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The Wizard of Karres: Chapter Four

       Last updated: Tuesday, January 20, 2004 03:58 EST



    “Captain, that fleet is still following us,” said Vezzarn worriedly. “They’d be out of detector range if you hadn’t had that new stuff fitted on Uldune.”

    Captain Pausert looked at the small blips on the detector screen. One large and fifteen smaller spots of light, traveling in formation. The fleet was still outside the range of the visual screens. He wished he could see them.

    “Let’s try stepping up the power—slowly, so it isn’t obvious—and changing vector slightly. This is the most direct route to the Sheris system. It is possible that they aren’t actually following us... I suppose.”

    Two hours later they were able to say for certain the fleet was following them. Moreover, the fleet could also follow them despite their slow increase in speed to the Venture’s maximum.

    “I don’t like it, Goth. I think you and the Leewit should get ready to use the Sheewash drive,” said Pausert finally. Getting rid of their followers was worth the risk.

    Goth nodded. “Good idea, Captain. Let’s lose them while we can. I’ll go and get the Leewit.”

    “And I am going back to my cabin,” announced Vezzarn. Witch-stuff made the old spacer nervous. If it couldn’t be explained in terms of space-time physics, he wanted to be elsewhere when it was happening,

    A few minutes later, a globe of orange fire danced above some twisted black wires in the control cabin. Outside, the viewscreens showed that space suddenly blurred. Captain Pausert eyed the process with interest. During the Venture’s last voyage, Vezzarn, Hulik do Eldel and Laes Yango—who had also gone by the name of “the Agandar” and had commanded a fleet of pirates that were fast becoming a navy—had all wanted to steal the Sheewash drive. They had all thought that it was something technological, and could be stolen. What they hadn’t know was that it didn’t work without a witch; all they had known was that it was really, really fast.

    The Sheewash drive wasn’t something Pausert had mastered yet and with klatha-powers you had to be ready... or you could get hurt. You could even be killed—or, as one witch had said, darkly, “worse.” Pausert wasn’t prepared to contemplate what “worse” could mean, though sometimes he had uneasy images of being turned inside-out for trying. But the pattern of the Sheewash seemed to be almost in his grasp. The two witch sisters kept it up for about a minute, but that would be enough to make the Venture disappear from tracking screens. As the wire collapsed and the globe of orange fire winked out of existence, the captain was already setting another course-vector and pulling the engines back to normal cruising speeds. This detour would avoid their next scheduled stop, the Sheris system, and take them on a rather odd tangent to the Alpha Dendi stars instead. That was quite a dense cluster which ships in a hurry avoided. There was a lot of intersolar dust there, and that would make visual tracking difficult. Captain Pausert relaxed, and went to fix the two young witches some food. Using klatha energies, especially for something as powerful as the Sheewash drive, left the young witches exhausted and starving. So it had to be used judiciously. Neither Goth nor the Leewit could do the Sheewash drive again too soon.



    It was two days later, just as they were entering the first of the dust-veils around the Alpha Dendi cluster, when Hulik do Eldel paged the captain. He got up, and, still sleepy, headed into the control room.

    “Vezzarn told me about our followers, Captain.” She pointed an elegant finger at the detector-screen. There was one large and fifteen smaller blips, in the same formation. “Looks like they’re still behind us, Captain.”

    Pausert blinked at them. This was only a couple of hours into his sleep period, and he wasn’t at his brightest. It certainly looked like the same pattern. But how could the Imperials possibly have caught up with them, or even followed them at all?

    “Shall I try hailing them, Captain?”

    Pausert shrugged tiredly and flopped into the command chair. “It can’t do any harm, I suppose. But I don’t think they’re chasing after us to buy Councilor Rapport’s tinklewood fishing-poles.”

    There was no response on the Empire general beam-length, but as Hulik flicked the dials, they picked up a jabber of some unknown language. “Ship-to-ship communication over there, I think,” said Hulik. “They’ve obviously forgotten to switch over to narrow beam.”

    Pausert had already hit the ship’s intercom.

    “What is it, Captain?”

    “Goth, we need the Leewit’s translation skills down here. Fast. We’ve got ships on our tail and they’re talking to each other on broad-beam.”

    “We’re coming.”

    “I’m recording, Captain,” said Hulik. “Also trying to get visuals, but they’re at long range.”

