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Chapter One

It was around the hub of the evening on the planet of Porlumma when Captain Pausert, commercial traveler from the Republic of Nikkeldepain, met the first of the witches of Karres.


It was just plain fate, so far as he could see.


He was feeling pretty good as he left a high-priced bar on a cobbled street near the spaceport, with the intention of returning straight to his ship. There hadn't been an argument, exactly. But someone had grinned broadly, as usual, when the captain pronounced the name of his native system; and the captain had pointed out then, with considerable wit, how much more ridiculous it was to call a planet Porlumma, for instance, than to call it Nikkeldepain.


He then proceeded to collect an increasing number of pained stares as he continued with a detailed comparison of the varied, interesting, and occasionally brilliant role Nikkeldepain had played in history with Porlumma's obviously dull and dumpy status as a sixth-rate Empire outpost.


In conclusion, he admitted frankly that he wouldn't care to be found dead on Porlumma.


Somebody muttered loudly in Imperial Universum that in that case it might be better if he didn't hang around Porlumma too long. But the captain only smiled politely, paid for his two drinks, and left.


There was no point in getting into a rhubarb on one of these border planets. Their citizens still had an innocent notion that they ought to act like frontiersmen—but then the Law always showed up at once.


Yes, he felt pretty good. Up to the last four months of his young life, he had never looked on himself as being particularly patriotic. But compared to most of the Empire's worlds, Nikkeldepain was downright attractive in its stuffy way. Besides, he was returning there solvent—would they ever be surprised!


And awaiting him, fondly and eagerly, was Illyla, the Miss Onswud, fair daughter of the mighty Councilor Onswud, and the captain's secretly betrothed for almost a year. She alone had believed in him . . . .


The captain smiled and checked at a dark cross-street to get his bearings on the spaceport beacon. Less than half a mile away. . . . He set off again. In about six hours he'd be beyond the Empire's space borders and headed straight for Illyla.


Yes, she alone had believed! After the prompt collapse of the captain's first commercial venture—a miffel-fur farm, largely on capital borrowed from Councilor Onswud—the future had looked very black. It had even included a probable ten-year stretch of penal servitude for "willful and negligent abuse of entrusted monies." The laws of Nikkeldepain were rough on debtors.


"But you've always been looking for someone to take out the old Venture and get her back into trade!" Illyla reminded her father tearfully.


"Umm, yes! But it's in the blood, my dear! His great-uncle Threbus went the same way! It would be far better to let the law take its course," said Councilor Onswud, glaring at Pausert who remained sulkily silent. He had tried to explain that the mysterious epidemic which suddenly wiped out most of the stock of miffels wasn't his fault. In fact, he more than suspected the tricky hand of young Councilor Rapport who had been wagging futilely around Illyla for the last couple of years . . . .


"The Venture, now . . . !" Councilor Onswud mused, stroking his long, craggy chin. "Pausert can handle a ship, at least," he admitted.


That was how it happened. Were they ever going to be surprised! For even the captain realized that Councilor Onswud was unloading all the dead fish that had gathered the dust of his warehouses for the past fifty years on him and the Venture, in a last, faint hope of getting some return on those half-forgotten investments. A value of eighty-two thousand maels was placed on the cargo; but if he'd brought even three-quarters of it back in cash, all would have been well.


Instead—well, it started with that lucky bet on a legal point with an Imperial official at the Imperial capital itself. Then came a six-hour race fairly won against a small, fast private yacht—the old Venture 7333 had been a pirate-chaser in the last century and still could produce twice the speed her looks suggested. From then on the captain was socially accepted as a sporting man and was in on a long string of jovial parties and meets.


Jovial and profitable—the wealthier Imperials just couldn't resist a gamble, and the penalty the captain always insisted on was that they had to buy.


He got rid of the stuff right and left. Inside of twelve weeks, nothing remained of the original cargo except two score bundles of expensively-built but useless tinklewood fishing rods, one dozen gross bales of useful but unattractive allweather cloaks, and a case of sophisticated educational toys which showed a disconcerting tendency to explode when jarred or dropped. Even on a bet, nobody would take those three items. But the captain had a strong hunch they had been hopefully added to the cargo from his own stocks by Councilor Rapport; so his failure to sell them didn't break his heart.


He was a neat twenty percent net ahead, at that point—


And finally came this last-minute rush delivery of medical supplies to Porlumma on the return route. That haul alone would repay the miffel farm losses three times over!


The captain grinned broadly into the darkness. Yes, they'd be surprised . . . but just where was he now?


He checked again in the narrow street, searching for the port beacon in the sky. There it was—off to his left and a little behind him. He'd gotten turned around somehow.


He set off carefully down an excessively dark little alley. It was one of those towns where everybody locked their front doors at night and retired to lit-up enclosed courtyards at the backs of the houses. There were voices and the rattling of dishes nearby and occasional whoops of laughter and singing all around him; but it was all beyond high walls which let little or no light into the alley.


