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The Wizard of Karres: Chapter Ten

       Last updated: Wednesday, May 12, 2004 03:50 EDT



    The air in the Venture was getting thin. The trip had taken longer than they’d thought, even with the Sheewash drive.

    “Whatever was dragging at us is back, Captain,” said Goth, tiredly. “Maybe we should try using that shield you put us in again. That seemed to work.”

    “NO WAY!” shouted the Leewit. “Not never! I couldn’t stand it. I won’t help if you do that again! I’ll whistle at you!”

    So they’d plodded on. By the time they got to Vaudevillia, they were gasping almost constantly.

    The space around Vaudevillia was fairly crowded—everything from great lattice ships to small tramps. No planetary control greeted them, and the space traffic seemed to be left to look after itself.

    “It’s a pretty chaotic place, Captain,” said Vezzarn. “There’s no planetary authority. Nor any real ports. No defenses neither. It doesn’t need none. Even the most desperate bunch of raiders wouldn’t waste their time on Vaudevillia. It’s nothing more than a giant gypsy encampment. There are no real towns. You land anywhere. It rains so much that wherever you choose would be muddy and flat, Sir.”

    “Well, let’s try and get some fuel to land with, before we try doing it the hard way. Let’s try the communicator. We’re low on air and fuel. Surely someone will help.”

    They might as well have shouted into space. No one was coming near them; although, by the way some of the tramps were hovering, they were just waiting for the Venture’s crew to die.

    “Well, if no one will help, we’ll have to help ourselves,” said Captain Pausert.



    The lattice ship looked far more like an umbrella that had lost all of its fabric, than a spacecraft. And it was big. Huge was a better word. Gigantic.

    Pausert remembered the excitement of one of the great lattice showboats landing on Nikkeldepain; standing, watching in delight as the great metal skeleton became covered in tinsel bright synthasilk, as the showboat transformed an empty fifteen acre field into a paradise of stages, freak shows and strange stalls. He could almost hear the music again...

    But now he had to concentrate. It was difficult when you were gasping.

    This was a seriously tricky bit of ship-handling. It had been something they’d done in his Navy time with one-man interceptors on empty tanker ships. But the Venture was a lot bigger and less maneuverable than a one-man interceptor. The timing was crucial.

    Pausert had come as close as he dared to the spider-web-like lattice showboat that they were planning to catch a ride on. There were the remains of several other space-craft hung around in the lattice’s skeletal arms. They weren’t the crashed hulks of other ships that had tried to ride down on her. Rather, they were cobbled onto the lattice—stores, props, extra living quarters. An old ship made a convenient air-tight addition to the giant lattice.

    The lattice showboat began its descent. Pausert used the laterals to begin the drop after it. He closed in on the upper stage. Gravity began to tug at the Venture.

    “Stand by the magnetic locks, Vezzarn,” he snapped. They were falling fast now. There were squawks of protest from the lattice showboat—but it was too big and cumbersome to take evasive action. Now, it loomed large and terribly, terribly close. Atmosphere was beginning to buffet the Venture too, making steering even more difficult. Plainly the lattice ship was trying to drop faster to get away from a potential collision.

    Everyone was in the control room. If they failed now... they could kill themselves. Pausert held that last bit of fuel in the Venture’s tanks in reserve against the possibility of impacting the lattice showboat. But of course those on board the lattice ship wouldn’t know that.

    At the last possible moment—just when collision seemed inevitable—Pausert swung the Venture over on the laterals. “Now, Vezzarn!”

    With a barely audible click, the Venture was magnetically locked onto the upper stage of the lattice showboat.

    Never had anything on that stage been quite so enthusiastically applauded.

    The lattice ship continued her descent. “Right,” said Captain Pausert. “Acceleration couches everyone. We’re going to have to leave our host in a hurry. They’re going to be plenty mad at us. We’ll skip as soon as were a hundred yards above ground level. Full thrust. We’ve got a tiny bit of fuel and we’re going to use every drop. We really don’t want to land right next to them.”

    Vezzarn chuckled. “That’s for sure. Judging by the language coming out of that speaker, the captain wants to do some very interesting things to us.”

    “I didn’t even know some of those words,” said the Leewit gleefully. “I don’t think they even really exist except as cuss words in his own mind. They must be really filthy.”

    “If you use so much as one of them, I won’t even wash out your mouth with soap,” said Pausert sternly. “I’ll put you into my shield cocoon again.”

    She stuck her tongue out at him and made a very rude noise. But she didn’t use the words.

    Two minutes later, in rain and sheeting lightning, Captain Pausert gave the Venture full thrust. She took off like... a damp squib. Then the drive coughed and flung them forward. Pausert frantically tried to see where the hiccupping drive was sending them. Then it died. Using the laterals and the detectors, the captain set the Venture down.



