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Chapter Two

An hour later, as he sat glumly at the controls, debating the chances of recouping his losses before returning to Nikkeldepain, Maleen and the Leewit hurriedly entered the room. They did something to a port screen.


"They sure are!" the Leewit exclaimed. She seemed childishly pleased.


"Are what?" the captain inquired absently.


"Following us," said Maleen. She did not sound pleased. "It's that Sirian ship, Captain Pausert!"


The captain stared bewilderedly at the screen. There was a ship in focus there. It was quite obviously the Sirian and, just as obviously, it was following them.


"What do they want?" he wondered. "They're stinkers but they're not pirates. Even if they were, they wouldn't spend an hour running after a crate like the Venture."


Maleen said nothing. The Leewit observed, "Got their bow turrets out now! Better get those nova guns ready!"


"But it's all nonsense!" the captain said, flushing angrily. He turned towards the communicators. "What's that Empire general beam length?"


".00r44," said Maleen.


A roaring, abusive voice flooded the control room immediately. The one word understandable to the captain was "Venture." It was repeated frequently.


"Sirian," said the captain. "Can you understand them?" he asked Maleen.


She shook her head. "The Leewit can."


The Leewit nodded, gray eyes glistening.


"What are they saying?"


"They says you're for stopping," the Leewit translated rapidly, apparently retaining some of the original sentence structure. "They says you're for skinning alive . . . ha! They says you're for stopping right now and for only hanging. They says—"


Maleen scuttled from the control room. The Leewit banged the communicator with one small fist.


"Beak-Wock!" she shrilled. It sounded that way, anyway. The loud voice paused a moment.


"BEAK-Wock?" it returned in an aggrieved, startled tone.


"Beak-Wock!" the Leewit affirmed with apparent delight. She rattled off a string of similar-sounding syllables.


A howl of inarticulate wrath responded.


The captain, in a whirl of outraged emotions, was yelling at the Leewit to shut up, at the Sirian to go to Great Patham's Second Hell—the worst—and wrestling with the nova gun adjustors at the same time. He'd had about enough! He'd—


SSS-whoosh! 


It was the Sheewash Drive.


* * *


"And where are we now?" the captain inquired, in a voice of unnatural calm.


"Same place, just about," the Leewit told him. "Ship's still on the screen. Way back though—take them an hour again to catch up." She seemed disappointed; then brightened. "You got lots of time to get the guns ready . . ."


The captain didn't answer. He was marching down the passage towards the rear of the Venture. He passed the captain's cabin and noted the door was shut. He went on without pausing. He was mad clean through—he knew what had happened!


After all he'd told her, Goth had teleported again.


It was all there, in the storage. Items of up to a pound in weight seemed as much as she could handle. But amazing quantities of stuff had met that one requirement—bottles filled with what might be perfume or liquor or dope, expensive-looking garments and cloths in a shining variety of colors, small boxes, odds, ends, and, of course, jewelry . . . .


He spent half an hour getting it loaded into a steel space crate. He wheeled the crate into the big storage lock, sealed the inside lock door and pulled the switch that activated the automatic launching device.


The outer lock door slammed shut. He stalked back to the control room. The Leewit was still in charge, fiddling with the communicators.


"I could try a whistle over them," she suggested, glancing up. She added, "But they'd bust somewheres, sure."


"Get them on again!" the captain said.


"Yes, sir," said the Leewit, surprised.


The roaring voice came back faintly.


"SHUT UP!" the captain shouted in Imperial Universum.


The voice shut up.


"Tell them they can pick up their stuff—it's been dumped out in a crate," the captain instructed the Leewit. "Tell them I'm proceeding on my course. Tell them if they follow me one light-minute beyond that crate, I'll come back for them, shoot their front end off, shoot their rear end off, and ram 'em in the middle."


"Yes, SIR!" the Leewit sparkled. They proceeded on their course.


Nobody followed.


"Now I want to speak to Goth," the captain announced. He was still at a high boil. "Privately," he added. "Back in the storage—"


Goth followed him expressionlessly into the storage. He closed the door to the passage. He'd broken off a two-foot length from the tip of one of Councilor Rapport's overpriced tinklewood fishing poles. It made a fair switch.


But Goth looked terribly small just now! He cleared his throat. He wished for a moment he were back on Nikkeldepain.


"I warned you," he said.


Goth didn't move. Between one second and the next, however, she seemed to grow remarkably. Her brown eyes focused on the captain's Adam's apple; her lip lifted at one side. A slightly hungry look came into her face.


"Wouldn't try that!" she murmured.


Mad again, the captain reached out quickly and got a handful of leathery cloth. There was a blur of motion, and what felt like a small explosion against his left kneecap. He grunted with anguished surprise and fell back on a bale of Councilor Rapport's allweather cloaks. But he had retained his grip—Goth fell half on top of him, and that was still a favorable position. Then her head snaked around, her neck seemed to extend itself, and her teeth snapped his wrist.


