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The Witches of Karres: Chapter Ten

       Last updated: Thursday, February 12, 2004 23:44 EST



    He did have, the captain acknowledged cautiously, a very strong interest in the Worm World. Where was it?

    For a moment he received the impression of a puzzled lack of comprehension in the vatch. WHERE IS IT? the great voice rumbled then, surprised. IT IS WHERE IT IS, SMALL PERSON!

    So the captain realized that instruments like stellar maps meant nothing to this klatha entity, that it had in fact no real understanding of location as the human mind understood it. But it didn't need such understanding. The universe of humanity seemed a product of vatch dream-imagination to the vatch. It roamed about here as freely as a man might roam among creations of his imagination. If it wanted to be somewhere, it simply was there.

    With the exception of the Worm World. The Worm World, the vatch explained, was an enigma. A tantalizing enigma. Having picked up reports of Manaret and its terrors here and there in its prowling, it had decided to take a look at it.

    It discovered it was unable to approach Manaret. Something barred it -- something blocked it. Its essence was held at a distance by the Worm World. That shouldn't have been possible, but it was so.

    It made the Worm World a challenge. The vatch investigated further, began to fit together a picture of what was known about Manaret. There was the dire monster Moander which ruled it and commanded the worm globes that terrorized human worlds wherever they went. The vatch learned that Manaret was in fact a ship -- a tremendous ship designed along planetary dimensions. Confined within a section of the ship was a race of proud and powerful beings, who had built it and originally had been its masters, but who were now the prisoners of Moander. These were known as the Lyrd-Hyrier to humans who had gained contact with them in seeking the means to resist Moander and his Nuris. If there was anything the Lyrd-Hyrier could do to overthrow Moander and regain possession of Manaret, they would do it. And that would end at the same time the oppressive and constantly growing threat Moander presented to humanity.

    The vatch was intrigued by the situation and had watched the captain become involved in the game against the Worm World. It thought now he could be developed into the player who would bring about Moander's downfall.

    What could he do, the captain asked.

    Information was needed first, the vatch-voice told him. The means to act against the monster might be at hand, if they understood how to use it. And information could be obtained best from those who had most to tell about Moander -- the Lyrd Hyrier confined in Manaret. The vatch could not reach them, and nothing material could be sent through the barriers maintained by Moander. But in his present form the captain lacked all material substance and could be projected directly into the one section of Manaret still held and defended by the Lyrd-Hyrier. There, by following the vatch's instructions, he would learn what he needed to know....



    There were advantages to being a ghost -- a temporary ghost, the captain hoped.

    Fire from concealed energy guns had blazed through and about him the instant he arrived in the private chamber of the Lord Cheel, Prince of the Lyrd-Hyrier, the Great People, in a central section of Manaret. The guns hadn't caused the captain any discomfort. When, at some unseen signal, the firing ended, he was still there insubstantial but intact. The hostile reception was no surprise. Knowing nothing of vatch powers, the Lyrd-Hyrier would regard any intrusion here as being an attempted attack by Moander.

    So the captain was thinking expressions of polite greeting and friendly purpose at the Lord Cheel as he drifted down closer towards him. This was in line with the vatch's instructions.

    There was no immediate response to his greetings from Cheel, who was sitting up in a nest of rich robes on a wide couch near the center of the chamber, watching the approach of the wraith which had invaded his privacy, and apparently disturbed his slumber, with large, unblinking golden-green eyes. The vatch had told the captain that the Lyrd-Hyrier lord had a mind of great power, and that if he formulated his thoughts carefully and clearly, Cheel would understand them and think back at him. The captain began to wonder how well the plan was going to work. What the robes allowed to be seen of Cheel's person might have been sections of a purple-scaled reptile cast into very tall, attenuated human form. The neck was snaky. But the large round head at the end of it did suggest that it bulged with capable brains; and Cheel's whole attitude, at a moment which must have been rather startling to him, was that of a bold, arrogant, and resourceful being.

    About a third of the way down to the couch -- the chamber had the dimensions of a spaceship hangar and the jeweled magnificence of a royal audience room -- the captain encountered a highly charged force field. He realized what it was: any material object or inimical energy encountering that barrier should have been spattered against the walls. But the only feeling he had was one of moving, for a moment, through something rather sticky and resistive. Then he was past the force field. Cheel gave up on defensive measures. His long purple arm moved under the robes; and his thoughts now touched the captain's mind.

