Chapter 23

The ground was coming up entirely too fast. Goth saw how, face impassive, intent with concentration, Captain Pausert fired the main tubes in a sequential burst sending the Venture corkscrewing but slowing. Their plunge to the grey-green vegetation slowed. The Venture swung over onto her side, and the captain fired the laterals on full thrust.

With a rush of cracking, and hissing, the Venture 7333 settled onto the trees, and then lurched and fell. The captain fired the laterals again and the Venture came to a final rest on the surface with little more than a dull thump.

“We’re down,” said Pausert with relief. They were certainly neck deep in trouble, but at least they were down. That in itself was a huge weight off his shoulders.

“Neat flying, Captain,” said Goth. Other congratulations came in over the intercom, from the Leewit, Vezzarn, and in a shaky voice from Mebeckey.

Pausert un-clipped from his webbing. “Touch and go, at times. I better go and see if we’ve got spare parts for the drive sequencer, or if I can rig some kind of manual over-ride. And we need to find out where the hull integrity is breached. We’re not leaving here, Sheewash or no, without fixing that. With luck it is something we can weld a patch onto.”

Goth got up and followed him. “The locals might not be to pleased to see us. After that reception they seem more likely to go after us with a space-gun than offer us the use of their ship-yards.”

He nodded. “We’ll just have to deal with them as they arrive. Do you think we can do anything with a light-shift? The little I saw of the local landscape, it didn’t seem like the most populated of places.”

“Looked like a cross between a forest and a swamp. With the worst parts of both,” said Goth. “I’ll check it out. ”

“They can probably find us with an instrument-search,” said Pausert. “The hull-metal must be pretty hot. And then there is radiation off our tubes. But let’s not make it easy for them.”

“They sure didn’t seem too friendly.”

“No,” said Pausert. “I think we may have jumped out of the deep-space frying-pan, and into the planetary fire. I think — looking at the design of those ships — this world might be the base of our old enemies, the Megair Cannibals.”

Goth whistled. “Just the perfect place to crash-land, huh? Okay, you see if you can get anywhere with the sequencer. I’ll stay here. Check out the screens to see what sort of lightshift I need to do, and I’ll test the atmosphere. We’re still alive breathing it, but who knows whether we’ll be able to go on doing that indefinitely.

“Good thinking. Keep the Leewit on the nova guns — she’s uncannily good — and get Vezzarn and Mebeckey looking for breaches in hull integrity.” He squeezed her shoulder. “I can’t tell you how good it is to have you back, even if we’re straight into a deeper mess.”

Goth found herself smiling, despite the disaster. “We’re alive, Captain. And we have three witches of Karres. What’s a mere Cannibal’s planet to that?”


Pausert made his way down to the engine-room, trying not to get too upset by the mess that the conflict had made of the Venture . It could be repaired, if they got out of here. Not if. When, he said determinedly to himself.

Big dream thing, said the littlest vatch, life around you is fun. More exciting even than the dreamplays.

“Hello. I didn’t know you were still with us,” said Pausert with a sort of calm resignation. After all, a bit of little-vatch mischief was fairly harmless compared to the situation they were in. It could make things worse, of course. But it might also help. There was nothing to be gained by getting upset with it.

Been here and gone. I talk to the Leewit. Learning quite a lot about you, big dream thing.

Via the Leewit that could be a mixed blessing, thought Pausert. But all he asked was: “There are no big vatches around, are there?” One of those could take them out of here easily enough, once Pausert got klatha hooks into it.

There came a tinkle of vatchy laughter. Big ones near you? I don’t think so! They know your mind’s taste by now. Not going to come close. Different for us little ones.

“Pity. Oh well, I’ll have to try and fix the engines and the hull then. Fight our way out, if we have to.”

This seemed to amuse the vatchlet. Never dull around you, big dream thing, it said, and vanished.

Pausert was left alone to squeeze into the crawlspace behind the electronics banks of the main sequencer. The air stank of burning, back here. The captain sighed. He let klatha-energy guide his hands towards which modules to pull. Three of them were almost totally fried, and hard to get out of their sockets. Even with the little long-necked atomic lamp the captain found he couldn’t see well enough to read the module numbers in there. Besides, he’d have to get them from the stores — if they had them at all. You couldn’t carry everything, and sequencers — the link between the spacedrive and the tubes — didn’t often go wrong. The captain was worried. It was a long way to the nearest human space-port and spare-parts shop.

With two of the three they were lucky. They were standard T-071 units, processors the ship used in half a dozen places. The third…

Pausert stifled a curse. The third was a multiplier link, and he knew already that they didn’t have one. The things were virtually indestructible bits of solid state hardware. This one was probably as old as the ship itself. It would have survived almost anything except a solid — and obviously white hot — fragment of Megair shell. That must have been what caused the hole in the hull-metal. He was standing there, biting his lip, trying to think if he’d ever read how you could do without a multiplier link. It was such a little thing, barely the size of a book — and without it, the ship was helpless.

Vezzarn coughed. “Found the hole, skipper. Punched straight through the outer hull, into the hold, into the sequencer housing. Dunno what it hit in there or if it kept going.”

“It stopped here.” Pausert showed him.

“That’s the multiplier link, eh?”

“Yes. That’s what it is. And no, we don’t have a spare. And, no, I don’t think it is fixable. The ship is stuck here, unless they find us.”

“The Cannibals or the Wisdoms?”

“Now there is the question! I don’t know.”

But Pausert’s mind was already working on the idea of taking the Venture down the Egger route, away from here — no matter how the other two felt about the Egger route.

The intercom squawked into life. “Captain. We got visitors.”

“Get patching, Vezzarn. If we can patch it quick enough we can get the ship out of here.” Pausert made haste back to the Control room. Goth had the external screens on. The view outside was a bubbling swamp, with the mud plainly at half viewscreen level. The Venture lay next to some tall lobate trees of a peculiarly virulent shade of maroon — but that could just be the light. Between the cloud — which here was more like a swirling mist, and the faint light of the green sun, this was not a very attractive piece of real estate. Goth pointed to the upper screens. “Some kind of flier, Captain. I’ve light-shifted us but they’re keeping station.”

It was. With its two clumsy whirling rotors and spikes that could only be some kind of weaponry it was making a slow circle, cutting swathes through the mist. “Want me to bring it down, Captain?” said the Leewit.

“Um. Just before we do too much…” said Goth. “The mud on the screens is rising. Or, to it another way, the Venture is sinking. Fast.”

As Pausert looked out of the viewscreen, a lanky gray-skinned being stepped into sight, and then slipped behind one of the lobular trees. The creature held what was plainly some sort of weapon. It looked like it fired the cruelly barbed harpoon that protruded from the barrel. Worse still, it had had been talking into a communicator.