THE SEARCH FOR ASTRA PALACE by Gregory KH Bryant
Story Talbot had much on his mind as he hurried from the Space Port where he had just returned from Callisto Base 2. He was now on his way to Tower 4B, at Callisto Base 1. Work on rebuilding the base was moving at a good pace. Every block was filed with work parties digging through the ruins for salvage. Not a single brick nor even a broken piece of glass of the domed colony would be thrown out. Every piece would be saved for later use.
Informally called the West Tower, Tower 4B was the only tower left standing at Callisto Base 1 after the Battle for Callisto. Standing nearly 80 feet above the streets, it was also, even before the battle, one of the tallest towers anywhere in the Solar System outside Earth.
From the widows of the uppers floors, it gave a wide view of the rusted purple-brown ice deserts surrounding the colony, and of Jupiter itself. From Callisto, it appeared roughly the size of a baseball. And, of course, the tower gave a very clear view of Callisto Base 1 itself. From the highest floors it was possible to gauge the daily progress as the colony was being rebuilt after the disastrous battle.
For all these reasons, the West Tower, especially with its expansive Grissom Room, was well-suited for the meeting to which Talbot was then hurrying.
He was very nearly late. And though he was a man in his seventies, as measured by Earth years, he prided himself on always being prompt.
He almost late for this meeting, because he was just then returning from Callisto Base 2, where his daughter, Emily, lay in a coma in the hospital there, one of the few hospitals to almost miraculously survive Turhan Mot’s savage attack. He left his wife, Joyce, with Emily, while his son Jeffrey, was working his sixteen-hour shift, working on the repairs of Callisto Base 1.
They all took turns staying with Emily. Never once did they leave their beloved daughter and sister alone. Joyce spent nearly every waking minute at the hospital, while Story and Jeffrey took turns keeping her company and giving her the chance to catching a few hours of badly needed sleep, a shower, and a change of clothing.
“Good to see you, Story,” Colonel Bridgemont said to his old friend as he stepped into the Grissom Room. He and Colonel Westland, Chief of Security on the “Bellerophon” and Doctor Maxwell, current Administrator of the Jovian colonies, sat at a large U-shaped mahogany table that gave every person sitting at it a clear view of the expansive windows that opened through the entire circular wall.
Jupiter gleamed on the horizon, its massive gases roiling and boiling, and its Great Red Spot moving majestically along its southern hemispheres. In better times, the floor in which the Grissom Room had been built rotated on a central axis. But that was an extravagance the colony could no longer afford, not after the battle.
“And you, Gerald. As always,” Talbot replied.
“How is Emily?” Colonel Westland asked.
Talbot slowly shook his head.
“Sadly, there has been no change.”
“I’m very sorry to hear that, Story,” Colonel Westland said.
Westland offered no empty platitudes, nor any hopeless promises that Emily would get better, against all possibilities. Story Talbot appreciated that.
“Thank you, Franklin,” Talbot replied, offering his friend a sad smile.
“This must be very difficult for your wife,” Doctor Maxwell said.
“She is strong, doctor, and has been put through much, but yes. This is truly wearing her down.”
“Do give her my kindest regards,” Doctor Maxwell said.
“That I shall surely do,” Talbot replied, sitting himself at the table near Colonel Bridgemont. He removed a small handheld device from a pocket and laid it on the table. With a motion of his hand, he caused it to open and spread outward, like a series of papers. This was his digital notebook and briefcase, packaged together.
Of the four men in the room, Doctor Maxwell, appointed Administrator of the Jovian colonies for a term, was the only one who had no knowledge whatever of Story Talbot’s background, or who he truly was.
Maxwell had not the least glimmering that until he had arrived at Callisto some months before the battle, Story Talbot had been Frederick Jervis Sherman, III, Civilian Liaison for General Howe, Commander of Earth Space Forces.
Doctor Maxwell, an astronomer, and a man of some sophistication, knew to take Talbot as the man was presented to him, an independent researcher, late from Mars, and an old and very close friend of Colonel Bridgemont. He asked no questions of the man, or of his connections to Bridgemont, but simply accepted Story Talbot and his family as they were insinuated into the community of Callisto.
Maxwell had no interest in his role as administrator. He was appointed to the position by a random lottery, as all administrators of the colonies of Jupiter were. His interest was in the outer rings of Jupiter. It was for this reason, to study the rings, that he had come to Jupiter. The responsibilities of administrator only took him away from his interest, and his only reason for putting up with the annoyances of living on Callisto.