    Goth and the Leewit tumbled into the control room. The Leewit, besides her equipment-shattering whistles, was also a klatha-translator. She could instantly translate any language, even robot and machine tongues.

    She started immediately. “They say ...tubes overhot. This pace very much longer cannot be kept to.”

    She paused, before continuing. Obviously, only the communication officer of the ship in trouble with its tubes had forgotten to set his equipment to narrow beam. They were only getting half the conversation. “The one who spoke earlier says it matters not. If their tubes blow they will get none of the Agandar’s loot anyway.”

    She paused again. “Oh! He says he hopes... Beelzit... I’m not going to translate that. Filthy mind! Should wash his mouth out with soap.” She reached for the transmitter-switch, without a doubt, to give the com-officer a lesson.

    Hastily, Captain Pausert slapped his hand over it. “Easy now. Let’s save it. They don’t know we know their ship-channel. That could be useful.”

    The Leewit scowled at him. “S’pose so,” she said reluctantly. “But I was looking forward to it. That was really filthy.”

    Hulik shook her head in amazement. “The Agandar’s loot! But... what loot, Captain? Did he leave anything on the ship?”

    Pausert tried to think. “Well, there was his personal gear, and the crate the Sheem robot was in. We dumped the crate. I think his gear is stashed in the corner of the hold, with a few bales of unsold cargo. I’ve got a few of those educational toys, some tinklewood fishing poles and those allweather cloaks left over from the cargo I loaded on Nikkeldepain.”

    He saw that Hulik, Goth and the Leewit were all heading for the door. “Go and look then,” he said crossly. “It’ll be nothing more than his clothes and toiletries. You can’t hide a ton of loot in a couple of holdalls.”

    “He did raid the Star diamond concession on Coolum’s World,” pointed out Hulik.

    Goth grinned at the captain. “I remember Wansing, that crook of a jeweler you rescued me from on Porlumma, talking about it. They found some top-quality stones there as big as your head.”

    “And if you do find them there, I’ll return them to their owners!” he called after them, irritably. There were times that he felt at a distinct disadvantage, being an honest man. Then he rather determinedly turned to face the screens again.



    The twenty or so suns in the cluster marked on the charts were never all visible at one time. Planetoids, asteroids and intersolar dust hung in gravity-whirled skeins. It was, the captain admitted, the perfect place for an ambush. He’d been planning on being well-slept and alert when they went into it, but, thanks to Hulik’s call when she’d spotted the following ships and the excitement that followed with searching the Agandar’s gear, he’d never gotten it.

    Ha. Some treasure! No alien crowns or head-size diamonds. Toiletries and clothes, as he’d predicted. A few personal items. The most exciting thing was a pack of cards with hand-painted face-cards that the Leewit had appropriated to play with. The captain supposed that it was all right for her to do so. After all, the late Agandar still owed him for damages his war-robot had done to the ship. A pack of cards was a pretty cheap exchange.

    What was worrying Pausert far more was that they’d had to cut speed here in order to dodge all the space-debris. And they’d lost sight of the Agandar’s fleet. The captain had tried every dodge in the book to make sure that they weren’t actually being followed, but the dust, rocks and moonlets made this a perfect place for the enemy to hunt, rather than the Venture to hide. The pirates had a number of ships to cover the possible routes through the lenticular cluster.

    The captain had gambled on the most difficult route also being the one least likely for them to encounter an ambush. So far, he’d been right. But it was slow going, and the trip was taking a toll on the ship’s crew. Even at reduced speed, they had very little time to react to obstacles. The ship simply couldn’t run on automatic systems. One of the senior ship-handlers, either Vezzarn or Pausert himself, had to be there. Pausert had been teaching Goth and Hulik—even, when he could get her attention, the Leewit—but none of them were good enough yet for this kind of seat-of-your-pants flying, with all the instant decision-making it took.

    On the other hand, the Leewit was bidding fair to become a superb shot with the nova guns. She seemed to have a gift for anticipation; which, considering her witch background, could actually be real precognition starting to develop.

    Looking ahead, Pausert realized he might just need her gun skills. That was definitely a ship’s drive registering on the detectors. Some of the Agandar’s fleet must have gotten in front of them, perhaps taking a course that had less debris to avoid. A few seconds later, there was a second blip from the detector. Pausert decided he’d had enough. He was tired and angry. The Venture had her nova guns and more speed and maneuverability than they would expect. He held to his course.

