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The Witches of Karres: Chapter Six

       Last updated: Tuesday, January 13, 2004 00:19 EST



    It was supposed to be Vezzarn's sleep period, but for the past two hours he'd been sitting in his locked cabin on the Evening Bird, brooding. On this, the third ship day after their lift-off from Port Zergandol, Vezzarn had a number of things to brood about.

    Working as undercover operator, for an employer known only as a colorless, quiet voice on a communicator, had its nervous moments; but over the years it had paid off for Vezzarn. There was a very nice sum of money tucked away under a code number in the Daal's Bank in Zergandol, money which was all his.

    He hadn't liked various aspects of the Chaladoor assignment too well. Who would? But the bonus guaranteed him if he found what he was supposed to find on Captain Aron's ship was fantastic. He'd risked hide and sanity in the Chaladoor for a fraction of that before....

    Then, ten days before they were to take off, the colorless voice told him the assignment was canceled -- in part. Vezzarn was to forget what he had been set to find, forget it completely. But he still was to accompany Captain Aron through the Chaladoor, use the experience he had gained on his previous runs through the area to help see the Evening Bird arrive safely at Emris.

    And what would he get for it?

    "I'll throw in a reasonable risk bonus," the communicator told him. "You're drawing risk pay from your skipper and your regular pay from me. That's it. Don't be a pig, Vezzarn."

    Vezzarn had no wish to anger the voice. But straight risk money, even collected simultaneously from two employers, wasn't enough to make him want to buck the Chaladoor again. Not at his age. He mentioned the age factor, suggested a younger spacer with comparable experience but better reflexes might be of more value to Captain Aron on this trip.

    The voice said it didn't agree. It was all it needed to say. Remembering things it had tonelessly ordered done on other occasions, Vezzarn shuddered. "If that's how you feel, sir," he said, "I'll be on board."

    "That's sensible of you, Vezzarn," the communicator told him and went dead.

    He smoldered for hours. Then the thought came that there was no reason why he shouldn't work for himself in this affair. The voice had connections beyond the Chaladoor, but it would be a while before word about Vezzarn arrived there. And if he'd got his hands on the secret superdrive Captain Aron was suspected of using occasionally, Vezzarn could be a long way off and a very rich man by then.

    The decision made, his fears of the Chaladoor faded to the back of his mind. The chance looked worth taking once more. He got his money quietly out of the bank and had nothing to do then but wait and watch, listen and speculate, while he carried out his duties as Captain Aron's general assistant and handyman. His preparations for the original assignment had been complete; and the only change in it now would be that, if things worked out right, he'd have Captain Aron's spacedrive for himself.

    Then, after he'd watched and listened a day or two, he started to worry again. His alertness had become sharpened, and minor differences in these final stages of preparing the Evening Bird for space that he hadn't noticed before caught his attention. Attitudes had shifted. The skipper was more tense and quiet. Even young Dani didn't seem quite the same. Bazim and Filish worked with silent, intent purpose as if the only thing they wanted was to get the Evening Bird out of their yard and off the planet. Oddly enough, both of them appeared to have acquired painful limps! The Sunnat character didn't show up at all. Casual inquiry brought Vezzarn the information that the firm's third partner was supposed to be recovering in the countryside from some very serious illness.

    He scratched his head frequently. Something had happened -- but what? Daalmen began coming around the shipyard and the ship at all hours of the day. Inspectors, evidently. They didn't advertise their identity, but he knew the type. Captain Aron, reasonably prudent about cash outlays until now, suddenly was spending money like water. The system of detection and warning devices installed on the ship two weeks before was the kind of first-class equipment any trader would want and not many could afford. Vezzarn, interested in his personal safety while on the Evening Bird, had looked it over carefully. One morning, it was all hauled out like so much junk, and replaced by instruments impossibly expensive for a ship of that class. Vezzarn didn't get to see the voucher. Later in the day the skipper was back with a man he said was an armaments expert, who was to do something about the touchiness of the reinstalled nova guns.

    Vezzarn happened to recognize the expert. It was the chief armorer of the great firm which designed and produced the offensive weapons of Uldune's war fleet. They could have had the Evening Bird bristling with battle turrets for the price of the three hours the chief armorer put in working over the ancient nova guns! Vezzarn didn't see that voucher either, but he didn't have to. And it didn't seem to bother the skipper in the least.