Maxwell’s ambitions extended no further than to study the cosmos, specializing particularly on the endlessly fascinating subject of planetary ring systems. He had no interest in power for its own sake, nor for power over others. He was, like most Callistoan administrators before him, content to live his own life of study, and to allow others to live themselves as they pleased.
Which is precisely what made him such an attractive candidate for administrator at Callisto. The system of rotating administrators had been established very early in the history of the colony, and the other colonies of the moons orbiting Jupiter, particularly with the intent to discourage the politically ambitious.
It was a system like every other, in that it had both its virtues and its flaws. Each person stepping into the role knew that in a year or two, the very people to whom he or she was giving orders today would almost certainly be giving orders a year or two later. So any temptation toward excess or an abuse of power was stifled at the very beginning of the administrator’s tenure.
But as anyone who has ever been in a position of authority well understands, sometimes unpopular or unpleasant commands must be given, and the system that discouraged abuses of power tended also to discourage the unpleasant, but necessary, tasks required to keep a community functioning from being performed. So it happened that many people who performed their duties at something less than an acceptable standard remained at their posts for years, when it was clear to all that they should have been removed or demoted.
Now it would be unfair to say of Maxwell that, though he had no interest in the scheming and the often-Machiavellian manoeuvres required, even in this system which elevated mediocrity to the status of a virtue, he was careless in carrying out those administrative duties to which he had been appointed.
Doctor Maxwell was far too scrupulous a professional to neglect any legitimate responsibility imposed on him, however onerous. But the point of the first part of this meeting, the ongoing rebuilding of Callisto Base 1, and the only matter which concerned Doctor Maxwell, was one he carried out with more than his usual efficiency, his goal being to get this meeting over with as quickly as decently possible, so he could return to his true interests.
A series of visiscreens mounted on the portion of the wall that was not a window onto Jupiter allowed the administrators and the heads of the reconstruction teams of Europa and Ganymede to participate in the meeting.
Rebuilding was moving along as well as anyone could reasonably expect, and Maxwell, not being versed at all in construction, could only listen as the heads of various construction teams gave their reports, and answered the few questions put to them. Each team was given ten minutes to make a presentation, with another five minutes for answering questions. Brevity was strongly encouraged here, and everyone present understood that. So reports on the subject of rebuilding moved along at a good pace.
And after two hours, that business was taken care of.
At the conclusion of that, the first part of the meeting, Colonel Bridgemont rose and gave a brief report regarding the security of Callisto and the other moons of Jupiter. This was a very brief and a very highly edited report, Bridgemont giving out only the information that it was absolutely necessary for the other members of the administrative and reconstruction teams to know.
“Thank you all, gentlemen, and ladies,” Doctor Maxwell said to all, as each had taken a seat after he and she had given their reports. “I think we are done here, and can leave our friends, Colonels Westland and Bridgemont, and Professor Talbot, late of Mars, to carry on their own discussion regarding the directives they have received from Earth, of which they shall apprise us at out next meeting two hundred hours from now.
Everyone in the room filed out. In a few short minutes, Talbot, Westland and Bridgemont were left alone.
Bridgemont, Chief of Jovian Security, quietly leaned under the large U-shaped table and shut down the recording system in the room.
“Gentlemen,” he said. “We are now free to speak freely.”
Colonel Westland walked over to the door and locked it.
Returning to his seat at the table, he sat down and said, “Yes. We can discuss our security matters freely now.”
“And where shall we start, gentlemen?” Talbot asked.
“We have several matters before us,” Colonel Westland began. “So let me begin with our reports from Captain Hardy.”
“Quite right,” Story Talbot replied. “And what do we hear from our young friend?”
“We learn through him that Carter Ward is still on the trail of Turhan Mot, through the outer asteroids.”
“Any progress on that front?” Talbot asked.
“Apparently not,” Westland answered. “However, we do seem to have some leads on this `Astra Palace’.”
“Yes?” Talbot asked.
“Indeed. Ward’s friend, Mud, has questioned a number of people as he continues his search for Carter. One, a prostitute who calls herself Lacey, has had a number of contacts with these Scroungers, several of whom have attempted to talk her into going to Astra Palace. Apparently her skills are of the kind much appreciated there.”
“Is that so?” Bridgemont asked. “This sounds like good news. Has she actually been to this Astra Palace?”
