The Mantrusian Affair: Chapter Eighteen

"You want to talk, or are you going to sit there simmering for the rest of the day?" Tiirau asked, as he second-checked the co-ordinates in the navicom. Even though they made the jump regularly, and in the same Y Wing, he never left anything to chance. I-M training had always been thorough to the point of fastidiousness; but in space a small oversight could mean the difference between arriving at one's destination, or arriving at an assignation with eternity.

"It very much depends what you want to talk about," said Kerensa, her voice tight with emotion.

Tiirau punched the hyperdrive motivator, and the ship thrust itself into the vortex, the stars disappearing and dissolving into the familiar white tunnel of light.

"Thought you might like to get that business in the caf off your chest."

Kerensa shook her head stubbornly.

"Well, I don't want what happened this morning coming between you and your work. Do we understand each other?"

"Suits me," she replied shortly.

Lieutenant Tiirau grinned and silently made a wager with himself as to how long it would be before she cracked. Three minutes later they emerged at their normal exit point well clear of the gravity well created by the system's fifth planet.

Kerensa sat in brooding silence, watching as Cini #5 slowly grew from the size of a flat lozenge into a massive grey orb surrounded by swirling, and no doubt poisonous, gases. Tiirau switched eighty percent of their power to the shields to protect the old fighter from the orbiting residue of what had once been a moon, and guided it with smooth precision to its destination in the docking bay of the surveillance station. Although the station had originally been cylindrical in shape, the innovative I-M mechanics had added a few lightweight appendages to it to make it look like a lump of space rock, and to the unsuspecting eye that was exactly how it appeared.

Tiirau lost his bet by three hours. It was not until they stopped for a snack at 15.00 that he noticed her staring blankly at the unopened seed bar she had taken out of a pocket in her fatigues.

"Where'd you learn that move?" he asked.

"Mmm?" Kerensa's wide-eyed look suggested that she was mentally somewhere else.

"That quick double jab to the back of the knees."

"It's an aeroball tackle move," she replied. "I learned it from Tiimou Rayhana at a coaching clinic once."

"Is it legal?"

"Depends where the referee's standing at the time," she said listlessly.

Tiirau raised his eyebrows. "Must get you to teach it to me. It's most effective."

"Yes," she sighed. "Most effective."

"Neekau started it you know. And the way things were going he probably would have lost."

"And that makes it all right, I suppose. Antilles one, Neekau one. Whoop ti yi yay."

"Come on, 'Rennie, this sort of thing happens all the time - these guys live hard, of course they're going to play hard."

"I don't like being regarded as one of their toys."

"Don't let it get to you. Believe me, in twenty years time you'll be laughing about it as you tell it to your kids."

Kerensa snorted. "Great. In the meantime I have to put up with half of I-M thinking I've been ... you know ... with both of them." She stared in desultory fashion at the distant grey shroud of Cini #5.

"That's a new name for it - 'uno,'" he teased. "You young things, you're always coming up with new expressions."

Kerensa glared at him reproachfully. "Why is it that guys always find anything like this inherently amusing?"

"Well, if it's any comfort," he reached out and patted her hand, "when I was your age, I took it all as seriously as you. What you've got to remember is that although these young bloods have faced more pain and bloodshed than most generations, they're still just kids, not much older than you. They haven't had normal lives - not emotionally normal anyway. They're either on an adrenaline high, or they're waiting for one."

"Are you saying they can't live normal lives and have normal relationships?"

Tiirau scratched one dark eyebrow. "Some of them would find that hard. But not the one you're thinking about."

"Which one am I thinking about?" Kerensa tilted her head curiously.

"The one with the brains."

She snorted again. "They've both got brains, Tayne. The only difference is where they keep them."

"That's my girl," he grinned.

She groaned quietly and covered her face with her hands. "I was awful to Wedge, awful. I was just so angry. I couldn't believe he'd indulge in anything so melodramatic."

"He'll get over it," said Tiirau comfortingly.

"But what if he doesn't?" She shook her head. "I wish I didn't have such a temper. Once I see red, I just can't seem to stop myself."

"Try dyeing your hair a nice serene blue or something," he advised. "You're tempting the furies having hair that colour."

"I did try and dye it green once, but something went wrong and it went the colour of pond slime."

"Why green?"

Kerensa rubbed her eyes wearily and rested her chin on her hand. "I was going to run away and live in the forest, and I wanted to camouflage myself so no-one could find me."

Tiirau burst out laughing. "Oh well, it does sound like you've improved a little since then."

A high-pitched beep from the command console intruded on the conversation. Tiirau leant over and hit the cut-off, at the same time activating the station's aft external holo-cam.

"Strange," he muttered. "What's he doing here?"

Kerensa leaned forward and peered at the screen. "More precisely, what is he? I've never seen those markings before. He almost looks like a ... mother of meteors, what's happening?" The old weather station began to shudder.

"Hit the recorder!" Tiirau commanded, suddenly stern. As she followed his order, he activated the holo-link, which sent the image from their external recorders to the I-M base, and keyed open the subspace comlink. The station rocked, making the retreating image of Cini #5 swing backward and forward in the viewscreen.

