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The Witches of Karres: Chapter Three

       Last updated: Friday, December 19, 2003 22:35 EST



    The key word was PROHIBITED....

    Under that heading the Space Regulations had in fact devoted a full page of rather fine print to the Prohibited Planet of Karres. Most of it, however, was conjecture. Nikkeldepain seemed unable to make up its mind whether the witches had developed an alarmingly high level of secret technology or whether there was something downright supernatural about them. But it made it very clear it did not want ordinary citizens to have anything to do with Karres. There was grave danger of spiritual contamination. Hence such contacts could not be regarded as being in the best interests of the Republic and were strictly forbidden.

    Various authorities in the Empire held similar opinions. The Regulations included a number of quotes from such sources:

    "...their women gifted with an evil allure... Hiding under the cloak of the so-called klatha magic--"

    Klatha? The word seemed familiar. Frowning, the captain dug up a number of memory scraps. Klatha was a metaphysical concept -- a cosmic energy, something not quite of this universe. Some people supposedly could tune in on it, use it for various purposes.

    He grunted. Possibly that gave a name to what the witches were doing. But it didn't explain anything.

    No mention was made of the Sheewash Drive. It might be a recent development, at least for individual spaceships. In fact, the behavior of Councilor Onswud and the others suggested that reports they'd received of the Venture's unorthodox behavior under hot pursuit was the first they'd heard of a superdrive possessed by Karres.

    Naturally they'd been itching to get their hands on it.

    And naturally, the captain told himself, the Empire, having heard the same reports, wanted the Sheewash Drive just as badly! The Venture had become a marked ship... and he'd better find out just where she was at present.

    The viewscreens, mass detectors, and communicators had been switched on while he was going over the Regulations. The communicators had produced only an uninterrupted, quiet humming -- a clear indication there were no civilized worlds within a day's travel. Occasional ships might be passing at much closer range; but interstellar travel must be very light or the communicators would have picked up at least a few garbled fragments of ship messages.

    The screens had no immediately useful information to add. An odd-shaped cloud of purple luminance lay dead ahead, at an indicated distance of just under nine light-years. It would have been a definite landmark if the captain had ever heard of it before; but he hadn't. Stars filled the screens in all directions, crowded pinpoints of hard brilliance and hazy clusters. Here and there swam dark pools of cosmic dust. On the right was a familiar spectacle but one which offered no clues -- the gleaming cascades of ice-fire of the Milky Way. One would have had approximately the same view from many widely scattered points of the galaxy. In this forest of light, all routes looked equal to the eye. But there was, of course, a standard way of getting a location fix.

    The captain dug his official chart of navigational beacon indicators out of the desk and dialed the communicators up to space beacon frequencies. Identifying three or four of the strongest signals obtainable here should give him their position.

    Within a minute a signal beeped in. Very faint, but it had the general configuration of an Imperial beacon. Its weakness implied they were far outside the Empire's borders. The captain pushed a transcription button on the beacon attachment, pulled out the symbol card it produced, and slid it into the chart to be matched and identified.

    The chart immediately rejected the symbol as unrecognizable.

    He hesitated, transcribed the signal again, fed the new card to the chart. It, too, was rejected. The symbols on the two cards were identical, so the transcription equipment seemed to be in working order. For some reason this beacon signal simply was not recorded in his chart.

    He frowned, eased the detector knobs back and forth, picked up a new signal. Again an Imperial pattern.

    Again the chart rejected the symbol.

    A minute later it rejected a third one. This had been the weakest symbol of the three -- barely transcribable. And evidently it was the last one within the Venture’s present communicator range....

    The captain leaned back in the chair, reflecting. Of course the navigational beacon charts made available by Nikkeldepain to its commercial vessels didn't cover the entire Empire. Business houses dealt with the central Imperium and some of the western and northern provinces. It was a practical limitation. Extending shipping runs with any ordinary cargo beyond that vast area simply couldn't be profitable enough to be taken into consideration.

