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The Shaman of Karres: Chapter One

       Last updated: Sunday, March 15, 2020 12:16 EDT

 


 

When the shriek of space-alarms is welcome, things are pretty rotten, Captain Pausert reflected.

He’d been near to dozing in the control chair on the Venture 7333. That was a good thing considering how little sleep he’d had the last few days, and a bad thing when he was in command of a starship.

He blinked to clear his vision. The screens showed that it was a fairly normal problem on the fringes of the Empire’s space, a larger ship following directly down their course. There was only one good reason for that — to try and get in a disabling shot on the Venture‘s tubes before they had a chance to flee or return fire or try evasive action. It was the hardest to detect too, with the tubes trail disturbing most sensors. The Venture had an advantage over most ships in that she had the latest and best that the Daal of Undune’s shipyards had been able fit into the ship. Otherwise, ten-to-one he would have been taken by surprise.

It wasn’t too healthy an approach for the following ship. There were some short-lived radioactives in the trail, but then pirates didn’t take a long term approach to life.

The irony of the situation was that he’d have happily given the pirates his cargo. There were ten thousand pairs of hyper-electronic manacles in the hold. They were not Pausert’s choice of cargo, but an order destined for Karoda. He needed an excuse to go there, but he would have preferred some other excuse!

He toggled the intercom, and woke the Leewit, Vezzarn and Ta’zara. “Got pirates sneaking up astern.”

“Good,” said the Leewit, her mood plainly not that different from his own. “Let’s shoot their front end off, shoot their rear end off, and ram them in the middle!” she snarled, quoting her favorite phrase from the captain’s lexicon.

“We could run,” said old Vezzarn, warily.

That was true. Not only was the Venture more lethal than she looked, but she was somewhat overpowered. She’d originally been built as a pirate-chaser, intended to look the part of a small commercial freighter. She’d been sold off, and ended up as just that — a small freighter with high fuel bills and not really enough cargo space for inner-planet work. But for high-risk, high-cost cargos in possibly dangerous localities, she was just the ship a captain needed. Besides, with the Leewit and him aboard they had an ace up their sleeves: the Sheewash drive, harnessing their klatha powers to outpace any space-craft.

The downside about the Sheewash drive was that everyone else wanted it. There was no point in using it if it wasn’t an emergency. There were enough rumors about a superdrive and the witches of Karres as it was.

“Run is always better,” said Ta’zara, having silently come into the control room. Ta’zara, who was a human battlewagon in unarmed conflict, could move like a ghost when he wished to. “You fight when you have to, in the place you choose, with the weapons you choose.”

That made sense, although the captain was all for fighting right now. He looked at the screens and did a quick calculation. “There’s an asteroid cluster up ahead. Dirty space, full of debris. Something recently collided with something else and the shattered pieces are still a trap of any starship. Not a great place for us to run at full speed. And three planetoids off to the starboard. Suppose we shift course slightly as if we’re avoiding the debris, dive in on the planetoid, and catch a slingshot off its gravity-well. Then we’ll come at them from the flank. The asteroids will give them little space to run.”

“And if we blow one or two of those into space fragments, ahead of their course, they’ll have rocks to dodge instead chasing or shooting at us,” said Vezzarn.

“As well as chasing us, probably,” said the captain. “Right, you’ll all need to get to your gravity acceleration couches and strap in. I’ll unlock the nova-gun turrets, and then set a course to brush past that closest worldlet at full thrust. As soon as we get out of the gravity-well, you get to the guns.”

Fun fun piped the little vatchlet, like the sound of sunlight, like seeing a scent, a thing that Captain was aware of, but ordinary senses were not. Klatha-sensitives could “rell” vatch. To others, they weren’t there at all, let alone hearable.

The piece of nothingness whirled about in a delighted dance, around the Leewit. The two of them were rather similar, but the Leewit was at least growing up a little more. Pausert almost groaned. He hoped they’d lost Little-Bit, the silver-eyed baby vatch after their last adventure. She’d disappeared for a while, as vatches often did. They regarded humans and their doings as a kind of entertainment, only worth paying attention to when things could go terribly wrong — often as a direct result of the vatch interference. Klatha use attracted them, like moths to a candle. Pausert shook his head. He was a vatch handler, able to force some of them to do his will, but Little-bit was of the kind that couldn’t be handled. His klatha hooks merely tickled her.

“We don’t need trouble,” he said sternly, knowing it was a waste of time.

