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The Sorceress of Karres: Chapter Twenty Three

       Last updated: Wednesday, December 30, 2009 19:22 EST



    The ground was coming up entirely too fast. Goth saw how, face impassive, intent with concentration, Captain Pausert fired the main tubes in a sequential burst sending the Venture corkscrewing but slowing. Their plunge to the grey-green vegetation slowed. The Venture swung over onto her side, and the captain fired the laterals on full thrust.

    With a rush of cracking, and hissing, the Venture 7333 settled onto the trees, and then lurched and fell. The captain fired the laterals again and the Venture came to a final rest on the surface with little more than a dull thump.

    “We’re down,” said Pausert with relief. They were certainly neck deep in trouble, but at least they were down. That in itself was a huge weight off his shoulders.

    “Neat flying, Captain,” said Goth. Other congratulations came in over the intercom, from the Leewit, Vezzarn, and in a shaky voice from Mebeckey.

    Pausert un-clipped from his webbing. “Touch and go, at times. I better go and see if we’ve got spare parts for the drive sequencer, or if I can rig some kind of manual over-ride. And we need to find out where the hull integrity is breached. We’re not leaving here, Sheewash or no, without fixing that. With luck it is something we can weld a patch onto.”

    Goth got up and followed him. “The locals might not be to pleased to see us. After that reception they seem more likely to go after us with a space-gun than offer us the use of their ship-yards.”

    He nodded. “We’ll just have to deal with them as they arrive. Do you think we can do anything with a light-shift? The little I saw of the local landscape, it didn’t seem like the most populated of places.”

    “Looked like a cross between a forest and a swamp. With the worst parts of both,” said Goth. “I’ll check it out. ”

    “They can probably find us with an instrument-search,” said Pausert. “The hull-metal must be pretty hot. And then there is radiation off our tubes. But let’s not make it easy for them.”

    “They sure didn’t seem too friendly.”

    “No,” said Pausert. “I think we may have jumped out of the deep-space frying-pan, and into the planetary fire. I think — looking at the design of those ships — this world might be the base of our old enemies, the Megair Cannibals.”

    Goth whistled. “Just the perfect place to crash-land, huh? Okay, you see if you can get anywhere with the sequencer. I’ll stay here. Check out the screens to see what sort of lightshift I need to do, and I’ll test the atmosphere. We’re still alive breathing it, but who knows whether we’ll be able to go on doing that indefinitely.

    “Good thinking. Keep the Leewit on the nova guns — she’s uncannily good — and get Vezzarn and Mebeckey looking for breaches in hull integrity.” He squeezed her shoulder. “I can’t tell you how good it is to have you back, even if we’re straight into a deeper mess.”

    Goth found herself smiling, despite the disaster. “We’re alive, Captain. And we have three witches of Karres. What’s a mere Cannibal’s planet to that?”



    Pausert made his way down to the engine-room, trying not to get too upset by the mess that the conflict had made of the Venture . It could be repaired, if they got out of here. Not if. When, he said determinedly to himself.

    Big dream thing, said the littlest vatch, life around you is fun. More exciting even than the dreamplays.

    “Hello. I didn’t know you were still with us,” said Pausert with a sort of calm resignation. After all, a bit of little-vatch mischief was fairly harmless compared to the situation they were in. It could make things worse, of course. But it might also help. There was nothing to be gained by getting upset with it.

    Been here and gone. I talk to the Leewit. Learning quite a lot about you, big dream thing.

    Via the Leewit that could be a mixed blessing, thought Pausert. But all he asked was: “There are no big vatches around, are there?” One of those could take them out of here easily enough, once Pausert got klatha hooks into it.

    There came a tinkle of vatchy laughter. Big ones near you? I don’t think so! They know your mind’s taste by now. Not going to come close. Different for us little ones.

    “Pity. Oh well, I’ll have to try and fix the engines and the hull then. Fight our way out, if we have to.”

    This seemed to amuse the vatchlet. Never dull around you, big dream thing, it said, and vanished.

    Pausert was left alone to squeeze into the crawlspace behind the electronics banks of the main sequencer. The air stank of burning, back here. The captain sighed. He let klatha-energy guide his hands towards which modules to pull. Three of them were almost totally fried, and hard to get out of their sockets. Even with the little long-necked atomic lamp the captain found he couldn’t see well enough to read the module numbers in there. Besides, he’d have to get them from the stores — if they had them at all. You couldn’t carry everything, and sequencers — the link between the spacedrive and the tubes — didn’t often go wrong. The captain was worried. It was a long way to the nearest human space-port and spare-parts shop.

