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The Witches of Karres: Chapter Eleven

       Last updated: Sunday, February 15, 2004 22:38 EST



    "Well, we've learned one thing," the captain remarked grumpily. "The vatch evidently prefers us to stay in the ship...."

    Goth said that wasn't all. "Never knew there were that many cuss words!"

    He grunted. He was dry again but still more than a little fed up with the unmannerly ways of vatches. "You just forget what you heard!" he said. He looked at the desk chronometer. It was over an hour since the downpour outside had begun, and it was still going on, not with its original violence but as a steady, heavy rain. The ship's audio pickups registered intermittent rumbles of thunder; and the screens showed the Venture’s immediate vicinity transformed to a shallow lake. The captain's nostrils wrinkled briefly as if trying to catch an elusive scent.

    "You're sure you can't get even a trace of the thing?" he asked.

    Goth shook her head. "Far as I can make out, it's been gone pretty near an hour. Think you're relling something now?"

    The captain hesitated. "No," he said at last. "Not really. I just keep having a feeling-- Look, witch, it's getting late! Better run and get your sleep so you'll stay fresh. I'll sit up for another smoke. If that self-inflated cosmic clown does show up again, I'll let you know."

    "Self-inflated cosmic... pretty good!" Goth said admiringly, and slipped off to her cabin. The captain took out a cigarette and lit it, scowling absently at the screens. The door between the control room and the rest of the section was closed -- Hulik and Vezzarn had chosen to bunk up front on the floor tonight. What with the vatch's startling thunderstorm trick coming on top of everything else they'd experienced lately, he hadn't felt like suggesting they'd be more comfortable in their staterooms. On the other hand, the night still might provide events it would be better they didn't witness, if it could be avoided. He'd brought the strongbox enclosing the Manaret synergizer out of the vault with the ship's crane and set it down against the wall in the control room -- an act which probably had done nothing to help Vezzarn's peace of mind.

    There was something vatchy around. That was the word for it. Not the vatch but something that seemed to go with the vatch. He wasn't relling it. Goth figured his contacts with the vatch might have begun to develop some other perception. At any rate, he was receiving impressions of another kind here; and the impressions had kept getting more definite. The best description he could have given of them now would have been to say he was aware of a speck of blackness which seemed to be in a constant blur of internal motion.

    The muted growl of thunder came through the pickups again, and the captain reached over and shut them off, then extended the screens' horizontal focus outward by twenty miles. Except for fleecy wisps to the east, the skies of Karres were clear all about tonight -- once one had moved five or six miles away from the Venture. The inexhaustible bank of rain clouds the vatch had produced for them stayed centered directly overhead....

    The vatchy speck of blackness had begun to seem connected with that. The captain laid the cigarette aside, shifted the overhead screen to a point a little above the cloud level.... Around here?

    And there it was, he thought. Something he was neither seeing -- it couldn't be seen -- nor imagining, because it was there and quite real. It came closest to being a visual impression of a patch of blackness, irregular in outline and inwardly a swirling rush of multitudinous motion.

    Vatch stuff, left planted in the Karres sky after the vatch itself had gone. Not enough of it to excite the relling sensation. And what it was doing up there, of course, was to keep the rain clouds massed above the drenched Venture.... The captain found himself reaching towards it.

    That again seemed the only description for a basically indescribable action. It was a reaching-towards in which nothing moved. He stopped short of touching it. A sense of furious heat came from the swirling blackness. Power, he thought. Vatch power; plenty of it. Living klatha....

    He put pressure against the side of the living klatha. Move, he thought.

    It began to move sideways, gliding ahead of the pressure. The pressure kept up with it--

    The captain licked his lips, turned the horizontal screens back to close focus around the ship, picked up the cigarette and settled back in the chair, watching the steady, dark, downward rush of rain about them in the screens. The vatch device continued moving southwards. Now and then the captain glanced at the chronometer. After some nine minutes the rain suddenly lessened. Then it stopped. The night was clear and cloudless above the ship. But a quarter-mile away to the south, rain still poured on the slopes.