Weasels don't let go—


* * *


"Didn't think he'd have the nerve!" Goth's voice came over the intercom. There was a note of grudging admiration in it. It seemed she was inspecting her bruises.


All tangled up in the job of bandaging his freely bleeding wrist, the captain hoped she'd find a good plenty to count. His knee felt the size of a sofa pillow and throbbed like a piston engine.


"The captain is a brave man," Maleen was saying reproachfully. "You should have known better."


"He's not very smart, though!" the Leewit remarked suggestively.


There was a short silence.


"Is he? Goth? Eh?" the Leewit urged.


"Perhaps not very," said Goth.


"You two lay off him!" Maleen ordered. "Unless," she added meaningly, "you want to swim back to Karres—on the Egger Route!"


"Not me," the Leewit said briefly.


"You could do it, I guess," said Goth. She seemed to be reflecting. "All right—we'll lay off him. It was a fair fight, anyway."


* * *


They raised Karres the sixteenth day after leaving Porlumma. There had been no more incidents; but then, neither had there been any more stops or other contacts with the defenseless Empire. Maleen had cooked up a poultice which did wonders for his knee. With the end of the trip in sight, all tensions relaxed; and Maleen, at least, seemed to grow hourly more regretful at the prospect of parting.


After a brief study Karres could be distinguished easily enough by the fact that it moved counterclockwise to all the other planets of the Iverdahl System.


Well, it would, the captain thought.


They came soaring into its atmosphere on the dayside without arousing any detectable interest. No communicator signals reached them, and no other ships showed up to look them over. Karres, in fact, had the appearance of a completely uninhabited world. There were a large number of seas, too big to be called lakes and too small to be oceans, scattered over its surface. There was one enormously towering ridge of mountains which ran from pole to pole, and any number of lesser chains. There were two good-sized ice caps; and the southern section of the planet was speckled with intermittent stretches of snow. Almost all of it seemed to be dense forest.


It was a handsome place, in a wild, somber way.


They went gliding over it, from noon through morning and into the dawn fringe—the captain at the controls, Goth and the Leewit flanking him at the screens, and Maleen behind him to do the directing. After a few initial squeals the Leewit became oddly silent. Suddenly the captain realized she was blubbering.


Somehow it startled him to discover that her homecoming had affected the Leewit to that extent. He felt Goth reach out behind him and put her hand on the Leewit's shoulder. The smallest witch sniffled happily.


"'S beautiful!" she growled.


He felt a resurge of the wondering, protective friendliness they had aroused in him at first. They must have been having a rough time of it, at that. He sighed; it seemed a pity they hadn't gotten along a little better.


"Where's everyone hiding?" he inquired, to break up the mood. So far there hadn't been a sign of human habitation.


"There aren't many people on Karres," Maleen said from behind him. "But we're going to the town—you'll meet about half of them there."


"What's that place down there?" the captain asked with sudden interest. Something like an enormous lime-white bowl seemed to have been set flush into the floor of the wide valley up which they were moving.


"That's the Theater where . . . ouch!" the Leewit said. She fell silent then but turned to give Maleen a resentful look.


"Something strangers shouldn't be told about, eh?" the captain said tolerantly. Goth glanced at him from the side.


"We've got rules," she said.


He let the ship down a little as they passed over "the Theater where—" It was a sort of large, circular arena with numerous steep tiers of seats running up around it. But all was bare and deserted now.


On Maleen's direction, they took the next valley fork to the right and dropped lower still. He had his first look at Karres animal life then. A flock of large creamy-white birds, remarkably terrestrial in appearance, flapped by just below them, apparently unconcerned about the ship. The forest underneath had opened out into a long stretch of lush meadow land, with small creeks winding down into its center. Here a herd of several hundred head of beasts was grazing—beasts of mastodonic size and build, with hairless, shiny black hides. The mouths of their long, heavy heads were twisted into sardonic crocodilian grins as they blinked up at the passing Venture.


"Black Bollems," said Goth, apparently enjoying the captain's expression. "Lots of them around; they're tame. But the gray mountain ones are good hunting."


"Good eating, too!" the Leewit said. She licked her lips daintily. "Breakfast—!" she sighed, her thoughts diverted to a familiar track. "And we ought to be just in time!"


"There's the field!" Maleen cried, pointing. "Set her down there, Captain!"


The "field" was simply a flat meadow of close-trimmed grass running smack against the mountainside to their left. One small vehicle, bright blue in color, was parked on it; and it was bordered on two sides by very tall blue-black trees.


That was all.


The captain shook his head. Then he set her down.


* * *


The town of Karres was a surprise to him in a good many ways. For one thing there was much more of it than one would have thought possible after flying over the area. It stretched for miles through the forest, up the flanks of the mountain and across the valley—little clusters of houses or individual ones, each group screened from all the others and from the sky overhead by the trees.