It ended abruptly in a cross-alley and another wall. After a moment's debate the captain turned to the left again. Light spilled out on his new route a hundred yards ahead where a courtyard was opened on the alley. From it, as he approached, came the sound of doors being violently slammed and then a sudden loud mingling of voices.


"Yeee-eep!" shrilled a high, childish voice. It could have been mortal agony, terror, or even hysterical laughter. The captain broke into an apprehensive trot.


"Yes, I see you up there!" a man shouted excitedly in Universum. "I caught you now—you get down from those boxes! I'll skin you alive! Fifty-two customers sick of the stomach-ache—YOW!"


The last exclamation was accompanied by a sound as of a small, loosely built wooden house collapsing, and was followed by a succession of squeals and an angry bellowing, in which the only distinguishable words were: "threw the boxes on me!" Then more sounds of splintering wood.


"Hey!" yelled the captain indignantly from the corner of the alley.


All action ceased. The narrow courtyard, brightly illuminated by a single overhead light, was half covered with a tumbled litter of empty wooden boxes. Standing with his foot temporarily caught in one of them was a very large fat man dressed all in white and waving a stick. Momentarily cornered between the wall and two of the boxes, over one of which she was trying to climb, was a smallish, fair-haired girl dressed in a smock of some kind which was also white. She might be about fourteen, the captain thought—a helpless kid, anyway.


"What you want?" grunted the fat man, pointing the stick with some dignity at the captain.


"Lay off the kid!" rumbled the captain, edging into the courtyard.


"Mind your own business!" shouted the fat man, waving his stick like a club. "I'll take care of her! She—"


"I never did!" squealed the girl. She burst into tears.


"Try it, Fat and Ugly!" the captain warned. "I'll ram the stick down your throat!"


He was very close now. With a sound of grunting exasperation the fat man pulled his foot free of the box, wheeled suddenly and brought the end of the stick down on top of the captain's cap. The captain hit him furiously in the middle of the stomach.


There was a short flurry of activity, somewhat hampered by shattering boxes everywhere. Then the captain stood up, scowling and breathing hard. The fat man remained sitting on the ground, gasping about "—the law!"


Somewhat to his surprise, the captain discovered the girl standing just behind him. She caught his eye and smiled.


"My name's Maleen," she offered. She pointed at the fat man. "Is he hurt bad?"


"Huh-no!" panted the captain. "But maybe we'd better—"


It was too late! A loud, self-assured voice became audible now at the opening to the alley:


"Here, here, here, here, here!" it said in the reproachful, situation-under-control tone that always seemed the same to the captain, on whatever world and in whichever language he heard it.


"What's all this about?" it inquired rhetorically.


"You'll all have to come along!" it replied.


* * *


Police court on Porlumma appeared to be a business conducted on a very efficient, around-the-clock basis. They were the next case up.


Nikkeldepain was an odd name, wasn't it, the judge smiled. He then listened attentively to the various charges, countercharges, and denials.


Bruth the Baker was charged with having struck a citizen of a foreign government on the head with a potentially lethal instrument—produced in evidence. Said citizen admittedly had attempted to interfere as Bruth was attempting to punish his slave Maleen—also produced in evidence—whom he suspected of having added something to a batch of cakes she was working on that afternoon, resulting in illness and complaints from fifty-two of Bruth's customers.


Said foreign citizen also had used insulting language—the captain admitted under pressure to "Fat and Ugly."


Some provocation could be conceded for the action taken by Bruth, but not enough. Bruth paled.


Captain Pausert, of the Republic of Nikkeldepain—everybody but the prisoners smiled this time—was charged (a) with said attempted interference, (b) with said insult, (c) with having frequently and severely struck Bruth the Baker in the course of the subsequent dispute.


The blow on the head was conceded to have provided a provocation for charge (c)—but not enough.


Nobody seemed to be charging the slave Maleen with anything. The judge only looked at her curiously, and shook his head.


"As the Court considers this regrettable incident," he remarked, "it looks like two years for you, Bruth; and about three for you, Captain. Too bad!"


The captain had an awful sinking feeling. From what he knew about Imperial court methods in the fringe systems, he probably could get out of this three-year rap. But it would be expensive.


He realized that the judge was studying him reflectively.


"The Court wishes to acknowledge," the judge continued, "that the captain's chargeable actions were due largely to a natural feeling of human sympathy for the predicament of the slave Maleen. The Court, therefore, would suggest a settlement as follows—subsequent to which all charges could be dropped:


"That Bruth the Baker resell Maleen of Karres—with whose services he appears to be dissatisfied—for a reasonable sum to Captain Pausert of the Republic of Nikkeldepain."


Bruth the Baker heaved a gusty sigh of relief. But the captain hesitated. The buying of human slaves by private citizens was a very serious offense on Nikkeldepain. Still, he didn't have to make a record of it. If they weren't going to soak him too much—


At just the right moment Maleen of Karres introduced a barely audible, forlorn, sniffling sound.


