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The Shaman of Karres: Chapter Four

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

 


 

The air on the Venture 7333 wasn’t unbreathable. It was just⦠well, smelly, by the time they were able to send out a call to the port authorities on the sub-radio. “This is Captain Edom of the ship Farflight, registered in the Leris Star-Cluster,” said Pausert, giving their current nom-de-plumes. “Request landing co-ordinates. Request permission for the earliest possible landing slot” said Pausert, tiredly. “We’ve got seventy-eight space rescued people aboard, and we’re running low on air.”

There was a moment’s silence. “You’re short on air and are coming here?” said a surprised voice.

“You are the nearest Imperial world. According to Imperial Space Regulation three-two-three section B, landing clearance or relief must be granted to Imperial citizens in distress. We’re happy to trans-ship them, if there’s a vessel that could take them,” said Pausert.

“No⦠you’re cleared for immediate landing,” said Port Control. “Here are your co-ordinates.”   

While they were descending, Captain Pausert did spare a few moments thought for the reaction from Port Control, but he was tired and it was not an easy descent, with buffeting winds and — as he looked through the ship-scope — plenty of geography to avoid. Cinderby’s World certainly boasted some high mountains. The atmosphere must be pretty thin up there, thought the captain as they dropped into a narrow deep valley.

When the ship came to a rest, and the captain looked out at the port, he realized that the atmosphere must be pretty thin generally, let alone up in the mountains they’d come to rest between. The port buildings were in a dome, linked to several more domes by covered passages. Looking at his instruments, Pausert saw that besides enormous volcanic mountains, Cinderby’s Word had an atmosphere which had one thing going for it — there wasn’t a lot of it. Because what there was, was rather toxic.

Two men in respirator suits — lighter than space-suits, but airtight, none-the-less — dragged an access tube toward the Venture with a grav-sled. What brought men to live on such an inhospitable world? It had to have some draw, since there were thousands of other worlds with breathable atmospheres out there. Still, Pausert didn’t really care too much. As soon as he had his cargo of involuntary passengers off the Venture, they’d be on their way. They didn’t need to refuel yet, and without the extra load, the air-recycler would gradually improve their air-quality.

Like most plans, this one went awry, and did so quite quickly after the rescued would-be slaves had walked off down the access tube and into the dome, carrying their injured and thanking him. “Port Control. Request you remove the access tube, as we’d like to lift as soon as possible,” said the captain into the radio.

There was a pause. “Sorry, Captain. Permission to lift off has been officially withheld. The Planetary Police want to talk to you. And you’re under the port guns, which are locked onto your ship.”

“Great Patham’s seventh steaming hell! What for?” Pausert was confident that the papers his ship now had, and the identity he now had, would pass any muster. Besides, at least in theory, Karres operatives seeing to the clean-up of the Imperial Security Service after it had been taken over by the nannite plague had scrubbed any reference to Captain Pausert of Nikkeldepain, the Venture 7333, as well as Captain Aron of Mulm and the ship Evening Bird. In backwaters like this, of course, records could still persist, and affect things.

“Charges of piracy and theft have been laid against you,” said Port Control. “Officers of the Planetary Police force are on their way over to your ship.”

Pausert snapped the communicator off.

“How long to warm the tubes, Captain?” asked the Leewit, almost as if she’d read his mind.

“Couple of minutes.” He flipped the switches. “The nova turrets are now free. You take the forward one and get a bead on the port guns. They want to play rough with us, they can taste some of their own medicine. Vezzarn, have you sorted that aft gun?”

“No, Captain. But they won’t know that. And they won’t like the idea of their dome getting holed. Not in this atmosphere.”

“Well, I’d rather not hole it either. But all of you strap in. It’s likely to be a rough launch.” He started the tube warming ignition sequence, and when he’d done that, snapped open the communicator channel again.

Needless to say, Port Control was having fits. Pausert interrupted them. “You deflect your guns and we’ll deflect ours. Otherwise we keep them locked onto you, until we lift. When we lift, if you attempt to fire on us, we’ll return fire. Your charges make no sense, and we’re out of here.”

“Captain Edom. The police merely want to talk to you,” said Port Control.

Pausert had heard that one before. But he still said: “Well, let them talk. I’ll listen.”

“They’re on their way across to your airlock,” he was informed.

“Tell them to leave any weapons outside. I’m not having them trying to get smart and damaging my ship.” If need be he could take off with them on board. Their gunners could decide if they wanted to shoot at their own police or not.

