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The Wizard of Karres: Chapter Twenty One

       Last updated: Friday, July 16, 2004 00:52 EDT



    Vaudevillia had been, in Pausert’s opinion, one of the ugliest mud-balls in the universe. Altim Four made Vaudevillia look like a pleasure-planet.

    At least it wasn’t a swamp. The vegetation was limited to the local versions of mosses and lichens, the local fauna was lower reptiles and whatever was swimming in the oceans, and a lot of insects. Fortunately, none of them found any of the invaders at all tasty, but they were a nuisance, anyway. All the heavy metals made it dangerous to drink the water without a lot of processing. Eating anything grown here, except what was grown hydroponically, was out of the question. The water was a curious green color—copper salts, Pausert thought. And while the air was breathable, it left a faintly bitter taste in the back of the throat.

    If Altim wasn’t a swamp, it was nonetheless warm, humid, and overcast most of the time. That was above ground, of course, a place where the miners mostly weren’t. Every man, woman, and neuter among them was spending most waking hours trying to dig out a fortune without poisoning themselves.

    The ones who had it easiest were the ones who had staked their claims to EmCorps tailings. That ore was already out of the ground and processed. It didn’t need mining equipment to dig it out again, it just needed more processing to extract whatever else was lurking in there—and a decontamination unit to clean out residual radioactives. Those machines could run themselves. The hard part of their job was that in return for the stakes, by the terms of their charter these miners also served as reclamation techs, turning poisonous tailings into something benign and restoring the landscape. What there was of it.

    Still, no telling what might evolve. Or what might turn up one day to take them to task for ruining the place. Better to be safe than sorry.

    The spaceport was huge, built to take EmCorp’s enormous freighters, and lots of them. Now it was mostly empty, which mean the Petey B was able to come in, set down, and set up on real tarmac without inconveniencing anyone. Better yet, since Altim Four was still officially EmCorp’s private property, that meant that there was not an ISS presence. What passed for law around here was EmCorp’s security service. They acted pretty much like local police, and enforced what little law there was. Lawbreakers were brought up in front of a magistrate and either fined or booted off the planet. Since being booted off the planet was the last thing any of the miners wanted, it was a simple, but effective, form of justice. The miners were all rugged individualists who didn’t give a damn about government, anyway. They paid EmCorp for their stake, EmCorp kept the spaceport running and utter mayhem from breaking loose, and everyone seemed reasonably satisfied with the arrangement. EmCorp didn’t even try the usual heavy-handed tactics of unrestrained giant corporations. Dealing with wildcat miners, that... could be risky.

    Himbo Petey did not do a leaflet drop as they came in; with most of the miners underground, that would have been a wasted effort. And for the same reason, few people saw the showboat come in to land. Instead, he did something that a showboat almost never did: he bought advertising time on the news com-channel.

    There was only one, and probably all of the miners listened to it at least once a day; it was just about the only way these far-scattered and reclusive people could keep track of what was going on with the rest of the universe. And there wasn’t much else here that needed to purchase advertising; everyone knew every single bar, eatery, and entertainment-parlor there was. That would change, of course, as other merchants got wind of the place and decided it was worth the chance of poisoning to set up shop here. But, for now, Port-town was the only center of population, and it was pretty much as it had been when EmCorp moved out.

    Only four people showed up to watch the setup, and they were all viding for the local newsfeed. Pausert was surprised. Usually there were lots of folk turning out for what amounted to a free show. But miners, he was told by other members of the slowship’s company, were always an odd bunch. It would be like them to figure they could get a better view on the vid during their downtime, and meanwhile, they could be making money.

    Himbo Petey realized that this amounted to free advertising, of course, and immediately sent out Mannicholo (for the exotic look), the most articulate of the clowns (for the comedic aspect) and the prettiest of the female aerialists to give the vid-crew the full tour and the best shots of the set-up. Mannicholo extolled the wonders of Sideshow Alley and acted as the clown’s straight-man, the clown cracked some excellent jokes, and the girl waxed eloquent over the delights under the Big Top and on the stage of the Theater. Pausert watched some of it himself; it was a good show, and if the camera-man spent a lot of time with the lens focused on the aerialist, well, that was hardly a shock since the population ran to seventy-five percent male. And given the usual programming available—mostly “educational” programs, which the station could get for free—it wasn’t surprising that the show got a major chunk of the broadcasting day, with one initial play and two replays to cover all three work-shifts.

    No doubt about it, the Petey B was Big News so far as Altim Four was concerned.

