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The Sorceress of Karres: Chapter Twenty Two

       Last updated: Wednesday, December 23, 2009 21:27 EST



    Pausert watched the screens trying to figure out the best possible next move.

    The Phantom ships were definitely heading towards an englobement formation and seemed to be able to use their here/not-here nature to counter the speed advantage of the Sheewash drive. He was going to have to try something. The fact that they’d actually succeeded in hitting the Phantoms seemed to have made them even more determined to catch and destroy the Venture.

    And then there was a distant droning sound. Pausert heaved a vast sigh of relief. That would be the Karres witches, thrumming down the Egger route, to the rescue. The bait had drawn the Phantom ships which had, in turn, called Karres to his aid. The staccato humming came ever closer, the heavy sound filling his head, covering vast distances at incredible speed. Pausert went to fetch as many blankets as the Venture had in her store.

    Perhaps they could tell him just where Goth had got to. She was supposed — by their own precogs — to spend at least a year in his company. She’d certainly not been in it for the last few weeks.

    And then it stopped… and there in the middle of the floor was Goth. Goth bundled up in a turban, a hooded jacket and about four layers of clothing. Eyes unfocussed she turned over, onto her knees. Pausert knowing what was coming, hastily wrapped her up. Plainly the Leewit had been roused from sleep by the klatha sounds and came and helped him with rolling Goth up like a mummy. Mebeckey came in while they were busy, and exclaimed in puzzlement. “What’s up?”

    “Later,” said the captain. Goth began to twitch. And jerk. And vibrate like a tuning fork. It took all the captain’s strength to hold her still. By the sounds of it she was grinding her teeth, and making small angry jungle cat noises. Well, at least she didn’t screech like the Leewit did!

    The shuddering slowed and the captain began unwinding. “Hurry up.” said Goth. “Hot in here. I’m wearing too many layers of clothes.”

    They de-cocooned her, and a smiling Goth sat up. She hugged the captain and Leewit together. “Kept the ship in one piece without me, I see.”

    She peeled off the hooded jacket. Then pulled off a towel-turban in a scatter of ringlets of wavy red hair.

    Pausert looked at her, with his mouth open.

    “What’s up, Captain?” asked Goth quizzically. “You’re looking at me like I suddenly grew another head.”

    He took a deep breath. “You did. Or at least another head of hair, Goth. Or should I say… Vala?”

    “Wondered just how I was going to explain that to you.”

    “You might have told me.”

    “I only found out myself just before I left.”

    “I meant back then. I tried very hard to make contact with you again, but I couldn’t find any trace of you or your parents. I was hoping you might write to me or something.”

    “I suppose I could have made a plan. But then you might not have got involved with that wet fish Illyla,” said Goth, tartly. “I need to eat.”

    She looked at Mebeckey, standing nervously in the doorway. “Hello. Who is he?” she asked.

    “A xeno-archeologist that got marooned out here,” said the Leewit. “We rescued him from some wreck of a planet. Says his name is Mebeckey.” .

    Goth stopped and put her hands on her hips. “Can’t be. He’s got the wrong face shape, even without the few face-hairs. And he’s quite a lot shorter.”

    “What?” said Pausert warily.

    Goth cocked her head on one side and jerked a thumb at the castaway. “Mebeckey. I don’t know who this old guy is but he’s not Mebeckey the archeologist. Mebeckey the archaeologist was the fellow who tried to kill you, back on Nikkeldepain. He was part of the crowd that kidnapped me, too. Although Franco says they were all under Marshi’s control.”

    “Marshi?” said the castaway archeologist incredulously. “Is the monster woman still alive?”

    “I reckon it’s probable,” said Goth. “What color was her hair?”


    “Not the same woman, then. This one is as bald as an onion.” Goth took a mug of cone-seed coffee from the Leewit, who had plainly been programming the robo-butler in preparation while the captain had been hauling blankets. “Got to have food too, Leewit. I don’t think too much of the food back on Nikkeldepain, Captain.”

    Pausert grinned. “You used to drink enough of that caram juice though. Great Patham. Some of those incidents make sense now. Klatha tricks! I haven’t thought about them for years!” He shook his head. “I can’t say how glad I am to see you, Goth. I had quite a crush on you back then.”



