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The Witches of Karres: Chapter Eight

       Last updated: Thursday, January 29, 2004 02:07 EST



    For a while, the passengers and the one-man crew seemed to be on their best behavior. The Chaladoor, however, was not. There were several abrupt alerts, and one hard run from something which blurred the detectors and appeared in the viewscreens' visual magnification as a cloud of brown dust. It displayed extraordinary mobility for a dust cloud. An electric-blue charge crackled and snapped about the Venture’s hull for minutes as they raced ahead of it; then, gradually, they'd pulled away. Another encounter -- when a great pale sphere of a ship came edging in swiftly on their course -- was averted by warning snarls from the nova guns. The sphere remained parallel for a time, well beyond range, then swung off and departed.

    And finally there was Worm Weather in the viewscreens again...

    It was nothing like the previous occasion. One had to be alertly observant to catch them; and hours might pass without any sign at all. Then a tiny hazy glow would be there for a minute or two, moving distantly among the stars, and disappearing in the unexplained fashion of the Nuri globes. The lounge screens remained off -- the captain had let it be known that the temporary malfunction was now permanent -- so neither Vezzarn nor the passengers became aware of that particular phenomenon. But for the two responsible for the Venture’s safety, and for matters which might be unthinkably more important, it was a nerve-stretching thing. Sleep periods were cut short again.

    The captain, therefore, wasn't too surprised when he discovered himself waking up in the control chair during a watch period once more. Nor -- at the moment -- was he too concerned. He'd rigged up a private alarm device guaranteed to jar him out of deepest slumber, which he left standing on the desk throughout his watches. It had to be reset manually every three minutes to keep it silent, and, even in the Chaladoor, there were few stretches where anything very serious was likely to develop without previous warning in three minutes. At the first suggestion of drowsiness he turned it on.

    But then came a disturbing recollection. This time he had not turned it on. He remembered a wave of heavy sleepiness, which had seemed to roll down on him suddenly, and must have literally blanked him out in an instant. It had been preceded by a momentary sense of something changing, something subtly wrong on the ship. He hadn't had time to analyze that....

    For an instant, his thoughts stopped in shock. Automatically, as he grew aware there'd been a lapse in wakefulness, he'd glanced over the detector system, found it inert, shifted attention to the ship's screens.

    There was something very wrong there!

    The appearance of the route pattern ahead of the Venture had changed completely. Off to the left by a few degrees, hung a blue-white sundisk the size of his thumb nail, a patch of furious incandescence which certainly hadn't been in view before! How long had he--

    Three hours plus, the console chronometer told him silently. A good three hours and twenty minutes! He flicked on Goth's intercom buzzer, held it down, eyes still rapidly searching the screens for anything of significance the detectors had left unregistered. A dozen times over, in those three hours, some Chaladoor raider could have swept down on them and knocked them out of space.... "Goth?"

    The intercom screen remained blank. No answer.

    Now fright surged through the captain. He half rose from the chair, felt sudden leaden pain buckling his left leg under him, and fell back heavily as Laes Yango's sardonic voice said from somewhere behind him, "Don't excite yourself, sir! The child hasn't been hurt. In fact, she's here in the room with us."



    Hulik do Eldel and Vezzarn were also in the control room with them. Goth sat on the couch between the two, leaning slumped against Hulik, head drooping. All three looked as if they had fallen asleep and settled into the limply flexed poses of complete relaxation. "What did you do?" the captain asked.

    Yango shrugged. "Traces of a mind drug in the ventilation system. If I named it, you wouldn't know it. Quite harmless. But unless the antidote is given, it remains effective for twelve to fourteen hours. Which will be twice the time required here."

    "Required for what?" Yango had put a small gun-like object on the armrest of the chair in which he sat as he was speaking. A paralysis-producing object, and the captain could testify to its effectiveness. He was barely able to feel his left leg now, let alone use it.

    "Well, let's take matters in order, sir," the trader replied. "I can hardly have your full attention until you've accepted the fact that there's nothing you can do to change the situation to your advantage. To start with then, I have your gun and the personal weapons of your companions. Your leg will regain its normal sensations within minutes, but let me assure you that you won't be able to leave that chair until I permit it." He tapped the paralyzer-producer. "You've experienced its lightest effect. That should be enough.

    "Another thing you must remember, sir, is that I don't need you. Not in the least. You live by my indulgence. If it appears that you're going to be troublesome, you'll die. I can handle this ship well enough.

    "Now the explanation. I am a collector of sorts. Of items of value. Which might on occasion be ships, or people..." Yango's left hand made an expansive gesture. "Money I obtain where I can, naturally. And information. I am an avid collector of information. I've established what I believe to be one of the most efficient, farthest-ranging information systems presently in existence.