    What was the purpose? It looked as if the ship were being prepared for some desperate enterprise, of significance far beyond that of an ordinary risk run. Vezzarn couldn't fathom it, but it made him unhappy. He couldn't back out, however. Not and last long on Uldune. The voice would see to that.

    One of their three passengers did back out -- Kambine, the fat financier. He showed up at the office whining that his health wouldn't allow him to go through with the trip. Vezzarn wasn't surprised; he'd felt from the first it was even money whether Kambine's nerve would last till lift-off. What did surprise him was that the skipper instructed him then to refund two thirds of the deposited fare. You would have thought he was glad to lose a passenger!

    The other two were on board and in their staterooms when the Evening Bird roared up from Zergandol Port at last and turned her needle nose towards the Chaladoor....



    Vezzarn got busy immediately. There might have been a faint hope that, if he could accomplish his purpose before they reached the Chaladoor, an opportunity would present itself to slip off undetected in the Evening Bird's lifeboat and get himself out of whatever perils lay ahead. If so, the hope soon faded. There was a group of ship-blips in the aft screens, apparently riding the same course.

    The skipper told him not to worry. He'd heard a squadron of the Daal's destroyers was making a sweep to the Chaladoor fringes and back, on the lookout for the Agandar's pirates, and had obtained permission to move with them until they swung around. For the first two days, in effect, the Evening Bird would travel under armed escort.

    That killed Vezzarn's notion. He'd be picked up instantly by the destroyers' instruments if he left while they were in the area. And he couldn't leave after they turned back -- a man who'd voluntarily brave the Chaladoor in a lifeboat was a hopeless lunatic. He'd have to finish the trip with the rest of them. Nevertheless, he should establish as soon as he could where Captain Aron's drive was concealed. Knowing that, he could let further plans develop at leisure.

    Vezzarn was a remarkably skilled burglar -- one of the qualities which made him a valuable operator to the ungrateful voice. Now that they were in space, his duties had become routine and limited. He had plenty of time available and made good use of it.

    There was a series of little surprises. He discovered that, except for the central passenger compartment and the control area in the bow, the ship had been competently bugged. Sections of it were very securely locked up. Vezzarn knew these precautions had been no part of the original remodeling design as set up by Sunnat, Bazim & Filish. Hence Captain Aron had arranged for them during the final construction period when other changes were made. Evidently he'd had a reason by then to make sure his passengers -- and Vezzarn -- didn't wander about the Evening Bird where they shouldn't.

    Vezzarn wondered what the reason was. But the skipper's precautions didn't handicap him much. He had his own instruments to detect and nullify bugs without leaving a trace of what happened; and he knew, as any good burglar would, that the place to look for something of value was where locks were strongest. In about a day he felt reasonably certain the secret drive was installed in one of three places: the storage vault, or another rather small vault-like section newly added to the engine room, or a blocked-off area on the ship's upper level behind the passenger compartment and originally a part of it.

    The engine room seemed the logical place. Next day Vezzarn slipped down there, unlocking and relocking various doors on his route. It was his sleep period and it was unlikely anyone would look for him for an hour or two. He reached the engine room without mishap. The locks to the special compartment took some study and cautious experimentation. Then Vezzarn had it open. At first glance it looked like a storage place for assorted engine room tools. But why keep them shut away so carefully?

    He didn't hurry inside. His instruments were doing some preliminary snooping for him. They began to report there was other instrument activity in here -- plenty of it! Almost all traces were being picked up from behind a large opaque bulge on a bulkhead across from the door. Vezzarn's hopes soared but he still didn't rush in. His devices kept probing about for traps. And presently they discovered a camera. It didn't look like one and it was sitting innocently among a variety of gadgets on one of the wall shelves. But it was set to record the actions of anyone who came in here and got interested in the bulge on the bulkhead.

    Well, that could be handled! Vezzarn edged his way up to the camera without coming into its view range, opened it delicately from behind and unset it. Then he put his own recording devices up before the bulge which concealed so much intriguing instrument activity, and for the next ten minutes let them take down in a number of ways what was going on in there. When he thought they'd got enough, he reset the camera, locked up the little compartment and returned to the upper ship level and his cabin by the way he had come. There he started the recorders feeding what they had obtained into a device which presently would provide him with a three-dimensional blueprint derived from their combined reports. He locked the device into his cabin closet.

