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The Witches of Karres: Chapter Four

       Last updated: Monday, December 29, 2003 13:56 EST



    Captain Aron, of the extremely remote world of Mulm, and his young niece Dani took up residence late that evening in a rented house in an old quarter of Uldune's port city of Zergandol. It had been a strenuous though satisfactory day for both of them. Much business had begun to roll.

    Goth, visibly struggling for the past half hour to keep her eyelids open wide enough to be able to look out, muttered good-night to the captain as soon as they'd located two bedrooms on the third floor of the house, and closed the door to one of them behind her. The captain felt bone-weary himself but his brain still buzzed with the events of the day and he knew he wouldn't be able to sleep for a while. He brewed a pot of coffee in the kitchen and took it up to a dark, narrow fourth-story balcony which encircled the house, where he sipped it from a mug, looking around at the sprawling, inadequately lit city.

    Zergandol, from what he had seen of it, was a rather dilapidated town, though it had one neatly modem district. One might have called it quaint, but most of the streets and buildings were worn, cracked, and rather grimy; and the architecture seemed a centuries-old mixture of conflicting styles. The house they were in looked like a weathered layer cake, four round sections containing two rooms each placed on top of one another, connected by a narrow circular stairway. Inside and out, it was old. But the rent was moderate -- he wasn't sure yet where they would stand financially by the time they were done with Uldune and Uldune was done with them; and the house was less than a mile up a winding street from the edge of the spaceport and the shipyards of the firm of Sunnat, Bazim & Filish where, during the following weeks, the Venture would be rebuilt.

    The extent to which the ship would be rebuilt wasn't settled yet. So far there'd been time for only a brief preliminary discussion with the partners. And the day had brought an unexpected development which would make it possible to go a great deal farther with that than they'd planned. It was one of the things the captain was debating now. The Daal's appraiser, with whom they'd gotten together immediately after being equipped with new identities, hadn't seemed quite able to believe in the Karres cargo:

    "Wintenberry jelly and Lepti liquor?" he'd repeated, lifting his eyebrows, when the captain named the first two of the items the witches: had loaded on the Venture. "These are, uh, the genuine article?"

    Surprised, the captain glanced at Goth, who nodded. "That's right," he said.

    "Most unusual!" declared the appraiser interestedly. "What quantity of them do you have?"

    The captain told him and got a startled look. from the official. "Something wrong?" he asked, puzzled.

    The appraiser shook his head. "Oh, no! No, not at all." He cleared his throat. "You're certain... well, you must be, of course!" He made some notes, cleared his throat again. "Now -- you've indicated you also have peltries to sell--"

    "Yes, we do," said the captain. "Very fine stuff!"

    "Hundred and twenty-five tozzami," Goth put in from her end of the table. She sounded as if she were enjoying herself. "Fifty gold-tipped lelaundel -- all prime adults."

    The appraiser looked at her, then at the captain.

    "That is correct, sir?" he asked expressionlessly.

    The captain assured him it was. It hadn't occurred to him to ask Goth about the names of the creatures that had grown the magnificent furs in the storage; but "tozzami" and "gold-tipped lelaundel" evidently were familiar terms to this expert. His reactions had indicated he also knew about the green Lepti liquor and the jellies. Possibly Karres exported such articles as a regular thing.

    "That perfume I put down," the captain went on. "I don't know if you've heard of Kell Peak essences--"

    The appraiser bared his teeth in a strained smile.

    "Indeed, I have, sir!" he said softly. "Indeed, I have!" He looked down at his list. "Eight thousand three hundred and twenty-three half-pints of Kell Peak essences.... In my twenty-two years of professional experience, Captain Aron, I have never had the opportunity to evaluate an incoming cargo of this nature. I don't know what you've done, but allow me to congratulate you."

    He left with samples of the cargo to have their genuineness and his appraisal notations confirmed by other specialists. The captain and Goth went off to have lunch in one of the spaceport restaurants. "What was he so excited about?" the captain asked, intrigued.

    Goth shrugged. "He figures we stole it all."


    "Hard stuff to just buy!"

    She explained while they ate. Tozzamis and lelaundels were indigenous to Karres, part of its mountain fauna; but very few people knew where the furs came from. They had high value, not only because of their quality, but because they were rarely available. From time to time, when the witches wanted money, they'd make up a shipment and distribute it quietly through various contacts.

    It was a somewhat different matter with the other items, but it came out to much the same thing. The significant ingredients of the liquor, jellies, and perfume essences could be grown only in three limited areas of three different Empire planets, and in such limited quantities there that the finished products hardly ever appeared on the regular market. The witches didn't advertise the fact that they'd worked out ways to produce all three on Karres. Klatha apparently could also be used to assist a green thumb....

