Chapter 11

Vezzarn shook his head. “They’re not using normal space-drives to chase us, Captain.”

Pausert looked at the instruments. “They’re not normal space-craft, Vezzarn. I’ve been searching the records and I’ve yet to find any known ship that looks quite like them in the galactic ship-registry. I was hoping for some kind of clue on how to deal with them. I haven’t found anything quite like them.” That was disturbing in itself. The registry went all the way back to fabled Yarth, and had almost every ship ever to pass through human space recorded in it. Names changed. But basic ship configurations stayed the same. These ones were just not there.

Hello, big dream thing, said the tinkling vatch-voice in his head. This is a strange place this.

Little silver-eyes was back. As if his life wasn’t complicated enough already. Still, he’d wondered quite where the vatchlets had got to. “Been busy?” he asked conversationally. “I haven’t seen you for a while.”

While? Oh yes. The linear time thing. I don’t really understand that, big dream thing. Why are you here? This is a very funny place in space-time. Full of cracks. And things.

“What sort of things, Little-bit?” he asked.

Half not here-things, half other things and half dreamthings.

“That’s a half too many,” said Pausert.

Not here it isn’t.

On that mysterious statement, the little whirling bit of blackness vanished. Seconds later the intercom chirped. “Little-bit’s back, Captain.”

The Leewit actually sounded very pleased. It occurred to Pausert that the littlest witch might have been a bit lonely without a partner in mischief or even a sister as a companion. Well, the Venture had survived Vatch-visitations before. Maybe he could get Little-bit to lure a big one down on them, then he could get his vatch-handler hooks into it, and get it to take them away from a bit of space that was ‘full of cracks. And things.’

Pausert knew Vatches well enough to know that if the silver-eyed vatch hadn’t told him more than “things,” then his vocabulary didn’t have the words to comprehend what it was talking about. It was a young one, and as far as he could establish, still learning. Anyway, as far as Vatches were concerned this was an odd illusionary dream-universe anyway. Their universe was bigger and more complicated. Pausert was glad he merely had to cope with his own universe. He just wished he knew exactly how to do so.

He went back to his instruments, to study the records of their encounters with the Phantom ships. There had to be clue somewhere. A way out of this situation.

There was. Just how they could use it was another matter. The Phantom ships had become something which had mass for a brief instant, as they’d fired those torpedoes, the instruments showed. So: if he could anticipate the launch of the torpedoes, there was a fraction of a second in which they could be hit. And the Phantom ships kept well clear of the gravity wells of stars and planets. In extremis the Venture could land on one and wait them out. Of course that assumed that any planet in the Chaladoor was itself a safe refuge. It was probable that — in these parts — they weren’t.

Pausert began to strategize. He wished, for the many-th time, that Goth would come back from this mysterious mission of hers. He was beginning to toy with the possibilities of the Egger route. But he couldn’t do that on his own, let alone take the ship down the mysterious spaces between continua. And of course the Leewit would resist the very idea. She hated the Egger route, and probably couldn’t manage it, not taking the ship along as well.

The Egger Route was traumatic, but Pausert was sure it didn’t have to be. There had to be a pattern change in using the klatha force that would make it better. After last time, however, he was reluctant to experiment while there were others around. His talents were still quite unpredictable.

On the other hand, he was usually a lucky gambler. So he took a gamble on a new course. Something — it felt like a prickle at the back of his scalp — made him go the hold and take out the map-boxes from the ship’s old exploring days. She’d probably never been near the Chaladoor. But Pausert set the new recognizer-unit they’d bought the imperial Capital to work on the stack of maps, comparing them to the stars visible outside. The Venture had been in space a long time — several hundred years, and you never knew.

The machine found a map of the area of space just to the celestial north. But it wasn’t from that long ago, a mere thirty years back. That was odd. The captain didn’t know that the Venture had been in this part of space. But Threbus had used her for a number of his earlier expeditions.

Pausert set the Venture on a vector to intersect that previously surveyed track. The Chaladoor was not a safe, constant piece of space. Everyone knew that. Things moved. The bulk of it was uncharted, and even charts were not too reliable. But it was also a lot safer to follow some sort of previously charted course. That was what they had been doing earlier before being forced astray.