The Mantrusian Affair: Chapter Twenty-Three
"We appreciate you seeing us, General Tavaala, considering the circumstances," said Luke earnestly, peeling back the hood of his cloak. "The fact of the matter is, however, we have some information which might provide us with a place to begin searching."
"Information?" Tavaala shook off his weariness and looked at Luke sharply. "What sort of information."
Luke took a slow breath and studied Tavaala's grey eyes carefully. He sensed the feelings that he expected, of frustration and irritation at being uncertain as to which course of action to choose. But to his surprise, he also sensed a deep, almost fatherly concern lying concealed underneath the professional facade. He considered this for a moment, and then decided on his approach.
"General Tavaala. Did you realise that Ensign Kalichi is able to use the Force?" he asked, feeling as much as observing the big man start.
"I thought we were going for subtlety," murmured Wedge.
"Trust me," Luke mouthed back.
"I did not," gasped Tavaala finally gaining control of his speech faculties. He gazed up at Wedge, and then back to Luke, and his eyes narrowed. "If this is some sort of joke, I'll have you two demobbed so quickly you won't have time to wonder why."
"Er, Luke no longer belongs to the military, sir," Wedge pointed out before discretion could stop him.
"This is not a joke," Luke held his arm up quickly to prevent Tavaala's rejoinder, which judging by the daggers he was sending Wedge visually might have reduced the discussion to just two participants. "I sensed Ensign Kalichi's Force ability as soon as I met her, and she has told Commander Antilles about it herself. She had kept it a secret for a number of reasons, all of them good reasons I can assure you, the main one naturally being that she feared discovery and its results. The reason we're here is to tell you that we both felt her presence a short while ago, and we think we might have some clue as to where they are."
Tavaala stared from Luke to Wedge again, his eyes registering expressions varying from disbelief through astonishment. Finally he placed an elbow on his desk, rubbed his eyes with his fingers and peered at them again from beneath his dark eyebrows.
"I wasn't aware that Commander Antilles was also able to use the Force," he said.
"I can't," said Wedge shaking his head, "it's as much a mystery to me as it is to you, sir. But I definitely felt her presence. It was as if she was in the room with us. I felt it quite strongly."
"The reason that we ..., I mean, Commander Antilles could sense her is a little unusual," explained Luke. "But obviously it has something to do with the fact that he and Ensign Kalichi have become quite close, emotionally. It also suggests that her ability to use the Force is very strong. In my case I felt her quite clearly, and I'm sure that she is somewhere within this system."
"What makes you say that?" Tavaala asked, frowning with concentration as he attempted to assimilate this new and perplexing information. The Force was something well beyond his ken, although he remembered his parents reminiscing about the old days when the Jedi had been respected. Tseraan had certainly never mentioned anything about his daughter having Force ability, and surely he would have known. But then he remembered some of the reports he had received from her training officer when she first joined I-M, and suddenly a few incidents made sense.
"I saw her in a large room with a ceiling of stars and what looked like paintings," said Luke, holding the general's still dubious gaze. "It could have been some sort of gallery."
"Well there's only two places where you'd find a gallery in this system -- here or Mantrusia."
"She was too distant for it to be here," Luke assured him. "So it seems quite likely that the corvette General Solo saw at Mantrusian Port Control off-loaded them there and then left."
"Which means it's probably fruitless searching for the corvette," added Wedge.
Tavaala threw the Corellian a jaundiced look. "Thank you, Commander," he rumbled, "but I think I'm capable of reaching my own conclusions."
"There's nowhere on the station itself that would match the place I described?" Luke asked, throwing Wedge a warning glance.
Tavaala frowned thoughtfully, and then shook his head. "If it's some sort of gallery the most likely spot to look would be Bakhunia." He swung around to a datapad on the bench behind him, and activated the screen. Presently a layout appeared interspersed with flashing points of light. "The university area's the most likely choice. Once upon a time it was known in the sector as a centre for the arts. I'm afraid those times are long gone, but there are still a number of museums and such, although a lot now house private collections." He gazed up at Luke. "I gather you have a clear picture in your mind of what this place looks like?"