    A third set of blips appeared.

    That was too much. In the maze of dust-walls and drifting asteroids and moonlets, there had to be a way of avoiding the pirates. The captain turned the Venture, running back the way they had come.

    The detectors began squalling again. More ships, this time coming up the Venture’s course.

    “I thought space was supposed to be empty,” groused Pausert, hitting the communicator switch. “We’ve got bandits!”

    With all the obstacles, the Sheewash drive couldn’t get them out of trouble. But using it for a few seconds could make a lot of difference to their success in evading their enemies. An opportunity, in the shape of a lightsecond wide gap in the drifting debris, presented itself off to the starboard. The captain took it. The ships had all been at extreme detector range. They might still be able to lose the pursuing bandits.



    “It’s impossible! Wherever we go they seem to follow us, or get there before we do. It is almost as if they know our vectors and they’re anticipating us.”

    Hulik do Eldel grimaced. “Captain, I think we must have a leech.”

    “A leech?”

    “Imperial security hooks them onto suspicious ships, if they get a chance. I suspect these pirates must have got hold of one, and put it onto the Venture’s hull, somewhere. It’s a simple subradio transmitter. All they have to do is follow their signal-strength indicators.”

    “How do we find it and get rid of it?”

    “We search the outside of the ship.”

    Pausert chewed on his lip. “Which we can’t really do, while we’re running. And we can’t stop running because they’re nearly on top of us.”

    Vezzarn looked thoughtful. “I could use the spare communicator unit and a couple of directional aerials to pin-point it, Captain. When we get the chance,” he added, a bit lamely.

    The communicator buzzed again. “Empire hailing frequency,” commented Goth, not touching it. “Want to talk to them, Captain?”

    Pausert shrugged. “Why not? We might convince them to leave us alone if we drop the Agandar’s gear out of an airlock.”

    He clicked the communicator on. An officer in the uniform of the Imperial Space Navy appeared in the screen.

    “This is ISN patrol vessel Saraband. You are ordered to halt and be searched.”

    Captain Pausert gaped at the speaker. Then recovered. “Not a chance, pirate! We’re not being fooled that easily. The Empire takes a hard line on those who impersonate her officers.”

    Now it was the other man’s turn to gape. “How dare you, Sir!”

    Pausert snapped the communicator off. “That told the fraud where to get off!”

    “Except that was no fraud, Captain,” said Hulik do Eldel wryly. “I did my Imperial Security marksmanship course with that man. He was a pompous prig then and it doesn’t sound as if he’s improved.” She smiled. “He was a terrible shot, too.”

    “Let’s hope that that hasn’t improved either!” exclaimed the captain. “I suppose I’d better try and explain.”

    Balls of purple fire exploded in space to portside. “I think it’s too late for that. Great Patham! Those ships ahead are also firing on us, Captain.” Goth’s eyes widened. “Look at the size of that thing!”

    “It must be the Agandar’s flagship,” said Pausert, hastily programming in evasive action. “He boasted about how big it was. It’s terrifying!”

    The crew of the Imperial ships must have had a similar reaction. A hasty “What ship? What ship?” came over the general hailing frequency that Pausert had been about to use to call the ISN Saraband on.

    The captain snapped his fingers. “What was that frequency that you got the ship-to-ship talk from the Pirates?”

    “.00g53,” said Hulik. “But...”

    Pausert had already changed to it. He put a hand on the Leewit’s shoulder. “Tell them it must be a trap. An ambush. That the quarry has led them into the Empire’s clutches.”

    She nodded, seizing the microphone and began jabbering away. The captain recognized one word. Beelzit. She said it with great satisfaction. Pausert had the feeling that it was just as well he couldn’t translate or he’d have had to go through a lot of kicking and biting to wash her mouth out with soap.



    Pausert wished he’d managed a better landing. The Venture stood at an awkward angle on the ice-moonlet which was now following its orbit away from the combat zone. Still, things could be worse.

    “Great Patham! They’re clumping well giving it to each other, aren’t they,” said Goth in delight.

    The Leewit pounded his shoulder. “See what I did!” she said proudly. It was true enough. When orders came pouring out of the Agandar’s flagship, she’d added to them. In the resulting confusion, the firefight had spread between the pirates themselves, as well as between the Imperials and the pirates.