    "The inner barriers are turned off," they said. "It appears you are not Moander's tool. Are you then one of the friendly witch people?"

    The captain formulated the thought that he was an associate of the witch people and Moander's foe as they were, that he might be in a position to give assistance against the machine, and that he was in need of information to show him what he could do. Cheel seemed to understand all this well enough. "Ask your questions!" he responded. "Without aid, our situation here will soon be hopeless--"

    The exchange continued with only occasional difficulties. Manaret, at the time it appeared in the home-universe of humanity, had been under the control of a director machine called a synergizer, an all-important instrument unit which actuated and coordinated the many independent power systems required to maintain and drive the ship. The same near-disaster which hurled Manaret and the Lyrd-Hyrier out of their dimensional pattern of existence into this one also had temporarily incapacitated the synergizer. Moander, an emergency director of comparatively limited function, had become active in the synergizer's stead, as it was designed to do. Manaret was an experiment, a new type of Lyrd-Hyrier warship. There had been no previous opportunity to test out Moander under actual emergency conditions.

    Now it appeared there had been mistakes made in planning it. Alerted to substitute for the synergizer only until that unit resumed functioning, the emergency director had taken action to perpetuate the emergency which left it in charge. The synergizer was very nearly indestructible. But Moander had placed it in a torpedolike vehicle and set the vehicle on a course which should plunge it into a great star near the point where the giant ship had emerged here. Free of its more powerful rival, Moander could not be controlled by any method available to the Lyrd-Hyrier.

    "We know the synergizer was not destroyed at that time," Cheel's thoughts told the captain. "Apparently the vehicle was deflected from its course towards the star, presumably by the synergizer's own action. But it has not returned and we have never found out where it went. Recently, there was a report--"

    The thought halted. The captain was producing a mental image of Olimy's mysterious crystalloid....

    "That is it!" Cheel's recognition of the object came almost as a shriek. "Where have you seen it?"

    His excitement jumbled communication briefly; then he steadied. The Lyrd Hyrier had received reports through a spy system they'd been able to maintain in various sections of Manaret that Moander's Nuris had picked up the long-lost trail of the synergizer. Only hours old was the information that a witch ship transporting the instrument had eluded an attempt to force it and its cargo into a sun, and had disappeared.

    The captain acknowledged the ship was his own. Temporarily the synergizer was safe.

    The alien golden-green eyes were smoky with agitation. A view of a great dim hall, walls tapestried with massed instrument banks, appeared in the captain's mind. "The central instrument room -- it is under our control still. Once there, in its own place, the synergizer is all-powerful! Away from it, it can do little...." The picture flicked out. Cheel's thoughts hurried on. A long time ago they had picked up fragmentary messages directed at Manaret by others of their kind from the dimensions of reality out of which they had been thrown. A vast machinery had been constructed there which would pluck the giant ship back from wherever it had gone the instant it was restored to operational condition under the synergizer's direction. All problems would be solved in that moment!

    But there was no method known to the Lyrd-Hyrier, Cheel admitted, of bringing a material object through Moander's outer defenses of Manaret. The synergizer was many things more than it appeared to be, but it was in part material. And Manaret's defenses were being strengthened constantly. "The Nuris again are weaving new patterns of energy among the dead suns which surround us here on all sides...." Of late, Moander evidently had found means of disrupting mental exchanges between the Lyrd-Hyrier and some telepathic witches of Karres. They had recently become unable to establish contact with Karres.

    It seemed a large "But..." "Any chance your friends eventually might send something like a relief ship here which could handle Moander?" the captain inquired.

    "Impossible!" View of madly spinning blurs of energies, knotting and exploding... "There is no dimensional interface between us -- there is a twisting plunge through chaos! We were there; we were here. In a million lifetimes that precise moment of whirling shift could not be deliberately duplicated. They cannot come here! They must draw the ship back there... and they can do that only when its total pattern of forces is intact and matches the pattern they have powered to attract it."

    Which required the synergizer...

    If they could get it to Karres--

    "How vulnerable is Moander to an outside attack?"

