It didn’t take her long to get to Franco’s den. If she had to ‘port pieces of the door away…

But it wasn’t necessary. The door was just ajar, swinging gently. Goth went inside, up the stairs.

The room bore mute testimony to the fight that must have happened. Franco’s bodyguard had had his head severed neatly. It lay on a smoldering, tipped rack of used clothes, the eyes still wide and staring.

It took her a little while longer to find Franco. He was in the bath in the long unused bath in the bathroom. Unconscious, bleeding badly, and dying. They’d plainly tortured him, and he was lying in a pool of his own blood. She went back to the front room and used his communicator to call the emergency number. She gave the address and told them they needed the police and an ambulance flier.

Then she went back into the bathroom. The window was now bricked up, she noticed. That hadn’t helped him. Franco opened his eyes, screwed them up, trying to focus.

“Emergency services are on their way,” said Goth, keeping her voice and feelings firmly under control.

“I told them to lay off. I told them you had ‘nections,” Franco slurred. “She don’t care. Not interested in you… thought I mus’ have box, ’cause I said you’d been to see me. Illtraming…”

His eyes shut again, and his head lolled.

Goth wondered if the ambulance would be in time. And she wondered if the escaped prisoners had headed for Pausert. She decided that making sure of that was more important than any assistance she might give to Franco, or whatever more she might learn from him.

She’d pick up some stuff and camp out in Pausert’s loft.

When she got back to her apartment and saw the door swinging, she realized that it was not Pausert that was their target.

She went in. And realized that she’d been a little too quick. There was still someone inside, and they’d heard her.

Hastily, she light-shifted into the form of an elderly woman. “I’ve called the police,” she said sternly.

Marshi stepped out from the door she’d ducked behind. “Where is the girl, old woman?” she demanded, waving a blaster.

“They… they left,” quavered Goth. “A few days ago. Same day as that jailbreak.” At the same time Goth was trying something new. She’d split light-shifted images of herself before, leaving herself invisible between them. That was a trick she’d learned from the little vatch. Now she left a light-shifted image of herself standing in place, while she stepped aside in no-shape.

Just in time! Marshi shot the image. No warning, no compunction. Goth projected it crumpling, as soon as she realized what was happening.

She’d been caught by surprise, so there was a noticeable lag between the image being shot and starting to fall. And there was the additional awkwardness that the effect of the blaster on the wall behind the image made it obvious to anyone observing carefully that there’d been nothing in the way.

Fortunately, however, Marshi had looked away the moment she fired the gun. That casual indifference to the effect of her own murderous action underscored Marshi’s ruthlessness. But it was a ruthlessness so complete that it was also careless. Goth decided the woman wasn’t really even sane.

“We need to get out of here,” said Marshi. “She may actually have called the police.”

Mirkon came into them room. “Where now? That Pausert kid? His mother?”

Marshi shook her head. “No point. They plainly scampered when they heard about us. I suppose we could check flight manifests, but I think false papers would be easy enough for this kind of operator.”

“Or a unlisted flight. They happen, you know, if you’ve got the money.”

“I think that’s what we need to do ourselves. Get off-world, and use Mebeckey’s money to find this woman. We’ve got a picture, we have finger and retina prints, we have DNA. We’ll set up a search across every populated world if need be. Find her and we find the Illtraming.”

“You make it sound important. More than money.”

“More than life,” said Marshi in her flat voice. “Now move.”

They stepped over the light-shifted corpse, paying it no more attention than a carpet. Goth could only be glad that they hadn’t stepped on it, which they were certainly callous enough to have done. An illusion of solidity would not have survived that.

When they’d gone she went into her apartment to decide what to do next. They’d torn the place apart. Even the pillows had been slit.

Goth’s first reaction was fury. This was her place and her stuff!

Once that passed, though, she was almost amused at the pointlessness of the wreckage. Not even with fingerprints, retina prints, pictures and DNA were they going to find Vala. Karres was not going to be a place they’d search!

They hadn’t found her on Porlumma or Uldune, or Green Galaine. Or the imperial capital. But somewhere, ten years in the future, the trail had come to life again. They were searching for Vala, still, and their precious box. But that was tramping around the Galaxy, with Petey, Byrum and Keep. They wouldn’t still be looking for her if they’d found it.

Nikkeldepain was now too hot for them. The attack on Franco and the killing of his bodyguard, coming right on top of the jailbreak, would have the Nikkeldepain police in an uproar for some time to come. But it wasn’t likely they could get off the planet immediately, and in the meantime they’d surely be watching for Vala here. They’d be back.

Goth took a deep breath. It was time to go, as in her heart of hearts she’d known it was. But first she had to say good-bye to Pausert. And find some thick padding to wear on the Egger route.


His first reaction was: “Whatever’s going on, we’ll deal with it.” Goth came closer to understanding what Threbus had meant when he said that the community of Karres was a state of mind, not a state. Without meaning to, she hugged him. He looked a bit startled. He’d probably never been hugged by anyone apart from his mother before.

But he hugged her back. “No need to get upset,” he said, trying his fourteen-year old best to sound mature and like a real man.

“I’m not,” said Goth, her voice a little gruff and choked. “It’s dealt with. And you did the best thing ever, telling them I’d left. But it’s good to know you’d stand by me.”

He looked faintly surprised. “But you always stand by me.”

Goth nodded. That was easier than talking around the lump in her throat. They stood there, awkwardly, looking at each other. “You remember me, see,” Goth eventually said, wishing she had something more that she dared say. But he had hardly remembered her.

“Like anyone could ever forget you. Ever,” he said, trying to smile. “You’re really leaving, aren’t you?”

Goth nodded again, knowing that talking wasn’t going to happen. Not without her saying a great deal more than she should. Some of it about the insipid Illyla.

Then she could bear it no more. She wrapped her arms around him and kissed him. Hard. Then walked away without a glance backward. She knew if she looked back she’d be lost.

For once the Egger route was a welcome thing.