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The Shaman of Karres: Chapter Eight

       Last updated: Wednesday, April 8, 2020 07:04 EDT

 


 

        The Leewit nodded knowingly, after listening to what had happened. “See, Captain, people say things to kids that they wouldn’t give away to adults. That copper said more than he realized, answering my questions. I kept on the ‘Whys’, ’cause I figured it would be a good thing if I made him tired of being asked questions all the time. Grown-ups can be pushed like that. The Imperials are worried, because they think the cartel — this Stratel, Bormgo and whatever — are holding back supply. But the policeman — he was an all right old dope, even if he can’t play cards — he doesn’t think that’s true. He thinks that if Stratel and his friends were cutting the supply to push up the price, the smuggling would step up instead. It hasn’t. He thinks there really just isn’t the catalyst to be had.”

        “And he’s right. That’s what the smuggler-boss says,” agreed Pausert.

        “An’ what we gatherers say, but the Consortium thinks we’re holding out on ’em. Selling to Me’a,” said Nady.

        “Why would you be selling to yourself?” the Leewit asked.

        “Not himself. Me’a — that’s what the smuggler boss calls herself.”

         “That’s neat!” said the Leewit, proving it wasn’t just something that had appealed to one young girl, once. “But Captain⦠what happens if the stuff really is running out?”

        Pausert shrugged. “Nothing and everything. Well, nothing immediately. Space travel gets slowly more expensive. They used to travel in space before air-recyclers⦠It’s just the slow end of small ships. The catalysts don’t wear out. There just won’t be any new ones. Ships wreck, are lost, get blown up by pirates.”

        “That’s sort of what I figured,” said the Leewit. “So we can’t exactly cut and run, Captain. It needs fixing.”

        That was Karres for you, thought Pausert. It borrowed you a fair bit of trouble, but it was what they were. “No. I was wondering if something had changed. Something that could be reversed. Or if there was a disease or something.” That, after all, was what the Leewit’s core klatha skill was. She was a healer.

        “They’ve been gathering for thousands of years,” said Nady. “This place got found not long after they left old Yarthe, they say. An’ might have bin used before that even. I seen some old laser-cut stone walls with doors too small for people, over North Pass way.”

        “So what’s changed?”

        He shrugged, rubbed his head. “Nothin’. Gatherers goin’ further out, mebbe? There’s more porpentiles than there use to be, I’d say.”

        “Porpentiles?” asked the Leewit.

        So they had to explain porpentiles.

        “Could they be eating the tumbleflowers?” she asked.

        “Nah. They let them roll past. Even roll over them. Seen it meself often. Porpentiles don’t do nothing but lie in the sun.”

        “And smother gatherers,” pointed out Pausert.

        “Yeah. But not always. I seen a new boy, not an hour into workin’ his bond, and he walks right past one. Big ‘un. Next day he walks past it again⦠and it’s fine. A week later it’s still there⦠and he’s just found his first granules, he’s full of himself⦠and it kills him. But nobody never seen them do anything to a tumble-flower.”

        “Any chance I could get to see one of these tumbleflowers, Captain,” asked the Leewit. “Can you touch them?” she asked Nady.

        “Oh, yeah. If they’re not movin’ you can touch them all over. Gatherers have tried poking ’em, patting ’em, stroking ’em to see if they’d drop their crystals. It don’t hurt, but it also don’t help,” said Nady.

        “And there was one in the gorge — not more than twenty minutes away,” said Pausert. “I think if we took a rope you could get to it. You could see if it was sick, maybe? Can you work on alien creatures?”

        “I reckon,” said the Leewit. “I fixed the nurse-beast, didn’t I?”

        They left Vezzarn, so that the Leewit could use his re-breather, slipped out of the Venture again and went back to the gorge. The tumbleflower hadn’t completed its climb out yet. Looking down the steep cliff, Pausert unhitched the length of rope “Tie onto the end of rope, Leewit. Three of us should be able to pull you up, even after all those pancakes.”

        Ta’zara neatly snagged the end of the rope and looped it around his own waist. “I will go down first.”