So a little later two members of Cinderby’s World’s finest were permitted to board the Venture 7333. Unarmed.

They were enough to ease Captain Pausert’s mind a little, being, neither of them, typical flatfeet. “I apologize for this,” said the plump woman who introduced herself as Chief-Inspector Salaman. “It’s just that Counsellor Stratel insisted on pressing charges. He’s a big cheese on Cinderby’s World.”

“Stinky cheese,” said the Leewit. “He was the one with the fancy hairstyle, Captain.”

“The one who was so convinced we’d looted the wreck of the ship and had his property!” exclaimed Pausert. “He’s an idiot. We barely got them off alive.”

“Off the record, sir, I agree with you,” said the female police-officer. “But he’s wealthy and powerful, and got in touch with the president as soon as he got into the spaceport, insisting we act.”

“We’d hardly have saved their lives and set them free if we were pirates, Chief-Inspector,” said Pausert, trying to keep his temper. “We’d have either killed them or sold them as slaves. Or ransomed your big cheese. As for piracy — they knew all about that. They were captives of real pirates who tried to take us too. We got lucky and scored a hit on their munitions-store, and broke up their ship. Ask the others: they were all chained up in the hold, so we got them across into our ship. His ‘property’ whatever it is, is either still among the ship’s wreckage or on the life-craft that escaped.”

“A life-craft!” A pregnant look passed between the two policemen. “You interest me extremely, Captain Edom!” said the Chief-Inspector, looking for all the world like a Grik-dog that had suddenly gotten a scent. “Adding up for you, Senior Detective?”

The other policeman, a mild, very ordinary looking man who would pass, un-noticed, in a group of three, nodded slowly. “Oh yes, indeed. The trick is going to be tying it up, Sal.”

Pausert looked inquiringly at them. “What is this all about?”

“A life-craft made a landing about four hours before your ship,” said the Chief-Inspector.

“Well,” said Pausert. “There are your pirates. And possibly that idiot Stratel’s goods, whatever they are.” It did fit. This was the nearest Empire world, and with the time that he’d been passed out, and then gained by using the Sheewash drive⦠well, that would be about right.

“Whatever they are!” The Senior Detective face cracked into a smile. “Let me guess, Captain Edom. You don’t know much about Cinderby’s World do you?”

“Nothing at all,” admitted Pausert. “I can’t say it looks a great place to settle, so there must be something here that’s worth a fair bit of money. It’d be a mining world, I suppose.”

“If anything was going to convince me of your innocence that answer just did,” said the policeman. “Actually, we make our money out of flowers⦠you might say.” And they both laughed.

“Perfume?” asked Pausert.

“No, Captain. They just look like flowers, and it’s not the flowers themselves, but their droppings, you might say. You’ve got a little bit of it here on your ship. We produce the catalyst for your air-recycler. It’s a natural organofluorate, something between a plant and an animal produces, that drops a trail of little greenish granules as a waste product. The gatherers follow after them and collect them. The flowers roll with the wind, or can actually creep along. Out here their droppings break down in a few days, but away from the atmosphere of Cinderby’s World, it is stable. It’s worth many times its weight in gold, and that’s what Stratel was couriering to a manufacturer. He’s one of the major associates in the company that ships the stuff for the gatherers. Stratel, Bormgo, Wenerside and Ratneurt. They used to be competitors, but they got together a few years ago, and have a monopoly on the export.” The Chief-Inspector grimaced. “Smuggling is a big issue, because the companies who own the concessions to harvest it, pay the gatherers as little as they can get away with. So, that is principally my job.”

 



 

“I see. But what has this got to do with me? Or your reaction to the lifecraft?” asked Pausert.

“On board that life-craft was another powerful and wealthy man. Also a Counsellor. Counsellor Bormgo,” explained the policewoman.

“The lucky escape he had from space-pirates was all over the newscasts this morning,” said the other representative of the police, pulling a wry face. “He was transporting a valuable cargo — a packet of catalyst. The fluoro-flower granules he had remain the property of the concession holders until sold. So they’re very glad,”

“Ah. But they’re actually Stratel’s granules?” asked the captain.

The policeman nodded. “Or rather, the concession holders who had entrusted Stratel. He’s in big trouble with them, and was trying to make you the scapegoat.”

“And this⦠Bormgo knew exactly when he was travelling and with what — so he could steal one load and sell the other,” said the Leewit. The captain knew her too well. That was almost admiration in her voice. The Leewit was something of a rogue at times. Well. At most times.

