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The Sorceress of Karres: Chapter Six

       Last updated: Wednesday, October 14, 2009 18:48 EDT



    The incident happened in a little side street, and it was done so slickly that, even forewarned, Goth was nearly taken by surprise.

    A grubby little white air-truck slid past young Pausert and slowed to a crawl. The back door opened and a man beckoned to Pausert, who smiled and walked forward to speak to him. It was tan shoes, the follower from earlier — “Mirkon,” presumably. And cone-hairdo was closing in, fast, from behind, a transdermic syringe in her hand.

    Goth had to take action herself, just as fast. This was no time for finesse. She was between the woman and Pausert. She ‘ported the syringe into Mirkon’s hand — the wrong way around. He instinctively squeezed the sudden apparition that smacked into his palm. Goth didn’t wait to see what effect it had. She was too busy head-butting Cone Hairdo in the stomach. And as the fast-striding woman staggered back, she kicked her. It wasn’t exactly great fighting, Goth knew, but her victim didn’t know what had hit her. Cone Hairdo tripped over the curb and landed hard on her back. The cone-shaped hairdo turned out to be a wig, which went flying.

    Pausert had heard her explosion of departing breath after the head butt, and turned to see her inelegant crash-landing on the sidewalk. Being Pausert, he turned to help her up. He retrieved her wig, unaware that the man he’d been about to speak to had keeled over sideways in the back of the air-truck.

    “Are you all right, Ma’am?” he asked politely, handing her back her wig.

    Goth decided that as the driver too must be an accomplice, it was time to get rid of him and the vehicle. The throttle was controlled by a small foot-pedal, just like most of the aircars in the Empire. The driver couldn’t see her because he was looking backwards, his hand on the door handle. Peering past him, Goth happily saw that it was the kind of pedal that had a spring to keep the cable taut and off the floor. A cheap model! She knew from experience that the throttle stuck full if the spring broke… so she ‘ported the spring elsewhere.

    The airtruck, its door now half open, suddenly roared to full throttle and accelerated down the narrow side street, swaying wildly with the brakes squealing as the driver-accomplice tried to control it. He should have paid more attention to his steering, as he hit a lamp-post, ramped the curb and crashed into the corner.

    Goth hadn’t intended his departure to be quite that spectacular. Luckily, no bystanders were hurt. The driver leapt out and ran away.

    The woman had obviously realized that this was no time to be present, either. She snatched her wig and ran away from the open-mouthed Pausert.

    Of course, at this point, the local flat-feet turned up. “And what is going on here?” demanded the policeman of the one person he could see on the scene: young Pausert.

    “I really don’t know,” said Pausert. “The lady fell over. I was helping her up. Then… Where has she gone?”

    The woman and her wig had disappeared.

    More policemen arrived, one on a hover cycle, siren howling. He had the sense to check the airtruck, find the unconscious man in the back, and call for an ambulance. In the meanwhile one of the policemen was staring inquisitorially at Pausert. “You’re related to that Captain Threbus aren’t you?”

    Pausert, incurably truthful and with a strong familial resemblance, nodded. “He was my great uncle.”

    “Hmm. Well, you’d better come along with us then,” said the officer sourly.

    “But I had nothing to do with it!” protested Pausert. “The driver ran away.”

    “We’ll check on that.”

    So Goth had to follow as the young Pausert was led off towards the police station, and the unconscious Mirkon was driven away in an ambulance. It would seem that her father had had quite a reputation here on Nikkeldepain. On the positive side, if the enemy had been trying to capture or harm him out of sight of any witnesses — Pausert was surrounded by witnesses now. A horrible thought occurred to her… unless they too were villains. She walked a little closer. No-shape — bending light around herself — was not something she had to consciously exert her mind to do. But it took energy. She was already tired and hungry again.

    And then came the next problem. Someone had plainly called for a patrol-car. Goth realized that there was no way that she could fit into it, along with the three bulky policeman who seemed to believe that they’d gotten their man. She had to do something quickly. She had no idea where the local police station was and she had no intention of letting Pausert out her sight. She settled for the advantages of no shape to reach in and remove the starter-bar from the vehicle’s ignition, and dropped it down the grate of a nearby drain. It landed with quite an audible plop, but fortunately the policemen were too busy telling their comrade to radio for a tow for the crashed air-truck.

