The Mantrusian Affair: Chapter Twenty-Four
Iella

The Tyroveran caravan-class shuttle looked a dismal sight as it lay on its belly on the floor of the recovery craft's hangar, where the vessel's tractor beams had deposited it. The first two stormtroopers to creep in through the gaping door of the shuttle gazed around in disbelief at the blackened navigation console and the remains of their compatriots. Lumps of forest humus had already attached themselves to the outside of the wreck, giving it a dank odour, and a few multi-legged insects scuttled away from the corpse of the medic as the men approached.

"Any sign of them?" came a voice over the comlinks attached to the collars of their nerf-skin jackets. Although they would never have admitted it to anyone, most members of the stormtrooper unit which Palpatine had assigned to Governor Kuzhak were grateful for the excuse to forego wearing their armour. The working conditions in Secheniz had been frequently almost unbearable, and the fur-lined jackets, thermal pants and boots had been a welcome alternative. The occasional leaves spent in the casinos and pleasure houses in Bakhunia had also reinforced the advantages of wearing civilian dress again. Once Kuzhak's takeover of Mantrusia was completed, they knew it would take a little time to readjust to their traditional Imperial uniforms.

"Not as ... " one of the men began, when a tremulous voice coming from beside the console station interrupted him.

"Wh... who is it?"

The trooper turned to his comrade and jerked his head towards the voice. The second man padded over stealthily and looked down, and then gazed at the first in triumph.

"Yes, yes we have the girl," he crowed into his com unit. There was a communal sigh of relief from outside the shuttle and four more troopers stepped into the cockpit to gaze curiously at this prize for which Governor Kuzhak had been prepared to go to such lengths. They watched as one of the men helped her to her feet, and as she gazed around blankly.

"Where's your friend?" the first trooper asked shaking her slightly. The girl stared at him wild-eyed and raised her hands to her face.

"It was horrible ... horrib... " she choked on the word and covered her eyes. "There were so many of them ..."

"Sithspit!" muttered the second man. Kuzhak was not going to be pleased that her companion hadn't made it, as he was to be used as the inducement to make her comply with the governor's wishes.

"They were so big," the girl moaned, "and they looked like ..." she stumbled back against the door to the service area and it began to slide open, " ... like this."

She leapt aside pulling a blaster from a shelf beside the door, but the attention of the six troopers had been riveted by the mass of fur and claws surging towards them.

"What about the other one?" came a voice over the comlinks, but nobody felt like replying at that juncture. The trooper who had helped her up tried to grab the blaster from her hands but was hit in the shoulder by a burst of fire that seemed to have come from the animals. As he was thrown sideways, and clutched at his blackened flesh, he saw a tall figure in grey materialise from the service cubby.

"He's here but we need help!" he screamed incoherently, and tried to scrabble up from where he had landed and reach the hatch, but a huge shadow fell over him and a massive foot stomped on the middle of his back. He heard a crunch. The pain was fleeting, for a second stomp rendered him permanently unable to feel anything.

As the leading trooper raised his blaster a hairy paw grabbed it and swung it savagely sideways sweeping him like a useless rag into the wall. Another trooper had his weapon melted into his hand by a blaster bolt. He did manage to reach the door, for the momentum threw him backwards; and realising he was clear of the mayhem he half-scrabbled, half ran to the sealed exit and activated the voice communicator, his comlink having been fused into a useless lump of metal by the heat.

"Gas bombs, we need gas bombs!" he rasped. "The shuttle's full of those creatures!" and he fainted by the doors.

"What the hell's going on?" a rough voice demanded from the other side, and the doors opened to let a further two troopers in. The shuttle resounded with sizzling blasts and bone-crunching thumps and thuds. The two men gazed at each other wildly and then grabbed their fallen companion. They had begun to move back when two of the creatures threw themselves from the shuttle hatch and thundered towards them, their yellow eyes glowering and strings of saliva dripping from their fangs. One continued to retreat with his limp charge, while the other aimed carefully and fired at the leading beast. There was an enraged roar from the animal as she clawed at the blackened area on her chest, and a cry of despair from behind her as she collapsed.

"No!"

