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The Wizard of Karres: Chapter Eight

       Last updated: Friday, April 2, 2004 02:51 EST



    Pausert awoke with a stunning headache. When he tried to cradle his head in his hands... he very rapidly realized that a headache was the very least of his problems. He was in a barrel which came to just below head height. The barrel had been filled up to his chest with fast-setting ferroplast. The stuff was already in the thick and glutinous stage. And his hands were tied behind his back.

    Inevitably, his nose began to itch.

    Twitching his nose desperately, he looked around the cavernous room. The twitching did nothing to alleviate the irritation of his nasal membranes. He realized that the sensation wasn’t entirely psychological. The smell in here would make any self-respecting nose itch. The air was ammoniacal. That could be why the people standing between him and the two other barrels were wearing rebreather masks.

    The masks hid most of their faces, but Pausert didn’t think that they were worried about being identified. They were carrying, between the seven of them, enough heavy weaponry for a regiment... well, a platoon anyway. One of the biggest men Pausert had ever seen was carrying a Mark 20 blaster-cannon -- the kind of weapon normally mounted on sand-scouts. This man had it slung across his back as if it were an ordinary rifle.

    Two of their captors were busy cutting one of the other barrels shorter with a steel-grinder, with the metal screaming. If that was the level of noise accepted around here, then shouting for help was not going to do any good.

    One of the masked men noticed that Pausert was starting to look around. “He’s stirring, Captain Elin.”

    Pausert had expected the big man with the Mark 20 to turn, but instead a short, stocky woman did. She had one of the most perfect gambler’s faces that Pausert had ever seen. Absolutely and totally expressionless. Pausert realized that that could be even more frightening than someone who looked either threatening or mad.

    “Captain Pausert.” Her tone too was also nearly expressionless; a casual, greet-you-without-pleasure-in-the-street tone of voice—not “I-have-you-bound-and-up-to-the-chest-in-ferroplast” nasty. Somehow, that was even more intimidating.

    And she knew who he was, obviously. “We need some information out of you. You are going to tell us.”

    Another figure bustled up, a wristphone pressed to his ear. A big, plump, sloppy-looking man, but nothing like the size of the giant with the Mark 20.

    “The prison is crawling with cops. I’ve got two of my men monitoring the ISS channels. They’re planning to set the launching of his ship forward. It’ll be in space as a target hulk within two hours. If the information is on the ship, it’ll be space dust soon. You’ve got to get it out of him. We’ve got to get out of here.” There was both fear and greed in the whiny voice.

    “Shut up, Fullbricht. You’re a penny-ante bungler. Don’t let your delusions of local importance let you think that you can give orders to me.”

    “It’s all very well for you, Captain Elin,” he said sullenly. “You’ll be out of here. I’ll be left to carry the can. Your men used my vehicles. Someone is bound to have seen them.”

    “Then you’ll have to leave your comfortable little nest here, Fullbricht. How likely are they to know of this place? Should we move the captives to our ship?”

    “No one comes here. It was a radio-active materials store, before the mines played out. Then they used it for guano, until that was exhausted.”

    Well, that explained the ammonia-smell, thought Pausert. But a radioactives store would be built like a fortress. No wonder they weren’t worried about noise. The men who had been cutting the drum hauled the cut section off to reveal a tousled blond head sticking out above the ferroplast. The Leewit was obviously still unconscious. And Pausert was pretty certain that the third barrel contained Goth.

    The woman referred to as Captain Elin turned back to Pausert. Her eyes were inhumanly cold, Pausert thought. “How fond are you of the two children, Captain?” A vibro-knife appeared in her hand. She walked over to the unconscious Leewit. “Do you want her to have a quick death or a slow and painful one? It’s your choice. We want the Agandar’s codes. And we want them now.”

    “Codes?” Pausert tried to sound less dumbfounded than he felt.

    She slapped the unconscious Leewit, hard. “Access codes to his vaults in the Daal’s bank on Uldune.”

    Fury boiled up in Captain Pausert. Incandescent anger. It was all the worse for being helpless. “She’s a child! I’ll...”

    “You’ll tell us what we wish to know. We know you have drawn funds from his accounts.”

    Pausert forced himself to be calm. He hadn’t done anything of the kind! He had to think his way out of this dilemma. Someone had set this up. Someone who was out to destroy the Venture and her crew or passengers.

    “Stubborn, eh?” she said. “Well, you have that reputation, Captain.” She slowly raised the vibro-knife. The blade glittered and shimmered in the harsh factory lighting of the storehouse.

