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The Wizard of Karres: Chapter Fourteen

       Last updated: Friday, June 25, 2004 22:24 EDT



    “Who’s that?” Pausert asked Mannicholo sharply, pointing to a sausage-vendor strolling among the audience. The man looked perfectly ordinary, with his hotbox of sausages slung over his shoulders and not a sign of manner, costume, or oddity to mark him. That was suspicious, for it meant he was too ordinary to be one of Himbo Petey’s people.

    “Eh? Oh. Local. Petey has all the real food here sold and made by locals.”

    “Locals? But I thought we sold—”

    Mannicholo shook his head vigorously, so that his facial colors swirled like oil on the water. “All we sell are CarniSnax, that come straight out of the replicators. CarniCorn, CarniFluff, CarniPops, CarniCreme, CarniBars, CarniBites, and CarniSlurps. Fat, sugar, starch, water and salt, is all that’s in them; one hundred percent artificially flavored and nutritionally null, packed with enough preservatives that if you pick up a Pak in a thousand years it still won’t have passed its sell-by date. The stuff’s pure garbage but it’s guaranteed not to poison any sapient in the known universe. Real food gets sold by the locals and we take a cut. That way we don’t have to store and cook real food for more than the crew, and if anybody gets poisoned, or wants to claim he has been, he has to take it up with one of his own people.”

    Pausert eyed the vendor with disfavor. It was going to be hard enough to try and pick out possible crooks, ISS agents, freelance spies and piratical agents out of the crowd as it was. With a lot of loose locals being given carte blanche to run around backstage for the purpose of selling sausage-rolls and funnel-cakes, it was going to be even harder. You could hide almost any sort of spying mechanism in one of those food-boxes! And you could hide weapons, too.

    He tried to convey his concern to the rest of the Venture’s crew as they waited for the stagehands to set things up for a final dress-rehearsal. Hulik just gave him an opaque look, saying, “It will be just as hard for any spies to find out who we are, Captain. We are part of the showboat family now, and they are notoriously close-mouthed around strangers, especially when someone has come around asking questions about one of their own.”

    Hantis said nothing. “I can smell a spy a mile away,” growled Pul. “Don’t you worry about that.”

    The Leewit looked positively bored. “We’re smarter than they are,” she said, with the absolute confidence of a seven-year-old Mistress of the Universe. “They haven’t caught us before, and they won’t now.”

    Pausert decided not to remind her that being encased in ferroplast didn’t fall in with his definition of “not being caught.”

    Goth, at least, looked as worried as he felt. “I don’t like it either,” she admitted. “But we can’t keep them off the ship. We’ll just have to be careful.”

    That didn’t fit his definition of a solution either. Pausert worried about it so much that all through rehearsal, he kept missing cues and his marks. He’d have thought that Richard Cravan would be so angry with him that he’d be fired from the thespians outright—but nothing whatsoever was said.

    In fact, Cravan looked guardedly pleased. Pausert couldn’t figure out why, and said so aloud.

    Alton Morrisey, the male romantic lead who was playing Romeo to Hulik’s Juliet, looked up from his script. “Bad dress, good opening,” he said abruptly.

    It took Pausert a moment to decipher that. He decided that it must be another of the thespians’ superstitions, like never whistling in the theater and always referring to Macbeth as “The Scottish Play” and Richard the Third as “Dick Three-Eyes.” Presumably, it meant that a bad dress-rehearsal resulted in a good opening performance. He hoped that was right, although for someone like himself who had been trained as a space pilot, the logic was downright bizarre.

    But Pausert decided not to worry about it. He was feeling more relaxed, anyway, since now that every single one of them was in stage-makeup most of the time he realized that they’d inadvertently stumbled across an splendid anti-spy technique. He was certain that not even his own mother would recognize him, done up in a foxy-colored wig as Mercutio.

