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The Wizard of Karres: Chapter Nineteen

       Last updated: Friday, July 16, 2004 00:48 EDT



    Whoever the would-be kidnappers had been working for, they were either unsuccessful in persuading the authorities of their wrongs, or else they decided not to even try involving the locals, for there was no pursuit and not even a query from the law. The Petey B lifted and got into and out of orbit with no more trouble than usual, and things went back to normal.

    Pausert was left to ponder something remarkable: their little silver-eyed vatch, of the untamable sort, was not only behaving itself, it was cooperating and making itself very useful. He was not at all used to thinking of a vatch as useful.

    The Petey B was well out of orbit and into interstellar space when Silver-eyes caught up with them again. Pausert just had time to notice it was there, when it announced itself.

    I deserve feeding! it said cheerfully.

    That you do! Pausert agreed. If you can lure something big, dumb, and juicy here—

    The vatchlet vanished, but it wasn’t gone long. And the vatch it brought with it was exceedingly big, slow, and evidently not much brighter than a cow. Pausert felt not a trace of guilt over tearing a couple of head-sized chunks out of it before it fled, protesting. Silver-eyes feasted, growing a bit in size.

    I like you, Silver-eyes announced. I’ve decided that helping real things I like is more fun than playing tricks on dream things.

    Maybe that’s because just playing tricks is too easy for you, Pausert suggested.

    The vatchlet seemed to think that over for a while. It didn’t go away, it just floated in the middle of the control cabin, like a puff of shadow, while its slitty eyes winked and blinked.

    What are you doing? it finally asked.

    I’m resting. And thinking.

    No. I meant, you have something important to do, I can feel it. I think that’s why you get in so much trouble. So what is it?

    Should he tell the vatch? Well, why not? It wasn’t as if it would be able to blab things to anyone else who didn’t already know. Only a klatha-practitioner would be able to even sense a vatch was there, much less hear it. On the other hand, if he told the vatch what was going on, it just might be more inclined to help because he’d answered its question.

    So he explained it all. The Nanite plague. The disappearance of Karres. Needing to get the information to the Empress.

    Then he had to explain what “the Empress” was. Traitors in the ISS—and then he had to explain what “the ISS” was. That the pirates who had followed the Agandar were inexplicably convinced that they had the Agandar’s treasure and were also trying to find them. And, naturally, he had to explain what “pirates” were, and who “the Agandar” had been and so forth. There was a lot of explaining to do.

    The vatch was quiet for a much longer time, then. Pausert had never really gotten the impression that vatches thought much about anything before this, but he sure got that feeling now.

    I don’t understand most of this, the vatch said finally. I’d like to help anyway, but I’m not very big.

    You’re bigger now than you were when we met you, Pausert pointed out.

    True. That’s because you feed me. I think that’s a good thing.

    I’d like to think so also, Pausert told it. Believe me, I appreciate the help you’ve been giving us.

    The bigger I get, the more I can help you. And when I’m big enough, I will be able to go to the (*) place. I think that’s probably a good thing too.

    So do I, said Pausert, and he meant it. Not that it wasn’t a grand thing, in some ways, having a vatch around that was making its business to be helpful. But, on the whole, Pausert would be relieved to know that the one vatch he couldn’t actually control had gone somewhere else and wouldn’t come back. I wouldn’t be a friend if I asked you to stay any longer than you have to.

    What is a “friend?” it asked, and then the captain had another long explanation to make. It was one he was very careful with, emphasizing that one of the things that friends did not do was to indulge in mischief that caused each other harm, and that the thing they tried to do all the time was to make each other happy and help each other.

    Like feeding you, he finished. And like you keeping those un-friends from hurting us. And no matter how far friends are from each other, they always remember what they did for each other, and they remember how good it was to be friends.

    I like that. Okay. I will be your friend, Big Real Thing, and you will be mine. And that will be true even after I go to the (*) place.



    Goth came in then and the vatch vanished, as vatches were inclined to do. Goth stared at the place where it had been, and then at Pausert.

    “All right, Captain,” she said, putting her hands on her hips. “Just what have you been up to?”

    When he finished telling her, Goth continue to stare at him. Now, that was not at all unusual; what was unusual was the kind of stare she was giving him.

    “I’m not entirely sure you’re a witch anymore, Captain,” she said slowly. “You’re doing things no witch I ever heard of can do, or has ever tried to do.”

    He felt himself flush. “Oh, come on!” he scoffed. “I can’t use the Sheewash Drive—”

    “Yet,” Goth interrupted firmly.