The trooper found himself staring into a pair of dark eyes perched menacingly above the barrel of a blaster rifle. He aimed again, but the fearsome blackness of the eyes illuminated into a blinding flash and then faded into a darkness which enveloped him completely. The trooper trying to close the exit found the body of his comrade had fallen back through it, so he abandoned both that effort and his attempt to pull the first casualty to safety. He raced along the corridor towards the blast doors which divided the recovery area from the crew section. A bolt hit his lower leg and he fell to the deck momentarily stunned. Behind him he could hear roaring and the frenzied thudding of footfalls.

"No, no leave her!" came a female voice.

"Shuttle's clear!" a man bellowed.

"There's another up the corridor!" the young woman shouted.

"Will somebody tell us what's going on down there!" thundered a voice over his comlink.

"The ..." The man's voice rose to shriek as something grabbed him from behind and smashed him against the wall.

"The corridor's clear!" Tiirau called back to Kerensa after he had crushed the man's comlink with his foot. "It's all right fella!" and he patted the trembling beast who was still holding the ragged body. It whimpered and dropped its bundle as if it was an unwanted toy, and huffed back towards the shuttle bay, from where Tiirau could still hear the moans of the wounded animal. He investigated the blast doors, and then jogged back as well, checking a body just outside the hangar and emptying a stun bolt into it for good measure.

At the doorway lay another man, obviously dead. Tiirau disconnected his comlink and was about to crush it when he stopped, switching it off instead.

"Is he going to be all right?" he asked anxiously from the doorway. Kerensa had the animal leaning up against the legs of one of the others, while the two smaller ones had huddled up beside it and were rubbing its arms.

"It's hard to say," she replied. "Animals sometimes die of shock more than actual injury. She's a she by the way."

"Oh. Well I'm not meaning to be a pain, but we need to keep this thing going." He switched the comlink back on.

"... happening down there?" came an insistent, rather nervous voice. "I've got the gunboat crew on standby."

"Sorry about that. We had some problems with some animals. Problems solved and captives secure," Tiirau replied breezily.

"Thank goodness for that. Suggest you keep them down there."

"Will do. Over and out." He switched it off again, and frowned down at Kerensa. "We're going to have to get control of this thing and get away from that gunboat."

"I know," she stood up and took the leader's paw. "I think she'll be all right, but you must keep her still. Do you understand. As soon as I can, I'll come back." She gazed into his face and he gently patted the side of her cheek. "May we take two of your friends with us?"

The animal patted her again, and then selected two large members of the assembled group, grunted at them and pushed them towards her. Then it turned back to the wounded one and squatted beside her.

"OK, 'Rennie," said Tiirau as she and the animals followed him towards the blast doors. "Next stop, the bridge. But keep your eyes peeled, just in case my calculations about the crew numbers were wrong."

* * * * *

"I think there were some of those animals on it," the co-pilot was saying, "but they've dealt with that, and the captives have been secured."

"Thank the festering spirits. We can head for home," the relief in the voice from the gunboat was almost tangible.

"At least we've got the sun up now. This place gives me the creeps," the pilot muttered, as the doors to the cockpit swished open behind him.

"We'll follow you," the co-pilot replied to the gunboat captain, and leaned back in his seat to find something hard and cold pressing into the back of his head. He spun around as a tanned hand reached over and switched off the com button.

"I think you know the drill," said Tiirau quietly, with an upward movement of the blaster barrel.

Seeing his comrade begin to raise himself to his feet, the pilot reached his hand down to his left thigh but another smaller hand beat him to it. He responded as expected to the pressure against his neck, and once on his feet he obeyed the voice demanding that he move away from the controls, albeit slowly. Something hairy grabbed his collar and pulled him roughly aside, and to his surprise a girl slid into his seat and grabbed the stick. He looked up and found himself the object of scrutiny of a pair of strange yellow eyes.

"You got it, 'Rennie?" asked a tall man in grey.

The girl leaned over the console and seemed to be identifying the various controls. "Yep," she replied quickly.

"You two out in the corridor! Now!"