    “You can do it when we’re back at the station,” said the driver irritably. “I don’t know why you couldn’t have walked anyway. I was just on my break.”

    “You’re always just on your break,” said one of the other officers, pushing his way in. “Come on, Hasbol. Get the kid inside, and let’s get down to the station.”

    So they did. The door was closed. Goth waited and watched the searching and commotion. The door was opened again, and Pausert and the officers got out again. “So how do you think I got here?” yelled the driver irritably. “One of you must have taken it. Or him. You’d better search the kid.”

    They emptied out Pausert’s pockets, which had all the useful things a fourteen year old boy might have in them — string, some odd bits of scrap metal, a bottle cap, a broken pen-knife, but no starter-bar. They patted him down but still did not find the missing starter-bar.

    “We may as well walk back to the station,” said one of the men eventually. “And you’d better call in, Bryton. There’s something very fishy about all of this.”

    So they marched off together, escorting Pausert — who was struggling to hide a grin at their misfortunes. The captain that Goth knew would have been better at keeping a straight face. Goth was able to walk along behind them, having taken the step of light shifting to the shape of one of the local constabulary. It was less effort than staying in no shape indefinitely.

    It was a mere two blocks away and round one corner, so, other than to protect the way their uniforms bulged over their belts, there’d really been no reason to call a patrol car out. Still, from what she could gather, Nikkeldepain City did not have much crime to entertain them. They were grumbling about the extra duties that the presence of the showboat lattice ship had put onto their poor overworked selves, and, so far, they’d been unable to arrest anyone for their troubles.

    “That Circus master — Petey. He’ll be behind all this. Mark my words. I don’t trust him.”

    Goth’s heart leapt. Himbo Petey? Here? Then the lattice ship must be the Petey Byrum and Keep, the Greatest Show in the Galaxy. Her friends here to help! And then she realized…

    They weren’t yet her friends.

    It was still comforting to think of them being here. Of course over the years, lattice ships did visit nearly every inhabited planet. Quite a co-incidence… but one of the things that the people of Karres had learned about klatha force is that there really were no co-incidences. Just patterns, some of them too enormous to ever see.



    Pausert was stoical throughout all of this. Goth, who knew him well, could see that the boy was quite nervous despite his stolid expression. He just wasn’t letting the police see it. Well, that was hardly surprising. She just wished that she could tell him that she was here, and that she’d see that he was all right.

    A few minutes later, she discovered that she was not alone in her task of shepherding the young Pausert. His mother was quite a fearsome one-woman army herself.

    “He happened to be in the same street as a car crash and you arrest him? He can’t even drive yet! Anyway, where would he have got this vehicle from? Tell me that! Are you accusing my son of theft?”

    “Uh. We’re still following up on that,” admitted the desk-policeman. “The vehicle was hired from Porklotta vehicle hire. But we’ve been unable to trace the ID of the person who signed for it.”

    “And who presumably was an adult, produced a driver’s license, and paid a deposit,” snapped Pausert’s mother. “Even if my boy had the money, no one could take him for an adult. And where in Patham’s name would he get a license that matched his ret-ID? They would have checked that, you know, or you should know, if you weren’t a bumbling idiot.”

    “Who are you calling a bumbling idiot, ma’am?” demanded the bumbling idiot, drawing himself up.

    Her eyes narrowed. “I’ll leave you to think about that one. It might take you a week or two. In the meanwhile I am taking my boy home. You have no reason to keep him here. I gather that there was somebody else in the truck, and that they have been taken to the hospital. Why don’t you go and check on their ID? They can probably tell you what happened.”

    “Uh… As to that, the patient seems to have absconded,” admitted the desk sergeant.

    “Oh. And I suppose that was somehow caused by my son, although you had him here.”

    “Well, there is also the matter of the starter-bar from the patrol vehicle…”

    She raised her eyebrows. “And just what is Pausert supposed to have done with that? From what you told me on the telephone you found him at the scene of the accident. I presume that the patrol vehicle managed to arrive after that. Or did it cause the accident?”

    “Of course the vehicle arrived after the accident, ma’am. But we believe he managed to make the starter-bar go missing.”