    With two of the three they were lucky. They were standard T-071 units, processors the ship used in half a dozen places. The third…

    Pausert stifled a curse. The third was a multiplier link, and he knew already that they didn’t have one. The things were virtually indestructible bits of solid state hardware. This one was probably as old as the ship itself. It would have survived almost anything except a solid — and obviously white hot — fragment of Megair shell. That must have been what caused the hole in the hull-metal. He was standing there, biting his lip, trying to think if he’d ever read how you could do without a multiplier link. It was such a little thing, barely the size of a book — and without it, the ship was helpless.

    Vezzarn coughed. “Found the hole, skipper. Punched straight through the outer hull, into the hold, into the sequencer housing. Dunno what it hit in there or if it kept going.”

    “It stopped here.” Pausert showed him.

    “That’s the multiplier link, eh?”

    “Yes. That’s what it is. And no, we don’t have a spare. And, no, I don’t think it is fixable. The ship is stuck here, unless they find us.”

    “The Cannibals or the Wisdoms?”

    “Now there is the question! I don’t know.”

    But Pausert’s mind was already working on the idea of taking the Venture down the Egger route, away from here — no matter how the other two felt about the Egger route.

    The intercom squawked into life. “Captain. We got visitors.”

    “Get patching, Vezzarn. If we can patch it quick enough we can get the ship out of here.” Pausert made haste back to the Control room. Goth had the external screens on. The view outside was a bubbling swamp, with the mud plainly at half viewscreen level. The Venture lay next to some tall lobate trees of a peculiarly virulent shade of maroon — but that could just be the light. Between the cloud — which here was more like a swirling mist, and the faint light of the green sun, this was not a very attractive piece of real estate. Goth pointed to the upper screens. “Some kind of flier, Captain. I’ve light-shifted us but they’re keeping station.”

    It was. With its two clumsy whirling rotors and spikes that could only be some kind of weaponry it was making a slow circle, cutting swathes through the mist. “Want me to bring it down, Captain?” said the Leewit.

    “Um. Just before we do too much…” said Goth. “The mud on the screens is rising. Or, to it another way, the Venture is sinking. Fast.”

    As Pausert looked out of the viewscreen, a lanky gray-skinned being stepped into sight, and then slipped behind one of the lobular trees. The creature held what was plainly some sort of weapon. It looked like it fired the cruelly barbed harpoon that protruded from the barrel. Worse still, it had had been talking into a communicator.



    Moments later, a flat sled-like craft slipped into view, with half a dozen of the gray creatures on board. They took cover, except for the one gray man who took careful aim with some sort of heavy weapon on the sled.

    “I guess there’s not much point to light-shifted images of the ship as jungle foliage, then.” said Goth, disgustedly. “They must have the tubes radiation pin-pointed.”

    “More ship coming,” said the Leewit. “Big ‘uns.”

    That was an understatement. There were nine of them, discharging a truly impressive number of armed gray men. And now a large armored hover-carrier was sliding above the trees, guns pointed at the Venture.

    “We’re getting something on external sound, Captain. Nearly loud enough to make the hull-plates vibrate.”

    “What are they saying, Leewit?” asked Pausert.

    The littlest witch answered over the intercom, seconds later. “They say we’re for coming out. Or they’re for boiling the mud and pre-cooking us, before they’re for cutting open the hull, and for coming in and eating us. Shall I fry a few of them first?”

    The captain sighed. “No. I don’t think we could hold off long enough to take the ship down the Egger route. What if we do a quick Sheewash hop out of here? We can’t get too far — not off-world — because we have a hole in the hull and no real use of the main drive. But it could buy us time.

    Goth nodded. “Let’s do it,” she said, reaching into the drawer for the wires.

    The carrier above loosed off a bolt of red energy, sizzling the mud. The Leewit replied with a nova gun burst, as the Venture leapt clear of the glutinous steaming muck in a burst of speed that left the charges of the Megair exploding far behind them. A brief second of Sheewash and the captain used the laterals again to set her down in what looked like a glade, several hundred miles away.