        “You weigh a lot more than the Leewit,” grumbled Pausert.

        “Yes, but if you put the rope around that spike of rock, I can lower myself. You will not have to take my full weight.”

        The captain knew by now that it was useless to argue with Ta’zara about the decisions he’d made concerning the Leewit’s safety, so they went along with his plan. Then they let the Leewit down to a ledge next to the creature, which had ignored Ta’zara, even when he touched it.

        The Leewit had bought a headlight from the Venture, and in its light the captain saw her put her small hands onto the long spokes of the tumbleflower, and hold them. The plant-creature just went on slowly hauling its way up the cliff. She pulled her hands back. “You can pull us up, Captain.”

        On the lip of the gorge, Pausert asked: “So was it sick?”

        “Nope,” said the Leewit, shaking her head. “Just old.”

        So they retreated to the Venture again. Once they were safely back inside, the captain asked her about it. She shrugged. “I can feel what’s going on inside. Feel broken bone, feel blood-vessels and where they should go. Feel nerves and follow their patterns and read something about what they feel. The tumbleflower is different from what humans — or even the nurse-beast — felt like, but I⦠there is no other word for it, I understand how it works, and what’s broken. And there is nothing much broken in the tumbleflower. It’s just old and tired of rolling. It’s not like there’s a brain really for it to think.”

         “I ain’t sure wasn’t me you was reading,” said Nady. “Old and tired o’ rolling. An’ not much brain to think.”

        The sleek little head popped out of Nady’s collar, eyed them all, and yawned. And then it turned back and stared unblinking and utterly motionless, at the Leewit.

        “Clumping demorgop!” exclaimed the Leewit, pointing “What’s that?”

        It gave her a peculiar hissy-growl in reply.

        “Rochat,” said Ta’zara disapprovingly. “Smelly beasts. Take a lot of time and effort and do nothing useful.”

        “Ain’t true. Why, Kiki here she’s no trouble an’ she keeps me comp’ny. She’s real affectionate and friendly.” Nady stroked the creature under the chin. It bit him, and disappeared back into his shirt. “Um. When she feels like it,” he added.

        “So⦠what are they, actually?” asked the Leewit. “Can I have another look?”

        “Nope,” said Nady. “She comes out when she feels like it.”

        “People keep them as pets,” said Ta’zara. “They’re some kind of alien beast that seems to like hanging around people. They’re not very bright and you can’t train them. There are some on Na’kalauf — brought back from contracts. But they won’t breed there”.

        “Breed here, but it’s too cold for ’em. Most of the miners have one,” said Nady.

        “Or are had by one,” said Ta’zara. “My sister’s mother has one. She spends half her share-money on spoiling it.”

        “The question is, what do we do about the situation here,” said Pausert, hastily, seeing Nady open his mouth. “Look, besides us being arrested and having to go to court⦠we could warm the tubes and blast out of here right now, but there’s a long term situation here, which affects K⦠all of us. The sooner dealt with the better, and it is something the various parties — the government and the Consortium can’t see because they’re all part of it. They all believe the others are to blame.”

 



 

        “I think I need to go have another look outside,” said the Leewit.

        “For what?” asked Pausert.

        “I don’t know. But maybe I need to look at some more of the tumbleflowers. Besides, I had to sit in here while you all got put in jail and met Me’a.”

        No one seemed to have a better idea, so Captain Pausert agreed. They had time, and his gambler’s itch said it was a good idea. Vezzarn was left to look after the Venture, and before dawn they slipped out and back into the wilds of Cinderby’s World.

        They walked for some hours, and had one encounter with another tumbleflower, which the Leewit was also able to touch — and, again, failed to diagnose anything but age. It was younger than the first one, she said, but still had had many years of rolling.

        “We c’n try the other side of Torg pass,” suggested Nady, pointing to a notch in the mountain. “Usually find more there, but more porpentiles too.”

