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The Wizard of Karres: Chapter Six

       Last updated: Tuesday, March 2, 2004 00:04 EST



    Above the twisted, truncated cone of black wires, a ball of orange fire danced. Captain Pausert looked intently at it, wishing, not for the first time, that generating it was one of his klatha powers. But his klatha abilities had been slowly developing, growing and changing, almost as he’d needed them. Perhaps one of these days he would draw this skill from inside his mind too. Squinting with concentration, he looked at the “Sheewash drive” on the floor between the two young Karres witches. The pattern almost made sense. Almost...

    The wires fell inwards, and the ball of fire winked out. Goth pushed back her brown fringe and blinked tiredly at him. “What’s up, Captain?”

    “Came to see how you were doing,” said Pausert carefully. He didn’t want his worry to upset them.

    The Leewit scowled fiercely. “We’re not! It feels like we’re pushing this crate through clumping toffee.”

    Goth nodded. “It’s not like anything we’ve encountered before, Captain. It’s as if the Venture was as big as a dreadnaught. She just seems to be dragging a whole weight of klatha force.”

    Pausert checked the readings. “So it seems. We’re doing about twice our normal drive speed, but nothing like the velocity we’ve gotten under the Sheewash drive before. I wonder what’s wrong.”

    “You aren’t feeding us enough,” said the Leewit grumpily. “I need breakfast.”

    Pausert waved at the door. “It’s waiting for you.”

    “How is the oxygen supply holding out, Captain?” asked Goth, getting slowly to her feet. That wasn’t like Goth. She was normally as lithe and springy as a jungle-miffel.

    Pausert shrugged. “We’ve done what we can to the lock. But the seals are damaged beyond repair. They’ll have to be replaced. So we have another thirty hours or so. We should make it at this rate... but not with a lot to spare.”



    The Sheewash drive had brought them this far. Far, far from the pursuit in the crowded space of the Alpha Dendi Cluster. Goth and the Leewit had taken three bursts at it, but the two little witches were exhausted. The Leewit had actually fallen asleep during the last session, which seemed to have severely sapped Goth.

    But now, even if Goth and the Leewit had been in a fit state to do it, they could go no closer to planetfall without advertising the Sheewash drive. They really didn’t need to show that ability to all and sundry in this region of the spiral arm. So, despite the leaking airlock, they would have to proceed by more conventional means. Of course, that meant that those who followed by the leech’s signals would be able to get on their trail again. Pausert just hoped he’d have a chance to find and detach the device on their next planetfall, on the world of Pidoon. If they could get in, do repairs, fuel up, get rid of the leech and head out before the pirates caught up with them, they’d show them all a clean pair of heels.



    Pidoon was a busy trading hub, with a number of landing ports set into its rolling plains, in fierce competition with each other. The planet didn’t have a lot to offer except for being conveniently on the way to everywhere, and having a good supply of raw materials for rocket-fuel manufacture. It was a sort of filling-station and trading-depot.

    Hulik, Goth and the captain peered at the map on the screen. Hulik pointed. “If we land here at Gerota Town... it’s just big enough to justify a single ISS operative. He or she will be a no-hoper farmed out somewhere they can’t do too much harm. The major cities will have dozens of operatives, and one of the smaller places is more likely to be watched. Here we’d just have one to deal with.”

    “It’s a popular choice for that reason, Sir,” Vezzarn said wryly. “I went there, twice, when... my former boss wanted more information on one of the smuggling routes. It’s a small city, with nothing but a lot of prairie for a thousand miles all round it. The customs officials are so sleepy, they put pillows on their desks.”

    “Sounds good to me, eh, Goth?”

    Goth wrinkled her forehead. She should have been asleep, Pausert knew. But something was plainly troubling her. “I wish we had someone who could premote,” she said uneasily.

    “I wish we didn’t have to land at all, but we’ve got to.” Pausert pointed at the fuel-readout, which was distressingly close to empty. “I’m afraid we’re quite low on choices around here.”

    Now he pointed to the display charts. “Within range before we run out of recyclable air... There’s Pidoon, or there’s the Dictat of Telmar—and every second person there is supposed to be a spy. Or, right on the edge of our fuel range, never mind air, Imperial sector headquarters. Pidoon does so well because this sector of space is quite empty of habitable worlds.”

    “What about this one?” Goth pointed to the chart and a beacon number right on the margin. It was out of their way, but within range.