    He put out the cigarette and eased off the pressure on the vatch device. Stop there, he thought.... While it was drifting away from the ship he'd become aware of a second one around. There would be, of course. A much smaller one... it would be that, too, for the comparatively minor purpose it was serving--

    It took a couple of minutes to get it pinpointed -- down in the Venture’s engine room, a speck of unseeable blackness swirling silently and energetically above the thrust generators, ready to make sure that the Venture didn't go anywhere at present.



    A rock hung suspended in the clear night air of Karres, spinning and wobbling slowly like a top running down. It was a sizable rock -- the Venture could have been fitted comfortably into the hole it had left in the planet's surface when it soared up from it a minute or two before. And it was a sizable distance above that surface. About a mile and a half, the captain calculated, watching it in the screen.

    He let it turn end for end twice, bob up and down a little, then leap up another instant half-mile.

    There was a soft hiss of surprise from behind his shoulder.

    "What you doing?" Goth whispered.

    "Using some loose vatch energy I found hanging around," the captain said negligently. "The, vatch left it here to keep us pinned under that rainstorm...." He added, "Don't know how I'm doing it, but it works just fine! Like the rock to try anything in particular?"

    "Loop the loop," suggested Goth, staring fascinatedly into the screen.

    The rock flashed up and around in a smooth, majestic three-mile loop and stood steady in midair again -- steady as a rock.

    "Anything else?" he offered.

    "Can you do anything with it?"

    "Anything I've tried so far. Ask for a tough one!"

    Goth considered, glanced up at the little moon, high in the northern sky by now. "How about putting it on the other side of the moon?"

    "All right," said the captain. He clicked his tongue. "Wait a minute. We'd better not try that!"

    "Why not?"

    He glanced at her. "Because we don't know just what the vatch stuff can do -- and because the moon's scheduled to come crashing down on the pole some time in the future here. I'd hate to have it turn out that we were the ones who accidentally knocked it down!"

    "Patham!" exclaimed Goth, startled. "You're right! Give the rock a boost straight out into space then!"

    And the rock simply disappeared. "Guess it's out there and traveling," the captain said after a few seconds. "Plenty of power there, all right!" He chewed his lip, frowning. "Now I'll try something else...."

    Goth didn't inquire what. She looked on, eyes watchful, as he shifted the view back to the area immediately about the ship. A big tree stood on the rim of the rise to the north. He brought it into as sharp a focus as he could, sensed the vatch device move close to the tree as he did it. The device remained poised there, ready to act.

    He gave it a silent command, waited.

    But nothing happened. After half a minute he turned his attention to a small shrub not far from the tree. The patch of blackness slid promptly over to the shrub. As he began to repeat the command, the shrub vanished.

    Goth made a small exclamation beside him. "Time move?" she asked.

    "Yes," said the captain, not at all surprised she'd guessed his intention. He cleared his throat. "I'm very much afraid that won't do us any good, though."

    "Why not? Patham, if--"

    "Tried to move the big tree into the future first, and it didn't go. Just not enough power for that, I guess.... Let's try that medium-sized one nearer to us--"

    There wasn't enough vatch power around to move the medium-sized tree into the future either. The black patch did what it could. As the captain formulated the mental command, the tree was ripped from the ground. As it toppled over then, they could see the upper third of its crown had disappeared.

    The vatch device was of no use to them that way. Adding the speck on guard in the engine room to it would make no significant difference -- apparently shifting objects through time required vastly more power than moving the same objects about in space. What level of energy it would take to carry the Venture and her crew back to their own time was difficult to imagine....

    "Something might have gone wrong anyway," the captain said, not quite able to keep disappointment out of his voice. "We don't know enough about those things.... Better quit playing around now. I want to have everything back as it was before the vatch shows up again."

    He brought the unit of vatch energy as close to the ship as the viewscreens permitted first. At that distance both of them relled it. Goth's face became very intent for perhaps half a minute; he guessed she had all her klatha antennae out, probing for other indications. Then she shook her head. "Can't spot it!" she said. "Know it's there because it rells, that's all."