    “I can’t use the Egger Route—”

    “Yet. And you are a vatch-tamer, and now you’re making friends with the things! You’re no kind of a witch I ever heard of.”

    “All right,” he replied. “Just what am I, then?”

    He didn’t really expect a reply, but he should have known better. This was Goth, after all.

    She canted her head to the side. “A wizard, maybe,” she said, rubbing the tip of her nose. “Hmm. Maybe that. A wizard of Karres.”



    “A vatch that wants to be friends.” Hantis shook her head. “I’ve never heard of such a thing, but it certainly beats the alternative. You do have a way with the oddest creatures, Captain.”

    “He does,” agreed Pul. “I only want to bite him a very little, now and again.”

    “I’ll take that as a compliment, coming from you,” Pausert replied. “Does anyone know where we’re going next?”

    “A mining world,” Pul told him. “I overheard Cravan and Petey talking about it.”

    “Mining!” Pausert was surprised. “I wouldn’t think miners would appreciate anything we do.” And with that, he went to find one of the more experienced members of the troupe to get his opinion.

    The first one he found was Mannicholo, who was trying out a new juggling act with glowing wands, which set off the reflective colors of his dermis wonderfully. Pausert didn’t interrupt him, since it looked as if the chameleon man was finally getting some success with it. When Mannicholo caught all of the wands, he offered up some sincere applause.

    “Thanks,” the chameleon man said cheerfully. “By the time we hit ground again, it might even be ready to show. What can I do for you?”

    “I’ve found out we’re going to a mining world, and I wouldn’t have thought that we’d have much of a chance of an audience there.”

    “Hmm. Depends on the world. One that’s being mined by a major concern, no, you’re right; most of the mining there is automated, and the big companies tend to keep their workers well fed and entertained, because working those machines is skilled and dangerous work. But there are plenty of worlds where the big deposits have been mined out. Even though there isn’t enough left there to interest the big companies, there’s plenty to go around for wildcatters.” Mannicholo tossed one of his wands idly from hand to hand. “And you’d be surprised at what they like. Things that remind them of when they were kids and carefree—like the circus part of the show. And a lot of them are better educated than you’d guess. It’s self-education, often as not, but they can be pretty bright boys and girls. Stupid wildcatters tend to die quickly, you see. The littler mining machines are powerful and tricky to run, and a wildcatter uses explosives nearly as often as he uses a mining machine, and you can’t be stupid and know how to handle explosives properly.”

    “That still doesn’t explain why they’d like the thespians.”

    “Well, they all tend to listen to stuff while they tend the mining machines,” Mannicholo explained. “And here’s kind of what happens. Everyone that comes out here has his own set of personal recordings. But it’s expensive to bring in anything new, so when a miner gets tired of his own stuff, he starts trading around. Pretty soon he runs out of stuff he knows he likes, then he gets desperate, and starts trading for anything. So the longer a miner’s been out here, the more different stuff he’s tried, and he’ll have listened to practically anything—every kind of music, lectures, plays, educational recordings, spoken books, you name it. So a miner can have a taste for things you wouldn’t expect. Then there’s the last thing—and that is that wildcat miners work alone for the most part, so the one thing they really crave is company and light and color and sound, and lots of it all. So no matter how bad our acts were, chances are they’d come to see us for a while. But if the acts are really sad, it won’t be for long.”

    “Oh.” He hadn’t considered that. “And—you said they aren’t stupid—”

    “That’s right. So that’s why, if a showboat wants to really make money, the acts have to be good. Funnily enough, I have always found that the one set of acts that consistently makes money on a mining world is the thespians and people like them; people who rely as much as what’s heard as what’s seen, and people who do things that open up the imagination.” Mannicholo winked. “Which is why I am very grateful to you for tipping me off before anyone else. I’ve got a song-and-comedy act I’d better dust off before we hit ground. Believe me, Pausert, when miners like you, they really like you, and when they really like you, they’ve got some fine ways of showing it!”

    All right, he had one set of questions answered, only to give rise to another set—because what Mannicholo could have meant, he had no clue.

    Until he got to rehearsal, that is.

    “Ladies and gentlemen,” said Cravan, summoning them all to the stage. “Our next destination is the mining world, Altim Four.”

    There was much excited murmuring among the older members of the thespians. Cravan waved his hand. “My old troupers, please allow me to explain what this means to the newer members.”

    The murmuring died.

    “We have done some investigation,” Cravan said, with satisfaction. “The last time a showboat passed this way, Altim Four, a world with nothing more sophisticated than lower vertebrates, was being mined by one of the major mining companies. They have since taken what they wanted—which was heavy radioactives—and left. That was five years ago. The wildcatters moved in immediately, and as those of you who are familiar with heavy-metal worlds know, Altim Four would have been rich in—

    “Gold!” shouted someone.