    "One curious item of information that came to me some time ago concerned a certain Captain Pausert who has been until recently a citizen in good standing of the independent trans-Empire Republic of Nikkeldepain. This Captain Pausert was reported to have purchased three enslaved children on the Empire planet of Porlumma and to have taken them away with him on his ship.

    "These children, three sisters, were believed to be natives of the witch world Karres and, in the emphatic opinion of various citizens of Porlumma, already accomplished sorceresses. Subsequently there were several reports that reliable witnesses had seen Captain Pausert's ship vanish instantly when threatened with attack by other spacecraft. It was concluded that by purchasing the Karres children he had gained control of a spacedrive of unknown type, perhaps magical in nature, which permitted him to take short-cuts through unknown dimensions of the universe and reappear in space at a point far removed from the one where he had been last observed.

    "This, sir, was an interesting little story, particularly when considered in the light of other stories which have long been current regarding the strange world of Karres. It became far more interesting to me when, some while later, I received other information suggesting strongly that Captain Pausert, his ship, and one of the three witch children he had picked up on Porlumma were now at my present base of operations, Uldune. I initiated an immediate, very comprehensive investigation.

    "It became evident that I was not the only one interested in the matter. Several versions, variously distorted, of the original story had reached Uldune. One of them implied that Captain Pausert was not a native of Nikkeldepain, but himself a Karres witch. Another made no mention of Karres or witchcraft at all but spoke only of a new spacedrive mechanism, a technological marvel which made possible the instantaneous transmission of an entire ship over interstellar distances.

    "I proceeded cautiously. If you were Captain Pausert, it seemed that you must indeed control such a drive. There was no other good examination for the fact that you had arrived on Uldune so shortly after having been reported from several points west of the Empire. This was no trifling concern. There were competitors for this secret, and I arranged matters so that, whatever might happen, I should still eventually become its possessor. During your stay on Uldune, a full half of the Agandar's fleet of buccaneer ships were drawn into the vicinity of the planet, under orders to launch a planned, all-out attack on it if given the word. Not an easy operation, but I was determined that if the Daal obtained the drive from you -- for a time there seemed reason to believe that those were Sedmon's intentions -- it would be taken in turn from him."

    The captain cleared his throat. "You're working with the pirates of the Agandar?" he asked.

    "Well, sir, not exactly that," Laes Yango told him. "I am the Agandar, and my pirates work for me. As do others. As, if you so decide -- and you have little real choice in the matter -- will you. This was too important an undertaking to entrust to another, and too important to be brought to a hurried conclusion. If a mistake was made, everything might be lost.

    "There were questions. If you had the drive, why the elaborate restructuring of your ship for risk run work? With such a device any tub capable of holding out space could go anywhere. Unless there were limitations on its use... Then what would the nature of such limitations be? How far was the nonmaterial science apparently developed by Karres involved? And of the two of you, who was the true witch? I needed the answers to those questions and others before I could act to best advantage.

    "So I accompanied you into the Chaladoor. I watched and listened, not only by my body's eyes and ears. I am reasonably certain the drive has not been used since I came on this ship. Therefore there are limitations on it. It is not used casually or in ordinary circumstances. But there are indications enough that it was ready for use when it was needed. You, sir, are, if I may say so, an excellent ship-handler. But you are not a witch. That story, whatever its source, was unfounded. When a situation arises which threatens to turn into more than you and your ship between you might be able to meet, you call on the child. The witch child. She remains ready to do then, at the last moment, whatever will need doing to escape.

    "So then, I think, we have the principal answers. You do not control the drive as was reported, except as the child does what you wish. For the witch is the drive, and the drive is the witch. That is the essential fact here. To me it means that to control the drive I, too, must learn to control the witch. And the witch is young, relatively inexperienced, relatively defenseless. I think it will be possible to control her."

    "She has a large number of friends who are less inexperienced," the captain pointed out carefully.

    "Perhaps. But Karres, whatever has happened to it, is at present very far out of the picture. Time is what I need now, and the circumstances are giving it to me. Consider the situation. This ship will not reappear from the Chaladoor -- a fact disappointing to the owners of her cargo but not really surprising to anyone. If they learn of it eventually, even the girl's witch friends will not know where to begin to search for her here. And, of course, she will not be here."

    "Where will she be?" asked the captain.

    "On my flagship, sir. A ship which will have developed a very special capacity -- one that will be most useful if never advertised...."

    "I see. Meanwhile it might be a good idea if you gave the witch the same antidote you gave me."

    Laes Yango shook his head slightly. "Why should I do that?"

    "Because," said the captain, nodding at the console, "the detectors have begun to register a couple of blips! We may need her help in a few minutes."



    "Oh, come now, sir!" The Agandar picked up the paralysis gun, stood up and came striding over towards the desk. However, he stopped a good twelve feet away, eyes searching the screens. "Yes, I see them! Take the controls, Captain Pausert. The ship is yours again for now. Step up speed but remain on course -- unless we presently have sufficient reason to change it."

