Chapter 21

The precogs had said Goth would stay here for six months. At the time that had seemed like a very long time to her. Now, as the end neared, it seemed very short.

And what difference would it make? She could stay a year. Three years. Long enough to see him into the Nikkeldepain Space Naval academy — before leaving him to become affianced to the insipid Illyla. Deep in her heart, Goth knew that there was no point in staying on, as much as she wanted to.

What had started off as something a young girl had said, without fully understanding its meaning, had become a lot more tangible as time passed. She’d said that she was going to marry Pausert when she was of marriageable age. She’d even toyed with age shifts. Over the last couple of years or so, as they battled the Agander, and then Moander and Manaret, and then the nannite menace, she’d gone from simply liking the captain to assuming he was hers. Still, the age difference had remained a barrier, making the whole thing seem rather abstract.

But now… having encountered Pausert when he was her own age, she’d found she had a real crush on the young man he’d once been. She’d come back in time and space to save the captain. Now she really did not want to leave.

And she knew she’d have to. Vala was part of his childhood memories. If she’d stuck around…

Yes, logic said she had to go. But just a few more days?

Then came the news that changed it all.

A jailbreak.

Nikkeldepain remained a poor place for crime on any major scale, partly because of the culture of the colony, and partly because it had a very useful moon. Kaba was the ideal place for removing people from Nikkeldepain society and serving as a reminder of what could happen to those who broke the law here.

A grim mining penitentiary, that no-one had ever escaped from… until now. The breakout had been stunning in its unexpectedness and more stunning in its violence. The guards had been captured, tortured into co-operation, and then murdered , along with the crew of the ore-freighter.

The escapees had landed at the spaceport and hijacked a small passenger vessel. They’d used the passengers as hostages and fled — and left more dead bodies in their wake. The somber announcer admitted that as they had fled into the beyond and been lost track of, there was little possibility of recapture.

The escapees were none other than the desperados captured by the brave Ziller during their raid on the Central Museum of Historical Nikkeldepain.

Goth decided that it was time she checked up on her old “friend” Franco.

She went light-shifted as a young woman of questionable virtue, with a bundle. Goth had been watching — with slightly more mature eyes — the people of Nikkeldepain. She looked like the sort of person that one could expect in this quarter, who might be accosted. But not with a bundle that looked like a baby.

When she knocked on Franco’s door, the bundle had somehow become something else. Possibly stolen. And she’d changed her expression to one of furtiveness.

No one answered.

She knocked again.

And again.

Someone from inside said: “Go away.”

Goth had learned — in order to do good light-shifts—to be very precise about remembering details.

That voice she remembered well. It was enough to make her nearly forget her current light-shift.

They hadn’t fled the system. They were right here! Mebeckey had just spoken to her.

Goth turned and left.

It took her a while to gather her thoughts, but her first action was to check on the well-being of Pausert. She found him, in the act of being spoken to on the street outside his home, by a woman in a small runaround. Some instinct made her slip into no-shape to listen in.

He was looking at a photo-cube of her. “Vala?” Goth knew young Pausert well by now. In some ways he hadn’t changed very much on growing up to become the captain, either. She could now detect the hesitation and slight change in tone when he ventured on those very rare lies. “I haven’t seen her for a while, since the end of term. I believe she was going off-world with her parents.”

“She has parents?” said the woman. Goth was almost certain it was Marshi. She had a peculiarly flat voice.

Pausert nodded. “I haven’t seen much of them. They run an import/export company.”

“Do you know its name?”

Pausert shook his head. “Nope. Don’t think she ever said.”

Goth waited, tense. If the woman gave any sign of wishing to harm Pausert…

“Thank you,” she said, mechanically, turning away.

“Sorry I couldn’t help,” said Pausert with equal insincerity.

The woman drove off.

Goth bit her lip, trying to decide what to do.

Pausert plainly had no such doubts. He was heading straight for her apartment. Goth ghosted along, making sure that he wasn’t being followed by anyone else.

He knocked, and when he got no reply, turned away, his forehead knotted in a worried puppy-frown. Goth decided that she couldn’t deal with his distress. She slipped in between two tall ornamental rechi trees and called him as he walked past.


“Keep walking. Just wanted to tell you I’m fine. Keep to the story of my having left.”

He hesitated briefly. And then determinedly kept walking. “I’ll help.”

“You already did. Really. I’ll see you later.”

He kicked a rechi cone, dribbled it around, like a bored teen. “What’s up?”

“Stuff my parents do.”

“I always wondered about that. But your mother seems nice. She’s sort of like you. But always busy.”

Goth wasn’t surprised at his assessment. But all she said was: “I’ll see you later.

He nodded and kicked the cone up the street. “Later.”

Goth followed him. There was no guarantee there was no spy-ray tracking him. There plainly wasn’t one tracking her, or they would have found her.

She followed him home. Then, at a brisk walk, she set off for the old quarter of Nikkeldepain. Time for pre-emptive action.