rented berth. The ground crew, who had become familiar with him – this being his fourth stopover at Base 014, sometimes called `Ed’s Place’ – waved him into his berth.
Gleaming white and silver walls. Men and women worked with an efficiency that belied the beards, tattoos, and the embedded studs. Raucous music played from a half-dozen speakers mounted in the walls.
“Welcome to AT-4442-ST,” Mud said, as he locked his ship into the landing chocks in his berth. Ground crew ran forward, hosing down Mud’s ship with a dozen disinfectants.
“Thank you,” Illara chirped.
“Yeah,” Hardy echoed. “It’s been a great trip.”
“The party’s just beginning, gang,” Mud said with a huge grin.
Mud, like Ward, was a generous tipper, and he made sure that his ground crew knew that their efforts were appreciated. This generosity was paid back to him in many helpful ways, not least of all were the tips of the spoken and whispered kind that provided him very profitable and very timely information.
In this instance, the tips he received were both timely and profitable.
“Watch out for Rat,” came the barely needed warning, “He’s out for ya. Workin’ with the scroungers on it. They’re out to put a hurtin’ on ya.”
“Why?” Mud asked.
“Dunno. Only that him and some of them scroungers hangin’ with that Kharl Stoff guy are lookin’ to make a deal on any man that hangs with Carter Ward. And that’s you.”
“Well, thank y’ friend,” Mud said. He raised his wristband and made a gesture, offering his tipster a very generous tip. She accepted it gladly.
Wasting no time, Mud led Illara and Hardy through the crudely wrought tunnels and passages that provided the transportation system for this tiny base. Small tracks lined some of the walls, ceilings and floors, with passengers passing side by side. The halls were narrow and circuitous. They traced crazy pathways through the rock of the asteroid, and riding the rails was often like riding a roller coaster, with people walking carelessly by.
The lighting changed with locale. White light gave way to red and pink lighting which gave way to emerald and yellow and gold.
Mud escorted Illara and Hardy through the bewildering maze of lights and drugs, pornography, alleys crowded with cheap casinos and brothels.
“Nice place, huh?” Mud asked.
“Sure,” Illara smiled. “After work, we’re going to have to come back and check some of these places out.”
“Maybe we can getcha a job,” Mud grinned. He slapped the wall of a particularly lurid casino, with lush purple satin fabric.
“I dunno, big fellah,” Illara replied. “This looks to me more to your taste than mine.”
“I coulda brought ya the long way around, and we could checked out the machine shops, if that’s whatcha would have preferred.
“That makes me no never mind,” Illara said. “I can’t see setting down here, anyway.”
“Maybe you can put up with the place for a few hours,” Mud said.
“Sure, yeah,” Illara said. “I can put up with this dump for a few hours.”
“Good,” Mud grinned. “`Cuz here we are. This is Ed’s place.”
CONTINUES NEXT ISSUE