The Shaman of Karres – Snippet 03
When the shriek of space-alarms is welcome, things are pretty rotten, Captain Pausert reflected.
He’d been near to dozing in the control chair on the Venture 7333. That was a good thing considering how little sleep he’d had the last few days, and a bad thing when he was in command of a starship.
He blinked to clear his vision. The screens showed that it was a fairly normal problem on the fringes of the Empire’s space, a larger ship following directly down their course. There was only one good reason for that — to try and get in a disabling shot on the Venture‘s tubes before they had a chance to flee or return fire or try evasive action. It was the hardest to detect too, with the tubes trail disturbing most sensors. The Venture had an advantage over most ships in that she had the latest and best that the Daal of Undune’s shipyards had been able fit into the ship. Otherwise, ten-to-one he would have been taken by surprise.
It wasn’t too healthy an approach for the following ship. There were some short-lived radioactives in the trail, but then pirates didn’t take a long term approach to life.
The irony of the situation was that he’d have happily given the pirates his cargo. There were ten thousand pairs of hyper-electronic manacles in the hold. They were not Pausert’s choice of cargo, but an order destined for Karoda. He needed an excuse to go there, but he would have preferred some other excuse!
He toggled the intercom, and woke the Leewit, Vezzarn and Ta’zara. “Got pirates sneaking up astern.”
“Good,” said the Leewit, her mood plainly not that different from his own. “Let’s shoot their front end off, shoot their rear end off, and ram them in the middle!” she snarled, quoting her favorite phrase from the captain’s lexicon.
“We could run,” said old Vezzarn, warily.
That was true. Not only was the Venture more lethal than she looked, but she was somewhat overpowered. She’d originally been built as a pirate-chaser, intended to look the part of a small commercial freighter. She’d been sold off, and ended up as just that — a small freighter with high fuel bills and not really enough cargo space for inner-planet work. But for high-risk, high-cost cargos in possibly dangerous localities, she was just the ship a captain needed. Besides, with the Leewit and him aboard they had an ace up their sleeves: the Sheewash drive, harnessing their klatha powers to outpace any space-craft.
The downside about the Sheewash drive was that everyone else wanted it. There was no point in using it if it wasn’t an emergency. There were enough rumors about a superdrive and the witches of Karres as it was.
“Run is always better,” said Ta’zara, having silently come into the control room. Ta’zara, who was a human battlewagon in unarmed conflict, could move like a ghost when he wished to. “You fight when you have to, in the place you choose, with the weapons you choose.”
That made sense, although the captain was all for fighting right now. He looked at the screens and did a quick calculation. “There’s an asteroid cluster up ahead. Dirty space, full of debris. Something recently collided with something else and the shattered pieces are still a trap of any starship. Not a great place for us to run at full speed. And three planetoids off to the starboard. Suppose we shift course slightly as if we’re avoiding the debris, dive in on the planetoid, and catch a slingshot off its gravity-well. Then we’ll come at them from the flank. The asteroids will give them little space to run.”
“And if we blow one or two of those into space fragments, ahead of their course, they’ll have rocks to dodge instead chasing or shooting at us,” said Vezzarn.
“As well as chasing us, probably,” said the captain. “Right, you’ll all need to get to your gravity acceleration couches and strap in. I’ll unlock the nova-gun turrets, and then set a course to brush past that closest worldlet at full thrust. As soon as we get out of the gravity-well, you get to the guns.”
Fun fun piped the little vatchlet, like the sound of sunlight, like seeing a scent, a thing that Captain was aware of, but ordinary senses were not. Klatha-sensitives could “rell” vatch. To others, they weren’t there at all, let alone hearable.
The piece of nothingness whirled about in a delighted dance, around the Leewit. The two of them were rather similar, but the Leewit was at least growing up a little more. Pausert almost groaned. He hoped they’d lost Little-Bit, the silver-eyed baby vatch after their last adventure. She’d disappeared for a while, as vatches often did. They regarded humans and their doings as a kind of entertainment, only worth paying attention to when things could go terribly wrong — often as a direct result of the vatch interference. Klatha use attracted them, like moths to a candle. Pausert shook his head. He was a vatch handler, able to force some of them to do his will, but Little-bit was of the kind that couldn’t be handled. His klatha hooks merely tickled her.
“We don’t need trouble,” he said sternly, knowing it was a waste of time.
But I do! said the vatch, her tinkling little voice inside his head. Make explosions, big dream thing. I like explosions!
Whatever he did, Captain Pausert knew that playing the little vatch’s game was not a good idea. Neither was directly thwarting the immensely powerful little creature. He had to chart some kind of middle course. That was never going to be easy, but he had years of practice, dealing with the Leewit. She was resisting growing up as hard as any lastborn child ever does, and would have lapses into the hooliganism of her younger years with regularity. But he’d noticed… never when it really mattered. He wondered if that applied to the vatchlet.
He asked it, as he strapped in to the command chair. “Do you ever grow up?”
Almost to his surprise, he got a serious answer, if an incomprehensible one. We go to the *place*. Some never do.
“Do you want to?” asked Pausert, fishing for a handle on the strange, non-material creatures.
There was a longer silence. Then the voice in his head said: Sometimes, big dream thing. Sometimes I don’t. Maybe not fun fun.
“Dying’s not fun fun for us either. And that could just happen, no matter how good we are at klatha,” said Pausert, missing Goth badly. Wishing he had her at his side. Wishing he’d just had a chance to tell her… because every space battle actually could just be one’s last, even for a wizard of Karres.
The battle, if you could call it that, was a short-run thing. The Venture had a good turn of speed to her, and she’d been built as a pirate-chaser, long years ago on Nikkeldepain. It was almost as if the old ship loved her work, Pausert reflected. The pirates had plainly been unaware that they’d been spotted in their attempt to sneak up undetected. Their first shot, as the Venture came racing in from their flank had been wildly astray. The Venture‘s return-fire from her erratic nova guns, had not been. Old Vezzarn had had a misfire, causing some damage to the gun and turret, but the Leewit, whose fire from the nova guns had always been uncannily accurate, was on target. Her purple searing blast had struck the other ship with its full devastating force, destroying what must have been a missile pod. He heard her shriek of glee through the intercom. “Got him! Got him good!”
The explosion that set off was enough to break the other ship in half. One moment it was a pirate, the next two hulks and debris flying off into space in separate directions. Very soon after a small lifecraft detached from what had been the front half of the ship and fled, as Captain Pausert swung the Venture away from the target. There’d be metal fragments moving unpredictably and at speed, as they ricocheted off each other.
Vezzarn came down to report on the damage to his gun-turret, as the Leewit came bouncing off the walls down the corridor. “Did you see that shot, Captain? I guessed exactly right. We blew his aft right off!”
“So you did,” said Pausert, with all the pride of the man who’d taught her to shoot. “Well, if you take the helm for a bit, I need to go and inspect Vezzarn’s pod. Lucky you didn’t get hurt, old fellow,” he said to the old spacer, who was looking a bit shaken.
What happens to the other ones? asked the little vatch-voice in their heads.
The Leewit and the captain paused… and Vezzarn, who was terrified of ‘witchy stuff’, fled, saying something about needing a hot drink.
“What other ones?” asked the Leewit. “So you’re back, are you? Huh. Just leaving me like that.”