Authors: James H. Schmitz
Tags: #Science fiction, #space opera
IT WAS AROUND the hub of the evening on the planet of Porlumma when Captain Pausert, commercial traveler from the Republic of Nikkeldepain, met the first of the witches of Karres.
It was just plain fate, so far as he could see.
He was feeling pretty good as he left a high-priced bar on a cobbled street near the spaceport, with the intention of returning straight to his ship. There hadn't been an argument, exactly. But someone had grinned broadly, as usual, when the captain pronounced the name of his native system; and the captain had pointed out then, with considerable wit, how much more ridiculous it was to call a planet Porlumma, for instance, than to call it Nikkeldepain.
He then proceeded to collect an increasing number of pained stares as he continued with a detailed comparison of the varied, interesting, and occasionally brilliant role Nikkeldepain had played in history with Porlumma's obviously dull and dumpy status as a sixth-rate Empire outpost.
In conclusion, he admitted frankly that he wouldn't care to be found dead on Porlumma.
Somebody muttered loudly in Imperial Universum that in that case it might be better if he didn't hang around Porlumma too long. But the captain only smiled politely, paid for his two drinks, and left.
There was no point in getting into a rhubarb on one of these border planets. Their citizens still had an innocent notion that they ought to act like frontiersmen but then the Law always showed up at once.
Yes, he felt pretty good. Up to the last four months of his young life, he had never looked on himself as being particularly patriotic. But compared to most of the Empire's worlds, Nikkeldepain was downright attractive in its stuffy way. Besides, he was returning there solvent, would they ever be surprised!
And awaiting him, fondly and eagerly, was Illyla, the Miss Onswud, fair daughter of the mighty Councilor Onswud, and the captain's secretly betrothed for almost a year. She alone had believed in him...
The captain smiled and checked at a dark cross street to get his bearings on the spaceport beacon. Less than half a mile away... He set off again. In about six hours he'd be beyond the Empire's space borders and headed straight for Illyla.
Yes, she alone had believed! After the prompt collapse of the captain's first commercial venture, a miffel-fur farm, largely on capital borrowed from Councilor Onswud, the future had looked very black. It had even included a probable ten-year stretch of penal servitude for "willful and negligent abuse of entrusted monies." The laws of Nikkeldepain were rough on debtors.
"But you've always been looking for someone to take out the old Venture and get her back into trade!" Illyla reminded her father tearfully.
"Umm, yes! But it's in the blood, my dear! His great-uncle Threbus went the same way! It would be far better to let the law take its course," said Councilor Onswud, glaring at Pausert who remained sulkily silent. He had tried to explain that the mysterious epidemic which suddenly wiped out most of the stock of miffels wasn't his fault. In fact, he more than suspected the tricky hand of young Councilor Rapport who had been wagging futilely around Illyla for the last couple of years...
"The Venture, now...!" Councilor Onswud mused, stroking his long, craggy chin. "Pausert can handle a ship, at least," he admitted.
That was how it happened. Were they ever going to be surprised! For even the captain realized that Councilor Onswud was unloading all the dead fish that had gathered the dust of his warehouses for the past fifty years on him and the Venture, in a last, faint hope of getting some return on those half-forgotten investments. A value of eighty-two thousand maels was placed on the cargo; but if he'd brought even three-quarters of it back in cash, all would have been well.
Instead, well, it started with that lucky bet on a legal point with an Imperial official at the Imperial capital itself. Then came a six-hour race fairly won against a small, fast private yacht; the old Venture 7333 had been a pirate-chaser in the last century and still could produce twice the speed her looks suggested. From then on the captain was socially accepted as a sporting man and was in on a long string of jovial parties and meets.
Jovial and profitable, the wealthier Imperials just couldn't resist a gamble, and the penalty the captain always insisted on was that they had to buy.
He got rid of the stuff right and left. Inside of twelve weeks, nothing remained of the original cargo except two score bundles of expensively-built but useless tinklewood fishing rods, one dozen gross bales of useful but unattractive all-weather cloaks, and a case of sophisticated educational toys which showed a disconcerting tendency to explode when jarred or dropped. Even on a bet, nobody would take those three items. But the captain had a strong hunch they had been hopefully added to the cargo from his own stocks by Councilor Rapport; so his failure to sell them didn't break his heart.
He was a neat twenty per cent net ahead, at that point…
And finally came this last-minute rush delivery of medical supplies to Porlumma on the return route. That haul alone would repay the miffel farm losses three times over!
The captain grinned broadly into the darkness. Yes, they'd be surprised, ... but just where was he now?
He checked again in the narrow street, searching for the port beacon in the sky. There it was, off to his left and a little behind him. He'd gotten turned around somehow.
He set off carefully down an excessively dark little alley. It was one of those towns where everybody locked their front doors at night and retired to lit-up enclosed courtyards at the backs of their houses. There were voices and the rattling of dishes nearby and occasional whoops of laughter and singing all around him; but it was all beyond high walls which let little or no light into the alley.