"How much are you asking for the kid?" the captain inquired, looking without friendliness at his recent antagonist. A day was coming when he would think less severely of Bruth; but it hadn't come yet.


Bruth scowled back but replied with a certain eagerness, "A hundred and fifty m—" A policeman standing behind him poked him sharply in the side. Bruth shut up.


"Seven hundred maels," the judge said smoothly. "There'll be Court charges, and a fee for recording the transaction—" He appeared to make a swift calculation. "Fifteen hundred and forty-two maels." He turned to a clerk. "You've looked him up?"


The clerk nodded. "He's right!"


"And we'll take your check," the judge concluded. He gave the captain a friendly smile. "Next case."


* * *


The captain felt a little bewildered.


There was something peculiar about this! He was getting out of it much too cheaply. Since the Empire had quit its wars of expansion, young slaves in good health were a high-priced article. Furthermore, he was practically positive that Bruth the Baker had been willing to sell for a tenth of what he actually had to pay!


Well, he wouldn't complain. Rapidly, he signed, sealed, and thumbprinted various papers shoved at him by a helpful clerk; and made out a check.


"I guess," he told Maleen of Karres, "we'd better get along to the ship."


And now what was he going to do with the kid, he pondered, as he padded along the unlighted streets with his slave trotting quietly behind him. If he showed up with a pretty girl-slave on Nikkeldepain, even a small one, various good friends there would toss him into ten years or so of penal servitude—immediately after Illyla had personally collected his scalp. They were a moral lot.


Karres—?


"How far off is Karres, Maleen?" he asked into the dark.


"It takes about two weeks," Maleen said tearfully.


Two weeks! The captain's heart sank again.


"What are you blubbering about?" he inquired uncomfortably.


Maleen choked, sniffed, and began sobbing openly.


"I have two little sisters!" she cried.


"Well, well," the captain said encouragingly. "That's nice—you'll be seeing them again soon. I'm taking you home, you know."


Great Patham—now he'd said it! But after all—


However, this piece of good news seemed to have the wrong effect on his slave. Her sobbing grew much more violent.


"No, I won't," she wailed. "They're here!"


"Huh?" said the captain. He stopped short. "Where?"


"And the people they're with are mean to them, too!" wept Maleen.


The captain's heart dropped clean through his boots. Standing there in the dark, he helplessly watched it coming:


"You could buy them awfully cheap!" she said.


* * *


In times of stress the young life of Karres appeared to take to the heights. It might be a mountainous place.


The Leewit sat on the top shelf on the back wall of the crockery and antiques store, strategically flanked by two expensive-looking vases. She was a doll-sized edition of Maleen; but her eyes were cold and gray instead of blue and tearful. About five or six, the captain vaguely estimated. He wasn't very good at estimating them around that age.


"Good evening," he said as he came in through the door. The Crockery and Antiques Shop had been easy to find. Like Bruth the Baker's, it was the one spot in the neighborhood that was all lit up.


"Good evening, sir!" said what was presumably the store owner, without looking around. He sat with his back to the door, in a chair approximately at the center of the store and facing the Leewit at a distance of about twenty feet.


" . . . and there you can stay without food or drink till the Holy Man comes in the morning!" he continued immediately, in the taut voice of a man who has gone through hysteria and is sane again. The captain realized he was addressing the Leewit.


"Your other Holy Man didn't stay very long!" the diminutive creature piped, also ignoring the captain. Apparently she had not yet discovered Maleen behind him.


"This is a stronger denomination—much stronger!" the store owner replied, in a shaking voice but with a sort of relish. "He'll exorcise you, all right, little demon—you'll whistle no buttons off him! Your time is up! Go on and whistle all you want! Bust every vase in the place—"


The Leewit blinked her gray eyes thoughtfully at him.


"Might!" she said.


"But if you try to climb down from there," the store owner went on, on a rising note, "I'll chop you into bits—into little, little bits!"


He raised his arm as he spoke and weakly brandished what the captain recognized with a start of horror as a highly ornamented but probably still useful antique battleax.


"Ha!" said the Leewit.


"Beg your pardon, sir!" the captain said, clearing his throat.


"Good evening, sir!" the store owner repeated, without looking around. "What can I do for you?"


"I came to inquire," the captain said hesitantly, "about that child."


The store owner shifted about in his chair and squinted at the captain with red-rimmed eyes.


"You're not a Holy Man!" he said.


"Hello, Maleen!" the Leewit said suddenly. "That him?"


"We've come to buy you," Maleen said. "Shut up!"


"Good!" said the Leewit.


"Buy it? Are you mocking me, sir?" the store owner inquired.


"Shut up, Moonell!" A thin, dark, determined-looking woman had appeared in the doorway which led through the back wall of the store. She moved out a step under the shelves; and the Leewit leaned down from the top shelf and hissed. The woman moved hurriedly back into the doorway.


