The Mantrusian Affair: Chapter Twenty-One
Captain Ulo Dravet was very relieved that Governor Kuzhak possessed no supernatural powers, although at that moment his superior's impression of a volcano about to erupt was coming tantalisingly close to actually heating the air in the room. The lanky Imperial shifted his large feet uncomfortably, aware that his position as only the messenger of ill tidings might not be enough to protect him if the volcano blew its top.
"I'm afraid we seem to have lost contact with your shuttle, sir," he repeated. "It's disappeared from our screens."
"And do we seem to be showing any signs of finding out where it has disappeared to, or what has happened to it?" Kuzhak demanded, his blue eyes losing their fury and taking on an unnerving blankness which made them even more terrifying.
"Er, the last communication we received was from northern Bakhunia, just as they entered the safe corridor designated on the flight plan we gave them."
"Was their position correct according to the plan?"
Over the centuries, Secheniz had been the last resting place for many of even the best pilots, its perpetual cloud-cover, sudden white-outs, shifting thermal currents and fierce gusting winds acting as a far more effective deterrent than the most sophisticated weaponry. Kuzhak himself had lost one pilot when they first began searching the area Professor Sulaili had calculated as the most likely location for Patal's den. A second had disappeared trying to establish the safest approach.
The hideout lay at the southern end of a chasm, and under normal circumstances it should have been possible for a pilot simply to log the coordinates of the spot into the ship's navicom, and let the equipment guide him there. Normal conditions, however, didn't apply in the mountains of Secheniz and northern Bakhunia. Instrumentation frequently played up, scanners failed, and navicom information had an unpleasant habit of becoming scrambled. The accepted scientific explanation for this phenomenon was that the mountains contained high concentrations of magnetite and ferrous minerals and these created conflicting magnetic fields which confounded electronic equipment. Older beliefs existed, however, which associated the problem with the spirits who lived on Mt Halpurnia, who it was felt reached out to punish those who strayed too near to their sacred ground.
Regardless of the reason, the situation necessitated a lengthy approach, flying beneath the cloud cover in order to maintain visibility. The entry point was a long rift valley which ran north along what roughly equated as the Secheniz-Bakhunia border, in which the magnetic interference was minimal. At the end of this, the pilot had to quickly gain altitude and turn east to fly over a traverse, sufficiently wide for visual recognition, which led him to the northernmost point of the chasm.
Since this route had been established, Kuzhak had suffered no more losses. He himself had made the trip so many times he was convinced he could have dispensed with his pilot and flown it himself. As long as the conditions were calm and the cloud cover not too low, any average pilot who had never flown the route before should have been able to make the trip safely, as long as he had clear maps. Kuzhak had given Truin specific instructions to use an experienced pilot for the job, and had provided precise maps and specific instructions. If he had felt the risk was too great, he would never have entrusted them with his precious cargo.
"Yes, sir. They should have contacted us again to confirm their arrival at the north-west traverse, but ... I'm afraid they didn't. And that point, as you know, is one of the known clear spots," his voice petered out.
"I see. I presume somebody has thought to initiate a search?"
"Most definitely, sir. That was my first priority," he replied, thankful to be seen as having done something right. In actual fact, it was a slight distortion of the truth. His first priority had been to contact the pilot assigned to his personal transport and put him on alert, in case the need arose for a quick getaway. Over the last few weeks, Dravet had become unsettled about certain aspects of his chief's behaviour: strange periods of brooding and then almost ecstatic highs. Years of service on Coruscant had taught him the virtue of preparedness and self-preservation.
"Communications are still trying to reach them, I hope. Some days the interference is worse than others."
"Order them to attempt to contact the search vessel as well. And prepare a backup group with as much high-magnification and infra-red scanning equipment as we can muster. I must have that girl, Captain, and I will have her. Every step of this plan has worked perfectly, and I will not accept failure now. Do I make myself clear?"
Dravet felt like suggesting that if Kuzhak was really that serious, perhaps he should head the search himself, for he knew that organizing a rescue mission in the Secheniz Mountains, in winter, and in the growing darkness was not going to be met with roars of approval. The division of stormtroopers, which the Emperor had sent them from Hocqyellen, had initially proved themselves efficient workers, but as time had passed their discipline had begun to relax, and they no longer responded with the traditional unquestioning attitude. One glance at those unnerving eyes informed him that now was not the moment to choose insubordination, so he acknowledged the request and set out for the operations centre, composing a list of punishments for possible non-compliance as he went.