    Neither was there anything in her current equipment which would let her direct the energy about as the captain had been doing. That might require the ability to recognize it clearly as a prior condition. She hadn't heard of witches who did either, but that didn't mean there weren't any.

    The captain described its pseudo-appearance. Goth said the vatches themselves were supposed to be put together in much the same way. "Thought of anything else you can do with it yet?"

    He hadn't. "Somewhere along the line it might come in handy to know the stuff can be manipulated," he said. "Especially if the vatch doesn't suspect it." He shifted the screens, added, "Right now we'd better use it to get that cloud pack back before it drifts apart!"

    The thunderstorm, left to itself, had turned gradually on an easterly course; but the vatch device checked it and drew it back towards the Venture. Some minutes later they saw the wall of rain advancing on them in the viewscreen and shortly the ship was again enveloped in a steady downpour.

    It was an hour or so before dawn when the captain was aroused from an uneasy half-sleep on the couch by Goth's buzzer signaling an alert from the control desk. He relled vatch at once, glanced over at the open door to her cabin and coughed meaningfully. The buzzer sound stopped. He laid his head back on the cushions and tried to relax. It wasn't too easy. The vatch indications weren't strong, but the next moments might bring some unpredictable new shift in their situation.

    However, nothing happened immediately. The impressions remained faint, seemed to strengthen a trifle, then faded almost to the limits of perceptibility. Goth stayed quiet. The captain began to wonder whether he was still sensing the creature at all. Then suddenly it came close, seemed to move in a circle about them, drew away again. There was a brief, distant rumble of the wind-voice.

    It went on a while. The klatha entity hung around, moved off, returned again. The captain waited, puzzled and speculating. There was something undecided in its behavior, he thought presently. And perhaps a suggestion of querulous dissatisfaction in the occasional mutterings he picked up.

    He cleared his throat cautiously. The vatch hadn't addressed him directly since it realized something was preventing it from sensing his thoughts. It might suspect it was something he had done or assume there was a block of unknown type between them which also would keep him from understanding it. Possibly -- if it hadn't been able to work out a solution to the Worm World problem, which seemed indicated by the way it was acting -- it would be useful to reopen communication with it. But he'd have to try to avoid offending the monster, which apparently was easy enough to do with vatches. Under the circumstances, that probably would be disastrous now.

    He cleared his throat again. It seemed fairly close at the moment.

    "Vatch?" he said aloud.

    He had an impression that the vatch paused.

    "Vatch, can you hear me?"

    A vague faint rumble -- it might have been surprise or suspicion rather than a response to the question. Then gradually the vatch grew closer... very close, so that it seemed to loom like a mountain of formless blackness in the night above the ship, the rain washing through it. Once again the captain had the impression that from some point near the peak of that mountain two great, green, slitted eyes stared at him. And he became aware of something else... Goth's comment about the probable makeup of vatches was true. This gigantic thing seemed to consist of swirling torrents of black energy, pouring up and down through it, curved and intermingled as they slid past and about each other in tight patterns of endlessly changing intricacy. The scraps of vatch power it had left here on Karres to hold them secure during its absence might have been simply flecks of itself.

    "There is a way Moander can be destroyed," the captain told the looming blackness.

    The rumbling came again -- perhaps a stirring of annoyance, perhaps a muttered question.

    "You need only take us and this ship and the synergizer to the other Karres," the captain said. "To the Karres of Moander's time..."

    The vatch was silent now, staring. He went on. The witches on the other Karres had a way to break the power of the Worm World's ruler if they were given the synergizer. They had abilities and knowledge neither he nor anyone else on the ship at present possessed -- and that was what was required to beat Moander. Transferring them to that Karres would be the winning move, the way to end the long game--

    The blackness stirred. Vatch laughter exploded deafeningly about the captain, rolled and pealed. The ship shook with it. Then a great wind-rush, fading swiftly. The vatch was gone....

