“Goth, you’re being a dope,” said the Leewit. “Isn’t she, Maleen?”

“Shut up,” said Goth. “It’s more complicated than you understand, you little bollem.”

Maleen, looking down on her younger sisters with the vast tolerance of an older, and now married woman, smiled. “Don’t you like the captain any more, the Leewit?”

The Leewit looked affronted. “He’s not a bad old dope. Okay. He’s not even so old. And he’s not really a dope. I like him quite a lot, actually. He’s good to have around especially when things go wrong. But I don’t see what Goth’s all upset about.” She sniffed. “And don’t tell me that she’s not, because she is.”

Goth gave her a look that would have sent sensible wildlife running. “It’s your baby’s fault,” she said to Maleen.

“I didn’t tell you everything Kerris and the other precogs said about her.”

“Don’t know if I want to hear,” said Goth crossly.

Maleen put a hand on Goth’s shoulder and pushed her down into a chair. “Well, you should. Because it is important. I need to talk to Toll and Threbus about it too, but I couldn’t with Captain Pausert there.”

“Why? What did they say?”

“Pausert’s going on a mission to Chaladoor.”

“I know that. We leave…”

“Except that you’re not going to be with him,” said Maleen.

Goth shook her head. “He needs me around. He doesn’t have a pattern in his mind to guide him through the klatha stuff. And he… experiments. Look what happened with the Egger route. We ended up back in time. He’ll get hurt or killed, for sure, if I am not there.”

Goth knew full well that Captain Pausert had actually done all right a couple of times without her. But a girl had keep an eye on her man. And she was double uncertain right now. That episode was well back in his past, but she was not ignorant and naive enough not to know that the captain had given his heart to this Vala. Also, his tone said that she’d meant something very different to him than his former fiancée Illyla.

Illyla, Goth could deal with, just like she’d dealt with Sunnat. This Vala…

Goth hadn’t liked his reverent tone. And she didn’t like the fact that, in a way, the girl couldn’t have been much older than Goth was now, when she got her claws into the captain. Well. He wouldn’t have been a captain then. But still.

“You know what precog is like, Goth. No one ever sees the whole picture, but they do see what they see, right? And this is what Kerris said. You — Goth, nobody else — have got to do this or else he’s not just going to get killed. It’d be like he never was. It’s got something to do with what is going on in the Chaladoor.”

Goth took a deep breath. “You tell me all that you know right now, Maleen.” This was much more serious than some old girlfriend he’d never got over.

“Well, you know precogs measure might-be’s. They predicted Vala’s name. We both heard it and loved it… and they said that it was really important that she be called that. And they said that some power from the Chaladoor was going to murder Captain Pausert.”

“What!” Goth leapt to her feet. “We could dismind him, like Olimy. Or he could put himself in a cocoon like he put the Leewit and me in…”

“And it happened when he was fifteen,” said Maleen. “There is a ninety eight point probability that he died before he ever left Nikkeldepain. Maybe some enemy figured out then it was a good idea to get rid of him before he developed any klatha powers. Before he had Goth and Karres to protect him.”

Goth said several words that even shocked the Leewit.

“The captain will wash your mouth out with soap!” said the youngest witch, primly, as if she herself did not delight in using terms that would make a docker blush. Although she was usually careful to do so in a language that Captain Pausert could not understand. Her klatha gifts ran to the ability to translate and speak any language.

“Not unless you tell him, he won’t. And I’ll make you swim back to Karres on the Egger route if you do,” said Goth. “You’re going to have to look after him in the Chaladoor, little sister. I’m going to have to go and deal with this.”


The Leewit nodded, wide eyed, looking at her sister. It was going to be quite a task. But that was pure Karres. If something needed doing, you did it. Karres people weren’t much good at waiting for someone else to take the responsibility. “How are you going to get there?” she asked.

Goth gritted her teeth. “The Egger route. And there’s not going to be anyone else to help me at the other end either.”

That could be nasty. Really nasty. But by the look on Goth’s face that wasn’t going to stop her for an instant.

“I think you’d better talk it over with Toll and Threbus first,” said Maleen. “And this may not be the perfect time.”