    "That might be worth a great deal more than we've calculated on, then!" the captain said hopefully.

    "Might," Goth agreed. "Don't know what they'll pay for it here, though."

    They found out during their next appointment, which was with a dignitary of the Daal's Bank. This gentleman already had the appraiser's report on hand and had opened an account for Captain Aron of Mulm on the strength of it. He went over their planned schedule on Uldune with them, added up the fees, licenses, and taxes that applied to such activities, threw in a figure to cover general expenses involved with getting the Venture -- renamed Evening Bird, operating under a fictitious Mulm charter -- established as a trading ship, and deducted the whole from the anticipated bid value of the cargo, which allowed for the customary forty per cent risk cut on the appraised real value. In this instance the bidding might run higher. What they'd have left in cash in any case came to slightly less than half a million Imperial maels, and they could begin drawing on the bank immediately for anything up to that sum.

    He'd counted on reimbursing Councilor Onswud via a nontraceable subradio deposit for the estimated value of the Venture, the Venture’s original Nikkeldepain cargo, and the miffel farm loan, plus interest. And on investing up to a hundred and fifty thousand in having the Venture reequipped with what it took to make her dependably spaceworthy. It had looked as if they'd be living rather hand-to-mouth after that until they'd put a couple of profitable trading runs behind them.

    Now, leaving themselves only a reasonable margin in case general expenses ran higher than the bank's estimate, they could, if they chose, sink nearly four hundred thousand into the Venture. That should be enough to modernize her from stem to stern, turn her into a ship that carried passengers in comfort as well as cargo -- a ship furthermore equal to the best in her class for speed, security, and navigational equipment, capable of running rings around the average bandit or slipping away if necessary from a nosy Imperial patrol. All that without having to fall back on the Sheewash Drive, which still would be available to them when required.

    There hadn't been a good opportunity today to discuss that notion with Goth. But Goth would like it. As for himself....

    The captain shook his head, realizing he'd already made up his mind. He smiled out over the balcony railing at dark Zergandol. After all, what better use could they make of the money? Tomorrow they'd get down to business with Sunnat, Bazim & Filish!

    He placed the empty coffee mug on a window ledge beside the chair he'd settled himself in and stretched out his legs. There was a chill in the air now and it had begun to get through to him, but he still wasn't quite ready to turn in. If someone had told him even a month ago that he'd find himself one day on blood-stained old Uldune....

    They'd varnished over their evil now, but there was evil enough still here. As far as the Daal's Bank knew, he'd committed piracy and murder to get his hands on the rare cargo they'd taken on consignment from him. And if anything, they respected him for it.

    In spite of the Daal's rigid limitations on what was allowable nowadays, they weren't really far away from the previous bad pirate period. In the big store where he and Goth had picked up supplies for the house, the floor manager earnestly advised them to invest in adequate spy-proofing equipment. The captain hadn't seen much point to it until Goth gave him the sign. The device they settled on then was small though expensive, looked like a pocket watch. Activated, it was guaranteed to make a twenty-foot sphere of space impervious to ordinary eavesdroppers, instrument snooping, hidden observers, and lip-readers. They checked it out with the store's most sophisticated espionage instruments and bought it. There'd be occasions enough at that when they'd want to be talking about things nobody here should know about; and apparently no one on the planet was really safe from prying eyes and ears unless they had such protection.

    In the open space about Uldune, of course, the old wickedness flourished openly. During the day, he'd heard occasional references to a report that ships of a notorious modern-day pirate leader, called the Agandar, had cleaned out a platinum mining settlement on an asteroid chain close enough to Uldune to keep the Daal's space defense forces on red alert overnight....

    The captain's eyes shifted to the sky. Low over the western horizon hung the twisted purple glow of the Sea of Light, as familiar to him by now as any of the galactic landmarks in the night skies of Nikkeldepain. He watched it a few minutes. It was like a challenge, a cold threat; and something in him seemed to reply to it:

    Wait till we're ready for you....

    About it lay the Chaladoor. Another ill-omened name out of history, out of legend... a vast expanse of space beginning some two days' travel beyond Uldune, with a reputation still as bad as it ever had been in the distant past. Very little shipping moved in that direction, although barely half a month away, on the far side of the Chaladoor, there were clusters of prosperous independent worlds wide open for profitable trade. They could be reached by circumnavigating the Chaladoor, but that trip took the better part of a year. The direct route, on the other hand, meant threading one's way through a maze of navigational hazards, hazards to an ordinary kind of ship such as to discourage all but the hardiest. Inimical beings, like the crew of the Megair highwayman which had stalked the Venture during the run to Uldune, were a part of the hazards. And other forces were at work there, disturbing and sometimes violently dangerous forces nobody professed to understand. Even the almost universally functioning subradio did not operate in that area.