    “But how did he do that? Turn himself invisible and walk around the vehicle and snatch it out? Put it in his pocket? Toss it down a drain?” she said sarcastically. “This is all about my uncle isn’t it? Well, Pausert isn’t Threbus. He’s just a very ordinary little boy. I wish you would leave him alone. Now. He’s coming home with me.”

    And, a few minutes later, after a little bit more verbal bludgeoning, Pausert’s mother proved correct. Goth was very relieved, and decided to use their bathroom before following her. It was a little childish to express her relief by blocking the basins in the officers bathroom, and removing the washer that to allow the faucet to seal. She left quietly in no-shape.

    There was a startled exclamation, and Goth looked back to see an officer staring at the row of wet footprints that she was leaving behind her. Sometimes behaving like the Leewit just wasn’t worth it.

    Goth ran for it. Fortunately, the officer seemed more stunned than quick on the uptake, and she was out of the door before he had time to do more than make incoherent noises and point.

    Outside she ran to a nearby piece of public parkland. The grass didn’t show wet footprints, and in no-shape she was happy enough to ignore the sign that said that she should keep off it. Two of Nikkeldepain’s constabulary did follow the rapidly drying footprints.

    “Must have taken their shoes off, whoever it was,” said one, scratching his head, looking at the sign and then peering at the pavement. It appeared that if one lived on Nikkeldepain, one took rules very seriously.

    “Wonder where the water came from?” said the other.

    Goth discovered the second problem with behaving like the Leewit. She had to stuff her own sleeve in her mouth to stop from betraying herself. After a few moments, the answer plainly dawned on the two and they turned to run back to the station. It was then that she realized the third problem. She had lost sight of young Pausert and his mother. She was in a strange city, on a strange world with absolutely no idea how to even start looking for him. She’d have to find him before those others got to him. And then she’d have to deal with them.

    Right now, however, wet feet or not, she desperately needed to eat and rest. But could she afford to do either or rather immediately try and find Pausert?

    She decided, after a few moments consideration, that while he was in the custody of his mother, he was probably reasonably safe. Whoever was trying to kidnap him without witnesses would probably not risk it while his mother was with him. Goth slipped behind in a public restroom and undid the no-shape. That at least saved her some energy. She went off in search of food and ideas of where she could find Pausert.

    She got help with both from the sausage seller. “Aren’t you the kid,” he said, in friendly tone, “who was here with the boy from the botanical place? The Threbus Institute?”

    He seemed no more than idly curious. “Yes,” admitted Goth, “but he’s gone home now.”

    “I used to have a stand near there. Saw the kid most days back then. Nice polite boy, not like some of the rich riff-raff at the academy. I hadn’t seen him for a while.”

    “Oh,” said Goth artlessly. “And where did your stand used to be?”

    “Pilking Street. Over toward the old power station.”

    Goth set out, amed with a street name, a direction, and the energy from digesting some greasy sausage. The lights were coming on across Nikkeldepain City. It was a rather flat and uninspiring place. In the distance beyond her destination she could see the trails of multicolored fairy lights flickering seductively from the lattice ship. That called to her, but her duty now was to find and protect Pausert.

    So she studiously avoided thinking about the lattice ship, about the journey they’d had across the Empire with the Petey B. It was like not thinking of pink Fanderbags.

    She was so busy not thinking about it that she nearly walked into the woman whom she’d last seen wearing a cone shaped blonde wig. She had curly auburn hair now, but it was the same woman. She also plainly recognized Goth.

    “Hello little girl,” she said, clutching Goth’s arm. “You look thirsty. Can I get you something to drink?”

    Goth shook the hand off. She hated being called little girl at the best of times. Her look made the woman start back. “No,” she said coldly.

    And then it occurred to her that she might be able to extract some information from her. Best to play it cautiously, for now. “I am not thirsty. Thank you.”

    “It’s very late for you to be out. It’s not really safe for a young girl to be out the street after dark.”

    Huh. Not with you around, thought Goth. But, in general, she thought Nikkeldepain was probably one of the safest worlds she’d ever been on. It was the kind of place where even the thought of crime was just too complicated.

    “I’m fine. I live near here,” she said crossly. “And they’re expecting me. Goodbye.” She walked off, around the corner, and then used light shift to make herself look like an elderly man she’d seen earlier.