    "It isn't the course we were on," the captain observed. His leg felt all right again, but unless the Agandar came a good deal closer that wasn't much help. What else could he do? This incredible man had worked out almost everything about the Sheewash Drive, and wasn't at all likely to fall into traps. If Goth were awake, they'd handle him quickly between them. But apparently he suspected they might.

    "I'm afraid I took it on myself to set up a new course," the Agandar agreed mildly. "I shall explain that in a moment." He nodded at the screen. "It seems our presence has been noted!"

    The pair of blips had shifted direction, were angling towards them. Detector instruments of some kind over there, probably of extremely alien type, had also come awake. Distance still too great to afford other suggestions of the prospective visitors' nature... Would it do any good to tell this pirate chieftain something about Olimy and the strongbox in the vault? Probably not. Too early for a move of that sort, anyway--

    "The Chaladoor holds terrors no man can hope to withstand," the Agandar remarked, watching the screen. "But they are rare -- and whether one draws their attention or not becomes a matter of good sense as much as of fortune. For the common run of its vermin, such as we can take those two to be, audacity and a dependable ship are an even match or better. As you've demonstrated repeatedly these days, Captain Pausert."

    The captain glanced over at him. Under rather different circumstances, he thought, he might have liked Laes Yango -- some ten thousand cold-blooded murders back! But there was something no longer quite human about this living symbol of fear which had turned itself into the dreaded Agandar.

    "Already they begin to hesitate!" the pirate went on. The blips were veering once more to take up a parallel course. "They will follow for some minutes now, then, finding themselves ignored, decide this is not a day for valor...." He looked at the captain, returned to the chair, settled himself into it. "Remain on course, sir. No need to disturb your young friend over a matter like this!"

    "Perhaps not. But some four hours ago," the captain said, "there was Worm Weather in the screens."

    The Agandar's face became very thoughtful. "It has been a long time since that was last reported in these areas," he stated presently. "I'm not sure I believe you, sir."

    "It was not at all close," said the captain, "but we had the Drive ready. Are you certain you could get her awake in time if we see it again -- and it happens to see us?"

    "Nothing is certain about the phenomenon you've mentioned," Yango told him. "The witch can be brought awake very quickly. But I will not awaken her without absolute need before we reach our present destination. That will be in approximately six hours. Meanwhile we shall keep close watch on the screens."

    "And what's our destination?" asked the captain.

    "My flagship. I've been in contact with it through a shielded transmitter. Preparations are being made aboard which will dissuade the witch from attempting to become a problem while she is being coaxed into full cooperation." Yango's tone did not change in any describable manner; nevertheless the last was said chillingly. "For the rest of you, places will be found suited to your abilities. I don't waste good human material. Are you aware Miss do Eldel is an intelligence agent for the Imperium?"

    "Nobody told me she was," said the captain. There were several ways in which letting the Agandar know there might be a reason why Worm Weather was quartering the Chaladoor along the Venture’s general route could make matters immediately worse instead of better; he decided again to keep quiet. "I've suspected she might be something of the sort," he added.

    "I've been informed she's very capable," Yango said. "Once she's experienced the discipline of my organization, Miss do Eldel should reorient her loyalties promptly. Vezzarn has been doing odd jobs for an unpublicized branch of the Daal's services; we can put him back to work with her. And I can always use a good ship-handler...." Yango smiled briefly. "You see, sir, while you have no real choice, as I said, the future is not too dark for any of you here. My flagship is a magnificent machine -- few of the Chaladoor's inhabitants she has encountered so far have cared to cross her, and none of those survived to cross her twice. You are a man who appreciates a fine ship; you should like her. And you'll find I make good service rewarding."

    As the captain started to reply, the detector warning system shrieked imminent attack.

    "Get Goth awake, fast! She may get us out of this yet--"

    He'd flicked one horrified look about the screens, slapped the yamering detectors into silence, spun in the chair to face Yango.

    Then he checked. Yango was watching him alertly, unmoving., the paralysis gun half raised.

    "Don't try to trick me, sir!" The Agandar's voice was deadly quiet.

    "Trick you! Great Patham!" bellowed the captain. "Can't you see for yourself!"

    The gun came full up, pointing at his chest. The Agandar's eyes shifted quickly about the screens, came back to the captain. "What am I supposed to see?" he asked, with contempt.

    The captain stared at him. "You didn't hear the detectors either!" he said suddenly.

    "The detectors?" Now there was an oddly puzzled look about Yango's eyes, almost as if he were struggling to remember something. "No," he said slowly then. The puzzled look faded. "I didn't hear the detectors. Because the detectors have made no sound. And there is nothing in the screens. Nothing at all! If you are pretending insanity, Captain Pausert, you are doing it too well. I have no room in my organization for a lunatic."