    "Its defenses are those of Manaret." Cheel, formidable individual though he appeared to be, was allowing discouragement to tinge his thoughts, now that his excitement had abated somewhat. "Additionally..."

    View of a massive structure with down-sloping sides affixed to a flat surface of similarly massive look. "Moander's stronghold on the outer shell of Manaret," Cheel's thought said. "Every defense known both to the science of the Great People and to the science of your kind on the worlds the Nuris have studied appears incorporated in it. And deep within it is Moander. The monster, for all its powers, is wary. All active operating controls of the ship are linked through the stronghold, and from it Moander scans your universe through its Nuris."

    "It has us in a death-grip, and is preparing to close its grip on your kind. If we -- and you -- are to escape, then haste is very necessary! For the Nuris have built new breeding vats and are entering them in great numbers. It is their time...."

    "Breeding vats?" interjected the captain.

    The Nuris -- pliable and expendable slaves of whoever or whatever was in a position to command them -- were bred at long intervals in the quantities required by their masters. Such a period had begun, and it was evident that Moander planned now to multiply the Nuri hordes at his disposal a hundredfold.

    "In themselves the Worm People are nothing," said Cheel's thought. "But they are Moander's instruments. As the swarms grow, so grows the enemy's power. If Moander is not defeated before the worms have bred, our defenses will be overwhelmed... and your worlds, too, will die in a great Nuri plague to come."

    "Restore the synergizer to its place in the central instrument room, or break Moander's stronghold and Moander -- those are the only solutions now. And we cannot tell you how to do either--"

    The thought-flow was cut off as Cheel and the great chamber suddenly blurred and vanished. The captain's wraith-shape drifted again in featureless grayness.

    He relled vatch, faintly at first, then definitely.

    I HEARD ALL, the vatch-voice came roaring about him out of the grayness. A MOST BEAUTIFUL PROBLEM!... WAIT HERE A LITTLE NOW, GREAT PLAYER OF GREAT GAMES!

    Its presence faded. At least there was nothing to rell any more. The captain drifted, or the grayness drifted.

    A beautiful problem! Something new to entertain the vatch, from the vatch's point of view.... But a very terrible and urgent problem for everyone else concerned, if the Cheel creature had told the truth.

    What could he do about it? Nothing, of course, until the vatch returned to get him out of this whatever-it-was, and back into his body and the rest of it.

    And there probably would be very little he actually could do then, the captain thought. Because whatever he tried, the vatch would be looking over his shoulder, and the vatch definitely would want the game played its way. Which might happen to be a very bad way again for everyone else involved. There was no counting on the vatch.

    How could you act independently of an entity which not only was able to turn you inside out when it felt like it but was also continuously reading your mind? He thought of the Nuri lock Goth had taught him to construct....

    If there were something like a vatch lock now--

    The thought checked. In the grayness before him there'd appeared a spark of bright fire. It stayed still for an instant, then quiveringly began to move, horizontally from left to right. It left a trail behind it -- a twisted, flickering line of fire as bright as itself. It was--

    Awful fright shot through him. Stop that! he thought.

    The spark stopped. The line of fire remained where it was, quivering and brilliant. It looked very much like one of the linear sections of the patterns that had turned into the Nuri lock.

    But this was a far heavier line -- not a line at all really but a bar of living fire! Klatha fire, he thought... It had stopped where it was only because he'd checked it.

    He hesitated then. If this, too, was part of a potential lock pattern, then that lock must be an enormously more powerful klatha device than the one which had shut the Nuris out of his mind!


    "Are you certain," something inside him seemed to ask very earnestly, "that you want to try it?"

    He was, he decided. It seemed necessary.

    He did something he couldn't have described, even to himself. It released the klatha spark. The line of fire marched on. From above, a second line came trickling down on it -- a third zigzagged up from below....

    It was awesomely hot stuff! There was a moment when the universe seemed to stretch very tight. But the fire lines crossed, meshed, froze; there was a flash of silent light, and that was it. The pattern had completed itself and instantly disappeared. The ominous tightness went with it.

    It was not, the captain decided, the kind of pattern that needed to be practiced. It had to be done right once, or it would not be done at all. And it had been done right.

    He waited. After a while he relled vatch. That strengthened presently, grew fainter again, almost faded away. Then suddenly it became very strong. Old Windy was with him, close by.

