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The Witches of Karres: Chapter Seven

       Last updated: Tuesday, January 20, 2004 03:49 EST



    It was time to rouse Goth once more... past time by twenty minutes or so. But let her sleep a little longer, the captain thought. This alternate-watch arrangement would get to be a grind before the Chaladoor run was over! If he could only trust one of the others on board....

    Well, he couldn't.

    He sniffed. For a moment he'd fancied a delicate suggestion of perfume in the air. Imagination. Hulik do Eldel used perfume, but it was over twenty-four hours since she'd been in the control room. Besides she didn't use this kind.

    Something stirred in his memory. Who did use this kind of perfume? Wasn't it--

    "Do you have a few minutes to spare for me, Captain Aron?" somebody purred throatily behind him. He started, spun about in the chair.

    Red-headed Sunnat leaned with lazy, leggy grace against the far wall of the control room, eyes half shut, smiling at him. Her costume was the one which most of all had set the captain's pulses leaping rapidly, when she'd slid off her cloak and revealed it to him, back in Zergandol.

    He started again, but less violently.

    "Not bad!" he remarked. He cleared his throat. "You were off on the voice though and pretty far off, I'd say, on the perfume."

    Sunnat stared at him a moment, smile fading. "Hm!" she said coldly. She turned, swayed into Goth's cabin. Goth came out a moment later, half frowning, half grinning.

    "Thought I was her pretty good!" she stated. "Voice, too!"

    "You were, really!" the captain admitted. "And just what, may I ask, was the idea?"

    Goth hitched herself up on the communicator table and dangled her legs. "Got to practice," she explained. "There's a lot to it. Not easy to hold the whole thing together either!"

    "Light waves, sound waves, and scents, eh? No, I imagine it wouldn't be. That's all you do?"

    "Right now it's all," nodded Goth.

    The captain reflected. "Another thing -- if you saw that costume of hers, you were doing some underhanded snooping-around in Zergandol!"

    "Looked like you might need help," Goth said darkly.

    "Well, I didn't!"

    "No." She grinned. "Couldn't know that, though. Want me to do Hulik? I got her down just right."

    "Another time." The captain climbed out of the chair, adjusted the seat for her. "I'd better get some sleep. And you'd better forget about practicing and keep your eyes pinned to those screens! There've been a few flickers again."

    "Don't worry!" She slipped down from the table, started over to him. Then they both froze.

    There were short, screeching whistles, a flickering line of red on the console. An alarm--

    "Strongbox!" hissed Goth.



    They raced through the silent ship to the storage. The lounge was deserted, its lights dim. It had been ship-night for two hours.

    The big storage door was shut, seemed locked, but swung open at the captain's touch. The automatic lighting inside was on -- somebody there! Cargo packed the compartment to the ship's curved hull above. The captain brought out his gun as they went quickly down the one narrow aisle still open along the length of the storage, then came in sight of the vault at the far end to the left. The vault door -- that massive, burglar-proof slab -- stood half open.

    Vezzarn lay face down in the door opening, legs within the vault as if he had stumbled and fallen in the act of emerging from it. He didn't move as they scrambled past him. The interior of the vault hummed like a hive of disturbed giant insects. The strongbox stood against one wall, its top section tilted up. A number of unfamiliar tools lay on the floor about it. The humming poured up out of the box.

    It was like wading knee-deep through thick, sucking mud to get to it! The captain's head reeled in waves of dizziness. The humming deepened savagely. He heard Goth shout something behind him. Then he was bending over the opened box. Gray light glared out of it; cold fire stabbed -- he seemed to be dropping forward, headlong into cold, gray distances, as his hands groped frantically about, found the tough, flexible plastic wrapping which had been pulled away from the crystal's surface, wrenched, tugged it back into place.

    In seconds they had it covered again, the plastic ends twisted tightly together; they stood gasping and staring at each other as the angry humming subsided. It was as if something that had been coming awake had gone back to sleep.

    "Just in time here -- maybe!" panted the captain. "Let's hurry!"