“Yes, I suspect that would be what they were up to, but proving it might be more difficult,” said the Chief-Inspector, running her hand through her hair. “I tell you, Captain Edom, you’ve brought us a right Imperial mess. And, yes, I can see that you were just doing your best. Not that the prisoners might not have been better off to die in space than be here!”

“To give in to death without a fight is almost always the weakling’s choice,” said Ta’zara. “Here they have a choice, I think?”

“A choice between being a gatherer, or not breathing. It’s hard to get a free man to do this kind of work,” said the senior detective grimly. “But unless they’re wealthy people with access to funds, they haven’t got a lot of choices here. It’s a company town, in a manner of speaking. There’s us, the port control people and Judge Amorant — we’ve been seconded here by the sector governor of the Duchy of Camberwell — and that’s about it. All the rest are tied up in the granule business. They charge for everything, even the air the poor devils breathe.”

“Ouch. I still think most of them would choose breathing over not breathing. Anyway, now that we’ve solved your mystery, can we leave?” asked the captain. “I think you can see that neither the piracy nor the theft charges stand up.”

The two policemen looked at each other. The Chief-Inspector grimaced and shook her head. “It’s a legal process, Captain Edom. Stratel hasn’t gotten a case, but he’s brought one against you. It will have to go to court for the Judge to dismiss. One thing at least, Judge Amorant is strict and fair. Between you and us and your ship’s hull, he and my force were sent here to try and clean the place up a bit. The spaceport staff petitioned the governor to do something about the situation, and Viscount Camberwell, well, he’s a reformer.”

“Cinderby’s World Spaceport is an obvious pirate raid target,” the senior detective said. “It’s hardened against spaceguns, and has endless airlocks. You’re a danger to a small part of the spaceport, not the settlement itself. You might as well deflect your guns.”

“They make us feel a bit more comfortable,” said Pausert, shaking his head. “So what happens now, Chief-Inspector?”

“I’m supposed to charge you, take you to the cells, search you and your spaceship, and then have you in front of Judge Amorant for a bail hearing,” she answered apologetic, but firm.

“I see. Of course, the tubes are warm, the airlocks are closed, and we could just take off right now,” said Pausert, equally firm.

“Believe me, Captain. I did think of that. That’s why we came aboard, to show our good intentions. Otherwise I could have insisted you come out or be fired on. Look, I’ve been in policing long enough to realize a pirate is not going to discharge, free and yelling blue murder, a valuable man for ransom, let alone a cargo of people he could sell for slaves. We⦠well, we thought this was a trick to smuggle pirates into the Port. So we mobilized our defense unit. And then they turned out to be rather battered unarmed people — and a prominent citizen of Cinderby’s World, accusing you of piracy and theft. I realized we were dealing with a genuine rescue. Those people could have been unloaded as slaves here for five hundred maels a piece. I know you’re not guilty, that you put your ship and selves at risk to help. But the law is the law. And that is what I do. I uphold the law.”

“You’re not going to put a little girl in jail, are you?” asked the Leewit, doing her best to look like a little girl, sweet and harmless⦠in a way that would have frightened Pausert into blocking his ears. But then, he knew her. And could guess what she was up to. “I am scared of jails,” she said innocently.

“Er.” The Chief-Inspector plainly didn’t have children.

“I’ll tell you what,” said Pausert, stepping into the breach the Leewit had created. “You leave your Senior Detective here with my niece. I’ll go along with you. You’re not planning on charging her, are you? And your Senior Detective can search the ship, under her guidance.” He turned to the Leewit. “If I’m not home in time for supper, you can whistle up something, uh, from the Robobutler, and have something nice and eat. Have an Egger or something.” Pausert hoped he didn’t have to use the Egger route back to the Venture 7333. He wasn’t that confident of doing it on his own.

“That seems reasonable. I think the judge would be fine with that. I mean it’s not like she could fly off on her own. Or do anyone any harm,” said the Chief-Inspector.

Captain Pausert did manage to keep a straight face as he agreed with her. The Leewit had quite a convincing coughing fit.

If the two planetary police officers were not fooled, they were better at hiding it than either Pausert or the Leewit. “We’d have to take the adult members of the crew,” said the Chief-Inspector.

“I cannot leave my Mistress unguarded,” said Ta’zara, folding his arms with a calm finality.

“Yes, you can,” said the Leewit, equally firmly. “I order you to.”

He shook his head.

“Me being safe depends on the captain being here to fly the ship, Ta’zara. So don’t be a clumping dope. I’ll whistle if need help.”