        So they did. Ta’zara insisted on them walking in formation — Nady ahead, Pausert behind him, and then the Leewit, with Ta’zara just behind her. He didn’t explain, but Pausert figured it was probably the best defensive strategy the Na’kalauf body-guard could come up with — Nady to spot the problems, Pausert to deal with them — and himself to deal with sudden attacks from the back.

        They’d just gotten over to the sun-side of the pass when it all happened. Nady was perhaps ten paces ahead of the Leewit, and Ta’zara  just behind her, when the porpentile undulated out of a narrow gully, between them. Ta’zara reached out and grabbed the Leewit, and put her behind him.

        Nady turned, and yelled “No!” through the speaker of rebreather. The porpentile — which had been turned toward the Leewit and Ta’zara — twisted and leapt. In a sinuous lunge, it spread and covered Nady.

        The old gatherer had been fast enough, barely, to get an arm out. All they could see of him was his hand sticking out from under. The fingers moved.

        Ta’zara stopped his charge from running forward. “We can’t just leave him like that,” said the Leewit.

        “We can’t get off — or at least that’s what he said,” explained the captain. “If he can breathe, it’ll eventually give up.”

        “Ain’t dead,” came a voice from under the porpentile. “C’n breathe.”

        He might not be dead, but he certainly sounded hurt. “How do we get you out?” asked the Leewit.

        “Cain’t.”

        “Will it attack us?” she asked.

        “Not while it has got me.”

        “I could whistle at it, Captain,” said the Leewit. “Bust it up inside, good and proper.”

        “Not through the re-breather speaker,” said the captain. “You’d bust that first. And no, you can’t take it off. This air is pretty close to poison.”

        “Oh. Great Patham! I hadn’t thought of that,” said the Leewit. “So what do we do now, Captain? Can you cocoon him? Or it?”

        “I could make holes in it. It might work. I don’t want to make holes in him. And it is hard to tell how thick it is, or what it might do.”

        “Jest leave it alone,” said the voice of Nady from underneath it. “I’ll wait it out.”

        “You’re hurt,” said the Leewit.

        “Might have broke something. But you get on. You cain’t stay out here. Could take three days or five.”

        “The big problem, even if we were willing to do that, is knowing where to go,” said the captain. There had to be some kind of answer to this. It made no sense. Both the Leewit and Ta’zara had been much closer. Why did it attack Nady?  It had looked like it was just going past, and then done that huge turn.

        The Leewit had stepped up to Nady’s hand. “Mistress, don’t,” said Ta’zara, leaping forward. “I cannot allow⦔

        The Leewit looked at him sternly. “No. It needs doing,” she said, and calmly put her hand on the porpentile. Nothing happened. And then she said: “Clumping Great Patham’s seventh steaming hell, Cap’n! It’s the same animal.”

        Pausert, who had also started forward, noticed that the porpentile had done nothing in reaction to her touching it. So he asked: “The same as what?”

        “The same as the tumbleflower,” explained the Leewit. “I mean not the actual same animal, but organized the same inside. I can even feel where the arms were. It’s just folded itself flat and those things that looked like flower-buds have kind of grown to each other.”

        “Is it well, but old too?” said the captain with a smile, making a joke of it. “It’s bigger than a tumbleflower, even spread out.”

        “No⦠it doesn’t feel old,” she said

        “Hungry for gatherers?” asked Ta’zara

        The Leewit blinked. “It just eats sunlight.”

        In his head the story of the young gatherer suddenly came back to Pausert. The porpentile wasn’t hungry. It had ignored the fellow⦠until he found some granules of the catalyst “It has to be the granules. That’s what it’s after!” 

        “Well, it cain’t have them! They’re under me,” protested the gatherer.

        “I think we need to do a little digging here,” said Ta’zara. “If I haul that slab of rock out, we might be able to reach.” So he and the captain pulled, and wriggled the piece of rock free, making a narrow gap. He stuck his hand in⦠and pulled it out hastily⦠with the red rochat attached to his thumb. He shook it, and it let go. Then, bounded across to a rock, where it hunched, looking at them with slitted eyes chittering with rage.

        “I’ll try again, now that pest is out the way,” said Ta’zara. So he did, but he could not reach far enough.

