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The Shaman of Karres: Prologue

       Last updated: Sunday, March 15, 2020 12:20 EDT

 


 

The Shaman of Karres

By Eric Flint and Dave Freer

To the world’s ambulance and paramedic volunteers.

True shamans.

Prelude

The Leewit was unsettled. She usually dealt with that by going up as high as possible and breaking things with supersonic whistles.

Tempting though it was, this time she knew that it wouldn’t help. That was enough to make her even more annoyed, which didn’t help either.

She really didn’t like changes. Not merely changing scenes — she’d seen enough of those on the Venture 7333. That was normal. That was fine. It was changes in people that were upsetting. Especially when that person was her.

Being responsible, as they all called it, was deeply annoying.

And the trouble was that there was no getting away from it once you started. She could run⦠But she already knew that it wouldn’t work.

 


 

Captain Pausert was watching the Leewit very carefully, out of the corner of his eye. She was stumping around the wintenberry vines, just off to the side of Threbus and Toll’s cottage on the planet of Karres, as he sat on the verandah with Threbus, drinking green Lepti liquor and talking.

He’d learned quite a lot about the wisdom of keeping a surreptitious eye on the littlest witch of Karres in the last few years.For some of that time she’d been in his care⦠In manner of speaking⦠As much as anyone ever really had any Karres child in their care. From time-to-time, ever since he’d rescued Maleen, Goth, and the blond scrap, the Leewit, from slavery on Polumma, he’d suspected that he was as much in their care as they were in his. Well, Maleen was happily married to Neldo now. But the Venture had still been home to Goth and the Leewit for a series of long missions for Karres.

They’d been on Karres itself for a while now. It was always hard to tell quite how long, in the magical timelessness of that place. There’d been a fair amount of learning to be done and a fair amount of debriefing too. And some welcome rest and recuperation to be enjoyed. Time spent getting to know his adopted people. Time spent probably annoying them with the klatha energies that seemed to cluster around him. But that was fair enough, since they’d made his life more than just difficult from time-to-time.

It was also time spent getting to know more of the witches than just Goth and her family. Time to adjust to the fact that the girl of his childhood dreams, Vala, was actually Goth, via some travel in time. After their adventures in dealing with the Melchin-mother-plant and the Megair cannibals, Pausert felt he needed a break, and to learn far more about how to use the klatha skills he had. Of course, that wasn’t likely to happen. The witches of Karres preferred you to learn on your feet, and as fast as possible. That wasn’t because they were cruel, but because it worked, and there was a dire need for that which worked.

Karres and her people were, in the vastness of galactic society, such a tiny group. Yes, a tiny group with powerful friends in Imperial circles, as the Empress Hailie gradually consolidated her power, bringing in new courtiers and nobles as the nannite-damaged court was quietly replaced. The Empire had no shortage of nobility who had not been in the court, had not been infected, but it all took time and care. Yet, for now great dangers had been averted.

But Karres seemed to attract trouble. For some reason, quite a bit of it had focused itself on Captain Pausert. Karres, its way of thinking, its people, and its entire existence were always under some degree of threat. If you were one of them, you dealt with it. And right now it seemed that there was another thing they needed him to deal with.

He’d been told this morning that Threbus wanted to have a chat about the Venture‘s next mission. The Karres prognosticators had apparently been busy.

Something was plainly up⦠again.

What, he didn’t know. But he did know the danger signs with the Leewit.

So he asked Threbus where he was going, this time.   

“Well, to Na’kalauf. Partly,” explained his Great Uncle Threbus, “to help the Leewit to finish her work with healing Ta’zara.”

“But of course it is never as simple as that,” said Pausert, prompting.

“Of course not. There is a little war we’d like you to deal with. But Ta’zara is important.” Threbus didn’t say whether that was to the war, or to the Leewit or to Karres. It could be any or all three, and, Pausert knew by now they’d tell him as little as possible. Prognostication worked better that way.

Ta’zara, the heavily swirl-tattooed warrior-bodyguard from the watery world of Na’kalauf, was, Captain Pausert knew, also watching the Leewit. He was almost invisible standing in the dappled shade, his bulky solid mass as still as any statue. The Megair cannibals had kept him alive, because he and his group were the toughest foe they’d ever encountered in hand-to-hand combat. He’d been the last survivor⦠and psychologically broken, until the Leewit had somehow reached into his mind and begun healing him.

That had given her a devoted body-guard, and led, ultimately, to getting rid of the Megair cannibals. But Ta’zara had expected to die in that effort. In a moment of insight, Pausert saw that Ta’zara had not just expected to die. Ta’zara had wanted to die then, and to die well, to atone for being alive when his comrades had died. Curing that would take a great deal more work.

Pausert had no idea where you even started with that sort of problem. The Leewit was a klatha shaman, a healer, able to reach inside people — and aliens — and fix things at a cellular level. She’d been able to do something for Ta’zara. She’d given him back his courage, and some of himself. But, obviously, there was more. “I’m glad the war is my share,” he said, not untruthfully. It was easier to deal with distant enemies than people you saw every day.

There was a wry understanding in Threbus’ face. “The war is fairly small as wars go. Not because both sides don’t want to kill every man, woman and child on the other side, but just because they’re fairly evenly matched, and neither side has the resources to make the fight much bigger. It’s in the state, right now, of no actual hostilities. But both sides are ready to get back to killing each other, at the drop of a hat.”

“So why do we need to do anything?” asked Pausert. “I mean⦠there are small wars all the time. They’re nasty, people get killed, but they happen. There are far too few of us. We can’t really stop all wars.”