They liked color on Karres; but then they hid it away! The houses were bright as flowers, red and white, apple-green, golden brown—all spick and span, scrubbed and polished and aired with that brisk green forest-smell. At various times of the day there was also the smell of remarkably good things to eat. There were brooks and pools and a great number of shaded vegetable gardens in the town. There were risky-looking treetop playgrounds, and treetop platforms and galleries which seemed to have no particular purpose. On the ground was mainly an enormously confusing maze of paths—narrow trails of sandy soil snaking about among great brown tree roots and chunks of gray mountain rock, and half covered with fallen needle leaves. The first few times the captain set out unaccompanied, he lost his way hopelessly within minutes and had to be guided back out of the forest.


But the most hidden of all were the people. About four thousand of them were supposed to live currently in the town, with as many more scattered about the planet. But you never saw more than three or four at any one time—except when now and then a pack of children, who seemed to the captain to be uniformly of the Leewit's size, burst suddenly out of the undergrowth across a path before you and vanished again.


As for the others, you did hear someone singing occasionally, or there might be a whole muted concert going on all about, on a large variety of wooden musical instruments which they seemed to enjoy tootling with, gently.


But it wasn't a real town at all, the captain thought. They didn't live like people, these witches of Karres—it was more like a flock of strange forest birds that happened to be nesting in the same general area. Another thing: they appeared to be busy enough—but what was their business?


He discovered he was reluctant to ask Toll too many questions about it. Toll was the mother of his three witches, but only Goth really resembled her. It was difficult to picture Goth becoming smoothly matured and pleasantly rounded, but that was Toll. She had the same murmuring voice, the same air of sideways observation and secret reflection. She answered all the captain's questions with apparent frankness, but he never seemed to get much real information out of what she said.


It was odd, too! Because he was spending several hours a day in her company, or in one of the next rooms at any rate, while she went about her housework. Toll's daughters had taken him home when they landed; and he was installed in the room that belonged to their father—busy just now, the captain gathered, with some sort of geological research elsewhere on Karres. The arrangement worried him a little at first, particularly since Toll and he were mostly alone in the house. Maleen was going to some kind of school; she left early in the morning and came back late in the afternoon. And Goth and the Leewit were plain running wild! They usually got in long after the captain had gone to bed and were off again before he turned out for breakfast.


It hardly seemed like the right way to raise them. One afternoon, he found the Leewit curled up and asleep in the chair he usually occupied on the porch before the house. She slept there for four solid hours, while the captain sat nearby and leafed gradually through a thick book with illuminated pictures called "Histories of Ancient Yarthe." Now and then he sipped at a cool green, faintly intoxicating drink Toll had placed quietly beside him some while before, or sucked an aromatic smoke from the enormous pipe with a floor rest, which he understood was a favorite of Toll's husband.


* * *


Then the Leewit woke up suddenly, uncoiled, gave him a look between a scowl and a friendly grin, slipped off the porch and vanished among the trees.


He couldn't quite figure that look! It might have meant nothing at all in particular, but—


The captain laid down his book then and worried a little more. It was true, of course, that nobody seemed in the least concerned about his presence. All of Karres appeared to know about him, and he'd met quite a number of people by now in a casual way. But nobody came around to interview him or so much as dropped in for a visit. However, Toll's husband presumably would be returning presently and—


How long had he been here, anyway?


Great Patham, he thought, shocked. He'd lost count of the days!


Or was it weeks?


He went in to find Toll.


"It's been a wonderful visit," he said, "but I'll have to be leaving, I guess. Tomorrow morning, early . . . ."


Toll put some fancy sewing she was working on back in a glass basket, laid her strong, slim witch's hands in her lap, and smiled up at him.


"We thought you'd be thinking that," she said, "and so we . . . you know, Captain, it was quite difficult to decide on the best way to reward you for bringing back the children."


"It was?" said the captain, suddenly realizing he'd also clean forgotten he was broke! And now the wrath of Onswud lay close ahead.


"However," Toll went on, "we've all been talking about it in the town, and so we've loaded a lot of things aboard your ship that we think you can sell at a fine profit!"


"Well, now," the captain said gratefully, "that's fine of—"


"There are furs," said Toll, "the very best furs we could fix up—two thousand of them!"


"Oh!" said the captain, bravely keeping his smile. "Well, that's wonderful!"


"And the Kell Peak essences of perfume," said Toll. "Everyone brought one bottle, so that's eight thousand three hundred and twenty-three bottles of perfume essences!"


"Perfume!" exclaimed the captain. "Fine, fine—but you really shouldn't—"


"And the rest of it," Toll concluded happily, "is the green Lepti liquor you like so much and the Wintenberry jellies. I forget just how many jugs and jars, but there were a lot. It's all loaded now." She smiled. "Do you think you'll be able to sell all that?"


