Obviously, they were waiting for Pausert. And he was going to make things worse by waiting until everyone else had dispersed. So Goth took steps herself. She’d learned a thing or two about Nikkeldepain from the captain and his attitudes. It was a pretty masculine society, rather like the Empire and very unlike Karres. She smiled nastily to herself. Toll always said that it was worth quietly fitting into a society — after all, Karres people were just passing through. Threbus said there were times for that, and times for establishing some respect. She’d do both.

“Hello, boys,” she said, smiling at them. “Remember me?”

By the looks of it, they did. “You’re the tough guys here. Are all these people going to be impressed when I tell them how I helped to improve your looks? I can improve them some more if you like. And I will do both, if you’re still around when I’ve finished counting to three.”

They were plainly torn between teaching her a lesson — huh! like that was going to happen! — and being seen fighting with a girl. One girl, at that, and the real threat of having that girl telling the locals just how they’d acquired purple blotches.

Rapport’s nerve broke first. “You can’t protect him forever,” he said, sniffing and turning away.

Watch me, thought Goth. But he’ll be able to deal with worms like you himself, any day. But she kept this to herself and waited. Pausert emerged, wary and fists balled, a few minutes later.

It did not take Goth very long to penetrate Pausert’s armor. He was naturally gregarious, and liked to talk. And, well, she knew him. The most difficult thing was not to give that away. But, sitting on the rails of one of Nikkeldepain’s many iron bridges, swinging their legs over the water, in compete contravention of the sign telling them not to, she heard the story of most of his life to date.

The surprising thing was just how little of it she had learned in all the time that they had spent together on the Venture . He’d obviously made the decision to put all of this behind him. And it wasn’t really surprising.

“… and so he’s still MIA. Mother says they think he deserted. She says that’s impossible.”

Father lost after a minor skirmish on an otherwise routine patrol. His one-man scout ship never found. He was assumed to have fled the scene and dumped the ship somewhere.

The Imperial navy stopped paying his salary.

And then things got worse.

They’d come back to Nikkeldepain.

“Mother had an offer of a job at the Xenobiological Botany Institute.” Pausert kicked the rails. “She’s a xeno-botanist and a plant pathologist. They really need her, but they are not a lot of other people who do, here on Nikkeldepain. Like, they don’t need me either.”

“Nonsense,” said Goth. “But why did you even come back to Nikkeldepain? There are xeno-botany places inside the Empire. There’s one in the capital, and one on Green Galaine. There must be lots of them.”

Pausert shrugged. “Probably. But mom had inherited the house. Seeing as my father is looked on almost like a traitor or something in the Empire military, I suppose she wanted to get out of there. And she had a house and job offer here. Only when we got here, that’s when things got really complicated. See, the law around here says that your heirs also inherent your debts. And it seems like great-uncle disappeared owing a few people some money. Not a lot by his standards maybe. Nothing much against the estate. But a lot of money for us.”

“I don’t really understand these things,” said Goth. “But don’t they just sell off his property, and pay people?” She was vaguely horrified that her Captain Pausert should have ended up in clothes that were plainly a little too small for him, because his mother was paying off Threbus’s debts.

“The law here is a bit odd about that, Mom says,” said Pausert. “They are not allowed to take more than the estate is worth from the heir, but they don’t have to wait until the whole thing is wrapped up. And it can’t be wrapped up, because the Nikkeldepain Office of Records refuses to declare great-uncle dead.”

Goth knew a moment of righteous indignation. Of course her father wasn’t dead! That was followed by pragmatic realization, that, for Karres’s sake he had set things up to look like he was.

“So, um, what is happening?” asked Goth

Pausert kicked the bridge railing angrily. “Nothing. We spend more of the money we haven’t got on lawyers who don’t do anything. I go to school, mother goes to work. And things just go on the same way. Sorry. Enough. I shouldn’t have even told you about it. It’s our problem. So what are you doing here? ”

Goth hadn’t thought much about that part of her story yet. “I’m going to be going to your school,” she announced. It was sudden decision — and a tall story — but better than anything else she could think of right now.

It did at least serve to distract him. “You are?” He smiled, and the smile chased the gloomy expression off his face. “It’s a good school. But you better not tell anyone that you know me. I’m not too popular.”

“Huh. Too late,” said Goth, grinning. “So, tell me about it?” He did. And talking of school successfully steered the subject away from Goth’s own back history. She really would have to think about that. She was also going to have to do something about the mess that the local law had made of Captain Pausert’s life as a young man. There was no doubt that it was an appalling mess. And yet, somehow it must have all come right in time for him to go to the Space-Naval Academy. Goth was willing to bet that she had had something to do with it. She just wished she knew what it had been. That would have saved her having to work out what it would be! Time travel was needlessly confusing.

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