But I do! said the vatch, her tinkling little voice inside his head. Make explosions, big dream thing. I like explosions!

Whatever he did, Captain Pausert knew that playing the little vatch’s game was not a good idea. Neither was directly thwarting the immensely powerful little creature. He had to chart some kind of middle course. That was never going to be easy, but he had years of practice, dealing with the Leewit. She was resisting growing up as hard as any lastborn child ever does, and would have lapses into the hooliganism of her younger years with regularity. But he’d noticed⦠never when it really mattered. He wondered if that applied to the vatchlet.

He asked it, as he strapped in to the command chair. “Do you ever grow up?”

Almost to his surprise, he got a serious answer, if an incomprehensible one. We go to the *place*. Some never do.

“Do you want to?” asked Pausert, fishing for a handle on the strange, non-material creatures.

There was a longer silence. Then the voice in his head said: Sometimes, big dream thing. Sometimes I don’t. Maybe not fun fun.

“Dying’s not fun fun for us either. And that could just happen, no matter how good we are at klatha,” said Pausert, missing Goth badly. Wishing he had her at his side. Wishing he’d just had a chance to tell her⦠because every space battle actually could just be one’s last, even for a wizard of Karres.

****

The battle, if you could call it that, was a short-run thing. The Venture had a good turn of speed to her, and she’d been built as a pirate-chaser, long years ago on Nikkeldepain. It was almost as if the old ship loved her work, Pausert reflected. The pirates had plainly been unaware that they’d been spotted in their attempt to sneak up undetected. Their first shot, as the Venture came racing in from their flank had been wildly astray. The Venture‘s return-fire from her erratic nova guns, had not been. Old Vezzarn had had a misfire, causing some damage to the gun and turret, but the Leewit, whose fire from the nova guns had always been uncannily accurate, was on target. Her purple searing blast had struck the other ship with its full devastating force, destroying what must have been a missile pod. He heard her shriek of glee through the intercom. “Got him! Got him good!”

The explosion that set off was enough to break the other ship in half. One moment it was a pirate, the next two hulks and debris flying off into space in separate directions. Very soon after a small lifecraft detached from what had been the front half of the ship and fled, as Captain Pausert swung the Venture away from the target. There’d be metal fragments moving unpredictably and at speed, as they ricocheted off each other.

Vezzarn came down to report on the damage to his gun-turret, as the Leewit came bouncing off the walls down the corridor. “Did you see that shot, Captain? I guessed exactly right. We blew his aft right off!”

“So you did,” said Pausert, with all the pride of the man who’d taught her to shoot. “Well, if you take the helm for a bit, I need to go and inspect Vezzarn’s pod. Lucky you didn’t get hurt, old fellow,” he said to the old spacer, who was looking a bit shaken.

What happens to the other ones? asked the little vatch-voice in their heads.

The Leewit and the captain paused⦠and Vezzarn, who was terrified of ‘witchy stuff’, fled, saying something about needing a hot drink.

“What other ones?” asked the Leewit. “So you’re back, are you? Huh. Just leaving me like that.”

 



 

Pausert looked anxiously at his instruments, but except for the fleeing life-craft, they showed nothing.

The other dream things. In that piece of the ship

“Pirates left their friends, did they?” said the Leewit. “Just like you left me.”

But you are not tied to a pole. They make almost as much air-vibration as you, but there are lots of them.

Captain Pausert had had enough experience of the Leewit’s “air-vibration” to work it out. There were prisoners on the pirate ship, screaming. “Which half of the ship?” he asked, pointing at the screens. That one? Or that one?”  As he said that, the front section spun off with another small explosion.

The first one, said the vatch voice in his head.

That was the larger aft section, still mostly intact. The ship had plainly been an old obsolete Empire C-class merchanter. The cargo holds were just above the tubes — rather like the Venture‘s own structure. Pausert had heard that some of the merchanters had been modified, using some of that space for extra engine capacity. It made them less commercially viable — and they’d already been outclassed, but a lot faster. Ideal for little, except piracy. And that hold, or what was left of it, could well be full of prisoners. “I’ll start matching trajectory,” said the captain. “Ta’zara. You need to suit up and the Leewit can get old Vezzarn down here, so I can suit up too.”

“I should go with you!” protested the Leewit, her lips beginning to purse.

