Back | Next
Contents



CHAPTER 1

The shrill screaming from inside made Captain Pausert open the cabin door with some caution. Not that screaming was necessarily unusual around his present company—just that it was a good idea to meet screaming with due care.


He ducked reflexively as something went whizzing past his head. Vermilion splattered all over the wall of the Venture's second-best stateroom. It didn't make things look much worse. The eggshell blue paint that Goth had picked out with such care during their refit on Uldune was scarred and splattered with mute testimony to the savageness of the battle that was going on inside.


In the center of what had once been an ankle-deep pale cream carpet was the perpetrator of the ghastly destruction.


The Leewit, the younger of the two witch girls of Karres aboard the ship, stopped drumming her heels on the floor, sat up and glared at him. "What are you doing here, stupid?" she demanded, weighing the next paint bottle in her hands.


Like the sound of sunlight, like seeing a scent, he was aware of the insubstantial thing somewhere in the room: a thumb-sized vatch, filling Pausert's head with tinkling vatch-giggles. Then he saw it. Around the light, a sheet of paper dragged by that tiny piece of impossible blackness fluttered like a demented moth.


Throw it at the Big Dream Thing! squeaked the vatch, inside his head, its silvery eyes wide with delight. Throw, throw! 


"Shan't!" said the Leewit, changing her mind.


Spoilsport! Throw at me again, then! The vatch swooped down at her, fluttering what had obviously been the Leewit's artistic endeavor inches from the Leewit's nose.


The Leewit snatched at it furiously, nearly dropping the paint bottle. "Mine! Give it!"


The vatch and the picture twitched away from her fingers, and then disappeared, and then reappeared—in four different localities at the same time.


Life with vatches was interesting. So was life with Karres witches. Life with both was . . . complicated.


Captain Pausert's life had been very, very complicated for some time now.


The Leewit impotently threatened the dancing vatch quartet with the paint bottle. Then she turned on the captain. "You! You can even handle a giant vatch. Get my picture back from the stinkin' little thing!"


"Seeing as you asked so nicely, child, I will." Captain Pausert was careful to keep a straight face. It amused him to see the Leewit persecuted, for a change, since the Leewit was ever so capable of doing a fair amount of persecuting herself.


Still, vatches were too capable of creating havoc for him to leave one on the loose here. Forming hooks of the invisible stuff that was klatha force, Pausert began to reach with them for the tiny vatch . . . or vatches.


There were four of them and they all looked the same—less than an inch of blackness and a pair of slitty silver eyes. They all seemed to have the Leewit's picture, too. That was confusing. But vatches did odd things to time and space in human dimensions. He'd just try each one in turn.


He did. To no avail.


"It's doing a light-shift, Captain." That observation came from the Leewit's older sister, Goth, from where she lounged in a formfit chair on the far side of the room. "Splitting its image. Neat trick. Hadn't thought of that," she said, rubbing her sharp chin.


Pausert stared at the four. "So where is it actually?" Light-shifts were one of Goth's klatha skills.


"Got to be somewhere between them, Captain."


Pausert "felt" with the klatha hooks . . . encountered nonmaterial resistance. Suddenly there was only one tiny speck of whirling midnight, and the Leewit's artwork fluttered towards the floor. The little blond witch snatched it out of the air.


Pausert was a vatch-handler. He'd taken on Big Windy, the giant vatch. He could pull them inside out and make them jump through hoops, if he had to. Only . . . 


There was one kind of these nonmaterial klatha creatures that was supposed to be unmanageable—and, unfortunately, you couldn't tell which kind of vatch you had until you had it. Then it could be too late. Klatha was powerful, but also dangerous.


Tickles, giggled the vatchlet.


Pausert tried to make the little creature move. It was like pushing smoke. With a sinking feeling, he realized that the silvery-eyed mischief must be one of the kind of vatch that none of the witches of Karres could make do anything.


I like this place. It's fun! The vatchlet whizzed around his head, then—into his chest.


Pausert's heart stopped for a moment. But nothing else happened, and it restarted again.


Well, at least it hadn't turned on him. And it sounded and acted awfully young. He'd—


Suddenly, the ship-detector alarms sounded through the intercom system. Pausert had set them up to do so when the Venture had made her run through the Chaladoor, that region of dangerous space between Emris and Uldune. He'd never gotten around to undoing it.