It ended abruptly in a cross-alley and another wall. After a moment's debate the captain turned to the left again. Light spilled out on his new route a hundred yards ahead where a courtyard was opened on the alley. From it, as he approached, came the sound of doors being violently slammed and then a sudden loud mingling of voices.
"Yeee-eep!" shrilled a high, childish voice. It could have been mortal agony, terror, or even hysterical laughter. The captain broke into an apprehensive trot.
"Yes, I see you up there!" a man shouted excitedly in Universum. "I caught you now; you get down from those boxes! I'll skin you alive! Fifty-two customers sick of the stomachache… YOW!"
The last exclamation was accompanied by a sound as of a small, loosely built wooden house collapsing, and was followed by a succession of squeals and an angry bellowing, in which the only distinguishable words were: "...threw the boxes on me!" Then more sounds of splintering wood.
"Hey!" yelled the captain indignantly from the corner of the alley.
All action ceased. The narrow courtyard, brightly illuminated by a single overhead light, was half covered with a tumbled litter of empty wooden boxes. Standing with his foot temporarily caught in one of them was a very large fat man dressed all in white and waving a stick. Momentarily cornered between the wall and two of the boxes, over one of which she was trying to climb, was a smallish, fair-haired girl dressed in a smock of some kind which was also white. She might be about fourteen, the captain thought -- a helpless kid, anyway.
"What do you want?" grunted the fat man, pointing the stick with some dignity at the captain.
"Lay off the kid!" rumbled the captain, edging into the courtyard.
"Mind your own business!" shouted the fat man, waving his stick like a club. "I'll take care of her! She--"
"I never did!" squealed the girl. She burst into tears.
"Try it, Fat and Ugly!" the captain warned. "I'll ram the stick down your throat!"
He was very close now. With a sound of grunting exasperation the fat man pulled his foot free of the box, wheeled suddenly and brought the end of the stick down on top of the captain's cap. The captain hit him furiously in the middle of the stomach.
There was a short flurry of activity; somewhat hampered by shattering boxes everywhere. Then the captain stood up, scowling and breathing hard. The fat man remained sitting on the ground, gasping about "--the law!"
Somewhat to his surprise, the captain discovered the girl standing just behind him. She caught his eye and smiled.
"My name's Maleen," she offered. She pointed at the fat man. "Is he hurt bad?"
"Huh-no!" panted the captain. "But maybe we'd better--"
It was too late! A loud, self-assured voice became audible now at the opening to the alley:
"Here, here, here, here, here!" it said in the reproachful, situation-under-control tone that always seemed the same to the captain, on whatever world and in whichever language he heard it.
"What's all this about?" it inquired rhetorically.
"You'll all have to come along!" it replied.
Police court on Porlumma appeared to be a business conducted on a very efficient, around-the-clock basis. They were the next case up.
Nikkeldepain was an odd name, wasn't it, the judge smiled. He then listened attentively to the various charges, countercharges and denials.
Bruth the Baker was charged with having struck a citizen of a foreign government on the head with a potentially lethal instrument, produced in evidence. Said citizen admittedly had attempted to interfere as Bruth was attempting to punish his slave, Maleen, also produced in evidence, whom he suspected of having added something to a batch of cakes she was working on that afternoon, resulting in illness and complaints from fifty-two of Bruth's customers.
Said foreign citizen also had used insulting language; the captain admitted under pressure to "Fat and Ugly."
Some provocation could be conceded for the action taken by Bruth, but not enough. Bruth paled.
Captain Pausert, of the Republic of Nikkeldepain--everybody but the prisoners smiled this time, was charged (a) with said attempted interference, (b) with said insult, (c) with having frequently and severely struck Bruth the Baker in the course of the subsequent dispute.
The blow on the head was conceded to have provided a provocation for charge (c), but not enough.
Nobody seemed to be charging the slave Maleen with anything. The judge only looked at her curiously, and shook his head.
"As the Court considers this regrettable incident," he remarked, "it looks like two years for you, Bruth; and about three for you, Captain. Too bad!" The captain had an awful sinking feeling. From what he knew about Imperial court methods in the fringe systems, he probably could get out of this three-year rap. But it would be expensive.
He realized that the judge was studying him reflectively.
"The Court wishes to acknowledge," the judge continued, "that the captain's chargeable actions were due largely to a natural feeling of human sympathy for the predicament of the slave Maleen. The Court, therefore, would suggest a settlement as follows, subsequent to which all charges could be dropped:
"That Bruth the Baker resell Maleen of Karres with whose services he appears to be dissatisfied for a reasonable sum to Captain Pausert of the Republic of Nikkeldepain."
Bruth the Baker heaved a gusty sigh of relief. But the captain hesitated. The buying of human slaves by private citizens was a very serious offense on Nikkeldepain. Still, he didn't have to make a record of it. If they weren't going to soak him too much.