    They couldn't get the strongbox closed all the way, left it as it was -- top pulled down, a gap showing beneath it. They hauled Vezzarn clear of the vault door, shoved the door shut, spun its triple locks till they clicked back into position. The captain wrestled Vezzarn up to his shoulder. The old spacer might be dead or merely unconscious; in any case, he was a loose, floppy weight, difficult to keep a grasp on.

    They got the storage door locked. Then Goth was off, darting back to the control section, the captain hurrying and stumbling after her with Vezzarn. There was still no sign of the two passengers -- but that didn't necessarily mean they were asleep in their staterooms.

    He let Vezzarn slide to the control room floor and joined Goth at the instruments. The glittering dark of the Chaladoor swam about them but nothing of immediate importance was registering. Most particularly, nothing which suggested the far-off Worm World knew Olimy's crystal had been uncovered again on a ship thundering along its solitary course through space. They exchanged glances.

    "Might have been lucky!" the captain said. "If there're no Nuris anywhere around here--" He drew in a long breath, looked back at Vezzarn. "Let's try to get that character awake!"

    Spluttering, swallowing, coughing, Vezzarn woke up a few minutes later. The captain pulled back the flask of strong ship brandy he'd been holding to the little spacer's mouth, recapped it and set it on the floor. "Can you hear me, Vezzarn?" he asked loudly.

    "Aaa-eeh," sighed Vezzarn. He looked around and his face seemed to crumple. He blinked up at the captain, started to lift a hand to wipe his tear-filled eyes, and discovered handcuffs on his wrists. "Ah?" he muttered, frightened, then tried to meet the captain's gaze again and failed. He cleared his throat. "Uh -- what's happened, skipper?"

    "You're going to tell us," said the captain coldly. "Look over there, Vezzarn!"

    Vezzarn turned his head in the indicated direction, saw the inner port of the control section lock yawning open, looked back apprehensively at the captain.

    "Dani," said the captain, nodding at Goth who sat sideways to them at the communicator table, an instrument case with dials on it before her, "is playing around with a little lie detector of ours over there! The detector is focused on you. Now--"

    "I wouldn't lie to you, skipper!" Vezzarn interrupted earnestly. "I just wouldn't Anything you want to know I'll--"

    "We'll see. If the detector says you're lying--" the captain jerked his thumb at the lock. "You go out, Vezzarn! That way. I won't listen to explanations. Out into the Chaladoor, as you are!" He moved back a step, put his hands on his hips, gave Vezzarn a glare for good measure. "Start talking!"

    Vezzarn didn't wait to ask what he should talk about. Hurriedly he began spilling everything he could think of about what had been told him of Captain Aron's mystery drive, the voice who employed him, the change in assignment, his own plans, and events on the ship. "Now I've, uh, seen your drive, sir," he concluded, voice quivering reminiscently, "I wouldn't want the hellish thing! Not as a gift from you. I wouldn't want to come anywhere near it again. I'm playing it honest. I'm your man, sir, until we're through the Chaladoor and berthed safe on Emris. Believe me!"

    The captain moved to the desk, turned down a switch. The lock sealed itself with a sharp snap. Vezzarn started, then exhaled in heavy relief.

    "We seem to have a passenger on board who's interested in the same thing," the captain remarked. It wouldn't hurt if Vezzarn believed the crystalloid was the mystery drive. That he wasn't going near it again if he could help it was obvious. Apparently he'd fainted in sheer fright as he was trying to scramble out of the vault. "Which of them?"

    "Both of them, I'd say," Vezzarn told him, speaking a little more easily. "Couldn't prove it -- but they've both been moving around where they shouldn't be."

    The captain studied him a moment. "I was assured," he said then, "that short of a beam that could melt battle-steel, nobody would be able to force a way into that vault or to open that box until the time lock opened it--"

    Vezzarn cleared his throat, produced a small, modest smile.

    "Well, sir," he said, "it's possible you could find two men on Uldune who're better safecrackers than I am. I'm not saying you would. It's possible. But I'll guarantee you couldn't find three.... I guess that explains it, sir!"