“Two times, apparently,” Westland answered, holding up two fingers.
“Well, gentlemen, this does sound like very good news, indeed. Is there any chance that she could lead any of our people to Astra Palace?” Talbot asked.
“Not very likely,” Westland said. “Her many talents do not include navigation or tracking, unfortunately. But she was able to provide Mud a very thorough and detailed description of the place.”
“Is that so?” Bridgemont asked.
“Indeed so. You’ll find the completest description in Captain Hardy’s report to us, numbered H-001-024. But for now I can confirm that our suspicions have been confirmed through Mud’s source, that Astra Palace is indeed built into an asteroid, one in the outer belt. Apparently the asteroid is large enough to have been catalogued, but which one it may be we have no way of knowing.”
“This is a major step forward for us,” Talbot said, “To be able to confirm this much.”
“There is more, much more,” Westland said, with a smile. “Apparently this Lacey is a veritable font of information.”
“I think much of that might be due to our friend, Mud,” Talbot said. “Though he is very gruff in his manner and his appearance, I have learned of him, when he has been good enough to attend some of our little soirees with Illara and Carter, that his manner hides an otherwise very subtle character. He does have a way of charming the ladies, to use the expression, when he puts his heart into it. I have no doubt that this Lacey, even belonging, as she seems, to a profession that can only encourage the deepest cynicism in most, fell victim to his subtle manipulations.”
Bridgemont and Westland both smiled at Talbot’s characterization of Mud.
“Correct you are, I have no doubt,” Bridgemont said. “As you so often are.”
Talbot waved away the compliment with a smile.
“And what more can you tell us of this Astra Palace?” he asked Westland.
“Without wasting our time here,” Westland began, “I’ll just hit the highlights. The more detailed report you can find in Hardy’s report, which I’ll transfer to your notebooks now.”
Westland looked down at his own notebook and tapped a few keys.
“Done,” he said. “Now, Astra Palace is, as we suspected, and which the name itself suggests, a hideaway of sorts for the Scroungers. It is something in the way of a pleasure palace, as it were, a combination hotel, casino, or rather, a series of hotels, casinos and brothels where weary space pirates can hole up for a time to recharge their batteries.
“In addition to those, are the trading posts, machine shops, and other places of a more functional nature, where our opponents can repair or rebuild their ships. But these, it seems, are rather of a secondary nature. The primary purpose of them seems to be to cater to the pleasures of the Scroungers, while also affording them a place to hide away for a time, from the law itself, as it is manifested on Earth and Mars, or from other Scroungers who may bear a grudge against them.”
“Most interesting,” Talbot said.
“Quite agreed,” Bridgemont concurred. “I will read Hardy’s report with great interest. Have we any specifics?”
“Not many,” Westland admitted. “But the few we do have are of extreme interest, to say nothing of importance.”
“Yes?” Talbot prompted.
“Yes, indeed,” Westland answered, grinning.
“We have the name of the administrator of this place. His name is Horst Dal.”
“Oh!” Talbot exclaimed. “That is good news, very good news, indeed!”
“I’ll say, boy!” Bridgemont agreed, clapping his hands together.
“Yes. Having his name, can the man himself be not far behind?” Westland asked rhetorically, and grinning broadly. “But there is more.”
“More?” Talbot asked. “Riches shower upon us. Our friend, Mud, has done us a great service.”
“And Ward, too,” Westland added. “It’s only because he’s looking out for Ward that Mud has undertaken this little adventure on our behalf.”
“Quite so,” Talbot agreed. “WE all owe him a great deal. I owe him much, very much, and most particularly.”
“Well, then, let us hope that he comes to a happy ending,” Westland said. “As for the rest of it, we learn that this Horst Dal has a confidante, probably his only confidante, a man by the name of Yamir.”
“Yamir?” Bridgemont repeated. “Is that a name I should know?”
“I couldn’t tell you,” Westland replied. “But what I can tell you is that Yamir is one of the men, along with Turhan Mot and that fellow’s second-in-command, Mokem Bet, responsible for the attack against Callisto.”
“Is that indeed so?” Bridgemont demanded.
“Indeed it is,” Westland answered. “So, if you didn’t know his name before, you should surely do so now.”
“Oh, you can bet I won’t be forgetting his name anytime soon,”
“Or ever, I am sure,” Westland answered
“Nope,” Bridgemont agreed.