    Vezzarn was right. It was pretty flat and yes, it was muddy. The storm hissed and poured rain down at them. But at least there was breathable air out there, even if it was rather moist.

    “I can see why no one wants this place much,” said Hulik, gazing into the gloom. “To think I actually wanted to come here.

    “It does slack off sometimes,” said Vezzarn, chuckling. “I came here with a smuggling-consortium. They thought an unpoliced planet sounded just perfect. Well, we were here a week. At the end of that, the captain said it was one of the best planets in the universe to leave.”

    The old spacer scanned the area. “The lattice showboats don’t mind. It’s a place where there are no port-fees, and no debt-collectors. And they’ve got a few acres of dry inside them. More than a few. But no one actually lives here. The fuel companies send in mobile tankers, and sell fuel at a cash-in-advance premium. And that’s about all there is.”

    “But every planet has some permanent residents—even glorified filling stations like Pidoon.”

    Vezzarn shrugged. “The showboats recruit. They tried to recruit from us, twice. The second time was an armed stand-off. I know the world of the lattice showboats is where every kid in the galaxy thinks they’ll run away to, but the truth is they want the showboats and not Vaudevillia. And along the way some people go off to live more normal lives, I guess.”

    Pausert looked out at the rain. It was easing slightly. “Well, we might need to get recruited. We’ve got air, now. But we’ve got no fuel, no money and no way out of here.” He patted the consol of the old Venture affectionately, almost apologetically. He loved her and he hated the idea of leaving his ship here to rust. “What were all those tramps and other little vessels doing around the planet, Vezzarn?”

    “Food and fuel and drink, I suppose, Captain. You can get fish here, but not a lot else. A small operator can turn a pretty tidy profit out of it, if he’s lucky. But it’s quite risky to land with no ground-control and bad weather, unless you’re a big lattice ship. Even the showboats don’t land here more often than they really need to.”

    “Picking up atmospheric craft on the detectors, Captain,” said Hulik, warily. “They could come from the ship we caught a ride down on. They should be here in about three minutes.”

    Pausert looked at the display. “Great Patham! I never thought of them having atmospheric craft on board. I suppose it makes sense. And I suppose if I were that Captain, I’d be out looking for the idiots who endangered my ship too. I hate the idea of shooting at them, but we’d better get the Nova guns ready.”

    “We could always hide,” said Goth.

    “Where?” asked Pausert. “I mean, what we can see of this place doesn’t offer much cover. There doesn’t even seem to be any vegetation, never mind a nice deep valley.”

    “Light-shift,” said Goth. “They’ll be searching hull-metal on their detectors. When they get closer they’ll try for a visual examination. Let’s see if I can fool them that this is just an old wreck.”

    Pausert nodded. “It does seem fairer than blowing them out of the sky.”

    A few minutes later two aircars dropped through the clouds. Pausert could dimly make out the craft circling the Venture.

    “See if you can pick them up on the communicator.”

    Hulik put the communicator on search, and a few moments later they heard a voice “... seems to be an old wreck. We’ve got the position marked down. You can send a team out later to bring it in. We’ll go on searching.”

    Outside the fliers cut their way away through the misty rain.

    The captain took a deep breath. “You can stand down on the guns. We’ll have to get the Venture up on her laterals and move her.”

    “Excuse me, Captain, but why?”

    “You heard them. They’ve got the position and they’re sending a team out later. We don’t want to be here.”

    “Perhaps we do,” said Hulik, slowly. “Perhaps that would solve our problems. They want the ‘wreck’? Well, let them have it. You saw what they do with them—weld them into the lattice. They’re always recruiting, so we should be able to get ourselves a berth. We can get ourselves and the Venture off this world.”

    There was a silence. “It could work,” said the captain grudgingly. It hurt to think of the old Venture being welded onto the lattice like so much scrap, but it did make sense.

    “It’s brilliant!” said Goth.

    “And the leech won’t work because the drive won’t be running,” pointed out Vezzarn.

    “We’re going to join the Circus! Yay!” The Leewit bounced cheerfully off the walls.

    Pausert took a deep breath. “All right. What are we doing here, and how long have we been here, and what are we going to do when they find the Venture isn’t a wreck?”

    Goth grinned. “I can keep the lightshift up.”

    The captain shook his head. “Not indefinitely, Goth.” He sighed. “What do you think, Hantis? This mission is about you.”

    She gave him her enigmatic smile. Her pointed ears twitched. “The most important thing is getting to the Empress Hailie. Actually getting there. Not being killed trying. If that means Pul and I must take roles in a human freak show, then we will do that too. If we can get away with it, that is. The men on that lattice ship were very angry. And the captain is right. Goth cannot keep the light-shift going indefinitely.”