    "I guess it does," the captain agreed. He considered. Hulik do Eldel and Laes Yango weren't at all likely to be in the same lofty safecracking class, but -- "Could you fix the vault and the strongbox so you couldn't get in again?" he asked.

    "Huh?" Vezzarn looked reflective for a moment. "Yeah," he said slowly, "that could be done...."

    "Fine," said the captain. "Get up. We'll go do it right now."

    Vezzarn paled. "Skipper," he stated uncomfortably, "I'd really rather not go anywhere near..."

    "The forward lock over there," warned the captain, "can be opened awfully quick again!"

    Vezzarn climbed awkwardly out of the chair. "I'll go, sir," he said.

    Worm Weather appeared in the screens seven hours later....

    It was very far away, but it was there -- fuzzily rounded specks of yellowness drifting across the stars. They picked up five or six of the distant dots almost simultaneously, not grouped but scattered about the area. There seemed to be no pattern to their motion, either in relation to one another or to the Venture.

    Within another half-hour there might have been nearly fifty in the screens at a time, to all sides of the ship. It was difficult to keep count. They moved with seeming aimlessness, dwindled unnaturally, were gone in distance. Others appeared.... Goth had set up the Drive, and came back to join the captain. The lounge screens had been cut off from the beginning. Laes Yango called on intercom to report the fact, was told of a malfunction which would presently be corrected.

    And still the Nuri globes came no closer. The encounter might have been a coincidence, but the probability remained that Vezzarn's exposure of the crystal in the strongbox had drawn the swarms towards this area of space. They seemed to have no method of determining the Venture’s moment-to-moment position more exactly. But sheer chance might bring one near enough to reveal the ship to them--

    "You scared?" Goth inquired by and by in a subdued voice.

    "Well, yes.... You?"

    "Uh-huh. Bit."

    "The Drive will get us out of it if necessary," he said.


    In another while there seemed fewer of the globes around. The captain waited some minutes to be sure, then commented on it. Goth had noticed it, too. Their number dwindled farther. At last only one or two doubtful specks remained in space, now far behind the ship. But neither of them felt like leaving the screens.

    "Being a witch," sighed the captain, "can get to be quite a job!"

    "Sometimes," Goth agreed.

    He reflected. "Well, maybe things will quiet down for a spell.... Almost everything that could happen on board has happened by now!" He considered again, chuckled. "Unless one of those -- what did you call them? -- vatches joins the party!"

    Goth cleared her throat carefully. "Well, about that, Captain--"

    He gave her a quick, startled look.

    "Can't say there's one around," Goth said. "Can't say there isn't though, either."

    "One around! I thought you'd know!"

    "They come close enough, I do. This one doesn't. If it's a vatch. Just get a feeling there's been something watching." She waved a hand at the Chaladoor in the screens. "From a ways off."

    "It could be a vatch?"

    "Could be," Goth acknowledged. "Wouldn't worry about it. If it's your vatch, he's probably just been curious about what you were doing. They get curious about people."

    The captain grunted. "Since when have you had that feeling?"

    "Off and on," Goth said. "On the ship... once or twice in Zergandol."

    He shook his head helplessly.

    "Might fade off after a while," Goth concluded. "He starts making himself at home around here, I'll let you know."

    "You do that, Goth!" the captain said.



    Two watches farther along, it became apparent that not everything that could happen on the Venture had happened so far. What occurred wasn't vatch work, though for a moment the captain wasn't so sure. In fact, it was something for which nobody on board had any satisfactory explanation to offer.

    Hulik do Eldel gave the alarm. The captain was on duty when the intercom rang. He switched it on, said, "Yes?"

    "Captain Aron," Hulik told him in an unnaturally composed voice, "I'm locked in my stateroom and need immediate assistance! Knock before you try to enter, and identify yourself, or I'll shoot through the door."

    The captain pressed Goth's buzzer. "Why would you shoot through the door?" he asked.

    "Because," Hulik said, "there's some beast loose on the ship."

    "Beast?" he repeated, startled. Goth's face appeared in her screen, pop-eyed, nodded at him, disappeared.

