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The Wizard of Karres: Chapter Three

       Last updated: Tuesday, January 6, 2004 00:03 EST



    A full platoon of Imperial Marines were busy with the search. They were being impeded at full volume by the Leewit. The Marines did not know quite how to deal with this miniature empress. In a lacy girl’s party-dress, the Leewit looked to be a little blonde girl of somewhere between three and four. With her stuffed fluffy stiff-legged toy puppy under one arm, she stood in the center of the cabin and berated them at the top of her voice. How dare they make such a mess of her room!

    Her nursemaid was stooped over, as she had been since the Marines entered, trying to put everything in order. She was a skinny old woman with sharp features, wearing a baggy ship’s suit. Her head was covered in something like a turban, even her ears and eyebrows. If any of the Marines had noticed something oddly young-looking about the nursemaid’s very large, grass-green eyes, the ruckus being caused by the Leewit had distracted their attention.

    Commodore Fleser looked at the carnage. He turned to the saluting Sergeant. “What happened here?” he demanded.

    The NCO gestured helplessly. “Honest, Sir, I don’t know. It was like this when we came in, I swear.”

    “Was not!” squealed the Leewit. Her accusing finger swept across the squad of Marines. “They did it!”

    “My best stateroom!” bellowed Pausert. “There is going to be trouble about this! I gave you permission to search, not destroy the place.”

    “We have to find the criminal and the witch. We will take whatever steps we need to!” But even Fleser looked a bit aghast at the paint-splattered walls and the tumbled furniture.

    “And I will lodge an official complaint with Duke Abelisson, be sure of it. Another one.” Pausert scowled ferociously. “Miss Seltzer, take the young lady into the empty stateroom next door. You have finished with that one, Sergeant?”

    “Er. Yessir.”

    “One moment,” said the bulldog-faced Fleser. “These people...” He pointed to the Leewit, with her stuffed toy, and the nursemaid. Pausert just hoped he didn’t put a hand on them. Goth’s light-shift illusions didn’t stand up to touch. “They are not listed by the officials at Green Galaine. Who are they?”

    Captain Pausert looked at the Sergeant and his Marines. “I will explain, Commodore. But confidentially, please. It is an Imperial matter.”

    The Commodore drew himself up. “I am an officer of the Imperial Space Navy, Sir. You can trust me.”

    “Good,” said Pausert cheerfully. “Then I’ll reserve it for your ears only. Sergeant, escort Miss Seltzer and her charge next door, please.”

    To his horror he began to rell vatch again. “Vatcherly there is a good explanation,” he added. Goth, cloaked in no-shape, would rell the vatch also. But Hantis might not be able to. Best give her some warning that mischief was around.

    All but the Commodore and one rather slimy-looking individual in plain black coveralls left.



    Pausert looked questioningly at the man. “And you are?”

    “This is Micher,” said the Commodore. “Imperial Interservice Security.”

    “Ah. Now I understand.” Pausert’s tone was decidedly frosty. “What I have to say is not for his ears, Commodore.”

    “This is my assignment,” said the ISS man, in a rather whiny voice. Pausert knew the type. A bully to those below him and a bootlicker to those above. There was something odd about him, though. Pausert couldn’t quite put his finger on it, but the man gave him an uneasy feeling.

    “I have orders from the regional chief of Imperial security about this, Commodore,” said Pausert firmly. “Goodbye, Micher.”

    Micher blinked. “But my orders...”

    The Commodore propelled him firmly out of the door and closed it. “Now, what is this about, Pausert? Whatever it is, the ISS is not going to like it.” His expression made clear his own low opinion of the ISS. Fleser was an officer in Imperial service, and thus had to put up with them. Yet, here was Pausert, ostensibly on Imperial service himself, chasing them away. The Commodore was plainly fascinated by such apparently contradictory behavior.

    Pausert glanced uneasily at the door. “This is strictly between ourselves, Commodore. A very important Imperial lady’s honor hangs on it.”

    Now the Commodore’s curiosity looked about ready to sit up and beg. “Of course. You can trust me.”

    Pausert did his best to look even more uneasy. It wasn’t hard. “Ask yourself just how a nursemaid and a child could get onto a ship in Green Galaine without being on any passenger list, Commodore. Without being observed by security cameras. In total secret. Just who has the influence to do that?”

    It was the Commodore’s turn to look uneasy. “Something like that could be organized, Captain. But not to keep it secret from the ISS. They have agents everywhere.”

    Pausert bit his lip and said nothing. Just raised his eyebrows and drew the Charter and Seal of Haile out of his pouch. Tapped it meaningfully.

    The Commodore’s mouth fell open. “You mean...”

    “The ISS doesn’t handle quite everything. The royal family’s security is handled by... But I never said a word, Commodore Fleser. And if you take my advice, you won’t either. The little girl is very imperious, though, isn’t she?”

    He smiled, allowing the Commodore to put his own interpretation on that smile. “The ISS is very jealous about the situation. Speaking personally, I’d be quite happy to hand the whole thing over to them. The girl’s a little monster, frankly. I don’t doubt for an instant that your Marines were just grossly slandered.”