    Goth was having enough problems with her own feelings right at the moment. She was delighted to see the captain again, and delighted to see Pausert also — and trying to merge the two people into one. It wasn’t easy. She wished that the Leewit and this arbitrary stranger — who wasn’t Mebeckey, whoever he thought he was pretending to be — would just go away and leave them to talk privately for a bit. “You did, huh?”

    “It’s very strange. You’re Vala… But I’ll swear you’ve shrunk. Yet for Goth you’ve grown.”

    “Grown, I reckon,” said Goth, swallowing a mouthful of seed-cake. “Both of us. You were petty short, back then. Now, what’s the problem, Captain?”

    “We’re being followed by some vessels. Phantom ships. They’re trying for an englobement,” said the Leewit. “I inflicted some damage on two and the captain…” She glanced at Mebeckey. “He did some real hot-shot flying. But they’ve caught up with us again. Weird ships.”

    “Yeah? Well I reckon you’d better have everyone strap in. Because we’re going to do some more.” said Goth. “Including you, mister whatever-your-name-really-is. Scram.”

    But the new supercargo did not move. “This person you call ‘Mebeckey’. Was he a tall man with a hooked nose and white, spiky hair? A little goatee beard?”

    “Pretty much, yes. Except no hair to speak of. The beard’s a few wisps. Like you.”

    The man sighed. “That’s my former first mate, Cobaj. He must have taken on my identity. How did you meet him? And how did you get here?”

    “Enough questions,” said Pausert. “Get to your stateroom and strap in. The Leewit, wake Vezzarn. We’ll see if we can break out of this before they take action. Man those guns. Fire on my command!”

    “Yes, sir!” said the Leewit, happily. “Get on with it, Mebeckey,” she said, pushing him down the passage. “There’ll be time to answer questions later.”

    The captain smiled at Goth, almost shyly. “Not having you around here for a while has made me appreciate just how badly I need you.”

    “It worked both ways, Captain,” said Goth. She was feeling a little shy herself. Not often that happened, huh!

    They went to the chairs on the bridge and strapped in. “Didn’t the Leewit take care of stuff?”

    “She’s been better than good. To the extent that I was quite worried about her,” said the captain. “Even bathing by herself. Helping with everything. Working hard on the astrogation math. But… I missed you, that was all. And even with the Sheewash drive we haven’t been able to shake these ships. They’re… well, at lest most of the time they have no apparent mass. You can shoot them and it has no effect.”

    “But the Leewit got two?” asked Goth, smiling inwardly at him missing her.

    Pausert nodded. “Just as they launch their missiles they become objects of mass. She had to time her firing right. They’ve kept at greater range since then. But they’re following in greater numbers. And it seems like they’re going try a classic englobement. Those torpedoes of theirs are slow, but the warheads are pretty bad news. And if they’re all around us, we will get a radiation soaking that the hull metal can’t keep out, even if the Leewit shoots them well before impact. We may have to try the Egger route with the whole ship…”

    Goth shuddered. “It’s a bit soon after the last time for me. Not good for the body, you know. Maybe if we worked the Sheewash together — all three of us?”

    “Maybe if you explained how I’m supposed to do vectors in the Sheewash. I was all over the place on my own. Whizzing and bouncing about like a piece of popping corn in a closed pot. I must have wasted light-minutes of power.”

    Oddly, under the circumstances, Goth felt gleeful all of a sudden. All her unease at being back with the captain after six months with his younger self had vanished. They were a team. She just understood him better, now.



    “Forward nova gun turret manned and ready for action,” said the Leewit over the intercom.

    Pausert clicked the bridge manual firing relays off. “You have fire control, forward turret,” he said formally. “Stern turret?”

    “Stern turret ready too, Captain,” said Vezzarn over the other channel. “Let’s go get them. Only I hope we aren’t going to fly so wild this time, Captain. It was all I could do not to lose my lunch, let alone keep shooting.”

    “We’ll try a steep dive toward that star cluster there. The colorful one on the starboard bow. We’re going try and skim the gravity well of white dwarf on…”

    “Captain,” interrupted Goth. “Do you recognize that star cluster?”

    There was something familiar about it, about the reddish-brown dust haze of space debris and dust that hung about it, in the blackness of space. “I should,” said Pausert. “I know I should. What is it, Goth?”

    “I reckon it’s the Megair cluster, Captain. From the other side.”