    The captain looked again, for an instant only, at the screens. There was no need to study them to see what they contained. All about the ship swam the great glowing globes of Manaret, moving with them, preceding them, following them. Above his own ragged breathing there was a small, momentary near-sound, a click not quite heard.

    Then he knew there was only one thing left to do. And almost no time in which to do it.

    "I was wrong!" he said loudly, beginning to rise from the chair. "There is nothing there--" The entire port screen was filling with yellow fire now, reflecting its glare down into the room, staining the air, the walls, the Agandar's motionless figure, the steadily held gun. But if he could get, even for an instant, within four or five feet of the man-- "I'm in no shape to handle the ship, Mr. Yango!" he shouted desperately at the figure. "You'll have to take over!"

    "Stay in that chair!" Yango told him in a flat, strained voice. "And be quiet! Be absolutely quiet. Don't speak. Don't move. If you do either, I pull this trigger a trifle farther and your heart, sir, stops in that instant.... I must listen and think!"

    The captain checked all motion. The gun remained rock-steady; and Yango, with the yellow glare from the globe just beyond the port side of the ship still gradually strengthening about them, also sat motionless and silent while some seconds went by.

    Then Yango said, "No, you were not wrong, sir. You were right. I see the Worm Weather now, too. But it makes no difference."

    The gun muzzle still pointed unswervingly at the captain's chest. The captain suggested, very carefully, "If you'll wake up Goth, or give me the antidote -- then--"

    "No. You don't understand," Yango told him. "We are all going to die unless, within the next fifteen or twenty minutes, you can think of a way to get us out of it in spite of anything I may do to stop you."

    He nodded at the screens. "Now I have no choice left! I found they have complete control of me. I can do only what they wish. They have tried to control you, but something prevents it. That makes no difference either. There is an object on this ship they fear and must destroy. I do not know what the nature of this object is, but it seems you know about it. The Worms are under a compulsion which prohibits them from harming it by their own actions. It is impossible for them to come closer to the ship than they are now."

    "So they have selected a new destination for us -- that star you see almost dead ahead! The blue giant. You are to put the ship on full drive and turn towards it. They want the situation here to remain exactly as it is in all other respects until the ship and everything it contains plunges into the star and is annihilated. They believe that some witch stratagem may be employed to evade them if they relax their present control over us even for an instant. If you refuse to follow my orders, I am to kill you and guide the ship to the star in your stead." Yango's face twisted in a slow, agonized grimace. "And I will do it! I have no more wish to die in that manner than you have, Captain Pausert. But I cannot disobey the Worms -- and die in that star we shall unless, between this moment and the instant before we arrive there, you have found a way of escape! There may be such a way! These beings seem hampered and confused by the proximity of the object concealed on the ship. I have the impression it blinds them mentally.... You have only a few seconds left to make up your mind--"


    Storm-bellowing around the ship and within it. Darkness closed in as the control room deck heaved up sharply. The captain felt himself flung forwards against the desk, then back away from it. Every light in the section had gone out and the Venture seemed to be tumbling through pitch blackness. Pieces of equipment or furnishing smashed here and there against the walls about him. Then the ship appeared to slew around and ride steady. Light simultaneously returned to the screens -- dim, reddish brown light.



    The captain had no time to notice other details just then. He was scrambling up on hands and knees when something slammed hard and painfully against his thigh. He heard Laes Yango curse savagely above him, and ducked forward in time to let the next boot heel coming down scrape past the back of his head. He caught the big man's other leg, pulled sharply up on it. Yango came down on him like a sack of rocks.

    They went rolling over the floor, into obstacles and away from them. The captain hit every section of Yango in reach from moment to moment, suspected rapidly he was not getting the best of this. Then he had one of Yango's arms twisted under him. Yango's other hand came up promptly and closed on his throat.

    It was a large muscular hand. It seemed to tighten as inexorably as a motor-drive wrench. The captain, head swimming, let go the pirate's other arm, heaved himself sideways on the floor, knocked his wrist against something solidly metallic, picked it up and struck where Yango's head should be.

    The head was there. Yango grunted and the iron grip on the captain's throat went slack. He struggled out from under the heavy body, came swaying to his feet in the semi-dark room, eyes shifting to the screens. No Nuri globes in sight, anyway! Otherwise the view out there was not particularly inviting. But that could wait.

    "Goth!" he called hoarsely, which sent assorted pains stabbing through his mauled throat Then he remembered that Goth couldn't hear him.

    He found her lying beside the couch which had skidded halfway to the end of the room and turned over. He righted it, pushed it back against the wall. Goth made small muttering noises as he picked her up carefully and placed her back on the couch; but they were noises of sleepy irritability, not of pain. She didn't seem to have been damaged in whatever upheaval had hit the Venture. The captain discovered Hulik and Vezzarn lying nearby and let them lie for the moment. As he started back to the control desk the room's lights came on. Some self-repair relay had closed.

