The Shaman of Karres – Snippet 10

So when a man in a bright orange hat and vest started ringing a bell and shouting “Calpurnia passengers, Calpurnia passengers! Please embark, luncheon is about to be served,” Goth didn’t hesitate, She joined the throng of people heading toward the biggest vessel. This was ideal, she thought. Bigger means more people, and less chance of noticing one extra. And there would be food.

Food was a distraction that stopped her noticing that she was one of the youngest in the crowd heading onto the vessel for the buffet. By the time she noticed, it was too late. The vessel was already heading out to sea. It was a hover-jet boat, so they moved both quickly and smoothly away from the island. It took Goth very little time to realize that these were sight-seers, not people who had come to snorkel or gill-breathe in the clear water. She used a light-shift to alter her appearance subtly, with just a little regret that she would not get to try the diving. Well, perhaps one day, with the captain… that made her sniff and swallow, and pay attention to the tour guide, rather than thinking about it.

The guide had that sort of sing-song quality to his voice that goes with having said the same thing too often, to too many people, who weren’t really listening.

“… the Mantro barges follow the migrating sea-squill, collecting the cocoons. Of course there are government inspectors on each barge to make sure enough larval squill remain to keep the fishery healthy. There are also quarterly surveys…” he droned on about the squills, their diet, and how dangerous the migrations were, and how secret the Mantro people kept the process of making sheen. Goth listened and ate. It beat thinking too much.

“And now, ladies and gentlemen, if you could insert your nose smell-filters, we’re approaching the Mantro barge, the Queen Abelard, and you want to have them comfortable before you get there. We will have souvenir packs of fresh sheen for sale….”

Goth noticed that all around her the passengers were digging in their bags and putting on what was plainly a cruise issued disposable scent filter unit. And of course, she didn’t have one. Well, there was always a light shift. They weren’t toxin filters… and how bad could a smell be? She’d smelled a few revolting things in her time around the worlds of the Empire and its borders. She could see those around her, and could match the shape of the device well.

They came up to the barge, rapidly. On the high bridge above the wide deck Goth could see a tall, dark-skinned figure — in a rebreather mask, with a long spiky head-dress.

“Ah… they have just made a catch. That is the captain himself on the bridge seeing to the winches,” the guide informed them. “The hereditary captain always directs the winching of the nets. To his left is the official government observer.”

The observer was a squat little man in a grey and orange uniform, also with a rebreather mask. Everyone else visible on the boat was near naked, so it did make him stand out. 

The huge otter-dredge was being emptied into a broad metal hopper, and men in thigh-boots were wading through the shimmering catch, kicking and sorting squill with shovels onto the conveyors. On the deck, men and women worked shoulder to shoulder at the stainless steel tables, knives flashing. Goth noticed they weren’t wearing expensive re-breathers or even nose filters. They appeared to come from every race in the Empire, some short, some tall, wearing little more than hats and leather aprons.

Slaves? Goth wondered. Yet they all seemed to be happy, smiling and working frantically. It must be very well paid because many of them didn’t look in the first flush of youth or beauty… she was still wondering about that when the smell from the barge hit her. She wished she hadn’t eaten, and then, she had to be sick.

She wasn’t alone. There were a two or three others, also escorted by the crew to the stern, and given rebreather masks so that they didn’t inhale the vilest smell ever.

That stopped her thinking about anything much until the tourist cruise had moved on. The vomiting and the dry retching left her exhausted, and happy to rest on a recliner while the rest of the tourists went on being shown the wonders of Parisienne.

It was only later in the hover-rail car heading to the city of Pagette, when Goth got to thinking: how did those workers on the barge live and work with the smell? The guide had said something about the scent being a defensive weapon the sea-squill larvae used to protect their cocoons, but Goth had been feeling too wretched to care. So how did the workers manage? There was something about it that niggled at Goth, but she had to deal with buying clothes, luggage and passage off-world for “Leinna” on a sheen clipper, heading for Morteen, a world in the Duchy of Galm on the southwestern border zone.

That was the sector in which Captain Pausert’s father, Lieutenant-Commander Kaen, had vanished. The planet his garrison had been on, where his mother, Lina, had gone on her search to find out what had happened to him. That was the last trace Imperial Security had of her, and, likewise, the last trace that Karres had been able to find. She’d gone over the border, into the uncharted and unpoliced star systems and the worlds beyond. Still: stars were scattered and thin out that way. There had to be some kind of trace. And there were always people who traded across borders, who were often quite good at evading Imperial security’s watch. All she had to do was find them. And that, in turn, was something Karres’s people were quite good at doing. They had had lots of experience.