    Nevertheless, despite all of his other worries, the moment the curtain came up, somehow he forgot all of them. He watched raptly from the wings as Sampson and Gregory (who were Capulet servants) complained that they would not put up with insults from the Montague family. Then Abram and Balthasar (Montague servants) appeared and the four started quarreling. Benvolio (Lord Montague’s nephew) appeared and tried to break up the quarrel, but Tybalt (Lady Capulet’s nephew) appeared and picked a fight with Benvolio.

    That was Pausert’s first cue. Himbo Petey had enforced his will on Richard Cravan at least to this extent: he insisted on melées of the largest possible size whenever there was supposed to be a sword-fight. So, the captain rushed onstage to join the action.

    Here, Richard Cravan’s cleverness showed itself. Every pair of fighters had only four moves to memorize: two attacks and two parries. The secret was that each pair had different combinations, so that it looked like an amazingly complex and very realistic fight. In fact, out in the audience, Pausert could hear cheering and bets being placed. Every actor who knew how to handle a sword was doing so—everyone else was waving or wielding foam batons disguised as clubs or singlesticks. Even Goth, the Leewit, and Hantis were doing so, while Pul put in his bit by lunging into the mêlée and—carefully!—seizing the leg of one of the actors. It was a well-rehearsed bit of business. Pul dragged the fellow offstage while he screamed at the top of his lungs.

    At length, officers tried to break up the fight, even while Lord Capulet (played by Cravan) and Lord Montague (played by Himbo Petey) began to fight one another. The Prince of Verona finally appeared and stopped the fighting, proclaiming sentences of death to any that dared to break the peace of the city again.

    Pausert could then retire from the stage with everyone else—and to his amazement, he found himself shaking with excitement. The cheers of the crowd had acted on him like a drug, and it was a drug he wanted more of!

    But he could not have any just then, for the curtain fell and came back up on Montague’s house, and there were two more scenes before his next entrance in Scene Four.



    He got to observe Hulik, then, in her first real stage appearance as Juliet. Even though he had watched her in rehearsals, her full performance left him blinking. He would have sworn on his life that she was hardly more than a young girl, in her mid-teens at most. Maybe some of that was makeup, but the rest was acting. He’d seen her act the seductress often enough, but it was a revelation to see her play the complete innocent, and do so convincingly.

    Her performance left him vowing to make his Mercutio alive and real to those people out there. So when he swaggered onstage, he threw himself into his part with everything he had.

    He had to stay onstage, in the background, for the rest of the party-scene. And, great Patham, if he wasn’t half in love with “young Juliet” himself before it was over. And he knew her!

    When he finally made his exit, to gratifying applause, he felt almost drunk. It was wonderful! Wonderful! Who would have guessed that he had the makings of an actor in him? Who would have guessed that it was so intensely satisfying? He began to wonder if perhaps when this was all over, maybe he could come back to the Petey B and resume his place here….

    And that was when he relled vatch.

    “Oh no—” he breathed, and looked frantically about for it.

    But it was not his nemesis, the little silver-eyed one. It was another big one, and he didn’t even wait for it to announce itself or start in on mischief. While Juliet and Romeo played out their first love-scene, he closed his eyes and made klatha-hooks and tore into the thing.

    OW! STOP! OW! It shouted at him, shocked and dismayed. STOP IT, DREAM-THING! THIS IS MY DREAM! STOP IT RIGHT NOW!

    Go away! he thought back at it, This isn’t your dream, it’s mine, and I don’t want you in it.


    It took itself off to wherever vatches went, leaving behind little black patches of vatch-stuff. Pausert collected it all up, and that was when he relled vatch—again.

    This time it was the little silver-eyed vatch.

    Hee hee! it crowed with glee. You got him good!

    Suddenly he smelled a rat, a vatchy-rat. You lured that vatch here, didn’t you? he thought at it, suspiciously. You wanted me to beat him up!

    Sure. I want to get bigger and you can help me. And you know what? I’m not sure you’re a dream thing at all. I think you might be a real thing, coming into my dreams, like another vatch.