    A few seconds later the woman appeared, talking into her wrist communicator. She looked up when she saw the lightshifted Goth. “Hello gramps,” she said curtly. “Have you seen a young girl come this way. Brown eyes. Sharpish chin?”

    Goth didn’t want to try imitating an old man’s voice as well as his appearance. The more klatha powers of imitation you used, the harder it was to do each of them properly — and the energy requirement was exponential, not simply additive. So she just pointed toward a side street and continued shuffling on her way.

    The woman did a rapid U-turn and was back around the corner in a few seconds. Goth followed in no-shape. Now, maybe, she could get close enough to listen in on the women’s communicator conversation.

    “… snooping around here,” said the woman. Goth listened but could not hear the reply. “The reason you can’t find her on the police records system could just be that she’s working with them, Mirko.”

    Her informant replied.

    “Well. That leaves the lattice ship,” said the woman, “although why the circus people would have an interest in the target is beyond me. I admit it’s good cover, though. Look, I think tonight is off. There’s only one window and unless you’ve got the Rubilon three to dope them –”

    Mirkon plainly interrupted. “Don’t make your problems mine!” said the woman crossly, getting into a parked aircar.



    Goth waited for her to drive off, but the woman stayed there, continuing her conversation. Only now Goth could hear neither side of it. Goth pondered her next step. It would be fairly easy to deal with this woman. But that was just the surface of the plot. It seemed that they planned no further action that evening, and she couldn’t follow Pausert everywhere in no-shape forever. She was already pushing her energy reserves too far.

    In fact, Goth found herself nearly swaying with exhaustion. Traveling back here by the Egger route, not to mention everything else she’d done since arriving on Nikkeldepain, sure took it out of you. She needed a safe place to lie up for the night. In the morning, she’d find out just why they were after the captain, and just who they were. She had a feeling that could be vital information. But now, she had to rest. And burgling Pausert’s home seemed just too hard.

    The Petey B was close enough. She knew where to find a quiet spot in the props store for a bit of sleep, and there were always cushions and some fabric for a bed there. The “props” had been a veritable treasure house as well as the perfect hideout for her and the Leewit, when they’d traveled with the lattice-ship circus. So she walked towards its lights, trying not to think just about how tired her feet were.

    The ship was secured and guarded, of course. The Petey B did not want stowaways or petty thieves. Well… it would take stowaways, sometimes. But Himbo Petey was a man with a conscience and Goth didn’t plan to test it. She knew how the security system worked, and she still had enough energy left to use no-shape in a pinch.

    As it turned out, she made it to the old hulk that was the second props store with no problems or incidents. Despite the fact that she was a decade and a few years early, the setting was so familiar, so comforting, that she might have indulged in a happy snuffle or so when she reached its sanctuary.

    It was dark and warm and comfortable in the bed she’d made for herself. It easy to sleep here.

    Too easy.

    When she awoke it wasn’t dark any more. And the crimson-faced man staring down at her was not pleased to see her.


    The thermosensitive crystals tattooed into the man’s dermis shifted color slightly, in a wave of cooler purple across the red visage. The reaching hand stopped. “What did you call me?”

    Goth, still only half awake, struggled for an answer. “Uh. Manicholo. Isn’t that your name?”

    The plump sideshow entertainer scratched his head. “Weird,” he said. “I’ve been considering it but I’ll swear I haven’t told a soul, yet. Look, kid. I’ll have to see you off the premises. The local authorities would love something to bust us for, and although I understand your wanting to get off this dump, I don’t want Himbo ornamenting their jail for juvie kidnap. This isn’t the Empire and they have laws about kids here. Personally, I’d like to get off Nikkeldepain altogether, but the marks are still cranking through the turnstiles.”

    Goth nodded. “It’s okay. I understand. I’m not from here, but I met the local flatfeet yesterday. They aren’t the sharpest scribers in the box. I just needed a place to sleep, that’s all. Don’t worry, I’ll go quietly.”

    Manicholo-to-be looked at her thoughtfully. “How did you find the store? How did you get in?”

    You showed it to me somewhere in the future. I should have guessed it was a favorite spot of yours. But that was not an answer that she could give. “Luck, I suppose.”

    “Exceptional luck,” said the chameleon-man dryly.

    “Um. I’ve been on a lattice ship before,” admitted Goth. “So I knew what it was that I was looking for, and how to sneak in. Promise I will go now and not bring back any trouble for Himbo Petey. He’s a decent old dope.”