    Nevertheless there was a constant demand for commercial transportation through the Chaladoor, the time saved by using the direct route outweighing the risks. And the passage wasn't impossible. Certain routes were known to be relatively free of problems. Small, fast, well-armed ships stood the best chance of traversing the Chaladoor successfully along them -- and one or two runs of that kind could net a ship owner as much as several years of ordinary trading.

    More importantly, from the captain's and Goth's point of view, Karres ships, while they carefully avoided certain sections of the Chaladoor, crossed it as a matter of course whenever it lay along their route. Constant alertness was required. Then the Sheewash Drive simply took them out of any serious trouble they encountered....

    What it meant was that the remodeled, rejuvenated Venture also could make that run.

    The captain settled deeper into the chair, blinking drowsily at the bubble of light over the spaceport, which seemed the one area still awake in Zergandol. Afterwards, he couldn't have said at what point his reflections turned into dream-thoughts. But he did begin to dream.

    It was a vague, half-sleep dreaming, agreeable to start with. Then, by imperceptible degrees, uneasiness came creeping into it, a dim apprehension which strengthened and ebbed but never quite faded. Later he recalled nothing more definite about that part of it, but considerable time must have passed in that way.

    Then the vague, shifting dream imagery gathered, took on form and definite menace. He was aware of color at first, a spreading yellow glow -- a sense of something far away but drawing closer. It became a fog of yellow light, growing towards him. A humming came from it.

    Fear awoke in him. He didn't know of what until he discovered fog wasn't empty. There were brighter ripplings and flashes within it, a seething of energies. These energies seemed to form linked networks inside the cloud. At the points where they crossed were bodies.

    It would have been difficult to describe those bodies in any detail. They seemed made of light themselves, silhouettes of dim fire in the yellow haze of the cloud. They were like fat worms which moved with a slow writhing; and he had the impression that they were not only alive but aware and alert; also that in some manner they were manipulating the glowing fog and its energies.

    What alarmed him was that this mysterious structure was moving steadily closer. If he didn't do something he would be engulfed by it.

    He did something. He didn't know what. But suddenly he was elsewhere, sitting in chilled darkness. The foggy fire and its inhabitants were gone. He discovered he was shaking, and that in spite of the cold air his face was dripping with sweat. It was some seconds before he was able to grasp where he was -- still on the fourth-story balcony of the old house they had rented that day in the city of Zergandol.

    So he'd fallen asleep, had a nightmare, come awake from it.... And he might, he thought, have been sleeping for several hours because Zergandol looked almost completely blacked out now. Even the spaceport area showed only the dimmest reflection of light. And there wasn't a sound. Absolute silence enclosed the dark buildings of the old section of the city around him. To the left a swollen red moon disk hung just above the horizon. Zergandol might have become a city of the dead.

    Chilled to the bone by the night air, shuddering under his clothes, the captain looked around. And then up.

    Two narrow building spires loomed blackly against the night sky. Above and beyond them, eerily outlining their tips, was a yellowish haze, a thin, discolored glowing smear against the stars which shown through it. It was fading as the captain stared at it, already very faint. But it was so suggestive of the living light cloud of his dream that his heart began leaping all over again.

    It dimmed further, was gone. Not a trace remained. And while he was still wondering what it all meant, the captain heard the sound of voices. They came from the street below the balcony -- two or three people speaking rapidly, in hushed tones.

    They might have been having a nervous argument about something, but it was the Uldunese language, so he wasn't sure. He heaved himself stiffly out of the chair, moved to the balcony railing and peered down through the gloom. A groundcar was parked in the street, two shadowy, gesticulating figures standing beside it. After some seconds they broke off their discussion and climbed into the car. He heard a metallic click as its door closed. The driving lights came on dimmed, and the car moved off slowly along the street. In the reflection of the lights he'd had a glimpse of markings on its side, which just might have been the pattern of bold squares that was the insignia of the Daal's police.

    Here and there, as he gazed around now, other lights began coming on in Zergandol. But not too many. The city remained very quiet. Perhaps, he thought, there had been an attempted raid from space by the ships of that infamous pirate, the Agandar, which had now been beaten off. But if there'd been some kind of alert which had darkened the city, he'd slept through the warning; and evidently so had Goth.

    He had never heard of a weapon though which could have produced that odd yellow discoloring of a large section of the night sky. It was all very mysterious. For a moment the captain had the uneasy suspicion that he was still partly caught up in his nightmare and that what he'd thought he'd seen up there had been nothing more real than a lingering reflection of his musings about the ancient evil of Uldune and the space about it.

    Confused and dog-tired, he left the balcony, carefully locking its door behind him, found his bedroom and was soon asleep.



