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The Sorceress of Karres: Chapter Fifteen

       Last updated: Monday, November 23, 2009 20:44 EST



    “Captain, he’s been sneaking around the ship. Trying his hand at lock-tickling,” said Vezzarn, disdainfully. “Even Missy Goth is better than he is.”

    Pausert raised his eyebrows. “What? Have you been teaching Goth your tricks?”

    “She asked me to,” said the old Spacer. “And you know, Captain, their little Wisdoms are hard to refuse.”

    “I suppose this means that you are teaching the Leewit too,” said Pausert dangerously. “Now look here, Vezzarn, I gave you another chance…”

    “I explained how you’d feel about it, Captain. They said they wouldn’t steal anything. They just thought… in their line of work, well, it might be useful,” said Vezzarn, looking as if he might turn and run at any moment.

    On the ship, of course there was nowhere to run to, and that probably was all that was holding him back. Captain Pausert got himself under control with a deliberate effort of will. When he’d first met the three witches of Karres they’d seemed to have no more morals than a jungle-cat. He’d thought that had improved a bit, but he felt responsible for them. He knew, now, that that was why Toll and Threbus were happy enough having him ride herd on them. The girls didn’t seem to have much respect for property, but they didn’t lie. Not to him, or, as far as he’d been able to establish, to anyone else. The work of Karres could indeed lead to lock-picking being an important life-skill.

    “Well, you’d better teach me too, then,” he said, trying to keep his tone even. “I can’t have them knowing things that I don’t. Anyway, what do you mean? Mebeckey the castaway has been picking locks. How do you know? Been using spiderwebs?”

    Vezzarn shrugged. “I’m good at it, Captain. He’s not. He leaves little clues for someone like me. Scratches on the surface of the lock. Locks with the tumblers half-turned. That kind of thing. Amateurish. But you need to watch him, Captain. He tried the armament’s cupboard last night.”

    “But didn’t succeed, I assume.”

    “He got in all right, but I think he was disappointed. He didn’t find anything,” said Vezzarn. “I thought something was going on, so I moved the blasters to my cabin. I’ve got a lock-up there that would fool anyone but two or three of Uldune’s best.”

    “And fool me, or even the Leewit, if I need them,” said Pausert. “Did that occur to you, Vezzarn?”

    “I reckon her little wisdom would just bust it with one of her whistles,” said Vezzarn, grinning. “I set her too hard a lock, to give her a bit of a lesson, and she did that. Gave me a bit of a lesson instead.”

    “So what are we going to do about him, Vezzarn,” asked Pausert, getting to his feet. “Locking him in to his cabin, without a guard, seems futile. We don’t have the manpower to guard him. I presume he can pick the stateroom door locks easily enough?”

    Vezzarn nodded. “Yes, Captain. They’re not a big challenge, you know.”

    “I think, when we get though to Uldune,” said the captain with a scowl, “that I must get this ship fitted with a brig. I could use it for you, and the Leewit, not to mention any other people we might pick up in the middle of nowhere, or take as paying passengers. I wish Hulik do Eldel was here.”

    “She’d be all for just shooting him now,” said Vezzarn. “She was pretty harsh, was Hulik.”

    “Considering who she’s ended up with, she’ll have to be,” said Pausert, rubbing his jaw wearily. “Look, I am not prepared to just shoot him out of hand. He seemed a genuine enough castaway, though I’d like to know what he was doing there. He’s not explained that very well. And this does rather throw doubt onto his story of being a rich archeologist. Why would a rich archeologist be a proficient lock-tickler?”

    “He’s not. Not proficient, I mean,” said Vezzarn. “But it is all very suspicious, Captain. I think we need to be more careful, at least. Maybe we need to ask him what his game is? Or drop him on another world?”

    Pausert knew that was probably the right thing to do, that or Hulik’s response. But he also knew he could not actually bring himself to do either. “Let’s talk to the Leewit,” he said. “Then we’ll go and ask him a few pointed questions and decide just what steps to take next. If he turns nasty, the Leewit can always whistle at him. Serve him right.”

    The Leewit was about due to get up for her watch, so the captain made a mug of coffee and took it to her stateroom. She was not asleep, though. Actually, she and the little vatch were playing something that could be called tag — if the captain could figure quite how you touched an immaterial being, and how it touched you. The game seemed to involve a fair amount of acrobatics and giggling.