    Manicholo had a disconcerting habit of noticing just what you didn’t want him to. “He’s not that old. And just how did you get past the perimeter?”

    Himbo wouldn’t be that old… Goth found herself very curious. How big was his moustache? And “Is dame Ethy with the Show…?”

    Her captor shook his head. “That does it. You’re coming with me to talk to Himbo Petey, young lady.”

    Goth ported a glass lamp-stand five feet above a display of Medoirian armor and let it fall. Then, slipped away into no-shape as Manicholo turned to see what had happened.

    “Wha… where…?” Manicholo wasted precious seconds looking for her instead of closing the outer lock to the hulk that served as the second props store. By then Goth was outside. It was already quite bright out. The Greatest Show in the Galaxy was busy with its familiar morning chores, mucking out, cleaning up, preparing for the return of the crowds.

    Pausert was probably already at school. She hadn’t meant to sleep that long. Klatha. It took it out of you! She needed breakfast and to get back to her task — and not necessarily in that order either.

    But on a whim, she followed Manicholo as he hurried along to the main part of the lattice, where the circus offices were. It wouldn’t take her much out of her way — well, not more than it took to skirt the Fanderbags’ tail ends carefully. No-shape bent light around her, not more solid things. Sure enough, Manicholo had stopped by to see a younger Himbo Petey. He was working on the mustachios, but he had a few years to go. They looked faintly ridiculous on his younger face, and Goth had to stifle a giggle.

    “…intruder of some sort. A young girl. She seemed to know a great deal about the circus.”

    Himbo twirled his mustachios. “They do, you know. They find out as much as they can. So where did you find her, and how did she get away? We’ve got to be careful here, Fenn. The local authorities are ready to jump on us for anything.”

    Manicholo nodded. “I know. She was in the Props store. No. 2. Distracted me and ran, I think. Means she’s probably hiding out somewhere.”

    Himbo sighed irritably. “We’ll do a search. And contact that local councilor fellow, Onswud, and ask if they have any missing persons. Give me a description so that we can say we saw her. That way if it goes pear-shaped, we’re on record as having tried and having reported the incident to them. I’ll have a word with security. And you’d better make sure that she’s not still in that rat-warren of a store, and see that it is locked.”

    Goth slipped off before he did all of that. She was right in her earlier judgment — Nikkeldepain City was already at work. She could just hope that young Pausert was safely in his school as she made her way along the street to his home.

    “Why aren’t you in class?” asked a sharp-eyed fellow in gray coveralls. He radiated self-important minor government official without having to say so.

    “Great Patham! Look at that!” said Goth, pointing. He looked and she did a subtle light-shift on herself, making herself look a little more like her mother.

    “What?” The minor official turned back. “What are you pointing at?”

    “You should have looked faster,” said Goth shifting her voice too. “It’s gone now. Some kind of animal.”

    The official peered again. “What color? I’m here to catch strays,” he said proudly. “Sorry, I thought you were a lot younger.”

    He went on his way, followed by hard thoughts from Goth. The man’s petty officiousness had required her to use a fair amount of her klatha energy for no good reason. The last night’s sleep had restored some of that energy, true, and a good meal would restore still more. Still, she’d have to be careful.

    Goth noticed that a vehicle sitting in the leafy street close to Pausert’s home had an occupant, who was staring at her. She could only hope that they hadn’t seen the subtle shift in age. She recognized the fellow as the man from the back of the airtruck yesterday.



    Pausert had been rather disappointed when Vala had had to go. She’d been, well, quite unlike any other girl he’d ever met. The affair with the airtruck and police were just the way things happened in his life. But Vala… wasn’t. He indulged in a little daydreaming about her.

    His mother sighed and tugged his ear. “I suppose that was a no.”

    “Huh? What, sorry… I… ah, was just thinking about something.”

    “Never mind. It’s been quite a day,” she said tiredly. “We had an incident at the Institute today. That horrible Rapport boy and some of his friends broke in and were vandalizing the gardens. You should have seen the mess that they got themselves into. I’m glad you have better taste in friends.”