"Maybe he means it," she said in a more subdued voice.


"I can't sell to a citizen of the Empire," the store owner said defeatedly.


"I'm not a citizen," the captain said shortly. This time he wasn't going to name it.


"No, he's from Nikkel—" Maleen began.


"Shut up, Maleen!" the captain said helplessly in turn.


"I never heard of Nikkel," the store owner muttered doubtfully.


"Maleen!" the woman called shrilly. "That's the name of one of the others—Bruth the Baker got her. He means it, all right! He's buying them!"


"A hundred and fifty maels!" the captain said craftily, remembering Bruth the Baker. "In cash."


The store owner looked dazed.


"Not enough, Moonell!" the woman called. "Look at all it's broken! Five hundred maels!"


There was a sound then, so thin the captain could hardly hear it. It pierced at his eardrums like two jabs of a delicate needle. To right and left of him, two highly glazed little jugs went clink-clink!, showed a sudden veining of cracks, and collapsed.


A brief silence settled on the store. And now that he looked around more closely, the captain could spot here and there other little piles of shattered crockery—and places where similar ruins apparently had been swept up, leaving only traces of colored dust.


The store owner laid the ax carefully down beside his chair, stood up, swaying a little, and came towards the captain.


"You offered me a hundred and fifty maels!" he said rapidly as he approached. "I accept it here, now, see—before witnesses!" He grabbed the captain's right hand in both of his and pumped it up and down vigorously. "Sold!" he yelled.


Then he wheeled around in a leap and pointed a shaking hand at the Leewit.


"And NOW," he howled, "break something! Break anything! You're his! I'll sue him for every mael he ever made and ever will!"


"Oh, do come help me down, Maleen!" the Leewit pleaded prettily.


* * *


For a change the store of Wansing the jeweler was dimly lit and very quiet. It was a sleek, fashionable place in a fashionable shopping block near the spaceport. The front door was unlocked and Wansing was in.


The three of them entered quietly, and the door sighed quietly shut behind them. Beyond a great crystal display counter Wansing was moving about among a number of opened shelves, talking softly to himself. Under the crystal of the counter and in close-packed rows on the satin-covered shelves reposed a many-colored gleaming and glittering and shining. Wansing was no piker.


"Good evening, sir!" the captain said across the counter.


"It's morning!" the Leewit remarked from the other side of Maleen.


"Maleen!" said the captain.


"We're keeping out of this!" Maleen said to the Leewit.


"All right," said the Leewit.


Wansing had come around jerkily at the captain's greeting but had made no other move. Like all the slave owners the captain had met on Porlumma so far, Wansing seemed unhappy. Otherwise he was a large, dark, sleek man with jewels in his ears and a smell of expensive oils and perfumes about him.


"This place is under constant visual guard, of course," he told the captain gently. "Nothing could possibly happen to me here. Why am I so frightened?"


"Not of me, I'm sure!" the captain said with an uncomfortable attempt at geniality. "I'm glad your store's still open," he went on briskly. "I'm here on business."


"Oh, yes, it's still open, of course," Wansing said. He gave the captain a slow smile and turned back to his shelves. "I'm taking inventory, that's why. I've been taking inventory since early yesterday morning. I've counted them all seven times."


"You're very thorough," the captain said.


"Very, very thorough!" Wansing nodded to the shelves. "The last time I found I had made a million maels. But twice before that I had lost approximately the same amount. I shall have to count them again, I suppose." He closed a drawer softly. "I'm sure I counted those before. But they move about constantly. Constantly! It's horrible."


"You have a slave here called Goth," the captain said, driving to the point.


"Yes, I do," Wansing said, nodding. "And I'm sure she understands by now I meant no harm. I do, at any rate. It was perhaps a little—but I'm sure she understands now, or will soon."


"Where is she?" the captain inquired, a trifle uneasily.


"In her room perhaps," Wansing suggested. "It's not so bad when she's there in her room with the door closed. But often she sits in the dark and looks at you as you go past . . . ." He opened another drawer, peered into it, closed it quietly again. "Yes, they do move!" he whispered, as if confirming an earlier suspicion. "Constantly . . . ."


"Look, Wansing," the captain said in a loud, firm voice. "I'm not a citizen of the Empire. I want to buy this Goth. I'll pay you a hundred and fifty maels, cash."


Wansing turned around completely again and looked at the captain. "Oh, you do?" he said. "You're not a citizen?" He walked a few steps to the side of the counter, sat down at a small desk and turned a light on over it. Then he put his face in his hands for a moment.


"I'm a wealthy man," he muttered. "An influential man! The name of Wansing counts for a great deal on Porlumma. When the Empire suggests you buy, you buy, of course—but it need not have been I who bought her! I thought she would be useful in the business—and then even I could not sell her again within the Empire. She has been here a week!"