    And silent for the moment! Possibly puzzled, the captain thought.

    Then the wind voice spoke. But not in its usual tumultuous fashion and not addressing him. The vatch seemed to be muttering to itself. He made out some of it.


    SMALL PERSON, the familiar bellowing came suddenly then, CAN YOU HEAR ME?

    "Yes!" the captain thought at it.


    A momentary sense of rumbling through icy blackness, of vast distances collapsing to nothing ahead of him. Then the captain found himself lying face down on something cool, hard, and prickly. He opened his eyes, lifted his head. He had eyes to open and a head to lift again! He had everything back! He rolled over on rocky ground, sat up in a patch of withered brown grass, looked around in bright sunlight. A general awareness of windy autumn scenery, timbered hills about and snowcapped mountain ranges beyond them, came with the much more important discovery of the Venture standing some four hundred feet away, bow slanted towards him, forward lock open and ramp out. He scrambled to his feet, started towards it.


    He swung about, saw Goth running down the slope of the shallow depression in which he and the ship stood, shouted something and ran to meet her, relief so huge he seemed to be soaring over dips in the ground. Goth took off in a jump from eight feet away and landed on his chest, growling. The captain hugged her, kissed her, rumpled her hair, set her on her feet, and gave her a happy swat.

    "Patham!" gasped Goth. "Am I glad to see you! Where you been?"

    "Worm World," said the captain, grinning fatuously down at her.

    "Worm -- HUH?"

    "That's right. Say, that crystal thing of Olimy's -- it's still on the ship, isn't it?"

    "How'd I know?" Goth said. "Worm World!" She looked stunned. She shook her head, added, "Ship came just now, with you."

    "Just now?"

    "Minute ago. I was headed back to camp--"

    "Camp? Well, skip that. Hulik and Vezzarn are with you?"

    "Both. Not Olimy. I relled a vatch. Giant-vatch -- you don't do things small, Captain! Turned around, and there the Venture was. Then you stood up--"

    "Come along," he said. "We've got to make sure it's on board! I know what it is now. Ever hear of a synergizer in connection with Manaret?"

    "Syner... no," said Goth, trotting beside him. "Important, huh?"

    "The most!" the captain assured her. "The most! Tell you later."

    They scrambled up the ramp and through the lock. The control section lighting was on, the heating system going full blast. The bulkheads felt icy to the touch. They took a moment to check the control desk, found everything but the general emergency switch and the automatic systems in off position, left things as they were and headed for the back of the ship. They paused briefly again at the first emergency wall. The Sheem Spider hadn't exactly burned out a hole in it; it had cut out a section big enough to let it through endwise along with its master and knocked the loose chunk of battle-steel into the next compartment, shattering fifteen feet of deck.

    "One tough robot!" remarked Goth, impressed, "Kind of sorry I slept through all that!"

    "So were we, child," the captain told her. "Come on...."

    The lost synergizer of Manaret was in the strongbox in the vault, in its wrappings. They picked their way back out of the shattered vault, opened Olimy's locked stateroom next and saw him imprisoned but safe in his eternal disminded moment there, locked up the room and left the ship by the ramp.

    "Let's sit," said Goth. She settled down cross-legged in the grass. "The others are all right. What happened to you? How'd you get to the Worm World? What's that synergizer thing?"

    She listened without interrupting, face intent, as he related his experience up to the point where he'd decided to take a fling at constructing a vatch lock. For various reasons it didn't seem advisable to mention that at the moment. "The vatch seemed to say something about going on with the game," he concluded. "Next thing I knew I was here."

    Goth sighed. "That vatch!" she muttered. She rubbed her nose tip. "Looks sort of bad, doesn't it?"

    "Not too good at present," the captain admitted. "But we have the synergizer safe here. That's something.... We don't know what the vatch intends to do next, of course."


    "But if it leaves us alone for a while... any idea of where we are here?"

    "Know exactly where we are," Goth told him. "Can't see that'll help much, though!" She patted the ground beside her. "This is Karres."

    "What!" He came to his feet. "But then--"

    "No," Goth said. "It's not that simple. This isn't Karres-now. It's Karres-then."