"I certainly can!" the captain said stoutly. "It's wonderful stuff, and I've never come across anything like it before."


The last was very true. They wouldn't have considered miffel fur for lining on Karres. But if he'd been alone he would have felt like bursting into tears.


The witches couldn't have picked more completely unsalable items if they'd tried! Furs, cosmetics, food, and liquor—he'd be shot on sight if he got caught trying to run that kind of merchandise into the Empire. For the same reason it was barred on Nikkeldepain—they were that scared of contamination by goods that came from uncleared worlds!


* * *


He breakfasted alone next morning. Toll had left a note beside his plate which explained in a large rambling script that she had to run off and catch the Leewit, and that if he was gone before she got back she was wishing him good-by and good luck.


He smeared two more buns with Wintenberry jelly, drank a large mug of cone-seed coffee, finished every scrap of the omelet of swan hawk eggs and then, in a state of pleasant repletion, toyed around with his slice of roasted Bollem liver. Boy, what food! He must have put on fifteen pounds since he landed on Karres.


He wondered how Toll kept that slim figure.


Regretfully, he pushed himself away from the table, pocketed her note for a souvenir and went out on the porch. There a tear-stained Maleen hurled herself into his arms.


"Oh, Captain!" she sobbed. "You're leaving—"


"Now, now!" murmured the captain, touched and surprised by the lovely child's grief. He patted her shoulders soothingly. "I'll be back," he said rashly.


"Oh, yes, do come back!" cried Maleen. She hesitated and added, "I become marriageable two years from now—Karres time."


"Well, well," said the captain, dazed. "Well, now—"


He set off down the path a few minutes later, a strange melody tinkling in his head. Around the first curve, it changed abruptly to a shrill keening which seemed to originate from a spot some two hundred feet before him. Around the next curve, he entered a small, rocky clearing full of pale, misty, early-morning sunlight and what looked like a slow motion fountain of gleaming rainbow globes. These turned out to be clusters of large, varihued soap bubbles which floated up steadily from a wooden tub full of hot water, soap, and the Leewit. Toll was bent over the tub; and the Leewit was objecting to a morning bath with only that minimum of interruptions required to keep her lungs pumped full of a fresh supply of air.


As the captain paused beside the little family group, her red, wrathful face came up over the rim of the tub and looked at him.


"Well, Ugly," she squealed, in a renewed outburst of rage, "who you staring at?" Then a sudden determination came into her eyes. She pursed her lips.


Toll upended her promptly and smacked her bottom.


"She was going to make some sort of a whistle at you," she explained hurriedly. "Perhaps you'd better get out of range while I can keep her head under. . . . And good luck, Captain!"


Karres seemed even more deserted than usual this morning. Of course it was quite early. Great banks of fog lay here and there among the huge dark trees and the small bright houses. A breeze sighed sadly far overhead. Faint, mournful bird-cries came from still higher up—it might have been swan hawks reproaching him for the omelet.


Somewhere in the distance somebody tootled on a wood instrument, very gently.


He had gone halfway up the path to the landing field when something buzzed past him like an enormous wasp and went CLUNK! into the bole of a tree just before him.


It was a long, thin, wicked-looking arrow. On its shaft was a white card, and on the card was printed in red letters:


 


STOP, MAN OF NIKKELDEPAIN!


 


The captain stopped and looked around cautiously. There was no one in sight. What did it mean?


He had a sudden feeling as if all of Karres were rising up silently in one stupendous cool, foggy trap about him. His skin began to crawl. What was going to happen?


"Ha-ha!" said Goth, suddenly visible on a rock twelve feet to his left and eight feet above him. "You did stop!"


The captain let his breath out slowly.


"What did you think I'd do?" he inquired. He felt a little faint.


She slid down from the rock like a lizard and stood before him. "Wanted to say good-by!" she told him.


Thin and brown, in jacket, breeches, boots, and cap of gray-green rock lichen color, Goth looked very much in her element. The brown eyes looked up at him steadily; the mouth smiled faintly; but there was no real expression on her face at all. There was a quiverful of those enormous arrows slung over her shoulder, and some arrow-shooting device—not a bow—in her left hand.


She followed his glance.


"Bollem hunting up the mountain," she explained. "The wild ones. They're better meat."


The captain reflected a moment. That's right, he recalled; they kept the tame Bollem herds mostly for milk, butter, and cheese. He'd learned a lot of important things about Karres, all right!


"Well," he said, "good-by, Goth!"


They shook hands gravely. Goth was the real Witch of Karres, he decided. More so than her sisters, more so even than Toll. But he hadn't actually learned a single thing about any of them.


Peculiar people!


He walked on, rather glumly.


"Captain!" Goth called after him. He turned.


"Better watch those take-offs," Goth called, "or you'll kill yourself yet!"


The captain cussed softly all the way up to the Venture.