Luke nodded, and contemplated a spot in the distance for a moment with a vaguely perplexed expression. "I know this sounds strange, but I didn't sense any threat or danger, yet I'm sure she was actively trying to contact us."
Tavaala frowned thoughtfully. "It didn't feel like a cry for help, you mean?" he asked leaning forward.
Luke gazed into the alert grey eyes, and let the memory of the vision run through his mind again. Finally he shook his head. "It was more of a 'here I am and I'm all right' type of thing." He looked across at Wedge.
"Maybe they've escaped somehow," he murmured.
Tavaala sighed. "That's an attractive thought, although a rather unlikely one."
Luke clasped his hands in front of him and gave Tavaala a forthright stare "If she's been using the Force, General, it's not actually as unlikely as you might think. It's unlikely their captors would realise her ability, and as I believe her particular skills lie in mind control, this would give her a considerable advantage."
The big man's eyebrows shot up. "Mind control!" he stared from Wedge to Luke again, and then sat shaking his head before exhaling loudly. "I'm having trouble taking all this on board, Comma ... excuse me, Master Skywalker. However, to doubt your ability would be rather foolish, and I don't regard myself as a fool, so I'm prepared to follow this through."
He studied their faces carefully. "Colonel Fa'arika has a team of operatives prepared to go into Mantrusia, but there are two reasons I don't want to use them at present. First, this news of the planned celebrations General Solo and Princess Leia brought us. I want to wait and see what eventuates from that, because I have a gut feeling that Elozhi's going to be taking us up on our offer of help. Two, we are still at present running rechecks on all our people to try and find the source of the security leak, and I am not sending a covert team down only to have their cover blown. Such an event at this stage would be disastrous, for although we're still in the dark as to exactly what's going on, they -- whoever they are -- are hopefully equally unaware of the exact extent of our knowledge."
"Your contingent, however, is beyond suspicion," he paused and his eyes swept over them with an expression of wry humour, "as I understand that few of you had even heard of us until recently. So I have a proposition. I can provide the two of you with viable IDs which will enable you to pay the city of Bakhunia a visit, and you can see if you can find this star dome, plus get an impression of the current civil situation."
Wedge felt the familiar buzz of adrenalin, as well as a sudden surge of relief at being able to do something rather than just wait around.
"As my ship's temporarily out of commission, sir, I accept the proposition willingly. Although I admit I know nothing about the place."
"I'm definitely in, General. But I gather we won't be able to take our droids."
"Not unless you're prepared to see them dismembered by a superstitious crowd."
Luke made a wry face. "I wouldn't be too happy about that."
"I don't think they'd be too happy about it either," agreed Wedge.
Kerensa had been unsure how the creatures would react to her and Tayne's departure, but she was touched to find that the leader insisted that the group escort them to the crash site. Tiirau was still a little weak, but thanks to the vast quantities of water she had bullied him into drinking he no longer felt sleepy, and he had joked that his kidneys were probably in the best shape they'd been for years. Their immediate concerns were going to be the terrain and the temperature, for although the forest would protect them from the winter air for a while, it would eventually give way to what Kerensa referred to as chtansangye, which when translated meant 'rock land where nothing grows.' Apart from its bleak name, they had both decided that this could prove to be a dangerous stage of their journey, for it would provide little cover; and as this Truin had gone to great lengths to capture them, he would probably continue looking.
They had searched the three rooms for anything resembling food or warm clothes, but the place was devoid of any signs of habitation, although it was also clear of dust or the normal signs of decay one associated with abandoned dwellings. Tiirau would have liked to have spent more time exploring the complex, for it was obviously a major technological achievement. It was also a puzzle, and he knew Kerensa was disturbed by the fact that only she seemed able to open the lens arrangements, as well as by the high expectations the strange animals had of her. For the moment, however, such problems would have to take second place, as their immediate priority was to find a way home gathering as much information as they could en route.