    She indicated the big yellow sun disk above the mountains. "Double star," she said. "Squint your eyes, you can see just a little bit of white sticking out behind it on the left. That's its twin. This is the Talsoe System where Karres was when witches found it -- its own system. There's nobody here yet but us."

    "How do you... You think that vatch sent us back in time?"

    "Long way back in time!" Goth nodded.

    "How can you be sure? Now you've mentioned it, this could be Karres by its looks! But a lot of worlds--"

    "Uh-uh!" Her forefinger pointed at a shining white mountain peak beyond the rise. "I ought to know that mountain, Captain! That's where I was born... or where I'm going to be born, thirty miles from here. Town's going to be in the valley north of it." Goth's hand swept about. "I know all this country -- it's Karres!"

    "All right But they could have moved it to the Talsoe System the last time, couldn't they? Let's get in the ship and..."

    Goth shook her head. "Not a bit of klatha around except ours and the vatch. There're no witches here yet, believe me! And won't be for another three hundred thousand years anyway--"

    "Three hundred thou... !" the captain half shouted. He checked himself. "How do you know that?"

    "Got a little moon here. You'll see it tonight. Karres had one early, but then it smacked down around the north pole and messed things up pretty bad for a while. They figured that must have been a bit more than three hundred thousand years back... so we're back before that! Besides, there's the animals. A lot of them aren't so much different from what they're going to be. But they're different. You see?"

    "Yeah, I guess I do!" the captain admitted. He cleared his throat. "It startled me for a moment."

    "Pretty odd, isn't it?" Goth agreed. "No Empire at all yet, no Uldune! Patham -- no starships even! Everybody that's there is still back on old Yarthe!" Her head tilted up quickly. "Umm!" she murmured, eyes narrowing a little.



    The captain had caught it, too. Vatch sign! Old Windy was somewhere around. Not too close, but definitely present... They remained quiet for a minute or two. The impression seemed to grow no stronger in that time. Suddenly it was gone again.

    "Giant-vatch, all right!" Goth remarked a few seconds later. "Brother! You picked yourself a big one, Captain!"

    "They're not all the same then, eh?"

    "Come in all sizes. Bigger they are, the more they can do. That's mostly make trouble, of course! This one's a whale of a vatch!" She frowned. "I don't know...."

    "They can read our minds -- human minds, can't they?" asked the captain.

    "Lot of them can."

    "Can they do it from farther away than we can rell them?"

    "Not supposed to be able to do it," said Goth. "But I don't know."

    "Hmm -- is there such a thing as a klatha lock that will keep vatches from poking around in your thoughts?"

    "Uh-huh. Takes awfully heavy stuff, though! I don't know how to do that one. There's only three, four people I know that use a vatch lock."

    "Oh?" said the captain, somewhat startled. Goth looked up at him questioningly, then with sudden speculation. "Ummm," she said slowly. She considered a moment again, remarked, "Now there's something I do that works about as good as a lock against vatches. Can't tell you how to do that either, though."

    "Why not?" he asked.

    Goth shrugged. "Don't know how I do it. Born with it, I guess. Takes just a little low intensity klatha. Dab of it on anything particular I don't want anybody to know I'm thinking about, and that's it! Somebody sneaks a look into my mind then, he just can't see it."

    "You sure?" the captain asked thoughtfully.

    "Ought to be! Some real high-powered mind-readers tried it. Wanted to study out how it was done so others could use it. They never did figure that out -- but it works just fine! They couldn't even tell there'd been anything blurred."

    "That will be a help now," the captain said.

    "Uh-huh! Vatch isn't going to find out anything from me he shouldn't know about." She cocked her head, looking up at him. "Did you make yourself a vatch lock, Captain?"

    "I think so." He gave her a general description of the process. Goth listened, eyes first round with apprehension, then shining. "Even when I thought directly at it," he concluded, "it didn't seem able to read me."

    "That is a vatch lock then. A vatch lock!" Goth repeated softly. "You're going to be a hot witch, Captain -- you wait!"

    "Think so?" He felt pleased but there was too much to worry about at present for the feeling to linger. "Well, let's assume that when we can't rell the vatch, we can talk freely," he said. "And that when we do rell it, we'd better keep shut up about anything important but needn't worry about what we're thinking.... But now, what can we do? We've got the Venture but there's no sense in flying around space three hundred thousand years from our time. There's nowhere to go. Is there any possible klatha way you know of we might use to get back?"