    The captain called up the starmap. There was just one habitable world on that beacon, in among a cluster of red dwarfs and dead suns. “Vaudevillia,” he read.

    Hulik began to chuckle.

    “What’s so funny?” asked Vezzarn, who had stepped across to check some readouts.

    “They were suggesting going to Vaudevillia,” said Hulik, trying to smother her laughter.

    Vezzarn grinned. “Your home, this Nikkeldepain place, is pretty far away, eh, Captain?”

    “I threatened to run away to Vaudevillia when I was ten,” said Hulik. “It’s the circus-world, Captain Pausert. All the old showboats go there.”

    Pausert blinked. Just one of the fabulous lattice ship showboats had ever come to Nikkeldepain in his youth. He could still remember it clearly, however. It had seemed so bright and so wild and exciting compared to life on stuffy Nikkeldepain. He’d thought of running away to join the show himself. The Nikkeldepain Council had turned down the next one’s landing permit. Apparently a number of councilors had lost quite a lot of money when the first one had abruptly departed.

    Vezzarn grimaced. “Especially when they’re broke. No port charges—because there is no proper port. Mind you, it’s a bad place to try to buy fuel, Captain. Cash money only, and at a twenty-five percent premium. The fuel-sellers have had so many bad debts, they won’t provide fuel on any other terms. It sounds very romantic to kids, but believe me, Captain, it’s a dump. It’s barely habitable. Can’t even grow its own food. And it rains non-stop.”

    The captain looked at Goth, who was looking very speculative. “Well, we’re not going there. And we don’t need to tell the Leewit about this place, do we? Let’s stick to Pidoon and this Gerota Town.”

    Goth shrugged. “I’m too tired. But it doesn’t feel right.”



    Gerota Town was seedy and run-down. “Not the kind of place you’d want to buy a used flyer in,” said Vezzarn with a sly grin.

    The captain looked at the shabby sprawl of two and three story buildings that stretched out toward flat horizon. “It’s a whistle-stop for us. So long as the fuel is okay and we can find that leech, and do some repairs on the airlock... within the day we should be out of here.”

    They soon found out that this was not to be the case. The fuel available in Gerota Town was empire standard. But...

    “Captain Pausert, could you please come across to our offices?” asked the elegantly coiffured, platinum-blond secretary of Pidoon Fuels and Lubricants. There was a faint furrow between her brows, and her tone was quite unlike her earlier obsequious one.

    Goth looked tiredly at the captain and rubbed her nose tip. “Feels like trouble, Captain.”

    “Probably papers that need filling in.”

    “I don’t think so,” said Goth, rubbing her eyes now. “I’ll go with you.”

    “You’re exhausted. I’ll take the Leewit. She slept the last bit.”

    Goth nodded.



    Ten minutes later, Captain Pausert and his tow-headed “niece” walked towards the cluster of offices at Port Control. Above them, the sky was a cloudless and chilly blue. Their reception in the offices of Pidoon Fuels and Lubricants was even colder.

    The secretary ushered them in to a sumptuous office. From behind the flamewood desk a man with a baggy face glowered at them. He didn’t bother to stand up. “Captain Pausert, there seems to be some problem with your banking account.”

    Pausert leaned over the half-acre of flamewood desk. “I happen to know that account is at least a half million maels in the black, Sir. If you don’t want our business, we’ll take it elsewhere.”

    “Not on Pidoon you won’t,” said the jowl-faced executive, grimly. “We’ve already put out a credit warning to the other companies, in case you took off and put in a landing elsewhere.”

    “But we’re very solvent!”

    Jowl-face leaned back in his formfit chair. It groaned quietly in protest. “Oh, you’ve got the money all right. But your account is blocked. You can’t draw as much as a single mael of those ill-gotten gains.”

    Pausert gaped. “Ill-gotten gains?”

    “Don’t try to come the innocent with us, Captain Pausert.” Jowl-face smirked triumphantly, cocking his head, hearing something outside. It sounded suspiciously like the squeal of ground-car tires. “The ISS informed the Pidoon police of your nefarious crimes. We were told to delay you here as long as possible. I have electronically locked the door and I have a blaster here.” He raised a Glassite 366 from beneath the desk. “Don’t even think of attempting to escape.”

    There were shouts outside. “That’ll be the troopers now.”