    He didn't tell Goth about his experiences next day. He'd intended to, but when they woke up there was barely time for a quick breakfast before they hurried off to keep an early appointment with Sunnat, Bazim & Filish. The partners made no mention of unusual occurrences during the night, and neither did anybody else they met during the course of the crowded day. The captain presently became uncertain whether he hadn't in fact dreamed up the whole odd business. By evening he was rather sure he had. There was no reason to bore Goth with the account of a dream.

    Within a few days, with so much going on connected with the rebuilding of the Venture and their other plans, he forgot the episode completely. It was several weeks then before he remembered it again. What brought it to mind was a conversation he happened to overhear between Vezzarn, the old Uldunese spacedog they'd hired on as purser, bookkeeper, and general crewhand for the Venture, and one of Vezzarn's cronies who'd dropped in at the office for a visit. They were talking about something called Worm Weather....

    Meanwhile there'd been many developments, mostly of a favorable nature. Work on the Venture proceeded apace. The captain couldn't have complained about lack of interest on the side of his shipbuilders. After the first few days either Bazim or Filish seemed always around, supervising every detail of every operation. They were earnest, hardworking, middle-aged men -- Bazim big, beefy, and sweaty, Filish lean, weathered, and dehydrated-looking -- who appeared to know everything worth knowing about the construction and outfitting of spaceships. Sunnat, the third member of the firm and apparently the one who really ran things, was tall, red headed, strikingly handsome, and female. She could be no older than the captain, but he had the impression that Bazim and Filish were more than a little afraid of her.

    His own feelings about Sunnat were mixed. During their first few meetings she'd been polite, obviously interested in an operation which should net the firm a large, heavy profit, but aloof. Her rare smiles remained cold and her gray-green eyes seemed constantly on the verge of going into a smoldering rage about something. She left the practical planning and work details to Bazim and Filish, while they deferred to her in the financial aspects.

    That had suddenly changed, at least as far as the captain was concerned. From one day to another, Sunnat seemed to have thawed to him; whenever he appeared in the shipyard or at the partners' offices, she showed up, smiling, pleasant, and talkative. And when he stayed in the little office he'd rented to take care of other business, in a square of the spaceport administration area across from S., B. & F., she was likely to drop in several times a day.

    It was flattering at first. Sunnat's sternly beautiful face and graceful, velvet skinned body would have quickened any man's pulses; the captain wasn't immune to their attractiveness. In public she wore a gray cloak which covered her from neck to ankles, but the outfit beneath it, varying from day to day, calculatingly exposed some sizable section or other of Sunnat's person -- sculptured shoulders and back, the flat and pliable midriff, or a curving line of thigh. Her perfumes and hair-styling seemed to change as regularly as the costumes. It became a daily barrage, increasing in intensity, on the captain's senses; and on occasion his senses reeled. When Sunnat put her hand on his sleeve to emphasize a conversational point or brushed casually along his side as they clambered about together on the scaffoldings now lining the Venture’s hull, he could feel his breath go short.

    But there still was something wrong about it. He wasn't sure what except perhaps that when Goth came around he had the impression that Sunnat stiffened inside. She always spoke pleasantly to Goth on such occasions, and Goth replied as pleasantly, in a polite little-girl way, which wasn't much like her usual manner. Their voices made a gentle duet. But beneath them the captain seemed to catch faint, distant echoes of a duet of another kind -- like the yowling of angry jungle cats.

    It got to be embarrassing finally, and he found himself increasingly inclined to avoid Sunnat when he could. If he saw the tall, straight shape in the gray cloak heading across the square towards his office, he was as likely as not to slip quietly out the back door for lunch, leaving instructions with Vezzarn to report that he'd been called out on business elsewhere.



    Vezzarn was a couple of decades beyond middle age but a spry and wiry little character, whose small gray eyes didn't seem to miss much. He was cheery and polite, very good with figures. Above all, he'd logged six passes through the Chaladoor and didn't mind making a few more -- for the customary steep risk pay and with, as he put it, the right ship and the right skipper. The Evening Bird, building in the shipyard, plus Captain Aron of Mulm seemed to meet his requirements there.

    The day the captain recalled the odd dream he'd had during their first night in Zergandol, a man named Tobul had dropped by at the office to talk to Vezzarn. They were distant relatives, and Tobul was a traveling salesman whose routes took him over most of Uldune. He'd been a spacer like Vezzarn in his younger days; and like most spacers, the two used Imperial Universum in preference to Uldunese when they talked together. So the captain kept catching scraps of the conversation in Vezzarn's cubicle.

    He paid no attention to it until he heard Tobul inquire, "Safe to mention Worm Weather around here at the moment?"

    Wondering what the fellow meant, the captain looked up from his paper work.