And the take-off was terrible! A few swan hawks were watching but, he hoped, no one else.


* * *


There was, of course, no possibility of resuming direct trade in the Empire with the cargo they'd loaded for him. But the more he thought about it, the less likely it seemed that Councilor Onswud would let a genuine fortune slip through his hands because of technical embargoes. Nikkeldepain knew all the tricks of interstellar merchandising, and the councilor was undoubtedly the slickest unskinned miffel in the Republic. It was even possible that some sort of trade might be made to develop eventually between Karres and Nikkeldepain.


Now and then he also thought of Maleen growing marriageable two years hence, Karres time. A handful of witch-notes went tinkling through his head whenever that idle reflection occurred.


The calendric chronometer informed him he'd spent three weeks there. He couldn't remember how their year compared with the standard one.


He discovered presently that he was growing remarkably restless on this homeward run. The ship seemed unnaturally quiet—that was part of the trouble. The captain's cabin in particular and the passage leading past it to the Venture's old crew quarters had become as dismal as a tomb. He made a few attempts to resume his sessions of small talk with Illyla via her picture; but the picture remained aloof.


He couldn't quite put his finger on what was wrong. Leaving Karres was involved in it, of course; but he wouldn't have wanted to stay on that world indefinitely, among its hospitable but secretive people. He'd had a very agreeable, restful interlude there; but then it clearly had been time to move on. Karres wasn't where he belonged.


Nikkeldepain . . . ?


He found himself doing a good deal of brooding about Nikkeldepain, and realized one day, without much surprise, that if it weren't for Illyla he simply wouldn't be going back there now. But where he would be going instead, he didn't know.


It was puzzling. He must have been changing gradually these months, though he hadn't become too aware of it before. There was a vague, nagging feeling that somewhere was something he should be doing and wanted to be doing. Something of which he seemed to have caught momentary glimpses of late, but without recognizing it for what it was. Returning to Nikkeldepain, at any rate, seemed suddenly like walking back into a narrow, musty cage in which he had spent too much of his life . . . .


Well, he thought, he'd have to walk back into it for a while anyway. Once he'd found a way to discharge his obligations there, he and Illyla could start looking for that mysterious something else together.


The days went on and he learned for the first time that space travel could become nothing much more than a large hollow period of boredom. At long last, Nikkeldepain II swam up in the screens ahead. The captain put the Venture 7333 on orbit, and broadcast the ship's identification number. Half an hour later Landing Control called him. He repeated the identification number, added the ship's name, owner's name, his name, place of origin, and nature of cargo.


The cargo had to be described in detail. It would be attached, of course; but at that point he could pass the ball to Onswud and Onswud's many connections.


"Assume Landing Orbit 21,203 on your instruments," Landing Control instructed him curtly. "A customs ship will come out to inspect."


He went on the assigned orbit and gazed moodily from the vision ports at the flat continents and oceans of Nikkeldepain II as they drifted by below. A sense of equally flat depression overcame him suddenly. He shook it off and remembered Illyla.


Three hours later a ship ran up next to him, and he shut off the orbital drive. The communicator began buzzing. He switched it on.


"Vision, please!" said an official-sounding voice. The captain frowned, located the vision stud of the communicator screen and pushed it down. Four faces appeared in the screen, looking at him.


"Illyla!" the captain said.


"At least," young Councilor Rapport said unpleasantly, "he's brought back the ship, Father Onswud!"


"Illyla!" said the captain.


Councilor Onswud said nothing. Neither did Illyla. Both continued to stare at him, but the screen wasn't good enough to let him make out their expressions in detail.


The fourth face, an unfamiliar one above a uniform collar, was the one with the official-sounding voice.


"You are instructed to open the forward lock, Captain Pausert," it said, "for an official investigation."


It wasn't until he was about to release the outer lock to the control room that the captain realized it wasn't Customs who had sent a boat out to him but the Police of the Republic.


However, he hesitated only a moment. Then the outer lock gaped wide.


* * *


He tried to explain. They wouldn't listen. They had come on board in contamination-proof repulsor suits, all four of them; and they discussed the captain as if he weren't there. Illyla looked pale and angry and beautiful, and avoided looking at him.


However, he didn't want to speak to her in front of the others anyway.


They strolled back through the ship to the storage and gave the Karres cargo a casual glance.


"Damaged his lifeboat, too!" Councilor Rapport remarked.


They brushed past him up the narrow passage and went back to the control room. The policeman asked to see the log and commercial records. The captain produced them.


The three men studied them briefly. Illyla gazed stonily out at Nikkeldepain II.


"Not too carefully kept!" the policeman pointed out.


"Surprising he bothered to keep them at all!" said Councilor Rapport.


"But it's all clear enough!" said Councilor Onswud.