    “Scary stuff, Captain!” said Goth. “The drive’s not really for use so close to solid objects. We hit the ground or even these soft trees while moving at this speed and it’s going to turn us into jelly.”

    “Still, we must have shaken them off. If we can just get a patch on the hull, we can out of here. We’re going to be in sub-radio range of Uldune pretty quick using nothing but the Sheewash. I’d rather not try to take the Venture down the Egger route again.”

    “Too clumping right!” said the Leewit. “You aren’t safe doing that. But I could probably do it with Goth.”

    “Uh, skipper,” said Vezzarn over the intercom. “There’s mud coming in the hole, and I can’t stop it. I can’t put a patch onto the hull unless we get out of this stuff and we manage to get the surface really, really clean. It’d be best put on from the outside, I reckon.”

    Pausert looked out at the viewscreens. They were settling even faster into what he had taken for a meadow. And there was a Megair atmospheric chase craft bearing down on them already. It wasn’t one of those they’d fled earlier, but a larger vessel.

    “I don’t think we’re going to get the chance. We’re going to have to abandon ship, I’m afraid.”

    “More ships coming, Captain,” warned the Leewit. “They must have a real hot-shot planetary defense system.”

    “I guess eating travelers does tend to make people want to come to your planet and exterminate you,” said Pausert wryly. “Now the question is, can we take the Egger route out with the ship holed?”

    Goth shook her head. “The hole is not the issue, Captain. It’s –”

    “Great Patham!” said the Leewit. “They have some kind of gravity tractor on us. They’re lifting the Venture!”

    The ship pulled free of the clinging mud with a resounding plop.

    “And now?”

    Pausert took a deep breath. “Now we play it by ear. Let’s get ready to go Sheewash — it could be interesting with that tractor on us.”

    “Would be possible but exhausting, Captain,” said Goth. “Couple of Karres operatives got caught by a Megair ship. They don’t eat their catch at once. So they had time to teach those Cannibals a lesson or three. We could stall for time ourselves, maybe, long enough to fix the Venture .”

    “Are they human, Goth?”

    “Hard to say, Captain. If we have it right, they’re humans as humans would have been if things had been a whole lot different.

    Pausert took a deep breath. “Okay. Then we play things by ear. If they start to try to cook us, we’ll take them for a Sheewash ride.”

    The Venture hit against the large floater with a clang.

    The ship began moving off.

    “Hopefully they’re taking us somewhere dry,” said Pausert, as they moved through swirling cloud and rain.

    “I think that’d have to be off-world,” said Goth.

    “Looks like it. In the meanwhile let’s see if we can get some kind of patch on that hole, even if it’s not a perfect seal. If need be, we can all put on pressure suits and then look for a moon to go and repair it.”

    “I’ll go, Captain. You stay here and watch ‘em.”

    For a moment Pausert nearly demurred. But then he realized that if he couldn’t trust her, he couldn’t trust anyone. And she’d grown noticeably, too. For him, she’d only been gone a few weeks. But for her, he’d gathered, something like six months had passed. She’d always been quick to take on responsibility, but this was a new Goth moving out of childhood and becoming his equal. He rather liked it, actually. As Vala, she’d been the one leading him, he reflected, thinking back.



    A little later, as the big Megair floater continued to fly with them, now escorted by several atmospheric craft, Goth came on the intercom. “Next time, let’s not set down in the mud,” she said. “It’s patched, captain. It’s not space tight, but it’s the best we can do. We’ll lose pressure. But it shouldn’t be any worse than the door-seal damage from the pirate-imperials fight. We could manage a day or so, for sure. Going to take longer than that to get the mud out of here. It’s sprayed all over.”

    “Now all we need is the chance to get away.”

    “After our last little hop, I reckon they’ll be quite cautious about that.”

    “I could stick my head out the airlock and whistle at them a little,” said the Leewit. Her whistles had shattering effects on solids — and people. “I reckon I could bust that grav-tractor up good. They have resonance crystals in them.”

    “Wait until they’re not expecting trouble,” said Goth.

    “I’m just a sweet little girl,” said the Leewit cherubically.

    “Yeah, but they like them sweet, young and tender. They make better eating.”