    Goth hadn't worked the Sheewash Drive much more than two minutes before it knocked her out. But that apparently had been enough to take them clear outside the range covered by the official beacon charts!

    He grunted incredulously, shook his head, got out of the chair. Back in a locked section of the storage was a chest filled with old ship papers, dating back to the period before the Venture’s pirate-hunting days when she'd been a long-range exploration ship and brand-new. He'd got into the section one day, rummaged around curiously in the chest. There were thick stacks of star maps covering all sorts of unlikely areas in there, along with old style beacon charts. And maybe....

    It was a good hunch. The chart mechanisms weren't the kind with which he was familiar but they were operable. The third one he tried at random gave a positive response to the three beacon signals he'd picked up. When he located the corresponding star maps they told him within a light-day where the ship had to be at present.

    In spite of everything else that had happened, he simply didn't believe it at first. It was impossible! He went through the checking procedure again. And then there was no more doubt.

    There were civilized worlds indicated on those maps of which he had never heard. There were other names he did know -- names of worlds which had played a role, sometimes grandly, sometimes terribly, in galactic history. The ancient names of worlds so remote from Nikkeldepain's present sphere of commercial interest that to him they seemed like dim legend. Goth's run on the Sheewash Drive had not simply moved them along the Imperial borders beyond the area of the official charts. It had taken them back into the Empire, then all the way through it and out the other side -- to Galactic East of the farthest eastern provinces. They were in a territory where, as far as the captain knew, no ship from Nikkeldepain had come cruising in over a century.

    He stood looking out the viewscreens a while at the unfamiliar crowded stars, his blood racing as excitement continued to grow in him. Here he was, he thought, nearly as far from the stodginess of present-day Nikkeldepain as if he had, in fact, slipped back through the dark centuries to come out among lost worlds of history, his only companion the enigmatic witch-child sleeping off exhaustion in the captain's cabin....

    About him he could almost sense the old ship, returned to the space roads of her youth and seemingly grown aware of it, rise from the miasma of brooding gloom which had settled on her after they left Karres, shaking herself awake, restored to adventurous life -- ready and eager for anything.

    It was like coming home to something that had been lost a long while but never really forgotten.

    Something eerie, colorful, full of the promise of the unexpected and unforeseen and somehow dead right for him!

    He sucked in air, turned from the screens to take the unused star maps and other materials back to the storage. His gaze swung over to the communicators. A small portable lamp stood on the closer of the two, its beam fixed on the worktable below it.

    The captain gave the lamp a long, puzzled stare. Then he scowled and started towards it, walking a little edgily, hair bristling, head thrust forward -- something like a terrier who comes suddenly on a new sort of vermin which may or may not be a dangerous opponent.

    There was nothing wrong or alarming about the lamp's appearance. It was a perfectly ordinary utility device, atomic-powered, with a flexible and extensible neck, adjustable beam, and a base which, on contact, adhered firmly to bulkhead, deck, machine, or desk, and could be effortlessly plucked away again. During the months he'd been traveling about on the Venture he'd found many uses for it. In time it had seemed to develop a helpful and friendly personality of its own, like a small, unobtrusive servant.

    At the moment its light shone exactly where he'd needed it while he was studying the maps at the worktable. And that was what was wrong! Because he was as certain as he could be that he hadn't put the lamp on the communicator. When he'd noticed it last, before going to the storage, it was standing at the side of the control desk in its usual place. He hadn't come near the desk since.

    Was Goth playing a prank on him? It didn't seem quite the sort of thing she'd do.... And now he remembered -- something like twenty minutes before, he was sitting at the table, trying to make out a half-faded notation inked into the margin of one of the old maps. The thought came to him to get the lamp so he'd have better light. But he'd been too absorbed in what he was doing and the impulse simply faded again.

    Then, some time between that moment and this, the better light he'd wanted was produced for him -- strengthening so gently and gradually that, sitting there at the table, he didn't even become aware it was happening.

