Chapter 22

Pausert watched the screens trying to figure out the best possible next move.

The Phantom ships were definitely heading towards an englobement formation and seemed to be able to use their here/not-here nature to counter the speed advantage of the Sheewash drive. He was going to have to try something. The fact that they’d actually succeeded in hitting the Phantoms seemed to have made them even more determined to catch and destroy the Venture.

And then there was a distant droning sound. Pausert heaved a vast sigh of relief. That would be the Karres witches, thrumming down the Egger route, to the rescue. The bait had drawn the Phantom ships which had, in turn, called Karres to his aid. The staccato humming came ever closer, the heavy sound filling his head, covering vast distances at incredible speed. Pausert went to fetch as many blankets as the Venture had in her store.

Perhaps they could tell him just where Goth had got to. She was supposed — by their own precogs — to spend at least a year in his company. She’d certainly not been in it for the last few weeks.

And then it stopped… and there in the middle of the floor was Goth. Goth bundled up in a turban, a hooded jacket and about four layers of clothing. Eyes unfocussed she turned over, onto her knees. Pausert knowing what was coming, hastily wrapped her up. Plainly the Leewit had been roused from sleep by the klatha sounds and came and helped him with rolling Goth up like a mummy. Mebeckey came in while they were busy, and exclaimed in puzzlement. “What’s up?”

“Later,” said the captain. Goth began to twitch. And jerk. And vibrate like a tuning fork. It took all the captain’s strength to hold her still. By the sounds of it she was grinding her teeth, and making small angry jungle cat noises. Well, at least she didn’t screech like the Leewit did!

The shuddering slowed and the captain began unwinding. “Hurry up.” said Goth. “Hot in here. I’m wearing too many layers of clothes.”

They de-cocooned her, and a smiling Goth sat up. She hugged the captain and Leewit together. “Kept the ship in one piece without me, I see.”

She peeled off the hooded jacket. Then pulled off a towel-turban in a scatter of ringlets of wavy red hair.

Pausert looked at her, with his mouth open.

“What’s up, Captain?” asked Goth quizzically. “You’re looking at me like I suddenly grew another head.”

He took a deep breath. “You did. Or at least another head of hair, Goth. Or should I say… Vala?”

“Wondered just how I was going to explain that to you.”

“You might have told me.”

“I only found out myself just before I left.”

“I meant back then. I tried very hard to make contact with you again, but I couldn’t find any trace of you or your parents. I was hoping you might write to me or something.”

“I suppose I could have made a plan. But then you might not have got involved with that wet fish Illyla,” said Goth, tartly. “I need to eat.”

She looked at Mebeckey, standing nervously in the doorway. “Hello. Who is he?” she asked.

“A xeno-archeologist that got marooned out here,” said the Leewit. “We rescued him from some wreck of a planet. Says his name is Mebeckey.” .

Goth stopped and put her hands on her hips. “Can’t be. He’s got the wrong face shape, even without the few face-hairs. And he’s quite a lot shorter.”

“What?” said Pausert warily.

Goth cocked her head on one side and jerked a thumb at the castaway. “Mebeckey. I don’t know who this old guy is but he’s not Mebeckey the archeologist. Mebeckey the archaeologist was the fellow who tried to kill you, back on Nikkeldepain. He was part of the crowd that kidnapped me, too. Although Franco says they were all under Marshi’s control.”

“Marshi?” said the castaway archeologist incredulously. “Is the monster woman still alive?”

“I reckon it’s probable,” said Goth. “What color was her hair?”


“Not the same woman, then. This one is as bald as an onion.” Goth took a mug of cone-seed coffee from the Leewit, who had plainly been programming the robo-butler in preparation while the captain had been hauling blankets. “Got to have food too, Leewit. I don’t think too much of the food back on Nikkeldepain, Captain.”

Pausert grinned. “You used to drink enough of that caram juice though. Great Patham. Some of those incidents make sense now. Klatha tricks! I haven’t thought about them for years!” He shook his head. “I can’t say how glad I am to see you, Goth. I had quite a crush on you back then.”


Goth was having enough problems with her own feelings right at the moment. She was delighted to see the captain again, and delighted to see Pausert also — and trying to merge the two people into one. It wasn’t easy. She wished that the Leewit and this arbitrary stranger — who wasn’t Mebeckey, whoever he thought he was pretending to be — would just go away and leave them to talk privately for a bit. “You did, huh?”

“It’s very strange. You’re Vala… But I’ll swear you’ve shrunk. Yet for Goth you’ve grown.”

“Grown, I reckon,” said Goth, swallowing a mouthful of seed-cake. “Both of us. You were petty short, back then. Now, what’s the problem, Captain?”

“We’re being followed by some vessels. Phantom ships. They’re trying for an englobement,” said the Leewit. “I inflicted some damage on two and the captain…” She glanced at Mebeckey. “He did some real hot-shot flying. But they’ve caught up with us again. Weird ships.”

“Yeah? Well I reckon you’d better have everyone strap in. Because we’re going to do some more.” said Goth. “Including you, mister whatever-your-name-really-is. Scram.”

But the new supercargo did not move. “This person you call ‘Mebeckey’. Was he a tall man with a hooked nose and white, spiky hair? A little goatee beard?”

“Pretty much, yes. Except no hair to speak of. The beard’s a few wisps. Like you.”

The man sighed. “That’s my former first mate, Cobaj. He must have taken on my identity. How did you meet him? And how did you get here?”

“Enough questions,” said Pausert. “Get to your stateroom and strap in. The Leewit, wake Vezzarn. We’ll see if we can break out of this before they take action. Man those guns. Fire on my command!”

“Yes, sir!” said the Leewit, happily. “Get on with it, Mebeckey,” she said, pushing him down the passage. “There’ll be time to answer questions later.”

The captain smiled at Goth, almost shyly. “Not having you around here for a while has made me appreciate just how badly I need you.”

“It worked both ways, Captain,” said Goth. She was feeling a little shy herself. Not often that happened, huh!

They went to the chairs on the bridge and strapped in. “Didn’t the Leewit take care of stuff?”

“She’s been better than good. To the extent that I was quite worried about her,” said the captain. “Even bathing by herself. Helping with everything. Working hard on the astrogation math. But… I missed you, that was all. And even with the Sheewash drive we haven’t been able to shake these ships. They’re… well, at lest most of the time they have no apparent mass. You can shoot them and it has no effect.”

“But the Leewit got two?” asked Goth, smiling inwardly at him missing her.

Pausert nodded. “Just as they launch their missiles they become objects of mass. She had to time her firing right. They’ve kept at greater range since then. But they’re following in greater numbers. And it seems like they’re going try a classic englobement. Those torpedoes of theirs are slow, but the warheads are pretty bad news. And if they’re all around us, we will get a radiation soaking that the hull metal can’t keep out, even if the Leewit shoots them well before impact. We may have to try the Egger route with the whole ship…”

Goth shuddered. “It’s a bit soon after the last time for me. Not good for the body, you know. Maybe if we worked the Sheewash together — all three of us?”

“Maybe if you explained how I’m supposed to do vectors in the Sheewash. I was all over the place on my own. Whizzing and bouncing about like a piece of popping corn in a closed pot. I must have wasted light-minutes of power.”

Oddly, under the circumstances, Goth felt gleeful all of a sudden. All her unease at being back with the captain after six months with his younger self had vanished. They were a team. She just understood him better, now.