    Goth shook her head. Some witches had done some experimentation with moving back in time, but she hadn't heard of anyone going back farther than their own life span. The vatch must have used klatha in bringing them here; but then it was a giant-vatch, with immense powers.

    It looked as if they'd have to depend on the vatch to get them back, too. It was not a reassuring conclusion. The klatha entity was playing a game and regarded them at present as being among its pieces. It had heard that there seemed to be no way to overcome Moander in his stronghold on Manaret and was out to prove it could be done. At best it would consider them expendable pieces. It might also simply decide it had no further use for them and leave them where they were. But as long as the synergizer remained in their custody, they could assume they were still included in the vatch's plans.

    It wasn't a good situation. But at the moment there seemed to be nothing they could do to change it.

    "Olimy found the synergizer and should have been on his way to Karres with it when the Nuris nearly caught him," the captain observed reflectively. "About the same time it was reported the Empire was launching an attack on Karres, and Karres disappeared. There was no word it had showed up again anywhere else before we left Uldune."

    Goth nodded. "Looks like they knew Olimy was coming with the thing and went to meet him."

    "Yes... at some previously arranged rendezvous point. Now, you once told me," the captain said, "that Karres was developing klatha weapons to handle the Nuris and was pretty far along with the program."

    "Uh-huh. They might have been all set that way when we left," Goth agreed. "I wasn't told. They weren't far from it."

    "Then the synergizer actually could have been the one thing they were waiting to get before tackling the Worm World. They'd know from their contacts with the Lyrd-Hyrier it wouldn't be long before Moander had so many more Nuris to fight for him that reaching him would become practically impossible...."

    Goth nodded again. "Guess they'll hit Manaret whether they get the synergizer or not!" she remarked. "Looks like they have to. But if they were waiting for it they got a way to use it -- and they'd still want it bad, and fast!"

    The captain scowled frustratedly.

    "Even if we were back in our time," he said, "and on our own -- meaning no vatch around -- the best we could do about it would be to get the thing to Emris! We don't know where Karres is. And we don't know where Manaret is... even though I've been there now, in a way."

    "Well, I'm not sure," Goth told him. "Maybe we do know where they are, Captain."

    "Huh? What do you mean?"

    "You said Cheel told you the Nuris were putting up new space barriers between the dead suns all around Manaret--"

    The captain nodded. "So he did."

    "Never heard of but one place where you'd see dead suns all around," Goth said. "And that's in the Chaladoor -- the Tark Nembi Cluster. There're people who call it the Dead Suns Cluster. It's another spot everyone keeps away from because when you don't, you don't come back. So the Worm World could have been sitting inside it all the time.... And if it's there," Goth concluded, "we ought to be able to find Karres about one jump from Tark Nembi right now."



    The captain grunted. "I bet you're right -- and that could be our solution! If we get back and can make a break for the Cluster on the Sheewash Drive without being stopped by the vatch, we'll give it a try!"

    "Right," said Goth. "Looks like the vatch will have to move first, though."

    "So it does," agreed the captain. "Well--" He sighed. "You say you set up camp with Vezzarn and Hulik around here?"

    Goth came to her feet. "Just a bit behind the rise," she said. "Quarter-mile. Let's go get them -- easier than moving the ship."

    Halfway up the slope they turned aside to pick up some items she'd dropped when she caught sight of the captain -- a sturdy handmade bow and a long quiver of tree bark out of which protruded the feathered shafts of arrows. Beside these articles lay a pair of freshly killed furry white-and-brown animals tied together by their hind legs. The captain lifted them while Goth slung bow and quiver over her shoulders. "Dinner, eh?" he said. "Didn't take you long to get set up for the pioneering life!"

    "Forgot to tell you about that," said Goth. "Can't quite figure it, but while you were having a talk with the Cheel-thing we've been here eight days...."