    "Safe enough," replied Vezzarn. "Hasn't been a touch of it for a month now. You been running into any?"

    "More'n I like, let me tell you! There was a bad bout of it in..." He gave the name of some Uldune locality which the captain didn't quite get. "Just before I got there. Very bad! Everywhere you went people were still going off into screaming fits. Didn't hang around there long, believe me!"

    "Don't blame you."

    "That evening after I left, I saw the sky starting to go yellow again behind me. I made tracks.... They could've got hit as bad again that night. Or worse! Course you never hear anything about it."

    "No." There was a pause while the captain listened, straining his ears now. The sky going yellow? Suddenly and vividly he saw every detail of that ominous fiery dream-structure again, drifting towards him, and the yellow discoloration fading against the stars above Zergandol.... "Seems like it keeps moving farther west and south," Vezzarn went on thoughtfully. "Ten years ago nobody figured it ever would get to Uldune."

    "Well, it's been all around the planet this time!" Tobul assured him. "Longest bout we ever had. And if--"

    The captain lost the rest of it. He'd glanced out the window just then and spotted Sunnat coming across the square. It was a one-way window so she couldn't see him. He hesitated a moment to make sure she was headed for the office. Once before he'd ducked too hastily out the back entrance and run into her as she was coming through the adjoining building arcade. There was no reason to hurt her pride by letting her know he preferred to avoid her.

    Today she was clearly on her way to see him. The captain picked up his cap, stopped for an instant at Vezzarn's cubicle.

    "I've been gone for a couple of hours," he announced, "and may not be back for a few more."

    "Right, sir!" said Vezzarn understandingly. "The chances are you're at the bank this very moment...."

    "Probably," the captain agreed, and left. Once outside, he recalled several matters he might as well be taking care of that afternoon; so it was, in fact, getting close to evening before he returned to the office. Tobul had left and Sunnat wasn't around; but Goth had showed up, and Vezzarn was entertaining her in the darkening office with horror tales of his experiences in the Chaladoor and elsewhere. He told a good story, apparently didn't exaggerate too much, and Goth, who no doubt could have topped his accounts by a good bit if she'd felt like it, always enjoyed listening to him.

    The captain told him to go on, and sat down. When Vezzarn reached the end of his yarn, he asked, "By the way, just what is that Worm Weather business you and Tobul were talking about today?"

    He got a quick look from Goth and Vezzarn both. Vezzarn appeared puzzled.

    "Just what? I'm not sure I understand, sir," he said. "We've had a good bit of it around Uldune for the past couple of months, and that's very unusual for these longitudes, of course. But--"

    "I meant," explained the captain, "what is it?"

    Vezzarn now looked startled. He glanced at Goth, back at the captain.

    "You're serious? Why, you're really a long way from home!" he exclaimed. Then he caught himself. "Uh -- no offense, sir! No offense, little lady! Where you're from is none of my foolish business, and that's the truth.... But you've never heard of Worm Weather? The Nuris? Manaret, the Worm World?... Moander Who Speaks with a Thousand Voices?"

    "I don't know a thing about any of them," the captain admitted. Goth very likely did, now that he thought of it; but she said nothing.

    "Hm!" Vezzarn scratched the grizzled bristles on his scalp, and grimaced. "Hm!" he repeated dubiously. He got up behind his desk, went to the window, glanced out at the clear evening sky and sat down on the sill.

    "I'm not particularly superstitious," he remarked. "But if you don't mind, sir, I'll stay here where I can keep an eye out while I'm on that subject. You'll know why when I'm done...."



    If Vezzarn had been more able to resist telling a good story to someone who hadn't heard it before, it is likely the captain would not have learned much about Worm Weather from him. The little spaceman became increasingly nervous as he talked on and the world beyond the window continued to darken; his eyes swung about to search the sky every minute or so. But whatever apprehensions he felt didn't stop him.



    Where was the Worm World, dread Manaret? None knew. Some thought it was concealed near the heart of the Chaladoor, in the Sea of Light. Some believed it lay so far to Galactic East that no exploring ship had ever come on it -- or if one had, it had been destroyed too swiftly to send back word of its awesome find. Some argued it might be anywhere -- a burning world, or a glittering ice sphere sheathed in mile-thick layers of solidified poisonous gas. Any of those guesses could be true, because almost all that was known of Manaret was of its tunneled, splendidly ornamented interior.

    Vezzarn inclined to the theory it was to be found, if one cared to search for it, at some vast distance among the star swarms to Far Galactic East. Year after year, decade after decade, as long as civilized memory went back, the glowing plague of Worm Weather had seemed to come drifting farther westward to harass the worlds of humanity.