The baby vatch and the Leewit would just have to sort out their own problems. This could be something far worse. The captain left at a run, with Goth hard at his heels. They nearly collided with Vezzarn, the old spacer-cum-spy who was one half of their crew. The other half, Hulik do Eldel, former Imperial agent and citizen of the pirate planet Uldune, was barely moments behind.


The captain focused the viewscreens on the object—no, objects—the detectors had picked up. They were still almost at maximum range, but were coming in fast.


"Imperial cruisers, Captain," said Goth, looking at the heavily armed spacecraft.


Pausert's heart began doing complicated calisthenics. Pirates would have been preferable. Infinitely preferable.


"There is another one up there coming in the upper quadrant," said Hulik, pointing.


"And another one, dead ahead," added Vezzarn. "I think they've got us boxed in, Captain."


They did indeed. Pausert realized that this meant that someone back at the governor's palace in Green Galaine on Emris must have passed on details of their plans, including their exact trajectory. This was not good, and he had the feeling it was going to get a great deal worse.


"Do you want me to unseal the nova guns, Captain?" asked Vezzarn nervously.


"Not sure it'll do much good," replied Pausert grimly. The guns were very effective when they worked, but they were also old and erratic—and sometimes downright dangerous to use.


Nevertheless, he nodded his head. "May as well, though. In the meantime, Hulik, try the communicator."


The slim, elegant Miss do Eldel set it to the Empire's general beam length.


A young man in the neatly pressed uniform of an Imperial lieutenant stared out at them from under his regulation cap. " . . . instructed to stop firing your thrust generators and allow us to match velocity and trajectory, and board for inspection."


The man paused, obviously about to repeat. Pausert leaned over and hit the send button. "This is Captain Pausert of the Venture. What are you looking for?"


The officer looked faintly startled, as if he hadn't expected them to reply. "Ah. Captain Pausert. Can you give us visuals, please?"


"Our visuals are on," said Pausert smoothly. "Sorry. We might be having a malfunction with the screens. Or perhaps you are. But what seems to be the problem, Lieutenant? What are you looking for? We're a civilian spacecraft, on a course from the Empire planet of Emris to the provincial capital of the Regency of Hailie. We're not a pirate vessel, I assure you. In fact, we have a letter of safe conduct with the seal of the Empress Hailie herself."


The lieutenant was definitely looking more respectful now, but Pausert was not going to drop his guard. A good half of the people aboard the Venture were persona non grata so far as the Empire was concerned. The last thing he wanted was to have any Imperials aboard.


The Imperial lieutenant hesitated for a moment. Then said: "I'll give you to Commodore Fleser, sir. If you'll just wait a moment. He'll answer your questions."


Pausert flicked the toggle. "What do you think, Goth? Hulik?"


"Better play along, Captain. Me and the Leewit will get the Sheewash Drive ready." Goth headed for the hatch leading out of the control room. "We can outrun them if we have to, but Threbus said to keep a low profile."


Hulik nodded. "We can outrun them, but they do outgun us. Let's see what they want first."


The captain decided their advice was good and toggled on the buzzing communicator. The screen now showed a jowl-faced gray-haired man with commodore's insignia.


" . . . Fleser of the Imperial cruiser, ISN Malorn. Reduce thrust or be fired on."


Pausert realized that the Imperials weren't going to pussyfoot around. He reached out and began cutting the thrust. "This is Captain Pausert of the Venture. Why are you interfering with a vessel in the legitimate pursuit of business?"


"We have orders to investigate the possibility that you may be carrying a dangerous criminal, as well as one of the infamous witches of Karres," said the commodore grimly. "Cut thrust further, Captain. You're within range of our guns now and they're locked onto your ship. Any attempt at escape and you will be fired on. Out." He cut the communicator-link.


Pausert shook his head at the blank screen. "Great Uncle Threbus was dead wrong about one thing. That commodore knew who we were, and he was still prepared to fire on us. Looks to me like the Empire doesn't plan to leave us alone after all." He stood up. "They're looking for our passengers. I'm going to have a word with Goth."


* * *

"Ought to be all right," said Goth. "I can hide myself in no-shape. You got that safe-conduct signed by the Empress Hailie for the passengers. And they won't be looking for the Leewit at all."


"I don't think letting them find Hantis and Pul is a good idea, safe-conduct or not. You know smuggling them past any Imperial security agents is what we're supposed to do."


"Guess you're right, Captain. I can try a shape-change on them, except . . . I'm still not really good enough at that to use any shape except one I already know well. Not and keep it up for more than maybe a minute. Like I did when I made myself and Leewit look like Hantis and Pul on the Worm World. But any shape like that might also be in Imperial records."