    Goth slipped out of her cabin as the captain swung around and stood up from the couch. "Don't know what good that did!" he said, rather breathlessly. "But we might see some action now!" He switched on the room lighting.

    Goth nodded, eyes big and dark. "Vatch is going to do something," she agreed. "Like to know what, though!"

    "So would I." He'd already made sure the Manaret synergizer's strongbox was still standing in its place against the wall. It had occurred to him he might have sold the vatch on the importance of getting that potent device to the Karres of their time without giving it enough reason to take them and the Venture along with the synergizer.

    Another thought came suddenly. "Say, we'd better look inside that box!"

    But when he opened the box, the synergizer was there. He locked it up again. Goth suggested, "Vatch might have gone to Karres-now first to figure out what they'd do with it if they got it!"

    "Yeah." The captain scratched his head. He hadn't much liked that wild gust of laughter with which the thing departed. Some vatchy notion had come to it while he was talking -- and about half its notions at least spelled big trouble! He checked the time, said, "We'll just have to wait and see. Night's about over...."

    They sat before the screens, watched the air lighten gradually through the steady rainfall, waited for the vatch to return and speculated about what it might be up to. "There've been times just recently, child," the captain observed, "when I've wished you were safely back on Karres with your parents and Maleen and the Leewit! May not be long now before we're all there."

    "Uh-huh. And if they're set to jump the Worm World, may not be so safe there either!" Goth remarked.

    "There's that."

    "Anyway," she said, "if I weren't keeping an eye on you, you'd likely as not be getting into trouble."

    "Might, I suppose," the captain agreed. He looked at the chronometer. "Getting hungry? Sitting here won't hurry up anything, and it's pretty close to breakfast time."

    "Could eat," Goth admitted and got out of her chair.

    They found their passenger and the crewman wrapped up in their blankets on the floor of the outer section of the control compartment, soundly asleep. Before settling down for the night, the do Eldel had brought sleep pills from her stateroom; and Vezzarn had asked for and received a portion. The captain felt the two might as well slumber on as long as they could, but they came groggily awake while he was preparing breakfast and accepted his invitation to come to table.

    They were halfway through breakfast when the Leewit arrived on the Venture....



    The captain and Goth had a few seconds' warning. He'd been wondering what he could say to their companions to prepare them for the moment when things suddenly would start happening again. It wasn't easy since he had no idea himself of just what might happen. They were both basically hardy souls though, and, with their backgrounds, must have been in sufficiently appalling situations before. Like Hulik, Vezzarn now appeared to be facing up stoically to the fact that he was caught in a witchcraft tangle where his usual skills couldn't help him much, which he couldn't really understand, and from which he might or might not emerge safely. The probability was that Vezzarn, as he'd sworn, wouldn't panic another time. He gave the captain a determinedly undaunted grin over his coffee, remarked that the viewscreens indicated the day would remain rainy, and asked what the skipper would like him to be doing around the ship the next few hours.

    As the captain was about to reply, he became aware of a sound. It seemed very far off and was a kind of droning, heavy sound, a steady humming, with bursts of other noises mixed in, which could barely be made out in the humming, but which made him think at once of the vatch. This commotion, whatever it was, was moving towards him with incredible speed. A glance at the faces of Hulik and Vezzarn, who sat at the table across from him, told the captain it was not the sort of sound physical ears could pick up; their expressions didn't change.

    He did not have time to look around at Goth, who'd left the table for a moment, and was somewhere in the room behind him. As distant as it seemed when he first caught it, the droning swelled enormously in an instant approaching the Venture’s control compartment in such a dead straight line that the captain felt himself duck involuntarily, as if to dodge something which couldn't possibly be dodged. The accompanying racket, increasing equally in volume, certainly was the vatch's bellowing wind-voice but with an odd quality the captain had never heard before. The notion flashed through his mind that the vatch sounded like a nearly spent runner, advancing in great leaps to keep ahead of some dire menace pressing close on his heels, while he gasped out his astonishment at being so pursued.