    Suddenly, Pausert felt very cold all over. Here was something he had worried about for a long time, staring him in the face. The vatches were some sort of interdimensional beings who thought of Pausert’s universe as nothing more than a dream, and good only for entertainment value. So they were inclined to meddle and make trouble for the amusement of it, but that also meant that they didn’t take any of what they saw and did too seriously. But if they actually realized that all of this was as real as their own universe, what would they do? Try and destroy it, for instance?

    Oh, don’t be such a fraidy, the vatchlet said scornfully. I won’t tell. You help me, Big Maybe-Real Thing, and I’ll help you!

    How? he asked skeptically.

    Give me that vatch-stuff, so I can get bigger. I’m tired of being little. They pick on the little ones.

    I’m not sure that’s a good idea. Pausert reminded himself forcefully that he couldn’t actually control this sort of vatch, only distract it. Even as little as it was, the thing had been something of a nightmare. Grown big and powerful...

    I’ll help you, the vatchlet countered. I promise! If you give my the pieces of vatch-stuff, I’ll only do what you ask me to. Well, pretty much. Please?

    He wanted to ask Goth for advice, but there wasn’t time.

    And this vatch, while full of mischief, had never actually done anything malicious…

    Unlike the Big Windy, for instance. Now there was a vatch that could stand having a few more bits pulled out of it!

    All right, he agreed, pulling the vatch-stuff out of his pocket. But you have to ask me before you go luring any more vatches here for me to beat up. And if I don’t have the time right then, you’ll just have to wait.

    It absorbed the shadowy patch of vatch-stuff before it answered, and even as it grew bigger, it also seemed to become a little more serious.

    All right, I promise. You must be a real thing. I finally figured out this place has linear time. I wouldn’t dream something as silly as linear time, so you’ve got to be real. Anything you want me to do?

    Oh my, he thought. Not only more serious, but more intelligent! It made him wonder just what the vatches actually were. And how they normally “got big.”

    Not right now, he said hastily. His next cue was coming up. Just, er, watch, and enjoy the show. This is—is—kind of awake-dreaming that we real-things do, to tell a story to each other.

    Is it? What fun! Oooo— Pausert sensed it somehow looking over the audience. It’s just a story? Like a dream? But they’re excited like it’s all real!

    Yes, and some of them already know what the ending will be, but they’re still excited. He was pleased to have given it a new sort of diversion. Watch them watching us, and you’ll see.

    Then his cue came, and he swaggered back onstage.

    By now the audience had decided that they liked him, especially when he played his bawdy tricks on Juliet’s Nurse. They were laughing at the slapstick humor of it, and even though half of his attention was on the vatch, he thought he had completed the job that Richard Cravan had set him—to make the audience care about him, so that when Tybalt killed him—

    Well, that was for later. He took his exit, and realized that the little vatch was gone. He heaved a sigh of relief. One less thing to worry about.

    For now.



    “—and that was when it stopped, well, acting like a vatch,” he concluded, as Goth and the Leewit stared at him. “Or at least, like the vatches I’ve run into before.”

    “We always knew there were some vatches that couldn’t be controlled, even by a really good vatch-handler like you. What I’m wondering now is whether that’s just because the vatches we usually run into are just, well, vatch-style village idiots?”

    The Leewit scowled, but it was her thinking sort of scowl. “You did all right, Captain,” she said, finally. “I think maybe Goth’s right. It’s not a new sort of vatch, but just one you don’t run across too often. You think if it eats vatch-stuff and keeps getting smarter, maybe someday it’ll get smart enough to leave us alone?”

    Pausert shrugged. “As long as it’s willing to play nice, I don’t care. I’m not going to give it too much vatch-stuff, though. What if it gets smart and big, then decides to really mess with us? By that point it’d be so big I couldn’t distract it anymore by tickling it with klatha hooks.”

    “Good thinking,” the Leewit agreed, just as her chrono chimed. “Oops! Got to get to the Big Top!” She scampered out of the dressing-room so fast she might just as well have teleported to the circus side of the ship. Pausert glanced at his own chrono; she had about half an hour to get into her clown-costume and makeup before the Entrance Parade. It was the first time he’d ever seen the Leewit making sure she was on time for anything.