    He stared a moment longer at the lamp. Then he picked it up, and went down the passage to the captain's cabin, carrying it with him.

    Goth lay curled on her side in the big bunk, covers drawn up almost to her ears. She breathed slowly and quietly, forehead furrowed into a frown as if she dreamed about something of which she didn't entirely approve. Studying her face by the dimmed light of the lamp, the captain became convinced she wasn't faking sleep. Minor deceptions of that sort weren't Goth's way in any case. She was a very direct sort of small person....

    He glanced about. Her clothes hung neatly across the back of a chair, her boots were placed beside it. He dimmed the light further and withdrew from the cabin without disturbing her, making a mental note to replace the ruined door after she woke up. Back in the control room he switched off the lamp, set it on the desk, and stood knuckling his chin abstractedly.

    It hadn't been a lapse of memory; and if Goth had done it, she hadn't done it deliberately. Perhaps this klatha force could shift into independent action when a person who normally controlled it was asleep. There might be unpleasant possibilities in that. When Goth came awake he'd ask her what--

    The sharp, irregular buzzing which rose suddenly from a bank of control instruments beside him made him jump four inches. His hand shot out, threw the main drive feed to the off position. The buzzing subsided, but a set of telltales continued to flicker bright red....

    There was nothing supernatural about this problem, he decided a few minutes later. But it was a problem, and not a small one. What the trouble indicators had registered was a developing pattern of malfunction in the main drive engines. It was no real surprise; when he'd left Nikkeldepain half a year before, it had looked like an even bet whether he could make it back without stopping for major repairs. But the drives had performed faultlessly -- until now.

    They might have picked a more convenient time and place to go haywire. But there was no reason to regard it as a disaster just yet.

    He found tools, headed to the storage and on down to the engine deck from there, and went to work. Within half an hour he'd confirmed that their predicament wasn't too serious, if nothing else happened. A minor breakdown at one point in the main engines had shifted stresses, immediately creating a dozen other trouble spots. But it wasn't a question of the engines going out completely and making it necessary to crawl through space, perhaps for months, on their secondaries before they reached a port. Handled with care, the main drive should be good for another three or four weeks, at least. But the general deterioration clearly had gone beyond the point of repair. The antiquated engines would have to be replaced as soon as possible, and meanwhile he should change the drive settings manually, holding the engines down to half their normal output to reduce strain on them. If somebody came around with hostile intentions, an emergency override on the control desk would still allow occasional spurts at full thrust. From what he'd been told of the side effects of the Sheewash Drive, it wasn't likely Goth would be able to do much to help in that department....

    In a port of civilization, with repair station facilities on hand and the drive hauled clear of the ship, the adjustments he had to make might have been completed and tested in a matter of minutes. But for one man, working by the manual in the confined area of the Venture’s engine room, it was a lengthy, awkward job. At last, stretched in a precarious sprawl a third down the side of the drive shaft, the captain squinted wearily at the final setting he had to change. It was in a shadowed recess of the shaft below him, barely in reach of his tools.

    He wished he had a better light on it--

    His breath caught in his throat. There was a feeling as if the universe had stopped for an instant; then a shock of alarm. His scalp began prickling as if an icy, soundless wind had come astir above his head.

    He knew somehow exactly what was going to happen next -- and that there was no use trying to revoke his wish. Some klatha machinery already was in motion now and couldn't be stopped....

    A second or two went past. Then an oval of light appeared quietly about the recess, illuminating the setting within. It grew strong and clear. The captain realized it came from above, past his shoulder. Cautiously, he looked up.

    And there the little monster was, suspended by its base from the upper deck. Its slender neck reached down in a serpentine curve to place a beam of light precisely where he'd wanted to have it. His skin kept crawling as if he were staring at some nightmare image--

    But this was only klatha, he told himself. And after the Sheewash Drive and other matters, a lamp which began to move around mysteriously was nothing to get shaky about. Ignore it, he thought; finish up the job....