    "Beast. Creature. Thing! Monster!" Hulik seemed to be speaking through hard clenched teeth. "I saw it. just now. In a passage off the lounge. Be careful on your way here! It's large, probably dangerous."

    "I'll be there at once!" the captain promised.

    "Bring your gun," Hulik told him, still in the flat, dead tone of choked-down hysteria. "Several, if you have them...." She switched off as Goth came trotting out of her cabin, buttoning up her jacket. "Vatch?" the captain asked hurriedly.

    Goth shook her head. "Not a whiff of one around! She couldn't see a vatch anyway, if there was one around." She looked puzzled and interested.

    "Could something else have got on the ship -- out of space? Something material?"

    "Don't know," Goth said hesitantly. "Course you hear stories about the Chaladoor like that."

    "The do Eldel's no doubt heard them, too!" commented the captain. He slid his gun into a pocket, felt his nerves tightening up again. "We'll hope it's her imagination! Come on."

    They emerged from the control section, moved along the passage to the lounge, wary and listening. Nothing stirred. The lounge was dim, and the captain flipped the lights up to full strength as they entered. They went down a side passage, turned into another, stopped at a closed stateroom door.

    "Let's stand aside a bit," the captain whispered. "The way she was talking, she might shoot through the door if she's startled!" He rapped cautiously on the panel, pressed the door speaker.

    "Who's there?" Hulik's voice inquired sharply.

    "Captain Aron," announced the captain. "Dani's with me."

    There were two clicks. The door swung open a few inches and Hulik gazed out at them over a small but practical-looking gun. Her delicate face was drawn and pale, and there was a nervous flickering to the dark eyes that made the captain very uneasy. She glanced along the passage, hissed, "Come in! Quickly!" and opened the door wider.

    "...I didn't get too good a look at it," she was telling them in the stateroom a few seconds later, still holding the gun. "It was in the passage leading back from the lounge, about thirty feet away and in shadow. A dark shape, moving up the passage towards me." She shivered quickly. "It was an animal of some kind -- quite large!"

    "How large?" the captain asked.

    She considered. "The body might have been as big as that of a horse. It seemed lumpy, rounded. It was close to the floor -- I had the impression it was crouching! The head -- big, round, something like tusks or fangs below it." Hulik's finger lifted, made five quick, stabbing motions in the air. "Eyes!" she said. "Five eyes in a row along the upper part of the head. Rather small, bright yellow."



    Everyone -- with the exception of Olimy -- was gathered in the control section; and except for Goth, all of them carried a gun. Hulik's story couldn't simply be ignored. It was clear she believed she had seen what she'd described. Vezzarn evidently believed it, too. His face was as pale as the do Eldel's. Laes Yango was more skeptical.

    "I've heard tales of ships being boarded by creatures from space in the Chaladoor," he observed. "I have never felt there was reason to give much credence to them. Overwrought nerves can--"

    "My nerves are as good as yours, sir!" Hulik interrupted hotly. "If they weren't, I would hardly have looked for passage through the Chaladoor in the first place. I know what I saw!"

    Yango shrugged, indicated the viewscreens. "We're all aware there are very realistic dangers out there," he said. "Of many kinds. No one can foretell when one or the other of them will be next encountered. Are you proposing that we perhaps leave this child on guard to warn us of whatever may occur, while the rest spend upward of an hour searching every nook of the ship to locate an apparition?"

    Hulik said sharply, "Dani can't remain here by herself, of course! We must all stay together. And, yes, I say we should search the ship immediately, as a group. We must find that creature and either kill it or drive it back into space." She looked at the captain. "For all we know, that unfortunate paralyzed person is in imminent danger at this very moment!"

    The captain hesitated. To leave the control room unguarded for a considerable length of time certainly was not desirable. On the other hand, the Chaladoor looked as open and placid at the moment as one could wish. No stars, dust clouds, planetary bodies, or asteroid flows which might provide ambush points lay along the immediate course stretch ahead; the detectors had remained immobile for hours....