    Pausert wanted to say he just didn’t have any friends, but that would have upset her, so he held his tongue and thought about Vala and the fight. And the sausages. He seemed to be hungry all of the time at the moment. It wasn’t easy, growing up and being saddled with Great Uncle Threbus’s debts. It didn’t seem fair.

    “So how was school?”

    That was not a question Pausert really wanted to answer. So he tried a well known diversion tactic. “The lawyers haven’t got back to you yet about Great Uncle’s will?”

    She rubbed her eyes. “No. I’ll have to go in and see them again tomorrow.” She’d been trying, determinedly, for the last three years. She was nothing if not stubborn, his mother. But lawyers were a money pit. “So what happened about Rapport and his gang?” Pausert asked.

    “Oh, security were all for throwing the book at them. But he howled for his daddy and eventually they were let off with a caution and a very large bill for damages.”

    Pausert took a deep breath. That wouldn’t make life easy. But then, life wasn’t easy. The sheer joy of seeing his enemy splattered in Tyrian fruit juice was worth it. And although his mother had seen the tear and the black eye, apparently she’d decided not to say anything. Maybe she thought the police had done it. How could he tell her the truth, without giving away Vala’s part in all of this? Anyway, there was no harm done, was there?

    The next day when he saw Rapport and a few of his little friends he realized that it wasn’t that simple. The Tyrian fruit dye didn’t come off easily. It didn’t even scrub off that easily, judging from the red, raw skin. And it was apparent that the experience had some of the boys looking for new company — probably warned off by their parents — but the three who were the core of Rapport’s crew were hoping for a rematch. He’d take on any one of them. He’d take any two of them. But four…

    They let him know that they’d be waiting, after school. And this time he wasn’t going to get away.



    He couldn’t walk any slower. And he couldn’t find any more reason to delay. He took a deep breath and walked out through the gates of the Nikkeldepain Academy for the Sons and Daughters of Gentlemen and Officers. That was why they always had had it in for him. Because he really didn’t belong here. He was a Scholarship boy. And worse than that, they said that he hadn’t got the scholarship fairly. That it had just been given to him because his Great Uncle had endowed the school with it. They could hardly have given it to someone who really deserved it, when Pausert had applied, could they? Huh. He’d won it fair and square. But it wasn’t something that he could tell people that had already made up their minds.

    “You took your time getting here,” said Vala, leaning on the gatepost. “I explained to a couple of purple splattered boys that were hanging around that they needed to get along home to mummy.”

    Pausert gaped. “You… you did what?” he finally got out.



    Goth was quite proud of herself. Not only had she dealt with one of the watchers, but she’d had breakfast, and had also had her morning ablutions. She’d decided that the captain was pretty much family, and, if she’d asked him, that he’d have had no problems with her climbing in through a second floor bathroom window and making use of the facilities. While she was at it she had a snoop around the family home. She felt a bit guilty about that, but, well, the captain really wouldn’t mind. The younger Pausert might, but she wasn’t planning to tell him until he was much older.

    The home was clean, just like the captain always kept the Venture . The signs of scraping by on a limited income showed. There wasn’t much in the way of food, or spare clothing. But there were a lot of signs of travels to exotic places. Bangras from Gilars World hung on the wall. There were other items she didn’t recognize. The walls were studded with pictures of various strange animals and plants. There were a number of excellent space-shots. And a photograph of an Imperial officer in pride of place, in the small lounge.

    There was a report card from a school, too, which Goth found rather fascinating. She’d never been to a formal school of that sort. Karres did not teach it’s children like that. She studied his grades proprietorially. He was good at Math. Nikkeldepain Academy — she noted the name, and worked out just how she could use her ‘porting skills to get the key for the back door if she needed it again, before setting off to the school.

    They’d been easy to spot hanging about just outside the school’s gates. The purple blotched red faces did make them rather obvious, even if their behavior hadn’t done so.



    Obviously, they were waiting for Pausert. And he was going to make things worse by waiting until everyone else had dispersed. So Goth took steps herself. She’d learned a thing or two about Nikkeldepain from the captain and his attitudes. It was a pretty masculine society, rather like the Empire and very unlike Karres. She smiled nastily to herself. Toll always said that it was worth quietly fitting into a society — after all, Karres people were just passing through. Threbus said there were times for that, and times for establishing some respect. She’d do both.

    “Hello, boys,” she said, smiling at them. “Remember me?”