Fortunately, the captain had thought that through in advance. “If there is anyone alive there we’ll likely need to carry them. We have one shuttle-bag, we could cram two people in with a suit pony-tank. And if we need⦠special help on either ship, best there is one klatha operative on each. Besides, if something goes wrong, I want someone who can do astrogation here, in charge. And that’s you. Between you and Vezzarn you can fly the ship. If I took Vezzarn, you and Ta’zara can’t. If I took you, they certainly can’t Sheewash. Besides, it’s the captain’s decision. Get on with it. I need you here.”

 She sighed. “Right, Captain.” 

“And we’ll all need blasters from the arms-cabinet. Get them and check charges. There might be prisoners there. There might also be trouble.” The Leewit didn’t answer. Just nodded and ran off, and left the captain to the difficult task of getting the Venture into close proximity of the slowly tumbling hulk of the stern end of the wrecked pirate. Captain Pausert could only be grateful that her rocket tubes had also stopped firing with the Leewit’s lucky shot or it might have been worse.

The Leewit came back with Vezzarn, and handed the captain a blaster. Captain Pausert noticed the old spacer had strapped one on himself, even if he wasn’t going across to the other ship. “Risky business, Captain,” he said looking at the screens. “A bit above my pay-grade, this sort of piloting.”

“Just let me suit up and I’ll finish the closing manoeuvers. All you’ll have to do is hold her there and deal with any problems.”

“It’s the problems you and the little Wisdom seem to find that worry me,” said Vezzarn with a crooked smile, settling into the command chair. “You always get me into jams, Captain, but you always get me out of them, too. I don’t forget that.”

Pausert suited up and checked his equipment, then checked Ta’zara’s  and let him run a seal check on his, before taking the Venture in on the nerve-jangling final lock-on, with the electromagnetic grapples. He and Ta’zara exited through the airlock, and then, one at a time, roped together, made the jump across to the pirate hulk with their reaction pistols. That was easy enough.

The question now was how to get in. The hold doors didn’t have airlocks. If there was anyone alive in there, opening the doors would kill them. The only possible way was through the torn metal of the massive explosion. That was too dangerous to hurry through — suit fabric was super-tough but it still could be damaged. Besides, it was a mess, a tangle of twisted I-beams and hull-metal, and all sorts of drifting debris in the stark dark shadow and silver glare of new-sheared metal. Their headlights on, Pausert let his instincts lead him into the explosion-hole. He found a passage which led to a door crusted with ice-crystals from air bleeding though the seals. The ice did a fair job of jamming it up, and not all the pulling and thrusting could open it. The door opened towards them, but despite the fact that the air-pressure inside was also pushing, it wouldn’t budge.

“If I was there I could whistle and shatter it, Captain,” said the Leewit, on the radio, with a cross edge in her voice.

“And probably break your helmet, if not your ears,” replied Pausert. “Let’s get a lever, and have another try, Ta’zara. I don’t want to use the blaster.”

They found a section of beam, and, with Ta’zara’s considerable strength added to Pausert’s, they cracked the ice. What was left of the air within wasn’t enough to have much effect, puffing out. They went in and closed the door again. It was as scary thing to do, considering how hard it had been to open. But if they were to open any other safety doors, every bit of pressure counted. They kept up the radio-chatter to the Leewit so she at least knew they were alive and roughly where they were. The captain wasn’t sure what she could do about it, though, if something went wrong.

The first thing Pausert noticed was that the crystal emergency lights on the floor still glowed. Touching the wall, there was a vague vibrating hum of machinery. Some of the ship’s system was still alive — and there was mist forming around an air duct. Most of it was iced over, but plainly something was still leaking in. The two of them advanced cautiously, blasters ready. If they met anyone here, common sense might be for a pirate to surrender, but sometimes common sense was scarce in a disaster. Besides, if a pirate had been stalking the corridors of a dead ship in their place he’d be looking for loot, and would try to kill them.

The next door was easier, and the third definitely had air pressure — and a dead man. The fourth had lights. Weak, flickering, but lights. There was air, but it was thin, probably not enough to breathe. The only remaining door was the door into the tube shaft, engine room, by the door symbols, and into the hold. They cracked that one and went through into the darkness there, the suit-lights again providing all the light there was.

See. I told you, said the tinkling little vatch voice.