    Then the droning reached the control compartment -- and stopped, was wiped out, as it reached it. An icy pitch-blackness swept through the room and was gone. For a moment the captain had relled vatch overwhelmingly. But that was gone, too. Then he realized he could still hear the monster's agitated voice, now receding into distance as swiftly as it had approached. In an instant it faded completely away.

    As it faded, Goth said, "Captain!" from across the room behind him, and Hulik made a small, brief, squealing noise. Twisting about, half out of his chair, the captain froze again, staring at the Leewit.

    Toll's youngest daughter was on the floor in the center of the room, turning over and coming up on hands and knees. She stayed that way, blond hair tangled wildly, gray eyes glaring like those of a small, fierce animal, as her head turned quickly, first towards the captain, then towards Goth, hurrying towards her.

    "Touch-talk! Quick!" the Leewit's high child-voice said sharply, and Goth dropped to her knees next to her. The captain heard the scrape of chairs, quick footsteps, glanced back and saw Vezzarn and Hulik hastily leaving the compartment section, returned his attention to the witch sisters. Goth had pulled the Leewit around and was holding her against herself, right palm laid along the side of the Leewit's head, her other hand pressing the Leewit's palm against her own temple. They stayed that way for perhaps a minute. Then the Leewit's small shape seemed to sag. Goth let her down to the floor, drew a long breath, stood up.

    "Where did... is she going to be all right?" the captain inquired hoarsely.

    "Huh? Sure! That was Toll," Goth told him, blinking absently at the Leewit.


    "Holding on and talking through the Leewit." Goth tapped the side of her head. "Touch-talk! Told me a lot before she had to go back to Karres-now...." She glanced about, went to the stack of folded blankets used by Hulik and Vezzarn during the night, hauled them out of the comer and started pulling them apart. "Better help me get the Leewit wrapped in five, six of these before she comes to, Captain!"

    Joining her, the captain glanced at the Leewit. She was lying on one side now, eyes closed, knees drawn up. "Why wrap her in blankets?" he asked.

    "Spread them out like so.... Vatch took her over the Egger Route. She'll throw three fits when she first wakes up -- most everyone does! Route's pretty awful! Won't last long, but she'll be hard to hang on to if we don't have her wrapped."

    They laid the Leewit on the blankets, began rolling her up tightly in them. "Cover her head good!" Goth cautioned.

    "She won't be able to breathe--"

    "She isn't breathing now," Goth told him, with appalling unconcern. "Go ahead that's the way to do it!"

    By the time they were done, the bundled-up non-breathing Leewit looked unnervingly like a small mummy laid away for a thousand-year rest. They knelt on the floor at either end of her, Goth holding her shoulders, the captain gripping her wrapped ankles. "Can cut loose any time now!" Goth said, satisfied.

    "While we're waiting," said the captain, "what happened?"

    Goth shook her head. "First off, what's going to happen. The Leewit mustn't hear that because she can't block a vatch. They're coming for us. Don't know when they'll make it, but they'll be here."

    "Who's coming?"

    "Toll and the others. Whoever they can spare. Can't spare too many though, because they're already fighting the Worm Worlders. They're at the Tark Nembi place -- the Dead Suns Cluster, where I thought it might be -- trying to work through to Manaret. Right now Karres is stuck in a force-web tangle, with so many Nuri globes around you can't look into space from there--"

    It sounded like an alarming situation, but Goth said the witches had their new weapons going and figured they could make it. They'd had a plan to use the Manaret synergizer, which would have made their undertaking much less difficult; but time was running out, and they'd given up waiting for Olimy to arrive with the device or report his whereabouts. They had to assume he'd been trapped and was lost. But now that they knew what had happened, they were throwing everyone available on the problem of tracing out the Egger Route section the vatch had broken into the distant past. Toll still had a line on the Leewit, though a tenuous one, so they'd know exactly to what point to go. When they arrived, they'd reverse and take the Venture with everyone and everything on it back to Karres-now.