    Pausert expected that, given all the coverage, Himbo Petey would want things up and running immediately, if not sooner. But, no. The whole first day, the showboat was dark, running extra dress rehearsals for every act, even the sideshows. Pausert learned later from Mannicholo that this was for two reasons: Petey wanted the chance for every miner to have seen the ‘cast, and he wanted anticipation to build on both sides of the equation.

    It was smart thinking; as Pausert had long since realized, just one more example of Himbo Petey’s shrewd business sense, which lurked beneath his sometimes buffoonish exterior appearance.

    All four of the new plays were now in production: Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and The Merchant of Venice. For the moment, the previous four, Hamlet, Othello, Twelfth Night, and As You Like It were out. Although Dame Ethulassia told Pausert confidentially that if the miners responded with enthusiasm to these plays from Old Yarth, Cravan would probably put all four of the old ones back in performance, and have the Venture’s crew understudy for parts already held by the original cast.

    Maybe being a witch—or a wizard—made memorization a lot easier than it was for most people. Pausert was mildly surprised to realize that the idea of memorizing four parts (or more, if he was going to understudy more than one in each play) didn’t bother him that much.



    Before the Petey B set down, Himbo Petey had delivered a cautionary speech to the entire crew, warning them not to expect that the miners had made fabulous strikes and were laden with wealth. Even though the conditions were right for such a thing, that did not mean it had happened. But when the first of the crew actually made it into town and saw the hideously inflated prices—set out in weights and karats, rather than maels—there was no mistaking the feverish look in the eyes of anyone with an act.

    And that was when Pausert got an idea.

    He went into the bowels of the ship, looking for engineers. He had the feeling that these, the people who kept the ship and not the show running, might be the forgotten ones in all of the hurly-burly. And that although they were getting crew-share of the new profits, they were probably feeling a bit resentful that they were not going to be able to make more.

    “How many of you don’t have an act?” he asked the Chief Engineer bluntly.

    The grizzled old man rubbed the back of his head thoughtfully. “Most of us,” he admitted.

    “Good. I have a proposition for you, then. There’s no rule that stalls can’t sell things. In fact, there are souvenir stalls salted all through Sideshow Alley, and I have a hold full of tinklewood fishing poles and all-weather cloaks. There’s fish here, you know. Even if you can’t eat them, there’s still sport in catching them, and it certainly rains here plenty enough. All you have to do is make them into souvenir fishing poles and all-weather cloaks. Just slap ‘Petey, Byrum and Keep, the Greatest Show In the Galaxy’ on them, and you lot can take turns off-shift in the stall selling them.”

    The Chief Engineer brightened. He’d seen the prices of merely ordinary objects here. A souvenir of the showboat could be marked up a bit more than that. Still, he was cautious. “So—what do you get out of this?”

    “I need my ship fixed,” Pausert said bluntly. “I know you patched her to keep her from leaking too much, but I need her fixed right. You boys get the poles and the cloaks and anything else that used to be in the holds to peddle as souvenirs, and in your off-shift time, you fix my ship right and tight. But—oh, you’d better not try to do anything with those educational toys,” he added hastily. “They tend to explode.”

    “Can we take ‘em apart and do something with the bits?” the Chief Engineer asked.

    “So long as you don’t get blown up, you’re welcome to,” Pausert replied, wondering if he was finally going to get rid of the wretched things after all. “Is it a deal?”

    “Let me get the crew together and you can put it to them,” the Chief said. “But on the surface of it, I like it.”

    “And I’ll get my niece.”

    With Goth doing the negotiating, an agreement was soon reached that was satisfactory for both sides. Even Himbo Petey approved when he was approached for permission.

    “That’s a cut above fluffy clown-dog toys and whirligigs,” he said, rubbing his hands with pleasure. “With no children on this planet, I was wondering what we were going to do for souvenirs. In fact, I ought to canvas the rest of the ship to see if anyone has any more ideas, besides programs.”

    They did. Recordings of the circus music. Banners to brighten up Spartan quarters, cut from spare synthasilk and printed with the same images as the posters and fliers. Badges for coveralls, of animals and clown-faces. Carryalls and cups and drink-bottles with “Petey, Byrum and Keep” blazoned across them. Copies of the scripts of the plays, with holos of the performers in costume. The showboat began to buzz with frenzied activity as those who hadn’t come up with acts, or whose acts were marginal at best, began working frantically to produce souvenirs aimed at adult pockets, rather than children’s. And in the meantime, there was a showboat crammed full of things—unused or duplicate personal items, stuff that was still in the holds of the ships that had been bought and incorporated into the frame, forgotten bits and bobs that people had brought aboard and discovered they didn’t need—much of which could be branded with the showboat name and logo and put into a stall until the real souvenirs were ready. Himbo Petey beamed with approval upon it all, for the ship got a cut of the profits from every stall, and he got a cut of the ship’s portion.