    There still wasn't time to start pondering about exactly what had happened. First things had to come first, and he had a number of almost simultaneous first things on hand. The felled Agandar was breathing; so were the other two. Yango had an ugly swelling bruise on the right side of his forehead just below the hairline, where the captain's lucky swing had landed. He got Yango's wrists secured behind him with the ship's single pair of emergency handcuffs, then went quickly through the man's pockets. In one of them was a wallet-like affair designed to hold five small hypodermics, of which three were left. That almost had to be the antidote. The captain hesitated, but only for a moment. He badly wanted to wake up Goth but he wasn't going to try to do it with something which, considering Yango's purpose on the Venture, might have been a killing device.

    There was nothing else on Yango's person that seemed of immediate significance. The captain turned his attention to the ship and her surroundings. The Venture appeared to have gone on orbital drive automatically as soon as the unexplained tumult which had brought her to this section of space subsided -- the reason was that she had found herself then within orbiting range of a planetary body.

    At first consideration it was not a prepossessing planet, but that might have been because its light came from a swollen, dull-red glowing coal of a sun which filled most of the starboard screen. The captain turned up screen magnification on the port side for a brief closer look. Through the hazy reddish twilight below, which was this world's midday illumination, he got an impression of a landscape consisting mostly of desert and low, jagged mountain ranges. He went on to test the instruments and drives, finally switched in the communicators. The Venture was in working condition; the detectors registered no hostile presence about, and the communicators indicated that nobody around here wanted to talk to them at the moment. So far, not bad.

    And now -- how had they got here?

    Not through Goth this time, he told himself. Not via the Sheewash Drive. During the first moments of that spinning black confusion which plucked the ship out of the cluster of Nuri globes herding them towards fire-death in a terrible star, he'd been sure it was the Drive... that a surge of klatha magic had brought Goth awake in this emergency and she'd slipped unnoticed into her cabin.

    But even before the ship began to settle out again, he'd known it couldn't have been that. He'd seen Goth on the couch, slumped loosely against Hulik, moments before the blackness rushed and roared in on them. Something quite other than the Drive had picked them up, swung them roughly through space, dropped them at this spot--

    That great, booming voice in his mind, the one he'd assumed was a product of dream -- imagination -- throwing out thought impressions that came to one like the twisting shifts of a gale.... In the instant before the Venture was swept away from the Worm World trap, he had seemed to hear it again, though he could bring up only a hazy half-memory now of what he'd felt it was saying.

    It had to be the vatch.

    Not a dream-vatch! A real one. Goth had believed there'd been something watching again lately.

    Well, he thought, they'd been lucky, extremely lucky, that something had been watching... and decided to take a hand for a moment in what was going on. A rough, careless giant hand; but it had brought them here alive.

    The captain cleared his throat.

    "Thank you," he said aloud, keeping his voice as steady as he could. "Thank you, vatch! Thank you very much!"

    It seemed the least he could do. There was an impression of the words rolling away from him as he uttered them, fading quickly into vast distance. He waited a moment, half afraid he'd get a response. But the control room remained quite still.

    He broke out the bottle of ship brandy, stuck it in his jacket pocket, and half carried, half dragged Laes Yango back through the ship and into the storage. It took a minute or two to get the big man hauled up to the top of one of the less hard bales of cargo; and Yango was beginning to groan and stir about while the captain wired his ankles together and to the bale. That and the handcuffs should keep him secure, and he'd be out of the way here.

    He turned the Agandar on his back, opened the brandy bottle and trickled a little into the side of the man's mouth. Yango coughed, spluttered, opened bloodshot eyes, and glared silently at the captain.

    The captain brought out the little container which held three needles of what should be the antidote to the drug Yango had released in the ventilation system. "Is this the antidote?" he asked.

    Yango snarled a few unpleasantries, added, "How could the witch use the drive?"

    "I don't know," said the captain. "Be glad she did. Is it the antidote?"

    "Yes, it is. Where are we now?"

    The captain told him he'd be trying to find out, and locked the storage up again behind him. He left the lighting turned on. Not that it would make Yango much happier. His skull was intact, but his head would be throbbing a while.

    The pirate probably had told the truth about the antidote and, in any case, everything would be stalled here until Goth came alert again. The captain made a brief mental apology to Vezzarn -- somebody had to be first -- and jabbed one of the needles into the little man's arm. Under half-shut lids, Vezzarn's eyes began rolling alarmingly; then his hands fluttered. Suddenly he coughed and sat up on the couch, looking around.

    "What's happened?" he whispered in fright when he discovered where he was and saw Goth and Hulik unconscious on the couch beside him.

    The captain told him there'd been a problem, caused by Laes Yango, but that the ship seemed to be safe now and that Goth and Miss do Eldel should be all right. "Let's get them awake...."

    Hulik do Eldel received the contents of the second needle. She showed none of Vezzarn's reactions. Two or three minutes went by; then she quietly opened her eyes.