    He had to wait until the next sleep period rolled around before he had a chance to study the results. The Evening Bird was edging into the Chaladoor by then. The destroyers had curved off and faded from the screens, and the skipper had announced certain precautionary measures which would remain in effect until the risk area lay behind them again. One of them was that for a number of periods during the ship-day Vezzarn would be on watch at a secondary set of viewscreens off the passenger lounge. The control section henceforth would be entered without special permission only by Captain Aron and his niece.

    As soon as he reached his cabin and locked the door, Vezzarn brought his device back out of the closet. He placed it on the small cabin table, activated it, checked the door again, set the device in motion and looked down through an eyepiece at a magnified view of the miniature three-dimensional pattern the instrument had produced within itself.

    It was a moving pattern, and it gave off faintly audible sounds. Vezzarn stared and listened, first with surprise, then in blank puzzlement, at last with growing consternation. The reproduced contrivance in there buzzed, clicked, hummed, twinkled, spun. It sent small impulses of assorted energy types shooting about through itself. It remained spectacularly, if erratically, busy. And within five minutes Vezzarn became completely convinced that it did, and could do, absolutely nothing that would serve any practical purpose.

    Whatever it might be, it wasn't a spacedrive. Even the most unconventional of drives couldn't possibly resemble anything like that!

    Then what was it? Presently it dawned on Vezzarn that he'd been tricked. That thing behind the bulge on the bulkhead had served a purpose! The entire little locked compartment in the engine room was set up to draw the interest of somebody who might be prowling about the Evening Bird in search of a hidden drive installation.

    It was something of a shock! The skipper had impressed him as an open, forthright fellow. An act of such low cunning didn't fit the impression. Briefly, Vezzarn felt almost hurt. But at any rate he'd spotted the camera and hadn't got caught....

    That was only one of the unsettling developments for Vezzarn that day. Since Captain Aron's precautionary measures might have been intended to keep tab on passengers rather than himself, he'd set up his own system of telltale bugs in various parts of the ship. They were considerably more efficient bugs than the ones which had been installed for Captain Aron; even a first-class professional would have to be very lucky to avoid them all. If Vezzarn had competitors on board in his quest for the secret drive, he wanted to know it.

    It appeared now that he did. Running a check playback on the telltales, he discovered they'd been agitated by somebody's passage in several off-limit ship sections at times when the skipper, young Dani, and he himself had been up in the control compartment.

    Which of the two was it? The Hulik do Eldel female, or that nattily dressed, big bruiser of a trader, Laes Yango?

    Perhaps both of them, acting independently, Vezzarn thought worriedly. Two other agents looking for the same thing he was -- that was all he needed on this trip!




    Captain Aron, at about that hour, was doing some worrying on the same general subject. If he'd been able to arrange it, there would have been no passengers on the Venture -- or Evening Bird -- when she left Uldune. What they'd taken on board made the commercial aspects of the run to Emris completely insignificant. And not only that -- their experience with Sunnat, Bazim & Filish raised the question of how many other groups on Uldune suspected the ship of containing the secrets of some new drive of stupendous power and incalculable value. Subradio had spread information about the Venture faster and farther than they'd foreseen. Almost anyone they ran into now could be nourishing private designs on the mystery drive.

    One way to have stopped the plotting might have been to let word get out generally that they were Karres witches. Apparently few informed people here cared to cross the witches. But because of Olimy and his crystalloid item again, it was the last thing they could afford to do at present. The Worm World, from all accounts, had its own human agents about, enslaved and totally obedient minds; any such rumor was likely to draw the Nuris' attention immediately to them. They wanted to make the Venture’s departure from Uldune as quiet a matter as possible.

    So he'd been unable to leave Laes Yango and Hulik do Eldel behind. To do it against their wishes certainly would have started speculation. After Kambine canceled voluntarily, he'd invited the two to come to the office. The day before, a ship had limped into Zergandol Port after concluding a pass through the Chaladoor. The ship was in very bad shape, its crew in worse. It seemed, the captain said, that the Chaladoor's hazards had reached a peak at present. If they'd prefer to reconsider the trip for that reason, he would refund the entire fare.