A second animal standing inside the door rumbled a warning as the men stepped past, and just as the pilot was beginning to recover from his surprise and develop an appropriate plan, he was hit by a stun bolt which reduced him to a useless jumble of flailing limbs. Tiirau loosed another bolt into the copilot, and then glancing around, saw a door which led as he had hoped to a refresher cubicle. He indicated to the beasts to help him, and they pushed the men in. Tiirau reset the control on his weapon and fired it at the door control.

"That should keep them refreshed for a while," he grinned at the animals and raced back to the bridge, but the grin died when he caught Kerensa's concerned expression.

"We may have a problem, Tayne. This is one of those old recovery vehicles: negligible shields and only two piddly little lasers. So I don't think we're going to be able to carry out Plan A. But I've been thinking."

"Sounds dangerous."

She threw him a wry glance. "I don't know if this will work, so it probably is. Shall we switch on and gauge their reaction to our change of direction?"

Tiirau reached over with a flourish and toggled the communications switch.

"... repeat, where d'you think you're going?" came a voice.

"We seem to have a problem, she's not responding to the stick. Hope nothing got damaged while we were dealing to those animals," replied Tiirau, mimicking the co-pilot's gravelly tones.

"You'd better check it out. We'll come back."

"Will do." Tiirau switched the communicator off again. "OK, professor. What's the plan?"

Kerensa glanced up at him frowning thoughtfully. "Can you change the polarity on a tractor beam and make it push instead of pull?"

Tiirau stared blankly at her for a moment, and then stared out the forward screen at the distant gunboat as it swung around and began to head towards them. Unable to come up with any argument against the idea, he shook his head. "I don't see why not. Theoretically all you'd have to do would be to swap the field activators in the main transformer. What in the name of the Emperor made you think of that?"

"Well, our aeroball coach always used to say that when faced with bigger opposition you have to play to your strengths, and it seems to me that at the moment our strength is that they think you and I are still captives. However eventually they're going to get suspicious, and when they do it's obvious we're going to be unable to match them in a fire fight, because this vessel's strength certainly doesn't lie in its weapons. Its strength is its tractor beam."

"But if we tractor beam them in here, we'll have to fight a gunboat crew," said Tiirau, a look of enlightenment forming in his green eyes.

"Exactly. So we reverse the beam and blow them away from us instead."

Tiirau shook his head in wonder. "Completely crazy, but it might just work."

"Well, if it doesn't I guess we won't be around long enough to worry about it."

"True. Except remember that they seem to want us alive."

Kerensa threw him a rueful look. "I don't know whether I see capture as a preferable alternative. Come on, you're a good con man, you convince them that they need to fly underneath us somehow, and I'll fix the tractor beam."

"As easy as one-two-three," he shrugged with mock unconcern.

Kerensa had reached the doors when she stopped as if struck by a thunderbolt. "That's it! How stupid of me! One-two-three, two-three-seven or nine or whatever it was!"

Tiirau watched perplexed as she stared into the distance, realization dawning in her eyes.

"Those men were stormtroopers -- the ones who captured us I mean. I remember now, one of them called out to another using his number. Truin must be something to do with the Empire." And she gazed at him, shook her head in confusion, and resumed her dash to the hangar.

"I feel like I've fallen into a maze," Tiirau mumbled to himself as he pushed the stick forward and felt the ship respond. "OK, you sons of the Emperor, let's see how gullible you are."

* * * * *

Kerensa didn't dare look into the hangar as she searched the corridor for the door to the tractor beam's service unit, for she knew the sight of the wounded animal would distract her from the task in hand, and at the moment she needed every ounce of concentration. She found the cubicle, flipped the panel open and leaned inside, willing her shaking hands to be still. The last thing she could afford now was to fumble and lose any vital piece of the mechanism. The faint sounds of whimpering and growling reached her ears, and without thinking she switched off to her outside perceptions and focused on the circuit board. That the craft was old was patently obvious from the non-standard gauges of cable which had been used to effect various repairs over the years. She isolated the motivator and double-checked that it was for the main beam. Once a vessel had been transported to the entrance to the docking bay, a secondary beam took over to pull it through the magnetic field and inside. The plan would have little hope of success if she accidentally cross-polarized the wrong beam. When she was certain that she had the correct set of controls, she began tracking along through the tangle of wires to find the main transformer.

