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The Shaman of Karres: Chapter Nine

       Last updated: Wednesday, April 15, 2020 12:57 EDT

 


 

        Goth had one small clue, and a world to search. She knew that Captain Pausert’s mother had booked her ticket to Morteen, while the captain was in space as a Cadet-officer of the Nikkeldepain Space Navy. She’d sent him a message from there, saying she’d settled nicely to her new job at the Morteen Xenobiological research institute, wishing him the best and congratulating him on his engagement to Illiya — the daughter of Counselor Onswud. Pausert had said, somewhere during their travels, that he didn’t think his mother had approved, and that was why she’d accepted the new post.

        Goth had read that message. Sub-radio transmissions were expensive enough, over range, to make actually sending written messages worth-while. Touching it⦠she could read a great deal with her klatha power of what wasn’t said.

        There was sadness there, which was natural for a mother moving far from her only son. But there was also elation, and⦠deceit. A part of the information that Karres witches had obtained after the precognitives had predicted the need for this mission, was to track Pausert’s mother’s banking details. She’d actually left Nikkeldepain a relatively well-off woman — both with her income from great Uncle Threbus’s research institute, and the final proceeds from the sale of his estate. Half of that had gone to Captain Pausert and his failed miffel-fur farm. But the other half had gone to her account.

        On Morteen, after a relatively brief period, it had all been withdrawn and the account closed.

        And that was the last trace of her. The limited search that Karres operatives had carried out indicated that she was no longer on Morteen. Nor had she left for any Empire world, or at least not under her own name or identity.

        But then Morteen was a border world, and there was some traffic out beyond the Empire’s limits and sway. Empty worlds, alien worlds, worlds with little colonies of human émigrés, rebels, criminals, refugees, pirates. Dangerous country and large empty starspaces.

        And worlds, many of them, blasted clean of life or fragmented into space debris.

        It was while patrolling this frontier that Pausert’s father had vanished. He’s been a sturdy ten year-old then, and nearly sixteen standard years had gone by since. It had been seven years since his mother’s last bank withdrawal.

        That was a cold trail to try and follow.

        Goth started with that disadvantage, but she also had to sort out the life of her fellow would-have-been slave. Mindi was free and, with the money taken from their captors, at least able to afford look after herself. But she was also terrified to let Goth out of her sight. That was understandable, but a nuisance.

        And if, as seemed very likely, Goth’s search took her far beyond the Empire’s borders in amongst the dead worlds and savage places of the beyond, that was no place for anyone who was not a klatha operative.

        With a sudden shock, Goth realized that she’d just learned one of those essential life lessons she would never quite have gotten with the captain at her side. The universe was not full of Karres operatives — or even people like them. Yet people like Mindi were just as human. Goth knew that from spending the last two weeks close to her, trusted because they’d been through something terrible together. A friend who knew nothing about Karres or klatha. Goth now knew all the details of Mindi’s childhood, family, all about and her loves and lover. It had been quite an education! Mindi could find determination and courage for herself — but she liked to have someone else to lean on, to look after her.

        The gambling-slaving syndicate’s loot had seen to it that Goth now had more money than she’d been given by Karres — plenty to give Mindi a good start. The woman was reluctant to take the money and go off on her own, or even to take a space-liner back home without Goth as an escort.

        Goth liked Mindi. She was capable enough, and capable of being brave. But she would always turn to someone else to make decisions, to give her courage. To lean on. Huh. Goth liked to lean on the captain, sometimes. He was a leanable-on sort of person, but it wasn’t quite the same with him, was it? It was more like lean together. Well, there was nothing for it. Mindi needed a minder, and, judging by what she’d said, she desperately missed the man she’d been engaged to marry, despite the argument that had had her book onto the sheen clipper, as the first ship off-world.

        That called for a sub-radio conversation, regardless of the expense. After several weeks, Goth knew his name, where he worked, and a lot more besides. So: once they had deposited their baggage, Goth took the unsuspecting Mindi into the subradio office and asked to book a call, handing over the details on a note. She paid the large requisite fee, and they sat in one of the booths.

        “I could have stayed in the hotel, and locked myself in, I suppose,” said Mindi. “Who are you calling?”

        Just then a worried male voice came over the speakers.