    The offer got him nowhere. Hulik do Eldel became tearfully insistent that she must rejoin her aging parents on Emris as soon as possible. And Yango stated politely that, if necessary, he would obtain an injunction to keep the Evening Bird from leaving without him. Some office of the Daal's no doubt would have quietly overruled the injunction; but meanwhile there would have been a great deal of loose talk. So the captain gave in.

    "In case one of those two is after the Sheewash Drive," he told Goth, "we'd better do something about it."

    "Do what?" asked Goth. It would have been convenient just now if her talents had included reading minds; but they didn't.

    The captain had thought about it. "Set up a decoy drive."

    Goth liked the idea. He'd almost forgotten what had happened to the leftovers of the cargo with which he had started out from Nikkeldepain -- sometimes that day seemed to lie years in the past now -- but he located them finally in storage at the spaceport. One of the crates contained the complicated, expensive, and somewhat explosive educational toys which probably were the property of Councilor Rapport and which had turned out to be unsalable in the Empire.

    "There's a kind of gadget in there that could do the trick," he said to Goth. "Called the Totisystem Toy, I think."

    He found a Totisystem Toy and demonstrated it for her. It had been designed to provide visual instruction in all forms of power systems known to Nikkeldepain, but something seemed to have gone wrong with the lot. When the toy was set in action, the systems all started to operate simultaneously. The result was a bewildering, constantly changing visual hash.

    "Might not fool anybody who's got much sense for long," he admitted. "But all it has to do is let us know whether there's someone on board we have to watch.... Could have the ship bugged, too, come to think of it!"

    They had the Totisystem Toy installed in the engine room, concealed but not so well concealed that a good snooper shouldn't be able to find it, and set up a camera designed for espionage work. The espionage supplies outfit which sold them the camera, and sent an expert to bug the Venture unobtrusively in the areas the captain wanted covered, acknowledged the devices couldn't be depended upon absolutely. Nothing in that class could. It was simply a matter of trying to keep a jump ahead of the competition.

    "Spiders!" Goth remarked thoughtfully.

    "Eh?" inquired the captain.

    Spiders spun threads, she explained, and spiders got in everywhere. Even a very suspicious spy probably wouldn't give much attention to a spider thread or two even if he noticed them.

    They brought a couple of well-nourished spiders aboard the ship and attached a few threads to the camouflaged camera in the engine room. Anyone doing anything at all to the camera was going to break a thread.

    Vezzarn, of course, couldn't be completely counted out now as a potential spy. The old spacer's experience might make him very useful on the run; but if it could be made to seem that it was his own decision, they'd leave him on Uldune.

    Vezzarn scratched his gray head.

    "Sounds like the Chaladoor's acting up kind of bad right now, at that!" he agreed innocently. "But I'll come along anyway, skipper, if it's all right with you."

    So Vezzarn also came along. If they'd discharged him just before starting on the trip for which he'd been hired, people would have been wondering again.

    On the night before take-off, Daalmen in an unmarked van brought two sizable crates out to the Evening Bird and loaded them on the ship at the captain's directions. One crate went into a brand-new strongbox in the storage vault with a time lock on it. When it was inside, the captain set the lock to a date two weeks ahead. The other crate went into a stateroom recently sealed off from the rest of the passenger compartment. The first contained the crystalloid object which had been on Olimy's ship; and the other contained Olimy himself.

    They'd completed all preparations as well as they could.

    After they'd been aloft twelve hours, Goth went down to the engine room with one of the spiders in a box in her pocket, and looked into the locked compartment. The camera hadn't come into action, but the two almost imperceptible threads attached to it were broken. Someone had been there.

    She had the spider attach fresh threads and came back up. None of their expensive bugs had been disturbed. The engine room prowler should be a spy of experience.

    When they checked again next day, someone had been there again.

    It didn't seem too likely it had been the same someone. The bugs still had recorded no movement. They had two veteran spies on board then -- perhaps three. The Totisystem Toy might have had a third visitor before the spider threads were reattached to the camera. But the camera hadn't gone into action even once.