    They also seemed to think that he and the cup of coffee would be a good addition to the game. It took him some time, and spilled coffee, to persuade them that this was not the case. But as he was persistent and quite used to dealing with the Leewit, he did succeed, and explained what Vezzarn had told him and what he planned to do about it.

    “Don’t like him much,” said the Leewit. “He’s a bit slimy. What do you think, Little-bit?”

    The silvery-eyed peck of whirling nothingness seemed to briefly pause. Doesn’t taste nice, it projected.

    Pausert wondered quite what that meant. He also wondered if he, Vezzarn and Leewit had a “flavor” too. It could explain what drew vatches to certain people.

    “I don’t think he has any weapons. But we neglected to search him when he came on-board,” admitted the captain. “We should have done that, but it is too late now. So I want you to stay back just at the door — maybe even around the corner. You can give him one of your whistles if he gives me any trouble.”

    “Coo. I hope he does,” said the Leewit, militantly. She was destined to be a healer, one day. But she was still very fond of breaking things and causing chaos. Actually, that was one of the oddest things about having Goth away. The Leewit was being much more Gothlike — at least, when she remembered. The mask did slip every now and again.

    The captain hoped Mebeckey did co-operate. The Leewit’s whistles were quite devastating, even if you were not their target. The captain collected a blaster from Vezzarn, and quickly field-stripped it, re-assembled it, and made very sure the charges were intact and full. The Leewit’s eyes got quite wide at this.

    They went along to knock at Mebeckey’s door. He took a long time about answering it — to the point where the captain was considering shooting out the lock with his blaster — but Mebeckey did open it, eventually, looking a little guilty, the captain decided.

    “You’ve got some explaining to do, Sir,” said Pausert grimly, still with the blaster in his hand. “I want some straight answers or I am going to have to choose between shooting you or putting you off my ship.”

    “But I haven’t done anything!” protested Mebeckey. “My hands are clean. You can trust me. Really. I’m just an archeologist, worth much more to you alive than dead.”



    “But you were trying to pick the locks on the armaments locker,” said Pausert, roughly. “Now come out of there. You can come down to the bridge and do some explaining. Vezzarn, while I keep him under my gun, search him.”

    “I haven’t got any weapons, truly,” said Mebeckey, wide eyed and frightened now. “And I can explain. Truly.”

    “You’re going to,” said Pausert. “All of it.”

    “I will. I promise.”

    Vezzarn patted him down professionally, all the time keeping out of the captain’s line of fire. “He’s clean, Captain,” he announced after a very thorough search — down to the soles of the man’s borrowed boots.

    Pausert holstered his weapon. “All right. Come down to the bridge and explain yourself. I want to get back to the controls. It’s not the safest place in known space out here.”

    “I would much rather you were at the controls Captain. I want to get out of the Chaladoor. More than anything. I wish I’d never come here.”

    “Explain exactly what did bring you here, to a burned out husk of a world in one of the most dangerous regions of space.”

    “Greed. I suppose,” said the scarecrow of a man sadly. “I told you I was a very wealthy man. Well, that is true, or it was when I went to Garandool — the world you rescued me from. I don’t know if it is anymore. I doubt if Bocaj or the others will have been able to loot all of my assets, but with that fiendish thing at his side, I do not know.”

    “I did understand the part about greed. The rest may make sense to you, Mebeckey. Begin at the beginning. Include an explanation of how come you pick locks. Rather ineptly, it would seem.”

    Mebeckey sighed. “It began a long time back, before I was wealthy. I was archeology graduate from a small community college in the Empire. It was not a particularly wise choice, when it came to making a living. The best job I could find was as an underpaid assistant to a very wealthy and rather unpleasant dilettante. He… well, he had a habit of locking things up. He locked everything. One day I caught someone breaking and entering. A little rat of a petty thief who used to pick locks. I threatened to hand him over to the police unless he taught me. I thought I might be able to, well, relieve my employer of some of the money he didn’t pay me. I found that what he was locking up was not cash, but some of the little bits of loot he’d helped himself to from sites. Illegal items in themselves, but very much in demand with collectors. They were not particularly wonderful locks and with my new assistant thief I collected a generous share of his collection, and shipped it to myself and fled to the Republic of Sirius. It was enough to set me up as a dealer called Becker, and also as a man of private wealth called Mebeckey who had an interest in xeno-archaeology. Thereafter, I would do exactly as my erstwhile employer had done. Loot and sell through my dealer persona. I never forgot how to pick locks, and over the years the skill has been quite useful.”

