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The Sorceress of Karres: Chapter Two

       Last updated: Monday, September 21, 2009 21:29 EDT



    “I didn’t know that it was possible to teleport that sort of mass,” said Captain Pausert, impressed.

    Goth squeezed her father’s hand. “Oh, yes. So long as you’ve got a hot witch doing it, it works pretty well.”

    Threbus wiped his brow. “If the range is not particularly great, I can manage large amounts of mass. But I’m pretty well limited to a few hundred yards. A group of us can manage a few miles.”

    “Still a pretty hot witch,” said Goth. “I can only do a couple of pounds.”

    Threbus smiled. “You’ve got the range on me though. And you’re young yet. When I was your age I had just started to discover a few klatha powers but they were so slight that I didn’t actually believe they were real.”

    “That must have been just as well on Nikkeldepain,” said Captain Pausert, thinking of his home planet. It was a very conservative and traditional place. Quite stuffy in a lot of ways. Karres witch tricks would not be happily received there.

    The thought made him chuckle a little. Most of the people of Nikkeldepain would be horrified by the company he was now keeping. It had not been the easiest place to grow up in, in some ways. Not if one was just a little bit out of the ordinary. Captain Pausert could see now that might easily have been the start of his own klatha manifestations. But it had given him enough trouble at school, and later in the Nikkeldepain space navy.

    That, and the infamy of his great-uncle Threbus, the very man who had just teleported them. It had been difficult growing up in the shadow of the stories about great-uncle Threbus. Harder because he’d never known quite where to stand on it all. His mother had always stood up for her strange uncle, in spite of what people said. Pausert had had a few bitter fights about it at school. He’d always held out that the stories had to be exaggerated. Now he had to wonder whether it had not been Nikkeldepain that had been the victim, not his eccentric great-uncle.

    They were joined by Maleen, who was with a young man Pausert didn’t know. Pausert hadn’t seen much of Maleen since the day that he had left the three witches of Karres back on their home planet after rescuing them from slavery on the Empire world of Porlumma. He’d always been a little suspicious about that. The witches were certainly capable of rescuing themselves from most situations. Maleen was a precognitive Karres witch — which gave him enough ground for extreme suspicion.

    Precog was not an exact science. But it was good enough for her to have prepared a tray of drinks for them. Tall green Lepti liquor for Captain Pausert and her father, and a pale frothy brew for her two sisters. When Pausert had last seen her, Maleen had been a pretty blonde teenage girl. It made him sharply aware of the passage of years to see that she was now definitely a young woman.

    “Captain,” she said proudly, taking the young man’s hand possessively, “this is Neldo. My husband.”

    Pausert extended his hand. “Pleased to meet you.” Well, she had said that she would be of marriageable age in two years, Karres time. Pausert was still not too sure just how long a Karres month was. But he, together with Goth and her little sister, the Leewit, had been on quite a number of adventures since then. Come to think of it, he wasn’t entirely sure how many months it had all taken.

    Neldo shook his hand warmly. “I’ve heard a lot about you.” Then he turned to his father-in-law. “Maleen has got some great news.”

    “We’re going to have a baby!” said Maleen excitedly.

    Threbus beamed and hugged both of them. “Would it be too much to expect for a precog to have some idea what sex it’s going to be?”

    Maleen blushed. “You know we’re not supposed to do that kind of thing.”

    “So you got Kerris, or one of the others, to do it for you,” said Goth, grinning.

    Maleen and Neldo smiled at each other. “You might be right. We might even know what we’ve decided to call her.”

    The Leewit stood in front of them, her arms folded. “There is only one ‘the Leewit.’”

    Maleen laughed. “We know that. And it still didn’t put us off having children. Her name will be Vala.”

    “Why?” asked Goth.

    “We don’t know,” answered Maleen. “It’s not a name that either of us had ever heard before.”

    Captain Pausert was a little taken aback by the name. It brought back a flood of memories which he had thought were gone for ever. “I knew a Vala once, back on Nikkeldepain.”