    Short of putting all three suspects in chains, there wasn't much they could do about it at the moment. The closer they got to the Chaladoor, the less advisable it would be for either of them to be anywhere but in the control section or in their cabins, which opened directly on the control section, for any considerable length of time. The spies, whether two or three, might simply give up. After all, the only mystery drive to be found on the ship was a bundle of wires in a drawer of the bedside table in Goth's cabin. Plus Goth.

    On the fourth ship-day something else occurred....



    The captain was in the control chair, on watch, while Goth napped in her cabin. The Chaladoor had opened up awesomely before them, and the Venture was boring through it at the peak thrust of her souped-up new drives. Their supersophisticated detection system registered occasional blips, but so far they'd been the merest flickers. The captain's gaze shifted frequently to the forward screens. A small, colorful star cluster hung there, a bit to port, enveloped in a haze of reddish-brown dust against the black of space. It was the first of their guideposts through the uncertainties of the Chaladoor, but one it was wise to give a wide berth to -- the reputed lair, in fact, of his old acquaintances, the Megair Cannibals.

    He tapped in a slight course modification. The cluster slid gradually farther to port. Then the small desk screen beside him, connected to the entrance to the control section, made a burring sound. He clicked it on and Vezzarn's face appeared.

    "Yes?" said the captain.

    Vezzarn's head shifted as he glanced back along the empty passage behind him. "Something going on you ought to know about, skipper!" he whispered hoarsely.

    The captain simultaneously pressed the button which released the entrance door and the one which brought Goth awake in her cabin.

    "Come in!" he said.

    Vezzarn's face vanished. The captain slipped his Blythe gun out of a desk drawer and into his pocket, stood up as the little spaceman hastily entered the control room. "Well?" he asked.

    "That NO ADMITTANCE door back of the passenger section, skipper! Looks like one of 'em's snooping around in there."

    "Which one?" asked the captain as Goth appeared in the control room behind Vezzarn.

    Vezzarn shrugged. "Don't know! No one in the lounge right now. I was coming by, saw the door open just a crack--"

    "You didn't investigate?"

    "No, sir!" Vezzarn declared virtuously. "Not me. Not without your permission, I wouldn't go in there! Thought I'd better tell you right away though."

    "Come along," the captain told Goth. He snapped the control entrance door shut on lock behind the three of them, and they hurried along the passage to the lounge. Goth stayed there to keep an eye on the Chaladoor through the lounge screens. The captain and Vezzarn hastened on, stopped at the door to the sealed passage, at the far end of which Olimy sat unmoving in his dark stateroom.

    "Closed now!" Vezzarn said.

    The captain glanced at him, drawing the key to the passage from his pocket. "Sure you saw it open?" he asked.

    Vezzarn looked hurt. "Sure as I'm standing here, skipper! Just a bit. But it was open!"

    "All right." Whoever had been prowling about the ship before might have investigated the passage and the stateroom, discovered Olimy there -- which should be a considerable shock to most people -- and hurriedly left again. "You go wait with Dani in the lounge," he said. "I'll check."

    The key turned in the lock. The captain twisted the handle. The door flew open, banging into him; and he caught Hulik do Eldel by the arm as she darted out. She twisted a dead-white face up to him, eyes staring. Then, before he could say anything, her mouth opened wide and she screamed piercingly.



    The scream brought Vezzarn back to the scene, Laes Yango lumbering behind him. Hulik was babbling her head off. The captain shoved the passage door shut, said curtly, "Let's get her to the lounge...."

    It was an awkward situation, but by the time they got to the lounge he had a story ready. The motionless figure Miss do Eldel had seen was simply another passenger and no cause for alarm. The man, whose name the captain was not at liberty to disclose, suffered from a form of paralysis for which a cure was to be sought on Emris. Some very important personages of Uldune were involved; and for reasons of planetary politics, the presence of the patient on board the Evening Bird was to have been a complete secret. It was unfortunate that Miss do Eldel had allowed her curiosity to take her into an off limits section of the ship and discover their fellow-passenger. He trusted, the captain concluded, that he could count on the discretion of those present to see that the story at least got no farther....

    Laes Yango, Vezzarn, and Hulik nodded earnestly. Whatever Hulik had thought when she turned on a light in Olimy's stateroom, she seemed to accept the captain's explanations. She was looking both relieved and very much embarrassed as he went off to relock the stateroom and passage doors... not that locking things up on the ship seemed to make much difference at present--

    "If I could see you in the control section, Miss do Eldel," he said when he came back. "Vezzarn, you'd better stay at the viewscreens till Dani and I take over up front...."