It had taken Kerensa a while to convince the animals that the anti-grav sled was not some kind of mechanical monster, and another few minutes to console one of the non-sentient members of the group who had broken a fang attempting to subdue it. Now, however, they were climbing up a rise in the forest; and she and the leader -- well, he seemed to be the leader -- were guiding Tiirau's transport, and the others were trudging behind. The original group of four had increased in ones and twos as they had progressed until now it numbered ten. The beast directly behind her kept placing its massive paw lightly on her hair, as if to stroke it. She didn't find this at all unsettling as it was something Chitza did, and she knew that different animals possessed different ways of showing affection. In fact, after all she'd been through in the last few hours, it was actually quite soothing.
What did concern her slightly was the exact location of the den to which the head whatever-it-was had assured her they should go. The animal had transferred images of warmth and comfort into her brain, and as she sensed no signs of deception she had agreed to let it lead her there. She knew that even under the protection of the trees, the intense cold of the northern winter night would be extremely unpleasant. As it was she could feel the air hurting her lungs to the point where it was making her wheeze, and the tip of her nose and her ears felt numb. She was just beginning to wonder if she should ask how far they were away from this refuge, when the leader stopped and pointed up with its arm. She followed the direction with her eyes, and with great difficulty made out what looked like a black semi-circle under an overhang in the cliff to their left. It required a steep climb to reach it, and Kerensa could hear poor Tayne's body thudding against the sides of the sled. It was just as well he was still unconscious.
As they approached the semi-circle, Kerensa stopped in surprise. From a distance she had assumed it to be a black door of some kind, but now she could see that it was transparent, and she could see through into some sort of corridor carved from the rock. The view was distorted as if the door was some sort of lens. A strange tingling started at the base of her spine and rose up until she felt her scalp prickle. There was an indescribable atmosphere about the place, but it gave her no sense of threat, more one of expectation and ... largeness. She felt strangely in touch with everything around her, the forest, the planet, the galaxy.
The leading creature stopped and gazed at her expectantly, and she heard the others whimpering excitedly behind her.
"You want me to ... open it?" she asked hesitantly, struggling to decipher the images it was transferring into her brain. "Um. This may come as a surprise guys, but ... well, I've never been here before, and as far as I know, nobody's bothered to send me a key."
The leader gazed at her unperturbed, reached out and gently closed its sharp talons around her hand, propelling her forward until she was standing against where it looked like the distortion began. There was a momentary flash of white light, which forced Kerensa to blink. When she opened her eyes, they were all standing in the same configuration as before, but they were in the corridor; and when she turned in consternation to look behind her, she could see the forest outside, distorted by the lens effect of the door.
"Mercy!" she mumbled.
The leader sighed and patted her on the head, making the deep chuckling sound it had earlier. The others were a bit less disciplined, however. Two disappeared whooping with glee around the bend in the corridor and into the darkness, while the others rubbed the rock walls, whirring and growling with delight. After a while the leader tutted impatiently, and the group had just reassembled when the wayward duo reappeared, hooting and shrieking with excitement. The leader grabbed them both by the scruffs of their necks and administered a solid whack each to their furry behinds. In spite of the strange atmosphere and the weird happenings Kerensa found herself grinning. It was obvious that the two hooters were children, perhaps the offspring of the leader. She glanced up at his eyes and he returned the glance with a look of expectancy.
"You want me to lead?" she asked, uncertainly. The animal turned to look up the passage, and then turned back to her.
She sighed. "OK. But I have no idea what this place is, so I hope there are no unpleasant surprises in store," and she set off, heart racing, down the passage.
The most amazing thing about the place, Kerensa decided, was the technology of those who had constructed it. Someone or something had carved the rock so smoothly that the floor and walls were even, and light seemed to move with them as they progressed along it. After the first bend, the passage began to rise gently and she had the impression they were moving in a wide spiral. It was silent, dry and warm, and although she was still confused, she began to feel a little more positive. At least they would have somewhere warm to spend the night, and by the looks of it, they were safely hidden from this Admiral Truin.
All of a sudden she noticed that the passage ahead had assumed the same distortion as at the door in the cliff. She stopped and gave the leading creature an uncertain look.