        Mindi’s shriek probably deafened the poor man. It took a while — an expensive while — to reassure him that she was no longer kidnapped. It took a little more time to organize him a passage on a sheen clipper, but Goth knew, at least, that she would be able to leave her rescued companion in someone else’s hands quite soon.

        It seemed to settle Mindi too. She was still nervous, but would stay alone in the hotel room while Goth started her hunt for just where Pausert’ mother had gotten to. Goth soon discovered one of the big problems with a world where the main attraction was gambling: large bank withdrawals were common. Pausert’s mother’s place of work, and former apartment yielded no more clues⦠except an unusual spice. The place had of course been re-rented, but it was fortunately empty again. Goth pretended to be a possible tenant, trailing her fingers across the walls, reading the history that strong emotions had left for her klatha sense.

        The problem, as always, was separating out the relevant from everything else that happened. Old structures were worse than new ones.

        Goth realized the renting agent was giving her an odd look. “I’m sorry. I was⦠elsewhere. Something just reminded me of a friend.” She described Pausert’s mother.

        The agent scowled. “I thought we’d gotten rid of the smell.”

        “What smell?”

        “Paratha spice. We had a terrible job getting rid of it after that woman left. I can’t rent this to you if you also use it. And I’ll have to increase the deposit.”

        “Thank you, but I don’t think it will suit me,” said Goth, and went off to investigate paratha spice. As it turned out, it was very illegal but was not, strictly speaking, a narcotic. According to the databank she consulted, paratha was a plant-based flavor enhancer. That sounded harmless enough — except paratha apparently made everything taste like paratha. Your taste buds thought that it was the most wonderful flavor ever, even if your nose did not agree. No food without it tasted worth eating. And the cheapest boiled wallroot tasted as good as the finest and most expensive delicacy — as long as you had paratha. It didn’t appear to do those who consumed it any harm, and they could eat food without it. The food just lacked any real taste to them. The spice came from somewhere out beyond the borders of the Empire, Morteen seemed to be its main point of entry.

        So that was the dropped odd-shaped bottle and the joy she read off the stone top of the counter. From there and back to the xeno-botanical institute: where a night-time visit to their files revealed that Doctor Lina had been asked to investigate the chemistry of the illegal paratha spice. Had in fact been granted some funding to purchase some — money she’d returned, just before resigning.

        Now, Goth merely had to track down just who was smuggling the stuff in for her next lead. That should be easyâ¦

        Only it wasn’t. Her visits, light-shifted and in no-shape to various port-side bars could have bought her any other drug she might have wanted, but not paratha. Paratha she eventually found through Mindi.

        Mindi having gone through relief and happiness that her dear Woton was coming to fetch her, was now doing alternating spells of worry that he might be kidnapped, or that he might still be very angry, impatience, and a desire to welcome him with the finest treats. The last part Goth encouraged, because at least something could be done about that. It seemed his favorite food was a complicated kind of cake, the ingredients of which could only be obtained from an expensive specialist. And while Mindi asked about limbnut flour, Goth put her hand on the counter, and her klatha senses read elation and despair — and a small odd-shaped bottle woven into it.

 



 

        She grabbed Mindi. “We have to go. Now!” And she hustled the startled young woman out.

        “What was wrong?” asked Mindi, once they were on the slidewalk and well away.

        “Just a feeling,” said Goth. “After the last time on the sheen clipper, I like to listen to those feelings.”

        Mindi nodded earnestly, and they went in search of another delicatessen.

        It was late that afternoon when Goth came back to the shop, slipping into no-shape and watching and waiting. She expected to find that the shopkeeper was selling it.

        But he wasn’t. He was buying. She had to wait until the shop closed to see that. He sent his employees home, locked the doors, turned off the lights that weren’t in the window display and walked through to a back room. Goth followed, just to make sure he’d left, and to see if he turned on any alarms before she searched the place, using her klatha skill to get the past from its walls. But he wasn’t leaving. He went into what had plainly been intended as a store-room — and still had a few boxes in it, as well as a simple cot, closet and a chair. Two of the boxes had been pushed together to make a table, on which reposed a loaf of ordinary bread on a cutting-board, and a set of very precise scales. The owner cut a slice of the bread, unlocked a small cupboard set into the wall, and took out the odd-shaped bottle. Then, he carefully weighed out some of the pungent spice, sprinkled it on his bread, and started to eat it in tiny, appreciative bites, savoring each mouthful.