    And what was Worm Weather? Eh, said Vezzarn, the vehicles, the fireships of the Nuri worms of Manaret! Hadn't they been seen riding their webs of force in the yellow-burning clouds, tinging the upper air of the planets they touched with their reflections? He himself was one of the few who had encountered Worm Weather in deep space and lived to tell of it. Two months east of Uldune it had been. There in space it was apparent that the clouds formed globes, drifting as swiftly as the swiftest ships.

    "In the screens we could see the Nuris, those dreadful worms," Vezzarn said hoarsely, hunched like a dark gnome on the window sill against the dimming city. "And who knows, perhaps they saw us! But we turned and ran and they didn't follow. It was a bold band of boys who crewed that ship; but of the twelve of us, three went mad during the next few hours and never recovered. And the rest couldn't bring ourselves to slow the ship until we had eaten up almost all our power -- so we barely came crawling back to port at last!"

    The captain pushed his palm over his forehead, wiping clammy sweat. "But what are they?" he asked. "What do they want?"

    "What are they? They are the Nuris.... What do they want?" Vezzarn shook his head. "Worm Weather comes! Perhaps only a lick of fire in the sky at night. Perhaps nothing else happens...." He paused. "But when they send out their thoughts, sir -- then it can be bad! Then it can be very bad!"

    People slept, and woke screaming. Or walked in fear of something for which they had no name. Or saw the glorious and terrible caverns of Manaret opening before them in broad daylight.... Some believed they had been taken there, and somehow returned.

    People did vanish when Worm Weather came. People who never were seen again. That was well established. It did not happen always, but it had happened too often....

    Perhaps it wasn't even the thoughts of the Nuris that poured into a human world at such times, but the thoughts of Moander. Moander the monster, the god, who crouched on the surface of Manaret... who spoke in a thousand voices, in a thousand tongues. Some said the Nuris themselves were no more than Moander's thoughts drifting out and away endlessly through the universe.

    It had been worse, it seemed, in the old days. There were ancient stories of worlds whose populations had been swept by storms of panic and such wildly destructive insanity that only mindless remnants were later found still huddling in the gutted cities. And worlds where hundreds of thousands of inhabitants had tracelessly disappeared overnight. But those events had been back in the period of the Great Eastern Wars when planets enough died in gigantic battlings among men. What role Manaret had played in that could no longer be said with any certainty.

    "One thing is true though, sir," Vezzarn concluded earnestly. "I've been telling you this because you asked, and because you should know there's danger in it. But it's a bad business otherwise to talk much about Worm Weather or what it means -- even to think about it too long. That's been known a long time. Where there's loose talk about Worm Weather, there Worm Weather will go finally. It's as if they can feel the talk and don't like it. So nobody wants to say much about it. It's safer to take no more interest in them than you can help. Though it's hard to keep from thinking about the devil-things when you see the sky turning yellow above your head!

    "Now I'll wish you good-night, Dani and Captain Aron. It's time and past for supper and a nightcap for old Vezzarn -- who talks a deal more than he should, I think."



    "Didn't know the Worm stuff had been around here," Goth remarked thoughtfully as they turned away from the groundcab that had brought them back up to their house.

    "You already knew about that, eh?" The captain nodded. "I had the impression you did. Got something to tell you -- but we'd better wait till we're private."


    She went up the winding stairway to the living room while the captain took the groceries they'd picked up in the port shopping area to the kitchen. When he followed her upstairs he saw an opaque cloudy shimmering just beyond the living room door, showing she'd switched on their spy-proofing gadget. The captain stepped into the shimmering and it cleared away before him. The watch-shaped device lay on the table in the center of the room, and Goth was warming her hands at the fireplace. She looked around.

    "Well," he said, "now we can talk. Did Vezzarn have his story straight?"

    Goth nodded. "Pretty straight. That Worm World isn't really a world at all, though."

    "No? What is it?"

    "Ship," Goth told him. "Sort of a spaceship. Big one! Big as Uldune or Karres.... Better tell me first what you were going to."

    "Well--" The captain hesitated. "It's that description Vezzarn gave of the Nuris...." He reported his dream, the feelings it had aroused in him, and what had been going on when he woke up. "Apparently there really was Worm Weather over Zergandol that night," he concluded.

    "Uh-huh!" Goth's teeth briefly indented her lower lip. Her eyes remained reflectively on his face.

    "But I don't have any explanation for the dream," the captain said. "Unless it was the kind of thing Vezzarn was talking about."

    "Wasn't exactly a dream, captain. Nuris have a sort of klatha. You were seeing them that way. Likely, they knew it."

    "What makes you think that?" he asked, startled.

    "Nuris hunt witches," Goth explained.

    "Hunt them? Why?"

    She shrugged. "They've figured out too much about the Manaret business on Karres.... Other reasons, too!"