"I guess you want me to do whatever it was I did last time?" she asked it, and in response to its kindly bow she walked up to the point at which the distortion began. Again there was a flash, and the next minute the entire group was moving up a vast chute. Kerensa looked down, but there was only darkness. The light was, as before, following them. When their upwards motion stopped and they were faced with another distortion barrier, she approached it, this time unhesitatingly, but on the other side she stopped in astonishment. The light expanded and mushroomed above them as if they had suddenly stepped out from a dim room into the sunlight. High above was a vast dome through which she could see stars. Around the edge of the dome there were beautiful paintings of ethereal women with titian hair, surrounded by an assortment of animals and flowering trees, none of them species or types which Kerensa had seen before.
"Mercy!" she exclaimed. "What is this place?" She was beginning to gaze around the floor of the dome, when a faint flickering at the fringes of her consciousness made her stop and focus her attention inwards. Thank goodness, she thought, and turned back to the sled.
"My friend's coming round," she explained to the leading beast. "I do have your promise that none of your friends will harm him?"
The leader bowed again, very deeply. She couldn't help wondering why she was addressing the animal with words, when it would have been more logical to transfer the ideas she wanted to convey telepathically, in the same way he was. Verbalisation, it seemed, was a natural human impulse, even when it produced rather a one-sided conversation.
A deep groan from the sled aroused the curiosity of the closer members of the group, and as Kerensa carefully drew out the stretcher on which Tiirau lay, the two younger members bounded over exuberantly and joined them for a closer look. The Icini'ian woke up to find himself staring up into ten hairy faces with ten open mouths full of razor-sharp fangs. Kerensa had always admired the sea green colour of her partner's eyes, as well as their expressive qualities, but this time both the colour and the expressiveness spread rapidly over his whole face. She knelt quickly beside him and tilted his head away from what he had probably presumed was going to be a gruesome end.
"Welcome back," she grinned. "And don't worry about these guys. Despite their appearance, they're harmless. Well, sort of."
"Sort of?" he mumbled, blinking to clear the fuzziness from his eyesight and his brain.
"I'll explain later. Well, I'll try and explain later. Quite a few things have happened since we last spoke."
Tiirau shook his head slowly and struggled into a sitting position.
"Whoow!" he grasped his head in his hands. "Must have been one hell of a party. Last thing I remember was jumping on top of you." He peeked up at her apologetically. "If you know what I mean."
"Well, I'm sure your intentions were honourable," she patted his shoulder. "See if you can get up. You need to get the blood flowing again, and work the last of that Somnavol out of your system."
"Somnavol?" he placed his feet on the ground and tentatively tried putting his weight on them, but his knees buckled like useless bits of rubber. Kerensa moved quickly to help, but before she could slide her arm around him a pair of hairy arms steadied him gently from behind.
Tiirau threw her an uncertain look. "What are they?" he whispered.
"I honestly don't know, but they've been awfully helpful. To me anyway, although they didn't seem to like the others."
The creature drew its arms away, and Tiirau took a tentative step, but his knees gave away and he sank down on the stretcher again. He was about to groan with frustration, when he registered Kerensa's words.
Kerensa stared at him and sighed. "There's really rather a lot to explain. How do you feel?"
"If I said bloody awful, I'd be getting close. My brain's been replaced by fog, and my mouth feels like it's full of ... Sithspawn, what's he doing?" Tiirau gazed at her wide-eyed as the animal who had helped him began patting his head.
"Believe it or not, he's consoling you. He can read your thoughts." She watched as the two youngsters pottered around the room, poking and prodding at what looked like cushions against the walls. Then they disappeared through an archway at the far end.
"So what happened, 'Rennie? Fill me in. Who was it these 'guys' didn't like?"
"The people in the shuttle," she began, eliciting a quizzical look from the green eyes. "After we were captured we were taken to Mantrusian Port Control, transferred into that sled and put aboard a shuttle. I think, but I'm not sure, that the plan was to take us to Secheniz, but I, er ... , well, I um ..." She stopped, and bit her lip.
Tiirau had been waggling his neck backward and forward to rid himself of his stiffness. "And you what?" he prompted.
"I ... made the shuttle crash," she said quickly.
Tiirau stopped his head movements and gazed at her in astonishment.
"I fused some of their circuits, and while they were pre-occupied with that I ... made things happen to them, well to three of them anyway. The fourth got killed by these guys after I landed the shuttle in the forest." She looked away for a moment, and then seemed to steel herself. "I can use the Force, Tayne. I can make people do things."
There was a sudden whirring, whooshing noise, a surprised yelp from one of the animals, and a jet of water erupted from a basalt statuette of a nymph in the middle of the room.
"Would you like a drink?" she smiled at his sagging jaw apologetically. "You look like you need it."
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