THE SORCERESS OF KARRES — Snippet 38

THE SORCERESS OF KARRES — Snippet 38

Chapter 19

In the Chaladoor the two blips had become four, and then six. Captain Pausert was doing his best with evasive maneuvers, but the numbers were stacking up against them. In the meanwhile Captain Pausert was learning more about the value of history. He wasn’t sure that he wanted to right now, but Mebeckey was telling him anyway.

Decades had passed while worm weather spread out of the Chaladoor, possibly from some place in the galactic east. But, for an historian like Mebeckey, whose studies had spanned eons, history was dates and records — and how the fitted together. From what was known of the Great Eastern Wars when whole planets had died in the gargantuan battles between the men spreading out of Old Yarthe, the date of the coming of worm weather, of the Nuri globes and voice of Monster Moander who crouched on the surface of tunneled Manaret were the stuff of those records. So was the Chaladoor of yesteryear, and so was the danger before the coming of Manaret, that great dimension-crossing ship of conquest filled with the Lyrd-Hyrier lords.

It had always been a dangerous piece of space. Few reports existed of why this was so, but those few reports did record the presence of the Phantom ships. Mebeckey hadn’t had any access to reports of what they looked like. But he could tell the captain this: the last report of the Phantom Ships had actually been recorded just before the first reported encounter with worm weather.

The Chaladoor had actually, briefly, got safer to cross with the onset of worm weather — with the arrival of the great ship that was Manaret.

“Looks like one set of problems chased the other out,” said Pausert. “Now that Manaret is gone and the Nuris have all faded away… the old menace is back.”

“So it would seem,” said Mebeckey.

“You don’t know something useful do you? Like how ships got away from them in the past?”

The archaeologist shook his head. “Other than very rarely, no. But the Phantoms certainly didn’t occur in the whole of the Chaladoor region. Most reports of survivors — there were quite a lot, really — came from the Galactic South — the area around Uldune.”

That was useful, Captain Pausert supposed, but only to give him some idea where to run to. And, of course, if your destination wasn’t Uldune. “If we can’t run, we’ll have to fight.”

“How do we fight them?” asked the Leewit, sparkling. “Shoot their front end off, shoot their rear end off, and ram ’em in the middle?” She quoted her favorite phrase of the captain’s vocabulary.

Pausert nodded, and tousled her hair. “Exactly what I would do if they were solid enough to do it to. But they’re not, so you will have to do some clever shooting. It’s a question of timing!”

The Leewit nodded thoughtfully. “Got to guess what they’re doing. Those missiles of theirs are nasty.”

“They may have other unpleasant surprises too. Remember, they took on the Daal’s battlewagons and won. I’m not really sure what keeps them off us.”

The Leewit looked thoughtful. “Could be Little-bit. She makes us a bit different, eh? She says there is definitely something vatchlike about those ships. I think she means the way they have no mass, but can still do things like launch torpedoes and move between stars. If she can feel something there, maybe they can feel her here, looking after us.”

Pausert thought it was odd to think of the little vatch as a “she,” but since the Leewit seemed determine about the matter, he saw no reason not to accommodate her.

“Is she still around?” he asked. “I thought she’d gone elsewhere again. And she hasn’t pestered me for more pieces of vatch-stuff.”

“Doesn’t need to. She’s growing, and she’s got to stop eating.”

“Kind of the opposite of us.”

“‘Spose so,” said the Leewit, who was going through “constantly hungry” at the moment, and putting on inches in height, too. “Anyway, what are you going to do? We can outrun those torpedoes, but if we turn toward them or get boxed in, we’d be in trouble.”

“Yes. I was hoping to use…” He looked at Mebeckey. “Our booster drive to get us out. Maneuver us into a position where we can fire on them and then run. But the firing is the trick. We’ll need to anticipate. To fire the nova guns just as they launch.”

“Pity neither of us do premote,” said the Leewit.

“You just fire on my command,” said the captain. “Both you and Vezzarn. Mebeckey, you get yourself strapped in. In your cabin You’re supercargo at this stage. Get.”

Vezzarn plainly also got the hint. He really did not like witchy stuff. “Going to ready the guns, Captain.”

“Do that. The Leewit and I need to talk.”

He scarpered. Mebeckey blundered away too. “Don’t see how we can do it Captain,” said the Leewit. “I can’t operate the guns and do the Sheewash drive with you.”

“That’s why I am going to have to do the Sheewash on my own. You are much better with the nova guns than old Vezzarn is.”

The Leewit looked doubtful. “But can you, Captain?”