        It took the captain, who had slightly longer arms, to reach in and cut the gatherer’s pouch free and pull it out. He opened it and pulled out the little oiled leather bag.

        “Look out, Captain!” yelled the Leewit.

        The porpentile was surging towards him. So Pausert threw the bag to Ta’zara. It turned to chase him and, just in time, he threw it to the captain. It was very fast and turned back like an agile fish. Pausert slipped on a rock and flung it — badly. The Leewit scooped it out of the air, and tossed it across to Ta’zara. The porpentile whirled after him. “Captain! What must we do?”

        “Open the bag and pour the stuff out!” he yelled.

        So Ta’zara did, throwing the crystals out on the ground.

        Nady sat up and yelled in outrage. “Thieving claim jumper! That ain’t yours!” He struggled to his feet as the porpentile surged over the scattered green granules and settled on them. The raging old man limped up to it, and started pummeling it with his fists. “Yer kranslits! Now I’ll have ter wait until it moves⦔

        He backed away, because it was moving. Well⦠not so much moving as simply breaking apart, the fragments blowing away. The Leewit caught one. “That figures,” she said, in a tone of satisfaction. She stepped over to Nady, who had sat down and was clutching his ankle. “Look.” She held out her cupped hands to him.

        “A tumble-flower. I ain’t never seen one that size before. But where’s me granules?” he asked plaintively.

        “I think that is your granules. Or what happens when you mix your granules with a porpentile. That’s why you’re running out. They haven’t been breeding properly.”

        “But I still ain’t got my granules. Or my Kiki.” The rochat was nowhere to be seen. He sniffed plaintively. “She’s gone an’ left me. And I lost my granules. I was goin’ ter buy her some coalfish.”

        The rochat suddenly appeared out of the Leewit’s shirt, and bounded across to him. “How did that get there?” demanded the Leewit as the rochat oozed its way up to Nady.

 



 

        “Them always go to where they can stay warm. You better take her with you. I ain’t going back with nothing, an’ my stash gone and my leg ain’t right,” he said gloomily.

        “What you have to do is get to your feet and lead us back,” said Ta’zara.

        “I think we need to go back to the dome. Me’a is going to be very, very interested. She needs to know this,” said Pausert. “And I think you may become a hero to the gatherers, Nady.”

        “Being a hero don’t buy no drinks. Those crystals was worth a five night drunk!” complained Nady.

        “If I’m right, you’ll be bought drinks for the rest of your lifetime. You just worked out how to save gatherers from porpentiles.”

        “Huh. Most of ’em would rather be dead than lose their stash,” said Nady, but he tried to stand up. And sat down again, with a gasp of pain. “Ya should o’ left me under it. I’m bust.”

        “And that would have helped you how?” said Ta’zara dryly. “Let me have a look⦔

        “I’d have died rich,” said the old gatherer, grumpily letting Ta’zara push him into lying down. “Now, even if I get back, I’ll starve. Kiki will go off with someone else because I can’t afford to feed her.”

        “You can’t take riches with you,” said Ta’zara. “The Leewit, do you need the leg exposed?”

         


 

        With her klatha senses, the Leewit felt the sharp broken edges of the bone in Nady’s leg. Ta’zara had splinted it and numbed the nerve. The Leewit moved everything carefully until the bone edges touched, going into place like that last piece of jigsaw puzzle. She knitted little lattices between the broken edges. Healing should be faster and better with the framework she’d created.

        Except that it wouldn’t. She realized that it wasn’t that Nady had merely had a porpentile fall on him. It was that the bones themselves were brittle, short of calcium. This break was just something inevitable, just happening a little sooner than it would have anyway. Part of her said you’ve used enough energy, leave it. But another part of her knew there was more to healing than just treating the immediate problem.

        The Leewit had the teacher-pattern in her mind to guide her, to help understand what she was finding: The problems centered on the gatherer’s liver. That problem was affecting a lot of other things — among them the hormones that controlled his calcium levels. Nady was slowly stripping calcium off his bones when he needed it. And was not — as other humans did — replacing it. It all came down to a compound his liver was still breaking down. To the klatha healer one cell was just as big as one organ. She could fix the damaged cells, but there were millions of them — in this size-less dimension, as hard a work as fixing something far bigger. She’d die before she got done.