    In fact, he elected to keep the show dark for an unprecedented second day to allow the merchandize stalls to take the place of those who decided that they would rather peddle souvenirs than compete on talent alone.

    Meanwhile, the rumors outside the gates continued to swell. Curious and increasingly impatient miners began to show up at the ticket office to demand schedules and ask about advance tickets for particular shows. So when the gates did open at last, at dawn on the third day, there was a gratifyingly large crowd.

    Which Pausert didn’t see, of course, because he was in morning rehearsal. But when the cast broke for lunch, he was gratified to see several of his all-weather cloaks and one or two of those dratted fishing poles going past in the possession of new owners.

    He inhaled his food, and headed for Sideshow Alley. The stalls were never actually empty. The morning shift in his stall was being maintained by one of the aerial contortionists from the Big Top who was part of the curtain act and the Spanish web ensemble. Here she performed solo contortion and balancing on the tiny stage. As Pausert entered the stall from the back, she passed him, dressed in her street clothes, with a friendly wave. “No accolades yet,” she said cheerfully. “But I’m getting a full house every turn.”

    “Excellent,” he replied, and ducked inside.

    There was just enough room behind the stage for him to change into his Escapist costume—in his case, a skin-tight shirt in silvery synthasilk and looser breeches in electric blue. As he put his own props up on the stage, he heard the talker outside, running his pitch, talking up the act. Sometimes, when things were slow, acts would come out in front for a free-see. Pausert had the feeling that would not be the case here.

    Then he relled vatch.

    Do you need me? asked Silver-eyes.

    Are you willing to be my assistant, the way Second Littlest is usually?

    Sure. You don’t even need to feed me.

    Unbelievable. A cooperative vatch; at least, for as long as it wasn’t bored. But maybe the reactions of the audience would keep it from being bored. He could hope, anyway.

    The persona he had cooked up for this act was, in truth, based a bit on the way he used to think of himself, and a lot on some of the over-inflated egos of his superiors on Nikkeldepain. He waited a bit nervously behind the curtain for the talker to give him the signal that the stall was as full as it was going to get—a flashing red light just above his head. Then it was his turn to toe the control that set the automated lights and his recorded music going and the curtain to rise.

    Then he struck a pose. As the curtain came up, the stage lights brightened and the house lights dimmed, the audience of miners saw a fellow in flamboyant costume in an exaggerated “strong-man” pose. He took a couple more—equally exaggerated—poses, while his recorded music played, until the audience began to chuckle, realizing that he was “playing” someone who was altogether too full of himself.

    Then his talker came in, and began doing the spiel, and he went into his act.

    The first couple of escapes were done “straight,” though with a ridiculous amount of flourish. Then came the comic sequence.

    He wasn’t altogether certain that the vatch was going to help—until, practically on cue!—he felt the cool breath of air on his hands that told him that Silver-eyes was doing Goth’s job exactly. The roar of laughter as he struggled, while the talker pretended consternation, came as a relief and a surprise. There were a lot of people in here!

    He finished the act exactly as scripted, and went into the “blow-off” poses to gales of laughter as the curtain went down.

    Perfect! he thought at the vatch.



    That was fun! replied Silver-eyes with enthusiasm. I like the watchers! But what was that noise they were making?

    It’s called laughing, and it means that they are having fun too.

    Will the next ones laugh too?

    As long as we do the act right. Pausert kept part of his attention on the barker outside as he cleaned up and replaced all of his props. For a while, he had been unhappy with this act, until he’d hit on the idea of creating a kind of character to play. It might have been silly, but once the audience was laughing at the pompous character, rather than at him, it became a lot more enjoyable to put on the shows.

    Then we have to do the act right. The vatch sounded quite determined on that score. Can we change it when we get tired of doing the same thing?

    I think that’s a good idea, he told it, cautiously. But you need to talk to me beforehand about the changes you want to make, or they might not laugh when you do them.

    He sensed its agreement, and then the light flashed and it was time to do the show again.

    Three shows an hour, with a break for fifteen minutes, for four hours; that was his shift in the stall, and every show was full up. The tent stall held fifteen or twenty people at a time—probably fifteen the size of the miners he’d been seeing—and it seemed as if the audience was completely new each time. It was astonishing. Even without tips or accolades, he was earning a good pile of cash this afternoon. His talker (with whom he split the take, since the talker was as important in a way as the act) had never, ever been able to fill the stall at every show before!