        Goth stepped back into the shadows and out of no-shape. She took out her Clipe pistol and stepped into view. “Got a few questions to ask you,” she said in her best Hulik-the-professional IS agent voice. “Stay calm and answer them, and no-one gets hurt.”

        The man sighed. “Do you have to spoil my one pleasure, my one decent meal of the day? Can’t it wait until I’m finished?” And he took a large bite of his bread.

        Goth had expected pretty much anything else as a response. She actually didn’t quite know what to do. So she ‘ported his little spice bottle into her hand. When he stopped his careful chewing and realized it was gone, and that she was holding it. ⦠That got his attention.

        “Please. I⦠I’ve paid for that one,” he said. “And I haven’t got any more money. I’m selling off all the stock I’ve got. I should have enough to settle up.”

        “You can have it back if I get the answers I’m looking for,” said Goth. “I want to know where this stuff is coming from.”

        He looked at her and sighed. “You’re either from some kind of anti-drug-enforcement agency, or someone planning to muscle in on the trade. So I can’t really tell you. It would stop my supply, and then I’d starve to death. It’s a horrible way to die, especially for a lover of fine food. So just kill me. If you let me finish first, that would be kind.”

        “I’m not competition, and I’m not part of any anti-drug agency, and you can finish your meal and have your bottle back. I just need to track the source down. I want⦔

        “Don’t do it, girl,” he interrupted. “I thought if I got the quantities small enough it would just be a flavor enhancer. But you can’t. I tried. Patham, I tried.”

        “I don’t want to eat the stuff,” said Goth, rolling her eyes. “I just need to find the planet it comes from.”

        “I suppose that would be the most effective way of destroying it. Anyway I can’t tell you. It comes from somewhere out past the frontier. I just buy it. And if you destroyed the crop, I couldn’t.”

        “I’ve no interest in destroying it. I’ve no interest in it at all, I’m just looking for someone who is on that world. A missing person,” said Goth, irritably. “Just tell me who you buy it from.”

        “Drymocks. Purveyors of furs, luxury goods, fine liquors and spices. Now can I have my paratha back? Please?”

        Goth took a long careful look at the spice bottle, memorizing the details⦠and noticed that the bottle had been sealed with some kind of hard wax, and that in it, there was a neat little imprint — small letters pressed into the wax, broken by the bottle being opened. Other than that, it was a plain if oddly-shaped bottle. The spice itself was a dusty red.

        The man was getting anxious, had gotten up — and still had his breadknife in hand. She could have dealt with that, but there was nothing to gain by not giving it back to him. So she held it out. He snatched it and clutched it to himself. And now he seemed more inclined to talk. “You won’t try it, will you?” he said, anxiously. “It’s not worth it. I thought⦠I thought it was manageable. It’s not. Not even in the smallest quantities. Now all my food — even Vegtam caviar — just tastes like ashes.”

        “I’m not planning to, no. As I said, I’m actually looking for a missing person⦠or persons.”

        “They wanted me to sell it in my shop…” He started to cry. “Thirty years I’ve spent building up the business, the best and finest flavors. All lost to me now. I can’t taste them anymore.”

        Goth left him to his regrets. A little more research found the wholesaler, Drymocks. And standing in no-shape she saw a last layer of little bottles on a pallet in their secure store — and overheard that the SS Bolivar was due soon. They hoped that the supply would lastâ¦

        She had a ship’s name, and, while she was there, she took a bottle of the paratha to examine. She understood, when she looked at it, why Pausert’s mother had dropped the bottle. Because imprinted into the wax in tiny letters was Pausert’s father’s name: Lt.Com. Kaen ISN.

         


 

        Goth just had to wait for the ship to land at the port. It was, she established, a regular visitor to Morteen. It had a shipping agent, and they had a schedule — at least its official one. It wasn’t a fast ship, plying a regular route between several worlds on the borders of Imperial space, finishing its route on Iradalia, before taking a long run back to Morteen. Goth’s heart skipped a beat seeing that. Iradalia⦠She knew the captain had been heading toward the long-simmering war between Iradalia and Karoda. Be rather neat if she ended up thereâ¦

        In the meantime, she had her own pair of lovebirds to settle. That proved less difficult than she had feared. Woton, when he arrived, was a solid young man. He was in initially rather suspicious of Goth having had a role in Mindi’s disappearance and kidnapping — but once the hugging and kissing had eased off and Mindi had tearfully told him her tale, that changed. Then he was just embarrassingly grateful. He was now curious, however, about how Goth had managed it all.