    The Leewit gave an earsplitting whistle, just as someone pounded on the outer door yelling, “Open up in the name of the law!”

    An entirely satisfactory shattering of glass and small electronic components followed that whistle. Jowl-face, looking in alarm at the trickle of dust flowing from where his blaster’s trigger mechanism had been just moments before, pressed a remote door-key frantically. Smoke curled up from the button.

    “Haveta break it down, Sergeant!” bellowed the voice outside.

    Pausert realized just how right Goth’s feelings had been. The captain hauled the jowled executive out of his seat. “Is there another way out?” he demanded.

    The man had gone from unpleasant triumph to quivering terror, since he’d discovered that he was trapped—and now disarmed—in here with the two of them. He had a lot of jaw to tremble. It made his speech unintelligible, but they could follow the shaking pointed finger to the door beside the cabinets. While the shoulders of Pidoon’s finest pounded against the manager’s office door, Pausert and the Leewit crammed their way out of the bathroom window.

    It was only after the captain had landed awkwardly on his feet that he realized that the Leewit wasn’t whistling or calling a warning because she was too busy biting an oversized uniformed man’s hand. And there were ten more of them in the alleyway.



    Bruised, with a swelling eye and a bloody nose, gagged and with his hands forcecuffed, the captain sat between two huge guards in the back of the groundcar. He’d seen the Leewit, similarly gagged and forcecuffed, dragged kicking into the second vehicle. They seemed to be heading out across the landing field back toward the Venture.

    The two vehicles pulled up beside the Venture, along with a third transporter which was painted in the colors of the Imperial Customs and Immigration inspectorate. One seldom had trouble with them deep inside the Empire, but their orange and gray vehicles always inspired caution.

    The Pidoon troopers threw open the doors of the groundcars and pushed the prisoners out. “March them in front of us,” snapped the customs official. “The Agandar’s accomplices are desperate men, but they’re not likely to shoot his chief lieutenant.”

    Clearly, Imperial Interservice Security had woven quite a net of lies around them. The Leewit’s eyes were as wide with outrage as Pausert felt his mouth would like to be, if he hadn’t been gagged. He noticed that the troopers, while making the Leewit into a very small human shield, were being extremely careful to keep their shins away from her.

    Obviously, someone in the Venture was watching. The damaged airlock opened.

    “That’s spacegun damage,” said one of the customs men, pointing to the ragged burn in the hull-metal. “This is the ship we’re after, all right!”

    They paused, waiting for the ramp to finish extending. “Better keep her out here,” snapped one official, pointing at the Leewit. “We don’t want to end up as captives and hostages on their ship.”

    The Leewit managed to kick two of the policemen and very nearly squirmed free. But she was pushed back into one of the groundcars, and Pausert had to continue into the Venture without her.

    They were met by Goth, Hulik and Vezzarn. The captain’s heart fell when he saw Goth. He’d been hoping she’d have hidden in no-shape

    “What is going on, Sirs?” asked Hulik.

    “We’re acting on information received,” said the Customs official who seemed to be in charge. “Seize them. We need to conduct a thorough search for the other two.”

    “You can’t do this!” protested Hulik. “We have rights! And this ship is acting under charter from the Empress Hailie!”

    The official tapped the folder under his arm. “Your little fraud has gone on long enough. We have information that this ship was involved in setting up an ambush of an Imperial patrol in the Alpha Dendi system, as part of the pirate fleet of the infamous Agandar.”

    “Honest, officer, we had nothing to do with that,” said Vezzarn. “It was an accident. We were just caught up in the middle of it and got our ship damaged. Look at our crew, sir. No desperados. A couple of children, a young woman and me. I’m just an old spacer, Sirs. Not a pirate.”

    “Shut your gab,” snapped the official. “Forcecuff these people’s hands and search the ship. Bring them with us. I want to observe them closely for any possible reactions. I want every conceivable place searched and all personnel seized.”

    The customs man, in his orange and gray uniform, saluted smartly as his men hastily grabbed Goth, Vezzarn, and Hulik do Eldel. “Yessir! This will put Gerota Town on the map! This is our lucky day!”

    Captain Pausert’s heart sank closer to his boots. This certainly wasn’t his lucky day. No matter what shape change Goth had managed on Pul and Hantis... they’d be hauled out of here. If only he could talk to Goth.