"What about no-shape?" Goth could bend light around herself so she was invisible.


"Got to do that to yourself." Goth shook her head regretfully. "It's too bad I can't do an age-shift yet, like Toll and Threbus can."


Pausert scratched his chin, dubiously. A younger—or older—Hantis and Pul would still look like a Nartheby Sprite and a grik-dog. That was too close for comfort. Still . . . 


"What about this: could you do a shape-change that imitates an age-shift? You'd still be working with shapes you know well, just changing their age. That might be enough to fool the Imperials, if we combined it with disguises."


Goth thought about it for a moment, then smiled. "I think so. That's a good idea, Captain!"


"We'll have to hope so. I don't see anything better, in the time we've got. The Imperials should be in boarding range in a few minutes. You go and talk to Hantis and explain things. What about the Leewit?"


"Can look after myself," scowled the Leewit, gray eyes peering up at him from under lowered brows. "So long as you keep that smelly little vatch away."


The captain couldn't rell the little silver-eyed piece of klatha-blackness anywhere. Even if he couldn't detect it, though, he suspected it was still around somewhere.


"I bet you can, brat." He rumpled the Leewit's hair, which she hated, and ducked around the doorway before she could purse her lips to form one of her supersonic whistles. She could literally bust machinery with them.


* * *

Back in the control room he found Vezzarn, returning from the nova guns. "They're all ready, Captain. They might be old but I wouldn't want to have them fire on me at this short range, even if those are cruisers."


"Let's sight them on the nearest of the Imperials. It might remind them of their manners."


The little old spacer gave a crooked smile. "I kind of figured on that, Captain. I've been tracking them in with the rear turret. I reckon we could bring the forward turret to bear too, once they're alongside."


"Do that."


The communicator buzzed insistently. It was Commodore Fleser of the ISN Malorn. "Captain Pausert. You will deflect your guns from my ship!" he demanded angrily.


"Commodore Fleser," replied Pausert in an even tone of voice, "we've had a lot of pirate trouble. We do not, in fact, have any proof you are who you say you are. So our guns will stay locked onto your vessel. Before we open our airlock we'll put the lock-bar in place, and seal up the access codes. Make a false move and you won't have a command any more. At this range—you might destroy us, but we'll take you with us."


The Imperial officer looked like he was going to explode himself. "Over and out," said Pausert, before the man had a chance to reply.


What fun! squeaked the vatch.


Pausert groaned. That was one complication he could have lived without.


* * *

"You agree, our papers are in order," said Pausert stiffly. "You are welcome to inspect our cargo. None of our passengers or crew even resemble these descriptions and holo-plates." He handed back the pictures of Goth, the Nartheby Sprite Hantis, and the grik-dog Pul. "You've been misinformed and sent on a wild-goose chase, Commodore."


Pausert was trying to keep calm. To him, the air in the cabin practically reeked of vatch. He could rell that little quicksilver-eyes in here somewhere.


Bulldog-faced Commodore Fleser in his blue-black gold-braided uniform, of course, would not be able to see the vatch. But he wouldn't be immune to its mischief. At the moment the officer was rather off his stride, knowing his vessel was locked by electromagnetic hull clamps into a death-grip with the Venture. That could change in a vatch-inspired instant, though. From what the commodore had said, the Imperials wanted Karres witches even more than the supposed criminal Hantis.


"We have specific orders from ISS headquarters," said Fleser, equally stiffly, "to stop this ship. They are absolutely certain you have these miscreants aboard."


Pausert hoped the Imperial commodore took the sudden widening of his eyes for a reaction to the mention of the dreaded Imperial Interservice Security . . . and not to the glass of water that the captain could see slowly lofting from his desk. He shrugged. "Go right ahead and search, Commodore. But I'll be making an official complaint to Duke Abelisson, the Empress' comptroller."


The vatch was quite capable of creating trouble just for the fun of it. Likely to, in fact. Vatches regarded human space as little more than an aspect of their dreams, and they regarded people as dreamed-up pieces in their games. It hardly mattered to them what happened to the pieces, when the game got boring.


The Imperial hadn't seen the glass. He turned towards the hatch. "Humph. My men will conduct a thorough search and—"


Pausert practically pushed him through it. "Well, you must see to them, then! A good commander always leads from the front, sir. Let us take you to it."


Water trickled down Pausert's back. There had to be some way of dealing with the little menace!


 


Back | Next
Framed