"Inquisitor to Aurek Base," he frowned and tried again, and then thumped the communications console with frustration. "They're jamming us," he hissed.

"They've got us in their tractor beam," Kerensa stared at him, her eyes wide. "Could the Y Mee break us out if we took it out fast enough?"

Tiirau checked the screens and frowned. "He's about the same configuration as an old Customs corvette," he said thoughtfully, "which should mean that that main beam'll break off just before they bring us in through the magnetic seal on the docking bay." He gazed up at the approaching belly of the corvette on which they could both see the gaping black mouth of their destination. Tiirau appeared to be performing some mental calculations. "It could work if we time it right, but we'll need our shields on full power to avoid those lasers, which means we're going to be pushing it to get it up to speed."

"What other options do we have?"

Tiirau thought for a few seconds and then shook his head. "I can't think of any."

"If they'd wanted to blast us, they would have done it by now," said Kerensa.

Tiirau threw her a sharp look. "What are you suggesting?"

"That we forget about the shields and throw everything into the thrusters."

Tiirau studied the calculating look in her eyes. "How much are you willing to bank on your assumption?"

"Enough to make me act on it and take the consequences," she replied slowly, after a pause.

"All right," said Tiirau quietly. "You prime the Y Mee while I link screens. We're going to need to see where we are to do this properly."

Kerensa moved as fast as she could along the narrow corridor and activated the sealed door which led to the small docking bay. The tractor beam seemed to be affecting the gravity propagators, making her movements sluggish. Either that, or her mind was racing too fast for her muscles to keep up. She flicked on the Y Wing's motivator, and the navicom blinked to life in a succession of green and red lights. She held her breath as she pressed the button to initiate the warm-up, hoping against hope that the old fighter wasn't going to decide to play up on them as it sometimes did. The start light on engine two flickered a little and blinked out. With a groan of frustration she belted the console with her fist. The demon light flickered again and then shone steadily green.

She was just breathing a sigh of relief when the viewscreens filled with images. The corvette's under-side filled the entire forward frame, while the rear screen revealed swirling rock and dust from Cini #5's rings. As she strapped herself in to the copilot's seat, Kerensa tried to fathom out how the corvette had found them, for the station was almost impossible to see, even with high-definition visual scanners. She jumped as a hand thumped a small grey hemispherical device down in front of her.

"It's a long-range homing device," growled Tiirau, in reply to her questioning look. "Found it attached to the hull."

Kerensa continued staring at him for a moment and then her eyes hardened, the warm brown dissolving to frigid black. "I knew that man was wrong," she said in a low voice.

"We don't have time to think about that now," he said shortly. "The timing on this has got to be perfect."

"It will be, don't you worry." Her tone was not only like ice, it was completely devoid of emotion, and in spite of his preoccupation with their situation, Tiirau felt a cold chill enter his bones. If we get out of this alive, he thought, I would not like to be that mechanic.

The corvette was within two hundred metres now, and it was possible to make out the laser turrets mounted on either side of the entrance.

"Accepting your belief that they seem to want us alive for some reason, I'd still feel happier if we put those guns out of commission. Even if they don't destroy us, they could still wing us," said Tiirau, keying into the navicom the course coordinates that would take them back to their exit point.

Kerensa nodded, and immediately began charging up the ion cannons. Then she turned her attention to the torpedo launchers.

"One hundred and twenty metres," she read the figures at the top of the central screen.

"At fifty I'll power in the repulsors. You keep a watch on the scanners and tell me as soon as that power level drops."

"Got it."

It was possible now to discern movement in the depths of the corvette's hangar bay. If they've ordered a welcoming party, they're going to be sadly disappointed, she convinced herself.

"We're going to have to be fast on this, 'Rennie. I'll come out on a vector to give us a firing solution on that starboard turret, but we're not going to be able to hang around for more than a few seconds."

"I've set up the targeting programme for the missiles," she said, glancing up at the yellow box on the main monitor before quickly checking the scanners. "Now we need ion control," she muttered.

The Y Wing shuddered as it lifted off the docking bay floor. Kerensa punched in the alterations to swivel the cannons off centre. She was estimating a five degree angle between firing vectors. It would need adjustment once they were out, but hopefully not much.

"Power dropping! Go!" she shouted, deactivating the bay's magnetic seal. As soon as Tiirau had the Y Wing clear, he angled it up and centred its nose on the starboard turret. The box on the HUD turned red, and he triggered both torpedoes. Kerensa made a one degree change which brought the port turret into her crosshair.

"It didn't fire!" hissed Tiirau, and he pushed the button again. The red targeting box winked implacably back at them, while on the other half of the screen the port gun sat patiently waiting in their cannons' sights. Without even stopping to cast despairing looks at one another, Kerensa banged the target cut-off and threw full power to the engines, while Tiirau thrust forward savagely on the stick and took them down in a tight dive behind their helpless station. He levelled out, intending to use their old post as cover while he coaxed as much speed as he could from the fighter.