    They were shepherded along the Venture’s passages, as the customs men displayed their expertise. They inspected absolutely everything, vibro-sensors probing the walls for hidden chambers, the officers peering everywhere, even into drawers too small to hide an infant, let alone a person. At length they came to the stateroom which the Nartheby Sprite had occupied with her grik-dog. There was no sign of either Hantis or Pul. But the customs men began with searching under the beds, chairs and cupboards.

    Something, the captain felt, was odd about this room.

    It was only when he glanced upwards that he realized what it was. The elegant central light-fittings were off-center. The room was not quite the right shape! Goth must be creating an illusionary bulkhead. Pausert did his level best not to look at the wall. But what would it help? Goth’s illusions could fool the eye, but the vibro-sensors in the custom inspectors’ hands would see right through them, so to speak.

    The inspectors began on the first wall.

    When they reached the end of it, Pausert saw Goth calmly nudge Hulik. The do Eldel stepped with all her weight on one spike-heeled foot... onto the toes of the obnoxious customs-officer.

    Hulik do Eldel was a slimly-built aristocratic-looking woman. It was still a lot of weight to concentrate on one small square half-inch of heel.

    “Yow!” The customs officer yelled and pushed her off.

    Hulik’s look of surprise and her apology were masterful. “I am so sorry, Sir! It’s these heels. I was just getting ready to disembark, and after wearing ship boots for weeks... I just lost my balance. I really am sorry. I do hope your foot is all right?” With a performance like that, if Hulik had actually run away to that showboat planet, she’d have been the queen of the galactic stage by now.

    Naturally all the customs officials and police officers had turned to look. Facing as he was, Pausert had to keep a poker-face as the wall they’d been about examine... appeared to slide around to the wall that they had just finished with.

    “You did that on purpose!” grumbled the Customs officer, massaging his foot through his polished shoe. “You won’t distract us! Check that next wall carefully.”

    They did. Very carefully. Eventually they finished and began on the next. And to his absolute horror, Captain Pausert began to rell vatch.

    Little silver slit-eyes and vatch laughter.

    Troubles never came singly.

    He could see Goth knew about it too.

    The illusionary bulkhead began to develop a window. None of the Customs officials were looking at it just then, concentrating their attentions on the opposite wall. But they would be sure to turn any moment now. And the window in the illusion revealed the startled face of Hantis, with Pul in her arms. It was a charming cottage window complete with leaded diamond panes and lace trimmed chintz curtains, neatly framing the fugitives’ faces.

    As Captain Pausert stared, unable to tear his eyes away, two things happened. First, he felt the force-cuffs on his wrists vanish. The field which had held them disappeared, and the small metal force-generator fell to the floor. And, second, looking at the window that the mischievous little vatch had created—all Pausert saw, briefly, were the Nartheby Sprite’s elegant boots, moving rapidly upwards and out of view.

    Plainly the little vatch thought it would have some fun with the captain trying to fight his way free, before the Imperial customs officials saw the “window” it had created in Goth’s light-shift illusion.

    Well, he wouldn’t do what the vatch expected. And it looked as if the Nartheby Sprite had helped him to avoid having to do so. She obviously had klatha-skills of her own. Or had Goth lifted her with her teleportation skill? No. Goth could manage objects of a few pounds in weight, but despite her delicate elfin appearance the Nartheby Sprite must weigh far more.

    Pausert hastily concentrated on finding the vatch. He couldn’t catch or control this little one with his klatha-hooks, but it did seem that he could tickle and distract it.

    His resistance to taking the course that the little vatch had tried to trick him into had saved them from a fight. It had also caused one of the customs officials to squint at the fading window. It was a good thing the official couldn’t hear the vatchlet giggling and squeaking. Stop it, Big Dream Thing!

    The man rubbed his eyes, and then very deliberately turned away shaking his head. Pausert went on “tickling” furiously. The last thing they needed now was more complications. With any luck, the vatch would go away. Pausert was so intent on tickling that he had to be herded out of the room by his captors, who weren’t gentle about it. But he had his reward. The relling of vatch presence grew fainter and then vanished.

    The search went on, relentlessly. The customs men got very excited about the big safe, and the secret compartment in the engine room. And became very disappointed when both proved absolutely empty of people. They did confiscate the tissisystem toy inside it. It was a very badly designed educational toy, which Pausert and Goth had fitted there in the vain hope of fooling spies. The spies who had tried to steal the spacedrive for the Empire or the Agandar’s pirates had not been taken in.