    A few minutes later, the Megair floater began settling toward a rocky plateau. It was rain-swept and gray-green lit, but for Megair 4 it was probably prime real estate. Nikkeldepain wasn’t as beautiful as Karres, but it was a long step up on this place. You could see, by the instruments, if not through the rain, that a large number of other craft were converging on the landing ground. It was already quite crowded and off on one edge was a testimony to the Megair Cannibals normal piracy — a junkyard of wrecked Empire ships. On the opposite edge, the Megair spaceport was dominated by a squat hill, which was studded with pill-boxes.

    “They’ve got at least fifteen different types of space-guns there,” said the Leewit professionally, examining the protruding muzzles — most of which were pointed at the Venture . “I recognize some of them.”

    Goth peered with narrowed eyes. “Yeah. This is the Cannibal nest, all right. Furnished with their loot.”

    “It’s a good spot for a lair,” said the captain, thoughtfully. “This cluster could be defended quite easily. They’d know where all the rocks are and could put weaponry on the moons. And they could be on any one of twenty planets orbiting five stars. The only way we could get here was with an escort of those Phantom ships. And by all accounts I’ve heard the Cannibals keep their piracy down to attacks on occasional ships. Not like the Agandar.”

    “Yes,” said Mebeckey, who had come out of his stateroom and was peering nervously around. “But they’ve been at it for a lot longer, Captain. And with the Agandar, there was at least a chance of ransom. The Megair pirates eat their catch. Is there nothing we can do?”

    “We’ll certainly try to do something,” said Pausert.

    “If you’d eaten less of my Wintenberry jelly,” said the Leewit, “you’d still be skinny and unappetizing.”

    Mebeckey tugged his hair. “How can you be so calm? Don’t you understand? They’re Cannibals.”

    “I have the captain and Goth here. We’ve been worse messes,” said the Leewit stoutly.



    “Actually,” said Pausert, “we might learn a thing or two from those incidents. In the meantime, I suggest you get some rain-gear and warm clothing. It’s both cold and wet out there. Goth — a word in your ear. You too, Leewit. Off you go, Mebeckey. I know I gave you one of those allweather cloaks I had left over.”

    When the xeno-archeologist had gone, Pausert closed the door. “I still don’t trust him as far as I can throw him. He has a bad habit of sneaking about. I think we want to keep the Karres stuff under our hats. He’s already seen a bit too much, with you arriving. Goth, if you and the Leewit go no-shape…”

    “Won’t work, Captain. We need to talk to them, and the Leewit is the only one who can do that for you.”

    The smaller blond witch nodded. “But you go no-shape, Goth. We’ll tell that old snoop you’ve gone again.”

    Pausert nodded. “A secret ace in the hole. That’s good. And don’t forget old Vezzarn. He’s a good lock-tickler. Now get yourselves some warm gear.” The captain pointed at the readout on the control panel. “It really is cold and miserable out there.”

    “And they’re trying talk to us again, Captain,” said Goth. “On the communicator screen.” Goth abruptly wasn’t there. “I’ll get you both something warm and waterproof,” said a voice from midair.

    The face staring out of the screen was lean, gray-skinned, red-eyed and feral-looking. When it spoke, its teeth showed. They were distinctly filed into points. The speech came across to the captain as a series of guttural croaks, and an odd set of clicks and a sibilant whistle. But Pausert was not surprised when the Leewit answered in the same fashion.

    “They say we’re for coming out and behaving ourselves. Guns are locked on to us. If they have to come and fetch us, we’re for eating alive. If we behave and answer their questions they’ll let us die first. I said we weren’t for eating.”

    The speaker appeared to be having trouble swallowing that one. It took it a good few moments before it spoke.

    “It says all life is food. What shall I tell it?”

    “Say we’ll give it indigestion,” said Pausert. “Tell it would be very wise to help us fix the damage it did to our ship and let us go.”

    There was a longer pause. Then another burst of croaks and clicks. “It wants to know how we know the holy language. And it says we’re for coming out now because they will start opening the ship up with lasers if we don’t. What do we do, Captain?”

    Pausert took a deep breath. “Go out, I reckon. If they open up with those space-cannon, they can cut the old Venture’s hull open like paper.”

    “And then?”

    “I wish I knew. But we’ll work it out. We have to,” said Pausert with a confidence he did not feel. He could protect them all with the klatha force cocoon that he’d learned to make, except he’d also have to remain at liberty to free them later. But it was plain the Megair Cannibals wanted them alive at least at the moment. They wanted to ask them questions. Well, Pausert had a few himself. And he still had a few tricks up his sleeve. His gambler’s instinct said that going out of the Venture was dangerous, but less dangerous than staying here would be. “Tell them we’re coming. Tell them the ship is booby trapped, and to leave it alone. And then let’s go.”

