The Shaman of Karres – Snippet 25

Chapter 9

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On Morteen, after a relatively brief period, it had all been withdrawn and the account closed.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

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.