    He drew himself up stiffly. “However, that’s not my decision—nor yours—and duty is what it is. But that’s what this is all about, Commodore. Not some hogwash about mythical witches of Karres and criminals. The ISS is trying to cause embarrassment within—”

    A pregnant pause, here, designed to make the Commodore even more uneasy. “—certain quarters.”

    Someone knocked, and then entered the stateroom without waiting for a reply. It was the security agent. His moist eyes were alive with suspicion. “A message for you, Commodore. The Chief Engineer from the Malorn has come across. He insists on seeing you.” The ISS agent looked as if he would have liked to kiss the engineer. “He’s waiting. Won’t let me pass the message on.”

    As he spoke, the burly engineer gave up waiting and came in anyway. “Commodore, the Malorn’s air-recycler is not working,” he said bluntly.

    Even Captain Pausert was stunned by this news. Air recyclers never failed. Never. They were the most reliable piece of equipment on any ship. Without them, space-travel would be impossible.

    The Commodore looked as if someone had kicked his legs out from under him. All the bulldoggy bluster was gone in an instant. “Can you fix it?” he asked.

    The Chief Engineer looked at him gloomily. “It’s mostly solid-state engineering, Sir. That’s why they don’t go wrong. I’ve got my men busy stripping what can be stripped. But we can’t get to a lot of it.” He took off his cap and ran fingers through close-cropped gray hair. “The auxiliary plant is running, sir. But you know that only gives us thirty-six hours.”

    At least they had a standby of some sort, thought Pausert. But of course military craft did have, in case of combat-damage. The Venture didn’t.

    “Suit-bottles,” he said, thinking back to his own military training with the Nikkeldepain Space Navy. “You’ve got marines on board. They must have air-cylinders. At least a couple of hours each. And the other cruisers must have the same.”

    The engineer looked gratefully at him. “I hadn’t thought of that. We could transfer all but a skeleton crew to the other ships too.”

    The Commodore nodded. “We’re still six days from base. We’ll have to move. Sergeant Harris!” he bellowed.

    The Sergeant came at a run, Blythe rifle at the ready. “Sir.” He took in the scene and realized that he wasn’t being called to arrest anyone, or shoot it out with a dangerous criminal. He lowered the barrel of the rifle.

    “Round up your men and get them back onto the Malorn. At the double.”

    “But the search!” protested the ISS man. “The witches must have done this.”

    “That’s enough of that rubbish!” snapped the Commodore. “Move, Micher, before I leave you behind. I’m not abandoning my new command for the ISS’s bit of spite. Besides, if these so-called witches can put my air recycler out of order, then I certainly don’t want to fight with them.”

    Unfortunately, the sergeant had left open the door leading to the next cabin. As they passed by in the corridor, Pausert got another scent of sunlight and the sound of violets. He glanced in and saw that the little vatch was here—and was playing lightshift with the Leewit’s head. Making it look like she was wearing an Imperial crown...

    Even more unfortunately, the Commodore had glanced through the floor also. Fleser stopped in his tracks.

    “That enough fooling around, my little lady!” said Pausert sternly. He shouldered the Commodore aside and stalked into the cabin, obscuring Fleser’s view. “That thing is supposed to stay out of sight.”

    Pausert readied his klatha hooks for the little brute. Even if he couldn’t catch it, he could maybe squelch it long enough...

    Behind him, he heard the Commodore mutter something. It sounded like “—glad I don’t have to deal with the spoiled—” Fleser’s heavy footsteps led away down the corridor.

    Pausert sighed with relief. Alas, his klatha hooks once again seemed to be able to nothing worse than reduce the little vatch to giggles.

    A few moments later the outer locks clanged. When Captain Pausert arrived back in the control room, the communicator beebled insistently.

    The Commodore’s red face was glaring at him. “Damnation, Pausert. Can you deflect your guns?”

    “Oh. Yes, certainly. Good luck, Commodore.”

    After Pausert deflected the guns, he saw that the vatchy patch of darkness was now above the coffee dispenser in the control room.

    What was it going to do this time? He began the klatha-reach. It darted away.

    I’ve got to go, Big Dream Thing. But I’ll be back! Back… Baaaaaack…

    That was really not what he needed to hear. But at least he could see in the screens that the Imperial flotilla was receding. Quite rapidly, in fact.



    “I hope,” he said to the indentation on the couch, “that you’ll give them back their piece of air-recycler. That was cruel. I think you frightened the Commodore out of ten years of life. Being stuck in deep-space without air is enough to terrify anyone.”

    “I’ve teleported it back already. When they try it again it’ll be working. And it served them right. You told some awful fibs.”

    He tried to look innocent. “Just false suggestions. The Commodore fooled himself.”

    Goth laughed. “Just so long as the Leewit doesn’t find out she was supposed to have imperial blood. She’s already impossible!”

    “Just like that little vatch.” He grimaced. That had been a near thing. And the vatch hadn’t even been trying to create mischief. It had said it would be back; without a doubt it would return at the worst possible moment.

    Goth appeared out of no-shape. “They’re hunting for us pretty hard, Captain,” she said seriously.