    "They can move the whole ship over the Route?"

    "Sure. Don't worry about that! You could move a sun over the Route except it'd nova before it got anywhere. If they get to us quick enough, that'll be it."

    "The vatch...."

    "Looks to me," Goth said, "like the vatch got the idea backwards. You said get the synergizer to the other Karres, to the witches that can use it. So instead it brought a Karres witch back to the synergizer."

    "The Leewit?" said the captain, astonished.

    "Can't figure that either yet!" Goth admitted. "Well, it's a vatch--"

    "What was the humming noise?"

    "That's the Route. Vatch punched it straight into the ship so it could drop the Leewit in with us."

    He grunted. "How did Toll do, uh, whatever she did?"

    Goth said no one had realized a giant-vatch was hanging around Karres-now until it scooped up the Leewit. With all the klatha forces boiling on and about the planet at the moment, the area was swarming with lesser vatches, attracted to the commotion; among them the giant remained unnoticed. But when the Leewit disappeared, Toll spotted it and instantly went after it. She'd got a hook into the vatch and a line on her daughter and was rapidly overhauling the vatch when it managed to jerk free.

    "I see," nodded the captain. Another time might be better to inquire what esoteric processes were involved in getting a hook into a giant-vatch and a line through time on one's daughter.

    "Toll didn't have enough hold on the Leewit then to do much good right away," Goth continued. "There was just time for the touch-talk before she got sucked back to Karres-now."

    "I suppose touch-talk's a kind of thought-swapping?"

    "Sort of, but--"

    The small blanket-wrapped form between them uttered a yowl that put the captain's hair on end. The next moment he was jerked forward almost on his face as the Leewit doubled up sharply, and he nearly lost his grip on her ankles. Then he found himself on his side on the floor, hanging on to something which twisted, wrenched, kicked, and rotated with incredible rapidity and vigor. The vocal din bursting from the blankets was no less incredible. Goth, lying across the Leewit with her arms locked around her, was being dragged about on the deck.

    Then the bundle suddenly went limp. There was still a good deal of noise coming from it; but those were the Leewit's normal shrieks of wrath, much muffled now.

    "Woo-ooof!" gasped Goth, relaxing her hold somewhat. "Rough one! She's all right now, though -- you can let go--"

    "Hope she hasn't hurt herself!" The captain was a little out of breath, too, more with surprise and apprehension than because of the effort he'd put out.

    Goth grinned. "Take more than that bit of bouncing around to hurt her, Captain!" She gave the blankets a big-sisterly hug, put her mouth down close to them, yelled "Quit your screeching -- it's me! I'm letting you out--"

    The captain found Vezzarn and Hulik in the passenger lounge, spoke soothingly if vaguely of new developments which might get them all out of trouble shortly, and returned to the control section hoping he'd left the two with the impression that the Leewit's mode of arrival and the subsequent uproar were events normal enough in his area of experience and nothing for them to worry about. They'd agreed very readily to remain in the lounge area for the time being.

    Goth and the Leewit were swapping recent experiences at a rapid-fire rate when he came back into the room. They still sat on the floor, surrounded by scattered blankets. "They got a klatha pool there now like you never saw before!" the Leewit was exclaiming. "They--" She caught sight of the captain and abruptly checked herself.

    "Don't have to watch it with him any more!" Goth assured her. "Captain knows all about that stuff now."

    "Huh!" When they'd loosened the blankets and the Leewit came eeling out, red faced and scowling, and discovered the captain there, her immediate inclination apparently had been to blame him for her experience, though she hadn't been aware of Toll's touch-talk conversation with Goth, in which Toll simply had used her as a handy medium -- switching her on for the purpose about like switching on a ship intercom, the captain had gathered. The Leewit, in fact, remembered nothing clearly since the moment she'd relled a giant-vatch and simultaneously felt the vast entity sweeping her away from Karres. She recalled, shudderingly, that she'd been over the Egger Route. She knew it had been a horrifying trip. But she could only guess uneasily now at what had made it so horrifying. That blurring of details was a frequent experience of those who came over the Route and one of its most disturbing features. Since it was the captain who'd directed the vatch's attention to Karres in the first place, the Leewit wasn't so far off, of course, in feeling he was responsible for her kidnapping. However, nobody mentioned that to her.