    In the control room he asked Hulik to be seated. Goth already was at the console. But the detector system had remained reassuringly quiet, and the Megair Cluster was dropping behind them. The captain switched on the intercom, called Vezzarn off the lounge screens. Then he turned back to the passenger.

    "I really must apologize, Captain Aron!" Hulik told him contritely. "I don't know what possessed me. I assure you I don't make it a practice to pry into matters that are not my business."

    "What I'd like to know," the captain said, "is how you were able to unlock the passage door and the one to the stateroom."

    Hulik looked startled.

    "But I didn't!" she said. "Neither door was locked and the one to the passage stood open. That's why it occurred to me to look inside.... Couldn't Vezzarn -- no, you hadn't told Vezzarn about this either, had you?"

    "No, I hadn't," said the captain.

    "You're the only one who has keys to the door?"

    He nodded. "Supposedly."

    "Then I don't understand it. I swear I'm telling the truth!" Hulik's dark eyes gazed at him in candid puzzlement. Then their expression changed. "Or could the -- the unfortunate person in there have revived enough to have opened the doors from within?" Her face said she didn't like that idea at all.

    The captain told her he doubted it. And from what Goth knew of the disminded condition, it was in fact impossible that Olimy's shape could have moved by itself, let alone begun unlocking doors. Otherwise, it seemed the incident hadn't told them anything about the shipboard prowlers they didn't already know. Hulik do Eldel looked as though she were telling the truth. But then an experienced lady spy would look as if she were telling the truth, particularly when she was lying....

    He'd had an alarm device set up in the control desk which would go off if anyone tampered with the strongbox containing Olimy's crystalloid in the storage vault. He was glad now he had taken that precaution, though it still did seem almost unnecessary -- the time lock on the strongbox was supposed to be tamper-proof; and the storage vault itself had been installed on the ship by the same firm of master craftsmen who'd designed the vaults for the Daal's Bank.



    Most of the next ship-day passed quietly -- or in relative quiet. They did, in fact, have their first real attack alert, but it was not too serious a matter. A round dozen black needle-shapes registered suddenly in the screens against the purple glare of a star. Stellar radiation boiling through space outside had concealed the blips till then... and not by accident; it was a common attack gambit and they'd been on the watch for it whenever their course took them too near a sun. The black ships moved at high speed along an interception course with the Venture. They looked wicked and competent.

    The buzzer roused Goth in her sleep cabin. Thirty seconds later one of the desk screens lit up and her face looked out at the captain. "Ready!" her voice told him. She raked sleep-tousled brown hair back from her forehead. "Now?"

    "Not yet." Sneaking through the sun system, he hadn't pushed the Venture; they still had speed in reserve. "We might outrun them. We'll see.... Switch your screen to starboard--"

    The ship's intercom pealed a signal. The passenger lounge. The captain cut it in. "Yes?" he said.

    "Are you aware, sir," Laes Yango's voice inquired, "that we are about to be waylaid?"

    The captain thanked him, told him he was, and that he was prepared to handle the situation. The trader switched off, apparently satisfied. He must have excellent nerves; the voice had sounded composed, no more than moderately interested. And sharp eyes, the captain thought -- the lounge screens couldn't have picked up the black ships until almost the instant before Yango called.

    It was too bad though that he was in the lounge at the moment. If the Sheewash Drive had to be used, the captain would slap an emergency button first, which, among other things, blanked out the lounge screens. Nevertheless, that in itself was likely to give Yango some food for thought....

    But perhaps it wouldn't be necessary. The captain watched the calculated interception point in the instruments creep up. Still three minutes away. The black ships maintained an even speed. Four of them were turning off from the others, to cut in more sharply, come up again from behind.... He shoved the drive thrust regulator slowly flat to the desk. The drives howled monstrous thunder. A minute and a half later, they flashed through the interception point with a comfortably sixty seconds to spare. The black ships had poured on power at the last moment, too. but the Venture was simply faster.

    His watch ended, and Goth's began. He slept, ate, came on watch again....

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