    “We can do a little disguise work,” said Hulik, “and make sure that the Venture won’t fly until we take a few pieces out of the safe. And maybe deal with the communicator so it won’t function. We could claim to have been here for weeks. Have you got any plausible cargo for this place, Captain?”

    “Tinklewood fishing poles and some really ugly allweather cloaks, and a few tissisystem toys. They’re what’s left of the cargo I set off from Nikkeldepain with. I couldn’t sell them anywhere.”

    Hulik held up her hands. “Perfect. This would be the ideal place to bring both. It has got fish in the streams and it has got rain.”

    Pausert knew he was beaten. Besides, he didn’t have any better ideas. “There is some paint in the stores. Plenty of mud out there. We can make it look like we’ve been here a while. I’m going to make it look as if we have fuel, and also that the systems won’t work. And somebody find me a lump of ash to put into the spot where I take the main transponder out of the communicator. And we need to think about the story. We all need to sing the same tune, about when we got here, where we’re from and why.”

    “You let us deal with that,” said Hulik. “You’re too honest and truthful, Captain.”

    “I guess someone has to be,” said Pausert, sourly. He got to work on the communicator. “How do we know that these Showboat people won’t try any funny stuff? Slaves are still legal in the Empire.”

    “A hot set of witches like us should be able to deal with that,” said the Leewit with a grin, and skipped off.



    By the time a dilapidated lifter from the lattice showboat arrived nearly twelve hours later, the Venture looked like a pretty genuine wreck that had been lying there for a fair while.

    She wasn’t called the Venture any more, either, since they’d used that name while they’d been in orbit around Vaudevillia, appealing for help. She’d gone back to being the Evening Bird, a name Uldune’s masters of ship’s paper fakery had provided for her run into the Chaladoor.

    The lifter, like some gigantic long-legged insect, settled over the body of the Venture. Except for Vezzarn, who was sitting quietly at the nova guns, they all trooped out into the rain and waved at the lifter.

    The two people in the lifter gaped at them. They flicked the cockpit open. Captain Pausert noted that the short, rotund, glistening-faced one had a Blythe rifle pointed at them. “What are you doing here?” the skeletally thin pilot demanded, his sharp-planed face taut with suspicion, his voice harsh.

    “This is our ship. We crashed here a couple of weeks ago,” said the captain, as sincerely as he could.

    The thin man relaxed visibly. “You’re not from one of the other showboats?”

    “No. We’re traders with a load of tinklewood fishing rods and allweather cloaks. We had a systems malfunction while we were landing. We haven’t been able to fix it. Our communicator got trashed too.”

    “Hmm. Mind if we come on board?” asked the thin man, still sounding suspicious.

    Captain Pausert shrugged. “Sure. If your friend stops pointing that rifle at us.”

    The rifle muzzle shifted not one micron. “It makes me feel more secure,” said the plump man, his face scintillating oddly in the cloud-filtered light. “There ain’t much law here on Vaudevillia.”

    Captain Pausert shrugged again. “Suit yourself.” He pointed up at the nova gun turret which was locked onto them. “It does seem a bit pointless, though.”

    The glistening faced one nearly dropped his rifle. “It’s a trap!”

    Pausert held up his hands pacifically. “No. We are just being careful. Like you are. You leave the Blythe rifle there and we’ll get Vezzarn to deflect the turret.”

    “All right. We just want to call our ship first, huh? You try anything and the guys from the Petey, Byrum & Keep will fix you.”

    “Sure, go ahead,” said Hulik. “We have some allweather cloaks and fishing-rods for sale. Or to trade for some extra rations.”

    A brief call to the lattice ship, and the two men disembarked and came out of the rain and into the Venture. Viewing them now in good light, Captain Pausert thought that if he’d been some alien captain meeting these members of the human race for the first time, he’d have been inclined to think that they were from two different species. The thin man was so thin you could see every strap of sinew across his bones. He was not actually particularly tall. He just looked that way with the stiff blue-dyed upright comb of hair on his head. The short plump man was entirely hairless, and his skin seemed to shimmer with different color-patterns gleaming, coming and going.

    The Leewit stared admiringly at him. “How does it work? How does your skin go like that?”

    That broke the ice. He bowed and winked. “I’m Mannicholo the chameleon man,” he said with a grin. “Half-lizard, half-man, that’s me. The strangest creature in the Universe!”

    “I bet I could do it,” said the Leewit firmly, “if I knew the trick. Go on, tell me how it really works. Please?” She cocked her head and tried to look cherubic.

    “Trade secret, dearie,” Mannicholo chuckled, revealing rainbow striped teeth.