    The customs officials, however, were more gullible.

    Pausert grinned through his gag. If he hadn’t been so mad at Gerota Town customs men, he would have felt sorry for them. He just hoped that the tissisystem toy didn’t explode on them, as the rather fiendish educational device was inclined to do. The toy was another one of the odd unsellable items that his one-time about-to-be father-in-law, Councilor Onswud, had dumped on Pausert in lieu of a decent cargo. Looking back, Pausert could see that he’d been set up to fail. Well, he’d succeeded, beyond their wildest dreams—and gotten lucky too. He could have ended up married to the insipid Illyla. Instead she’d married Councilor Rapport while he was away. That was real luck, although it hadn’t seemed like it at the time.

    But right now, in the back of a smelly paddy-wagon bouncing over the cobbles towards what would doubtless be an even smellier jail, Pausert didn’t feel all that lucky. Hantis and Pul were still hidden on the ship, but the rest of them were being taken away from the Venture. And Pausert still hadn’t had a chance to talk to Goth. Maybe they’d put them all into one cell together and...

    Nobody had noticed yet that his hands weren’t force-cuffed. That wasn’t too surprising, since force-cuffs just didn’t fall off. Pausert wondered if he could gain any advantage from his free hands, but it didn’t seem so. The others had been transported together, but he was apparently considered more dangerous. He had a transport all to himself. It seemed unfair. It was hardly his fault that the Leewit had somehow got her guards to take her gag off. The destruction that she’d caused with her whistles had wrecked the groundcar, and had meant that the customs officers had had to call for another.



    The captain’s gag was only taken off after he had been transported from the jail to the courthouse. The judge wasn’t particularly interested in hearing their side of the story, but the prisoners had to answer when their names were read onto the record.

    “Ungag him, officer,” ordered the judge. He was a lean man whose face seemed to have been colonized by a rampaging tribe of thick black eyebrows. The eyebrows crawled together and the judge peered at Pausert. “Now. Have you been correctly identified?”

    This judge looked very different from the one who had soaked him for the release of Maleen, Goth’s sister, in what seemed another lifetime. “Yes, Your Honor. But those charges are a pack of trumped-up lies.”

    The judge’s heavy eyebrows seemed to twitch upward of their own accord. “When I wish to hear from you, Captain Pausert, I will ask you to speak. Be silent or be silenced.”

    He peered more closely. “Why is this man not forcecuffed?”

    It was some time, and after some consternation in the court, that the judge cleared his throat. “Ahem. Now let us consider the first of the charges brought against you. You’ve got quite a list to answer to. Call the first witness.”

    “Athon Laag.”

    The jowl-faced Laag was the local manager for Pidoon Fuels and Lubricants, when he wasn’t being first witness.

    “Oh, yes, Your Honor. He’s a desperate rogue. I wrestled with him for vital minutes until the police Miz Snodder had called got there. Clearly he intended to commit fraud on my company, as well as his unprovoked brutal assault on an honest businessman. When he discovered the law was outside, he finally overpowered me and fled.”

    “Lies!” yelled Pausert. “He threatened me with a blaster and accused me of being a pirate.”

    The judge waved a threatening gavel at the captain. “I told you that you would be silenced, and if you speak without permission again you will be, Captain. Continue, Laag. How did you decide he was attempting to commit fraud?”

    The self-proclaimed honest businessman continued, after a fearful look at the captain. “His credit statement, your honor. His account has been blocked. He has an account with the Daal’s Bank on Uldune. The one-time pirate-world, Your Honor. “

    The judge steepled his fingers. “I am aware of Uldune’s unsavory history.”

    Laag nodded. “Well, when we got the order for fuel and the banking details, we sent a notification to ISS headquarters in Pidoon City. It’s routine. Imperial Security looks carefully at money coming from that source.”

    The judge snorted. “Hardly surprising.”

    “Yes, Your Honor,” nodded Laag. “We got a call from them about three minutes later, revealing that that man”—he pointed to Pausert—”was one of the notorious Agandar’s closest associates. We were asked to delay them as much as possible, as it was believed that he had two wanted and dangerous assassins on board his ship.”

    The judge’s caterpillar-like eyebrows did a rapid crawl inwards and out again. “Bankrupt, charged with assault, attempted fraud, consorting with criminals. Well, Captain Pausert? Now you may speak.”