He looked up at the captain and smiled. "One hundred and fifty maels," he said. "Sold! There are records to be made out . . . ." He reached into a drawer and took out some printed forms. He began to write rapidly. The captain produced identifications.


Maleen said suddenly, "Goth?"


"Right here," a voice murmured. Wansing's hand made a convulsive jerk, but he did not look up. He kept on writing.


Something small and lean and bonelessly supple, dressed in a dark jacket and leggings, came across the thick carpets of Wansing's store and stood behind the captain. This one might be about nine or ten.


"I'll take your check, captain," Wansing said politely. "You must be an honest man. Besides, I want to frame it . . . ."


* * *


"And now," the captain heard himself say in the remote voice of one who moves through a strange dream, "I suppose we could go to the ship."


The sky was gray and cloudy, and the streets were lightening. Goth, he noticed, didn't resemble her sisters. She had brown hair cut short a few inches below her ears, and brown eyes with long, black lashes. Her nose was short and her chin was pointed. She made him think of some thin, carnivorous creature, like a weasel.


She looked up at him briefly, grinned and said, "Thanks!"


"What was wrong with him?" chirped the Leewit, walking backwards for a last view of Wansing's store.


"Tough crook," muttered Goth. The Leewit giggled.


"You premoted this just dandy, Maleen!" she stated next.


"Shut up," said Maleen.


"All right," said the Leewit. She glanced up at the captain's face. "You been fighting!" she said virtuously. "Did you win?"


"Of course the captain won!" said Maleen.


"Good for you!" said the Leewit.


* * *


"What about the take-off?" Goth asked the captain. She seemed a little worried.


"Nothing to it!" the captain said stoutly, hardly bothering to wonder how she'd guessed the take-off was the one maneuver on which he and the old Venture consistently failed to cooperate.


"No," said Goth. "I meant, when?"


"Right now," said the captain. "They've already cleared us. We'll get the sign any second."


"Good," said Goth. She walked off slowly down the passage towards the central section of the ship.


The take-off was pretty bad, but the Venture made it again. Half an hour later, with Porlumma dwindling safely behind them, the captain switched to automatic and climbed out of his chair. After considerable experimentation he got the electric butler adjusted to four breakfasts, hot, with coffee. It was accomplished with a great deal of advice and attempted assistance from the Leewit, rather less from Maleen, and no comment from Goth.


"Everything will be coming along in a few minutes now!" he announced. Afterwards it struck him there had been a quality of grisly prophecy about the statement.


"If you'd listen to me," said the Leewit, "we'd have been done eating a quarter of an hour ago!" She was perspiring but triumphant—she had been right all along.


"Say, Maleen," she said suddenly, "you premoting again?"


Premoting? The captain looked at Maleen. She seemed pale and troubled.


"Spacesick?" he suggested. "I've got some pills."


"No, she's premoting," the Leewit said, scowling. "What's up, Maleen?"


"Shut up," said Goth.


"All right," said the Leewit. She was silent a moment and then began to wriggle. "Maybe we'd better—"


"Shut up," said Maleen.


"It's all ready," said Goth.


"What's all ready?" asked the captain.


"All right," said the Leewit. She looked at the captain. "Nothing!" she said.


He looked at them then, and they looked at him—one set each of gray eyes, and brown, and blue. They were all sitting around the control room floor in a circle, the fifth side of which was occupied by the electric butler.


What peculiar little waifs, the captain thought. He hadn't perhaps really realized until now just how very peculiar. They were still staring at him.


"Well, well!" he said heartily. "So Maleen 'premotes' and gives people stomach-aches."


Maleen smiled dimly and smoothed back her yellow hair.


"They just thought they were getting them," she murmured.


"Mass history," explained the Leewit, offhandedly.


"Hysteria," said Goth. "The Imperials get their hair up about us every so often."


"I noticed that," the captain nodded. "And little Leewit here—she whistles and busts things."


"It's the Leewit," the Leewit said, frowning.


"Oh, I see," said the captain. "Like the captain, eh?"


"That's right," said the Leewit. She smiled.


"And what does little Goth do?" the captain addressed the third witch.


Little Goth appeared pained. Maleen answered for her.


"Goth teleports mostly," she said.


"Oh, she does?" said the captain. "I've heard about that trick, too," he added lamely.


"Just small stuff really!" Goth said abruptly. She reached into the top of her jacket and pulled out a cloth-wrapped bundle the size of the captain's two fists. The four ends of the cloth were knotted together. Goth undid the knot. "Like this," she said and poured out the contents on the rug between them. There was a sound like a big bagful of marbles being spilled.


"Great Patham!" the captain swore, staring down at what was a cool quarter-million in jewel stones, or he was still a miffel-farmer.


"Good gosh," said the Leewit, bouncing to her feet. "Maleen, we better get at it right away!"


The two blondes darted from the room. The captain hardly noticed their going. He was staring at Goth.