        He had, she decided, some of the common sense Mindi lacked. So she gave him a story he could believe. “Let’s just say Imperial Security has a number of agencies, and they recruit people from higher gravity worlds and give us special training and equipment. I can’t really say any more. My superiors wouldn’t be pleased at me saying that much, or⦠well, I should have left Mindi. That was not part of my task, and I don’t want it trickling back to them. That could have bad consequences for all of us.”

        It was amazing how people’s imagination filled in the gaps. Goth was sure she couldn’t have made up all those details if she’d tried for a month. It made leaving quite easy — which was helped by the fact that Woton was a skilled hyper-electronic engineer, a trade much in demand at the Cascades, quite easy.

        Goth was very glad to be on her own again. She celebrated by visiting the Cascades and, after wandering around a little in no-shape, being quite glad the Leewit wasn’t here. Her little sister liked to play cards, and had never really accepted that it was probably her klatha skill that made her win. Even when Goth had pointed it out, the Leewit didn’t consider it cheating. She took a serious objection to ordinary cheating, though. Goth did too, but Goth didn’t break things with her ultrasonic whistles. She just relieved the cheats of their own money. She even gave some back to the victims.

        Still, there were quite a lot of Imperial maels in her purse by the time the SS Bolivar got into port, and offloaded its cargo. That was just as well, because the agent wasn’t keen on selling her a passage. “It’s a freighter, Miss. They don’t take passengers.”

 



 

        “You have before,” she said.

        He looked at her in surprise. “How did you know?”

        Goth did not say because the desperation, and hope of that passenger left a trace, a memory imprinted in this greasy ferrostone counter-top. Instead she said: “I got a message from her.”

        The man actually looked relieved — and his response was not quite what Goth had expected. She’d meant a message before Pausert’s mother Lina had left Morteen. He didn’t read it that way. “Oh, good. She got there and back, then. I was worried. But she insisted.”

        That was a fair thing to worry about, really. From the start of this mission it had been obvious to Goth and to the Karres witches that the odds against Pausert’s father being anything other than dead, had to be high. The imprint of his name proved that hadn’t been true.

        She’d also given him quite a lot of money, Goth read. But he didn’t mention that.

        “I am prepared to pay you handsomely for the passage,” said Goth.

        The man sighed. “Look, young woman, it’s dangerous. You know⦠at least I think you do, that they don’t go where the schedule says they do. No one from here really wants to go to Iradalia. It’s just that they are a world that doesn’t share their landing records with the Imperial landings record register. And they’re far enough away to justify the time.”

        Goth hadn’t known, but she did now. Not that it made any difference — except⦠given the ship’s speed, and the time that it would take to get to Iradalia, she could narrow down the possible destinations outside the Imperial border. That information, she could — and would — send back to Karres. Just in case.

        “I’m prepared to pay for a passage. Regardless.”

        “I’ll ask the captain,” said the agent. “He may not agree. They ship out tomorrow.”

        “Give him a call,” she said, pointing at the communicator.

        The agent shook his head. “I’ll talk to him when he comes in. Come back in about an hour.”

        Goth nodded, walked out, and quietly slipped herself into no-shape. But she was getting tired now from her too-frequent use of no-shape, and shifted a bit too slowly. The agent had followed her to the door and locked it. So she had to ‘port the key from his pocket, and let herself in — by which stage he was already in his office and on the communicator, talking to someone.

        “⦠says she got a message from her.”  Goth could only hear one side of the conversation, but the other person had obviously replied.

         “I thought so. It’s odd. We should be careful,” answered the agent.

        The person he’d called replied again, and the agent supplied: “She’s coming back in an hour.”

        Even standing too close for comfort, Goth couldn’t hear the reply, just the burr of a gravelly voice. The agent answered: “To Iradalia? All right. But –” He was plainly interrupted at this point. He sighed and shook his head. “Look. You deal with it. Off-planet. And you’d better send someone. I want no part of this.”