    Pausert looked again and nodded. “You’re right. That’s what…? About four ship days from Uldune controlled space, at normal cruising speed. I figure. I didn’t realize we were this close to being on the far side of the Chaladoor.”

    “It’s also a pretty bad neighborhood, Captain.”

    “We don’t have a lot of choices, Goth.”

    “Guess not.” She started assembling the wires as the Phantom ships edged closer. “I’ve seen those ship somewhere before. Weird shape they’ve got.”

    “Mebeckey said they were Melchin. Or maybe even Illtraming.”

    Goth paused in her laying out of the lattice of black wires. “Illtraming! That’s what Marshi and her crew of thugs were looking for. The Illtraming map. And she said finding the Illtraming was more important than life.”

    Pausert tugged his chin. “There has to be a tie-in somewhere.”

    “They’re closing on us, Captain,” said the Leewit. “Nearly in firing range. And two more bandits coming in from twelve o’clock.”

    “Time to Sheewash,” said Goth firmly. She reached out and took his hand. The wires rose and twined like snakes forming a truncated cone. A ball of incandescent orange fire sparked into existence above it, roiling with wild energies. The Venture leapt like a stag and the starscape blurred. Distantly, the captain was aware of the nova guns with their shivering blue fire sheet-lightning. There was a burst of retina-searing amber incandescence to the portside. Chatter from the radiation meters.

    “Got that torpedo a bit late, Captain,” said Vezzarn apologetically.

    “Keep firing!” yelled the Leewit.

    The ridged spiky hull of the Phantom alien ship was very close in the viewscreens, with them driving a straight line towards it, alive with the electromagnetic dance of the nova gun lightnings. Goth seemed to twitch them over at the last moment, sending them diving in an escape curve toward the Megair Cluster, where the stars loomed out of the debris.

    Debris at this speed would be hard to dodge. But then they were among them, jinking… and the Sheewash pattern wires collapsed. “Can’t do it too long, Captain. Tired after the Egger route,” said Goth.



    She looked exhausted. Pausert still could not get over the fact that he’d never realized that Goth had looked like Vala. One just didn’t see what one didn’t expect to see. Abstractly, he understood what had happened. When he’d first met Goth, she’d been only ten years old. Very intelligent, precocious — sometimes even disturbingly so — but also clearly still a child.

    Vala and the Goth of today, on the other hand…

    Uncomfortably, Pausert finally accepted something he’d been almost studiously ignoring for months now. More than three years had passed since he met Goth and she was well into puberty by now. Her figure was still girlishly lean, but there was no longer any way she could possibly be mistaken, even at a distance, for a boy.

    Neither could Vala — and, for the Pausert of the time, a fourteen-year-old boy who was himself undergoing puberty, that had made for a very different emotional introduction. Years had passed, and the memory of what Vala had actually looked like had gotten fuzzy. Between that, and the red hair, and most of all meeting the two girls on either side of puberty, he could understand why he’d never spotted the identity. As Goth had changed, in the years she’d been with him, he hadn’t seen her growing resemblance to Vala. She’d just been Goth… growing up.

    And grown up a lot more than he’d realized! The kiss that Vala had given him as she left was something he’d never forgotten. Now, it came with a real jolt to realize that for Goth — today’s Goth — that kiss had happened just yesterday.

    He wondered for a moment if their looks had had anything to do with that fateful decision so long ago now, back on Porlumma, when he’d rescued the witches of Karres. Being fair to himself, though,. probably not. He didn’t like to see anyone abused. Anyway, he’d already rescued Maleen and the Leewit before he’d even set eyes on Goth.

    Not long after he’d met Goth, she’d announced her intention to marry him once she reached marriageable age — which was sixteen, for the people of Karres. Pausert hadn’t taken the whole thing seriously, of course. At the time, the difference between ten years of age and sixteen had seemed enormous. But it came with another jolt to realize that more than half that time had already elapsed.

    And Goth still seemed as determined as ever.

    As for Pausert… He really hadn’t ever been able to forget that kiss.

    He wasn’t ready to deal with this. It was almost with relief that he forced his mind aside to deal with the perilous situation of the moment.

    “Not too safe here anyway,” he said, untwining his fingers from hers and taking control of the ship. The Sheewash drive was plainly not a “drive,” so much as some kind of sequence of tiny jumps thought space-time, because it left the Venture far ahead of the pack of Phantom ships, but also with no extra velocity. The captain pushed his throttles forward, causing the Venture to increasingly shake and sway because of the roughly aligned repaired tube.