    Pausert wished, desperately, for some way to protect the unconscious Leewit. If only she was conscious! If only there was some kind of klatha shield he could raise around her. Olimy, the top Karres witch they’d transported from Uldune to Emris had been protected like that. Olimy had disminded himself, protected himself from the horror of the Worm World with a kind of stasis. If only...

    A complex klatha pattern came to his mind, unbidden. What was it that Goth’s Toll pattern had said? When you need it, not when you want it.

    But what would it do? Dismind him? That could only be reversed with difficulty on Karres. Or dismind the Leewit? The glittering knife drew closer to the Leewit’s face. There was no time for doubts now. The captain traced the klatha pattern with his mind. It was an intricate one, full of strange dimension-turning twists which made him feel both giddy and cold. He directed it at the Leewit and had the satisfaction of seeing the pirate captain pull her knife hand back as if stung.

    The watching Fullbricht hissed “Witchcraft!” and backed off fearfully

    Captain Elin turned towards Pausert, her eyes glittering. “So. You’re also one of those Karres witches. We were told it was just them! That we just had to keep them doped.”

    “They told you wrong,” said Pausert with a confidence that he didn’t feel. He didn’t know that he could reverse what he’d done on the Leewit, or how good a protection it was. For that matter, he didn’t really even know exactly what he’d done. It had certainly left him feeling physically drained.

    “You’d better let us go. Or else.”

    “Keth. Blast her.”

    To his horror, Pausert saw that the huge man with the Mark 20 bring his weapon to bear on the Leewit. Before Pausert had a chance to protest the man let loose with it.

    It should have blown her head off her ferroplast-encased shoulders.

    It didn’t. A puff of wind might have had more effect.

    The glittering eyes of Captain Elin didn’t blink. “Let’s see how good you are with machinery, witch. Fullbricht, set the pourer running.” The man, wild-eyed, backed up against the wall and pressed a green button. High above them, machinery clanked and whirred to life. Riding along a roof-rail came a mechanical-bucket. Pausert didn’t need to be told that the bucket was full of ferroplast. This was presumably a leftover machine from when this place processed radioactives for shipping. He’d bet that the machine had been set up to seal these drums.

    What should he do now? If he sealed himself and Goth in with the pattern, they might be unreachable and unhurtable. But they’d be unreachable in a state from which there might be no return at all—and certainly in a state in which they could neither help Hantis, Pul nor themselves.

    Indecision nearly paralyzed Pausert as the suspended bucket rolled closer. Pausert was very aware that the Mark 20 was now pointed at himself. Better there than at Goth. But what was he to do?

    He tried focusing his newly discovered klatha shield on the suspended bucket. It had no effect at all. Perhaps it needed something living, or something he cared about. The bucket clanked closer... well, there was nothing for it but to shield Goth.

    The chest of the big man with the Mark 20 disappeared in a sear of blaster-fire. The lights went out.

    “Witchcraft!” yelled someone in a huge voice, and cackled maniacally.



    Hulik watched as Vezzarn tickled the lock at the back of the hazardous materials warehouse with a tool from his tiny set. It clicked open most obligingly, and they slipped inside and up the stairs to the office that overlooked the warehouse.

    Looking down at Captain Pausert, Goth and the Leewit, each trapped in their barrel, with the hard-bitten, heavily armed captors surrounding them, Hulik did not see how they could get them out.

    “I’ve found the switch box,” said Vezzarn quietly, just as the captain successfully created a klatha shield to protect the Leewit.

    Hulik had found a switch too. For the intercom. She switched it on in time to hear someone below exclaim “Witchcraft!”

    That would do. That would just have to do. “Have you got a gun, Vezzarn?”

    He shook his head. “No. They took it away. To be honest, I’m not a very good shot anyway.”

    “I am. We’ll just have to chance it. The captain and the girls will be quite well protected in those barrels. I’ll take out the guy with the Mark 20. You cut the power to the bucket, and the lights. And see if you can cause some panic with the intercom microphone. Then cut the lights back on so I can get some more shooting in.”

    Vezzarn grinned wryly. “It’s a pity that the little Wisdom can’t be here to give them some of her whistles. I’ll do my best, Hulik do Eldel.”



    The shrieks and blasterfire prompted Pausert to go right ahead and shield Goth. He put a lot of force into that klatha pattern. He wanted it strong and big. He gave it his everything.