    He reached down with the tools, laboriously adjusted the thrust setting, tested it twice to make sure it was adjusted right. And that wound up his work in the engine room. He hadn't glanced at the lamp again, but its light still shone steadily on the shaft. The captain collapsed the tools, stowed them into his pockets, balanced himself on the curving surface of the drive shaft, and reached up for it.

    It came free of the overhead deck at his touch. He climbed down from the shaft, holding the lamp away from him by the neck as if it were a helpful basilisk which might suddenly get a notion to bite. In the control room he placed it back on the desk, and gave it no further attention for the next twenty minutes while he ran the throttled engines through a complete instrument check. They registered satisfactorily. He switched the main drive back on, tested the emergency override. Everything seemed in working condition; the Venture was operational again... within prudent limits. He turned the ship on a course which would hold it roughly parallel to the Empire's eastern borders, locked it in, then went to the electric butler for a cup of coffee.

    He came back with the coffee, finally stood looking at the lamp again. Since he'd put it down in its usual place, it had done nothing except sit there quietly, casting a pool of light on the desk before it.

    The captain put the cup aside, moved back a few steps.

    "Well," he said aloud, "Let's test this thing out!"

    He paused while his voice went echoing faintly away through the Venture’s passages. Then he pointed a finger at the lamp, and swung the finger commandingly towards the worktable beside the communicator stand.

    "Move over to that table!" he told the lamp.

    The whole ship grew very still. Even the distant hum of the drive seemed to dim. The captain's scalp was crawling again, kept on crawling as the seconds went by. But the lamp didn't move.

    Instead, its light abruptly went out.



    "No," Goth said. "It wasn't me. I don't think it was you either -- exactly."

    The captain looked at her. He'd grabbed off a few hours sleep on the couch and by the time he woke up, Goth was up and around, energies apparently restored.

    She'd been doing some looking around, too, and wanted to know why the Venture was running on half power. The captain explained. "If we happen to get into a jam," he concluded, "would you be able to use the Sheewash Drive at present?"

    "Short hops," the witch nodded reassuringly. "No real runs for a while, though!"

    "Short hops should be good enough." He reflected. "I read that item in the Regulations. They right about the klatha part?"

    "Pretty much," Goth acknowledged, a trifle warily.

    "Well..." He'd related his experiences with the lamp then, and she'd listened with obvious interest but no indications of surprise.

    "What do you mean, it wasn't me -- exactly?" he said. "I was wondering for a while, but I'm dead sure now I don't have klatha ability."

    Goth wrinkled her nose, hesitant, said suddenly, "You got it, captain. Told you you'd be a witch, too. You got a lot of it! That was part of the trouble."

    "Trouble?" The captain leaned back in his chair. "Mind explaining?"

    Goth reflected worriedly again. "I got to be careful now," she told him. "The way klatha, is, people oughtn't to know much more about it than they can work with. Or it's likely never going to work right for them. That's one reason we got rules. You see?"

    He frowned. "Not quite."

    Goth tossed her head, a flick of impatience. "It wasn't me who ported the lamp. So if you didn't have klatha, it wouldn't have got ported."

    "But you said..."

    "Trying to explain, Captain. You ought to get told more now. Not too much, though.... On Karres they all knew you had it. Patham! You put it out so heavy the grown-ups were all messed up! It's that learned stuff they work with. That's tricky. I don't know much about it yet...."

    "You mean I was, uh, producing klatha energy?"

    But he gathered one didn't produce klatha. If one had the talent -- inborn to a considerable extent -- one attracted it to oneself. Being around others who used it stimulated the attraction. His own tendencies in that direction hadn't developed much before he got to Karres. There he'd turned promptly into an unwitting focal point of the klatha energies being manipulated around him -- to the consternation of the adult witches who found their highly evolved and delicately balanced klatha controls thrown out of kilter by his presence.

    A light dawned. "That's why they waited until I was off Karres again before they moved it!"