    It shouldn't, he pointed out to the others, take them an hour to conduct a search of the ship which would be adequate for the purpose. There were few hiding places for a creature of the size described by Miss do Eldel. Further, if the thing was aggressive, there was no reason to expect it would remain hidden. He'd turn on the ship's automatic alarm system now which would blast a warning over every intercom speaker on board if suspicious objects came within detector range. They'd keep together, move as a group through each compartment of the ship in turn. That could be done in less than twenty minutes. If they encountered nothing, they'd assume there were no lurking monsters here to be feared.

    "After all," he concluded, "this creature, whatever it was, may have come aboard, looked about, and simply left again shortly after Miss do Eldel saw it...."

    Nobody appeared really satisfied with this solution, but they set off from the control section a few minutes later. The Venture’s interior gradually came ablaze with lights as the search party went through the passenger area first, worked on to the back of the ship and the storage, finally checked out the lower deck. But no ungainly beast was flushed to view; nor could they find the slightest traces such a creature might have left, even in the passage where Hulik declared she had seen it. Hulik remained unconvinced.

    "What the rest of you do is your own affair!" she stated. "But I intend to go on no-sleep for the next several ship-days and remain in my stateroom with the door locked. Vezzarn can bring me my meals. If nothing happens in that time, I shall be satisfied the thing is no longer on board. Meanwhile I advise all of you to take what precautions you can...."

    The captain felt Hulik was not being too realistic about the situation. A creature capable of transferring itself through the hull of an armored trader into the interior of the ship presumably would also be capable of transferring itself into any stateroom it selected. Perhaps Hulik simply did not want to admit that to herself. At any rate, no one mentioned the possibility.

    As he sat at the control desk near the end of his next watch, Goth whispered suddenly from behind his shoulder, "Captain!"

    He started. These had been rather unsettling days in one way and another, and he hadn't heard her come up. He half turned. "Yes?"

    "Got any of the intercoms on?" her whisper inquired. She sounded excited about something.

    "No. What do--" He checked abruptly. He'd swung all the way around in the chair to look at her.

    And nobody was standing there.

    "Goth!" he said loudly, startled.

    "Huh?" inquired the voice. It seemed to come out of thin air not three feet from him. "Oh!" A giggle. "Forgot! I -- hey, watch it!"

    He'd reached out towards the voice without thinking, touched something. Then Goth suddenly stood there, two feet farther away, rubbing her forehead and frowning.

    "Near put out my eye with your thumb!" she announced indignantly.

    "But what... since when--"

    "Oh, no-shape! Special kind of shape-change, that's all. just learned it this sleep period so I forgot to switch off when I came in. I was...." She put her hands on her hips. "Captain, I found out where that thing Hulik saw is hiding!"

    "Huh?" The captain came out of the chair, hand darting to the desk drawer where he kept the gun. "It is on the ship?"

    Goth nodded, eyes gleaming. "In Yango's cabin!"

    "Great Patham! Was Yango--"

    "Don't worry about him. He was in there with it just now. Talking to it. I was listening at the door." Goth glanced down at herself, patted her flanks. "No-shape's pretty handy once you get used to not seeing you around anywhere!"

    "Now wait," said the captain helplessly. "Did you just say Yango was talking to the creature?"

    "And it to Yango," Goth nodded. "Snarly sort of thing! No kind of talk I know. Yango knows it, though."

    He stared at her. "Goth, you're sure he has that animal in his stateroom with him?"

    "Well, sure I'm sure! He opened the door a crack once to look out." Goth put her hands out on either side of her. "I was that far from him."

    "That was dangerous! The creature might have caught your scent."

    "No-shape, no-sound, no-scent!" Goth said complacently. "Had them all going, Captain. I wasn't there. Got a look through the door at a bit of the thing. Big, and brown fur. Saw part of a leg, too. Odd sort of leg--"


    "Kind of like a bug's leg. Got that shaggy fur all over it, though. Couldn't really see much." She looked at him. "What are we going to do?"

    "If Laes Yango's talking to it, he's got some kind of control over it. We'd better handle this by ourselves and right now, while we know the thing's still in the stateroom."