"Can't this thing go any faster," she said between gritted teeth.

Tiirau's reply died on his lips. Realising that the station was blocking their line of sight on the retreating fighter, the crew of the corvette chose the obvious solution. Kerensa watched as the disintegrating cylinder responded to its sudden explosive depressurization and flowered into a million tiny fragments.

Tiirau jinked to port, rolled ninety degrees on to his port wing and began to curve away. Had he stayed on that vector a little longer, or rolled and dived they may have been all right. Instead he chose to roll one hundred and eighty and begin a swoop to the right. In reality, Tiirau was crediting the operator who was tracking them with faster wits than he actually possessed, for as the man was fumbling to bring the beam to port and re-acquire the Y Wing, it swerved back across his line of sight. The corvette's targeting display flashed on to red, and the old fighter's forward progress ceased.

Tiirau threw himself back in his set and moaned. "Sorry, 'Rennie." His mouth felt dry.

"Why are they doing this?" she said, her voice tight. "And who are they?"

Her partner shook his head watching the main screen through narrowed green eyes. "Some sort of pirates?" he frowned at her quizzically.

"They look like pirates ... but it still doesn't make sense. I mean, it's not like we're carrying anything valuable." She stared at the approaching hangar bay, and her face darkened. "They seem to want us alive pretty badly, so maybe that might make them a bit hesitant with the blasters," and she unstrapped herself and reached over to a metal compartment against the hull. She pulled out two blasters, and then dipped her arm in further and brought out a clutch of concussion detonators. "That mechanic may not have done his job properly."

Tiirau took one of the blasters and checked the power levels, then picked up a detonator. He cleared his throat and threw it back to her. She stared at the hopeless look on his face, and then checked them herself.

"You know the worst thing about this?" she said a minute later as the Y Wing's starboard foil was jolted against the side of the entrance.

"Their beam operator's bloody useless?" suggested Tiirau darkly.

Kerensa shook her head sadly. "I'm never going to get to apologise to Wedge."

The fighter scraped clumsily across the floor of the hangar bay.

She turned to Tiirau. "And their operator's useless," she added.

"Thank you," he said tonelessly. A channel on the communicator crackled, so he leant over and switched it off.

"I suppose they want us to open the hatch," she said idly.

"I'm sure they've got metal cutters," he replied. An angry face appeared outside Tiirau's side window, and a hand thumped on the cockpit cover. He stared back at the man with contrived blankness.

Kerensa leaned back in her seat, and forced herself to think. Obviously these people would eventually get the hatch open, at which point she and Tayne would be forced to decide whether they should put up a struggle, or let themselves be taken quietly. The chances of them beating ... she gazed around the parts of the hangar she could see through the viewports ... six men were average to low. But how many more were on this tub? She hesitated, wondering if she dared use the power which she had promised her dead family she would relinquish. Maybe I'll be joining them soon, she thought, in which case I'll be able to ask for their forgiveness. The thought was strangely calming. She closed her eyes and let her consciousness open up and reach out.

Gradually the space around her became vibrant with Force patterns. A few felt particularly vivid, so she tried a little experiment. She pulled their energy towards herself and then forced it back in an explosive thrust. She opened her eyes just in time to see a pair of legs hurtling past her window, followed closely by a complete body with its limbs flailing and its mouth open in a scream. She blinked, and then quickly refocused her concentration on the energy fields around her. There were too many to discern individually, and judging by the confusion of patterns, there was at that moment a lot of movement throughout the ship. Doubtless they were sending reinforcements.

" ... clear. Move away!" Tiirau's voice penetrated the fog which had descended over her active senses, and she found herself on the floor with her partner on top of her. If she hadn't heard the sizzling, flaring blast of a laser torch she might have been tempted to have him on about this not being the time or the place. The metallic clank of a canister landing nearby nipped any such attempt at bravado in the bud, however, as did the sickly odour of ether. Without consciously planning her actions, Kerensa slowly closed down her respiratory system. She'd done this before, once successfully feigning a near-death experience to frighten a teacher. Gradually the sweet smell faded, and although the trance into which she'd placed herself made her feel disembodied, she heard the hatch being cranked up, and felt Tiirau's weight lifted off her.

"Hell of a lot of trouble if you ask me," a voice grumbled in Basic near her ear. "What are they? Royalty or something?"

"I don't know, and I don't want to know," came another. "I just do the job."

"Yeah? Well you're gonna need a hand with that fella. He could eat two of you. Hey, this little lady's a bit of all right."

"Don't get any ideas. Our orders are to take them directly to the med-room. Hey, two-three-nine! I'm gonna need a hand!"

"Race you," chuckled the gravelly voice.

Kerensa felt herself being lifted somewhat roughly into a set of arms, and then clutched at by another. The upwards motion suggested that she was being lifted down from the cockpit. It occurred to her vaguely that even if they dropped her she probably wouldn't feel it. Whatever was going on, it would definitely be in her best interests at present to remain as if drugged. She would try to make sense of it later.

To Chapter Seventeen | To Chapter Nineteen

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