    "Sure," said Goth. "They couldn't risk that with you there -- they didn't know what would happen...." He had been the subject of much conversation and debate during his stay on Karres. So as not to disturb whatever was coming awake in him, the witches couldn't even let him know he was doing anything unusual. But only the younger children, using klatha in a very direct and basic, almost instinctive manner, weren't bothered by it. Adolescents at around Maleen's age level had been affected to some extent, though not nearly as much as their parents.

    "You just don't know how to use it, that's all," Goth said. "You're going to, though."

    "What makes you think that?"

    Her lashes flickered. "They said it was like that with Threbus. He started late, too. Took him a couple of years to catch on -- but he's a whizdang now!"

    The captain grunted skeptically. "Well, we'll see.... You're a kind of a whizdang yourself, for my money."

    "Guess I am," Goth agreed. "Aren't many grown-ups could jump us as far as this."

    "Meaning you know where we went?"


    "I... no, let's get back to that lamp first. I can see that after your big Sheewash push we might have had plenty of klatha stirred up around the Venture. But you say I'm not able to use it. So..."

    "Looks like you pulled in a vatch," Goth told him.

    She explained that then. It appeared a vatch was a sort of personification of klatha, or a klatha entity. Vatches didn't hang around this universe much but were sometimes drawn into it by human klatha activities, and if they were amused or intrigued by what they found going on they might stay and start producing klatha phenomena themselves. They seemed to be under the impression that their experiences of the human universe were something they were dreaming. They could be helpful to the person who caught their attention but tended to be quite irresponsible and mischievous. The witches preferred to have nothing at all to do with a vatch.

    "So now we've got something like that on board!" the captain remarked nervously.

    Goth shook her head. "No, not since I woke up. I'd rell him if he were around."

    "You'd rell him?"

    She grinned.

    "Another of the things I can't understand till I can do it?" the captain asked.

    "Uh-huh. Anyway, you got rid of that vatch for good, I think."

    "I did? How?"

    "When you ordered the lamp to move. Vatch would figure you were telling him what to do. They don't like that at all. I figure he got mad and left."

    "After switching the lamp off to show me, eh? Think he might be back?"

    "They don't usually. Anyway, I'll spot him if he does."

    "Yes...." The captain scratched his chin. "So what made you decide to bring us out east of the Empire?"



    Goth, it turned out, had had a number of reasons. Some of them sounded startling at first.

    "One thing, here's Uldune!" Her fingertip traced over the star map between them, stopped. "Be just about a week away, on half-power."

    The captain gave her a surprised look. Uldune was one of the worlds around here which were featured in Nikkeldepain's history books; and it was not featured at all favorably. Under the leadership of its Daal, Sedmon the Grim, and various successors of the same name, it had been the headquarters of a ferocious pirate confederacy which had trampled over half the Empire on a number of occasions, and raided far and wide beyond it. And that particular section of history, as he recalled it, wasn't very far in the past.

    "What's good about being that close to Uldune?" he inquired. "From what I've heard of them, that's as bloodthirsty a bunch of cutthroats as ever infested space!"

    "Guess they were pretty bad," Goth acknowledged. "But that's a time back. They're sort of reformed now."

    "Sort of reformed?"

    She shrugged. "Well, they're still a bunch of crooks, Captain. But we can do business with them."


    She seemed to know what she was talking about, though. The witches were familiar with this section of galactic space -- Karres, in fact, had been shifted from a point east of the Empire to its recent station in the Iverdahl System not much more than eighty years ago. And while Goth was Karres-born, she'd done a good deal of traveling around here with her parents and sisters. Not very surprising, of course. With the Sheewash Drive available to give their ship a boost when they felt like it, a witch family should be able to go pretty well where it chose.