        The teaching pattern led her. She made his own immune cells know the compound that was destroying his bone — change its shape by joining on to it — and that, it seemed, would send it to his kidneys and out, without doing the damage it had been. Satisfied, she gradually pulled back from the klatha healing trance⦠but as she did, she grasped from the teaching pattern what she’d done. What the substance was.

        It was Nady’s drug habit, a euphoric drug of some kind. It wouldn’t poison him now — but it also wouldn’t work to make him happy anymore. The teaching pattern was⦠almost smug. It had taught the Leewit how to deal with many poisons now. The Leewit herself was not smug. It worried her. She wasn’t quite sure how or why, but it did.

        “Can he walk?” asked the captain.

        The Leewit realized that he had his hand on her shoulder — lending her strength. Like touch-talk klatha, strength-lending seemed to function best with actual contact. He looked tired, but she didn’t feel as tired as the last time. Well, maybe she was getting better at it. She wasn’t ever going to tell anyone, but this was hard. Or maybe it was the captain’s klatha strength she’d leaned on. She’d asked for his help before, but not this time. It was a weird thing, suddenly getting what Goth thought was so wonderful about the captain. She’d said when the Leewit asked, but it hadn’t made sense back then: You never have to ask him twice.

        “Nope. But it doesn’t hurt, does it Nady?”

        The old gatherer blinked. “No. It feels fine⦔ He would have tried to stand up and undo her work, but for Ta’zara thinking faster than either she or the captain did, and pushing him down.

        “We’ll carry him. It’s a pity we have nothing for a stretcher, but he’s a skinny drink of water,” said the captain. “We can’t be that far from that cave, and at least he can tell us where to go.”

        “And keep an eye for more porpentiles,” said the Leewit.

        “I shall watch for those too,” said Ta’zara. “I will carry him first, Captain. Lift him onto my back. He can tell us where to go. ”

        So the captain did, ignoring Nady’s protests. At least the porpentiles were unlikely to trouble them.

         


 

        Pausert was glad to let Ta’zara take the first shift of carrying, as they headed on down the pass, so he could suck at the glucose tube in the rebreather. That gave him time to recover, and time to think. The answer to the shortage of catalyst was that the porpentiles weren’t splitting into baby tumble-flowers, that was plain. But how should that news be handled? “Nady. The porpentiles — do you get them elsewhere? I mean elsewhere on the planet.”

        “Wouln’ know,” said the gatherer. “I never been past Mount Lofty.”

        “You said the surveyors found tumble-flowers elsewhere,” said the Leewit.

        “Yeah, but then yer can see one of those easy enough. Them survey blokes wouldn’t see a porpentile unless it jumped on ’em.”

        That could well be true. “So they could just live here in these mountains?”

        “Could do, I suppose,” said the gatherer. “No one cares really.”

        Soon they swapped over, and the captain had to concentrate on his feet on the rocky trail rather than the problems of Cinderby’s World. They took two more turns each, before the airlock to the cave came in sight.

        Once inside, it seemed that the decision on how the news should be handled was made by the only member of the party who wasn’t dead-beat from carrying extra — either a pack or the injured gatherer — and that, of course, was Nady. He had plenty of energy and breath for it. He was certainly eager to use both — and he was quite a story-teller, with a tale of something that held his audience in mortal fear. He had all the other gatherers around him — and after a few moments the Leewit said to Ta’zara: “Go stop him jumping up.”

        So Ta’zara did, pressing a hand onto his shoulder every time the gatherer tried. Nady still had his audience in the palm of his hand. Captain Pausert smiled to himself, enjoying just sitting and resting, listening to a tale that was already a lot more dramatic than it had been, growing and growing. He had been quite right about one thing. Nady would probably never pay for another drink in a bar on Cinderby’s World.

        As an option, keeping it all a secret was off the table.


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