    The captain couldn't quite figure it either. Goth filled him in as they went on towards the camp. Neither Hulik do Eldel nor Vezzarn remembered anything between the crash take-off from the planet of the red sun and their awakening in a chill, misty dawn on Karres. Goth had come awake first, by half an hour or so, had known immediately on what world she was, and deduced the rest when the Talsoe Twins lifted above the mountains and the mists thinned enough to show her a small moon still floating in the northern sky. She hadn't informed her companions of their whereabouts in space and time -- both were upset enough as it was for a while. Hulik's impulse, when she awoke and discovered Vezzarn stretched out unconscious beside her, was to blast him for a filthy traitor as he lay there. "Couldn't find her gun though -- or his -- till she'd cooled down again," Goth said with a grin. "Then Vezzarn came to -- and he bawled like a baby for an hour."

    "What about?"

    "Because you waited to let him get aboard before you took off. So then he was going to shoot himself rather than face you when you got back. Couldn't find his gun either, though."

    "Looks like you've had your hands full with the two!"

    "Oh, they settled down pretty quick. Hulik's even speaking to Vezzarn again. She's not the worst, that Hulik."

    "No, she isn't," agreed the captain, remembering the bad moments on the ledge of the cliff. "What do they make of the situation?"

    Both seemed to have decided they'd gotten themselves involved in some very heavy witch business and the less they heard about it, the better, Goth said. They hadn't asked questions. She'd told them Captain Aron would be rejoining them, but she didn't know when, and they'd better settle down here for a perhaps lengthy stay.

    She glanced up at him. "Didn't know if you'd show up, really! Specially when it got to be four, five days. Figured it must be the vatch, of course... and you never can tell with vatches!"

    But that was a private distress. Outwardly they'd had no problems. Vezzarn, doing what he could to make up for an enormity committed in panic, had a shipshape little camp set up for them on the banks of a creek before evening of the first day, kept it tidy and improved on it daily thereafter, fashioned Goth's hunting gear for her though not without misgivings, tended to the cooking, and was dissuaded with difficulty from charging forth, waving his blaster, whenever sizable specimens of Karres fauna came close enough to be regarded by him as a potential menace to the ladies. Hulik stayed tightened up for some twenty-four hours, keeping a nervous eye on the mountain horizons as if momentarily expecting vast, nameless menaces to begin manifesting there. But on the second day, the autumn warmth of the Talsoe suns seemed to soak what was left of those tensions out of her, and she'd been reasonably relaxed and at ease since.

    "Any idea, by the way," asked the captain, "what we ran into on that world? It does look as if something besides the robot was deliberately out to get us -- and nearly made it finally."

    Goth nodded. "Guess something was, Captain! From what Vezzarn and Hulik say, it sounds like you got a bunch of planetaries stirred up when you landed. And some of them can get mighty mean."

    It appeared planetaries were a type of klatha entity native to this universe and bound to the worlds of their origin. They varied widely in every way. Most worlds had some, Goth thought. Karres definitely did; but they were mild, retiring beings who rarely gave indications of their presence. Sometimes they'd been helpful. The world of the red sun evidently harbored a high-powered and aggressive breed which did not tolerate trespassers on what it considered its exclusive domain.

    The arrival at camp was made briefly embarrassing by Vezzarn who began weeping at sight of the captain, then knelt and tried to kiss his hand. Not until the captain announced formally that everybody had forgiven him, this time, would Vezzarn get to his feet again.

    "I'm a rat, sir!" he told the captain earnestly then. "But I'm a grateful rat. You'll see...."

    They left the camp standing as it was, returned to the Venture together. Goth and Vezzarn went off to see what could be done about tidying up the trail of destruction left by the Sheem robot, Hulik following them. The captain closed the lock and settled down at the control desk for a routine engine check.

    It turned out to be non-routine. There was no indication of malfunction of any kind, except for one thing. The engine systems were not delivering power to any of the drives.

    He chewed his lip. Vatch, he thought. It had to be that. Thrust was being developed -- smooth, even, heavy thrust. By all physical laws, there was nowhere for it to go except into one of the drives. But it wasn't reaching them.

    He shut the engines down again, reopened the lock. The vatch had made sure they'd stay here until it came for them. There was nothing wrong with the ship -- they were merely being prevented from leaving with it. He decided it didn't matter too much. In this time, there was no place they'd want to go in the Venture anyway.

    When he looked around, Hulik do Eldel stood in the entry to the control room, watching him.

    "Come in and sit down," the captain said. "I'm afraid I never really got around to thanking you for helping out with the Agandar!"