    Goth looked suspiciously at him. “You said that… sort of funny. Who was this Vala?”

    “Just a girl I knew when I was growing up.” Pausert had a bad feeling his ears were starting to grow slightly red.

    “I bet she was your sweetheart, Captain,” Maleen sniggered. “Hope she was better than that insipid girl, what was her name, Illyla.”

    “She wasn’t a bit like Illyla,” said Captain Pausert reminiscently. “Actually, if anything she was more like Goth. Except that she had red hair and was a bit older. She got me into a fair amount of trouble, but I don’t remember that I minded too much. Like the lattice ship that came to Nikkeldepain at about that time. She was one of those people that you never really forget. Oh well, it was long ago. It’s a beautiful name. I’m glad you chose it.”

    “Huh!” said Goth, looking at Pausert from under her dark brows. “Anyway, I’ve never had much time for babies, not until they grow up a bit.”

    Toll came in. “And then they turn into something like the Leewit,” she said, looking at her youngest daughter and smiling.

    The Leewit shrugged. “Babies are no fun anyway. I have decided that I’m going to stay with the captain for the next while. Things happen around him. And he takes pretty good care of us. Makes us wash behind our ears even.”

    That last was plainly something that she felt was a little unnatural. Pausert had to smile to himself. The Leewit was a handful to deal with, but at least he felt that he was dealing with a child, even if he knew very little about how to do so. With Goth he was less certain. She was growing up. Fast.

    According to the Karres precogs this was going to be a very important year for Goth. The year had started with their departure from the Governor’s palace on Green Galaine, on a life or death mission to escort the Nartheby Sprite Hantis and her Grik-dog Pul to the Imperial Palace. Of course no one had seen fit to tell him that the trip was going to be quite as risky as it had turned out to be. It had been a period during which the captain’s own klatha skills had grown immeasurably. But although Goth had matured, he could honestly not say that it had been that much of an important year for her development. Except…. they still had a couple of months to go. Pausert could not help but be a bit nervous as to what they might bring her.



    A little later, when Goth had gone off with her sisters, Pausert broached the subject of his next mission with Toll and Threbus. His relationship with the Witches of Karres was an interesting one. At least in theory, Captain Pausert was just an independent trader, with a fast armed merchant ship. But in practice he was part of the community of Karres. That was more about a willingness to do what was needed, than merely a reference to your citizenship or place of birth. And if Karres needed him, he was willing.

    “The Chaladoor,” said Threbus, referring to a dangerous and mysterious region of space, the lair of pirates, the Megair Cannibals… at one time of Manaret and the Nuri globes lurking within the Tark Nembi cluster of dead suns and interstellar dust and debris.

    “Oh?” said Captain Pausert warily. He’d survived one crossing of Chaladoor. Admittedly, he’d been in more danger from those inside his ship — spies and the notorious Agandar — than from forces outside it.

    “There is something going on in that area of space. Since Manaret was destroyed, quite a few ships have risked the crossing. And none of them have made it. The Daal of Uldune has also thought to expand his power in that direction… And he has been repulsed.”

    Pausert raised his eyebrows. He knew the hexaperson that was the cloned and telepathic ruler of the one-time pirate world rather well. Sedmon the Sixth was not a trivial foe. The Empire still trod warily around him, and the forces at his command. Whatever the danger was that lurked in the Chaladoor, it was something serious. “You… want me to do what, exactly?”

    “You will be a kind of bait, to be honest, Pausert,” said Threbus. “All we want you to do is encounter the problem, and then run away as fast as you and the Sheewash drive can manage. The Chaladoor is a large, complex region. Karres could hunt for some years without encountering whatever the problem is. Problems tend to avoid whole worlds which are also spacecraft.”