“I’d have to lock the nova guns on their target. They’re touchy, and old. Anything disturbing the ship might well set them off,” said Pausert. “So I am afraid you’d be stuck inside it, Senior-Detective, until we come back. If you tried anything⦠well, you’d still be here.”

“I’m due some time off,” said the officer, managing a smile. “Happy to spend some of it here.”

Pausert managed not to smile back. But Ta’zara stepped forward. “I am her sworn defender. Her La’gaiff. Do you understand what that means, policeman?”

The policeman nodded. He could scarcely be unaware of the Na’kalauf tattoos on Ta’zara’s broad face, or have been a police-officer without knowing. “She’ll be as safe as if you were watching her. I won’t allow anyone else on the ship.” He said, nodding, slightly wide-eyed.

“You won’t be able to. Because we’re not going to give you access codes, and that means you’re stuck here,” said Pausert, “until we come back. Now, I’m wasting fuel on my tubes and they’ll overheat, so if you’ll excuse me, I’ll go and shut down the warm-up cycle, before we go.”

So he did that, and a little later, he, Ta’zara, and Vezzarn set out with the Chief-Inspector for the spaceport. They were ushered through customs — and past an obvious barricade set up to allow the soldiers, now packing their gear, to fire from behind. There were two little groundcars with drivers waiting, and Pausert and the Chief-Inspector got into one, and the other two into the other. “I have to ask, because asking awkward questions is my job,” said the Chief-Inspector, “How come your niece has a Na’kalauf bodyguard, and one sworn by their highest oath to defend her?”

Fortunately, Pausert had seen this one coming. “It’s a debt of honor. Her father is quite an important man.” Both of these things were true, they just had nothing to do with each other.

“I wondered. Normally they only sell their services to the La’tienn level.”

“I don’t even know the difference,” admitted Pausert.

“La’tienn is defense, unarmed, and not in breach of the local law, for a defined period of time. The Empire doesn’t have a problem with that. La’gaiff⦠well, there are no limits, and the guardian’s clan will intervene or avenge, if harm comes to the one guarded, and the bodyguard is killed.”

 



 

“And do the Empire’s police do have a problem with that?” asked Pausert, reading her tone. “She’s a little girl, Chief-Inspector. Not a drug lord or a pirate captain.”

“It does make me wish to know who her father is — and why she’s on your ship. But that is my job. To notice odd things and to find out answers.”

Pausert wondered if he hadn’t been too clever himself, again. But that was part of being a Karres operative — trying to out-think your foes, and finding out that what you were really good at was out-thinking yourself. Keeping his mouth shut seemed a good idea. So instead he looked out of the window and took in the wonders of Cinderby’s World’s settlement. That didn’t take long. There weren’t any. It was a typical dome-town — with space at a premium and buildings occupying most of it. The buildings were pre-fabricated ferrocrete slabs, built to the roof. So there wasn’t a view, either. “Cheerful place,” he said, as they headed through yet another airlock.

That got a snort of laughter from his escort. “It should be. A lot of money comes into it. But the prices are high. Rents are sky high.”

The wealth wasn’t that obvious at the jail. It didn’t have rats, probably because they couldn’t afford the rent. It was rather small, and the three of them had to share one cell. There were other cells, but they were full.

“You’re pretty popular,” said Vezzarn, taking in the full cells in the corridor.

“Yes,” said the Chief-Inspector. “It’s cheaper to get locked up than to find a bed. The gatherers come in, get paid, get drunk and commit a suitably minor offense in front of one of my police officers and get locked up for the night. You’re unpopular because your ship had most of the police force at the port-dome. Hopefully I can arrange a hearing for you soon so I can free up this cell.”

She wasn’t joking, either. A few minutes later another policeman came down the passage with a ragged scarecrow of a man, wearing many layers of tattered clothes. The policeman looked around the cells, sighed. “Look, can I put him in with you three? All the other cells are six deep by now. And you won’t be here much longer.”

Pausert could only hope so. And it did seem a little odd for prisoners to be asked. By the smell of the man, he wished he’d said no. Their new cell-mate was in the final garrulous stage of having drunk or drugged himself to the edge of insensibility. “I’ve been a bold gatherer for many’s a year⦔ He sang tunelessly, before noticing them, and beaming aimlessly at them, and then blinking and screwing up his bleary eyes to try and focus them. “You!” He announced, definitively, and pointing a waving finger. “You ain’t gatherers. What they put me here wi’ you for?” He sounded quite disgusted about it, which, considering how he smelled, was something of an insult.

