THE SEARCH FOR ASTRA PALACE by Gregory KH Bryant
Part Fifty Seven
As it happened, Mud, Dimara, Illara and Captain Hardy were hard at work to answer that very question, `Where is Carter Ward?’ And they were very close to answering it.
By following the nearly indiscernible beacon sent out by the probe which Dimara had planted on the “Dawnsmasher”, Lieutenant Hardy and his company were able to track the ship in which Turhan Mot shipped Carter Ward, a prisoner, to Astra Palace. Of which, as it happened, no one on board was aware.
Though they had been charged with finding Astra Palace—and then, more lately, to finding Carter Ward—there was nothing in the probe to give any indication of the names of the places where it set down.
No matter, in the long run. Just a wrinkle. They could easily follow the probe’s beacon to ground and pick it up from there. If time were not a matter of some urgency, then a team could take some leisurely time in the casinos or restaurants. But time was urgent, so
Hardy was yet nominally in command of the mission, but the force of Mud’s personality was sufficient to impose an unaccustomed casualness upon the crew—while traveling through deep space, everyone was very much on an equal footing, which gave Captain Hardy great relief. While he had no qualms about commanding recruits in the Earth Space Forces, Illara, Mud and Dimara, too, were all independent people, and all, very strong personalities.
So, instead of wrestling over who was going to be in charge, Hardy was happy to allow each member of the crew to assign him and herself their roles.
But now that they found they were approaching their destination, everyone on board the two ships—Mud’s “Charon”, and Carter Ward’s O8-111A, commanded now by Dimara—understood the need for a rigorous command. Without the need for discussion, everyone fell in line.
It was Dimara who had been keeping track of their approach to Astra Palace, knowing it only by its nomenclature in the planetary indices. And when the two ships were within one hundred hours of Astra Palace, they were challenged.
“Unknown ships,” came the communication from Astra Palace, “What is the reason for your close approach? Over.” The message was neither hostile nor friendly. It simply was. It raised a query, then waited for an answer.
And of course, Hardy, Mud and the others had already laid out their stratagems before arriving at their destination. Not knowing what to expect or what they might find, they prepared for any number of possibilities.
Hardy made no effort to hide the names or numbers of his ships. He quickly identified himself and the members of his crew with pseudonyms, smoothly gliding over Rat by passing him off as a passenger. Hardy was, of course, coy about the purpose of their mission, making no mention of the Earth Space Forces, or their search for Astra Palace.
“Just a bunch a’ space rats,” Hardy said. “Lookin’ to get some gravity under our feet.”
Mud had coached Hardy into speaking convincingly like a space rat. It wasn’t a different language, but one could almost call it a dialect. Hardy took to the lessons well.
“You come here for the arena? Over.”
Hardy was quite lucky, having chosen this moment to approach the unapproachable Astra Palace. Having captured the infamous Carter Ward, and having established a most satisfying and very public execution for the man who had scuttled the Scroungers’ attack on Callisto, while also putting an end to Turhan Mot’s noxious gang—noxious, even to the Scrounges themselves—Astra Palace was on a most uncharacteristically lax schedule. A kind of infectious hilarity had overtaken the decadent colony.
Hardy, who had no idea what the arena may have been about quickly answered, “Yeah. Over.”
“Smart money’s on Ward going down hard and fast. Over.”
“Ward?” Hardy asked.
Mud and Illara were sharing the bridge with Hardy. They all were shocked to a sudden standstill at the utterance of that single syllable, `Ward’.
“Ward?” Hardy asked. “You mean the guy that…”
“Ward… Carter Ward. There’s only one guy can call himself Carter Ward. Over.”
“Well, damn, shit and hell,” Hardy ejaculated.
Cursing was new to him, he having begun to learn the language at the insistence of Colonel Westland, who refused to give a promotion to anyone who couldn’t swear `like a goddamn grown-up’.
“I’ll put my money down on that Ward bastard,” Hardy said. “After the shit he pulled at Callisto… damn! Over.”
“You don’t know what he’s up against. Over.”
“Oh yeah? What’s he got comin’ at him? Over.”
“Every damn thing, buddy, every damn thing you can think of. And more. Every kinda man, machine and monster there is. Ha, ha, ha, ha! We’re watching it on our visiscreens here at the station. We got a lotta money riding against that guy. Over.”
“Well damn it all,” Hardy said, contorting his face into a wicked grin. “I got some Credits burning a big hole in my pocket. And my friends and me wanna get our money in. Over.”
“Better get your ass down here quick, then, buddy. Game is starting in a few. They say they babe with Ward is some kind of hawt. Shame what’s gonna happen to her. But that what happens when you blab. Anyway, we got ya cleared. Come on down and place yer bets, ladies and gents. Over.”
“Wanna thank you guys,” Hardy said. “I hope those seats aren’t sold out.”
“Then get yerself down here fast to Astra Palace. Seats are going quick, and it dun’t look like Carter Ward stands half a chance. Over.”
CONTINUES NEXT ISSUE