All they had to protect them from the cold were their summer-weight I-M uniforms, although fortunately they had been wearing their jackets as it was always cool in the surveillance station. They had decided, however, to return to the shuttle in the hope of finding extra clothes, and some food. Tiirau watched as his small companion trudged ahead of him beside the massive shape of the lead animal. The more he considered the news of her Force ability, the more certain occurrences from the past made sense, not the least of which was her formidable intuition. He peered up through the branches at the sky. Although his wrist chrono assured him it was 02.00 Iicini'ian time, the faint traces of pink he could see suggested that here it would soon be dawn. He also didn't need the Force to tell him it was going to be a long day.
Kerensa's knowledge of the specific geography of the area was sketchy, but she was confident that there were scattered settlements along the banks of the Bovrin River. The Bovrin was the main waterway in Bakhunia, and flowed from the northern mountains passing just to the west of Mt Halpurnia. By following the south-western slopes of the mountain, they hoped to meet up with the Bovrin and beg, borrow or steal a hydropod to take them to Bakhunia. From there, they would take whatever method of escape chance and luck brought them. Tiirau smiled to himself wryly. I-M methods were regarded by many in the sector as efficient, but singularly lacking in creativity. He had the strange feeling that he and Kerensa were about to prove their detractors wrong.
The wreckage of the shuttle lay semi-upturned against the side of a cliff, and the dawn sky shone clearly through the gap it had gouged in the forest cover. They picked their way past the lifeless shape of the medic and the fused mass of incinerated flesh which had once been two men, and feeling a little like tomb raiders began their search. A cabinet in the aft compartment revealed two blaster rifles with spare clips, and under the console in the cockpit they were relieved to find an assortment of energy bars with which they filled their pockets. A low rumbling growl from one of the animals caught Kerensa's attention and she poked her head out the ruined hatch. The entire group was standing, their funnel-shaped ears cocked like satellite dishes tracking a faint signal. She listened carefully, and above the rustling of leaves and branches in the brisk wind which had sprung up, she heard snatches of a distant humming.
"Tayne! I think we may have company!" she grabbed a pair of macrobinoculars from a cubbyhole near the door, jumped down and began to claw her way up the cliff.
"Spit," he muttered.
"Stay there. I'll see if I can see what it is from up top."
Tiirau peered up the bank but she was already lost amongst the looming greyness of the undergrowth. He ran his eye over the group of animals uncertainly, feeling uneasy without Kerensa there. But they had clambered up on top of a fallen tree and were sniffing the air and grumbling ominously.
"Are you OK?" he called, hearing a crackling sound followed by a silence.
"It's all right," she called back. "A branch broke. I'm up a tree. I can't see anyth ... Wait a minute." There was silence again, and then he heard a couple of rather unladylike curses and the sound of rustling and twigs breaking. "There're two of them," panted a voice a few minutes later from the darkness up the bank. "One looks like a recovery boat. They're flying a search grid."
"How far off?" asked Tiirau, as she materialised from behind a thick tree trunk up the bank.
"About fifteen kilometres," she jumped down and rubbed her hands clean on her fatigues. "But they're moving this way. What should we do?"
"They obviously intend to retrieve the shuttle," he mused, and then he gazed at her thoughtfully. "OK. Let's analyse this. It seems to me that they went to a lot of trouble to capture us alive, right?"
"So it's fair to say, it's us they're interested in; us they're actually looking for?"
"Yes, although I can't think why."
"Well neither can I, but these are the facts as I see them. And they definitely made every effort to keep us alive."
"Definitely," she agreed.
"So, therefore, I would say that they'll be looking for the shuttle and hoping that we're in it."
"And when they find we're not, they'll scour the forest for us."
The air was suddenly split by an unearthly wail and Tiirau turned to see one of the group poised on the highest point of the fallen tree raise its head and claw at the air. Kerensa looked too, and then her eyes began to grow wide, and they assumed an expression of horror. She stumbled towards the creatures, and stood amongst them with her hands raised despairingly to her head.
"Oh, no! Oh mother of the spirits!" her voice sounded so hollow that Tiirau felt a chill run up his spine. "I've made this happen!" she hissed. "I imagined this and now it's coming to pass."
"Kerensa, you're not making any sense," he stepped over to her and tried to keep his voice calm, but the look of black despair in her eyes was too disturbing.