    There was the sound of tearing metal; then, a hideous metallic whine and an explosive crashing sound. The lights came on again. Captain Pausert saw Goth, no longer in a barrel and no longer encased in ferroplast, slowly topple over like a round bottomed skittle. She lay about two arms-length above the floor... on nothing. And there was a substantial hole in the side of the building. As blaster fire from the roof-suspended office hissed down into the warehouse, Pausert realized what he must have done. The shield around Goth was so thick that it had torn the barrel seam and exploded it.

    Some of the pirates had fled, and at least one was dead. But most of them had sought cover behind the vehicles at the main door, except for two who were crouched beside the barrel that held the Leewit. One of them began firing at the stanchions that held the office. If they could burn through it then the rescuers up there would fall.

    Pausert concentrated on the klatha shield around the Leewit, hoping that he’d be protected by his own barrel. He concentrated his effort on the lower part of her shield. Suddenly, the bottom half of the Leewit’s barrel split with a tortured metal scream even the Leewit herself would have been proud of. Barrel shards and ferroplast flew all over like shrapnel. The eruption killed the two pirates beside the barrel instantly, and it was enough to send the remaining ones scrambling toward one of the groundcars or racing towards the heavy double door.

    Someone obviously had a remote door control because the doors opened as they reached it, then swung shut behind them.

    Hulik and Vezzarn came running down the stairs. In the distance, Pausert heard the sound of police sirens.

    “Captain, are you all right?” Vezzarn attempted to haul Pausert out of the barrel.

    “Well, I’m alive. Am I glad to see you two. How did you get here?”

    Hulik had now taken the other shoulder and the two of them hauled. She was slightly built but lithe and strong. Slowly, he began to move. “We followed you. Not without difficulty, Captain. You bolted the coop ten minutes before I was ready for you.”

    Captain Pausert was grateful to be hanging over the edge of barrel. It helped to hide his embarrassment. “They took my chronometer. I thought you must have been captured.”

    “Just as well, in a way,” said Hulik, as Pausert half fell, was half-dragged out onto the floor, dripping ferroplast. “We’d all have been captured. These guys were watching your cell too.”

    Vezzarn went to work on the captain’s bonds with the vibro-knife. “Now all we’ve got to do is get out of here, Captain. What’s up with the little Wisdoms?” He was using the Uldune term for the Karres witches.

    “I put them into some kind of shield. I just hope I can get it off.” With difficulty and with the support of Vezzarn and Hulik, the captain struggled to his feet. Partly, his weakness came from having been tied up in the ferroplast. Partly he was just dead tired. He knew now how Goth and the others felt after the Sheewash drive. As Goth said, it sure took it out of you.

    “I’m not very experienced at this Karres witchery. I think we’d better try and get them back to the Venture. I might need to find another Karres witch—and that could be difficult, seeing as how the ship isn’t likely to be going anywhere without these two.”

    Hulik shook her head. “It’s worse than that, Captain. We may already be too late to save the Venture or the lives of Pul and Hantis. I’ve been listening in on the communications on the ISS band. As soon as the team arrived to pick you up, they discovered that the prison warders were dead.”

    “Dead?” exclaimed Pausert.

    “Yes, dead,” said Hulik, grimly. “You were captured by some local hoodlum called Fullbricht.”

    “And some of the Agandar’s pirates,” added Pausert. “They definitely considered this Fullbricht as a sort of bungling minor functionary.”

    “Yes. He was probably a local spy for the Agandar, once. Well, that explains the heavy weapons and the brutality! Anyway, they murdered the prison warders. But the local police and the ISS are blaming you. So they’ve sent an order to have enough fuel run into the Venture for a take-off. Then they’re going to use her as they’d planned, for a naval training exercise, and blow her apart.”

    Pausert shook himself, scattering gobs of ferroplast. “Come on. Let’s get Goth and the Leewit into that groundcar. I’ll have see what I can do. We’d better try to get to the Venture.”

    “I’ll bring the groundcar over here, Captain.”

    As Hulik moved across to the showy groundcar, Pausert looked around. “How do we get out of here? Can we just crash through those doors?”

    Vezzarn shook his head. “This is a hazardous material store, Captain. Those will be especially hardened doors. Guess I better go to work on the locks.”

    Pausert tried to shake more ferroplast off himself, while he reflected that having an expert safe-breaker and lock-pick in your crew could be very useful. He set his mind to work undoing whatever it was that he’d done to Goth and the Leewit. He had no idea on how or where to start.