    She'd never been on Uldune but it was a frequent stopover point for Karres people. Uldune's reform, initiated by its previous Daal, Sedmon the Fifth, and continued under his successor, had been a matter of simple expediency -- the Empire's expanding space power was making wholesale piracy too unprofitable and risky a form of enterprise. Sedmon the Sixth was an able politician who maintained mutually satisfactory relations with the Empire and other space neighbors, while deriving much of his revenue by catering to the requirements of people who operated outside the laws of any government. Uldune today was banker, fence, haven, trading center, outfitter, supplier, broker, and middleman to all comers who could afford its services. It never asked embarrassing questions. Outright pirates -- successful ones, at any rate -- were still perfectly welcome. So was anybody who merely wanted to transact some form of business unhampered by standard legal technicalities.

    "I'm beginning to get it!" the captain acknowledged. "But what makes you think we won't get robbed blind there?"

    "They're not crooks that way -- at least not often. The Daal goes for the skinning alive thing," Goth explained. "You get robbed, you squawk. Then somebody gets skinned. It's pretty safe!"

    It did sound like the Daal had hit on a dependable method to give his planet a reputation for solid integrity in business deals. "So we sell the cargo there," the captain mused. "They take their cut -- probably a big one--"

    "Uh-huh. Runs around forty per."

    "Of the assessed value?"


    "Steep! But if they've got to see the stuff gets smuggled to buyers in the Empire or somewhere else, they're taking the risks. And, allowing for what the new drive engines will cost us, we'll be on Uldune then with what should still be a very good chunk of money.... Hmm!" He settled back in his chair. "What were those other ideas?"



    The first half of the week-long run to Uldune passed uneventfully. They turned around the plans Goth had been nourishing, amended them here and there. But basically the captain couldn't detect many flaws in them. He didn't tell her so, but it struck him that if Goth hadn't happened to be born a witch she might have made out pretty well on Nikkeldepain. She seemed to have a natural bent for the more devious business angles. As one of their first transactions on the reformed pirate planet, they would pick up fictitious identities. The Daal maintained a special department which handled nothing else and documented its work so impeccably that it would stand up under the most thorough investigation. It was a costly matter, but the proceeds of the cargo sale would cover the additional expense. If the search for the Venture and her crew spread east of the Empire, established aliases might be very necessary.

    In that respect the Sheewash Drive had turned into a liability. Used judiciously, however, it should be an important asset to the independent trader the Venture was to become. This was an untamed area of space; there were sections where even the Empire's heavily armed patrols did not attempt to go in less than squadron strength. And other sections which nobody tried to patrol at all....

    "The Sea of Light, f'rinstance," Goth said, nodding at the twisted purple cosmic cloud glow the captain had observed on his first look out of the screens. It had drifted meanwhile over to the Venture’s port side. "That's a hairy place! You get too close to that, you've had it! Every time."

    She didn't know exactly what happened when one got too close to the cloud. Neither did anyone else. It had been a long while since anybody had tried to find out.

    The Drive wouldn't exactly allow them to go wherever they chose, even if Goth had been able to make regular and unlimited use of it. But as an invisible and unsuspected part of the ship's emergency equipment it would let them take on assignments not many others would care to consider.

    There should be money in that, the captain thought. Plenty of money. Once they were launched, they shouldn't have much to worry about on that score. But it meant having the Venture rebuilt very completely before they took her out again.

    The prospects for the next few years looked good all around. Goth evidently wasn't at all disturbed by the fact that it might be at least that long before she saw her people again. The witches seemed to look at such things a little differently. Well, he thought, the two of them should see and learn a lot while making their fortune as traders; and he'd take care of Goth as best he could. Though from Goth's point of view, it had occurred to him, it might seem more that she was taking care of Captain Pausert.

    He couldn't quite imagine himself developing witch powers. He'd tried to pump Goth about that a little and was told in effect not to worry -- he'd know when it began to happen and meanwhile there was no way to hurry it up. Just what would happen couldn't be predicted. The type of talents that developed and the sequence in which they appeared varied widely among Karres children and the relatively few adults in whom something brought klatha into sudden activity. Goth was a teleporting specialist and had, perhaps because of that, caught on to the Sheewash Drive very quickly and mastered it like a grown-up. So far she'd done little else. The Leewit, besides being the possessor of a variety of devastating whistles, which she used with considerable restraint under most circumstances, was a klatha linguist. Give her a few words of a language she'd never heard before, and something in her swept out, encompassed it all; and she'd soon be chattering away in it happily as if she'd spoken nothing else in all her young life.