Pausert had been through enough port bars to know how to handle this, to avoid the fight. First you tried to distract them. “We just got in off a ship today,”

That was, by luck, the right thing to say. “Great Patham! You poor devils. Yer gotta get more clothes. Them breather’s won’t keep yer warm out there. You try shonky Jok’s near the east gate. He’s a thief, but they all are, and he ain’t as bad as some. Who got yer contract? Don’ tell me’s that kranslit Ratneurt?” 

“No. Stratel,” said the captain, fishing for information.

That got a snort of distain. “He thinks he’s a kranslit too. I uster be bonded to him before he sold me bond to Ratneurt.”

Pausert was glad that the Leewit wasn’t here to translate “Kranslit,” or to hear it for that matter. She collected bad words with great relish.

The gatherer went on. “Reckon they’ll put you on the north pass. That’s where he’s gotten his stash caves and they allus put the new ones there. You watch out for them porpentiles. There’s a lot around them parts.”

“What’s a porpentile?” asked the captain, and soon wished he hadn’t. Part of that was because the gatherer decided to demonstrate how porpentiles killed gatherers, which involved smothering them. Ta’zara had to haul the scrawny fellow off, before his smell killed the captain.

“I was just showin’ him,” protested the gatherer. “Let go o’ me.”

Ta’zara showed no sign of doing so — and then suddenly did, because something had poked its head out of the man’s collar and bit Ta’zara on the thumb, before vanishing again. It was so fast Pausert barely had time to see the sleek little head and fiery slit eyes. It was the prickle of klatha again, rather like letting his hands find components that might be malfunctioning, and often were. There was something useful here. Something wrong. “Let’s listen to him, Ta’zara.”

“His talk comes from a grog-bottle, Captain. And something bit me,” growled Ta’zara, but he put him down.

The gatherer pulled his layers of clothing clear of his throat. “Y’didn’t have to be so rough. I was just warning you about the porpentiles at the store-caves.”

There was that feeling again. But what was it from? Porpentiles? Or the store caves? Pausert couldn’t tell, and went back to fishing, leading the man on. But before they got anywhere, a sturdy policeman came and unlocked the door. “Follow me. Judge Amorant will see you now.”

 


 

The Leewit realized she was looking as cross as a cornered Tozzimi, when they left. The truth of it all was that she’d given the police inspector a break⦠and the captain a break, but she was actually wanting a break herself. A break from people. Being a healer was hard in ways she’d never thought about. Even buffered, she could feel their pain, and there was nothing that could stop her seeing their fear.

She really wanted a particularly tall Marachini-fruit tree, that she could disappear to the top of, and spit pips at anyone who came too close. Failing that, the Venture would have to do. She hadn’t anticipated them leaving someone behind. And now she was stuck with the clumping idiot. She considered whistling him to sleep, or at least unconscious, and grumpily decided against it. She tried her best little girl smile instead. It wouldn’t have fooled Goth or the captain, but the policeman was a dope.

Except, he wasn’t quite such a dope when it came to searching. The Leewit followed him around, watching every move. She reckoned it made him a bit uncomfortable, which was good. She also learned a whole bunch of neat new possible hiding places that she hadn’t even thought of. That was also probably good, even if it meant someone else had thought of them already. She also talked to him, getting him to answer all sorts of questions. He wasn’t a bad old dope really, and he answered what he considered quizzy little girl questions politely. She kept asking. She figured it wore people down. He was probably telling her a lot of stuff he wouldn’t have told the captain — or anyone else.

He explained, patiently, how his wand worked. “The granules have a scent. The wand’s sensors pick that up at less than two parts per million.”

Among the things she asked was why he was so good at searching, and he said something that the Leewit figured was both serious and odd. “There’s a lot of money to be made out of smuggling the catalyst granules. The supply has dropped off a great deal, and that’s pushed the price up.”

“Why has the supply dropped off?”

“I don’t know. The duke’s advisors think it’s that the cartel — Stratel and his business partners — are holding back supply. They have a history of doing it.”

She read doubt in his tone of voice “But you don’t think so, do you?”

“Well, we’re seeing a drop off in the volume smuggled. That could just be that the smugglers have figured a better way.” By the way he said it, he badly wanted to believe it.

The Leewit wasn’t too sure what it all meant. But the granules were the heart of the air recyclers. And that was something everybody needed in space.

It took up so much of her thinking that she couldn’t even play poker well, later, when he finished his search. Well enough to clean out the copper’s pockets, but not well. She was a bit disgusted with herself about that.


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