“This Yamir commands his own ship, has a crew of maybe forty. Probably a Scrounger himself, but we don’t have anything definite on that point. In any case, that’s the highlights coming from this Lacey person. The details, as I’ve already mentioned, you’ll find Hardy’s latest report.”
“Oh, and speaking of this Lacey again,” Talbot asked. “Did she happen to give our friend Mud any indication of why she chose not to remain at Astra Palace? It seems to be a place where a person of her skills should do quite well.”
“Yes,” Westland answered. “Apparently she made it very clear to Mud why she chose not to stay. Not on her first visit there. But on her second. Her mind was quite made up on her second visit.”
“And why was that?” Talbot pressed.
“As I said before, Astra Palace caters to the, uh... tastes of the Scroungers.”
“And this Lacey is quite willing to indulge many of those tastes, but she found herself unable to bring herself to accommodate some of those tastes.”
“Oh?” Talbot asked.
“Cannibalism,” Westland explained. “The practice seems well entrenched at Astra Palace. That, along with several other, um, one might use the word `fetishes’ even more repugnant.”
Silence settled upon the three men for a long and tortured moment.
Finally, stroking his chin with his long and delicate fingers, Talbot spoke.
“It occurs to me, my friends, that sharing all this information with Mud, it may be that Lacey has put her own safety in doubt. It seems to me that one who is willing to eat his fellow creature might not think twice about killing, to keep that unpleasant predilection a little secret between himself, his meals and those with whom he shares those meals.”
Westland and Bridgemont exchanged glances.
“And this Miss Lacey has been indeed so helpful to us that I would be very upset with myself if she were to come to harm, due to our negligence.”
“What would you have us do?” Westland asked.
“Perhaps we could send a ship to the asteroid, and have them bring this Miss Lacey here, where she would not have to fear being either killed or eaten by us?”
Bridgemont moved his head slowly back and forth.
“I’m sorry, Story. I really am, but we can’t spare anyone on a mission like that. Not now, probably not ever.”
Talbot pursed his lips.
“I rather thought so,” he said after a moment’s reflection. “But I felt the obligation to make the query.”
“I am sorry, Story.”
“I know you are, Gerald, old friend. But perhaps our friend Mud might be persuaded to look in on her, and, perhaps, see if he couldn’t talk her into leaving the place where she is now, for safer climes?”
“That would be up to Mud, himself,” Westland said. “It’ll be hard to take him away from the mission he’s on right now. He’s giving us a helluva lot of good information.”
“Indeed he is,” Talbot agreed.
“And I don’t know if he’d be all that willing to drop what he’s doing now, trailing Ward. But I’ll put the query to him through Hardy.”
“Thank you, Franklin. That’s all I can ask of you.”
“Please be sure, Story, that both Frank and I feel exactly the same way you do,” Bridgemont assured him.
“Oh, I know you do, Gerald. And I am sorry that you feel the need to give me that reassurance. I harbour no doubts regarding your humanity. And I know all too well that you both have had often to make some very cold-blooded decisions, for the sake of preserving the lives of others.”
“It sometimes seems heartless, I know, the things Jerry and I have done...”
“Please,” Talbot said, raising his hand, interrupting Bridgemont. “Say no more. I know you both very well, you and Gerald. And I know that you are both men of great heart as well as great courage. So, please, do not ever feel the need to defend yourselves or any decisions you may ever make to me.”
“Quite right,” Westland said. “Perhaps we should get on to any other orders of business now?”
“Agreed,” Bridgemont said. “My reports from Illara only confirm much of what Hardy told us, except for that coming from this Miss Lacey. All that is new to me, as it is to Talbot. As I discussed at the general meeting earlier, we have had a few Scrounger patrol ships sniffing us out. Ever since the battle, they’ve been nosing around here quite a bit. More than I like. We’ve been keeping the news quiet, as much as we can, and killing the bastards, too, when we can catch them.”
“Good. Very good,” Westland said.
“And we’ve been following those we haven’t been able to kill outright. They don’t come from any one direction, dammit, but several,” Bridgemont said.
“Why `dammit’?” Talbot asked.
“If they were coming at us from any particular direction, then we’d be able to guess that there was a headquarters, or a base that these bastards were launching from. No such luck.”
“Ah. Of course,” Talbot replied.