    “He’s tattooed with various temperature-sensitive crystals,” explained the blue cockscombed man superciliously. “And he has tiny bits of reflective stuff imbedded in his dermis. As the crystals get warm they change color, and that color radiates heat better so they change color back again.” Then he ducked, folding himself under the swing of Mannicholo’s arm, with almost boneless ease. “And he hates me telling people.”

    “I’ll fold you into shapes even you can’t get into, Timblay,” growled Mannicholo.

    “Impossible,” said the man with the blue cockscomb, bowing to them. “As you may have gathered from my compatriot Mannicholo, I am Timblay, otherwise known as the Incredible Folding Man.” He looked around the control room. There were parts of one of the panels artistically strewn about, along with an array of tools. “You do seem to have something of a problem.”

    “Main Drive firing sequencer won’t work,” said Vezzarn, having gotten up from the nova gun controls. “We had a massive lightning strike just as we were trying to touch down. It fried that, and fried our communicator.”

    “Ah. That can happen here,” said Timblay, understandingly. “This your first trip to Vaudevillia?”

    Pausert nodded. He noted that Timblay had eased over to the fuel gauges. He flicked a glance down at them before asking, casually. “Repairable?”

    “With a few spares we’re not carrying,” said Hulik. She pointed to the electronic components on the floor. “We’ve tried cannibalizing other stuff, but so far it hasn’t worked.”

    “Ah. Well, maybe we can help each other. Exchange things, as it were.”

    “We have allweather cloaks to offer. Very good line. Remarkably effective...”

    “I’m sure the outside crews will buy some,” said Timblay smoothly. “But that doesn’t really get around your problem, does it? You’ve got a fried communicator and drive sequencer, and here you are stuck on a planet where you just can’t buy spare parts. No, I’m afraid we can’t sell them to you, not even in exchange for your truly magnificent allweather cloaks. But...”

    He smiled, all teeth. “We can perhaps still reach an accommodation with each other. Help each other out. Get you off this damp spot and benefit us too.”

    “What do you mean?” asked Pausert suspiciously.

    “Well, this ship is useless to you. It’s not going anywhere. You’re stuck on one of the wettest planets in the Galaxy. Now, in exchange for the ship—which we’ll use as a store—and some short-time labor contracts, we’ll take you to another world with a spaceport.”

    Pausert was surprised to see the glistening-skinned Mannicholo, who was standing behind Timblay, shake his head warningly. Well, when it came down to it, Pausert absolutely no intent of agreeing too easily anyway. And, while he was a reasonably skilled trader, he had a past-master in his crew. Goth could get the better of anyone.

    “It doesn’t sound like much of a bargain to me,” said Pausert. “We’re just short a few electronic components. We’re armed. We’ve got a locally valuable cargo and we’ve still got our laterals firing. We’ll be able to start moving around on them. Find a fuel seller and arrange for the parts we need for the communicator at least. After that we’ll have to fight off customers. Sooner or later we’ll get the spares we need. No, I don’t think you’ve got a deal. Now, if you’d like to give us a lift back to Pidoon—for a small fee, of course—I’m sure we’d be grateful.”

    Timblay waved his hand dismissively. “I don’t think we’d be very interested. Pidoon’s not on the itinerary. But why don’t you come and talk to Master Himbo? Maybe he can reach a more mutually equitable deal with you. We’ll transport your craft there...”

    Pausert shook his head. “We’ll come, but under own steam. I’m not having you claim salvage on the Evening Bird.”

    Timblay pinched his narrow mouth. “Up to every trick in the book, are we, Captain...”

    “Aron. From Mulm.”

    “Well, Captain Aron. I see you have damage around your main airlock.”

    “You aren’t the first would-be salvagers,” admitted Captain Pausert.

    The Venture proceeded to follow the lifter to the lattice showboat on the last dregs of fuel in her laterals. In the gray, driving rain, the showboat loomed like a small dark mountain. The lattice skeleton of triangular hull-metal girders was covered over, not with the bright synthasilk of Pausert’s memories, but a utilitarian black. A small yellow digger was busy trenching and a work team was repairing a small exposed section of the lattice. The Showboat looked very workaday ordinary, except...

    It was very, very big. Had it been a solid hull-metal thing it would have dwarfed a fair number of battle-dreadnaughts—and cost a small fortune in fuel to fly. As it was, the round, plump half dome, ringed with attendant smaller half-domes, could take crowds of thousands—and fly between planets at minimal cost.

    The Venture set down in front of the entry portal. Here on their homeworld, with no customers to draw, the showboat hadn’t bothered to clad the two towers and arch in bright bunting and flags. Instead, a guard with a disrupter cannon huddled in the small metal box above the rippling array of colors that formed fifteen foot high red and gold ornate letters.

    Petey, Byrum & Keep


    “Clumping awesome!” said the Leewit.

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