    “She doesn’t feel so good, Captain,” said Goth. “You think we got hit back there?”

    “No, we had a run in with a space rock earlier. Broke a tube-bracket. We did a repair-job on the cinder-block world we found Mebeckey on. The alignment’s not perfect, I’m afraid. I just hope it’s a good enough weld.”

    Goth cracked an enormous yawn. “Sorry. It’s been a very long full day for me. Back on Nikkeldepain and here.”

    “Sleep a bit. I’ll call if I need you,” said the captain, keeping a wary eye on a cloud of shattered rocks that was showing on one of the screens. The dust in the system made guiding the ship even more difficult, hanging in drifting curtains obscuring both the view and the instrument detection. On the positive, the same factors should make it a good place to hide and evade pursuit — which was probably why the Megair Cannibals used this system themselves.

    Then Pausert looked at the rear-screens and realized how wrong he was. He had to dodge space debris — but Phantom ships appeared to go straight through them. And whereas the Venture been dealing with twelve in the englobement, there were more of them now. Far more.

    At the same time, he noticed that they did appear to avoid the really, really big rocks — anything with enough mass to have a gravity field worth mentioning. He got that gambler’s feeling, the prickle on the back of his neck, that he’d come to realize was a klatha sense too. This was valuable information for Karres. The intangible Phantoms didn’t take to gravity. That was why they’d avoided worlds. Some kind of gravity tractor would make a weapon against them.

    Goth gave a quiet little snuffly snore from the control chair next to him. “The Leewit,” he said quietly into the intercom. “Can you bring Goth a blanket? I think you can stand down from the guns. I’ve got to keep a look-out for obstacles.”

    “Sure thing, Captain. I got a couple more. You got to anticipate them,” said the Leewit, gleefully. “I’m glad to have Goth back. It was hard being told I had to be responsible for you on my own.”

    Which, Pausert was ready to bet, was exactly what Goth had told her to be. That explained the un-Leewit-like behavior. He smiled to himself. It was a question of perspective, he supposed. He’d had the delusion that he was the one being responsible for them. Oh well, it worked both ways. He concentrated instead on the crowded region of space ahead. A couple of light-hours away was a reasonable sized world with a slew of moons and a series of rings. If the Phantoms didn’t like gravity, that would be a good place to hide up and rest. He really didn’t want to push the Venture to far on that slightly misaligned tube. The vibration would probably shake loose something else, let alone break his weld.




    “They’re coming up fast, Captain.” said the Leewit quietly, leaning over his chair while Goth slept in the one next to him.

    “I know. And I’m going to have to cut the throttle a bit. Look at the tell-tales. Tube seven, the one we repaired the stanchions for, is overheating. Must be the effects of the vibration. I’ll have to throttle down soon or she’ll blow. And to keep us running in a balanced fashion, I’ll need to cut the throttle on tube three by the same amount.”

    “Could correct a bit with the laterals,” said the Leewit, showing that she’d absorbed a great deal in the time that her sister had been away.

    “Yep.” The captains hands moved over the controls, adjusting throttles. “Means we can still keep the other seven at full thrust for a bit, but dodging rocks… well, it’s a recipe for disaster.”

    The Leewit grinned. “Disasters are what we deal with best on the Venture . We going to Sheewash again?”

    Pausert shook his head. “If we can get into the gravity well of that fourth planet from that greenish star before they get close enough we can rest up a bit. With all three of us doing it, we can try. Dodging debris while doing the Sheewash is even harder. But we’re just four light-days from the edge of Uldune’s space sphere of influence. I’ll be pretty glad to see it.”

    “Yeah. Turn this lot of spooks into a Sedmon of the Six Lives problem,” said the Leewit. “They just keep right on coming, Captain. I hit the one ship pretty hard. It’s almost as if they don’t care.”

    “They’re keeping a greater distance though. So something must have got them a bit wiser.”

    “Uh huh. But give me targets that I just have to aim for and hit. Not things where it doesn’t matter most of the time. ”

    Pausert smiled to himself. The Leewit was very glad to have her older sister back, to hand over responsibility again. But listening to her, Pausert wondered if she realized that it had been a one-way street that she’d walked down. She could never go back to being quite the little hooligan that she’d been before. She still looked the complete blond urchin, of course.



