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The Sorceress of Karres: Chapter Five

       Last updated: Saturday, October 3, 2009 01:05 EDT



    So they walked together into downtown Nikkeldepain City. You could see, right then and there, that Nikkeldepain was big on order. Probably law too, Goth reflected, but certainly order. The streets were straight, neat, and very uniform. All the shop-signs were the same size, precisely. People all wore clothes that were the same style and cut, within a certain range. Goth used a little lightshift to subtly alter her own appearance. Captain Pausert had never been too good on dress and noticing. She just had to remember what Sunnat had worn — and he had barely noticed. Hulik too, although to be fair the Imperial agent hadn’t really been after the captain, like that Sunnat had.

    They stopped at a pastry cook. “He’s probably going to ask to see the money,” said Pausert.

    “Then I’ll show it to him,” said Goth. The problem with ‘porting things was firstly the energy it used, and secondly that it really helped if she knew exactly what she was teleporting. When she’d teleported Wansing’s jewels around she’d been able to see them. That was easy. She’d watched the Syrians load the cargo she’d teleported from their holds… Things she couldn’t see in closed drawers was a bit like guess-work. You had to visualize them quite carefully.

    Sure enough the pastry-cook took one look at Pausert and demanded to see the money first. “I know you. You’ll be like that Threbus,” said the shopkeeper.

    “And what was wrong with Threbus?” demanded Goth, taking offense.

    “And who are you, missy? Never seen you before,” said the sharp-eyed proprietor. “Anyway, unless you have money to spend, out. Or maybe just out anyway. You lower the tone of the place, just by being here.”

    “I have money to spend,” said Goth, letting hunger help her to hold her temper. It wasn’t holding it very tight.

    “Let’s see it.”

    So Goth focused her mind on his cash box. Then it was merely a case of taking something the right size from it. ‘Porting it into her pocket. She pulled it out.

    The shopkeeper’s eyes bulged. “How…”

    Goth looked at her hand, and then hastily returned what she had ‘ported to the drawer. But it was a bit late for that. It was time for turning and running.

    They ducked into a side street.

    “What was that picture?” asked Pausert. He hadn’t seen it too well, apparently, to Goth’s relief.

    “I really don’t know,” she said. “But I would avoid going back there for a while.”

    She had the locality of the cash-box now. And her second attempt did feel a bit more like cash. She knew that Pausert would look on it as theft, so she did a quick check to see what she had. A twenty Mael note. Well, she had one of those. If the pastry cook didn’t spend it in a hurry, he would be all right. Anyway, it would serve the shopkeeper right for keeping that sort of picture under his money.

    “I can’t really afford to buy pastries anyway,” admitted Pausert. “There is a sausage seller down the next street that’s not too bad. He used to have a stall near the school. Just don’t think about the sausages too much.”

    It was good advice, Goth reflected, as she ate a few minutes later. Still, if it didn’t kill her, it’d probably do for food, or at least something to fill the hole where her stomach used to be. And Pausert was obviously good at following his own advice, as he ate three of them.

    He had been a bit difficult at first. “No. I couldn’t. Really. I am not hungry,” he said.

    “Huh,” said Goth. “I owe you for helping me when I had that… fit. And I won’t eat alone, and I’m starving and you wouldn’t want me to starve, would you?”

    The sausages smelt reasonably good. She could see that he was tempted. “Look. I’ll hire you to show me around Nikkeldepain City. Payment will be some of those sausages. If I had to get a proper guide they’d skin for me a lot more. You get to eat, and I get a guide. How is that for a deal?”

    He nodded. “Okay. If you’re sure.”

    “Sure as can be,” said Goth. “Now, what’ll you have?”

    They washed the sausages down with some lime-green juice that Pausert liked, and Goth thought was rather like the sausages — best avoided. Now that her hunger was eased, Goth began to think about why she was here. It was really neat meeting the captain as a boy her own age… but there had to be some terrible danger threatening him.

    She began fishing for details as they walked. He was determined to give her a full sausages’ worth of a guided tour. Nikkeldepain City didn’t have a lot of sights, but he was going to show her all of them. On foot, and not by the monorail which seemed to be the normal mode of transport here.

    She got the feeling that he was also fairly lonely. Well, judging by the gang of boys back at the botanical institute, he didn’t have a lot of friends. She began to tease out bits of his life, school and family from his conversation. She was surprised to find herself learning a fair bit about her own father in the process. Threbus had also come from here, years before. And he had left quite a mark. His niece, Pausert’s mother, was a widow. She’d come back to Nikkeldepain after Pausert’s father had been killed in a military action somewhere on the borders of the Empire.

    He was not from Nikkeldepain, and the locals didn’t like that much. “I’m an outsider,” admitted Pausert. “And Great Uncle Threbus managed to make himself infamous here. Ma says when she was growing up it was a bit different. I mean his practical jokes were still talked about, but after the Flidean expeditions on the Venture he made quite a lot of money. And where there is lots of money Nikkeldepain will turn a blind eye.”

    “I bet,” said Goth. But, as interested as she was in finding out what had happened — she was pretty sure that a lot of Threbus’ “practical jokes” were the start of his klatha skills manifesting themselves — Pausert was curious about life on the lattice ship, or just life off-world in general. It became very clear that long before he had rescued Goth and her sisters on Porlumma and gotten himself into trouble with the authorities on Nikkeldepain for associating with the prohibited planet of Karres and its notorious witches, that he’d been getting ready to leave, anyway. Their intervention had forced him to flee to the life of a vagabond of space, but he seemed more than happy with it. Thus Goth was willing to feed that desire, although she had to be careful not to mention Karres. After all, Captain Pausert had, in perfect truth, said that he had never heard of it.