    "It won't go out by the door for a while," Goth said.

    "Why not?"

    "Doorlock won't turn till we get there. Pulled a bit of steel inside it. So it's stuck."

    "Very good!" When Laes Yango's shipment of hyperelectronic equipment had been brought on board, he'd insisted on having one very large crate of particularly valuable items placed in his stateroom instead of the storage. "Remember that big box he has in there.?" the captain asked.

    Goth looked dubious. "Don't think it's big enough for that thing to climb into!"

    "Something with a body as large as that of a horse's -- no, I guess not. It was just a thought." He pocketed the gun. "Let's go find out what it is and what Yango thinks he's doing with it." He looked down at her. "This might get rough. We'll sort of play it by ear."

    Goth nodded, grinned briefly.

    "And I go no-shape, eh" "

    "Plus the rest of it," said the captain. "But don't do anything to make Laes Yango think he's arguing with a witch -- unless it looks absolutely necessary."

    "Saving that up." Goth nodded.

    "Exactly. We might still have to pull a few real surprises of our own before this trip's over. You'll clear the doorlock as soon as we get there--"

    "Right," said Goth and vanished. He kept his ears cocked for any indication of her presence on the way to Laes Yango's stateroom, but caught nothing. The no sound effect seemed as complete as the visual blankout. As he came quietly up to the door, her fingers gave the side of his hand a quick ghostly squeeze and were gone.

    He stood listening, ear close to the panel. He heard no voice sounds, but there were other faint sounds. Footsteps crossed the stateroom twice from different directions -- brisk human footsteps, not some animal tread. Yango was moving about. Then came a moderately heavy thump, a metallic clank. After a few moments, two more thumps.... Then everything remained still.



    The captain waited a minute, activated the door speaker.

    He'd expected either a dead silence or some indication of startled, stealthy activity from the stateroom after the buzzer sounded. Instead, Laes Yango's voice inquired calmly, "Yes? Who is it?"

    "Captain Aron," replied the captain. "May I come in, Mr. Yango?"

    "Certainly, sir.... One moment, please. I believe the door is locked."

    Footsteps crossed the stateroom again, approaching the door. Yango hadn't sounded in the least like a man who had something to hide. Those thumps? Thoughtfully, the captain moved back a little, slid a hand into his gun pocket, left it there.

    The door swung open, showing enough of the stateroom to make it immediately clear that no large, strange beast stood waiting inside. The trader smiled a small, cold smile at him from beyond the door. "Come in, sir. Come in!"

    The captain went in, drew the door shut behind him. A light was on over a table against the wall on the left; various papers lay about the table. The big packing crate rather crowded the far end of the room, but nothing approaching the bulk of a horse could possibly have been concealed in that. "I trust I'm not disturbing you," the captain said.

    "Not at all, Captain Aron." Laes Yango, nodded at the table, smiled deprecatingly. "Paper work!... It seems a businessman never quite catches up with that. What was on your mind, sir?"

    "A matter of ship security," the captain told him, casually drawing the gun from his pocket, holding it pointed at the floor between them. The trader's gaze shifted to the gun, then up to the captain's face. He looked mildly puzzled, perhaps a little startled.

    "Ship security?" he repeated.

    "Yes," said the captain. He lifted the gun muzzle an inch or two. "Would you hand me your gun, Mr. Yango? Carefully, please!"

    The trader stared at him a moment. Then his smile returned. "Ah, well," he said softly. "You have the advantage of me, sir! The gun -- of course, if you feel that's necessary!" His hand went slowly under his jacket, slowly brought out a gun, barrel held between thumb and finger, extended it to the captain. "Here you are, sir!"

    The captain placed the gun in his left coat pocket.

    "Thank you," he said. He indicated the packing crate. "You told me, I believe, Mr. Yango, that you had some very valuable and delicate hyperelectronic equipment in that box."

    "That's correct, sir."

    "I see you have it locked," said the captain. "I'll have to take a look inside. Would you unlock it, please?"

