Eric Flint and Dave Freer


Captain Pausert was delighted to have the familiar decks of the Venture 7333 under his feet again. The Imperial palace and the capital were all very grand and beautiful, if you liked marble and columns. Pausert preferred good, honest, unpretentious hull-metal.

He celebrated their return to space in their own ship with one of his trademark bad take-offs. Goth shook her head. “You’ll be the death of us yet, captain,” she said, smiling at him and getting up with her familiar, lithe, cat-like grace. “I really need to learn some more ship handling.”

She would have to, in fact. With Hulik do Eldel having returned to Uldune with the Sedmons, they had only the old spacer Vezzarn as crew. And, of course, the Leewit. But the Leewit was still only seven years old. She was useful on comms and on the nova-guns, but the mathematics of astrogation and the engineering side of the Venture were still a bit much for her.

Goth, on the other hand, was soaking it all up like blotting paper. She might only be not quite fifteen Karres yeas old — the same age now, as Maleen was when he’d first encountered the witches on the Empire world of Porlumma — but she was as reliable as any crewman. On difficult or dangerous sections of their journeys he would split watches with her, rather than with old Vezzarn. She had an iron nerve and a lot of common sense. Not for the first time Captain Pausert wondered what he had done to be so lucky.

But then luck too was a klatha thing. And he’d always been a lucky gambler. He smiled to himself. He wondered if the Leewit, cardsharp extraordinary, had actually figured out that the captain played to lose. Just enough, to keep her happy and bathing without a fight. “We’ll put in some teaching time,” he said. “It’s so good to be back on the Venture. Just us, the old team back together again, eh!”

“We need to use the Sheewash drive to get us back to Karres,” she said. “A couple of bursts will save us months of traveling, Captain.”

“Sure. And I won’t try the modification I had in mind,” he said cheerfully.

“Clumping well better not,” said the Leewit, who had just walked in to the control room. “I’ve decided that I have to learn astrogation math,” she announced. That was a reversal of her gleeful announcement of a few days earlier, when she’d told them all that she was going to be a healer and had no need of it.

“Good,” said Goth, nodding approvingly. “You never know when the captain might need you.”

They set up the focus for the klatha energies of the Sheewash drive — which amounted to nothing more than some twisted wires. The wires formed a three dimensional pattern and means of directing the vast amount of klatha force the witches channeled through their secret space-drive. The shape was important, Pausert gathered. But he wondered if it had to be wires. And what happened if you changed the pattern?

He’d experimented with the problem, in fact — but the results of his experiments, so far, had not always been too easy to fix. So for now he’d stick to the tried and tested way. But he supposed that it was in his nature to want to push those limits. That had been why life on Nikkeldepain had been difficult for him. Nikkeldepain worked by the rules. Lots of rules. Rules to be obeyed without question. At least it had until Vala and the lattice ship got there! The show on the lattice ship had been a rare treat. And while it had nothing to do with his eventual decision to part ways with Nikkeldepain, it seemed to be a trigger to the sequence of events that had changed things.

He tore his mind away from thinking about his youth and concentrated on the matter in hand. Soon an orange ball of furious energies danced above the truncated cone of twisted wires and the Venture 7333 raced along at a pace that the fastest naval chaser could not dream of. Pausert melded well with the two young witches, and the ship hurtled onward through space.

Chapter 1

Threbus looked more than a little alarmed at the sudden appearance of the slitty little silver-eyed vatches all around them. “I suppose… these are the kind that can’t be handled by your mother?” he asked of Goth, his middle daughter. The tone was faintly hopeful. The expression was not.

His daughter shook her head. “I reckon not. Captain, how about you? You’re a real wizard with vatches.”

Pausert considered the problem. It seemed clear enough that the little fragments of otherwhere, pieces of impossible whirling blackness called vatches, had appeared because of Pausert. Pausert was a vatch-handler, a vatch negotiator, he who had done the impossible, and made friends with the creatures who were normally puppeteers playing with humans for a sort of dreamlike amusement. It would seem that there was such a thing as too much success.

Eventually, he shook his head. “If I tried and failed — even on one, it’d be pretty fatal. I think we’re going to have to learn to co-operate with them, Threbus.”


“Rather like one deals with the Leewit,” said Pausert.

Threbus groaned. “One does not deal with my youngest daughter, Pausert. One merely tries to limit the damage and then distract her.”

Captain Pausert, who had had plenty of experience of the Leewit, grinned at his great-uncle. “Yes. That’s it, I think.”

Threbus took a deep breath. “Pausert, you have repaid us for what we did to you.”

Because of the Karres witches, Captain Pausert had been though more near-death experiences than he cared to think about at any one sitting. He patted his great-uncle — and future father-in-law, if Goth had her way — on the shoulder. “I hope so. It was a bit rough at first. But I wouldn’t have missed it for all the worlds in the Empire.”

“More to the point the Empire wouldn’t have survived, without you getting through it,” said Threbus.

Pausert nodded. “I understand that… now. And I wonder if the vatches are not doing the same thing for Karres.”

Threbus looked thoughtful. “You can hardly have spoken to the precog teams, Pausert. It’s because of what they’re seeing that we’re glad you came back here so quickly. They’ve been giving us worrying and confused views of the future. Not all good, either. I wonder if this is another klatha talent starting to manifest in you?”

“Nope,” said Pausert. He’d been through enough of the otherworldly klatha development phases to recognize that feeling. “Just common sense. Karres has faced two terrible dangers. Been all that stood between man and Manaret, and between the Empire and the nanite plague.”

“Could be,” said Goth slowly, “that Karres, just by existing, draws trouble.”

Captain Pausert felt an eerie prickle at the back of his skull. Some kind of klatha force was at work here.

It was plain that Threbus felt it too. “We can’t exactly stop existing. We’ve always operated, if not in secret , at least not obtrusively. We could hide back in time or something…”

Goth shook her head, her high forehead wrinkled in concentration. “It wouldn’t make any difference. Whatever causes this is like Big Windy the vatch. I reckon it’s not limited to space or time as we know them. Not even this dimension. Manaret and Moander were pulled from somewhere else. Another dimension, thousands of complicated dimensions away… they thought it was by accident. But what if it wasn’t?”

“I’d say we’re in trouble. Again,” said Captain Pausert, shrugging. “We’re getting quite good at that.”

“Clumping right,” said the Leewit, arriving suddenly in their midst. “What are all these stinkin’ little vatches doing here? Where is Little-bit? She’s okay. I didn’t invite all these other ones.”

“Perhaps she’s here, somewhere. It’s a bit confusing,” said Pausert.

“Well, go away, you lot,” said the Leewit to the vatch-swarm. “Or I’ll whistle at you. I don’t know if it’ll bust you up. You want to find out, huh? Anyway, Pa, I came to tell you Maleen is here at the palace.”

Threbus brightened perceptibly. He was a fair man, Pausert knew. He never played favorites among his daughters. But he plainly had a soft spot for Maleen, his oldest child. “If they won’t go away,” he said, looking at the vatches, “I suppose that we could.”

The Leewit looked warily at her father. “Not the Egger route…”


There was a boom as air rushed in to fill the space. The vatches flickered and rippled around where the four Karres witches had been moments before. They’d find them again of course. They had their flavor.