    Now he became alarmed. "But then you're in danger while we're on Uldune!"

    "I'm not," Goth said. "You were in danger. You'd be again if we got Worm Weather anywhere near Zergandol."


    "You got klatha. Nuris'd figure you for a witch. We'll fix that now!"

    She moved out before him, facing him, lifted a finger, held it up in front of his eyes, a few feet away. Her face grew dead serious, intent. "Watch the way it moves!"

    He followed the fingertip as it drew a fleeting, wavy line through the air. Goth's hand stopped, closed quickly to a fist as if cutting off the line behind it. "You do it now," she said. "In your head."

    "Draw the same kind of line, you mean?"


    She waited while the captain went through some difficult mental maneuverings.

    "Got it!" he announced at last, with satisfaction.

    Goth's finger came up again. "Now this one...."

    Three further linear patterns were traced in the air for him, each quite different from the others. Practicing them mentally, the captain felt himself grow warm, perspiry, vaguely wondered why. When he was able to say he'd mastered the fourth one, Goth nodded.

    "Now you do them together, Captain... one after the other, the way I showed you quick as you can!"

    "Together, eh?" He loosened his collar. He wasn't just perspiring now; he was dripping wet. A distinct feeling of internal heat building up... some witch trick she was showing him. He might have felt more skeptical about it if it weren't for the heat. "This helps against Nuris?"

    "Uh-huh. A lock." Goth didn't smile; she was disregarding his appearance, and her small brown face was still very intent. "Hurry up! You mustn't forget any of it."

    He grunted, closed his eyes, concentrated.

    Pattern One -- easy! Pattern Two... Pattern Three--

    His mind wavered an instant, groping. Internal heat suddenly surged up. Startled, he remembered:


    A blurred pinwheel of blue brilliance appeared, spun momentarily inside his skull, collapsed to a diamond-bright point, was gone. As it went, there was a snapping sensation, also inside his skull -- an almost audible snap. Then everything was relaxing, went quiet. The heat magically ebbed away while he drew a breath. He opened his eyes, somewhat shaken.

    Goth was grinning. "Knew you could do it, Captain!"

    "What did I do?" he asked.

    "Built a good lock! You'll have to practice a little still. That'll be easy. The Nuris come around then, you switch the lock on. They won't know you're there!"

    "Well, that's fine!" said the captain weakly. He looked about for a cloth, mopped at his face. He'd have to change his clothes, he decided. "Where'd that heat come from?"

    "Klatha heat. It's a hot pattern, all right -- that's why it's so good.... Don't show those moves to somebody who can't do them right. Not unless you don't mind about them."

    "Oh? Why not?"

    "Because they'll burn right up -- flames and smoke -- if they try to do them and don't stop fast enough," Goth said. "Never seen someone do it, but it's happened."



    She might have thought he was nervous if he hadn't repeated the experiment right away to get in the practice she felt he needed. So he did. It was surprisingly easy then. On the first run through, the line patterns seemed to flicker into existence almost as his thoughts turned to one after another of them. On the second, he could barely keep up with the overall pattern as it took shape and was blanked out again by the spinning blue blur. On the third, there was only an instant flash of brilliance and that odd semiaudible snap near the top of his skull. At that point he realized there had been no recurrence of the uncomfortable heat sensations.

    "You got it now!" his mentor decided when he reported. "Won't matter if you're asleep either. The locks know their business."

    "Incidentally, how did you know I could do it?" the captain inquired.

    "You picked up the Nuris," Goth said. "That's good, so early...." Over dinner she filled out his picture of the Worm World and its unpleasant inhabitants. Manaret and the witches had been at odds for a considerable time -- around a hundred and fifty years, Karres time, Goth said; though she wasn't sure of the exact period. The baleful effect of the Worm World on human civilizations was more widespread and more subtle than anyone like Vezzarn could guess, and not limited to the Nuri raids. There were powerful and malignant minds there which could act across vast reaches of space and created much mischief in human affairs.

    Telepathic adepts among the people of Karres set out to trace these troubles to their source and presently discovered facts about Manaret no one had suspected. It was not a world at all, they found, but a ship of unheard-of size that had come out of an alien universe which had no normal connections to the universe known to humanity. Several centuries ago, some vast cataclysm had temporarily disabled the titanic ship and hurled it and its crew into this galaxy; and the disaster was followed by a mutiny led by Moander, the entity who "spoke in a thousand voices." Moander, the witches learned, was a monstrous robot-brain which had taken almost complete control of the great ship, forcing the race which had built Manaret and been its masters to retreat to a heavily defended interior section where Moander's adherents could not reach them.