“I guess I’ll have to. A few more of these ships and they can achieve an englobement. Then we’re toast. And I reckon we’re going to have them pop up on the screens any time now.”

The Leewit looked serious, and worried. “They kept up with us when we used the Sheewash drive, Captain. And without Goth, we can’t keep it going for too long.” She bit her lip. “The Egger route, Captain. If things get really bad, will you use it?”

Pausert blinked. The Leewit suggesting her pet hate? “Not without you. I am responsible for you, you know.”

The Leewit scowled. “Got it imprinted in us kids, with the Toll pattern. Get badly hurt and I prob’ly can’t stop it happening. But you’re different, see. And I worry about you, too. Because I’m also responsible. Goth told me so.” It was plain just then that she felt that responsibility very heavily. But she was Karres. They took responsibility when there was the need.

Pausert had learned, over the years of dealing with the three Karres witches, that when they were this serious, they weren’t just children to be humored or jollied. He nodded back. “I’ll do it. I think I can. But I have a ship, a crew and a passenger to worry about.”

“If it’s that bad, you won’t have,” said the Leewit.

He nodded. “Sure. Well lets go and shoot their front end off, shoot their rear end off, and ram ’em in the middle, then. Because I really don’t want to use the Egger route.”

“Me neither!” said the Leewit. “Sing out when you want us to fire the guns.”

Soon the captain was alone in the control room, assembling a blunt cone of pieces of wire from a drawer. The wires, the captain suspected, were no more than a focal point for the klatha pattern. He built it in his mind. The strange swirl of orange energy began to build too… in his mind, and then, before it burned him up, he transferred it to where the tip of the cone would be. The Venture leapt like a startled bollem, and then screamed off toward the upper left quadrant of the approaching Phantom ships. The captain heard the Leewit shriek with glee. He realized the Venture was accelerating — but in a jitterbug corkscrew fashion. Belatedly, it occurred to him that one of the more experienced witches — and even the Leewit was more experienced than he — must have controlled directional vector before engaging the drive. But he had no idea how to do that.

The ship was tumbling wildly about, closer to the Phantom ships. “Fire!” he yelled. One set of nova guns responded immediately, and the second set, the aft ones, seconds later. The captain was just glad he wasn’t trying to line up cross-hairs up while the ship was doing a drunken dance. Blue sheet light lightning leap across space and intersected one of the spiky Phantom ships… to no effect. But then the ship must have tried to launch a torpedo.

The Leewit yowled in triumph like some wild thing out of the jungle. “Got ‘im!”

The captain was too busy trying to concentrate on the twisted pattern of klatha energy to look. They went through the containment barrier the inadequate number of Phantom ships had been trying to mount and — without meaning to cut a high-speed broadside across another. Instinct prompted the captain to yell “fire” again. The truncated cone of wires collapsed as they spiraled out again. The captain gave all the tubes full thrust — the repaired bracket and roughly calibrated tube made the old Venture vibrate and wobble — but compared to his ill-controlled Sheewash it steady and easy. Vezzarn stumbled into the control room a few minutes later. “The little Wisdom got two hits on two different ships. The first one was a real disabling shot, I reckon.”

“They’re still behind us, but they’ve pulled back. Barely in detector range.”

The Leewit bounced into the control room. Punched his upper arm and beamed at him. “You are one hot witch pilot, Captain. They couldn’t have had the least idea where to fire.”

There were times for accepting praise — no matter how misdirected — gracefully. Making the crew feel that the captain was in control and good at it.

This was not one of those times. “They didn’t know what we were going to do… because I didn’t either. I didn’t have any directional control at all.”

The Leewit dissolved into helpless giggles. “I’ll show you next time. You did pretty clumping good anyway.”

“Yes, Captain,” said Vezzarn, a sly grin creeping onto his face. “Now they think we’re completely mad and they’re keeping their distance because they don’t want to catch it.”

Pausert rubbed his eyes, tiredly. “They could be right at that. Now can you get me something to eat? Because I sure am starving.”

“Coming right up,” said the Leewit. “I could use a second breakfast myself.”

“Actually, that’ll be your third, child,” said Pausert, chuckling.

“Pooh. Who is counting?” Said the Leewit cheerfully. “You want some cone-seed coffee with that?”

“Sure. It’d be good.”

Pausert examined the screens while the Leewit went to enforce her will on the robo-butler. They’d managed to lose one of the pursuing craft. But unless he was very much mistaken, they were going to be joined by two more ships.

He was not mistaken.

They’d be properly boxed soon. And then not even the Sheewash drive would get them away.

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