    That worried him. She was enjoying her role in the Circus; maybe enjoying it too much.

    “We’re fitting in here entirely too well,” said Goth, in an echo of his own thoughts.

    Pul shouldered his way into the dressing-room, growling back his shoulder at the Nartheby Sprite and Hulik, who were following him. “—and you’re liking this too much!” he said. “What about our mission? What about the Nanite plague? What about the Empress?”

    Hulik, smiling faintly, leaned back against a wall, and started removing the long wig she wore as Juliet. Hantis folded herself into a chair. “I am liking this, but I haven’t forgotten, Pul,” she said seriously. “The trouble is, there are entirely too many people trying to find us. The Agandar’s pirates, not to mention the ISS. For all I know, the Sedmons might even be looking for us! One at a time we could evade, but until we shake some of the hunters off, every time we start to run, we’re only going to run into someone else. And the only way we can shake them is by doing what we’re doing: going to ground, not poking our noses up until we’ve lost some or all of them.”

    “We’re going to ground?” the grik-dog said, blinking. “I thought we were earning fuel-money, repair-money, our passage and buying the Venture free.”

    “We’re also in hiding, in the best way possible way,” said Hulik. “We’re not hiding.”

    Pul shook his head rapidly, his ears flapping like a pair of frantic wings. “Hiding? Not in hiding? You two are making my head hurt!”

    “Mine too,” said Pausert, “And I have to agree with Pul—I think you all like this life too much.”

    “If we tried to actually hide anywhere, chances are that we’d be found,” Hulik insisted. “Believe me, it’s the hardest thing in the world, trying to stay underground. You have to eat, you have to drink, and sooner or later, you nearly go crazy for a bit of open space around you. And people will always be looking for you and looking at you if you act as if you don’t want to be seen. But if you do what we’re doing—why, we’re not in hiding, are we? We’re some of the most visible people on the Petey B! Three shows a day, for most of us, two shows in the Freak Show or the Big Top and one on stage, out in front of thousands and thousands of people. Obviously we’re not trying to hide! But—!“

    She held up a finger, as Hantis nodded. “Do we look like the people that the ISS and the pirates are trying to find? Do we act like them?”

    “Well, no,” admitted Pul.

    Goth was apparently re-thinking the matter. “If we do witchery here, people will just assume it’s tricks,” she admitted. “And they’ll figure we’re working on something new for the acts. Nobody believes in Karres witches on the Petey B—I know, I’ve nosed around. They think it’s all misdirection and mirrors!”

    Hulik spread her hands. “You see?” she said to Pul and Pausert. “There’s something else I don’t think you’ve noticed. Outside—people are always asking personal questions about you—who are you, where are you from, where are you going, who do you know, what’s your business? Hadn’t you noticed, not even Himbo Petey asked very much about us.”

    “Well...” said Pausert slowly, his brow wrinkling as he thought back. “I guess you’re right.”

    “I’ve been monitoring his data-access, Captain,” said Goth. “He just did superficial checking on us, to make sure we weren’t well-known violent criminals or something. After that, he didn’t seem to care.”

    “He doesn’t care,” Hulik said firmly. “Showboat people are often people hiding something, or running from something, trying to live something down, or trying to forget something. That’s why nobody goes poking their noses in where they’re not invited. I expect if I ran full security checks on everyone on the Petey B, there wouldn’t be more than a handful of people who would pass. Everybody has a secret, and in order to keep their own secrets, they protect the secrets of everyone else in the family. We’re part of the family now, and if any outsiders come poking around, asking questions, they’ll get as many stories about us as there are people they ask, and not one of those stories will be anything like the truth.”

    At that, Goth started to chuckle. “That explains why Mannicholo was telling the Clown Master that the captain and the Leewit and me are all cousins that Ethulassia talked Himbo Petey into hiring away from a big, important theater company on Rellart where we were all stars!”