    Karres telepaths contacted these people, who called themselves the Lyrd-Hyrier, gaining information from them but no promise of help against Moander. Moander was holding the ship in this universe with the apparent purpose of gaining control of human civilizations here and establishing itself as ultimate ruler. The Nuris, whose disagreeable physical appearance gained Manaret the name of Worm World, were a servant race which in the mutiny had switched allegiance from the Lyrd-Hyrier to Moander.

    "So then," Goth said, "Moander found out Karres was spying on him. That's when the Nuris started hunting witches...."

    The discovery also slowed down Moander's plans of conquest. Karres, the megalomaniac monster evidently decided, must be found and destroyed before it could act freely. The witches at that time had no real defense against the Nuris' methods of attack and, some eighty years ago, had been obliged to shift their world beyond the western side of the Empire to avoid them. The Nuris were not only a mental menace. They had physical weapons of alien type at their disposal which could annihilate the life of a planet in very short order. There had been a great deal to learn and work out before the witches could consider confronting them openly.

    "They've been coming along with that pretty well, I think," Goth said. "But it's about time, too. Manaret's been making a lot of trouble and it's getting worse."

    "In what way?" The captain found himself much intrigued by all this.

    The Worm World more recently had developed the tactics of turning selected individual human beings into its brain-washed tools. It was suspected the current Emperor and other persons high in his council were under the immediate influence of Moander's telepathic minions. "One of the reasons we don't get along very well with the Imperials," Goth explained, "is the Emperor's got orders out to find a way to knock out Karres for good. They haven't found one yet, though."

    The captain reflected. "Think the reason your people moved Karres had to do with Manaret again?" he asked.

    Goth shrugged. "Wouldn't have to," she said. "The Empire's politics go every which way, I guess. We help the Empress Hailie -- she's the best of the lot. Maybe somebody got mad about that. I don't know. Anyway, they won't catch Karres that easy...."

    He reflected again. "Have they found out where the Worm World is? Vezzarn thought...."

    "That's strategy, Captain," Goth said, rather coldly.


    "If anyone on Karres knows where it is, they won't say so to anyone else who doesn't have to know they know. Supposing you and I got picked up by the Nuris tonight?"

    "Hm!" he said. "I get it."



    It sounded like the witches were involved in interesting maneuvers on a variety of levels. But he and Goth were out of all that. Privately, the captain regretted it a little.

    Their own affairs on Uldune, however, continued to progress satisfactorily. Public notice had been posted that on completion of her outfitting by the firm of Sunnat, Bazim & Filish, the modernized trader Evening Bird, skippered by Captain Aron of Mulm, would embark on a direct run through the Chaladoor to the independent world of Emris. Expected duration of the voyage: sixteen days. Reservations for cargo and a limited number of passengers could be made immediately, at standard risk run rates payable with the reservations and not refundable. A listing of the Evening Bird's drive speeds, engine reserves, types of detection equipment, and defensive and offensive armament was added.

    All things considered, the response had been surprising. Apparently competition in the risk run business was not heavy at present. True, only three passengers had signed up so far, while the Venture’s former crew quarters had been remodeled into six comfortable staterooms and a combined dining room and lounge. But within a week the captain had been obliged to put a halt to the cargo reservations. He'd have to see how much space was left over after they'd stowed away the stuff he'd already committed himself to carry.

    They were in business. And the outrageous risk run rates made it rather definitely big business.

    Of the three passengers, one was a beautiful dark-eyed damsel, calling herself Hulik do Eldel, who wanted to get to Emris as soon as she possibly could, for unspecified personal reasons, and who had, she said, complete confidence that Captain Aron and his niece would see her there safely. The second was a plump, fidgety financier named Kambine, who perspired profusely at any mention of the Chaladoor but grew hot-eyed and eager when he spoke of an illegal fortune he stood to make if he could get to a certain address on Emris within the next eight weeks. The captain liked that part not at all when he heard of it. But penalties on cancellations of risk run reservations by the carrier were so heavy that he couldn't simply cross Kambine off the passenger list. They'd have to get him there; but he would give Emris authorities the word on the financier's underhanded plot immediately on arrival. That might be very poor form by Uldune's standards; but the captain couldn't care less.

    The last of them was one Laes Yango, a big-boned, dour-faced businessman who stood a good head taller than the captain and had little to say about himself. He was shepherding some crates of extremely valuable hyperelectronic equipment through the Chaladoor, would transfer with them on Emris for a destination several weeks' travel beyond. Yango, the captain thought, should create no problems aboard. He wasn't so sure of the other two.

    When it came to problems on Uldune, he still had a number to handle there. But they were business matters and would be resolved. Sunnat appeared to have realized at last she'd been making something of a nuisance of herself and was now behaving more sensibly. She was still very cordial to the captain whenever they met; and he trusted he hadn't given the tall redhead any offense.

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