They straightened up then and faced him in a line. Councilor Onswud folded his arms and projected his craggy chin. Councilor Rapport stood at ease, smiling faintly. The policeman became officially rigid.


"Captain Pausert," the policeman said, "the following charges—substantiated in part by this preliminary examination—are made against you—"


"Charges?" said the captain.


"Silence, please!" rumbled Councilor Onswud.


"First, material theft of a quarter-million value of maels of jewels and jeweled items from a citizen of the Imperial Planet of Porlumma—"


"They were returned!" the captain said indignantly.


"Restitution, particularly when inspired by fear of retribution, does not affect the validity of the original charge," Councilor Rapport quoted, gazing at the ceiling.


"Second," continued the policeman. "Purchase of human slaves, permitted under Imperial law but prohibited by penalty of ten years to lifetime penal servitude by the laws of the Republic of Nikkeldepain—"


"I was just taking them back where they belonged!" said the captain.


"We shall get to that point presently," the policeman replied. "Third, material theft of sundry items in the value of one hundred and eighty thousand maels from a ship of the Imperial Planet of Lepper, accompanied by threats of violence to the ship's personnel—"


"I might add in explanation of the significance of this particular charge," added Councilor Rapport, looking at the floor, "that the Regency of Sirius, containing Lepper, is allied to the Republic of Nikkeldepain by commercial and military treaties of considerable value. The Regency has taken the trouble to point out that such hostile conduct by a citizen of the Republic against citizens of the Regency is likely to have an adverse effect on the duration of the treaties. The charge thereby becomes compounded by the additional charge of a treasonable act against the Republic."


He glanced at the captain. "I believe we can forestall the accused's plea that these pilfered goods also were restored. They were, in the face of superior force!"


"Fourth," the policeman went on patiently, "depraved and licentious conduct while acting as commercial agent, to the detriment of your employer's business and reputation—"


"WHAT?" choked the captain.


"—involving three of the notorious Witches of the Prohibited Planet of Karres—"


"Just like his great-uncle Threbus!" nodded Councilor Onswud gloomily. "It's in the blood, I always say!"


"—and a justifiable suspicion of a prolonged stay on said Prohibited Planet of Karres—"


"I never heard of that place before this trip!" shouted the captain.


"Why don't you read your Instructions and Regulations then?" shouted Councilor Rapport. "It's all there!"


"Silence, please!" shouted Councilor Onswud.


"Fifth," said the policeman quietly, "general willful and negligent actions resulting in material damage and loss to your employer to the value of eighty-two thousand maels."


"I still have fifty-five thousand. And the stuff in the storage," the captain said, also quietly, "is worth a quarter of a million, at least!"


"Contraband and hence legally valueless!" the policeman said. Councilor Onswud cleared his throat.


"It will be impounded, of course," he said. "Should a method of resale present itself, the profits, if any, will be applied to the cancellation of your just debts. To some extent that might reduce your sentence." He paused. "There is another matter—"


"The sixth charge," the policeman announced, "is the development and public demonstration of a new type of space drive, which should have been brought promptly and secretly to the attention of the Republic of Nikkeldepain."


They all stared at him—alertly and quite greedily.


So that was it—the Sheewash Drive!


"Your sentence may be greatly reduced, Pausert," Councilor Onswud said wheedlingly, "if you decide to be reasonable now. What have you discovered?"


"Look out, father!" Illyla said sharply.


"Pausert," Councilor Onswud inquired in a fading voice, "what is that in your hand?"


"A Blythe gun," the captain said, boiling.


* * *


There was a frozen stillness for an instant. Then the policeman's right hand made a convulsive motion.


"Uh-uh!" said the captain warningly.


Councilor Rapport started a slow step backwards.


"Stay where you are," said the captain.


"Pausert!" Councilor Onswud and Illyla cried out together.


"Shut up!" said the captain.


There was another stillness.


"If you'd looked on your way over here," the captain told them, in an almost normal voice, "You'd have seen I was getting the nova gun turrets out. They're fixed on that boat of yours. The boat's lying still and keeping its yap shut. You do the same."


He pointed a finger at the policeman. "You open the lock," he said. "Start your suit repulsors and squirt yourself back to your boat!"


The lock groaned open. Warm air left the ship in a long, lazy wave, scattering the sheets of the Venture's log and commercial records over the floor. The thin, cold upper atmosphere of Nikkeldepain II came eddying in.


"You next, Onswud!" the captain said.


And a moment later: "Rapport, you just turn around—"


Young Councilor Rapport went out through the lock at a higher velocity than could be attributed reasonably to his repulsor units. The captain winced and rubbed his foot. But it had been worth it.


"Pausert," said Illyla in justifiable apprehension, "you are stark, staring mad!"


"Not at all, my dear," the captain said cheerfully. "You and I are now going to take off and embark on a life of crime together."


"But, Pausert—"


"You'll get used to it," the captain assured her, "just like I did. It's got Nikkeldepain beat every which way."