    Confidently, the captain gave Goth the third shot. While he waited for it to take effect, he began filling in the other two sketchily but almost truthfully on recent events. They were still potential trouble makers, and they might as well realize at once that this was a serious situation, in which it would be healthy for all involved to cooperate. The role played by the item in the strongbox naturally was not mentioned in his account. Neither did he refer to entities termed vatches, or attempt to explain exactly how they had arrived where they were. If Hulik and Vezzarn wanted to do some private speculating about mystery drives which might be less than reliable, he didn't care.

    He failed to note that the eyes of his two listeners grew very round before he'd much more than gotten started on his story. Neither of them said a word. And the captain's attention was mainly on Goth. Like Hulik, she was showing no immediate response to the drug....

    Then a full six minutes had passed, and Goth still wasn't awake!

    There seemed to be no cause for actual alarm. Goth's breathing and pulse were normal, and when he shook her by the shoulder he got small, sleepy growls in response. But she simply wouldn't wake up. From what Yango had said, the drug would wear off by itself in something like another eight or nine hours. However, the captain didn't like the looks of the neighborhood revealed in the viewscreens too well; and his companions evidently liked it less. Loitering around here did not seem a good idea -- and setting off blindly through an unknown section of space to get themselves oriented, without having Goth and the Drive in reserve, might be no better.

    He switched on the intercom to the storage, stepped up the reception amplification, and said, "Mr. Yango?"

    There was a brief, odd, unpleasant sound. Then the pirate's voice replied, clearly and rather hurriedly, "Yes? I hear you. Go ahead...."

    "I've used the antidote," the captain told him. "Miss do Eldel and Vezzarn have come awake. Dani hasn't."

    "That doesn't surprise me," Yango said, after a moment.

    "Why not?" asked the captain.

    "I had a particular concern about your niece, sir. As you know." Laes Yango, after his lapse from character, had gone back to being polite. "When she became unconscious with the rest of you, I drugged her again with a different preparation. I was making sure that any unusual resistance she might show would not bring her back to her senses before I intended her to regain them."

    "Then there's an antidote to that around?"

    "I have one. It isn't easy to find."

    "What do you want?" the captain asked.

    "Perhaps we can reach an agreement, sir. I am not very comfortable here."

    "Perhaps we can," the captain said.

    He flicked off the intercom. The other two were watching him.

    "He probably does have it," he remarked. "I searched him but I'm not in your line of business. He could have it hidden somewhere. The logical thing would be to haul him up here and search him again."

    "It looks to me," said Vezzarn thoughtfully, "that that's what he wants, skipper."


    Hulik said, "Just before that man spoke, I heard a noise."

    "So did I," said the captain. "What did you make of it?"

    "I'm not certain."

    "Neither am I." It might, thought the captain, have been the short, angry half-snarl, half-whine of some large animal-shape, startled when his voice had sounded suddenly in the storage.... A snarly sort of thing, Goth had said. But the Sheem robot's locked case stood inside the locked door of that almost impregnable vault--

    Hulik do Eldel's frightened eyes told him she was turning over the same kind of thoughts. "We can get a look down into the storage from here," he said.

    There was a screen at the end of the instrument console, used to check loading and unloading operations on the ship from the control room. Its pick-up area was the ceiling of the storage compartment. The captain hurriedly switched it on. "We're wondering whether Yango's robot is in the storage," he told Vezzarn.

    Vezzarn shook his head. "It can't be there, skipper! There's no way Yango could have got into the vault without your keys. I guarantee that!"

    And there was no way Yango should have been able to get out of his handcuffs, the captain thought. He'd checked the vault before he left the storage. It was still securely locked then and the keys to it were here, in a locked desk drawer.

    "We'll see," he said.

    The screen lit up -- for a second or two. Then it was dark again. The screen was still on. The light in the storage compartment had been cut off.

    But they'd seen the robot for the moments it was visible. The great dark spider shape crouched near the storage entry. Its unfettered master stood a dozen feet from it. Yango had looked up quickly as the screen view appeared, startled comprehension in his face, before his hand darted to the lighting switches beside the entry door. Cargo cases throughout the compartment had been shifted and tumbled about as though the bulky robot had forced a passage for itself through them....

    That wasn't the worst of it.

    "You saw what happened to the side of the vault?" the captain asked unsteadily.

    They'd seen it. "Burned out!" Vezzarn said, white-faced. "High intensity -- a combat beam! It'd take that. It's an old war robot he's got with him, skipper. You can't stop a thing like that.... What do we do now?" The last was a frightened squeal.



    Laes Yango suggested, via intercom from the storage, that surrender was the logical move.