    The look she gave him as he squatted down on his heels beside the sisters might have been short of full approval, but she remarked only, "Learned mighty quick if you know all about it!"

    "Not all about it, midget," the captain said soothingly. "But it looks like I've started to learn. One thing I can't figure at the moment is that vatch."

    "What about the vatch?" asked Goth.

    "Well, I had the impression that after it dropped the Leewit here, it took off at top speed -- as if it were scared Toll might catch up with it."

    The Leewit gave him a surprised stare.

    "It was scared Toll would catch up with it!" she said.

    "But it's a giant-vatch!" said the captain.

    The Leewit appeared puzzled. Goth rubbed the tip of her nose and remarked, "Captain, if I were a giant-vatch and Toll got mad at me, I'd be going somewhere fast, too!"

    "Sure would!" the Leewit agreed. "No telling what'd happen! She'd short out its innards, likely!"

    "Pull it inside out by chunks!" added Goth.

    "Oh?" said the captain, startled. "I didn't realize that, uh, sort of thing could be done."

    "Well, not by many," Goth acknowledged. "Toll sure can do it!"

    "Got a fast way with vatches when her temper's up!" the Leewit nodded.

    "Hmm," said the captain. He reflected. "Then maybe we're rid of the thing, eh?"

    Goth looked doubtful. "Wouldn't say that, Captain. They're mighty stubborn. Likely it'll come sneaking back pretty soon to see if Toll's still around. Could be too nervous about it to do much for a while though."

    She regarded the Leewit's snarled blond mop critically. "Let's go get your hair combed out," she said. "You're kind of a mess!"

    They went into Goth's cabin. The captain wandered back towards the screens, settled into the control chair, rubbed his jaw, relled experimentally. Nothing in range -- but they probably hadn't lost the vatch yet. He'd been wondering about the urgent haste with which it had seemed to pass here when pursued by only one angry witch mother. Klatha hooks... shorting out vatch innards.... He shook his head. Well, Toll was a redoubtable sorceress even among her peers, from all he'd heard.

    Klatha hooks--

    The captain knuckled his jaw some more. No way of knowing when the Egger Route would come droning awesomely up again, this time bringing a troop of witches to transport the Manaret synergizer, the Venture and themselves to the embattled Karres of more than three hundred thousand years in the future. It might be minutes, hours, or days, apparently. There was no way of knowing either when the vatch would start to get over being nervous and discover there was no hot-tempered witch mother around at present--

    The captain grunted, shifted attention mentally down to the Venture’s engine room, to the thrust generators. Almost immediately an awareness came of the tiny, swirling speck of blackness there which couldn't be seen with physical eyes... the minute scrap of vatch stuff that carried enough energy in itself to hold the ship's drives paralyzed.

    What immaterial manner of thing, he thought, would be a klatha hook shaped to snag that immaterial fragment of vatch?

    Brief wash of heat.... The speck jumped, stood still again, its insides whirling agitatedly. The captain pulled in some fashion, felt something tighten between them like the finest of threads, grow taut.

    So that was a klatha hook!... He let out his breath, drew on the hook, brought the speck in steadily with it until it was swirling above the control desk a few feet away from him.

    Stay there, he thought, and released the hook. The speck stayed where it was. As close to it as this, he could rell its vatch essence, though faintly. He flicked another klatha snag to it, drew it closer, released it again....

    Hooks, it seemed, he could do. He might also find he was able to short out the speck's innards if he made the attempt. But there was no immediate point in that. The speck was a tool with powers and limitations, a working device, a miniature vatch machine. He'd already discovered some of the ways such a machine could be made to operate. What else could it do that might be useful to know... perhaps might become very necessary to know about?