    “Neat idea of yours, landing here, Captain,” said Vezzarn. “It’ll fool their mass-detectors anyway.”

    “And it’ll give us a chance to suit up and go out and look for this leech.” Pausert rose to his feet. “Just as soon as I know we’ve slipped away safely and don’t need to blast off immediately.”

    Hulik nodded. “They certainly seem to have lost us, or lost interest in us. It could be that the leech is one of the kind that doesn’t have a power-pack and relies on drawing its current from the ship. They used to use those once upon a time, but they found it meant that they could lose ships coasting on inertia. I guess I’d better suit up too. I’ve placed a few leeches and I know what to look for.”

    “How big are they, Miss Do Eldel?”

    The do Eldel made motions with her hands. “About like this, Captain—say the size of three fists. And they’re hull-metal color. They’re usually put somewhere near the drive tubes, where the area is too hot to spend long looking.”

    “Makes sense.” Pausert looked at the viewscreens and detector array. “And it appears that we have one that relies on our power, because we seem to have escaped notice. The fight is definitely moving off. We’d better suit up, take radiation meters and go hunting. It’s going to be a big job, but we’d better leave... Vezzarn in the command chair and the Leewit on the nova guns. The rest of us can go out a-hunting.”

    The Leewit rubbed her hands in glee. “Hope they find us!”

    Pausert didn’t feel that way about it at all. There were an awful lot of ships out there.




    The moonlet was made up of gray-blue water-ice imbedded with rock fragments. The surface was jagged with impact craters and tricky to walk on, being either uneven or glassy-smooth with shards of sharp rock sticking up like daggers out of it. True, the suits were tough. But if someone went sliding in among those rocks—well, those rock-edges looked very sharp. The rock seemed to be volcanic glass and there was no atmosphere here to erode the splintered edges.

    Pausert, Hulik and Goth, roped and suited, made their way cautiously onto the surface from the ramp. Gravity was perhaps a hundredth of ship-normal. They had to be careful not to make sudden moves or even to step too high, as they edged their way cautiously along the hull. The captain had a blaster at the ready. It wasn’t likely that the planetoid would have any dangers, but the one thing humans had learned since leaving old Yarth was that life in space took myriad forms and cropped up in the most unexpected places.

    However, other than the fact that the surface was difficult to move on, with low gravity and very little friction, there were no problems. Only... there seemed to be a trace of vatch around. Pausert could rell it somewhere, though he couldn’t say exactly where the thing was.

    They searched patiently and carefully around the tubes. Suddenly the ground shuddered.

    Pausert fell.

    They all did, tumbling on the ice among blades of rock. The airless space above the moonlet was full of flying shards, too. Looking upward as he spun across the ice, the captain saw to his horror that the Venture was toppling off her unstable landing point...

    Toward him. He was on his back, slithering and skidding helplessly closer. The bulk of the hull would squash him like a bug. There was a terrible, helpless inevitability about it all.

    The rope linking him with Hulik and Goth suddenly went taut. Hulik and Goth, wrapped around a stone monolith, were hauling at it.

    It was a small ice-lump moon they’d landed on. There was not much gravity here. The Venture was falling over in a kind of ultra-slow motion, and Hulik and Goth were exerting a terrific pull on the rope. A pull that would have dragged him on Karres or Nikkeldepain or even old Yarth.

    Here, it sent him flying. Hurtling between the stone edges, steering frantically with his feet and arms, whizzing past Goth and Hulik... and right up a steep ridge and into space.

    The Venture coughed; the briefest flicker of her laterals. Vezzarn must have taken action to stop her fall. He must have desperately weighed up frying them or crushing them.

    Pausert realized that his flight had had a rather unexpected consequence. He’d plucked the other two into space after him. Well, there had been pretty little holding them down on the moonlet. They were quite safe... except they were going one direction and the Venture and the moonlet and a number of asteroid fragments other directions. They’d just have to use reaction pistols to get back.

    Then, with a sickening feeling, the captain realized it wasn’t going to be that simple. They’d set out to walk around the Venture’s hull. Walk. Not spacewalk. Still, there should have been a reaction pistol at his belt.

    There wasn’t. Just a completely recoilless and useless blaster. And the moonlet, along with the Venture, was proceeding on its merry way. They were heading in the opposite direction: three tiny sparkle-figures in the vastness of space.

