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The Sorceress of Karres: Chapter Thirteen

       Last updated: Wednesday, November 11, 2009 07:29 EST



    Deep in the Chaladoor the Venture ’s engines thrummed on steadily, pushing the ship forward into the unknown. Pausert’s choice of a new course proved that his gambling instincts were still sound. They hadn’t had any further harassment from the Phantom ships, or any other problems, for nearly a week now. For the Chaladoor it was worryingly peaceful.

    The only problem was that it had increased the length and the duration of the journey through the Chaladoor. The original route had been the shortest possible. The incidents with the Phantom ships had forced them to curve away from the Galactic plane, toward where the stars lay further apart, as well as further from the Empire. The captain’s new course took them back into a region where the stars cluster densely — but the Empire was still further away out along the spiral arm.

    It was seat-of-your-pants navigation along the Venture’s old course, as the stars and beacons giving star map coordinates were now very distant. Undoubtedly, other ships had ventured this far, but none had come back with their records to add to the Galactic survey. Of course, not everyone wanted their records added: pirates, rogue-traders risking all trading with unknown worlds, buying rare goods that would have to be smuggled back into the Empire past the quarantine cordon. You could not hide the fact that you’d landed, and the decontamination and confiscation of the cargo meant it was worth keeping quiet about it. The Imperial survey service didn’t pay terribly generously for those records — it would certainly not cover the costs. Well, a childhood on Nikkeldepain had taught him that bureaucracy was seldom sensible.

    It was fairly likely that the people of Karres had better maps available to them — they’d ventured further afield — taking their whole world with them. Pausert regretted now that he had not asked Threbus before they left. It would have enabled him to get a little more sleep. There were a good few asteroid clusters and comets out in the deep dark, that were as much of a danger as any Phantom ship could be. At these speeds anything bigger than interstellar dust was to be avoided. The Leewit and Vezzarn weren’t quite up to it. And after a week neither was the captain. Instinct and the buzzing of the alarms told him to fire the lower port thrusters, but he just didn’t react quite fast enough. The Venture rang like a bell. And a sleepy Leewit and Vezzarn staggered to the bridge as the captain struggled with the controls.

    “One of the tubes is out of alignment. I just didn’t dodge quite fast enough and a big fast moving rock-chunk brushed past our stern,” he said. “I’ll have to set her down and see if we can do some kind of repair job. That is, if we can find somewhere safe to set her down.”

    But he did succeed in doing that. The Venture 7333’s own records showed she’d safely set down on a planet in a nearby star-system. Off route, a little, but at least safe. The encounter with the Phantom ship, close in, was an unwelcome surprise, But the captain managed to out think it, and head downward into the gravity well. It was a tricky landing , but by cutting the thrust to the malfunctioning tube and its direct opposite number Pausert set down. Fortunately, it was a smallish planet that they set down on, with fairly low gravity. The captain was good at his landings. It was his takeoffs that usually left the passengers a little shaken.

    “Well. I guess we’d better check the atmosphere — and I think the Leewit better keep watch on the world outside with the forward nova gun turret, eh? We don’t want someone to take us by surprise. I hope that the damage can be fixed.”

    The air-check showed that the atmosphere outside was breathable, if a little cold and full of helium, so, warily, Pausert went out with Vezzarn on a scouting trip. The landscape was a jagged and torn one — it looked as if the place had been a volcanic place once. There was no sign of life on the blackened, scarred terrain. Fortunately the tube was in a better state than the planet. It was merely one of the brackets that had sheered — a welding job and some recalibration and it should be usable, even if not at full thrust. It was the kind of task the captain would have preferred to hand over to a shipyard, if there had been one within light-years. Still, they’d got off lightly. He and Vezzarn set to work. They had to uncouple the fuel lines before it was safe to weld, and then attempt — using ingenuity, brute force and a hydraulic lift from the cargo bay to get the huge tube correctly lined up, before the captain could weld. Even under the small red sun it was hot, hard work, for which they could have done with a dock-crane instead of a makeshift ladder. Still, the captain was proud of his welds. He was just giving them a final inspection when the Leewit spoke in his earpiece. “Captain. Something coming towards the ship, Captain. It looks like a man.”

    “Patham’s seven hells. What would a man be doing out here? We need to get the fuel-lines coupled up, Leewit, and we can be out of here. Alignment will just have to wait. Fire a warning shot,” said Pausert, clipping in the first of the fuel-lines.

    The Leewit loosed of a single discharge from the nova guns. “He’s still coming Captain. Waving a white cloth now. I’ve got him on the ’scope. He’s skinny and his clothes are ragged, Captain. Could be a castaway.”

