The Mantrusian Affair: Chapter Twenty
Iella

They were in a different vessel, a smaller one, and there were four others. Kerensa double-checked the data which her Force sense was giving her. She and Tayne were still lying on stretchers in what she assumed was some sort of anti-grav contraption, although she knew someone had opened the end because she'd felt the change in air pressure. Probably they would want to keep a check on them to make sure they remained asleep. The motion of the craft over the last minute had become a little turbulent, as if they were flying through atmosphere rather than vacuum. Then she felt the unmistakable whine of the engines as they decelerated in response to the increased resistance.

"I see what they meant about rough territory," someone growled.

"Aren't you glad I studied the elevation maps before we set out?"

"Looks like white-out over there," said a nervous voice.

"Keep your hair on. Our flight path takes us around that. Better check that girl again."

She felt the stretcher being pulled out slightly, and endured the eyelid pulling again, and a cold finger on her neck near her carotid artery.

"Still out?"

"Yeah," the voice sounded surprised.

"Hope you haven't overdosed her, for your sake," another voice said rather cruelly, while somebody else chuckled and then hummed the first few notes of the Imperial funeral march.

"It affects everyone differently," the medical man assured them, but the confidence he was attempting to convey sounded a little hollow. In spite of her peculiar circumstances, Kerensa felt sorry for him. She also mentally thanked him, for he had failed to slide the stretcher back into the sled.

She ran over the facts as they appeared at present. The voices she had heard coming through the communications channel after they boarded this new vessel had left her in no doubt that they were at Mantrusian Port Control. So at this moment they were obviously somewhere in Mantrusia, heading towards the frozen north by the sounds of it. Perhaps they were being taken to Secheniz? Oh well, she thought, at least now we might find out what's actually going on there. Of course getting out to pass the information on is another story. She reached out to Tayne again, but there was only incoherence. I'm really going to need my wits about me for this, and my arms and legs.

She scanned the other minds, and felt a wave of nervousness, and not a little fear. Slowly, so as not to put too much strain on her heart, she brought herself out of her self-induced stasis, and surreptitiously moved her fingers and toes to ensure that her muscles were responding as they should. She checked the other minds again. They were still worrying about the terrain, so she risked opening one eyelid very slightly. All four men were huddled in their seats at the control end of the cockpit. She opened the other eye and took a purchase on her situation. The sled lay against the back wall, and with her head and shoulders poking out from it, she had a clear view around. It looked as though the shuttle was one of the civilian caravan-class types, except the seating had been removed to make way for the sled. She gazed up at the main viewport and saw swirling grey cloud and distant peaks. Yes, we're definitely near Secheniz. Good.

"Er, why's that light flashing?" said a nervous voice.

"Don't know. It shouldn't be." The pilot pointed to the schema on the main screen. "According to this flight plan, we're definitely flying at the right altitude."

"No chance we came in at the wrong place?" asked someone.

"That's typical of you, isn't it. You can't wait to criticize. How about actually doing something useful and checking the control board. Maybe it's a loose wire."

Kerensa heard the doors to the cockpit swish open and closed. She couldn't see because her eyes were closed in concentration. The pilot was almost right, the wire had been heated until it fused the circuit. She focused on the molecules in another wire.

"Sithspawn! Klandet, check the communicator cable too!" the pilot bellowed.

Kerensa reached out to find Klandet. He was feeling enclosed, surrounded by metal conduits and electrical fields. He must have crawled inside the control compartment to reach the right cables, she thought. That was a bit silly. Klandet had never had a panic attack in his life, and it took him several seconds to realise that he was having one. But his initial reluctance to climb in amongst the wiring suddenly escalated to the extent that he broke into a violent sweat, and he had a vivid premonition that the door was going to close and he would be locked in there forever. He began to hyperventilate, and reached out to grab for some support so he could calm himself down. As his hand closed around a lever he had a split-second to regret his choice, then the vessel lurched and the lights went out. Klandet was thrown headlong into the coils of cable, but nobody heard his final cries as he was roasted alive. Kerensa cringed. She hadn't intended to kill the man. For a moment she faltered and her eyes opened wide in horror to stare straight into those of the pilot.