    Laes Yango chewed his lip thoughtfully.

    "You insist on that?" he inquired.

    "I'm afraid I do," said the captain.

    "Very well, sir. I know the law -- on a risk run any question of ship security overrides all other considerations, at the captain's discretion. I shall open the lock, though not without protest against this invasion of my business privacy."

    "I'm sorry," said the captain. "Open it, please."

    He waited while the trader produced two sizable keys, inserted them in turn into a lock on the case, twisted them back and forth in a practiced series of motions and withdrew them. Then Yango stepped back from the case. Its top section was swinging slowly open, snapped into position, leaving the interior of the case exposed. The captain moved up, half his attention on the trader, until he could glance into it....

    It looked like a big, folded robe made of animal fur -- long, coarse brown fur, streaked here and there with black tiger markings. The captain reached cautiously into the case, poked the fur, then grasped the hide through it and lifted. It came up with a kind of heavy, resilient looseness. He let it down again. The whole box might be filled with the stuff.

    "This," he asked Yango, "is valuable hyperelectronic equipment?"

    Yango nodded. "Indeed it is, sir! Indeed, it is! Extremely valuable -- almost priceless. Very old and in perfect condition. A disassembled Sheem robot.... The great artist who created it died over three hundred years ago."

    "A disassembled Sheem robot," said the captain. "I see.... Have you had it assembled recently, Mr. Yango?"

    "That is possible," Yango said stiffly.

    The captain took hold of one end of the thick fold of furred material, drew it back--

    The head lay just beneath it, bedded in more brown fur.

    It didn't appear to be a head so much as the flattened-out bristly mask of one. But the eyes looked alive. Hulik do Eldel had described them accurately -- a row of five smallish, round eyes of fiery yellow. They stared up out of the case at the ceiling of the stateroom. Near the other end of the head was a wide dark mouth-slit. A double pair of curved black tusks was thrust out at the sides of the mouth. It was a big head -- big enough to go with a horse-sized body. And a thoroughly hideous one.

    The captain pulled the folded fur back across it again.

    "The Sheem Spider!" Laes Yango said. "A unique item, Captain Aron. The Sheem Robots were modeled after living animals of various worlds, and the Spider is considered to have been the most perfect creation of them all. This is the last specimen still in existence. You asked whether I had assembled it recently.... Yes, I have. It's a most simple process. With your permission--"

    The captain swung the gun up, pointed it at Yango's chest.

    "What are you hiding in your left hand?" he asked.

    "Why, the activating mechanism." Yango frowned puzzledly. "I understood you wished to see it assembled. You see, the Sheem Robots assemble themselves when the signal to do it is registered by them."

    The captain glanced aside into the case. The folded fur in there was shifting, sliding aside, beginning to heave up towards the top of the case.

    "You have," he said, his voice fairly steady, "two seconds to deactivate it again! Then I'll shoot -- and not for the shoulder."

    There was the faintest of clicks from Laes Yango's closed left fist. The stirring mass in the case settled slowly back down into it, lay quiet. "It is deactivated, sir!" Yango said, eyeing the gun.

    "Then I'll take that device," the captain told him. "And after you've locked up the case, I'll take the keys.... And then perhaps you'll let me know what this Sheem Robot is for, where you're taking it -- and why you had it assembled and walking around on this ship without warning anybody about it."

    Yango's expression had become surly but he offered no further protest. He relocked the case, turned over the keys and the activating mechanism. He'd been commissioned, he said, to obtain the Sheem Robot for the prince consort of Swancee, a world to Galactic North of Emris. Wuesselen was the possessor of a fabulous mechanical menagerie, and the standing price he'd offered for a Sheem Spider was fabulous in keeping. How or where Yango had obtained the robot he declined to say; that was a business secret. Above and beyond the price, he'd been promised a bonus if he could deliver it in time to have it exhibited by Wuesselen at the next summer festivals of northern Swancee; and the bonus was large enough to have made it seem worthwhile to take his chances with the Chaladoor passage.