    He looked at his grand nephew with a twinkle. “And we do really mean ‘run’, Pausert. You’ve proved yourself far more than just capable with problems. And you’ve taken good care of my daughters in the process. But not with something that was big enough to deal with eight of the Daal’s cruisers and a battle wagon. They barely had time to say they were under attack on sub-radio, before being destroyed. Whatever it is, it is no easy foe to deal with.”

    Threbus cleared his throat and continued. “You have a ship which is very nearly the equal of a single cruiser anyway, as far as speed and detection equipment is concerned. We’ll have it refitted with some more of the very latest equipment, at our expense. Your armaments are not quite to the same standard, but they are certainly up to holding off an enemy until you can engage the Sheewash drive. Now that you have also mastered the drive, and with Goth and the Leewit to help you in emergencies, we think you should be able to deal with running away. Leave us to the clean up!”

    “You wouldn’t take unnecessary risks with the girls anyway,” said Toll, smiling. “My daughter has already made her plans for you. And you wouldn’t be foolish enough to try and spoil them now, would you?”

    Goth’s plans were to marry the captain as soon as she was of marriageable age. At first the captain had not taken her terribly seriously — just as Threbus had apparently not taken Toll’s similar plan too seriously. And see where it had got Threbus! As time had gone on and Pausert and Goth had shared adventure and danger together, Pausert had come to realize that he was very fond of her too. But he was a normal man, and she wasn’t yet properly grown up.

    Yet… the witches did have some other avenues open to them. He knew that Threbus must be at least eighty years old by now. Yet he looked to be no more than in his mid-thirties. He also knew from what they had learned on Uldune that Toll too could change her age at will. As they turned to leave, Pausert cleared his throat and braced himself to ask, “Er. Toll. About age shifts…”

    Toll turned back and raised one eyebrow at him, with a quizzical half-amused, half-dangerous expression on her face. “What?” she said, in a way that would have made most men say “oh nothing. Nothing at all.” But Pausert was quite brave. Or quite stupid. He was not too sure which of he two he was being right now.

    “I was wondering,” he said, “about, well, the age shift thing.”

    Toll smiled. “Oddly enough, Goth’s been raising the same subject lately. The answer is ‘no,’ Captain Pausert. Compared to Nikkeldepain our way of raising children may seem a little strange to you. Karres children are very independent. They have to be. But, captain, they are still children, and need to go through stages of development, just like any other child. There are a number of important formative experiences Goth still has to go through. We did not let our children go with you lightly, Captain Pausert. We have ways of knowing that you are absolutely trustworthy. And anyway, because of the parent-pattern in their heads, we’re around in a way, even when we’re not.”

    Captain Pausert had encountered the Toll pattern in Goth. He’d wished that he too could have a resident instructor and mentor, sometimes. But Karres had decided that he was best left to learn on his own. “I’ve always done my best for them all,” he said. “And if you think that is best for Goth, then we will just have to let it all happen at its own speed.”

    Toll patted his shoulder. “And it will. Take a step back from it, if you can. Age shift is one of the things we don’t teach the young witches. Every single child among them wants to be grown up instantly. What child doesn’t? Well, we found that although they can cope very easily with the physical changes in their bodies, it’s not the same with their minds. Only time seems to achieve that properly.” She cocked her head slightly and smiled. “See, it wouldn’t just be an older Goth… my middle daughter is quite an old soul in a young body sometimes. But can you imagine what it would be like if the Leewit could suddenly choose to be grown up, or at least have a grown-up body?”

    That was quite a thought! “Could make applying a piece of tinklewood fishing rod adapted to be a switch very interesting,” said the captain. “I think I see your point. I don’t think the galaxy is quite ready for that yet.”



    “Goth, you’re being a dope,” said the Leewit. “Isn’t she, Maleen?”

    “Shut up,” said Goth. “It’s more complicated than you understand, you little bollem.”

    Maleen, looking down on her younger sisters with the vast tolerance of an older, and now married woman, smiled. “Don’t you like the captain any more, the Leewit?”