"She's awake!" he bellowed, dragging himself up from where he'd been thrown. He staggered over to the main console, pushing the other guard off so he could reach the stick. Hauling up on it, he settled into his seat, and desperately tried to rectify their plunge.

"That fool has knocked out the navicom, I'm going to have to fly this thing manually. It's OK. They warned me that instruments sometimes play up around here, so I committed the plan to memory."

The medic stood rooted to the spot with his hands half-covering his eyes. "We're going to crash," he whimpered, as the tops of the trees appeared at the bottom of the viewport.

"Get a grip and see to that girl!" roared the pilot. The vessel lurched again, and something ripped along the underside.

"Festering trees!" he hissed, as the man on the floor struggled to his feet, bleeding profusely from his temple.

The medic was still frozen to the spot. Although she felt sick, Kerensa realised that she was going to have to act before she lost her advantage. This was what Luke had meant about battling with the moral considerations. All very fine, but you have to have time on your hands to do that, and any minute that man with the syringe was going to render her useless. She reached out into his mind, and discovered that it was perfectly suited to one thing, taking orders.

"Are you going to see to that girl, or do I have to do everything?" the pilot screamed at him, and then turned fiercely to the remaining guard. "Get the syringe!"

The guard grabbed the container from the medic's pocket and pulled out a yellow phial. He went to turn towards Kerensa when suddenly the medic grabbed it from his hand and plunged it into the pilot.

The guard stared in wide-eyed disbelief as his companion collapsed on to the console. "What the hell do you think you're doing?" he screamed hauling the body from the controls, and grabbing desperately at the stick.

"I had to," whimpered the medic, "I was told."

"Ya! Get outta here," the guard thrust a hand at him and flung him away. He hit the wall and slid like a lifeless toy to the ground.

The guard was a reasonable pilot, and he painstakingly managed to stabilise the shuttle's flight path and coax it up, until it was flying about two thousand feet above the level of the trees. Ahead of him on the horizon, lying like a jagged blockade, were the mountains which Kerensa recognized as marking the north-eastern border between Secheniz and Bakhunia Provinces. She pressed the small hold-out blaster she had taken from Tiirau's boot holster into the side of the man's neck, and felt him jump.

"You're taking us to Secheniz, aren't you?" she asked.

The man swallowed, but she could feel his thought patterns swirling as he took stock of the situation.

"That was our destination, yes," he replied, calmly.

"Why?"

The man was silent.

"I gather you're not familiar with this territory?" she said airily. "It can be pretty unpleasant, especially at this time of day. And of course you have no flight plan, and no back-up pilot. I don't envy your position."

"Well, if I crash, then you and your friend go with me," he reminded her, "so I guess you need me."

"Oh, no," she replied. "You need me. I know this area well." The lie seemed to work, for the man was silent for a while.

"OK," he said, his voice cracking a little. "What do you want?"

"First, I want some facts. Who ordered you to capture us?"

"Admiral Truin."

It was just as well the man had no Force sense, for he would have been overwhelmed by her surprise. She was glad she no longer had the blaster in contact with his skin, having been trained to keep weapons out of range in case they were used against her. If she hadn't moved it away, he would have felt her hand falter.

"And who is Admiral Truin? You realise if you stay on this setting, you'll end up flying straight into that icy peak up ahead."

"Admiral Truin," replied the man, thrusting the stick hard to the left so that his elbow jabbed savagely into her stomach, "is my Admiral," he finished glibly, as the sideways lurch of the shuttle threw Kerensa over between the medic and the sled. She struggled to her feet but not before the man had grabbed the blaster which she had dropped in her fall. He trained the weapon on her, glancing back wildly at the viewport from time to time to check their position. Kerensa stared fixedly at the control lever on the blaster, concentrating all her mental energy on the power setting.