    Captain Pausert didn’t think it would help him much. “Your Honor, I am not one of the Agandar’s associates. In fact we are being pursued by his fleet, because we were responsible for his death! You can confirm that with the Governor of Green Galaine province on Emris.”

    The prosecutor stood up, waving a piece of paper. “Your Honor, we have here a transcript of a report from Captain Benit of the Imperial Space Navy Cruiser Saraband. It states clearly that one Captain Pausert of a ship identified as the one now on Gerota Town landing field, did not only refuse to halt, but decoyed them into a pirate ambush.”

    The judge looked sternly at the captain. “Did you or did you not disobey a lawful order from an Imperial Navy vessel to halt?”

    “Yes, but...”

    Pausert was right. Being allowed to talk wasn’t helping much at all. Within twenty minutes he was being herded away to start his fifty-five year sentence. The extra three years that he’d gotten for the injury of a customs official, because of the Totisystem toy’s self-destruction, was merely the most unfair of a number of injustices. He wondered what they’d do to the others, and just how they could get out of this mess. He had noticed that Hulik do Eldel wasn’t with the others in the holding pen at the back of the courtroom. But he’d had no chance to find out why, or even to exchange a word with them.



    The captain explored his cell very carefully. That used up half a minute. Only fifty-four years, eleven months, thirty days, twenty-three hours, fifty-nine minutes and some change to go...

    After that, he alternated between pacing, staring at the bars while sitting on the bed, and staring at the bars while standing up. It went well with his mental state, which alternated between fuming about how they’d been caught, worrying about the others, worrying about their mission, and worrying about Hantis and Pul, left sitting inside the Venture.

    His worrying was interrupted by the click of heels coming down the concrete floor of the passage. With any luck it would be some food, and maybe a chance to ask the jailor about the others.

    “Good evening, Captain.”

    Captain Pausert sat down on the bed, gaping at Hulik do Eldel in a freshly pressed ISS uniform.

    “You! You... you...”

    “Traitor?” she supplied. “Turncoat?” She casually flicked a folded piece of paper into his cell. “I suggest you keep your temper and co-operate with me.”

    Was that the flicker of a wink? What was going on?

    “I think ‘rat’ was the word I was looking for,” said the captain grimly. “And, as for cooperate! Great Patham’s seventh hell! I’ll see you rot first, do Eldel.”

    She smiled coolly. “Come now, Captain Pausert, mind your temper and your language. You’re the one who will rot in here—unless you cooperate. We want the two alien passengers you have hidden on the Venture. You are going to tell us, Captain. You or one of the others.”

    Now the captain was sure that it had been a wink! Hulik had known where the Nartheby Sprite and the Grik dog had been hiding.

    Well, if Hulik wanted him to play along he’d do his best. He shook the bars furiously. “What have you done with the others, you devils! Where are my nieces? You know that these are ridiculous trumped-up charges! You know we should be back on our ship and on our way. When word of this gets back to the Empress Hailie, heads are going to roll. Even heads within the ISS!”

    Hulik curled her lip, disdainfully. “Your threats, while you and your companions are behind bars, are not exactly terrifying, Captain. I’ll leave you with the thought that you are a bankrupt prisoner, unable to pay landing fees, and your ship has been impounded. If it is not redeemed within thirty-six hours, it’ll be towed out into space and used as a target hulk by the Imperial Space Navy. Even if we can’t find the villains we’re looking for, we’ll destroy them along with their hiding place. Think about that for a while. I’ll be back in an hour or so to see if you’ve decided to co-operate.”

    She turned and left, and Captain Pausert went on clinging to the bars. It was a good thing he’d been holding on when she’d told him about the Venture. That had helped to keep him on his feet. Did their troubles only ever seem to get worse? It took him a few minutes to let go of the bars and remember the tiny piece of folded paper Hulik had flicked so casually into his cell. He walked over towards it, pretended to stumble and picked it up.

    Lying on his bed, with the paper hidden in a flap of his grey prison blanket and masked by the lumpy pillow, Captain Pausert read: You are under constant observation by a spy ray. That didn’t surprise him. But could he really trust her? She was apparently an agent of Imperial Security, after all. How else could she have gotten her liberty restored?

    The next line of the tiny message was more startling. V and I will be coming for you at midnight. Be ready. Destroy this.