"Child," he said, "don't you realize they hang you without a trial on places like Porlumma if you're caught with stolen goods?"


"We're not on Porlumma," said Goth. She looked slightly annoyed. "They're for you. You spent money on us, didn't you?"


"Not that kind of money," said the captain. "If Wansing noticed . . . they're Wansing's, I suppose?"


"Sure," said Goth. "Pulled them in just before take-off."


"If he reported, there'll be police ships on our tail any—"


"Goth!" Maleen shrilled.


Goth's head came around and she rolled up on her feet in one motion. "Coming," she shouted. "Excuse me," she murmured to the captain. Then she, too, was out of the room.


Again the captain scarcely noticed her departure. He had rushed to the control desk with a sudden awful certainty and switched on all screens.


There they were! Two needle-nosed dark ships coming up fast from behind, and already almost in gun range! They weren't regular police boats, the captain realized, but auxiliary craft of the Empire's frontier fleets. He rammed the Venture's drives full on. Immediately, red-and-black fire blossoms began to sprout in space behind him—then a finger of flame stabbed briefly past, not a hundred yards to the right of the ship.


But the communicator stayed dead. Evidently, Porlumma preferred risking the sacrifice of Wansing's jewels to giving him and his misguided charges a chance to surrender . . . .


He was putting the Venture through a wildly erratic and, he hoped, aim-destroying series of sideways hops and forward lunges with one hand, and trying to unlimber the turrets of the nova guns with the other, when suddenly—


No, he decided at once, there was no use trying to understand it. There were just no more Empire ships around. The screens all blurred and darkened simultaneously; and, for a short while, a darkness went flowing and coiling lazily past the Venture. Light jumped out of it at him once in a cold, ugly glare, and receded again in a twisting, unnatural fashion. The Venture's drives seemed dead.


Then, just as suddenly, the old ship jerked, shivered, roared aggrievedly, and was hurling herself along on her own power again.


But Porlumma's sun was no longer in evidence. Stars gleamed in the remoteness of space all about. Some of the patterns seemed familiar, but he wasn't a good enough general navigator to be sure.


The captain stood up stiffly, feeling heavy and cold. And at that moment, with a wild, hilarious clacking like a metallic hen, the electric butler delivered four breakfasts, hot, right on the center of the control room floor.


* * *


The first voice said distinctly, "Shall we just leave it on?"


A second voice, considerably more muffled, replied, "Yes, let's! You never know when you need it—"


The third voice, tucked somewhere in between them, said simply, "Whew!"


Peering about in bewilderment, the captain realized suddenly that the voices had come from the speaker of the ship's intercom connecting the control room with what had once been the Venture's captain's cabin.


He listened; but only a dim murmuring was audible now, and then nothing at all. He started towards the passage, returned and softly switched off the intercom. He went quietly down the passage until he came to the captain's cabin. Its door was closed.


He listened a moment, and opened it suddenly.


There was a trio of squeals:


"Oh, don't! You spoiled it!"


The captain stood motionless. Just one glimpse had been given him of what seemed to be a bundle of twisted black wires arranged loosely like the frame of a truncated cone on—or was it just above?—a table in the center of the cabin. Above the wires, where the tip of the cone should have been, burned a round, swirling orange fire. About it, their faces reflecting its glow, stood the three witches.


Then the fire vanished; the wires collapsed. There was only ordinary light in the room. They were looking up at him variously—Maleen with smiling regret, the Leewit in frank annoyance, Goth with no expression at all.


"What out of Great Patham's Seventh Hell was that?" inquired the captain, his hair bristling slowly.


The Leewit looked at Goth; Goth looked at Maleen. Maleen said doubtfully, "We can just tell you its name . . . ."


"That was the Sheewash Drive," said Goth.


"The what drive?" asked the captain.


"Sheewash," repeated Maleen.


"The one you have to do it with yourself," the Leewit added helpfully.


"Shut up," said Maleen.


There was a long pause. The captain looked down at the handful of thin, black, twelve-inch wires scattered about the table top. He touched one of them. It was dead cold.


"I see," he said. "I guess we're all going to have a long talk." Another pause. "Where are we now?"


"About two light-weeks down the way you were going," said Goth. "We only worked it thirty seconds."


"Twenty-eight," corrected Maleen, with the authority of her years. "The Leewit was getting tired."


"I see," said Captain Pausert carefully. "Well, let's go have some breakfast."


They ate with a silent voraciousness, dainty Maleen, the exquisite Leewit, supple Goth, all alike. The captain, long finished, watched them with amazement and—now at last—with something like awe.


"It's the Sheewash Drive," explained Maleen finally, catching his expression.


"Takes it out of you!" said Goth.


The Leewit grunted affirmatively and stuffed on.


"Can't do too much of it," said Maleen. "Or too often. It kills you sure!"


"What," said the captain, "is the Sheewash Drive?"