"I hope that clears up any further questions you might have," he said, his thin lips curling up in what could pass for a grin. "And would you believe it, we are no longer heading for that mountain." He turned back to her gloatingly, just in time to see the power setting on the blaster register overload. Kerensa covered her head and threw herself behind the sled as the weapon exploded in a mushrooming blue sphere of ionised gas.

The air was still scorching around the man's body when she reached the console, and she burnt her shoulder as she shoved the smouldering remains of the seat out of the way, at the same time shivering with revulsion at what she had been forced to do. Not only had she vaporised the guard, but also the pilot, who had been lying at the guard's feet. When she looked more closely at the control panels she regretted it even more, for they had been melted in the blast, and judging by the disappearance of the familiar vibration of the engines, they had switched themselves off when their power circuit fused. All she could see to do for the moment was to extend the shuttle's retractable wings so it would glide, hold the stick level, and try to establish where they were.

The thrust to port had turned them away from the high peaks, but in the fading light she could see another mountain ahead, with a dome-like top. Somehow she was going to have to bring this thing down, and an image from the previous year flashed into her mind -- Shne, guiding their engineless fighter down at the gentlest of angles on its repulsors and then using the tops of the trees and the forest floor as a brake. She gazed out the viewport again and frowned at the dome-topped mountain in front of her. There was something about it that looked familiar, but with all that was racing through her mind it was hard to remember. She pressed the button to bring the repulsors online. There was a temporary flicker, and a responsive uplift by the craft, and then a lurch as the light blinked out.

A groan from the corner grabbed her attention and she turned quickly to see the medic stirring. She rechecked the viewport, and saw what she wanted -- a tall forest of feathery-looking trees. She pushed the button again and this time the light clicked on more decisively. She pulled the stick gently to port, eased the repulsors to half power, and began to maneuvre the craft down. When she looked over her shoulder the man was rubbing the back of his head. He stared back, eyes wild.

"Stay where you are!" she hissed, running a quick mental check on the available weapons. As far as she knew, she had destroyed two blasters when she had incinerated the guard, both his own and the pilot's. "We're in treacherous country here, and I'm your only hope of survival."

"They'll kill me!" he whimpered. He struggled to his feet, and lurched over to the console.

"Stay away!" she shouted. "No-one's going to kill you. We'll land this thing and escape. They won't find you."

"Admiral Truin's got people everywhere," he moaned, slipping sideways and grabbing her arm to haul himself up.

"Let go, you fool. I'm trying to steer this thing." She tried to shake him off, but he had her arm in a prehensile grip. She grasped desperately at the stick with her right hand to ease it back down, but the shuttle bucked with the conflicting steering orders it was being given and threw them both towards the back wall. Kerensa clawed her way back to the console and grabbed the controls again as green plumes appeared in the bottom of the screen. The repulsor light had died, so she tilted the nose up very slightly and the dome-top of the mountain appeared in the very top of the viewport. Suddenly she remembered where she'd seen that image before.

"Oh, mercy! Mother of mercy!" she gasped. The medic had staggered to his feet, but was leaning against the wall holding on to the handle of a compartment.

"Wh ... what?" he asked tremulously.

As they sank with much crashing and ripping amongst the trees, she held the stick with one shaking hand, and ran the other over her heart. "We're on Mt Halpurnia," she said dully. "The forbidden mountain."

The shuttle's underside made contact with the ground, and slid along, lurching, bouncing, and twisting as it collided with tree after tree.

"I'm sorry, Tayne," she murmured. "I thought I was going to be able to get us out of this." Her voice dropped until she was almost only mouthing the words. "Forgive me, Wedge."

The vessel slewed suddenly sideways and slid up at an angle with an almighty bang. Kerensa found herself up against the opposite wall with the medic beside her.

"Forbidden?" he repeated.

"It's haunted," Kerensa stared wide-eyed at the viewport, as if she was staring at demons. "By evil spirits."

The medic gazed from her horror struck expression to the tangle of broken wood and contorted greenery outside, and laughed nervously. "Come on," his voice squeaked slightly. "A girl who can destroy the crew of a spaceship can't be scared of evil sp ..." He stopped as something banged against the hull.