    She smiled and came in. After the eight days she'd spent camping out on Karres, Hulik looked perhaps better than she ever had. And she'd looked extremely good in a delicate-featured, elegant way since the first time the captain had seen her. For a moment it became a bit difficult to believe those warm, dark eyes had been sighting down the gun which blasted death at last into the legendary Agandar.

    "I was helping myself out, too, you know!" she remarked. She added, "I heard the engines just now and wondered whether we were leaving."

    "No, probably not for a while," the captain said. He hesitated. "The fact is I don't know when we'll be leaving or where we'll go when we do. We're still in something of a jam, you see. I can't tell you what it's about but I hope things will work out all right. And I'm sorry you're in it with us, but there's nothing I can do about that."

    Hulik was silent a moment. "Did you know I'm an Imperial agent?" she asked.

    "Yango mentioned it."

    "Well, he told the truth for once. I signed up for passage on the Chaladoor run in order to steal the secret drive you were supposed to have on this ship."

    "Hmm, yes!" nodded the captain. "I gathered that.... It isn't something that would be of any use to you or the people you work for."

    "I," Hulik said, "had gathered that some two ship-days before the trouble with Yango began. At any rate, if I'm in a jam with you and our little witch, it's because I've worked myself into that position. I suspect I can't be of much further assistance in getting us out of it. If I can, let me know. Otherwise I'll simply try to keep out of the way. I'm considered a capable person, but Karres matters have turned out to be above my head."

    The captain didn't tell her he'd entertained similar feelings off and on. He hoped that when this was over the do Eldel would be among the survivors, if any. But her future looked at least as uncertain as Goth's and his own.

    That evening they had their supper outside the ship, camp-style, which was Hulik's suggestion. She'd grown fond of this world, she said, felt more comfortable and at home here after a week than she could remember feeling anywhere else. Goth looked pleased in a mildly proprietary way; and Karres came through with a magnificently blazing sunset above the western ranges as the Talsoe Twins sank from sight. The wind died gradually and they sat around a while, talking about inconsequential things carefully remote from the present and themselves. The sky was almost cloudless now. The captain watched a dainty, clean-etched little moon appear, and tried again to think of something he might do besides waiting for the vatch to show its hand. The disconcerting fact still seemed to be, however, that they had to wait for the vatch to act. Goth might have shifted them and the Venture light-years away from here; but literally and figuratively that could get them nowhere that counted.... He realized suddenly he'd just heard Goth suggest they all bunk out beside the ship for the night.

    He gave her a quick look. The troops obviously liked the idea at once; after everything that had happened, their cabins in the Venture’s passenger compartment might look somewhat lonely and isolated to be passing a sleep period in. But to detach themselves from the ship overnight didn't seem a good notion. Depending on the vatch's whims, they could awaken to find it permanently gone.

    Goth acknowledged his look with no more than a flicker of her lashes, but it was an acknowledgment. So she had something in mind besides reassuring their companions... but what?

    Then he felt his hackles lifting and knew the vatch had returned.

    It wasn't close by; he could barely retain a sense of its presence. But it remained around. Goth had grown aware of it before he did -- that much was clear. He still didn't see what it had to do with moving out of the ship for the night.

    He waited while the others cleared away supper dishes and utensils, began hauling out bedding, and went back for more. The vatch came closer, lingered, drew back--

    There was a sense of a sudden further darkening of the evening air. Thunder pealed, far overhead. As the captain looked up, startled, into the sky, rain crashed down, on and about him, with the abruptness of an upended gigantic bucket of water.

    He scrambled around, hauling up the drenched bedding, swearing incoherently. It was an impossible downpour. Water spattered up from the rocks, doused him with dirt from instantly formed puddles and hurrying rivulets. Thunder cracked and snarled, lightning flickered, eerily festooning the thick, dark, churning mass of storm clouds which now almost filled what had been a serene, clear sky above the Venture less than a minute before. Vezzarn came sliding down the ramp to help him. Vatch-laughter rolled through the thunder, howling in delight as they slipped and fell in the mud, struggled back up with the sodden bedding in their arms, shoved it at last into the lock, scrambled in and through themselves. The lock slammed shut and the rain drummed its mindless fury on the Venture’s unheeding back.

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