They weren’t screaming, or not anymore, but indeed there were people, leg-shackled to a long pole. Some of them were definitely alive and gasping for breath. Looking at them, Pausert realized he hadn’t thought this through very well. There were a lot of people trapped there! Even if they went back to the Venture and fetched the Leewit and Vezzarn’s suit and the four spares from the suit locker, that would take at least ten trips or more. Pausert wasn’t sure these people would last very much longer — let alone dealing with cutting them loose. Once one end of the pole was cut, they’d have a lot of panicked and terrified people, not inclined to take things in due turn and with the calmness it would take to get them suited up and ferried out along the corridors, losing more air every time, through the dark and chaos and sharp metal. Even with Ta’zara at his side that could be tough.

He couldn’t see how he could do it.

Yet the alternative was to leave them here to die. He couldn’t see how he could do that either. It was unlikely the pirate ship had had sufficient suits for all these people.

“What are you going to do, Captain?” asked the Leewit. “They’re dying. I can feel it.”

She probably could. The Leewit was a shaman, a healer with klatha powers.

The problem was he just could see no way of dealing with this number of captives.

“We could use the Sheewash drive to get the hulk into an atmosphere. Use the Venture for braking and steering, and hope the grapples hold,” she suggested.

The captain shook his head. “They haven’t got the time, even if we can make it work. But I might be able to do it with klatha. Can you and Vezzarn line the Venture‘s hold door up, as precisely as possible, with this hulk? If I remember right, the merchanter class hold door is the standard Imperial, same as the Venture‘s.”

“What are you going to do, Captain?” repeated the Leewit, an edge of wariness in her young voice.

 



 

“Try to make a modification on the klatha cocoon I put you and Goth into. An airtight one,” said Pausert. He started working through the klatha patterns in his mind⦠a change thereâ¦

“Move them across in those clumping cocoons? I guess they won’t know what they are,” said the Leewit, reluctantly. She had not liked being trapped in one, even if it had saved her life.

“No, they weren’t airtight, but I hope I can change that. There are far too many for me to do individual cocoons. But I thought I would make a tunnel between the holds⦔

“It’ll take a lot out of you, Captain,” she said warily.

“I know. You three may have to hold the fort before I can undo it. We’ll be locked onto this hulk, and that means you’ll have to move these people out of the hold, because this hold plainly is losing pressure slowly.”

“Right, Captain. How many people?”

“A lot. Keep them out of the control room.” Inside the suit, sound was deadened, but in the headlight he could see wide-eyed, terrified people reaching frantic force-cuffed arms to them. There was no time to waste. Pausert concentrated. He knew every detail of the Venture‘s hull. She was his ship, he loved her. So envisaging layers of the cocoon from just outside the hold-door-frame extending into space was easy enough. Now to work the klatha patterns, to trace them in his mind and to change them slightly to be impervious even to air. Captain Pausert could feel himself sweating inside the suit. Such klatha use took enormous amounts of energy out of the user.

“Near lined up as I can get it, Captain,” said Vezzarn’s voice across the suit radio. “Can’t get a perfect match.”

That could be a problem. No match, no hold door-opening.

You make vatch-eggstuff, big dream thing! I didn’t know you could do that. I thought everything in in the dreamplace was soft.

The vatchlet almost distracted him from the pattern he was building out, layer by exhausting layer. “What?”

That’s what everything hard in my place is — not like in the dream place. I can go through anything in the dream place, and anywhere. Eggstuff, I can’t. I have to undo. I must go talk to the others. This could affect the new game.

Pausert had the answer. He simply kept extending the klatha force cocoon⦠right through the hull. Metal was no barrier. He could see the transparent cocoon stuff coming through the wallâ¦

There was of course still vacuum in the space outside the hull, but also inside the klatha-force tunnel he’d created. And now that hull was not entire — the cocoon of klatha-force cut right through it. And the hull-section — part hull, part door and severed leaking hydraulic servos — sucked out. Captain Pausert heard Ta’zara yell in shock, but he was too exhausted to care.

“Vezzarn, get the hold door slid open. Ta’zara, see if you can cut that bar with your blaster. I’m just going to sit⦔ He did, before he fell over, as Ta’zara adjusted his blaster and took careful aim at the bar the prisoners were tethered to. The poor prisoners panicked and tried to retreat. That was probably better than having them close in, anyway, thought Pausert.

Ta’zara burned through the bar — a tough job with a blaster that really wasn’t designed for that. The melted end glowed white-hot — he still had to hold off the prisoners with the blaster as the ones just back from the front tried to shove the others forward to escape.

“Atmospheric pressure reading from the Venture‘s hold zero point seven eight ship normal. Looks like you did it Captain,” said the Leewit. “You all right?”