    The vatch giggled. What fun!

    Drifting away from them, dark against the dust veils, Captain Pausert saw three reaction pistols.

    Vatches thought of the human universe as a sort of dream-game, with humans as pieces. The fun lay in challenging the pieces... so there had to be a solution. Besides, the little vatch seemed more inclined to mischief than anything more malicious.

    Goth seized the initiative. The guns were well within her weight limit and she teleported them back.

    The vatchlet squeaked indignation. It’s not supoosed to be that easy!

    “Quick. Before it thinks of something else. Back to the ship.”

    The leech search was abandoned in their flight back to the Venture.



    Pausert studied the screens. “It looks like our landing jarred this little moonlet a bit off-course. In a crowded zone of space like this, it only takes a tiny fraction of a degree to cause other collisions. We’d better abandon the search, because this iceball is almost bound to hit something else. I’d like to take off before that, and not after.”

    The Leewit scowled. “Captain, I was listening in to the pirates—they’d lost us, but they picked up the signal the moment that Vezzarn kicked the engines.”

    Hulik bit her lip. “The leech must definitely draw its power from the ship’s drive, then.”

    Pausert shrugged. “We have to use them sometimes.”

    “We could use the Sheewash drive,” pointed out Goth.

    “Not all the time. You and the Leewit would get too tired. And we couldn’t use it very well here, anyway, in this part of space. There are too many obstacles.”

    “Yes, but we could hop for the edge of this cluster now. Even if they follow us, they’re too far off to catch up before we get there and... oh-oh. Vatch.”

    It wasn’t the little silver-eyed mischief, this time. It was a much bigger vatch, almost the size of Big Windy. Pausert wasn’t surprised. The Venture had drawn much klatha force to her, and vatches were attracted by klatha. The captain had a feeling of big slitty eyes peering at them in delight. He hastily formed the pattern in his mind of a vatch-lock, which would at least stop the creature reading his mind.


    And then... Go ‘way. Mine! Mine! The tiny vatch was not amused. The words were almost glowing in Pausert’s mind.


    Pausert could see the tiny blackness dancing in front of the greater bulk of nothingness. Am not! They’re mine! Go ‘way!


    The Venture moved, abruptly, to the center of the conflict. The hull shuddered and rang like a bell as the Venture took a hit.

    With an effort of will, Pausert forced himself to ignore the terrifying noise, and formed his klatha hooks. He reached for the bigger vatch, hooking great lines of force into it and pinning it down.

    The internal spinning maelstrom of blackness seethed. It began yowling. YAAAH. THE MONSTER! The vatch desperately strained against the bonds. The captain pulled out pieces of it, flinging them at the pirate vessels.


    Pausert thought sternly at the squalling creature. We need to be outside this cluster. Do that and you can be free.

    The Venture knew a moment of disturbed reality which left them sitting outside the cluster. CAN I GO? pleaded the creature. THIS HURTS, DREAM CREATURE! I HAVE DONE NOTHING TO YOU.

    Yet, said Pausert. But be gone. And don’t come back! The captain reeled in his klatha hooks and the big vatch fled.

    Bravo! The little one squeaked triumphantly. Go, you bully! And don’t come back!

    The big vatch didn’t pause to reply. In fact, it fled in such haste that the captain was left with a whirling black fragment of vatch stuff, still attached to the klatha hooks. Well, from previous experience, Pausert knew that this stuff could be useful. It could be set to work.

    The little vatch moved toward it. The vatches could reabsorb the stuff at will, though pieces also seemed to survive outside of them.

    Mine, said Pausert.

    Suppose so, said the little vatch amiably. This is fun, Big Dream Thing! The big ones always chase me away. Now I’ve got you all to myself!

    Pausert wondered if he should have waited just a little bit longer.



    “We’ve got trouble still, Captain,” Vezzarn said, wringing his cap in his hands. “That hit we took. Straight bad luck, Sir. It damaged the outer airlock. We’re losing pressure. It’s a slow leak but a steady one. We’ll never reach a planet with atmosphere to set down on, before we asphyxiate.”

    “Or before the other ships catch up with us.” Goth pointed back at the cluster. “It’s time for the Sheewash drive, Captain.”

    Pausert could only nod.

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