“Forward nova gun turret manned and ready for action,” said the Leewit over the intercom.

Pausert clicked the bridge manual firing relays off. “You have fire control, forward turret,” he said formally. “Stern turret?”

“Stern turret ready too, Captain,” said Vezzarn over the other channel. “Let’s go get them. Only I hope we aren’t going to fly so wild this time, Captain. It was all I could do not to lose my lunch, let alone keep shooting.”

“We’ll try a steep dive toward that star cluster there. The colorful one on the starboard bow. We’re going try and skim the gravity well of white dwarf on…”

“Captain,” interrupted Goth. “Do you recognize that star cluster?”

There was something familiar about it, about the reddish-brown dust haze of space debris and dust that hung about it, in the blackness of space. “I should,” said Pausert. “I know I should. What is it, Goth?”

“I reckon it’s the Megair cluster, Captain. From the other side.”

Pausert looked again and nodded. “You’re right. That’s what…? About four ship days from Uldune controlled space, at normal cruising speed. I figure. I didn’t realize we were this close to being on the far side of the Chaladoor.”

“It’s also a pretty bad neighborhood, Captain.”

“We don’t have a lot of choices, Goth.”

“Guess not.” She started assembling the wires as the Phantom ships edged closer. “I’ve seen those ship somewhere before. Weird shape they’ve got.”

“Mebeckey said they were Melchin. Or maybe even Illtraming.”

Goth paused in her laying out of the lattice of black wires. “Illtraming! That’s what Marshi and her crew of thugs were looking for. The Illtraming map. And she said finding the Illtraming was more important than life.”

Pausert tugged his chin. “There has to be a tie-in somewhere.”

“They’re closing on us, Captain,” said the Leewit. “Nearly in firing range. And two more bandits coming in from twelve o’clock.”

“Time to Sheewash,” said Goth firmly. She reached out and took his hand. The wires rose and twined like snakes forming a truncated cone. A ball of incandescent orange fire sparked into existence above it, roiling with wild energies. The Venture leapt like a stag and the starscape blurred. Distantly, the captain was aware of the nova guns with their shivering blue fire sheet-lightning. There was a burst of retina-searing amber incandescence to the portside. Chatter from the radiation meters.

“Got that torpedo a bit late, Captain,” said Vezzarn apologetically.

“Keep firing!” yelled the Leewit.

The ridged spiky hull of the Phantom alien ship was very close in the viewscreens, with them driving a straight line towards it, alive with the electromagnetic dance of the nova gun lightnings. Goth seemed to twitch them over at the last moment, sending them diving in an escape curve toward the Megair Cluster, where the stars loomed out of the debris.

Debris at this speed would be hard to dodge. But then they were among them, jinking… and the Sheewash pattern wires collapsed. “Can’t do it too long, Captain. Tired after the Egger route,” said Goth.


She looked exhausted. Pausert still could not get over the fact that he’d never realized that Goth had looked like Vala. One just didn’t see what one didn’t expect to see. Abstractly, he understood what had happened. When he’d first met Goth, she’d been only ten years old. Very intelligent, precocious — sometimes even disturbingly so — but also clearly still a child.

Vala and the Goth of today, on the other hand…

Uncomfortably, Pausert finally accepted something he’d been almost studiously ignoring for months now. More than three years had passed since he met Goth and she was well into puberty by now. Her figure was still girlishly lean, but there was no longer any way she could possibly be mistaken, even at a distance, for a boy.

Neither could Vala — and, for the Pausert of the time, a fourteen-year-old boy who was himself undergoing puberty, that had made for a very different emotional introduction. Years had passed, and the memory of what Vala had actually looked like had gotten fuzzy. Between that, and the red hair, and most of all meeting the two girls on either side of puberty, he could understand why he’d never spotted the identity. As Goth had changed, in the years she’d been with him, he hadn’t seen her growing resemblance to Vala. She’d just been Goth… growing up.

And grown up a lot more than he’d realized! The kiss that Vala had given him as she left was something he’d never forgotten. Now, it came with a real jolt to realize that for Goth — today’s Goth — that kiss had happened just yesterday.

He wondered for a moment if their looks had had anything to do with that fateful decision so long ago now, back on Porlumma, when he’d rescued the witches of Karres. Being fair to himself, though,. probably not. He didn’t like to see anyone abused. Anyway, he’d already rescued Maleen and the Leewit before he’d even set eyes on Goth.

Not long after he’d met Goth, she’d announced her intention to marry him once she reached marriageable age — which was sixteen, for the people of Karres. Pausert hadn’t taken the whole thing seriously, of course. At the time, the difference between ten years of age and sixteen had seemed enormous. But it came with another jolt to realize that more than half that time had already elapsed.

And Goth still seemed as determined as ever.

As for Pausert… He really hadn’t ever been able to forget that kiss.

He wasn’t ready to deal with this. It was almost with relief that he forced his mind aside to deal with the perilous situation of the moment.

“Not too safe here anyway,” he said, untwining his fingers from hers and taking control of the ship. The Sheewash drive was plainly not a “drive,” so much as some kind of sequence of tiny jumps thought space-time, because it left the Venture far ahead of the pack of Phantom ships, but also with no extra velocity. The captain pushed his throttles forward, causing the Venture to increasingly shake and sway because of the roughly aligned repaired tube.

“She doesn’t feel so good, Captain,” said Goth. “You think we got hit back there?”

“No, we had a run in with a space rock earlier. Broke a tube-bracket. We did a repair-job on the cinder-block world we found Mebeckey on. The alignment’s not perfect, I’m afraid. I just hope it’s a good enough weld.”

Goth cracked an enormous yawn. “Sorry. It’s been a very long full day for me. Back on Nikkeldepain and here.”

“Sleep a bit. I’ll call if I need you,” said the captain, keeping a wary eye on a cloud of shattered rocks that was showing on one of the screens. The dust in the system made guiding the ship even more difficult, hanging in drifting curtains obscuring both the view and the instrument detection. On the positive, the same factors should make it a good place to hide and evade pursuit — which was probably why the Megair Cannibals used this system themselves.

Then Pausert looked at the rear-screens and realized how wrong he was. He had to dodge space debris — but Phantom ships appeared to go straight through them. And whereas the Venture been dealing with twelve in the englobement, there were more of them now. Far more.

At the same time, he noticed that they did appear to avoid the really, really big rocks — anything with enough mass to have a gravity field worth mentioning. He got that gambler’s feeling, the prickle on the back of his neck, that he’d come to realize was a klatha sense too. This was valuable information for Karres. The intangible Phantoms didn’t take to gravity. That was why they’d avoided worlds. Some kind of gravity tractor would make a weapon against them.

Goth gave a quiet little snuffly snore from the control chair next to him. “The Leewit,” he said quietly into the intercom. “Can you bring Goth a blanket? I think you can stand down from the guns. I’ve got to keep a look-out for obstacles.”

“Sure thing, Captain. I got a couple more. You got to anticipate them,” said the Leewit, gleefully. “I’m glad to have Goth back. It was hard being told I had to be responsible for you on my own.”

Which, Pausert was ready to bet, was exactly what Goth had told her to be. That explained the un-Leewit-like behavior. He smiled to himself. It was a question of perspective, he supposed. He’d had the delusion that he was the one being responsible for them. Oh well, it worked both ways. He concentrated instead on the crowded region of space ahead. A couple of light-hours away was a reasonable sized world with a slew of moons and a series of rings. If the Phantoms didn’t like gravity, that would be a good place to hide up and rest. He really didn’t want to push the Venture to far on that slightly misaligned tube. The vibration would probably shake loose something else, let alone break his weld.