“Yes. Just dead-beat and starving,” he answered.

“Use the glucose syrup tube in your suit, Captain,” said Ta’zara.

Pausert could have kicked himself for not thinking of that earlier. But that was the problem with being too tired. Thinking logically was difficult. Sucking on the tube even seemed hard work, but it did revitalize him a bit.

“Is there enough atmosphere for me to crack my helmet and talk to these people?” asked Ta’zara.

“Yes. It’s losing a little pressure. Down to point seven seven eight ship normal. Safe enough but it must be leaking. There is no time to waste. I can pump more air in to our hold⦔

“Don’t,” said the captain, tiredly. “Let’s get them across, close up and then do it.” 

Ta’zara had cracked his helmet-seal and now Captain Pausert could hear the panic and pandemonium from the prisoners — after all, they didn’t know that he and Ta’zara weren’t just pirates, or just what was going on. “Shut UP!” Boomed the broad man from Na’kalauf. “We’re here to rescue you. Be calm.”

That might have reduced the volume by a tiny bit, but it did change the tone. “The end of the bar is still too hot for you to get past. Don’t push! You will be safe!” shouted Ta’zara, trying to physically hold them back.

Judging by the noise, that wasn’t working too well. Tired or not, Pausert knew he had to intervene. He put a tiny klatha force cocoon on the glowing end of the bar and it dropped off, heat trapped inside. From a two-finger wide gap, with a molten, dripping end, it was now the size of a large fist, the one end not even glowing. “Ta’zara. Bend it. Use them.”

 A glance from the big Na’kalauf man plainly took in the instruction and the new situation, and he bellowed at the frantic prisoners. “Pull! This way.”

He led by example. The bar bent and the prisoners were able to thrust their way to freedom. Several of them were down, but Pausert was not sure if they were dead or just injured. They had to be pushed and dragged along, until they could let those beyond them off. In the meanwhile, Ta’zara was shoving them toward the Venture‘s hold. He came back and helped Pausert to his feet. “Move you across now, Captain. The Leewit charged me with seeing to your safety.” 

Pausert was too tired to quibble, and anyway, his crossing the slippery transparent klatha-cocoon stuff was an encouragement to the others. Some had panicked and run. A few were helping others, but most of them were fearfully milling around, instead of moving into the light of the Venture‘s hold. Moving was a good idea, Pausert felt. The hulk of the pirate ship could break up more, and anyway, they were bleeding the Venture‘s air into the hulk. He said as much to Ta’zara, who nodded and went back. Pausert could hear him chivvying the prisoners along, getting them to carry some of those who were either unconscious or injured, or possibly dead.

Part of the problem was that there were a lot of people to move into a fairly full cargo-hold. After a while, Pausert got up enough strength to help marshal them around a bit.

“Captain,” said Vezzarn across the suit-radio. “We’re drifting in on those asteroids. I’m going to need to apply some thrust soon, Captain.”

“Get Ta’zara across from the hulk and close the hold doors,” said Pausert urgently.

“I am just back,” said Ta’zara. “I could find no more prisoners. I have carried the last three over. I think they are dead.”

Even if they were, there must be seventy people here, crowded into the hold. “Close the doors,” said Pausert, “And try to be gentle with the thrust, since no-one is strapped in.”

He was relieved to see the hold doors close. That had been his major unspoken stress. With that off his shoulders, all he wanted now was to lie down⦠and eat. The burst of power Vezzarn gave to the tubes was about as gentle as possible, but there was a limit to how little you could do with rocket tubes. It wasn’t a Pausert trademark takeoff, but still enough to knock most of them off their feet — except Ta’zara. He stepped over them to the captain, and picked him up as if he was a rag-doll.

“Taking you through to the Leewit, Captain,” he said firmly, and pushed and stepped his way through to the inner door to the hold. That was locked, but Ta’zara called through the radio, and got it unlocked. He put the captain down, and pushed back the four people who tried to follow. The Leewit was there already, getting his helmet undogged, and just about pouring some sickly-sweet gunk into his mouth. Well, normally it would have been sickly. Now, it tasted like nectar. “Help me carry him to his cabin,” she said. “He’s pushed it too far, again.”

Pausert didn’t try to resist, or walk. The Leewit was right, and she sounded far too worried for him to have argued, even if he felt he had the strength.

“We’ll deal, Captain. You just recover,” said Ta’zara.

And he was happy to do that, right now.


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