    Hulik brought the car over. She’d picked up Vezzarn. “Someone is trying to open the doors. I guess Vezzarn wasn’t the only one who could trail Fullbricht back here by the cars, Captain. But I think that hole the exploding barrel made in the wall over there is big enough for this groundcar.”

    They loaded the slickly smooth invisible eggs containing Goth and the Leewit into the car. Hulik eased the vehicle forward and they bumped out through the hole in the side wall. The warehouse plainly hadn’t been used for some time. There were plenty of weeds and some rusting stacks of a very familiar barrel. As they drove further, the reflection of flashing lights on the surrounding concrete wall revealed that Gerota Town’s finest were at work on the warehouse door.

    Hulik clicked the groundcar lights off. By the light of Pidoon’s moons, they quietly edged away from the building, following the trail cleared by Goth’s flying barrel. Pausert realized just what an intensely fast and powerful reaction he must have caused by his klatha use. The barrel had finally smashed into the concrete wall. The wall was only partially flattened, but, short of going out past the Gerota Town police, there was no other escape route.

    “Shall we charge it?” asked Hulik, making the groundcar’s motor growl.

    “Let’s just try pushing, “ said Vezzarn. “It looks weakened.”

    It was, and a section fell in. They bumped and bounced their way down onto the deserted adjoining street and turned the powerful vehicle toward the spaceport. As they did so, they listened in on Hulik’s ISS-issue communicator to the reports coming in concerning the search for them.



    Apparently, the Agandar’s pirates had done them something of a favor, as the vehicle they’d fled in had been spotted and was being pursued. There were also reports from the ISS man and the local space-pilot they’d rounded up to get the Venture into space. The ISS man had had some trouble getting fuel out of Pidoon Fuels and Lubricants. Pausert, despite the fact that he was having absolutely no luck in reversing his klatha shield around Goth and the Leewit, found that that was worth laughing about.

    The spaceport was bustling. As bustling, at least, as the spaceport of a small town of a minor backwater planet could be just before dawn. There were seven vehicles in the groundcar park. One was an ISS-liveried loader. At least there were no police waiting. Perhaps they assumed that now that the ISS men were aboard the Venture and that she was getting ready for take off, there would be no need for them to watch the spaceship any more.

    “How will we get onto her?” asked Vezzarn, as they drew into the parking lot.

    “Borrow the ISS loader,” said Pausert. “Hulik, contact the agent to let him know that we’ve got a load of explosives, intended to make doubly sure that the Venture is totally destroyed.”

    Hulik looked at him in surprise. “That’s not like you, Captain.”

    Pausert shrugged. “I don’t like to break the law. But I’m wanted here already for murders I didn’t do. Stealing an ISS vehicle can’t add more than another execution to the list. If we live through this and get to explain, we can always pay for it. Provided we get to use the Venture’s money again.”

    Vezzarn was already out of the vehicle, working on the door lock of the loader. Breaking in took him barely a minute. The captain and Hulik manhandled Goth and the Leewit out of Fullbricht’s groundcar and onto the lowbed of the loader. There was a tarpaulin which he and Vezzarn tossed over the top of the girls. Pausert would have sworn Goth’s eyes were now open. But the light was bad and time was pressing. Hulik was already on the communicator.

    “Agent Sboro. We’ve dispatched a load of explosives to make sure that the vessel is completely destroyed. See that your pilot doesn’t attempt to leave before it’s aboard,” snapped Hulik into her ISS communicator.

    There was a pause. “Yes, ma’am. I will open the cargo hatch.”

    Agent Sboro sounded a little breathless, thought Pausert, as they drove across the concrete to the old Venture. Pausert looked lovingly but fearfully at her. If he couldn’t work out how to get Goth and the Leewit out of the trap he’d put them into, then they were in even more trouble. It seemed, right now, that the Venture and her crew had only been lurching from disaster to disaster since the beginning of their mission.

    They hastily unloaded the Leewit and Goth. Then, because it was quickest way to do it, rolled the transparent egg shapes up into the cargo hatch.

    The captain saw the flaw in his plan. There was no way out of the cargo hold into the ship—unless, like the Agandar, you had a Sheem war robot that could cut through the bulkheads.

    The ship intercom crackled. “Get off the ship. We’re about to launch!”

    “We’ve got a confidential message for you. It must be delivered in person,” said Pausert smoothly. “We can’t get off until it is delivered. Orders.”