Bridgemont pressed a button on the desk, calling up holographic images culled from the many millions recorded during the battle. Two ships appeared above the desk. One was long and almost needle-like, with a flight deck amidships, and a prominent command deck at the fore. The scale accompanying the image indicated that the ship was roughly a half-mile in length, nearly the size of Westland’s “Bellerophon”. The other ship was built up of twelve bronze-coloured spheres, arranged in a pyramidal shape. It showed no flight deck, but a very heavy armament.
“Gentlemen, what you are seeing are the two transport ships that figured prominently in the attack against us. The one ship, we know from our friends, Carter and Mud, was commanded by Turhan Mot. That ship was destroyed, or very nearly so, in the battle. The other large ship is also a Scrounger ship. We are not sure who commands it, or even so much as its name.
“Now the reason I bring these ships to your attention is to make the point that before the battle, we had no idea that the Scroungers had any ships of this size this far out. And then we were surprised to find that there were two. There might be more.
“The small ships harassing us now strongly indicate the source to be a transport ship. But we were surprised before, so it might be that there are many more than only one ship, or two. As far as we are able to guess, there may be even half a dozen of those bastards out there.”
“But they have not launched any attacks on us since the battle,” Talbot interjected.
“That’s right, they haven’t,” Bridgemont said.
“Which suggests that they are not ready to attack yet,” Talbot said.
“Yeah,” Bridgemont agreed. “But it also raises the question of `why’? Why are the harassing us? If they’re not ready to attack, why are they letting us know they are here?”
“Keep us on edge,” Colonel Westland put in. “Keep our nerves rattled. Make us lose sleep, wondering what the hell they’re up to. Let us know they haven’t forgotten us,” he wrapped up, with a shrug.
“Mm,” was Talbot’s monosyllabic reply.
“So where does this leave us?” Bridgemont asked of Westland. “The one ship, the one that Ward tells us was commanded by Turhan Mot was very nearly destroyed. it is clearly not in any functional condition now.”
“And the other,” Westland said, gesturing toward the holographic image projected above the mahogany desk, “As we can see, here, it is not fitted out to carry any ships of any size. But it is heavily armed, and, unlike its companion, it escaped the battle relatively unscathed.
“So it appears that there is at least one more large transport out there, and not far off. Perhaps more. We don’t know.”
“I see,” Bridgemont said. Then, turning to Talbot, he asked, “Have we been sharing any of this with our friend back on Earth, General Howe?”
“Even with subspace communications, I hesitate to say too much to Bill. As we all know, he is playing a very dangerous game, and apparently he game has been heating up for him in these last few months, especially now, after the battle.”
“How so?” Westland asked.
“As we all know, Secretary Benson has been very suspicious of everyone who preceded him in office. Even jealous. And Bill has been in his current post for well over twenty years. That, and the fact that he is very well liked by his command, and all who have worked with him, gives Benson two reasons to distrust him already.”
“Yes, that is all very true,” Colonel Westland replied with a sardonic grin. Westland reported directly to General Howe. But as all their communications were closely scrutinized by several layers of bureaucracy and coding, it was necessary for them to sanitize their words to the point that they were almost completely anodyne. This made their communications useless for any agency that Talbot, Westland or Bridgemont might put them to.
“Our friend, Bill, has been working behind the scenes, as we know, to stymie Secretary’s Benson’s campaign against Mars, and he has been very successful, thus far. Turhan Mot’s attack on us here has proven very beneficial in that regard, as well, for it does force Benson to redirect his attention.”
“Which Bill was quick to exploit,” Westland said.
“Yes. Quite so,” Talbot agreed.
“But I fear the noose is tightening,” he went on to say. “Benson has always been suspicious of General Howe. It appears now that his suspicions are coalescing into real schemes against Howe.”
“Oh?” Westland asked.
“In his most recent communication to me, he cautions me against sending him any more messages. He is being closely watched.”
“This is not good,” Westland said. His mouth formed itself into a scowl.
“He will send me communications when he knows it is safe, but otherwise,” Talbot went on, “It is far too dangerous for him to receive any messages from me.”
“It seems to me that it would be dangerous for you, as well,” Westland said.
“And for all of us,” Bridgemont added. “If word got back to Benson that you were here on Callisto, I think that Benson would be quick to have you picked up, and the rest of us punished for harbouring you.”
A chill silence settled on the shoulders of all three men.
“Gentlemen,” Talbot finally said. “I fear we have some very dark days ahead.”
CONTINUES NEXT WEEK