    It took her a little while to realize that they were being followed. And whoever was doing the organizing was good at it. If Nikkeldepain’s memorials and prominent sights had been a little more popular with visitors, she would not have noticed. But it was so improbable that the same man with tan shoes and blue trousers would be visiting the corn exchange, the statue of Nikkerliss, and the old fortification, at exactly the same time as them.

    Goth could not really see any reason for ever visiting any of them at all. It was obvious Pausert couldn’t either, but he was doing his best to earn his meal. They’d seen nearly everything except the Central Museum of Historical Nikkeldepain — which not only charged entry, but her guide said had nothing but moldy old rubbish that they took school groups to see. Goth wouldn’t have minded taking the monorail to several of the spots, but Pausert plainly never considered taking it. He walked with a long-legged easy stride, and kept forgetting to walk at her pace and then guiltily slowing down. Goth had always considered herself a good bollem hunter, happy to walk and track, but Pausert had plainly got himself very fit legging it about the streets of Nikkeldepain.

    At the next sight, a grain mill, the follower had changed. Now it was a woman with a cone hairdo. But now that Goth was aware of them, the information she’d absorbed talking to Hulik do Eldel, who had been a top imperial agent, made them easy to spot.

    It occurred to her that if they were being tailed — and she assumed it was Pausert they were tailing, not her — they were probably using a spy ray to listen in to their conversation too. That made her blush slightly, and also made her angry. There were going to be some painful lessons learned around here.

    “I have a challenge for you, Pausert,” she said cheerfully, just short of a street corner. “You close your eyes and I’ll lead you. I’ll take you somewhere. Then you tell me which of Nikkeldepain’s sights it is!”

    “Sure,” he said, and obediently closed his eyes. She took him by the elbow, and they stepped around the corner… and into no-shape. She just hoped no one noticed them disappear. But they’d probably just not believe their own eyes. She turned him around and set off the way they’d come…

    To nearly get run down by a hurrying woman with a cone hairdo, speaking into a wrist communicator. Goth hurriedly led Pausert away in the other direction. They got to a particularly ugly building with a nice bench and she said “open them.”

    “The old power station,” he said, grinning. “It’s harder to walk with your eyes shut than I thought!”

    And easier to lose a tail, thought Goth. And then she got a horrid surprise. The man with the tan shoes was idling along the pavement, reading what appeared to be a guide book. And yes. Over there… that had to be the woman with the cone hairdo.

    They weren’t tracking him by sight.

    There was no way they could have found them so quickly, if they were. She felt terribly alone and vulnerable. The little witches of Karres traveled around the galaxy perfectly cheerfully, exploring and learning. But they never went alone. She wasn’t quite alone this time, either. She was in the company of one of the most powerful klatha operatives that Karres had ever encountered. A real Wizard of Karres. The only trouble was that Pausert wouldn’t develop into one for quite a few years. Right now he was just a poor boy from Nikkeldepain with a black eye. A rather nice poor boy, but nothing more.

    She gave him her best smile. “I have to get back. But you have been a great guide.”

    He bowed and blushed. “A pleasure. So, um, are you going to be around?”

    Very definitely! thought Goth, and for a lot longer than you realize. But all she said was “Maybe. You take care, huh.”

    “I can’t walk you back to the lattice ship?”

    “Nope. I’d get into trouble. See you. Maybe.” And she got up and walked off. She could see his reflection in the plate glass of the nearby shop window. He really looked quite tragic.

    But cone-hairdo was watching her. So she walked on, and into the shop. It was a fairly busy lady’s dress shop. Goth went into a fitting room and emerged in no-shape, bending light around her, moments later. She found cone-hairdo reporting on her wrist communicator. She had an oddly flat voice.

    “Yes, he’s alone at last, Franco. We should be able to make the snatch soon…”

    Goth could only hear one side of the conversation. “Well, it’s not our fault,” said the woman. “That bunch of kids were following him around like glue. And you said we were to avoid witnesses. Then he acquired a girl with red hair. You’ve got the stills pictures of her that Mirkon took. And a name from the spyray. Track her down in planetary records. They’re obsessed with records in this place.”

    In the meantime Pausert, now bored, had got up and begun to saunter his way down the street, whistling. Goth was surprised. He still whistled the same tune, years later.

    “He’s moving off. Got to follow him,” said the woman. “Mirkon has just gone to collect the van. Keep him on the trackerscope. Out.”

    Goth followed quietly behind her, her mind seething. Someone was putting a lot of effort into this, but why? And something about Pausert’s circumstances stank. She knew, from casual comments over meals and in conversation, that her father had left behind a small commercial empire on Nikkeldepain, the results of several lucrative discoveries, when his last expedition had stumbled on Karres. She also knew that he had been declared legally dead there — which was a source of some amusement to the family. He’d gone to some lengths to protect Karres and to provide the Nikkeldepain authorities with this conclusion, even sending back an empty ship — the Venture 7333 — and a log that pointed at disaster in a different quarter of space.

    Pausert’s mother was his only heir on Nikkeldepain. He’d thought well of her, and said that it wasn’t surprising that the captain had come out so well. So where was the money?

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