    "Perhaps you don't fully understand the nature of my pet," he told the captain. "It's been in my possession for fifteen years. It killed over eighty of my men while we were taking the ship it guarded, and would have killed me if I had not cut one of the devices that controlled it from the hand of the lordling whose property it had been. It knew then who its new master was. It's a killing machine, sir! It was made to be one. The Sheem Assassin. Your hand weapons can't harm it. And it has long since learned to obey my voice as well as its guiding instruments...."

    The captain didn't reply. The last of the war robots were supposed to have been destroyed centuries before, and the deadly art of their construction lost. But Vezzarn had been right. The thing that beamed its way out of the vault must be such a machine. None of them doubted what Yango was telling them.

    They had some time left. No more time than the Agandar could help -- and the robot undoubtedly was burning out the storage door while he'd been speaking to them. The door was massive but not designed to stand up under the kind of assault that had ruptured the vault from within. The two would be out of the storage quickly enough.

    But they couldn't reach the control section immediately then. The ship's full emergency circuits had flashed into action seconds after Vezzarn's frantic question -- layers of overlapping battle-steel slid into position, sealing the Venture’s interior into ten air-tight compartments. At least four of those multiple layers of the toughest workable material known lay between the control room and the storage along any approach Yango might choose to take. They probably wouldn't stop a war robot indefinitely; but neither would they melt at the first lick of high intensity energy beams. And the captain had opened the intercom system all over the ship. That should give them some audible warning of the degree of progress the robot was making.

    Otherwise there seemed to be little he could do. The activating device he'd taken from Yango when the robot was stored in the vault was not where he'd locked it away. So the Agandar had discovered it on looking around after he'd knocked the four of them out. When the captain searched him, it wasn't on his person. But he hadn't needed it. There was a ring on his forefinger he'd been able to reach in spite of the handcuffs; and the ring was another control instrument. The Assassin had come awake in the vault and done the rest, including burning off its master's bonds.

    It made no difference now where the other device was stored away on the ship. They couldn't leave the section to look for it without opening the emergency walls.

    And if they had it, the captain thought, it wasn't likely they'd be able to wrest control of the robot away from the Agandar. Yango, at any rate, did not appear to be worrying about the possibility....


    The captain looked quickly over at Vezzarn and Hulik. But their faces showed they'd heard nothing of what that great, ghostly wind-voice had seemed to be saying. Of course -- it was meant for him.

    He'd switched off the intercom connection with Yango moments before. "Any ideas?" he asked now.

    "Skipper," Vezzarn told him, jaw quivering, "I think we'd better surrender -- while he'll still let us!"

    Hulik was shaking her head. "That man is the Agandar!" she said. "If we do surrender, we don't live long. Except for Dani. He'll squeeze from us whatever we can tell him, and stop when he has nothing left to work on."

    "We'd have a chance!" Vezzarn argued shakily. "A chance. What else can we do? We can't stop a war robot -- and there's nowhere to run from it!"

    Hulik said to the captain, "I was told you might be a Karres witch. Are you?"

    "No," said the captain.

    "I thought not. But that child is?"


    "And she's asleep and we can't wake her up!" Hulik shrugged resignedly. Her face was strained and white. "It would take something like magic to save us now, I think!"

    The captain grunted, reached over the desk and eased in the atmosphere drive. "Perhaps not," he said. "We may have to abandon ship. I'm going down."

    The Venture went sliding out of orbit, turning towards the reddish dusk of the silent planet.



    Vezzarn had all the veteran spacer's ingrained horror of exchanging the life-giving enclosure of his ship for anything but the equally familiar security of a civilized port or a spacesuit. He began arguing again, torn between terrors; and there was no time to argue. The captain took out his gun, placed it on the desk beside him.

    "Vezzarn!" he said; and Vezzarn subsided. "If you want to surrender," the captain told him, "you'll get the chance. We'll lock you in one of those cabins over there and leave you for Yango and the robot to find."

    "Well--" Vezzarn began unhappily.

    "If you don't want that," the captain continued, "start following orders."

    "I'll follow orders, skipper," Vezzarn decided with hardly a pause.

    "Then remember one thing..." The captain tapped the gun casually. "If Yango starts talking to us again, I'm the only one who answers!"

    "Right, Sir!" Vezzarn said, eying the gun.

    "Good. Get busy on the surface analyzers and see if you can find out anything worth knowing about this place. Miss do Eldel, you've got good hearing, I think--"

    "Excellent hearing, Captain!" Hulik assured him.

    "The intercom is yours. Make sure reception amplification stays at peak. Compartment E is the storage. Anything you hear from there is good news. D is bad news -- they'll be through one emergency wall and on their way here. Then we'll know we have to get out and how much time we have to do it. G is drive section of the engine room. Don't know why Yango should want to go down there, but he could. The other compartments don't count at the moment. You have that?"