"You can't escape," Illyla said, white-faced. "We told them to bring up space destroyers and revolt ships . . ."


"We'll blow them out through the stratosphere," the captain said belligerently, reaching for the lock-control switch. He added, "But they won't shoot anyway while I've got you on board."


Illyla shook her head. "You just don't understand," she said desperately. "You can't make me stay!"


"Why not?" asked the captain.


"Pausert," said Illyla, "I am Madame Councilor Rapport."


"Oh!" said the captain. There was a silence. He added, crestfallen, "Since when?"


"Five months ago, yesterday," said Illyla.


"Great Patham!" cried the captain, with some indignation. "I'd hardly got off Nikkeldepain then! We were engaged!"


"Secretly . . . and I guess," said Illyla, with a return of spirit, "that I had a right to change my mind!"


There was another silence.


"Guess you had, at that," the captain agreed. "All right. The lock's still open, and your husband's waiting in the boat. Beat it!"


He was alone. He let the locks slam shut and banged down the oxygen release switch. The air had become a little thin.


He cussed.


The communicator began rattling for attention. He turned it on.


"Pausert!" Councilor Onswud was calling in a friendly but shaking voice. "May we not depart, Pausert? Your nova guns are still fixed on this boat!"


"Oh, that . . ." said the captain. He deflected the turrets a trifle. "They won't go off now. Scram!"


The police boat vanished.


There was other company coming, though. Far below him but climbing steadily, a trio of atmospheric revolt ships darted past on the screen, swung around and came back for the next turn of their spiral. They'd have to get closer before they started shooting, but they'd stay between him and the surface of Nikkeldepain while space destroyers closed in from above. Between them then, they'd knock out the Venture and bring her down in a net of paramagnetic grapples, if he didn't surrender.


He sat a moment, reflecting. The revolt ships went by once more. The captain punched in the Venture's secondary drives, turned her nose towards the planet, and let her go. There were some scattered white puffs around as he cut through the revolt ships' plane of flight. Then he was below them, and the Venture groaned as he took her out of the dive. The revolt ships were already scattering and nosing over for a countermaneuver. He picked the nearest one and swung the nova guns toward it.


"—and ram them in the middle!" he muttered between his teeth.


SSS-whoosh!


It was the Sheewash Drive—but like a nightmare now, it kept on and on . . . .


* * *


"Maleen!" the captain bawled, pounding at the locked door of the captain's cabin. "Maleen, shut it off! Cut it off! You'll kill yourself. Maleen!"


The Venture quivered suddenly throughout her length, then shuddered more violently, jumped and coughed, and commenced sailing along on her secondary drives again.


"Maleen!" he yelled, wondering briefly how many light-years from everything they were by now. "Are you all right?"


There was a faint thump-thump inside the cabin, and silence. He lost nearly two minutes finding the right cutting tool in the storage and getting it back to the cabin. A few seconds later a section of steel door panel sagged inwards; he caught it by one edge and came tumbling into the cabin with it.


He had the briefest glimpse of a ball of orange-colored fire swirling uncertainly over a cone of oddly bent wires. Then the fire vanished and the wires collapsed with a loose rattling to the table top.


The crumpled small shape lay behind the table, which was why he didn't discover it at once. He sagged to the floor beside it, all the strength running out of his knees.


Brown eyes opened and blinked at him blearily.


"Sure takes it out of you!" Goth muttered. "Am I hungry!"


"I'll whale the holy howling tar out of you again," the captain roared, "if you ever—"


"Quit your yelling!" snarled Goth. "I got to eat."


She ate for fifteen minutes straight before she sank back in her chair and sighed.


"Have some more Wintenberry jelly," the captain offered anxiously. She looked pretty pale.


Goth shook her head. "Couldn't . . . and that's about the first thing you've said since you fell through the door, howling for Maleen. Ha-ha! Maleen's got a boy friend!"


"Button your lip, child," the captain said. "I was thinking." He added, after a moment, "Has she really?"


Goth nodded. "Picked him out last year. Nice boy from the town. They get married as soon as she's marriageable. She just told you to come back because she was upset about you. Maleen had a premonition you were headed for awful trouble!"


"She was quite right, little chum," the captain said nastily.


"What were you thinking about?" Goth inquired.


"I was thinking," said the captain, "that as soon as we're sure you're going to be all right, I'm taking you straight back to Karres."


"I'll be all right now," Goth said. "Except, likely, for a stomach-ache. But you can't take me back to Karres."


"Who will stop me, may I ask?" the captain asked.


"Karres is gone," Goth said.


"Gone?" the captain repeated blankly, with a sensation of not quite definable horror bubbling up in him.


"Not blown up or anything," Goth reassured him. "They just moved it. The Imperials got their hair up about us again. This time they were sending a fleet with the big bombs and stuff, so everybody was called home. And right after you'd left . . . we'd left, I mean . . . they moved it."