    They reached the upper edge of the gravitational tug of the mass of the greenish-white world below, and Pausert was happy to discover that his gambler’s instinct had been right. The Phantom ships which had been steadily gaining on them began to drop back as they got closer to planet. It must be a gloomy place, Pausert thought. It had a good eighty-five percent cloud-cover. The clouds of course reflected the light of the local sun, giving their white tops a greenish tinge.

    Goth stirred in her chair, possibly the change in note from the Venture ’s tubes getting through to her. “Boy, I could murder some breakfast,” she said, stretching. “What’s up Captain? Where are those… Melchin… Illtraming ships? That is weird you know. The guys I was protecting you from back on Nikkeldepain — did you ever guess you nearly got kidnapped? They ended up taking me as bait for you. They’d been to search the old Venture 7333. She’s been this way before, you know. ”

    Pausert nodded. “I found star-maps. That’s how we ended up stopping on the world we picked Mebeckey up at. They indicated that the ship had made a safe landing there. Right now we’re hanging just inside the stratosphere of one of the worlds in this cluster. The Phantoms don’t like gravity. We can rest and recuperate a little before we need use the Sheewash drive to get out of here again.”

    “Had. Yeah. I reckon that place you stopped at… that must be where Threbus picked up the Illtraming map they were so busy looking for. It was inside your home. With the other bric-a-brac Threbus left behind there.”

    “Lucky we didn’t sell it. We were pretty hard up when you arrived on Nikkeldepain.”

    Goth smiled. “And all because Threbus chose to fake his death and disappearance from the same part of space where your father also happened to go missing. A co-incidence, but it made life pretty tough for you. I must say I’m sorry on my father’s behalf. I’d like to have told you then. But I couldn’t, of course.”

    “I bet whoever tried to kidnap you regretted it,” said Pausert. “I only wish I’d known. Back then I would have thought it was enormous fun.”

    “They were a tough bunch of crooks,” said Goth. “And they’re still out there if the information I’ve got is correct.”

    An alarm sounded from the detectors.

    Pausert looked at his screens. “We’re under attack!” he yelped, hitting the throttles.

    Goth strapped herself in again. “Leewit. Strap in! I thought you said the Phantoms wouldn’t come this close to a gravity well, Captain.”

    “This is not the Phantoms,” said Pausert, putting the ship into a steep dive. “The attack’s coming from below!”

    The Leewit had stood down from her guns. The captain flicked control of them to Goth, moving the firing relays to her board. Below, rising rapidly out of the greenish clouds were two atmospheric craft. There was something vaguely insectlike to the design.

    “Fire at will,” said the captain, banking sharply. “I’m sorry, Goth. I think we just came for a lovely rest in the Megair Cannibals back yard.”

    Red balls of fire leapt toward them.

    Goth and Vezzarn answered fire, and the captain flung the Venture toward the clouds, looking to use the gravity to add to the ship’s thrust.

    More atmospheric craft came boiling their way out of the clouds like a seethe of roaches.

    “Going to have to go Sheewa…”

    Something hit the Venture with a terrible bang, and the old pirate-chaser spun out of control, hurtling downwards, no thrust coming out of her stern tubes at all. Pausert fought for control as they plunged down through the cloud. He tried, desperately, for re-ignition in the tubes. Nothing. He hit the laterals, and was rewarded by a burst of power from them. The winds tore and buffeted at the ship, as the captain tried vainly to slow her descent. But he just didn’t have enough power.

    Inside the control room there was a storm of debris blowing about, and a white mist of icy air. Hull integrity must be damaged. A good thing they were losing altitude — a bad thing that they were losing it so fast.

    “Vezzarn here, Captain,” said the old spacer over the intercom. “I’ve managed to get to the engine room captain. The main interfacer unit has blown, sir!”

    “Get strapped in, Vezzarn. This is going to be a rough landing.” Pausert began hastily re-routing control through to the test firing circuits. Testing wasn’t run through the main interface system. It was also not meant to be run in more than ten second bursts. He was going to have to set the Venture down, manually firing her tubes in ten second sequential bursts. If he could slow down their descent enough, he could set the Venture down on her laterals.

    That was going to take all his skill as a pilot to do it.

    It didn’t help that someone was shooting at them at the same time.

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