They became reticent. Karres people did it, said Maleen, when they had to go somewhere fast. Everybody knew how there. "But of course," she added, "we're pretty young to do it right."


"We did it pretty clumping good!" the Leewit contradicted positively. She seemed to be finished at last.


"But how?" said the captain.


Reticence thickened almost visibly. If you couldn't do it, said Maleen, you couldn't understand it either.


He gave it up, for the time being.


"We'll have to figure out how to take you home next," he said; and they agreed.


* * *


Karres, it developed, was in the Iverdahl System. He couldn't find any planet of that designation listed in his maps of the area, but that meant nothing. The maps weren't always accurate, and local names changed a lot.


Barring the use of weird and deadly miracle-drives, that detour was going to cost him almost a month in time—and a good chunk of his profits in power used up. The jewels Goth had illegally teleported must, of course, be returned to their owner, he explained. He'd intended to look severely at the culprit at that point; but she'd meant well, after all. They were extremely unusual children, but still children—they couldn't really understand.


He would stop off en route to Karres at an Empire planet with interstellar banking facilities to take care of that matter, the captain added. A planet far enough off so the police wouldn't be likely to take any particular interest in the Venture.


A dead silence greeted this schedule. He gathered that the representatives of Karres did not think much of his logic.


"Well," Maleen sighed at last, "we'll see you get your money back some other way then!"


The junior witches nodded coldly.


"How did you three happen to get into this fix?" the captain inquired, with the intention of changing the subject.


They'd left Karres together on a jaunt of their own, they explained. No, they hadn't run away—he got the impression that such trips were standard procedure for juveniles in that place. They were on another world, a civilized one but beyond the borders and law of Empire, when the town they were in was raided by a small fleet of slavers. They were taken along with most of the local youngsters.


"It's a wonder," the captain said reflectively, "you didn't take over the ship."


"Oh, brother!" exclaimed the Leewit.


"Not that ship!" said Goth.


"That was an Imperial Slaver!" Maleen informed him. "You behave yourself every second on those crates."


* * *


Just the same, the captain thought, as he settled himself to rest on a couch he had set up in the control room, it was no longer surprising that the Empire wanted no young slaves from Karres to be transported to the interior! Oddest sort of children. . . . But he ought to be able to get his expenses paid by their relatives. Something very profitable might even be made of this deal . . . .


Have to watch the record entries though! Nikkeldepain's laws were explicit about the penalties invoked by anything resembling the purchase and sale of slaves.


He'd thoughtfully left the intercom adjusted so he could listen in on their conversation in the captain's cabin. However, there had been nothing for some time beyond frequent bursts of childish giggling. Then came a succession of piercing shrieks from the Leewit. It appeared she was being forcibly washed behind the ears by Maleen and obliged to brush her teeth, in preparation for bedtime.


It had been agreed that he was not to enter the cabin, because—for reasons not given—they couldn't keep the Sheewash Drive on in his presence; and they wanted to have it ready, in case of an emergency. Piracy was rife beyond the Imperial borders, and the Venture would keep beyond the border for most of the trip, to avoid the more pressing danger of police pursuit instigated by Porlumma. The captain had explained the potentialities of the nova guns the Venture boasted, or tried to. Possibly they hadn't understood. At any rate, they seemed unimpressed.


The Sheewash Drive! Boy, he thought in sudden excitement, if he could just get the principles of that. Maybe he would!


He raised his head suddenly. The Leewit's voice had lifted clearly over the communicator.


" . . . not such a bad old dope!" the childish treble remarked. The captain blinked indignantly.


"He's not so old," Maleen's soft voice returned. "And he's certainly no dope!"


He smiled. Good kid, Maleen.


"Yeah, yeah!" squeaked the Leewit offensively. "Maleen's sweet onthu—ulp!"


A vague commotion continued for a while, indicating, he hoped, that someone he could mention was being smothered under a pillow.


He drifted off to sleep before it was settled.


* * *


If you didn't happen to be thinking of what they'd done, they seemed more or less like normal children. Right from the start they displayed a flattering interest in the captain and his background; and he told them all about everything and everybody in Nikkeldepain. Finally he even showed them his treasured pocket-sized picture of Illyla—the one with which he'd held many cozy conversations during the earlier part of his trip.


Almost at once, though, he realized that was a mistake. They studied it intently in silence, their heads crowded close together.


"Oh, brother!" the Leewit whispered then, with entirely the wrong kind of inflection.


"Just what did you mean by that?" the captain inquired coldly.


"Sweet!" murmured Goth. But it was the way she closed her eyes briefly, as though gripped by a light spasm of nausea.


"Shut up, Goth!" Maleen said sharply. "I think she's very swee . . . I mean, she looks very nice!" she told the captain.


The captain was disgruntled. Silently, he retrieved the maligned Illyla and returned her to his breast pocket. Silently, he went off and left them standing there.


But afterwards, in private, he took it out again and studied it worriedly.