    So they collected the very nervous Mebeckey, and the less nervous Vezzarn. “What about the other young lady?” asked Mebeckey.

    “Gone back where she came from,” said Pausert.

    “Ah.” Mebeckey looked relieved for a minute. “They’ll find her. We should have fought.”

    “You leave the decisions to me,” said Pausert, aware that something invisible had taken his hand. He gave it a brief squeeze. And he relled the baby vatch. Well, it would probably enjoy them being eaten. After all it described people by taste. He had a feeling that that didn’t mean quite the same thing to vatches, though.

    They opened the airlock and lowered the gang-way. Megair 4 was, if anything, more bleak and miserable in reality than it was on the viewscreens. That was quite an achievement, Pausert thought. The gray-skinned Cannibal squad that came across to the Venture at a dogtrot seemed unperturbed by it. Other than small leather loincloths and belts plainly intended for the weaponry that dangled from it, they wore nothing but a layer of wetness. They didn’t even seem to notice being wet, let alone the chill breeze. The bulbous things in their hands were plainly guns of some sort, Pausert decided.

    The lead gray-face spoke in their odd code of croaks.

    “What did he say? Come this way, we have a nice fire and hot drinks, while we fix your ship?” said Pausert, with an attempt at a smile.

    “He said ‘Meat, walk or be butchered’, ” said the Leewit

    “Nice people, the Megair Cannibals,” said Pausert sardonically.

    “Yeah. Can I whistle at him? Just a little? I’ve got one you can’t actually hear. Does some neat stuff.”

    “Save it for whoever sent him.”

    The Leewit wrapped her hand in his other one. He had a Karres witch on both sides, now. “You have some pretty good ideas sometimes, Captain,” she said.

    Escorted by the gray squad of Megair Cannibals, they walked across towards the pill-box studded hill. As they got closer, the squad leader gave a whistle of his own. A complicated one. It might have been less destructive than the Leewit’s, but it did make two massive doors set into the front of the hill slide open. They walked forward into the dim green-lit passage. “Cheerful looking place, isn’t it, Captain,” said Vezzarn, his sharp little eyes darting about, taking in details.

    The walls were a polished stone, smooth, but with regular panels of intricate carvings to shoulder height. Above that, the constructors seemed to have run out of patience and just roughly hewed it. “I’m surprised they don’t try and market it as a vacation destination,” said Pausert as they came to a halt in front of yet another massive door. The leader of the squad whistled again, with a slightly different series of notes.

    That door opened. Inside, on couches that looked as if they might be carved from stone, lounged several of the gray skinned ones — only these all wore collars of leather, ornamented with hanging bits of bone, spreading out onto their chests.

    The escort licked their sharp teeth and bowed their heads respectfully.

    The croak and whistle ensued.

    “He says the meat has been brought for the masters of devouring,” whispered the Leewit. “He says the little one is for his share.”

    “If he tries you can do as much whistling as you please,” said the captain quietly.

    One of those who lounged about looked rather like the one who had spoken to them earlier. He grunted something curtly that was plainly a dismissal.

    The squad leader paused briefly and snarled. And then hastily turned away, backed off to the doorway, and waited.

    The high Megair Cannibals stared at them, red-eyed and unblinking. Then one of them spoke imperiously.

    “What’s he say?” asked the captain.

    “He says they have waited to capture one of us kind for a long time. We’re for answering questions. He wants to know: Why are we keeping them from their prey?”


    The Megair Cannibal leader let loose with another collection of grunts and whistles and a small shriek.

    “He says they’re for examining our ship and finding out how we cannot be shot. He says he’s for driving us out of the Megair cluster. He says we’re for talking, spilling all our secrets. He says they’re for destroying us.”

    Pausert rubbed his forehead. “Great Patham! Has he ever got the wrong end of the stick. They must think we’re the one of the Phantoms. Tell him that, please.”

    The Leewit let loose with her own collection of grunts, whistles and shrieks. And got a reply that Pausert guessed the content of by the tone, even before the Leewit translated.

    “He’s not for believing us,” said the Leewit. “He says put us the fattening pens. They’re for examining the ship and finding our secret. And for dining on one of us tonight. Alive.”

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