    “Yes. It’s not what Threbus led to me expect.”

    “I guess this must be more important than they told us,” said Goth, biting a strand of hair.

    The captain took it gently out of her mouth. “I guess you’re right, girl. And I don’t like being kept in the dark.”

    The Leewit and the grik-dog trotted into the control room. Pul was looking even more sour-faced than usual.

    “My legs are still stiff,” growled the grik-dog. “Posture like that’s unnatural.”

    “You complain?” sneered the Leewit. “Try holding yourself up sometime, pretending you’re a third your real size. I’m the one had to do all the work. Fatso.”



    “That information,” said the Nartheby Sprite, making a small moue and wrinkling her foxy brows, “is available strictly on a need-to-know basis. And I don’t think you need to know, Captain.”

    “Well, I beg to disagree!” snapped Pausert. “And as the captain of this ship—”

    Pausert felt something close on his leg. Just firmly, but with a hint of immense unused strength. “Shall I gnaw his leg off, Hantis?” asked the grik-dog out of the corner of his mouth.

    “Do that and I’ll swing you around my head by your tail, Pul,” said Goth, crossly. “The captain has to know what he’s dealing with, Hantis. Even if you don’t tell him everything, you have to tell him something.”

    The Nartheby Sprite laughed musically, and twitched her long, pointed ears. “Very well. To save my Pul’s tail and the captain’s leg, I will tell you some of it. Not all of it, mind. I can’t. There is a mind-block so I don’t remember parts of it, and won’t until I speak to the Empress. It can’t even be tortured out me.”

    “We grik-dogs bite people who swing us by the tail,” gruffed Pul. He had, however, released the captain’s leg. And the look he gave Goth was a tad uneasy.

    “Let’s just have the story,” said the captain peaceably.

    “But it goes no further than you and Goth, understand? We don’t want to cause alarm and panic. That would serve them better than us.”

    “I give you my word.”

    “Very well.” She sat down, arranged her graceful legs, and began. “My kind are the last remnant of an old, old civilization. Nartheby is our home-world where almost all of our kind now live, but once we roamed widely, even to your Yarth itself. There are stories about our people visiting—although as you were a young and developing culture we largely left you alone. Then we were afflicted by a plague. It wrecked our culture, our colonies and our star-travel. We only saved ourselves by retreating to Nartheby and destroying any ships that came near our world, for a period of five centuries. Then it appeared that the danger was over. But the only Sprites that survived were on Nartheby.” She pinched her fine nostrils. “Now... The plague has resurfaced. It is spreading, fast, through the Empire.”

    Pausert and Goth stared at her. The captain was the first to find his tongue. “But... Surely we shouldn’t be keeping it a secret? We should be quarantining the infected areas.”

    Hantis had always seemed to be smiling. Now, as she shook her head, she just looked sad. “It’s not that kind of plague, Captain. That’s what we thought it was too, at first. It’s an invasion. The invaders are just very small. Although we’ve never determined their exact nature, they are at least partly klatha creatures and seem to have a collective mind. They attack the way a plague would, but they’re intelligent. They invade a host, breed billions of operatives, and then take over their hosts and control them. No quarantine can stop an intelligent disease.”

    “Does Karres know of this?” asked Goth.

    Hantis nodded. “Yes. That’s why they’ve gone into hiding. There are no Karres witches out in the Empire at all right now. Except those on this ship.”

    “But why?” demanded Pausert. “Why have they just run off and left us to deal with this?”

    Hantis shook her head. “They haven’t. But they have to be very careful. The Nanite-plague feeds on and uses klatha energy. Klatha energies are also the only way to fight them. That makes Karres and her witches the greatest danger in human space to the Nanites. They’ve been trying to get Karres destroyed. So Karres is preparing a number of defenses—but after the fight with the Worm World they’re pretty battered.”

    Goth nodded. “Threbus and Maleen both kind of hinted at this. So what is it you have to do, Hantis?”

    “Yes,” agreed Pausert. “Why is getting you to the Empress Haile so important?”

    “Because of Pul.”

    “Pul? Him?” Captain Pausert looked at the blue-furred animal with its impressive mouthful of teeth.

    Hantis patted the grik-dog affectionately. “Yes. Grik-dogs were bred to smell out Nanite exudates. Pul here can tell if someone has been infested. No Nartheby Sprite would ever consider leaving home without one.”

    “And I can tell you that ISS agent from the Imperial cruiser had been invaded and taken over,” growled Pul. “It was all I could do not to bite him.”

    “Grik-dog fangs can inject a venom which kills Nanites. Unfortunately it kills the host too, and also takes quite a long time.” Hantis looked even sadder.

    “Which means that anyone who is infected can’t be saved.” Pausert felt very cold, suddenly.

    “The Empress Haile is going on her procession through her territories and dependencies soon. We’ve learned—suspect, at least—that there is a Nanite plot designed to reach fruition when she returns to the Imperial capital. It is essential that Pul and I get there before that. Unfortunately, the Nanites have obviously taken over some of our own agents. They know who I am and where we are going. They will stop at nothing to prevent us from getting there.”

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