THE SEARCH FOR ASTRA PALACE by Gregory KH Bryant
They had come to a doorway, one very plain, and one carved directly into the naked stone of the asteroid. Traffic was busy, and light were bright. Music was pumped through the hallways.
The door into Ed’s place was unmarked. One somewhat wide wooden panel gave both entrance and egress. Above it, a single light mounted into the rock. A cart on a trellis rattled by.
Mud opened the door, and with a sweeping gesture, he invited, “Welcome to Ed’s place!”
Illara stepped through, keeping a very stiff face. Hardy followed Illara. Mud closed the door behind them, then led them through the crowded bar to an empty booth near a darkened corner.
Spotting Ed at the bar, he told Hardy and Illara to “Sit tight, and make y’selves comfortable. I’m gonna talk to my friend at the bar,” he finished with a nod toward a stocky man in a yellow apron. That was Ed, a middle-aged man both phlegmatic and taciturn. Fluent in the language of liquor, Ed ran a well-stocked bar. He did not have to rely on the replicator alone, but had managed to build together an impressive stock over the years, which is what gave his bar its reputation here in the outer asteroid belt.
Ed was idly busy at the moment, wiping down glasses and taking orders. The hookers who worked the bar were doing well.
“Hiya, Ed,” Mud greeted the man with a cheery voice. “How’s ever’thing?”
Ed looked up from what he was doing.
“S’awrite,” he said. “What can I getcha?”
“Nothin’ fancy. Just gimme a coupla shots of…oh, let’s call it bourbon.”
“Okie dokie, will do,” Ed said. He turned his back to Mud as he spoke into the replicator, asking for two shots of unmarked bourbon.
Once Ed’s back was turned to Mud, Mud asked, “D’ja hear from Lacey?”
Ed, a most imperturbable man, answered bluntly, “Hadn’t seen her in a while.”
“I heard she’d been disappeared,” Mud said.
Ed turned and set two small glasses on the counter between them.
“You know as much as I do,” Ed answered. He began to turn away to attend to another customer.
“That’s not what I heard,” Mud said.
“Can’t say I’m much responsible for what you hear,” Ed said.
“I’m not askin’ ya ta be responsible for anything,” Mud said. “Only maybe you should be payin’ attention.”
Ed glanced down and saw the pistol Mud had discreetly slipped from its holster to point at his ribcage. He held the gun in one hand, while shielding it from view with the other.
“Well,” Ed drawled. “I guess you oughta know, I got some friends here.”
“As it happens, I do too,” Mud said.
“Yeah, I seen `en when they come in with ya,” Ed replied. He looked at Mud carelessly. “Ya wancher drinks?”
Mud laughed easily. Sliding his pistol back into its holster, he said, “Yeah, you’re okay. Don’t scare easy, do ya?”
“No pay in it.”
“Haw! Haw!” Mud laughed. “Well, I sure am sorry to be so rude to ya, Ed. Had ta get yer attention.”
“You got it now, don’t squander it,” Ed said. A nearly imperceptible gesture called off the three guns he’d hired on as bodyguards and bouncers. Ed had learned that the value of trading information outweighed whatever thin measure of satisfaction was to be got be returning a threat, or a punch.
This Mud fellow obviously had something on his mind. It might be useful to him, Ed, to find out what it was. In any case, that one word, `sorry’ which he heard so very rarely, and the tone in which it was spoken, did much to pacify the man.
“Well, then, what can I do for you?” Ed asked.
Mud knew that there would be no point now in asking any questions about Lacey, so he approached Ed from a different angle.
“I hear my friend Rat has been grudging against me.”
“Rat’s been grudging agin’st everybody, long as I’ve known him.”
“I’m sure of it. Any idea where I might dig him up?”
“Hang out here long enough. You’re bound to see him.”
“Thanks,” Mud said. He turned to see what Hardy and Illara were up to, and saw them chatting away, sitting at an empty table. “Gimme one a’ them sangrias for the lady over there and a coupla beers, one for him and one for me.”
“Awrite,” Ed answered.
He turned back to the replicator, and spoke Mud’s order into it. After a moment, the drinks appeared. Ed slid them onto a tray, and handed it off to Mud. Holding the tray with one hand, he held his wristband up and tapped Ed’s with it, paying for the drinks and leaving a very generous tip.
Mud turned and carried the tray to the table.
And damn it if it wasn’t Rat himself, walking right that moment through the door.
CONTINUES NEXT ISSUE