Goth took a deep breath. “I am not going to be able to sleep unless… isn’t this a paradox? Like, he must have survived or we wouldn’t have met him?”

Maleen bit her lip. “You’d think so. But all precog could give us was that somehow they avoided the time paradox.”

“Time is too complicated to play around with lightly,” said the voice of Goth’s Toll pattern, issuing from her lips. “Dimensionality comes into it.”


They went to find Threbus and Toll. And, not surprisingly found them in consultation with several of the senior precogs. “You know the prediction that it was important that you spent the next year with my grand nephew Pausert?” said her father. “We’ve got a little more clarity on that.”

“We’re trying to establish the precise dates right now,” said Toll. “But you will be leaving on the Venture with him, and then we think you’re going to have to jump to the past, via the Egger route.”

“I worked that out,” said Goth, gruffly. “Been talking to Maleen. But why can’t I just go now?”

“Because the flight schedules have been published and we are still trying to establish exactly when you have to go to, Goth. We have established you do… or did go back to Nikkeldepain. We have only one other insight, Goth. A lattice ship.”

The Leewit bounced. “Yay! I want to go too! I want go too! I love the circus!”

“Well, you can’t,” said Goth firmly. “I need you to keep an eye on the captain. Anyway, you’re the only one beside him that seems to be able to do anything with those little vatches.”

Threbus grunted. “We need them to clean out nannite-infected people. But the follow-up on that has been a bit chaotic. It seems that they only do things because they like Pausert. We don’t really have any way of motivating them.”

“Little-bit likes me too,” said the Leewit cheerfully. “I got used to her.”

As if the vatch had known she was being spoken about, the tiny fleck of blackness with the hint of silver eyes appeared, flickering around the room. Hello big ones. I have taken the others to watch a play. They like them nearly as much as I do.

Goth chuckled. “I guess you’ve got your motivation.”

Threbus nodded thoughtfully. “There are going to be a lot of traveling players visiting the outlying provinces of the Empire in the next while.”

“On an imperial cultural uplift programme,” said Toll smiling. “I’ll have some words with Dame Ethy and Sir Richard.”

“Should be pretty interesting with that sort of audience! They’d better not let the shows get stale or the little things will liven ’em up,” said Goth. “But it could work.”

Threbus nodded. “I like it. It gives us something the vatches want. The other issue with the nannites is that we’ve had the imperial scientists working non-stop on the material — dead material so far. They haven’t given us anything to use to combat the plague, other than a possible repellant. But they have said that they’re absolutely sure that the plague is an artificial creation. The nannites were engineered. Made. They were programmed to do what they did.”

There was a moment of silence. “That’s a pretty powerful enemy.”

Threbus nodded. “And one that has been around for a very long time. Working on records from the Sprites of Nartheby, the plague came from somewhere toward the galactic center. We, of course, probably weren’t the targets. But it could be that something in there knows that their plague has been defeated.”

“So they might be getting the next attack ready.”

Threbus rubbed his jaw. “It’s also, in a way, why humanity were able to expand off old Yarthe with such ease. We found so many habitable planets with traces of old alien civilizations on them, but no other existent aliens, except for the Sprites on Nartheby. But we have to face the possibility that the nannite plague might just have been the alien equivalent of a pest-exterminator, cleaning up before the new occupants got there. And the nannite problem won’t just go away. It’s with us for the foreseeable future. Even if we track down and destroy every nannite in the Empire, they could still be hidden away somewhere — inside or outside the Empire, in the smallest colony, and could burst out again. We’re going to have to be vigilant. And get people used to having Grik-dogs to smell out the nannite exudates being something they must have.”

“Well, at least I like Grik-dogs,” said Goth. “And I guess keeping an eye out for nannites will also mean that we’re ready for other problems.”

Threbus nodded. “We’re going to be stretched pretty thin though, for the next few years. We’ll have to keep Karres people undercover, scattered around. And Karres itself will probably keep a low profile. We will have to find ourselves a new sun to orbit, because the planet will be top of their target list.”

“I reckon,” said Goth. “And we like the old place.”