His Illyla! He shifted the picture back and forth under the light. It wasn't really a very good picture of her, he decided. It had been bungled. From certain angles, one might even say that Illyla did look the least bit insipid.


What was he thinking, he thought, shocked.


He unlimbered the nova gun turrets next and got in a little firing practice. They had been sealed when he took over the Venture and weren't supposed to be used, except in absolute emergencies. They were somewhat uncertain weapons, though very effective, and Nikkeldepain had turned to safer forms of armament many decades ago. But on the third day out from Nikkeldepain, the captain made a brief notation in his log:


"Attacked by two pirate craft. Unsealed nova guns. Destroyed one attacker; survivor fled . . . ."


He was rather pleased by that crisp, hard-bitten description of desperate space adventure, and enjoyed rereading it occasionally. It wasn't true, though. He had put in an interesting four hours at the time pursuing and annihilating large, craggy chunks of an asteroid swarm he found the Venture plowing through. Those nova guns were fascinating stuff! You'd sight the turrets on something; and so long as it didn't move after that, it was all right. If it did move, it got it—unless you relented and deflected the turrets first. They were just the thing for arresting a pirate in mid-space.


The Venture dipped back into the Empire's borders four days later and headed for the capital of the local province. Police ships challenged them twice on the way in; and the captain found considerable comfort in the awareness that his passengers forgathered silently in their cabin on these occasions. They didn't tell him they were set to use the Sheewash Drive—somehow it had never been mentioned since that first day—but he knew the queer orange fire was circling over its skimpy framework of twisted wires there and ready to act.


However, the space police waved him on, satisfied with routine identification. Apparently the Venture had not become generally known as a criminal ship, to date.


Maleen accompanied him to the banking institution which was to return Wansing's property to Porlumma. Her sisters, at the captain's definite request, remained on the ship.


The transaction itself went off without a visible hitch. The jewels would reach their destination in Porlumma within a month. But he had to take out a staggering sum in insurance. "Piracy, thieves!" smiled the clerk. "Even summary capital punishment won't keep the rats down!" And, of course, he had to register name, ship, home planet, and so on. But since they already had all that information on Porlumma, he gave it without hesitation.


On the way back to the spaceport, he sent off a sealed message by subradio to the bereaved jeweler, informing him of the action taken and regretting the misunderstanding.


He felt a little better after that, though the insurance payment had been a severe blow. If he didn't manage to work out a decent profit on Karres somehow, the losses on the miffel farm would hardly be covered now . . . .


Then he noticed Maleen was getting uneasy.


"We'd better hurry!" was all she would say, however. Her face turned pale.


The captain understood. She was having another premonition! The hitch to this premoting business was apparently that when something was brewing you were informed of the bare fact but had to guess at most of the details. They grabbed an aircab and raced back to the spaceport.


They had just been cleared there when he spotted a group of uniformed men coming along the dock on the double. They stopped short and scattered as the Venture lurched drunkenly sideways into the air. Everyone else in sight was scattering, too.


That was a very bad take-off—one of the captain's worst. Once afloat, however, he ran the ship promptly into the nightside of the planet and turned her nose towards the border. The old pirate-chaser had plenty of speed when you gave her the reins; and throughout the entire next sleep period he let her use it all.


The Sheewash Drive was not required that time.


* * *


Next day he had a lengthy private talk with Goth on the Golden Rule and the Law, with particular reference to individual property rights. If Councilor Onswud had been monitoring the sentiments expressed by the captain, he could not have failed to rumble surprised approval. The delinquent herself listened impassively, but the captain fancied she showed distinct signs of being impressed by his earnestness.


It was two days after that—well beyond the borders again—when they were obliged to make an unscheduled stop at a mining moon. For the captain discovered he had badly miscalculated the extent to which the prolonged run on overdrive after leaving the capital was going to deplete the Venture's reserves. They would have to juice up . . . .


A large, extremely handsome Sirian freighter lay beside them at the moon station. It was half a battlecraft really, since it dealt regularly beyond the borders. They had to wait while it was being serviced; and it took a long time. The Sirians turned out to be as unpleasant as their ship was good-looking—a snooty, conceited, hairy lot who talked only their own dialect and pretended to be unfamiliar with Imperial Universum.


The captain found himself getting irked by their bad manners—particularly when he discovered they were laughing over his argument with the service superintendent about the cost of repowering the Venture.


"You're out in deep space, Captain," said the superintendent. "And you haven't juice enough left even to travel back to the border. You can't expect Imperial prices here!"


"It's not what you charged them!" The captain angrily jerked his thumb at the Sirian.


The superintendent shrugged. "Regular customers! You start coming by here every three months like they do, and we can make an arrangement with you, too."


It was outrageous—it actually put the Venture back in the red. But there was no help for it.


Nor did it improve the captain's temper when he muffed the take-off once more—and then had to watch the Sirian floating into space, as sedately as a swan, a little behind him.


 


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