“They’re coming up fast, Captain.” said the Leewit quietly, leaning over his chair while Goth slept in the one next to him.

“I know. And I’m going to have to cut the throttle a bit. Look at the tell-tales. Tube seven, the one we repaired the stanchions for, is overheating. Must be the effects of the vibration. I’ll have to throttle down soon or she’ll blow. And to keep us running in a balanced fashion, I’ll need to cut the throttle on tube three by the same amount.”

“Could correct a bit with the laterals,” said the Leewit, showing that she’d absorbed a great deal in the time that her sister had been away.

“Yep.” The captains hands moved over the controls, adjusting throttles. “Means we can still keep the other seven at full thrust for a bit, but dodging rocks… well, it’s a recipe for disaster.”

The Leewit grinned. “Disasters are what we deal with best on the Venture . We going to Sheewash again?”

Pausert shook his head. “If we can get into the gravity well of that fourth planet from that greenish star before they get close enough we can rest up a bit. With all three of us doing it, we can try. Dodging debris while doing the Sheewash is even harder. But we’re just four light-days from the edge of Uldune’s space sphere of influence. I’ll be pretty glad to see it.”

“Yeah. Turn this lot of spooks into a Sedmon of the Six Lives problem,” said the Leewit. “They just keep right on coming, Captain. I hit the one ship pretty hard. It’s almost as if they don’t care.”

“They’re keeping a greater distance though. So something must have got them a bit wiser.”

“Uh huh. But give me targets that I just have to aim for and hit. Not things where it doesn’t matter most of the time. ”

Pausert smiled to himself. The Leewit was very glad to have her older sister back, to hand over responsibility again. But listening to her, Pausert wondered if she realized that it had been a one-way street that she’d walked down. She could never go back to being quite the little hooligan that she’d been before. She still looked the complete blond urchin, of course.


They reached the upper edge of the gravitational tug of the mass of the greenish-white world below, and Pausert was happy to discover that his gambler’s instinct had been right. The Phantom ships which had been steadily gaining on them began to drop back as they got closer to planet. It must be a gloomy place, Pausert thought. It had a good eighty-five percent cloud-cover. The clouds of course reflected the light of the local sun, giving their white tops a greenish tinge.

Goth stirred in her chair, possibly the change in note from the Venture ‘s tubes getting through to her. “Boy, I could murder some breakfast,” she said, stretching. “What’s up Captain? Where are those… Melchin… Illtraming ships? That is weird you know. The guys I was protecting you from back on Nikkeldepain — did you ever guess you nearly got kidnapped? They ended up taking me as bait for you. They’d been to search the old Venture 7333. She’s been this way before, you know. ”

Pausert nodded. “I found star-maps. That’s how we ended up stopping on the world we picked Mebeckey up at. They indicated that the ship had made a safe landing there. Right now we’re hanging just inside the stratosphere of one of the worlds in this cluster. The Phantoms don’t like gravity. We can rest and recuperate a little before we need use the Sheewash drive to get out of here again.”

“Had. Yeah. I reckon that place you stopped at… that must be where Threbus picked up the Illtraming map they were so busy looking for. It was inside your home. With the other bric-a-brac Threbus left behind there.”

“Lucky we didn’t sell it. We were pretty hard up when you arrived on Nikkeldepain.”

Goth smiled. “And all because Threbus chose to fake his death and disappearance from the same part of space where your father also happened to go missing. A co-incidence, but it made life pretty tough for you. I must say I’m sorry on my father’s behalf. I’d like to have told you then. But I couldn’t, of course.”

“I bet whoever tried to kidnap you regretted it,” said Pausert. “I only wish I’d known. Back then I would have thought it was enormous fun.”

“They were a tough bunch of crooks,” said Goth. “And they’re still out there if the information I’ve got is correct.”

An alarm sounded from the detectors.

Pausert looked at his screens. “We’re under attack!” he yelped, hitting the throttles.

Goth strapped herself in again. “Leewit. Strap in! I thought you said the Phantoms wouldn’t come this close to a gravity well, Captain.”

“This is not the Phantoms,” said Pausert, putting the ship into a steep dive. “The attack’s coming from below!”

The Leewit had stood down from her guns. The captain flicked control of them to Goth, moving the firing relays to her board. Below, rising rapidly out of the greenish clouds were two atmospheric craft. There was something vaguely insectlike to the design.

“Fire at will,” said the captain, banking sharply. “I’m sorry, Goth. I think we just came for a lovely rest in the Megair Cannibals back yard.”

Red balls of fire leapt toward them.

Goth and Vezzarn answered fire, and the captain flung the Venture toward the clouds, looking to use the gravity to add to the ship’s thrust.

More atmospheric craft came boiling their way out of the clouds like a seethe of roaches.

“Going to have to go Sheewa…”

Something hit the Venture with a terrible bang, and the old pirate-chaser spun out of control, hurtling downwards, no thrust coming out of her stern tubes at all. Pausert fought for control as they plunged down through the cloud. He tried, desperately, for re-ignition in the tubes. Nothing. He hit the laterals, and was rewarded by a burst of power from them. The winds tore and buffeted at the ship, as the captain tried vainly to slow her descent. But he just didn’t have enough power.

Inside the control room there was a storm of debris blowing about, and a white mist of icy air. Hull integrity must be damaged. A good thing they were losing altitude — a bad thing that they were losing it so fast.

“Vezzarn here, Captain,” said the old spacer over the intercom. “I’ve managed to get to the engine room captain. The main interfacer unit has blown, sir!”

“Get strapped in, Vezzarn. This is going to be a rough landing.” Pausert began hastily re-routing control through to the test firing circuits. Testing wasn’t run through the main interface system. It was also not meant to be run in more than ten second bursts. He was going to have to set the Venture down, manually firing her tubes in ten second sequential bursts. If he could slow down their descent enough, he could set the Venture down on her laterals.

That was going to take all his skill as a pilot to do it.

It didn’t help that someone was shooting at them at the same time.