    “I repeat, get off. If you’re not out of the cargo hatch by the count of five, I’m sealing it and we’ll blast anyway. One. Two...”

    “It is essential!”

    “Three. Four.”

    “We have information about the hidden passengers. We know where they are.”

    The hatch began to close. “I’m coming down. You’re about to take a ride into space. Line up against the back wall with your hands away from any weapons.”

    “What do we do?” asked Hulik.

    Vezzarn and Pausert looked at each other. Hulik was a fine marksman, and a good companion. But she was no spaceman. Pausert shrugged. “Cooperate,” he said. “We have to strap in on acceleration couches for launch.”


    “If this agent Sboro is humane enough to let us.” Pausert looked at Goth’s definitely open eyes. “We’ll just stand behind Goth and the Leewit. We know that the shield can stop even a mark 20 blaster bolt.” He felt guilty about it all the same. “Put your gun on the floor, Hulik. If need be you can drop and shoot.”

    Goth was awake in there. Was she all right? Could she breath? Or was it like traveling by the Egger Route... did she need to?

    The door to the hold opened cautiously. A figure with a Blythe gun in hand stepped though.

    Hantis smiled foxily. “I couldn’t be really sure it was your voice, Captain.”

    “Hantis!” exclaimed the captain.

    She bowed slightly. “Pul is in the control room with the prisoners. We’re in trouble, Captain Pausert.”

    The captain pointed to Goth and the Leewit. “You’re telling me. I’ve put them into some kind of shield. If I can’t get them out, then we can’t use the Sheewash drive.”

    Hantis drew her brows together. “That actually makes it worse. But the problem’s immediate. The ISS heard your call to Sboro about the explosives. They just attempted to contact him on the ship communicator rather than his ISS device. They warned him that they think that there may be fake ISS operatives trying to board this ship. I think we can be sure that atmospheric craft have been scrambled and are on their way here.”

    Pausert pushed wearily off the wall. “Well, let’s get everyone into acceleration couches and show them what the old Venture can do. We’ll go down fighting if we can’t get away. Come on, we need to carry Goth and the Leewit.”

    “She’s moving around in there,” said Vezzarn looking at Goth. “Do you think the little Wisdom will be able to free herself?

    “We haven’t got time to find out right now,” said Hulik. “If we use a blanket we can make it into a stretcher of sorts. That will be quickest.”

    Up in the control room they found an ISS agent and a nervous looking pilot.

    On the floor.

    Pul was standing over them with a long piece of ISS uniform collar in his jaws. “The churls called me a dog, Hantis. Can I rip their throats out?”

    “It’s no use, lady,” said the pilot, looking nervously at the grik-dog’s powerful jaws. “I won’t fly this craft. Not even if you kill me.”

    “Dead men don’t pilot spaceships anyway,” said Pausert tiredly. “Tie them up. We can go and dump them in their loader.”

    Two to a prisoner, they hastily carried the pilot and agent out to the ISS vehicle, and tossed them onto the loadbed. Vezzarn hopped into the cab, engaged the vehicle’s engine and leaped out. At a run, they sprinted back to the Venture. A bolt of blaster-fire licked out at them, adding impetus to their pace.

    Once into the control room Pausert scrambled for the control chair, and began initiating the blast-off sequence. “Sorry, Goth, this is an apology in advance. This is going to be one of my bad take-offs.”

    It was. But it was also too fast for the two atmospheric craft that came racing in from an airfield several thousand miles off. The Venture staggered into space, further and further from Pidoon. As the planet dropped away below them Pausert felt relief. But he was aware that the fuel gauges were dropping fast. They were already using the reserve tanks.

    The detectors started to bleep. “Imperial Navy ships, Captain,” said Vezzarn grimly.

    They didn’t even make an effort to hail the Venture. They were already firing. Even yelling that there was an ISS man on board helped not at all. Pausert pushed the thrust down to maximum.

    The Venture’s drive surged. And stuttered. A wall of navy fire fell just short. The three Imperial vessels that were racing toward them would be in range for their next salvo. “The nova guns, Captain...”

    The Venture suddenly surged again, leaping as if a wasp had stung her. Pausert felt the wonderful, familiar surge of the Sheewash drive. Looking across at Goth he saw the acceleration nets still covered her couch. Covered an invisible cocoon, in fact. But inside that cocoon, the twisted black wires and strange orange fire of the Sheewash drive danced. He was almost too tired to wish he knew how it worked. Relief—and exhaustion coming like a wave—overcame him.

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