    The captain stared at the speck in scowling concentration, half aware Goth and the Leewit had left the cabin. He could hear them talking in the outer control section, voices lowered and intent.... Turn it inside out, in chunks? That might wreck it as a device. But since it was non-material vatch stuff, it might not.

    There was a pipe in one of the drawers in his cabin, an old favorite of more leisurely days, though he hadn't smoked it much since the beginning of the Chaladoor trip. He brought an image of it now before his mind, pictured it lying on the control desk before him, turned his attention back to the vatch speck.

    Just enough of you to do the job!... Get it!

    Out of the speck, with the thought, popped a lesser speck, so tiny it could produce no impression at all except an awareness that it was there. It hung beside the other for an instant, then was gone, and was back. The pipe lay on the desk.

    So they could be taken apart in chunks and the chunks still put to work! Now--

    "...not sure!" The Leewit's young voice trilled suddenly through his abstraction. "Yes, I do, just barely.... Stinkin' thing!"

    The captain glanced around hastily at the open door. Were they relling the vatch speck in here? It would do no harm, of course, if Goth knew about his new line of experimentation. But the Leewit--

    Then he stiffened. Together! he thought at the two specks. The lesser one flicked back inside the other. Back down where you -- but the reassembled vatch speck was swirling again above the thrust generators in the engine room before the thought was completed. He drew his attention quickly away from it.

    "Captain?" Goth called from the outer room.

    "Yes -- I'm getting it, Goth!" His voice hadn't been too steady.

    The giant-vatch was barely in range, the relling sensation so distantly faint it had been overlapped by the one produced by the vatch-speck immediately before him. The entity had returned, might be prowling around cautiously as Goth had expected, to avoid another encounter with Toll and with klatha hooks of an order to match its own hugeness. But he had been careless -- it wouldn't do at all to have the vatch surprise him while he was tinkering with the devices it had stationed here.

    It drew closer gradually. The witch sisters remained silent. So did the captain. He began to get impressions of vatch-muttering, indistinct and intermittent. It did seem to be trying to size up the situation here now, might grow bolder as it became convinced it had lost its pursuer--

    Why had it brought the Leewit through time to the Venture? She was a capable witch-moppet when it came to producing whistles that shattered shatterable objects to instant dust. From what Goth had said, she also had blasts in her armory with an effect approximating a knock-out punch delivered by a mighty fist. Neither, however, seemed very useful in getting the Manaret synergizer back to Manaret, past Moander, the Nuris, and the dense tangles of energy barriers that guarded the Worm World.

    The Leewit's other main talent then was a linguistic one, as the witches understood linguistics -- a built-in klatha ability to comprehend any spoken language she heard and translate and use it without effort or thought. And Moander, the monster-god of the Worm World legends, who was really a great robot, reputedly "spoke in a thousand tongues." Nobody seemed to know just what that meant; but conceivably the vatch knew. So conceivably the Leewit's linguistic talent was the vatch's reason for deciding to fit her into its plans to overthrow Moander through the captain.

    There was no way of trying to calculate the nature of those schemes or of the Leewit's role in them more specifically. The manner in which the vatch played its games seemed to be to manipulate its players into a critical situation which they could solve with a winning move if they used their resources and made no serious mistakes... and weren't too unlucky. But it gave them no clues to what must be done. If they failed, they were lost, and the vatch picked up other players. And since it was a capricious creature, one couldn't be sure it wouldn't on occasion deliberately maneuver players into a situation which couldn't possibly be solved, enjoying the drama of their desperate efforts to escape a foreseeable doom.

    The captain realized suddenly that he wasn't relling the vatch any more -- then that the control room was spinning slowly about him, turning misty and gray. He made an attempt to climb out of the chair and shout a warning to Goth; but by then the chair and the control room were no longer there and he was swirling away, faster and faster, turning and rolling helplessly through endless grayness, while rollicking vatch laughter seemed to echo distantly about him.

    That faded, too, and for a while there was nothing--

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