    By the looks of it, they did. “You’re the tough guys here. Are all these people going to be impressed when I tell them how I helped to improve your looks? I can improve them some more if you like. And I will do both, if you’re still around when I’ve finished counting to three.”

    They were plainly torn between teaching her a lesson — huh! like that was going to happen! — and being seen fighting with a girl. One girl, at that, and the real threat of having that girl telling the locals just how they’d acquired purple blotches.

Rapport’s nerve broke first. “You can’t protect him forever,” he said, sniffing and turning away.

    Watch me, thought Goth. But he’ll be able to deal with worms like you himself, any day. But she kept this to herself and waited. Pausert emerged, wary and fists balled, a few minutes later.

    It did not take Goth very long to penetrate Pausert’s armor. He was naturally gregarious, and liked to talk. And, well, she knew him. The most difficult thing was not to give that away. But, sitting on the rails of one of Nikkeldepain’s many iron bridges, swinging their legs over the water, in compete contravention of the sign telling them not to, she heard the story of most of his life to date.

    The surprising thing was just how little of it she had learned in all the time that they had spent together on the Venture . He’d obviously made the decision to put all of this behind him. And it wasn’t really surprising.

    “… and so he’s still MIA. Mother says they think he deserted. She says that’s impossible.”

    Father lost after a minor skirmish on an otherwise routine patrol. His one-man scout ship never found. He was assumed to have fled the scene and dumped the ship somewhere.

    The Imperial navy stopped paying his salary.

    And then things got worse.

    They’d come back to Nikkeldepain.

“Mother had an offer of a job at the Xenobiological Botany Institute.” Pausert kicked the rails. “She’s a xeno-botanist and a plant pathologist. They really need her, but they are not a lot of other people who do, here on Nikkeldepain. Like, they don’t need me either.”

    “Nonsense,” said Goth. “But why did you even come back to Nikkeldepain? There are xeno-botany places inside the Empire. There’s one in the capital, and one on Green Galaine. There must be lots of them.”

    Pausert shrugged. “Probably. But mom had inherited the house. Seeing as my father is looked on almost like a traitor or something in the Empire military, I suppose she wanted to get out of there. And she had a house and job offer here. Only when we got here, that’s when things got really complicated. See, the law around here says that your heirs also inherent your debts. And it seems like great-uncle disappeared owing a few people some money. Not a lot by his standards maybe. Nothing much against the estate. But a lot of money for us.”

    “I don’t really understand these things,” said Goth. “But don’t they just sell off his property, and pay people?” She was vaguely horrified that her Captain Pausert should have ended up in clothes that were plainly a little too small for him, because his mother was paying off Threbus’s debts.

    “The law here is a bit odd about that, Mom says,” said Pausert. “They are not allowed to take more than the estate is worth from the heir, but they don’t have to wait until the whole thing is wrapped up. And it can’t be wrapped up, because the Nikkeldepain Office of Records refuses to declare great-uncle dead.”

    Goth knew a moment of righteous indignation. Of course her father wasn’t dead! That was followed by pragmatic realization, that, for Karres’s sake he had set things up to look like he was.

    “So, um, what is happening?” asked Goth

    Pausert kicked the bridge railing angrily. “Nothing. We spend more of the money we haven’t got on lawyers who don’t do anything. I go to school, mother goes to work. And things just go on the same way. Sorry. Enough. I shouldn’t have even told you about it. It’s our problem. So what are you doing here? ”

    Goth hadn’t thought much about that part of her story yet. “I’m going to be going to your school,” she announced. It was sudden decision — and a tall story — but better than anything else she could think of right now.

    It did at least serve to distract him. “You are?” He smiled, and the smile chased the gloomy expression off his face. “It’s a good school. But you better not tell anyone that you know me. I’m not too popular.”

    “Huh. Too late,” said Goth, grinning. “So, tell me about it?” He did. And talking of school successfully steered the subject away from Goth’s own back history. She really would have to think about that. She was also going to have to do something about the mess that the local law had made of Captain Pausert’s life as a young man. There was no doubt that it was an appalling mess. And yet, somehow it must have all come right in time for him to go to the Space-Naval Academy. Goth was willing to bet that she had had something to do with it. She just wished she knew what it had been. That would have saved her having to work out what it would be! Time travel was needlessly confusing.

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