    “Could be a trap too,” grunted Pausert, forcing the next fuel-line into place. “Keep watching him. And scan further out too. He could be a decoy. We’re nearly ready. We’ll deal with him, if he can convince us he’s a real castaway.”

    “Hello, the ship. I am unarmed. Please can I approach?”

    There was desperation in that call. A slight quaver in the voice. Pausert sighed. “Just stay put until we’ve finished,” he shouted down. “Then we’ll talk. Move before that and my gunners will shoot to kill.”

    “You won’t just leave me here again?” called the stranger plaintively. “I’d rather be shot then. Anyway, I am near the end of my supplies. I’ll die of starvation anyway.”

    Pausert pushed the coupling seal onto the next line. Swore quietly to himself again. It was all very suspicious. Here in Chaladoor everything was suspect. And just what brought them to this castaway? Chance? More klatha manipulation — or possibly his luck?

    “Just wait,” he said again. “We’ll give you a chance to talk.”

    “I can pay, handsomely,” said the stranger. “I’m worth a lot alive, safe back on Arcs world.”

    Syrian. They were a pretty stuck-up bunch. But the Republic of Sirius was nowhere near the Chaladoor. It was right across the spiral arm, near Nikkeldepain. What was the fellow doing here?

    Captain Pausert clicked the last hose in place, and climbed down the rickety ladder Vezzarn was supporting. “Reckon we should just scarper,” said the old spacer. “They wouldn’t have left him here for no reason. Maybe he had space plague or something.”

    “We’ll keep a distance — but he must have recovered if he did. Cover me. The Leewit?”

    “Yes,” she said tersely.

    “I’ll keep out of the line of fire,” said Pausert. “But set the charge as low as possible. I don’t want to be collateral damage. I’ll keep the microphone open so you can hear everything.”

    “Yes Captain. Be careful, please.”

    That from the Leewit? She must be feeling the same oddness about this as he did. “Do my best.”

    He walked towards the man sitting on the lava-plain. The closer he got, the more the fellow looked like a starved scarecrow. That didn’t stop the captain keeping his blaster in hand. “Who are you, and what are you doing here?” he asked.

    “Dr Mebeckey. I am a xeno-archeologist. Oh, thank Patham someone has come. You can’t believe how good it is to hear another human voice, to see another human face. I’ve lost track of time. Please. Please you have to get me out of here.”

    The name rang vague bells in Pausert’s memories. “Just what are you doing here, Dr Mebeckey?” Where had he heard that name before? It rang vague alarm bells.

    “I led an expedition here. A xeno-archeological expedition.”

    Pausert looked at the volcanic landscape. “Here?”

    “Yes. It was the war damage that led us to pin-point it. The crustal melting. That and the transmissions.”

    “Transmissions?” asked Pausert warily.

    The ragged xeno-archeologist shrugged. “They stopped when we broke into the bunker. They must have been a distress signal, I suppose. I could have used one. We weren’t the first ship to set down here to investigate them.

    “So what happened to your ship?”

    Mebeckey tugged his ragged beard. “They deserted me. We fell out about what to do with what we found here. In the end it came down to a fight. I barricaded myself into the room we’d set up as a store, with an M20 Blaster. Then… they just left me there.” A tear trickled down his cheek. “What year is it now?”

    Pausert told him.

    The gaunt man shook his head. “I’ve been here more than twelve years. Please. Please take me away with you. Even if you are pirates. I’ll do anything. Pay anything.”

    “Pirates? No we’re just a fast, armed freighter. We just set down to do some repairs…”

    “Ask him what they found, Captain,” said the Leewit.

    So Pausert did.

    The man shuddered. “An alien. And I think it was somehow alive after all these millennia. Will you take me with you, please?”

    Pausert nodded. “Can’t really leave you here.”

    The marooned xeno-archeologist fell to his knees. “Thank you. You won’t regret it, I promise, Sir.”

    Pausert already suspected that he was wrong about that. But there was no way he could leave the poor man here.

    A few minutes later they raised ship, with a new passenger. The repairs left something to be desired with the ship-handling, as the calibration was not very good. Still, at eighty percent thrust the vibration was not too bad. At full thrust it was enough to start your teeth rattling. Mind you, that might have shut the xeno-archeologist up. He couldn’t stop talking. Pausert thought that it might be that he had a lot of isolation to recover from. The Leewit said darkly that that might be the real reason that his crew abandoned him there. He was also going to eat them out of house and home. His expedition had landed with two years worth of supplies for nine people… he’d had to eke it out since. Now he was all for catching up. If he used up all the Wintenberry jelly — the Leewit’s favorite flapjack topping, he’d catch one of her whistles, let alone catch up, the captain reflected with a smile, looking at the Maroon’s plate.

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