"Where?"


"Great Patham!" Goth shrugged. "How'd I know? There's lots of places!"


* * *


There probably were, the captain agreed silently. A scene came suddenly before his eyes—that lime-white, arenalike bowl in the valley, with the steep tiers of seats around it, just before they'd reached the town of Karres. The "Theater where—"


But now there was unnatural night-darkness all over and about that world; and the eight-thousand-some witches of Karres sat in circles around the Theater, their heads turned towards one point in the center where orange fire washed hugely about the peak of a cone of curiously twisted girders.


And a world went racing off at the speeds of the Sheewash Drive! There'd be lots of places, all right. What peculiar people!


"Aren't they going to be worried about you?" he asked.


"Not very much. We don't get hurt often."


Once could be too often. But anyway, she was here for now . . . The captain stretched his legs out under the table, inquired, "Was it the Sheewash Drive they used to move Karres with?"


Goth wrinkled her nose doubtfully. "Sort of like it." She added, "I can't tell you much about those things till you've started to be one yourself."


"Started to be what myself?" he asked.


"A witch like us. We got our rules. And that likely won't be for a while. Couple of years maybe, Karres time."


"Couple of years, eh?" the captain repeated thoughtfully. "You were planning on staying around that long?"


Goth frowned at the jar of Wintenberry jelly, pulled it towards her and inspected it carefully. "Longer, really," she acknowledged. "Be a bit before I'm marriageable age!"


The captain blinked at her. "Well, yes, it would be . . ."


"So I got it all fixed," Goth told the jelly, "as soon as they started saying they ought to pick out a wife for you on Karres. I said it was me, right away; and everyone else said finally that was all right then—even Maleen, because she had this boy friend."


"You mean," said the captain, startled, "your parents knew you were stowing away on the Venture?"


"Uh-huh." Goth pushed the jelly back where it had been standing and glanced up at him again. "It was my father who told us you'd be breaking up with the people on Nikkeldepain pretty soon. He said it was in the blood."


"What was in the blood?" the captain asked patiently.


"That you'd break up with them . . . That's Threbus, my father. You met him a couple of times in the town. Big man with a blond beard. Maleen and the Leewit take after him. He looks a lot like you."


"You wouldn't mean my great-uncle Threbus?" the captain inquired. He was in a state of strange calm by now.


"That's right," said Goth.


"It's a small galaxy," the captain said philosophically. "So that's where Threbus wound up! I'd like to meet him again some day."


"You're going to," said Goth. "But probably not very soon." She hesitated, added, "Guess there's something big going on. That's why they moved Karres. So we likely won't run into any of them again till it's over."


"Something big in what way?" asked the captain.


Goth shrugged. "Politics. Secret stuff. . . . I was going along with you, so they didn't tell me."


"Can't spill what you don't know, eh?"


"Uh-huh."


Interstellar politics involving Karres and the Empire? He pondered it a few seconds, then gave up. He couldn't imagine what it might be and there was no sense worrying about it.


"Well," he sighed, "seeing we've turned out to be distant relatives, I suppose it is all right if I adopt you meanwhile."


"Sure," said Goth. She studied his face. "You still want to pay the money you owe back to those people?"


He nodded. "A debt's a debt."


"Well," Goth informed him, "I've got some ideas."


"None of those witch tricks now!" the captain said warningly. "We'll earn our money the fair way."


Goth blinked not-so-innocent brown eyes at him. "This'll be fair! But we'll get rich." She shook her head, yawned slowly. "Tired," she announced, standing up.


"Better hit the bunk a while now."


"Good idea," the captain agreed. "We can talk again later."


At the passage door Goth paused, looking back at him.


"About all I could tell you about us right now," she said, "you can read in those Regulations, like the one man said. The one you kicked off the ship. There's a lot about Karres in there. Lots of lies, too, though!"


"And when did you find out about the intercom between here and the captain's cabin?" the captain inquired.


Goth grinned. "A while back. The others never noticed."


"All right," the captain said. "Good night, witch—if you get a stomach-ache, yell and I'll bring the medicine."


"Good night," Goth yawned. "I might, I think."


"And wash behind your ears!" the captain added, trying to remember the bedtime instructions he'd overheard Maleen giving the junior witches.


"All right," said Goth sleepily. The passage door closed behind her—but half a minute later it was briskly opened again. The captain looked up startled from the voluminous stack of General Instructions and Space Regulations of the Republic of Nikkeldepain he'd just discovered in the back of one of the drawers of the control desk. Goth stood in the doorway, scowling and wide-awake.


"And you wash behind yours!" she said.


"Huh?" said the captain. He reflected a moment. "All right," he said. "We both will, then."


"Right," said Goth, satisfied.


The door closed once more.


The captain began to run his finger down the lengthy index of K's—could it be under W?


 


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