THE SEARCH FOR ASTRA PALACE by Gregory KH Bryant
Ward danced and ducked between the searchlights, a deadly ballet, he pirouetted in the shadows, leaping over the yellow beams that hunted him through the maze of cages. The beacons of the searchlights crossed and crisscrossed each other, cutting through the darkest shadows.
Only by the narrowest chances did Ward manage to avoid the search beacons and the shadowy figures of the derelict’s crew. He crept with swift moving shadows, barely leaping away from a bright yellow beacon, into a narrow alley between two cages. Each cage, it seemed, held at least one captive, and many held two or three, but none of the cages was empty. Shadowy forms of humbled human figures huddled in the darkest corners of the cages, wrapping themselves in a protective embrace.
The hunt for Ward was conducted almost entirely in silence. No sirens, no shouted orders. No scrambling of the auditory footprints Ward might happen to leave. But Ward, trained by the Martian Rangers, knew all about Muffling and Auditory Camouflage. He would not be caught by the primitive scanners these guys carried on board the derelict.
It was a dance, a deadly dance, one conducted almost entirely in silence. Insane beacons, yellow and silver, slashed the umber shadows. Ward’s intricate ballet between searchlights and searchers carried him on a widely ranging path through the labyrinth of cages in the darkened hull of the derelict. Eventually, he made a complete circle among the cages, and came back to the very one Kharl Stoff had insisted Ward enter.
The cage that Carter Ward had refused to enter. The gate to it was open, even yet. Ward sniffed. In every hunt, the quarry must come to roost, sooner or later. No one can stay awake forever. Ward was going to have to find a place where he could lie down and close his eyes.
He examined the lock on the barred gate. Jamming it was the effort of a minute. That gate wouldn’t keep anyone locked in, not any more. Stepping inside, Ward swung the useless gate closed.
To anyone moving past, it would seem the cell held its captives securely. Should those who did move by give the cell a passing glance, Ward would have a place to unwind in for an hour, maybe. It was only now that Ward troubled to examine the interior. The shadowed figure he saw there hours earlier still huddled against a far corner. Well… a shadowed figure. There was no guarantee it was the same as the one he saw there a few hours earlier. But it was the form of a huddled human being, one who, with an opened gate offering a chance at freedom, chose to cower in a corner rather than take it. Such a figure was hardly one to raise a pulse in the cold blooded Ward.
He dropped to a knee, slipping his quantum pistol from its holster in his boot. The shadowy figure stiffened, then pushed away from Ward, huddling against the far corner. Ward grunted. Either a terrified prisoner or a hardened Scrounger playing a little masquerade. Whichever it may be, Ward despised ambiguity. He’d go find out who or what this person was…
At his first movement toward that huddling shadow, a high pitch `huh!’ came to Ward’s ears. It was a very feminine squeak of fear, one that Ward since had come to recognize. He crawled quickly toward the form, and then when he was close enough to whisper effectively, he cupped his hand around his mouth and said, “Take it easy, babe. I’m not going to hurt you.”
The huddled figure turned slowly about, her face yet in shadow, but with Ward’s own face nearly showing in the half light. Ward did not recognize her, but she studied Ward closely.
“Look, I said I wasn’t gonna hurtcha…”
“It’s you!” a feminine cry whispered through the darkness. “It’s… it’s you! How?”
“Me? Who’s me?” Ward hissed.
“You… that man… at Ed’s Place. You shot those guys. Right there… three of them…”
“Whud about it?” Ward demanded.
“I was there. We were talking…? You and me…? You paid me, and we talked… well, only I talked, but you listened… you were real nice…d’ya remember?”
Ward puzzled over her. No… he was drawing a blank. Didn’t remember her at all.
“And I think you were right to shoot those guys. After all they said they were gonna do, they said they were going to have you killed…”
“Yeah… yeah, three. One guy came to the table and shooshed me away while you and me were talking, and there were two more by the door…
“Oh… yeah, that’s right. There was that chick. That’s you?”
“Yeah… yeah. Me. You paid me, but you just wanted to listen while I talked. That was really rude of that guy, cutting in on us like he did. It’s kind of a rule there at Ed’s that you never interrupt a hostess when she’s working a guest, so I’m kinda glad you shot them. They kinda deserved it.”
“Deserve it or not, they were asking for it,” Ward muttered.
A silvery searchlight burned past the bars of the cage, sweeping past Carter Ward and the girl, just missing them. In the swiftly passing light, Ward saw that the girl was wearing a burlap bag.
The light passed, darkness fell again.
“Look, ahh…” she began. Silence always made her uncomfortable, silence in the presence of another most acutely so. “I was about to say it before, but I didn’t get the chance. I was gonna tell you my name is Lacey.”
She held out her hand and gave Ward a coquettish smile in the dim light. Ward touched her fingers with his, then said, “Nice to meetcha, Lacey. Now keep it quiet.”
CONTINUES NEXT WEEK