    V? Vezzarn? But the little spacer had been with the other prisoners. Hulik had plainly talked her way free, but Vezzarn was sure to be imprisoned.

    Well. He could only wait and see.



    It was a long wait. He got a bowl of prison stew, which he ate, even though the grey chewy lumps weren’t very appetizing and the wooden spoon looked as if might give him a dangerous disease. It still tasted better than the piece of paper he’d swallowed earlier.

    “Yum, Yum!” he said to the jailor. He got no more reply to that than he’d gotten to his query about the others. If the man could talk, he certainly showed no interest in doing so.

    Later, Hulik came back with another ISS agent. By his flat nasal accent he was a local man, and this was plainly the biggest thing that had ever happened in his career. He cracked his outsize knuckles, while attempting an intimidating stare. “You will tell us where they’re hidden!” he yelled abruptly.

    “Your customs men searched my ship from stem to stern,” said Pausert. “There is nothing and no one hidden on it.”

    “Lieutenant do Eldel, get me the keys for this cell. I’m going to beat it out of him.”

    The captain looked at the ISS agent. The fellow was big, but he was definitely pudgy. Maybe now would be good time to depart from this cell, especially if Hulik was ready to help. Pausert put his hands on his hips. “You and which army?”

    Hulik hadn’t moved. “Lieutenant do Eldel!” snapped the ISS man.

    “Yes, district officer?” Hulik asked, cocking her head in polite enquiry.

    He held out his hand. “The cell key.”

    “Sir, we know that the officer commanding in Pidoon City has sent an aircraft to fetch this man. It’s a long flight but they’ll be here by three AM, and they’ll be questioning him.”

    “I know that!” snapped local officer in annoyance. “But I want to get the answers.”

    “I advise against it, Sir. The Agandar’s lieutenant is a notorious killer, reputed to be very skilled at unarmed combat. I believe he is trying to provoke you into going into his cell.”

    The local ISS man snatched back the hand he’d been holding out for the key, as if it had been burned. He tried to look nonchalant, and only succeeded in looking foolish. “Humph. Consider yourself lucky,” he told Pausert. “Or unlucky. The fellows from headquarters will bring tools that will make you sing, all right.”

    They left, and the evening wore on.

    There were no lights in the cell, and the passage lights had long been switched off. Pausert had nothing by which to judge the passage of time. They’d confiscated his chronometer along with his belt and his boots. Time did seem to be passing exceptionally slowly. Pausert became increasingly convinced that Hulik had either been caught or hadn’t been able to come. Once the ISS men came to take him to their headquarters, escape would be even more difficult and he’d be a long way from the Venture.

    And then he began to rell vatch. Like the sound of a scent, like the smell of music.

    You’re in trouble again, Big Dream Thing. The familiar little silver-eyed vatch seemed quite delighted.

    Pausert was desperate enough even to be pleased to see it. You don’t know where the others are, do you? he thought at the vatchlet.

    They’re in a cell in the next passage. They asked me where you were! The vatch apparently found this quite funny. Even the little one asked nicely. You’re not going to tickle me again, are you?

    Can you get me out of here?

    Yes, but I can’t stay. And I want to watch!

    Please? I chased the big one for you, didn’t I? And they’re coming to take me away. I won’t be able to save Hantis and Pul, or my ship if they take me off to Pidoon City. That would finish your fun.

    The little slitty quicksilver eyes considered him. Oh, all right. If you give me that piece of vatch stuff you took from the big one. It’s not doing well on its own.

    Pausert had forgotten about the fragment of vatch-stuff. The tiny piece of blackness was still there, in his pocket. A black fragment of nothingness was not something that the warders who had confiscated the rest of his property would have seen. Or been able to move or touch. I’ll lend it to you.


    The vatch took it. The silvery-eyed little thing grew a tiny fraction.

    Have fun, Big Dream Thing. I’ll see you later. And the vatch was gone to wherever small vatches went.

    He was about to curse it for a rotten cheat, when the lock on the cell door clicked open.

    Captain Pausert was free—and on his own in the darkened passages of Gerota Town prison. Free, without boots, belt or any real idea of where to go. He stood in the passage, listening, straining his ears for the sound of patrolling warders. Instead he heard, faintly, the Leewit’s voice. When she was yelling like that, faintly and far-off was the best way to hear it. But the sound still cheered the captain immensely. He set off to see if he could find them.

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