“Or should we be doing so, you mean? And you’re right. Karres doesn’t, normally. Oh, maybe a nudge here and there, towards making things better and more stable, but we deal with existential threats to us, and to humankind, not social engineering. But our prognosticators say that what is little more than some border skirmishes now, is about to get much bigger. There’s some sort of development happening that will change the equation. And the winning side⦠won’t stop winning.”

 



 

“And they’re the bad guys?” asked Pausert, glad to have that at least clear.

Threbus pulled a face. “Actually⦠no. The other side are probably what we’d consider ‘the bad guys’. The Karoda slavers are not popular with anyone, not even on their own world. But while the people of Karoda may not like them, they like Iradalia less. And a huge amount of money flows through them. That affects the whole economy of both worlds.”

Captain Pausert bit his top lip. Slavery was legal in the empire. Common on some planets, despised on others. He knew that the Empress Hailie wanted to get rid of it. But it had taken deep root in many societies after the collapse of the first empire, after humans had spread from old Yarthe to the stars. Nikkeldepain, where Captain Pausert had grown up, was one of the anti-slavery worlds. It was about all you could really say that was good about Nikkeldepain. Slavers weren’t popular there. And the Karoda slavers were the least popular. They were actually forbidden to land at all. “So what’s the problem with them losing?”

“I don’t think there is one, or at least not much of a problem. It’s the other side winning that’s the problem. Because the prognosticators say they won’t stop winning. They will take on more and more foes, and⦠bring them in. And that will lead to a war with the Empire, one it is not going to win. The new order, it seems, would be very bad for Karres and bad for humanity.”

The Empire⦠well, it wasn’t perfect, far from it. But Pausert had had enough history drummed into him at the Nikkeldepain Academy for the Sons and Daughters of Gentlemen and Officers to know that it was a lot better than what had existed before. Still, it was big, scattered and mostly too busy keeping itself together to expand into the border-worlds.

 “So⦠you mean I have to see the Karoda slavers win?” Pausert, distastefully.

Threbus shook his head. “That, it seems, might be worse. But they do think you, and the Leewit, could solve it. Maybe.”

Pausert knew from experience that he wasn’t going to get a lot more information out of his great-uncle. But he had noticed one very unwelcome detail in what he had been told. There’d been no mention of Goth. The captain could barely imagine the Venture space-faring without her. So as soon as he could, he took his leave from Great-Uncle Threbus — and, if Goth had her way, his future father-in-law — and went in search of Goth.

He found her sitting on her favorite rock, looking out towards the forests where she liked to go hunting Black Belle’s. It only took one look to let him know he was right.

“They’re saying I have to let you go off without me,” she said gruffly.

Pausert had been around Goth for quite a while now, with her growing up, mostly on board the Venture 7333. He’d gotten quite good at reading her, despite the fact that she didn’t let much show. Goth was angry, upset. Quite possibly dangerous, but that went with being a klatha operative, and with being from Karres. The trick, he’d learned eventually, was not to say anything, because whatever you did say was going to be wrong. Not saying anything could be dangerous too, but less so.

She gotten up with that lithe ease that was so much a part of her, even more so now that her body was clearly that of a young woman rather than a girl — a change that Pausert found unsettling, to say the least. He was simultaneously skittish, anxious, confused, uncertain — the list went on and on, and buried somewhere within all the other terms was⦠excitement, maybe? Elation?

He wasn’t ready to deal with that. Yet. For the Karres witches, the marriageable age was sixteen, which Goth had recently surpassed. But the captain came from a stiffer culture and hadn’t shed all of his attitudes. Yet.

Goth didn’t say much. Just swallowed and hugged him, quickly. “I’m going to get my bow and go kill a bollem.”

“Want company?” he asked.

She shook her head. “Later.”

Pausert had to be content with that. Actually, he wouldn’t have minded killing something himself. Maybe the team of prognosticators who had foreseen all this. Instead he took himself back to the Venture 7333. Old Vezzarn was there. “I wondered when you were going to get here, Captain. They’ve been bringing the cargo aboard for the last couple of hours. I’m not too happy with the stowage.”

“Cargo?” Captain Pausert wondered, grumpily, why no-one ever told him anything.

Irritable, he avoided the hold and the cargo, and went down into the Venture‘s crawlway and checked component modules instead. He was, as he often did, following some inner sense, part of his own witchy klatha mastery, which he poorly understood. It made him, generally, a lucky gambler. This time it didn’t let him down either. He let his hands guide him to the units, pulled the ones he found them resting on, and examined them in the light of the crook-neck atomic lamp, and then dug out the hyper-electronic surge tester, and checked the readings.

Sure enough, there were tell-tale flat areas in the responses. He went back to get replacements, and found someone had been restocking the store-room. Every rack was full.

Karres was plainly doing their very best to prepare him for this mission. Somehow, that wasn’t comforting.

****

Goth moved as silently as she could through the deep woods of Karres. Concentrating on the hunt was easier than thinking about other things. There were other ways to bring food to the table, klatha means, artificial means, but Karres had learned: sometimes the best ways forward were back. And right now, Goth wanted to go back. Back to Nikkeldepain. Back to being Vala, back to Captain Pausert as a teenager, younger than herself. Well. She didn’t really want him younger than herself. Time travel was problematic. She quite understood, now, why age shifts were also problematic.

But that didn’t make sending the captain off on another dangerous adventure any easier. Not without her. And her biggest worry was not telling him where she’d be going, because he’d believe he had to come along. She knew him well enough to know he’d feel it was his responsibility. To feel that he’d be neglectful if he didn’t.

But that would apparently lead to disaster.

She was sick of precogs. Sick enough to want to prove them wrongâ¦

â¦but experienced enough to know they couldn’t choose what they foresaw. They’d worked out good, systematic means of testing how probable an outcome was. This was apparently rock solid.

That didn’t mean she had to like it.


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