    The Leewit looked affronted. “He’s not a bad old dope. Okay. He’s not even so old. And he’s not really a dope. I like him quite a lot, actually. He’s good to have around especially when things go wrong. But I don’t see what Goth’s all upset about.” She sniffed. “And don’t tell me that she’s not, because she is.”

    Goth gave her a look that would have sent sensible wildlife running. “It’s your baby’s fault,” she said to Maleen.

    “I didn’t tell you everything Kerris and the other precogs said about her.”

    “Don’t know if I want to hear,” said Goth crossly.

    Maleen put a hand on Goth’s shoulder and pushed her down into a chair. “Well, you should. Because it is important. I need to talk to Toll and Threbus about it too, but I couldn’t with Captain Pausert there.”

    “Why? What did they say?”

    “Pausert’s going on a mission to Chaladoor.”

    “I know that. We leave…”

    “Except that you’re not going to be with him,” said Maleen.

    Goth shook her head. “He needs me around. He doesn’t have a pattern in his mind to guide him through the klatha stuff. And he… experiments. Look what happened with the Egger route. We ended up back in time. He’ll get hurt or killed, for sure, if I am not there.”

    Goth knew full well that Captain Pausert had actually done all right a couple of times without her. But a girl had keep an eye on her man. And she was double uncertain right now. That episode was well back in his past, but she was not ignorant and naive enough not to know that the captain had given his heart to this Vala. Also, his tone said that she’d meant something very different to him than his former fiancée Illyla.

    Illyla, Goth could deal with, just like she’d dealt with Sunnat. This Vala…

    Goth hadn’t liked his reverent tone. And she didn’t like the fact that, in a way, the girl couldn’t have been much older than Goth was now, when she got her claws into the captain. Well. He wouldn’t have been a captain then. But still.

    “You know what precog is like, Goth. No one ever sees the whole picture, but they do see what they see, right? And this is what Kerris said. You — Goth, nobody else — have got to do this or else he’s not just going to get killed. It’d be like he never was. It’s got something to do with what is going on in the Chaladoor.”

    Goth took a deep breath. “You tell me all that you know right now, Maleen.” This was much more serious than some old girlfriend he’d never got over.

    “Well, you know precogs measure might-be’s. They predicted Vala’s name. We both heard it and loved it… and they said that it was really important that she be called that. And they said that some power from the Chaladoor was going to murder Captain Pausert.”

    “What!” Goth leapt to her feet. “We could dismind him, like Olimy. Or he could put himself in a cocoon like he put the Leewit and me in…”

    “And it happened when he was fifteen,” said Maleen. “There is a ninety eight point probability that he died before he ever left Nikkeldepain. Maybe some enemy figured out then it was a good idea to get rid of him before he developed any klatha powers. Before he had Goth and Karres to protect him.”

    Goth said several words that even shocked the Leewit.

    “The captain will wash your mouth out with soap!” said the youngest witch, primly, as if she herself did not delight in using terms that would make a docker blush. Although she was usually careful to do so in a language that Captain Pausert could not understand. Her klatha gifts ran to the ability to translate and speak any language.

    “Not unless you tell him, he won’t. And I’ll make you swim back to Karres on the Egger route if you do,” said Goth. “You’re going to have to look after him in the Chaladoor, little sister. I’m going to have to go and deal with this.”



    The Leewit nodded, wide eyed, looking at her sister. It was going to be quite a task. But that was pure Karres. If something needed doing, you did it. Karres people weren’t much good at waiting for someone else to take the responsibility. “How are you going to get there?” she asked.

    Goth gritted her teeth. “The Egger route. And there’s not going to be anyone else to help me at the other end either.”

    That could be nasty. Really nasty. But by the look on Goth’s face that wasn’t going to stop her for an instant.

    “I think you’d better talk it over with Toll and Threbus first,” said Maleen. “And this may not be the perfect time.”

    Goth took a deep breath. “I am not going to be able to sleep unless… isn’t this a paradox? Like, he must have survived or we wouldn’t have met him?”