"I pictured the place back there in ruins to convince them that we needed to leave. Don't you see. I've made this happen, just like I always make things happen. Luke was wrong. I am evil."
"Evil? Oh come on, what is all this nonsense!" he grabbed her by the shoulders and gave her a shake. "This isn't the time to crack up!"
"No, no, don't you see. They'll find we're not in the shuttle, and they'll search." She ripped herself away and ran to the leader, seizing his paw. "You must run! Take your friends and hide. Those men are not from here, they'll kill you." There was a pause while the beast gazed at her its yellow eyes wild, shaking its head. "If you protect this place, you'll die. This is all my doing. Please, please, just run!"
"'Rennie, what in the name of the gods ... !"
"These creatures think they have to protect this place, and up until now they have. They're the evil spirits the legends have always spoken about, the reason why nobody stupid enough to doubt the stories has ever returned. But these men," she gesticulated towards the growing thrum of engines, "aren't Mantrusian. I've just remembered -- in the shuttle they were talking about a flight plan as if they'd never been here before, and the medic had never heard of Mt Halpurnia. They won't be afraid to land and search, and they'll have weapons, and I created an image of this place being destroyed by lasers, and now it's going to happen, because that's what I can do," she gasped as she ran out of breath. "That's how I used the Force for years. I make things happen by imagining them happening."
"Hey, slow down. Wait!" Tiirau held his hands up to stem the flow. "One thing at a time here, and I must point out we don't have much time. When you said it was a recovery vehicle, do you mean standard sub-atmospheric?"
Kerensa's slightly glazed expression remained for a few seconds and then the flickers of reason began to return. She nodded.
"Average capacity -- eight to ten, right?"
"Yes, but ..."
"No. I'm getting the glimmerings here of a plan. Don't stop me. You sure there's definitely only one other craft?"
Again she nodded, and then frowned. "It looked like one of those anti-riot style gunboats."
"To be used if we are not on the shuttle, that makes sense. But if the gunboat crew think we are on the shuttle, they will leave this place unharmed." He had raised his voice to be heard above the mounting shrieks and yowls of the beasts.
Kerensa's eyes widened. "You want me to try and make them think we are on it?"
Tiirau went to speak, but his mouth dropped open in astonishment. "You could do that?"
"No, I was going to say that's way beyond my league. But how did you intend to do it?"
"By being on the shuttle, of course, how else?"
"But aren't we trying to escape?"
"Much easier to escape with a vehicle than on foot."
"Two against ten is a bit beyond the normal odds," she said wryly, and then she caught the tilt of his head towards the animals who were all clawing wildly at the air.
"If you can convince them that their help will protect their home, I think the odds might improve somewhat." The sound of the approaching vessels was becoming discernible as a ground vibration. Kerensa gazed wildly from Tiirau to the group, and then leapt up towards the leader.
"We can help you protect your home," she said firmly, reaching up to grasp its massive shoulder, and pulling it around to face her. "We must lead these people away, but we need your help, do you understand?"
Protect! The word echoed in her head.
"Do you trust me enough to follow me?"
The beast took her head in its paws and gazed into her eyes. Sounih, protect, she felt it say.
"I'm not sure what you mean, but the only way to protect this place is to make these people go away. Can you tell the others to follow, very quickly!"
She started moving purposefully towards the shuttle, but jumped with surprise as the leader suddenly growled ferociously and pushed the two youngsters rather unceremoniously off the trunk, so that they tumbled beside her. As they stumbled to their feet he began roaring and waving his arms at the others, and she barely managed to sidestep as three frenzied adults beat a hasty path to the shuttle hatchway. Hearing the sound of what he thought was approaching thunder, Tiirau poked his head out in time to jump clear as they lumbered up through the opening.
"Hell's bells," he muttered holding himself against the wall as one after the other they panted into the cockpit, dribbling with anticipation, "now that's what I call obedience. Wish I could get my kids to respond so quickly."
"I gather the plan is to wait until we're aboard and then attack?" she asked.
Tiirau handed her a blaster and clip. "Pretty much. You'd better prepare these guys, although they don't look as though they need too much prompting. Here's what I think we should do."
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