"This is my punishment," she moaned to herself in such a hollow voice, that he shivered.

There was a scratching sound, and the cabin rocked, and then a horrible wailing began, interrupted every now and again by a metallic scraping, which slowly intensified. Suddenly a black talon forced its way into the airtight seal between the door hatch and the sill and twisted around, followed by another further along. The hatch moved up slightly, and the medic watched in rising panic as a hairy paw thrust through the gap. Several sets of talons hauled at the edge of the hatch, forcing it open and revealing two sets of massive grey-green hairy legs. He leapt to his feet and gazed around wildly, and just as the door finally gave way and a huge monstrosity lurched into the cabin, he saw the antigrav sled and threw himself towards it, intending to climb inside and seal it closed.

"Chitza?" he heard the girl cry in surprise, but that was the last word he heard. An arm lashed out and wound round him, and he heard the sickening crunch of his ribs disintegrating and a moment of excruciating pain as his lungs tried to inflate one last time. He greeted the blackness which descended thereafter with relief.

When the talon appeared, Kerensa had closed her eyes and offered up her spirit to the gods. Feeling strangely at peace, she opened them just as a hairy animal stepped through the doors and reached out towards the medic. The man fell lifeless to the creature's feet, and it began to step towards her when it stopped in surprise. She had called to it, and although the name meant nothing, the voice sent a strange sense of loss coursing through its mind. It shook its head, and went to move again, but the small human on the floor stretched out her hand. The creature blinked its forward eyes, and its back two mimicked the action a split-second later. A second animal behind it registered his companion's confusion and stepped to the side to investigate the problem.

"C ksoi, ksoi," the strange one said. The second creature whimpered, as an old memory began to stir. Then both fell to their knees and began rocking to and fro moaning quietly. Behind them a third and a fourth followed suit, and as the human creature got to her feet and came towards them, they bowed their shaggy heads.

"Mercy!" murmured Kerensa again. "Oh my goodness! So this is what Chitza is!" She touched the leading whatever-it-was on the head and ran her hand through his thick fur to his shoulder, which she rubbed distractedly. Then she turned back to the medic, and stepped over to check his pulse, sighed and sat down beside him gazing at the prostrate animals.

"You know, since this afternoon I feel like I've entered some sort of absurd universe where everything's nonsensical. Why would you kill him and not me?" To her surprise, the leading animal raised its head, shook it vigorously and moaned, and Kerensa became aware of a strange sensation like a buzzing inside her head. She sat back against the sled and frowned.

"What are you?" she said finally, and again the creature seemed to respond, this time opening its huge mouth and producing what sounded like a deep-seated chuckle. This time, amidst the fuzzy feeling its response was invoking, she heard a distinct word.

"Protector?" The frown deepened as she studied the four animals carefully. They were definitely the same as Chitza, except these ones seemed to be able to semi-communicate with her. Well one did anyway. She focused on the second creature and reached out to its consciousness. She could feel vague sensations, but nothing very distinct. She tried the experiment with the leader, and stopped in surprise for there were definite signs of sentience -- and images of a vast sunlit garden, and feelings of warmth and contentment.

It occurred to her that maybe some of these creatures were telepathic, and this one could see into her mind and had found Chitza rollicking around happily in her garden. Perhaps Chitza was one of the group who had somehow got himself lost? She considered this idea for a while. It would be easy enough for Chitza to wander off in his habitual search for food. Perhaps he just kept going and eventually ended up too far away from the others. But then that wouldn't explain how he travelled to Iicini'ia, unless -- unless he was found and placed with the circus, then the circus visited Iicini'ia, and he escaped. And now this telepathic one can see Chitza is connected with me and is happy because I'm looking after him. The idea did have a certain mad logic to it. She studied the whatever-they-weres for a little longer, trying to fathom out the best course of action, and then she stood up decisively and approached them.

To Chapter Nineteen | To Chapter Twenty-One

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