    “Still doesn’t explain what you were doing in the Chaladoor,” said the Leewit.

    “A sequence of things. A piece of loot that came to Becker the antiquities dealer. Something that a pirate had looted off another ship, which in turn had come off a hulk they found drifting in space. Star pictures cut into the surface of two strange shaped goblets which arrived several years apart. A book which turned out to be the log of the Derehn Oph, the ship of an expedition that had ventured into the Chaladoor not long after man left old Yarthe and expanded across the galaxy. The log mentioned the finding of the world the goblets had been taken from.

    “It must have been part of a much larger set, perhaps commemorating a galactic Empire of some alien life form. Some of the star patterns were quite distinctive and the log spoke of other things found on Garandool — a vast half melted fortress, cities buried in lava ash in the mountains, signs of huge war. And from the most obvious landing plain, a radio signal. An alien radio signal, still operational. Buried under a basalt flow. It’s not something that had ever been found before. Alien machinery is worth more than relics. Artifacts that still worked… That would be worth more than just a fortune. And those goblets — they were a lead to the planets of this alien Empire. The captain wrote in his log that took these particular goblets as they showed the star system that Garandool was part of, and the next one over. There were about twenty more, he wrote.

    “It was simply too tempting. I set about mounting an expedition out here, following the route in the old ship’s log, with heavy drilling equipment and explosives to deal with the basalts. We had to work very secretively, and I fitted out my ship the Kapurnia with some heavy armament and some very powerful new drives. I thought back then, that the stories of Chaladoor were mostly superstition.” He shuddered. “By the time we got to Garandool, I knew that wasn’t true. But we got there, and there was the radio-beacon, sending out a repeat signal.”

    He took a deep breath. “There were also signs that someone had tried to dig there. That someone had unleashed nova guns at the rock from close range.”

    “How could you tell?” asked Pausert. “I mean, the range, the weapon…”

    “It’s an important aspect of xeno-archeology. The damage left on alien structures — quite a lot during the Nartheby Sprite empire, some on the other alien relics we’ve found — help us to date them. Naturally, faking the damage is part of the trade. So radiation signatures to modern human weapons is well documented. And the scatter gives the range.”

    “Oh, so had they taken your treasures and gone?” asked the Leewit.

    “Hardly. We did a space-survey just to make sure that they weren’t still around. The world had a number of suspicious refined metal sites, above the rock melt. But careful examination showed them to be wrecks. Disintegrating wrecks. Old. Alien ships. That alone was valuable material. But deep radar showed structures still under the basalt, so we started excavations, going deeper than anyone had previously with space-guns and shovels. It took us a few months — in the meanwhile we had some members of the expedition checking out the wrecks. They were all of a similar design — Melchin or Illtraming — if the Nartheby sprite records were to be believed. The Melchin were a legendary culture, even to Nartheby sprites. The Illtraming had rebelled against them, so their ship design is similar. Anyway… They’d plainly been attacking this world with all the force they could muster. They’d literally melted the surface and sterilized the world. My crew collected quite a lot of material from the wrecks, even though they’d plainly been picked over before — they found enough to pay for the expedition twice over, and I was tempted to cut and run right then. But what had they’d been trying so hard to destroy? Greed keep me, and my people, working away with drills and geological lasers…

    We’d cut a storage bay — and with sort of people I worked with, you understand I’d put a grade four safe door on it, and I kept most of the food, and artifacts in there. Pieces of alien ship. Bits of half-decayed equipment we no idea of the original purpose of… a fortune of sorts. In the meantime we kept right on excavating. Then we hit the tunnel — the walls had been made of Osmite — heat resistant, vastly expensive material. The stuff was harder than battle-armor. We couldn’t cut through it. It took us a month find the entrance. But we did. And it was still intact, under the melted rock.”

    Pausert had to admit that he was enthralled. It had even dispelled his tiredness for a while. “And what did you find there?”

    “The reason why someone tried so hard to destroy their enemy. And, thanks to us, they’d failed. Oh, and of course wealth untold. For an alien value of wealth.”

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