    Maleen was simply a very good all-around junior witch who'd recently been taken into advanced training three or four years earlier than was the rule.

    Goth clearly didn't think he should be given much more information than that at present; and he didn't press her for it. As long as he didn't attract any more vatches he'd be satisfied. He retained mixed feelings about klatha. Useful it was, no doubt, if one knew how to handle it. But it was uncanny stuff.

    There were enough practical matters on hand to keep them fully occupied. He gave Goth a condensed course in the navigation of the Venture; and she told him more of what had been going on east of the Empire than he'd ever learned out of history books. It confirmed his first impression that life around here should be varied and interesting....

    One interesting variation came their way shortly after the calendric chronometer had recorded the beginning of the fourth day since they'd turned on course for Uldune. It was the middle of the captain's sleep period. He woke up to find Goth violently shaking his shoulder.

    "Uh, what is it?" he mumbled.

    "You awake?" Her voice was sharp, almost a hiss. "Better get to the controls!"

    That aroused him as instantly and completely as a bucketful of ice-cold water....

    There was a very strange-looking ship high in the rear viewscreen, at an indicated distance of not many light-minutes away. Its magnified image was like that of a flattened ugly dark bug striding through space after them on a dozen spiky legs set around its edges. The instruments registered a mass about twice that of the Venture. It was an unsettling object to find coming up behind one.

    "Know who they are?" he asked.

    Goth shook her head. The ship had been on the screens for about ten minutes, had kept its distance at first, then swung in and begun to pull up to them. She'd put out a number of short-range query blasts on the communicators, but there'd been no response.

    It looked like trouble. "How about the Drive?" he asked.

    Goth indicated the open passage door. "Ready right out there!"

    "Fine. But wait with it." They didn't intend to start advertising the Sheewash Drive around here if they could avoid it. "Try the communicators again," he said. "They could be on some off-frequency."

    He hadn't thrown the override switch on the throttled main drive engines yet. It might have been the Venture’s relatively slow progress which had attracted the creepy vessel's interest, giving whoever was aboard the idea that here was a possibility of easy prey which should be investigated. But if they set off at speed now and the stranger followed, it could turn into a long chase... and one long chase could finish his engines.

    If they didn't run, the thing would move into weapons range within less than five minutes.


    He turned. Goth was indicating the communicator screen. A green-streaked darkness flickered on and off in it.

    "Getting them, I think!" she murmured.

    He watched as she slowly fingered a pair of dials, eyes intent on the screen. There was a loud burst of croaking and whistling noises from one of the communicators. Then, for a second or two, the screen held a picture.

    The captain's hair didn't exactly stand on end, but it tried to. There was a sullen green light in the screen, lanky gray shapes moving through it; then a face was suddenly looking out at them. Its red eyes widened. An instant later the screen went blank, and the communicator racket ended.

    "Saw us -- cut us off!" Goth said, mouth wrinkling briefly in distaste.

    The captain cleared his throat. "You know what those are?"

    She nodded. "Think so! Saw a picture of a dead one once."

    "They're, uh, unfriendly?"

    "They catch us, they'll eat us," Goth told him. "That's Megair Cannibals."

    The name seemed as unpleasant as the appearance of their pursuers. The captain, heart hammering, reflected a moment, eyes on the grotesque ship in the rear screens. It was considerably closer, seemed to have put on speed.

    "Let's see if we can scare them off first," he said suddenly. "If that doesn't work, you better hit the Drive!"