    Cravan nodded graciously. “And other precious metals. The consortium didn’t even bother to look for gemstones. Needless to say, since it was a heavy-metal world, the conditions are hazardous, and everything needs to go through decontamination, which has meant there was no ‘rush’ to speak of when it was opened to wildcatters. Nevertheless, those who dared are profiting richly. What this means to us, my friends, is that if these people decide that they like us, they are going to give ample evidence of that. And what that means is that if these miners wish to offer an accolade beyond applause, there probably will not be flowers thrown on stage at the end of a performance—there probably will be pouches of gold dust and rough gemstones.”

    For a moment, Pausert was not sure he’d heard that correctly. But Dame Ethulassia’s eyes shone with enthusiasm.

    Pausert sucked in a breath, while one of the other cast-members whistled. Why, if something like that happened—they could all get enough extra to buy the Venture free and get her fixed and fueled!



    Cravan interrupted the buzz. “Now, before we ever make planetfall, I want it understood that this sort of thing is provided for in your contracts. It probably isn’t anything you even looked at too closely at the time, but I want the terms understood from the beginning. Provision one: for accolades that are tossed onto the stage, no matter who is the assumed person being rewarded, one third goes to the general fund for the Petey B along with ticket receipts, and two thirds is shared out among all the members of the company on an equal basis—one share each, no matter how junior or senior you are.” He looked quite stern, but Pausert could not help but notice that the techs and riggers brightened up considerably at that. No doubt why, either; otherwise, they’d have had no chance at getting such bonuses.

    “Provision two: for gifts delivered backstage to a specific artist: one half the artist may keep for his or herself, and one half is shared out among all the members of the company. While I realize that this may not seem fair to those of you who are Leads, let me remind you that although you are the apex of a pyramid of talent, without those beneath you, you would swiftly find yourself plummeting. Ask yourself if you could have earned such accolades without the carpenters and techs, good lighting, good sound, makeup, hair and costuming, and the support of all of the extras, before you feel yourself wronged.”

    “I’m grateful, Sir Richard, not complaining!” said Hulik into the silence. “On any other world, we’d get a bunch of flowers and applause and be happy for that. And we’re lucky to have Himbo Petey for our Showmaster, smart enough to find this place before anyone else did!”

    “Here here!” said Alton, and “I’m with you, sweetheart!” said Trudi, and that seemed to settle it for everyone. Rehearsal went forward in a cheerful glow.

    Afterwards, Pausert caught up with Goth. “What’s on the contract for solo acts?” he asked in an undertone.

    “Half to the general fund, half to you,” she replied, without needing to think about it. “And the circus side is similar to the thespians. So you betcha there’s going to be a lot of extra stalls and people trying to think up a hot solo or small ensemble act to run on the side.”

    She was right, of course, which led Himbo Petey to insist that all such solo acts pass an audition if they weren’t already on the bill. Just as well that he did, or Sideshow Alley would have been neck-deep in exotic dancers. Furthermore, Peter would not permit anyone to have an act in direct competition with someone who had an established stall. If, for instance, someone wanted to set up an exotic dance turn, they had better not only be good, they had better have a different theme than anyone else. Pausert was the comedy escape-artist, which meant that anyone new had to go for the dangerous and hazardous escapes. Not surprisingly, no one did. The thrill-escapes needed someone who was a superb athlete and very, very practiced in his art. Anything less got people killed.

    “Not in my show! You’re smart, you can do better than that!” was the roar often heard coming from Petey’s office. And it was Ethulassia, surprisingly, who met the crestfallen at the door, took them off for tea and sympathy in her stateroom, and usually was able to suggest something that Petey would approve.

    Or, if she couldn’t, Vonard Kleesp usually could. Kleesp was often to be found in the Dame’s stateroom, these days, lounging on one of her overstuffed divans. Dame Ethulassia’s campaign of “personal intervention” seemed to have succeeded, at least to some extent. The man had become Ethulassia’s paramour, in a manner of speaking. Pausert suspected the Dame’s passion for the fellow was a considerably more casual thing than she professed—she was an actress, after all, given to public flamboyance—but he was simply relieved to be spared her aggressive flirtations himself.

    For all of Vonard’s self-professed reputation as a mean drunk, he was actually never more than moderately pickled these days and seemed rather inclined to sardonic humor than anything nastier. And his checkered past had given him insight into a thousand clever little scams and hustles, any number of which could be adapted to these circumstances.