    Every time the audience laughed, the vatch giggled with pleasure; the little thing was actually enjoying performing! By the third hour it was suggesting small, cosmetic changes—like holding the drape down when he’d freed his hands so that he had to “fight” his way out of it—that increased the comedic impact of the blow-off. When his turn in the stall was finally over, and he made way for an exotic dancer who was one of the glamour-riders with the fanderbag act, the vatch was practically glowing with happiness as it popped away.

    And it was a little—just a little—bigger.

    Now that was interesting. He hadn’t fed it. So how had it gotten bigger? Could it be that something about strong human emotions also fed it?

    He was going to ask Goth about that when they met for dinner, but the four little, heavy knots of scrap cloth that the Leewit thunked down on the table in front of him drove the question right out of his head. “Lookee here, Captain!” she crowed. “Tips!”

    “We aren’t the first to get them—the dancers are starting to get a lot,” Goth added, judiciously. “But a couple of the miners got all sentimental about our sibling-rivalry business. I guess sentimental will work, if you don’t have a pair of big—”

    “Fewmets!” exclaimed Hantis, plopping herself down in her usual place at the table. “And here I thought I was going to be the one to surprise you!” She added a couple of knots of her own to the small pile. “The buzz is that the merchants are doing all right, and that those benighted fishing poles and cloaks are about half gone already. What passes for fish around here concentrates metal in its skeleton! It’s only copper, iron, and some sulfur, but it’s pretty, like peacock ore. Some of the engineers are trying to figure out how to clean the meat from the bones and use the things for jewelry. No point in trying to peddle it here, but maybe our next stop.”

    “The Big Top was full, and everybody seemed to be enjoying the show a lot,” said Goth. “Makes me wonder what these miners are going to think about the play.”

    Pausert had been wondering that, too. Were their tastes as sophisticated and eclectic as Mannicholo seemed to think? Or would the old Yarth plays be beyond them?

    But as he opened his mouth to ponder the question aloud, Hulik appeared—

    And her agitation caught the attention of everyone around their table.

    Pausert couldn’t recall ever having seen her look this way—it wasn’t “upset,” exactly, but it was disturbed, and excited, and—unsettled.

    Enough so that everyone stared at her, until Hantis broke the little pool of silence at their table by asking the obvious.

    “Hulik!” she said, urgently. “What’s happened?”

    “It’s the Daal!” she whispered, “Sedmon! He’s here!”



    “Are you sure?” was all Pausert could think to say, and he knew it was a stupid thing the moment the words were out of his mouth. Hulik gave him a withering glance.

    “Of course, I’m sure, Captain!” she said. “I talked to him!”

    “You what?” That came out of several mouths simultaneously, and Hulik waved at them frantically to keep them from all talking at once.

    “It’s all right, he’s not chasing us, not exactly, but—oh, let me begin at the beginning!” She paused, took a deep breath, and settled herself. “I had no idea he was here until I got a message asking if I would meet with him, just before lunch. I wouldn’t have believed it was Sedmon except that the message came with certain recognition signs.”

    Pausert nodded; that was only the smart thing to do.

    “And I agreed to meet him at one of the public food stalls, anyway.” She was regaining her composure, and now, in contrast, Pausert realized just how flustered she had looked. “We didn’t have a lot of time to talk, but we both agreed that the meeting was more for the purpose of identifying ourselves. He says he has a lot of information for us, and a lot of warnings. I told him we’d already figured that virtually everyone in known space is after us again, and that our safe-conducts were worth exactly nothing right now. And we agreed to meet again after the play tonight, at the Venture.”

    “You think there’s any chance he’s setting us up?” asked Goth.

    “No!” Hulik replied, indignantly. Then, as if trying to cover her vehemence, said, more calmly, “No. Firstly, he doesn’t really have anything to gain by turning us over to anyone who’s after us. What could they offer the Daal? He already rules an entire system!”

    “That’s a point,” Goth acknowledged.

    “And secondly, I’ve never known Sedmon to be in the least inclined to do anything to aggravate the witches of Karres, and I can’t see that starting now. You all must admit that interfering with us and what we’re doing would seriously aggravate Karres—” Hulik raised an eyebrow, and the Leewit laughed.

    “Have to admit you’re right there, too,” Goth agreed. “But it must be something pretty pressing for the Daal of Uldune to have come after us personally!”

    Hulik didn’t say anything, but Pausert thought she seemed to be a little flushed. And she was staring off into the distance as if her eyes weren’t focused.

    A sudden, wild surmise came to him. Goth started pounding him on the back, with a look of concern.

    “Are you okay, Captain?” she asked.

    “Clumping stupid!” scoffed the Leewit. “Choking to death on this goop! Hadn’t got a bone in it!”

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