    Goth's expression indicated approval. The captain turned, settled himself in the control chair, tripped the override switch, fed the Venture power, and set her into a tight vertical turn as the engine hum rose to a roar. His hand shifted to the nova gun mechanisms. The image of the pursuing ship flicked through the overhead screens, settled into the forward ones, spun right side up and was dead ahead, coming towards them. The gun turrets completed their lift through the Venture’s hull and clicked into position. The small sighting screen lit up; its cross-hairs slid around and locked on the scuttling bug shape.

    He snapped in the manual fire control relays. They still had a good deal of space to cover before they came within reasonable range of each other; and if he could help it they wouldn't get within reasonable range. He'd done well enough in gunnery training during his duty tour on a space destroyer of the Nikkeldepain navy, but the Megair Cannibals might be considerably better at games of that kind. However, it was possible they could be bluffed out of pressing their attack. He edged the Venture up to full speed, noted the suggestion of raggedness that crept into the engines' thunder, put his thumb on the firing stud, pressed down.

    The nova guns let go together. Reaching for the ship rushing towards them and falling far short of it, their charge shattered space into shuddering blue sheets of fire.

    It was an impressive display, but the Megair ship kept coming. Something hot and primitive, surprisingly pleasurable, began to roil in the captain as he counted off thirty seconds, pressed the firing stud again. Blue sheet lightning shivered and crashed. The scuttling thing beyond held its course. Answering fire suddenly speckled space with a cluster of red and black explosions.

    "Aa-aa-ah!" breathed the captain, head thrust forwards, eyes riveted on the sighting screen. Something about those explosions....

    Why, he thought joyfully, we've got the range on them!

    He slapped the nova guns on automatic, locked on target, rode the Venture’s thunder in a dead straight line ahead in the wake of the guns' trail of blue lightning. Red and black fire appeared suddenly on this side of the lightning, rolling towards them--

    Then it vanished.

    There was something like the high-pitched yowl of a small jungle cat in the captain's ears. A firm young fist pounded his shoulder delightedly. "They're running! They're running!"

    He cut the guns. The sighting screen was empty. His eyes followed Goth's pointing finger to another screen. Far under their present course, turning away on a steep escape curve, went the Megair Cannibals' ship, scuttling its best, dipping, weaving, dwindling....



    As they drew closer to Uldune, other ships appeared with increasing frequency in the Venture’s detection range. But these evidently were going about their own business and inclined to keep out of the path of strange spacecraft. None came close enough to be picked up in the viewscreens.

    While still half a day away from the one-time pirate planet, the Venture’s communicators signaled a pick-up. They switched on the instruments and found themselves listening to a general broadcast from Uldune, addressed to all ships entering this area of space.

    If they were headed for Uldune on business, they were invited to shift to a frequency which would put them in contact with a landing station off-planet. Uldune was anxious to see to it that their visit was made as pleasant and profitable as possible and would facilitate matters to that end in every way. Detailed information would be made available by direct-beam contact from the landing station.

    It was the most cordial reception ever extended to the captain on a planetary approach. They switched in the station, were welcomed warmly to Uldune. Business arrangements then began immediately. Before another hour was up Uldune knew in general what they wanted and what they had to offer, had provided a list of qualified shipbuilders, scheduled immediate appointments with identity specialists, official assessors who would place a minimum value on their cargo, and a representative of the Daal's Bank, who would assist them in deciding what other steps to take to achieve their goals to best effect on Uldune.

    Helpful as the pirate planet was to its clients, it was also clear that it took no unnecessary chances with them. Visitors arriving with their own spacecraft had the choice of leaving them berthed at the landing stations and using a shuttle to have themselves and their goods transported down to a spaceport, or of allowing foolproof seals to be attached to offensive armament for the duration of the ship's stay on Uldune. A brief, but presumably quite effective, contamination check of the interior of the ship and of its cargo was also carried out at the landing station. Otherwise, aside from an evident but no-comment interest aroused by the nova guns in the armament specialists engaged in securing them, the Daal's officials at the station displayed a careful lack of curiosity about the Venture, her crew, her cargo, and her origin. An escort boat presently guided them down to a spaceport and their interview at the adjoining Office of Identities.

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