    Hulik echoed Goth’s chuckle. “And last I heard, you, Pul, are actually a were-dog from Kolatte—and you’re the real ventriloquist, because Hantis is a mute!” She smiled, and began to comb out her wig. “The stories will only get wilder and less believable. Everyone will make a up a different one, to help protect us, without any of us even hinting that we need protecting. So we’re as safe here as we could be anywhere outside of the Empress’ Palace.”

    “That may be true,” Pausert said grudgingly. “But what about our mission?”

    “The mission is only going to end badly if we get caught,” pointed out Hantis. “So we’ll just have to be patient, and do what we can, when we can, until we can break away without being chased.”

    “And right now, I think that means doing your escapist show over on Sideshow Alley,” said Goth, looking meaningfully at his chrono.

    Pausert left, shaking his head. They were probably right, but he didn’t like it. If anything, he was even more worried, because the longer they stayed here, the harder it would be to leave. After all, wasn’t this a dream come true? Didn’t everyone want to run away to join the circus? The trouble was, running away was the last thing he wanted to do.




    Pausert woke up in the darkness, and relled vatch. Hello, Big Real Thing! it saluted him cheerfully.

    For once, he was happy to salute it back. Hello, Silver-eyes, he thought at it. I have a question for you.

    Oh, a question! Now I know you’re a real thing. Dream things don’t ask questions.

    He thought about asking the vatch if it was different from other vatches, but realized that was a stupid question and would deserve a stupid answer. After all, if the vatch had asked him if he was different from other humans, he’d answer “yes,” of course. Any human would.

    Do all vatches get bigger and smarter when they eat vatch-stuff? he asked instead.

    Silver-eyes laughed—a new difference. It used to giggle. Bigger, sure. Not always smarter, though. A lot of the big ones are really stupid.

    But you do get smarter and bigger?

    Of course. That’s why I want more vatch-stuff. Being smarter is a lot more fun than being stupider.

    Are there more vatches who can do that? If he was going to run into a plague of uncontrollable vatches, he wanted to know about it.

    Not many. And when we get smart enough, we can go to the (*) place.

    The thought of (*) seemed untranslatable. But the clear sense Pausert got was that it was a place that was very desirable—and very much “not here.” He decided not to ask Silver-eyes any more questions about it. It probably wouldn’t mean anything to him, and it just might be one of those strange klatha things that would turn his head inside-out if he did understand it.

    I’ve thought about something you can do for me, then. I’d like it if you can make trouble for the dream-things that start to make trouble for us. Not the ones that only pretend to make trouble, he added hastily, like the ones in that show-story that the others and I play in, or the way the clowns toss the Leewit around. I mean real trouble.

    Like when you were trying to hide Little and Teeth? That was a neat trick, the way you twisted light around! I never would have thought of it myself until I saw you do it.

    What Pausert got along with the words “Little” and “Teeth” were impressions of Hantis and Pul that concentrated on the Nartheby Sprite’s relative height and Pul’s formidable jaws. Pausert thought about trying to get the vatch to identify them by their names, but it was probably a lost cause.

    Yes. If that sort of person is going to make trouble, I’d like you to make their lives as difficult for them as possible. For once, he reflected, he was not going to have to worry about people seeing impossible things. This was a circus, and anything that appeared impossible would, without a doubt, be chalked up to smoke and mirrors and stage-trickery.

    I might, agreed the vatchlet. Since that was probably the most he was going to get out of the creature, the captain left it at that. It had already promised not to make trouble for them, which was more than he had ever gotten out of a vatch before this.

    Feed me?

    Can you bring me something to feed you with? he countered.

    Think so.

    Its presence faded away, and he started to drift back to sleep again, when he suddenly relled something big, and right on top of him!

    With a muffled, startled yell, he formed klatha hooks and sank them into the thing. The vatch was almost as startled as he was, even more so when it knew it had been caught. It literally ripped itself off his hooks and vanished.

    Silver-eyes appeared the instant it was gone, and he sensed it dancing with impatience when it “saw” the bits of vatch-stuff clinging to his hooks. Feed me!