    "For obvious reasons," he said, "I have not wanted any of this to become known. I do not intend to have my throat cut before I can reach Swancee with the Spider!"

    "Why did you assemble it here on the ship?" asked the captain.

    "I've guaranteed to deliver it in good operating condition. These Robots must be tested -- exercised, you might say -- at least every few weeks to prevent deterioration. I regret very much that my action caused an alarm on board, but I didn't wish to reveal the facts of the matter. And no one was in danger. The Sheem Robots are perfectly harmless. They are simply enormously expensive toys!"

    The captain grunted. "How can you get as big a thing as that into your case when it's disassembled?"

    Yango looked at him. "Because these robots are hyperelectronic, sir! Assembled, they consist in considerable part of an interacting pattern of energy fields, many of which manifest as solid matter. As they disassemble, those fields collapse. The remaining material sections take up relatively little space."

    "I see," nodded the captain. "Well, Mr. Yango, I feel you owe Miss do Eldel an explanation and an apology for the fright you gave her. After that's done, I'll bring the ship's crane up here and we'll move the robot's case into the storage vault. It should have had all the exercise it needs on this trip, and it will be safe enough there to satisfy you...."

    Hulik do Eldel had to see the robot before she would believe what the two men were telling her. However, one glance at the great fanged head in the case was enough. "That's it!" she agreed, paling. She shuddered delicately. "Close it up again, please -- quickly!"

    When the case was locked, Laes Yango offered his apologies. Hulik looked at him a moment.

    "I pride myself on being a lady," she said evenly then, "so I accept the apology, Mr. Yango. I will also blow your head off if you try another trick of any kind before we reach Emris!"

    Bad blood among the passengers couldn't ordinarily be considered one of the more auspicious conditions for a space voyage. In this instance though, the captain reflected, some feuding between Laes Yango and the do Eldel might do no harm. It could help keep both of them out of his hair and generally hamper whatever sneaky maneuverings they'd be up to individually. He wondered whether Hulik would carry out her threat to blow off Laes Yango's head, if things came to that point. She might, he decided. Yango, according to the reports he'd had from Goth, was prudently keeping to his stateroom most of the time now. Of course, the big trader was at a disadvantage... the captain had retained custody of his gun, on general suspicion.

    Neither Goth nor Vezzarn ever had heard anything at all of the antique Sheem Robots. Perhaps Yango's hyperelectronic spider monster was as harmless as he claimed, but it was staying right there in its locked-up crate in the vault until the Venture was ready to discharge her cargo in port There'd been robots built that were far from harmless....

    About time for Hulik to create a tense situation on the ship next!

    Well, the trip to Emris wouldn't take forever! They were nearly halfway through the Chaladoor by now--


    Eh? What was that? Surprised, the captain groped around mentally, paused. Out of nowhere that vast voice came booming and whirling about him again, like great, formlessly shifting gusts of wind.


    Impression, suddenly, of a mountain of wavy, unstable blackness before him. From some point near its peak, two huge, green, slitted eyes stared down.


    The captain jerked upright, found himself sitting in the control chair. There was only the familiar room and its equipment about, with the Chaladoor gazing in through the viewscreens.

    Fallen asleep, he thought. Fallen asleep to dream of a preposterous vatch-thing, which had the notion it was dreaming him! His eyes went guiltily to the console chronometer. He'd nodded off for only a minute or two, apparently. But that was bad! It was still the early part of his watch.

    He got coffee, lit a cigarette, sat down again and sighed heavily. It had occurred to him that he might ask Miss do Eldel if she could spare some of her stay-awake pills, but he'd given up the thought at once. Accepting drugs of any kind from a suspected spy wouldn't be the cleverest thing to do. He'd use all his next scheduled sleep period for sleep and nothing else, he promised himself. Standing watch half the time wasn't the problem -- if Goth could do it with no indications of droopiness, he could. But the complications created by the others, and the need to be alert for more trouble from them, had cut heavily into the time he should have kept free for rest. The sensible move might be to lock all three of them up in their respective cabins.

    And if there were any renewed indications of mischief, he decided, he'd do just that....


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