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The Sorceress of Karres: Chapter Twenty One

       Last updated: Friday, December 18, 2009 22:09 EST



    The precogs had said Goth would stay here for six months. At the time that had seemed like a very long time to her. Now, as the end neared, it seemed very short.

    And what difference would it make? She could stay a year. Three years. Long enough to see him into the Nikkeldepain Space Naval academy — before leaving him to become affianced to the insipid Illyla. Deep in her heart, Goth knew that there was no point in staying on, as much as she wanted to.

    What had started off as something a young girl had said, without fully understanding its meaning, had become a lot more tangible as time passed. She’d said that she was going to marry Pausert when she was of marriageable age. She’d even toyed with age shifts. Over the last couple of years or so, as they battled the Agander, and then Moander and Manaret, and then the nannite menace, she’d gone from simply liking the captain to assuming he was hers. Still, the age difference had remained a barrier, making the whole thing seem rather abstract.

    But now… having encountered Pausert when he was her own age, she’d found she had a real crush on the young man he’d once been. She’d come back in time and space to save the captain. Now she really did not want to leave.

    And she knew she’d have to. Vala was part of his childhood memories. If she’d stuck around…

    Yes, logic said she had to go. But just a few more days?

    Then came the news that changed it all.

    A jailbreak.

    Nikkeldepain remained a poor place for crime on any major scale, partly because of the culture of the colony, and partly because it had a very useful moon. Kaba was the ideal place for removing people from Nikkeldepain society and serving as a reminder of what could happen to those who broke the law here.

    A grim mining penitentiary, that no-one had ever escaped from… until now. The breakout had been stunning in its unexpectedness and more stunning in its violence. The guards had been captured, tortured into co-operation, and then murdered , along with the crew of the ore-freighter.

    The escapees had landed at the spaceport and hijacked a small passenger vessel. They’d used the passengers as hostages and fled — and left more dead bodies in their wake. The somber announcer admitted that as they had fled into the beyond and been lost track of, there was little possibility of recapture.

    The escapees were none other than the desperados captured by the brave Ziller during their raid on the Central Museum of Historical Nikkeldepain.

    Goth decided that it was time she checked up on her old “friend” Franco.

    She went light-shifted as a young woman of questionable virtue, with a bundle. Goth had been watching — with slightly more mature eyes — the people of Nikkeldepain. She looked like the sort of person that one could expect in this quarter, who might be accosted. But not with a bundle that looked like a baby.

    When she knocked on Franco’s door, the bundle had somehow become something else. Possibly stolen. And she’d changed her expression to one of furtiveness.

    No one answered.

    She knocked again.

    And again.

    Someone from inside said: “Go away.”

    Goth had learned — in order to do good light-shifts—to be very precise about remembering details.

    That voice she remembered well. It was enough to make her nearly forget her current light-shift.

    They hadn’t fled the system. They were right here! Mebeckey had just spoken to her.

    Goth turned and left.

    It took her a while to gather her thoughts, but her first action was to check on the well-being of Pausert. She found him, in the act of being spoken to on the street outside his home, by a woman in a small runaround. Some instinct made her slip into no-shape to listen in.

    He was looking at a photo-cube of her. “Vala?” Goth knew young Pausert well by now. In some ways he hadn’t changed very much on growing up to become the captain, either. She could now detect the hesitation and slight change in tone when he ventured on those very rare lies. “I haven’t seen her for a while, since the end of term. I believe she was going off-world with her parents.”

    “She has parents?” said the woman. Goth was almost certain it was Marshi. She had a peculiarly flat voice.

    Pausert nodded. “I haven’t seen much of them. They run an import/export company.”

    “Do you know its name?”

    Pausert shook his head. “Nope. Don’t think she ever said.”

    Goth waited, tense. If the woman gave any sign of wishing to harm Pausert…

    “Thank you,” she said, mechanically, turning away.

    “Sorry I couldn’t help,” said Pausert with equal insincerity.

    The woman drove off.

    Goth bit her lip, trying to decide what to do.

    Pausert plainly had no such doubts. He was heading straight for her apartment. Goth ghosted along, making sure that he wasn’t being followed by anyone else.

    He knocked, and when he got no reply, turned away, his forehead knotted in a worried puppy-frown. Goth decided that she couldn’t deal with his distress. She slipped in between two tall ornamental rechi trees and called him as he walked past.


    “Keep walking. Just wanted to tell you I’m fine. Keep to the story of my having left.”

    He hesitated briefly. And then determinedly kept walking. “I’ll help.”

    “You already did. Really. I’ll see you later.”

    He kicked a rechi cone, dribbled it around, like a bored teen. “What’s up?”

    “Stuff my parents do.”

    “I always wondered about that. But your mother seems nice. She’s sort of like you. But always busy.”

    Goth wasn’t surprised at his assessment. But all she said was: “I’ll see you later.

    He nodded and kicked the cone up the street. “Later.”

    Goth followed him. There was no guarantee there was no spy-ray tracking him. There plainly wasn’t one tracking her, or they would have found her.

    She followed him home. Then, at a brisk walk, she set off for the old quarter of Nikkeldepain. Time for pre-emptive action.




    It didn’t take her long to get to Franco’s den. If she had to ‘port pieces of the door away…

    But it wasn’t necessary. The door was just ajar, swinging gently. Goth went inside, up the stairs.

    The room bore mute testimony to the fight that must have happened. Franco’s bodyguard had had his head severed neatly. It lay on a smoldering, tipped rack of used clothes, the eyes still wide and staring.