    Once again, Pausert realized, Silver-eyes had lured a big vatch into the area. He was irritated at the little vatch—it could have at least given some warning!—but he gave it what it wanted. And, once again, saw it growing just a tiny bit bigger.

    I’ll watch, it said then, in a “voice” that seemed a bit more mentally resonant. Then it faded away again. Unable to make up his mind if he had done a good or a bad thing, Pausert turned over, and finally got back to sleep.



    There seemed to be no immediate fallout from the agreement the next day. Which was just as well, since the theatrical company was now in rehearsal for a second play in the morning, while continuing the performances of Romeo and Juliet in the evening, and one of the works they’d already had in their repertoire in the late afternoon. That one was called Twelfth Night and required a much smaller cast.

    Contrary to Himbo Petey’s glum predictions, the audiences here seemed to have no objections to a play that ended in tragedy, but Richard Cravan decided that the second play put into performance with his augmented cast should be a comedy. He chose A Midsummer Night’s Dream in order to use Hantis and Pul. Pul, Goth and the Leewit were creatures called Fairies with fairly extensive speaking roles; Hantis was the Puck-creature that Cravan had mentioned by name, and Hulik played one of the two romantic parts, a girl by the name of Helen. As usual, Cravan himself acted as well as directed, playing King Oberon; Ethulassia was Titania, his Queen.

    Even Vezzarn was pressed into service this time. This was a play with an enormous cast, even bigger than Romeo and Juliet, and Cravan recruited people from all over the showboat for non-speaking roles. If they were able to come in on cues and “hit their spots,” had interesting faces or could dance a little, they would find themselves filling a place in crowd scenes.

    And Pausert found himself playing the clown Bottom against Dame Ethulassia.

    Now that put him in an extremely uncomfortable position, for Ethulassia was supposed to fall in love with him thanks to a magical love-potion administered by Puck. He couldn’t tell if her flirtatious manner on stage was part of her act, or some not-so-subtle attempt to get his attention off-stage. Maybe he was enjoying his performances as Mercutio a little too much, and this was the Fates’ way of getting back at him. And the more he, as Bottom, tried to evade Ethulassia’s cooing caresses, the more she pursued him.

    Cravan found this interpretation to be hilariously funny. So, evidently, did almost everyone else in the company, for many of the cast members congratulated him on an original “take” on the character. Goth simply gave him sidelong, opaque looks, saying nothing. The Leewit, on the other hand, taunted him with scathing remarks under her breath whenever he was just within earshot. Hantis and Hulik were amused; Vezzarn couldn’t understand why he wasn’t following up on Ethulassia’s flirtations. Only Pul seemed to sympathize with him.

    And he had not forgotten Silver-eyes, either. Though, if the little vatch was around, it was staying so far out of his way that he couldn’t rell it at all. He finally cornered both the girls, and told them what had happened the last time it had come around.

    “So now I think maybe I’ve gotten us deeper in trouble than we were before,” he said worriedly.

    The Leewit shook her head. “I don’t know—” she began, but Goth let out her breath in a hiss.

    “Huh,” she said. “I just thought of something, Captain. What if the vatches we see are all—oh, in a coma or something. They aren’t stupid, they’re just brain-damaged. That’s why they think we’re dreams. And the ones like Silver-eyes are the ones that are going to wake up, if they can just get enough vatch-stuff put together. Maybe they need it to get their brains back on-line.”

    Now Pausert felt guilty as well as worried. “That’s horrible!” he replied. “If that’s true, then I’m beating up on—”

    Goth waved her hand at him. “We don’t know that,” she reminded him. “We don’t really know anything much about vatches. And anyway, they don’t have any guilt over making our lives miserable, so I don’t see why you should feel guilty about what you’re doing. Maybe it’ll teach some of them not to mess us up.”

    “Besides,” the Leewit said firmly. “Silver-eyes is one of the kind that you can’t control. The sooner you get it out of our universe and into some place else, the better!”

    Well, he could agree with that, but it just didn’t make him feel any better.

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