    Hulik acknowledged she did. The captain returned his attention to the Venture and the world she was approaching. Vezzarn hadn't let out any immediate howls at the analyzers, so at least they weren't dropping into the pit of cold poison the surface might have been from its appearance. The lifeboat blister was in the storage compartment; so was the ship's single work spacesuit. Not a chance to get to either of those... The planetary atmosphere below appeared almost cloudless. Red half-light, black shadows along the ranges, lengthening as the meridian moved away behind them....

    How far could he trust the vatch? Not at all, he thought. He should act as if he'd heard none of that spooky background commentary. But the vatch, capricious, unpredictable, immensely powerful -- not sane by this universe's standards -- would remain a potential factor here. Which might aid or destroy them.

    Let nothing surprise you, he warned himself. The immediate range of choice was very narrow. If the compartment walls didn't hold, they had to leave the ship. If the walls held, they'd remain here, at emergency readiness, until Goth awoke. But the Agandar's frustrated fury would matter no more than his monster then -- unless Yango's attention turned on the strongbox in the vault. No telling what might happen... but that was borrowing trouble! Another factor, in any case, was that while Goth remained unconscious, Yango would want her to stay alive. All the pirate's hopes were based on that now. It should limit his actions to some extent....

    "Skipper?" Vezzarn muttered, hunched over the analyzers.


    Vezzarn looked up, chewing his lip. "Looks like we could live down there a while," he announced grudgingly. "But these things don't tell you everything--"

    "No." The Venture wasn't equipped with an exploration ship's minutely detailing analysis instruments. Nevertheless, there'd been a sudden note of hope in Vezzarn's voice. "You're sure you're coming along if we have to get out?" the captain asked.

    The spacer gave him a wry, half-ashamed grin. "You can count on me, sir! Panicked a moment, I guess."

    The captain slid open a desk drawer. "Here's your gun then," he said. "Yours, too, Miss do Eldel. Yango collected them and I took them back from him."

    They almost pounced on the weapons. Hulik broke her gun open, gave a sharp exclamation of dismay.

    "Zero charge! That devil cleaned them out!"

    The captain was taking a box from the drawer. "So he did," he said. "But he didn't find my spare pellets. Standard Empire military charge -- hope you can use them!"

    They could, and promptly replenished their guns. The captain looked at the console chronometer. Just over nine minutes since he'd broken intercom contact with Yango. The lack of any indication of what the pirate was doing hadn't helped anybody's nerves here; but at least he hadn't got out of the storage compartment yet. The captain set Vezzarn to detaching and gathering up various articles -- keys and firing switches to the nova gun turrets, the main control release to the lifeboat blister, the keys to the main and orbital drives....

    There were mountains just below now, and the shallow bowls of plains. The dull red furnace glare of the giant sun bathed the world in tinted twilight. The Venture continued to spiral down towards a maze of narrow valleys and gorges winding back into the mountains....

    They flinched together as the intercom hurled the sounds of a hard metallic crashing into the control room. It was repeated a few seconds later.

    "Compartment D!" whispered Hulik, nodding at the intercom panel. "They're through the first wall--"

    A dim, heavy snarling came from the intercom, then a blurred impression of Yango's voice. Both faded again.

    "Shut them off," the captain said quietly. "We're through listening." Eleven and a half minutes... and it might have been a minute or so before Yango set the Assassin to work on the wall.

    Hulik switched off the intercom system, said, a little breathlessly, "If Yango, realizes we've landed...."

    "I'm going to try to keep him from realizing it," the captain told her. The ship was racing down smoothly towards the mouth of a steep-walled valley he'd selected as the most promising landing point barely a minute before.

    "But if he does," Hulik said, "and orders the robot to beam a hole directly through the side of the ship -- how long would it be before they could get outside that way?"

    Vezzarn interjected, without looking up from his work, "About an hour. Don't worry about that, Miss do Eldel! He won't try the cargo lock or blister either. He knows ships and knows they're as tough as the rest of it and can't be opened except from the desk. He'll keep coming to the control room -- and he'll be here fast enough!"

    "We've got up to thirty minutes," the captain said. "And we can be out in three if we don't waste time! You're finished, Vezzarn?"

    "Yes, sir."

    "Wrap it up -- don't bother to be neat! Any kind of package I can shove into my pocket--"

    The red sun vanished abruptly as the Venture settled into the valley. On their right was a great sloping cliff-face, ragged with crumbling rock, following the turn of the valley into the mountains. The captain brought the ship down on her underdrives, landed without a jar on a reasonably level piece of ground, as near the cliffs as he'd been able to get. Beside him, Hulik gave a small gasp as the control section lock opened with two hard metallic clicks.

    "Out as fast as you can get out!" The captain stood up, twisted the last set of drive keys from their sockets, dropped them into his jacket pocket, jammed the package Vezzarn was holding out to him in on top of them, zipped the pocket shut, and started over to the couch to pick up Goth. "Move!"

    Faces looked rather pale all around, including, he suspected, his own. But everybody was moving....

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