    Maleen bit her lip. “You’d think so. But all precog could give us was that somehow they avoided the time paradox.”

    “Time is too complicated to play around with lightly,” said the voice of Goth’s Toll pattern, issuing from her lips. “Dimensionality comes into it.”



    They went to find Threbus and Toll. And, not surprisingly found them in consultation with several of the senior precogs. “You know the prediction that it was important that you spent the next year with my grand nephew Pausert?” said her father. “We’ve got a little more clarity on that.”

    “We’re trying to establish the precise dates right now,” said Toll. “But you will be leaving on the Venture with him, and then we think you’re going to have to jump to the past, via the Egger route.”

    “I worked that out,” said Goth, gruffly. “Been talking to Maleen. But why can’t I just go now?”

    “Because the flight schedules have been published and we are still trying to establish exactly when you have to go to, Goth. We have established you do… or did go back to Nikkeldepain. We have only one other insight, Goth. A lattice ship.”

    The Leewit bounced. “Yay! I want to go too! I want go too! I love the circus!”

    “Well, you can’t,” said Goth firmly. “I need you to keep an eye on the captain. Anyway, you’re the only one beside him that seems to be able to do anything with those little vatches.”

    Threbus grunted. “We need them to clean out nannite-infected people. But the follow-up on that has been a bit chaotic. It seems that they only do things because they like Pausert. We don’t really have any way of motivating them.”

    “Little-bit likes me too,” said the Leewit cheerfully. “I got used to her.”

    As if the vatch had known she was being spoken about, the tiny fleck of blackness with the hint of silver eyes appeared, flickering around the room. Hello big ones. I have taken the others to watch a play. They like them nearly as much as I do.

    Goth chuckled. “I guess you’ve got your motivation.”

    Threbus nodded thoughtfully. “There are going to be a lot of traveling players visiting the outlying provinces of the Empire in the next while.”

    “On an imperial cultural uplift programme,” said Toll smiling. “I’ll have some words with Dame Ethy and Sir Richard.”

    “Should be pretty interesting with that sort of audience! They’d better not let the shows get stale or the little things will liven ‘em up,” said Goth. “But it could work.”

    Threbus nodded. “I like it. It gives us something the vatches want. The other issue with the nannites is that we’ve had the imperial scientists working non-stop on the material — dead material so far. They haven’t given us anything to use to combat the plague, other than a possible repellant. But they have said that they’re absolutely sure that the plague is an artificial creation. The nannites were engineered. Made. They were programmed to do what they did.”

    There was a moment of silence. “That’s a pretty powerful enemy.”

    Threbus nodded. “And one that has been around for a very long time. Working on records from the Sprites of Nartheby, the plague came from somewhere toward the galactic center. We, of course, probably weren’t the targets. But it could be that something in there knows that their plague has been defeated.”

    “So they might be getting the next attack ready.”

    Threbus rubbed his jaw. “It’s also, in a way, why humanity were able to expand off old Yarthe with such ease. We found so many habitable planets with traces of old alien civilizations on them, but no other existent aliens, except for the Sprites on Nartheby. But we have to face the possibility that the nannite plague might just have been the alien equivalent of a pest-exterminator, cleaning up before the new occupants got there. And the nannite problem won’t just go away. It’s with us for the foreseeable future. Even if we track down and destroy every nannite in the Empire, they could still be hidden away somewhere — inside or outside the Empire, in the smallest colony, and could burst out again. We’re going to have to be vigilant. And get people used to having Grik-dogs to smell out the nannite exudates being something they must have.”

    “Well, at least I like Grik-dogs,” said Goth. “And I guess keeping an eye out for nannites will also mean that we’re ready for other problems.”

    Threbus nodded. “We’re going to be stretched pretty thin though, for the next few years. We’ll have to keep Karres people undercover, scattered around. And Karres itself will probably keep a low profile. We will have to find ourselves a new sun to orbit, because the planet will be top of their target list.”

    “I reckon,” said Goth. “And we like the old place.”

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