    If Pausert hadn’t had that little discussion with Mannicholo, he probably would have been surprised by some of the acts that people came up with. There were several singing acts, for instance, ranging from opera to folk ballads, several solo instrumental musicians and four different instrumental groups. Among all of the exotic dancers, there was a ballet act, adagio dancers, staged by two of the acrobats. Mannicholo wasn’t the only one doing comedy. There were three fortune-tellers, each one doing a different sort of supposed divination, and a mentalist act.

    “But no one, absolutely no one, is going to run a clairvoyant act,” Petey decreed in a company-wide meeting. “I am not having anyone duping these poor people by pretending to speak to their dead. That’s not only fraud, it’s obscene. I won’t have it under my tent!”

    And no games of chance, either—though without a doubt, members of the company were going to run covert card games anyway. But if they ran a dirty game and got caught, well, it would be their own skin they risked, and nothing to do with the company as a whole. It wasn’t that Himbo Petey objected to gambling, nor to fleecing the miners with the usual house edge—it was just that miners were generally large, strong people with short tempers, and they had a habit of wrecking places and people that they thought were cheating them. Soon enough, someone would come set up a casino here, and take that chance. Petey was too conservative to risk it.

    Goth and the Leewit decided to perform a variation on Pausert’s comedic escape-act, by putting together a comedy magic-act. Goth would fumble the tricks, and her assistant, the Leewit, would, in the process of putting the equipment away or getting it ready on stage, do them flawlessly. And with just enough exasperation to make it funnier.

    When they presented the idea to Petey for his approval, the Showmaster hesitated. There was already a comedy-magic act—Alton’s, whose persona was a gentlemanly drunk. Assisted by a pretty little acrobat in a scanty maid’s costume, he would produce all manner of unlikely objects from hat, coat, pocket, and thin air, seeming as baffled and surprised by their appearance as the audience was. But Petey decided that the novelty of having two young sisters work together, along with the sibling-rivalry theme, was sufficiently original to let them go ahead.

    Even Vezzarn got into the mix with a novelty target act—throwing everything from styluses to meat cleavers, and doing so well at it that Pausert was glad that the little spacer was on their side.

    “How did you get so good at this?” he asked in surprise.

    Vezzarn shrugged, and lobbed another fork into the target. “When you’re as short as I am, and as puny, and you find you’ve gotten into a fight, you don’t want to get too close to the other guy if you can help it. It’s a good thing if you can stick him full of things from the other side of the room and make him think about something other than hitting you. And when you’re in that situation, you usually don’t have a lot of time to choose what you’re going to use to throw at him.”

    Hulik alone among their group wasn’t going to have a solo act—but then, she was hardly going to need one. If there were going to be pouches of gold dust being sent backstage, thought Pausert, she was going to be the person most likely to receive them. He just hoped that she would at least think about contributing some of it to getting the Venture back and spaceworthy.

    He thought about asking her directly about that. But she seemed to have something else on her mind altogether, and as far as he could tell, it didn’t have anything to do with the potentials of this next planetfall. He caught her, more and more often, gazing off into space with a puzzled and wistful expression, and he wasn’t the only one.

    In fact, she was acting very oddly, one minute her old self, then the next, someone softer, and so unlike her normal self that he wouldn’t have recognized her. But it was Dame Ethulassia who finally put an end to his bemusement with what—he was sure—was the right answer.

    They were both offstage, waiting for their cues, during a rehearsal of Romeo and Juliet, watching Hulik pour out her feelings into the waiting ears of Romeo. Ethulassia said suddenly: “That woman is in love with someone—and she hasn’t even realized it for herself yet.”

    “What?” he replied. “But who?”

    Not me! he thought, in half a panic. Not that Hulik wasn’t stunningly beautiful—but he really didn’t want anyone that dangerous in love with him!

    “Oh, no one in your crew, or even on the Petey B, I don’t think. Which is why she hasn’t yet realized that she’s in love with whoever it is.” Ethulassia rubbed her finger along the side of her nose and continuing to watch Hulik with narrowed eyes. “If I know that young woman at all, and I think I do, she’s the kind that gets what she goes after. And she would leave Hulik-shaped holes in anything that got between her and the one she loved. Whoever he is, he may be the luckiest or the unluckiest man in the universe—depending on how he feels about her.”

    Since that was a perfectly accurate description of the former ISS agent, Pausert nodded agreement. And he was quite relieved to hear that the object of her affections was someone other than himself.

    But of course, that left the question open—who was it?

    And what was Hulik going to do when she figured it out?

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