        He put the communicator back down, went to open his door, and failed to find his key in his pocket. Goth took advantage of that time to go through his desk drawers and steal his blaster from them — and, when he came back, she let herself out. When he came to the door again, feeling in his pockets, and looking around his grubby floor, she ‘ported the key back on his desk. Then she went out quietly and walked over to the port buildings where she sent an expensive sub-radio message, before returning to the agent’s office. She was just in time to see two spacemen enter. She followed them in, again in no-shape. She was getting even more tired, but she thought she could maintain no-shape for a while yet.

        “It has to be a trap of some sort. Merko. There’s no way she got back to Imperial space. She must have meant she sent a message before she left.”

        “The question is just who is behind this search. Can we afford to just make her disappear?” asked the agent, worriedly.

        The smaller spaceman shrugged. “Can we afford not to?”

        “Look,” said the agent. “She’s just a very young woman. If there was any real muscle behind her, they’d have sent them. Odds are she’s some kind of relative. It must be a wealthy family, to spend that kind of money. But it’s been a good few years.”

         “Then make the deal, but get her on board now. Make sure there’s no record that she did,” said the larger of the two spacemen.

        “I don’t like it. This is not what I agreed to⦔ the agent protested weakly.

        “You’ll do what we want, Tobi. Or else.”

        The agent glowered sullenly back at them.

         Goth took the opportunity to slip out, and then come back to the doors, rattle them, and knock loudly.

        The three within looked at each other and at her, as Goth walked in. “I’ve thought about it,” she said, ignoring the two spacers and just addressing the agent. “I need a few more hours to consult with⦠well, other people. I’m not too comfortable with what you told me.”

        The agent looked the other two again and said gruffly. “It’s go now, or not at all. This is the captain and first mate. They just came to tell me their departure has been set forward. And it’ll cost you twenty thousand maels.”

        That was a huge amount just for a passage, but Goth paid it over without a blink.

        “You must be quite wealthy,” said one of the spacemen.

        “It’s money my Aunt Lina left me,” said Goth. As soon as the money was put away, she calmly ‘ported it right back into her purse.

        “Well, we’ll take you across to the ship then,” said the other. “Not long until take-off.”

        “Oh. I was hoping to send a message⦔ said Goth.

        “Give it to me, I’ll see it is sent,” said the agent.

        Goth shook her head. “It’ll wait.”

        “I can have your luggage fetched for you.”

        “That would be useful,” Goth said, smiling innocently. She gave him her hotel name and room number. “But I had better go with these gentlemen now.”

        So she went along with them, to the Bolivar. It was much larger than the Venture, and plainly armed. Pausert would have had a fit if the Venture 7333 ever looked that dirty. The Bolivar‘s captain and first mate didn’t seem to care or notice. The little cubby-hole they told her was to be her cabin had to be emptied of junk first. “I’ll get someone to clean it out. We weren’t expecting a passenger,” said the Bolivar‘s captain. “Have you been on a working ship before, Miss?”

        “Oh, yes,” said Goth sweetly. “I was on one, once.” She left out the many ensuing times. It was a dull ache thinking of the Venture.

        “Well, the heads are down there, the mess is up the stair. Stay out of my command deck,” he said, tersely.

        “I am sure I’ll be fine, Captain,” said Goth, not promising anything. “And I may as well clear this stuff out of the cabin. That’ll save some of your hard-working crew some effort.”

        He nodded. “Just put it in the passage.”

        Goth did manage to close the door on the clutter, before stalking after them in no-shape, in time to hear the Mate say: “â¦space her?”

        “It’s that or sell her to Karoda,” said the captain, grimly, “but you can still sometimes get answers out of the slaves they condition. This is too sweet a business to take a chance on.”

        Talk drifted away from her onto loading, and Goth slipped back to her little cabin. She was now very tired from her too-frequent use of no-shape — quite hungry, too — but was set on clearing the place out by just tossing everything, Then it occurred to her that she had time⦠and this might well be where they’d put Pausert’s mother for the trip. And, on touching each item, and reading the story behind it — another tiring, hungry-making process — she found that to be true. Some of it didn’t even take klatha skills: an old space-navy ship-bag at the back of pile of boxes of spare parts, had women’s clothing in it, and her name. Now, if she could just avoid being tossed into space or sold into slavery, she could find out just what had happened to Pausert’s mother. At least, where this link of the chain led.

        She could only hope that it was a short chain.

        And she really wished she had something to eat.


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