    It took her a little while longer to find Franco. He was in the bath in the long unused bath in the bathroom. Unconscious, bleeding badly, and dying. They’d plainly tortured him, and he was lying in a pool of his own blood. She went back to the front room and used his communicator to call the emergency number. She gave the address and told them they needed the police and an ambulance flier.

    Then she went back into the bathroom. The window was now bricked up, she noticed. That hadn’t helped him. Franco opened his eyes, screwed them up, trying to focus.

    “Emergency services are on their way,” said Goth, keeping her voice and feelings firmly under control.

    “I told them to lay off. I told them you had ‘nections,” Franco slurred. “She don’t care. Not interested in you… thought I mus’ have box, ’cause I said you’d been to see me. Illtraming…”

    His eyes shut again, and his head lolled.

    Goth wondered if the ambulance would be in time. And she wondered if the escaped prisoners had headed for Pausert. She decided that making sure of that was more important than any assistance she might give to Franco, or whatever more she might learn from him.

    She’d pick up some stuff and camp out in Pausert’s loft.

    When she got back to her apartment and saw the door swinging, she realized that it was not Pausert that was their target.

    She went in. And realized that she’d been a little too quick. There was still someone inside, and they’d heard her.

    Hastily, she light-shifted into the form of an elderly woman. “I’ve called the police,” she said sternly.

    Marshi stepped out from the door she’d ducked behind. “Where is the girl, old woman?” she demanded, waving a blaster.

    “They… they left,” quavered Goth. “A few days ago. Same day as that jailbreak.” At the same time Goth was trying something new. She’d split light-shifted images of herself before, leaving herself invisible between them. That was a trick she’d learned from the little vatch. Now she left a light-shifted image of herself standing in place, while she stepped aside in no-shape.

    Just in time! Marshi shot the image. No warning, no compunction. Goth projected it crumpling, as soon as she realized what was happening.

    She’d been caught by surprise, so there was a noticeable lag between the image being shot and starting to fall. And there was the additional awkwardness that the effect of the blaster on the wall behind the image made it obvious to anyone observing carefully that there’d been nothing in the way.

    Fortunately, however, Marshi had looked away the moment she fired the gun. That casual indifference to the effect of her own murderous action underscored Marshi’s ruthlessness. But it was a ruthlessness so complete that it was also careless. Goth decided the woman wasn’t really even sane.

    “We need to get out of here,” said Marshi. “She may actually have called the police.”

    Mirkon came into them room. “Where now? That Pausert kid? His mother?”

    Marshi shook her head. “No point. They plainly scampered when they heard about us. I suppose we could check flight manifests, but I think false papers would be easy enough for this kind of operator.”

    “Or a unlisted flight. They happen, you know, if you’ve got the money.”

    “I think that’s what we need to do ourselves. Get off-world, and use Mebeckey’s money to find this woman. We’ve got a picture, we have finger and retina prints, we have DNA. We’ll set up a search across every populated world if need be. Find her and we find the Illtraming.”

    “You make it sound important. More than money.”

    “More than life,” said Marshi in her flat voice. “Now move.”

    They stepped over the light-shifted corpse, paying it no more attention than a carpet. Goth could only be glad that they hadn’t stepped on it, which they were certainly callous enough to have done. An illusion of solidity would not have survived that.

    When they’d gone she went into her apartment to decide what to do next. They’d torn the place apart. Even the pillows had been slit.

    Goth’s first reaction was fury. This was her place and her stuff!

    Once that passed, though, she was almost amused at the pointlessness of the wreckage. Not even with fingerprints, retina prints, pictures and DNA were they going to find Vala. Karres was not going to be a place they’d search!

    They hadn’t found her on Porlumma or Uldune, or Green Galaine. Or the imperial capital. But somewhere, ten years in the future, the trail had come to life again. They were searching for Vala, still, and their precious box. But that was tramping around the Galaxy, with Petey, Byrum and Keep. They wouldn’t still be looking for her if they’d found it.

    Nikkeldepain was now too hot for them. The attack on Franco and the killing of his bodyguard, coming right on top of the jailbreak, would have the Nikkeldepain police in an uproar for some time to come. But it wasn’t likely they could get off the planet immediately, and in the meantime they’d surely be watching for Vala here. They’d be back.

    Goth took a deep breath. It was time to go, as in her heart of hearts she’d known it was. But first she had to say good-bye to Pausert. And find some thick padding to wear on the Egger route.



    His first reaction was: “Whatever’s going on, we’ll deal with it.” Goth came closer to understanding what Threbus had meant when he said that the community of Karres was a state of mind, not a state. Without meaning to, she hugged him. He looked a bit startled. He’d probably never been hugged by anyone apart from his mother before.

    But he hugged her back. “No need to get upset,” he said, trying his fourteen-year old best to sound mature and like a real man.

    “I’m not,” said Goth, her voice a little gruff and choked. “It’s dealt with. And you did the best thing ever, telling them I’d left. But it’s good to know you’d stand by me.”

    He looked faintly surprised. “But you always stand by me.”

    Goth nodded. That was easier than talking around the lump in her throat. They stood there, awkwardly, looking at each other. “You remember me, see,” Goth eventually said, wishing she had something more that she dared say. But he had hardly remembered her.

    “Like anyone could ever forget you. Ever,” he said, trying to smile. “You’re really leaving, aren’t you?”

    Goth nodded again, knowing that talking wasn’t going to happen. Not without her saying a great deal more than she should. Some of it about the insipid Illyla.

    Then she could bear it no more. She wrapped her arms around him and kissed him. Hard. Then walked away without a glance backward. She knew if she looked back she’d be lost.

    For once the Egger route was a welcome thing.

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