Tiirau settled himself more comfortably into the pilot's seat and performed a quick visual check of the control console, giving a small grunt of relief when he identified the small dial he was hoping to find. He twisted it a fraction and the communicator crackled with the resultant interference. Convincing these people to place themselves within range of the tractor beam was going to be hard enough without having to remember to try and sound like the co-pilot.

"Any luck with that steering problem?" the words were fuzzy, but audible.

"We've got a couple of people on to it," replied Tiirau. "I'm having a bit of trouble hearing you," and he twisted the jamming dial to maximum for a few seconds.

"Sssith ... wh... with this place?" the voice asked him.

"Sure gives me the creeps," growled Tiirau helpfully.

Kerensa tried loosening the connectors on the transformer cover, and was about to groan with frustration when she remembered her vibro-blade, which had proved on occasions in the past to be a versatile tool. Unfortunately this time, although she was able to wedge the tip into the slot between the two sections of the metal carapace, there was no space for leverage. She threw the blade down and grabbed at the edges of the unyielding cover, pulling with all her strength, but it was stuck firm. She opened her mouth to inform the mechanism of her state of mind about this, but the words were choked by an arm which looped savagely around her throat and jerked her off her feet.

"So far they're buying the steering problem, but they're just about close enough to eyeball us. How's it going?" Tiirau's voice echoed over the main com system.

"Not going too well is it, Curly Top?" rasped a voice near her ear.

Kerensa was beginning to see black spots, and cursed herself for cutting herself off from her physical awareness, and for not thinking ahead to check the body in the corridor before she began. She remembered now. This was the man Tiirau had stunned. Channelling her despair into an explosive burst, she thrust both elbows back into the trooper's ribs, and as he collapsed against her, she turned and thrust him away. He fell against the wall, but grasped with his uninjured arm at the blade she had thrown down, and came up at her again with a backhand slash at her legs.

"'Rennie!" the edginess in Tiirau's voice was bordering on panic.

"Tayne!" she shrieked, desperately sidestepping the man's wild blade thrusts, and hoping the speaker by the door would pick up her cry. Suddenly a huge shadow fell over her and she saw the man's mouth open in horror. Knowing instinctively who was behind her she scuttled aside, and let the animal carry out its intention. Without even waiting for the final crunch, she dashed back to the service unit and continued pulling at the recalcitrant metal cover. Then rationality returned, and she poked her head into the corridor, avoiding looking at the crumpled body.

"I'm afraid I need your help again," she called to the huge animal and beckoned him over. "Or more precisely, your strength. This square bit here," she said pointing, "won't budge. Can you pull it off?"

The leader grunted and his hairy face appeared beside hers. He tapped the lid and inserted a talon behind its rim. "Yes, that one. I ... Oh! Thanks!" The animal rumbled approvingly, dropped the metal cover with a clang, and wandered back to the hangar.

"How much more can I owe them?" she whispered. "Two lives, twice over."

"'Rennie!" came a frenzied voice.

"Oh mercy, I forgot." She poked her head out and yelled as loud as she could. "I'm OK, Tayne."

"What the hell happened? Never mind. Listen, I've convinced them to fly underneath and check out our underside."

"Not ready yet. Hold them off a bit longer."

"What do I do, tell them funny stories?"

"Just give me a few more minutes."

"Hell's bells!" she heard him grumbling something else, but as her head was back in the cabinet she was able to ignore it. The connectors supporting the two main cables were a little corroded, but they unclipped without fragmenting as one by one she extracted the cables themselves from the activator units. She breathed slowly and rhythmically as she worked, sliding the first cable into its opposing bracket until she felt the contact, and then carefully extracting the connector from her pocket to hold the cable in place. Triumphantly she stepped back and shouted towards the speaker.

"OK, Tayne. Go for it!" She reached in her pocket for the second connector, but it caught on a rough edge of fabric. There was a sharp snap, and Kerensa gazed down to find it had broken in two. She stared at the two pieces in disbelief. Why was it that just as they thought were all right, fate always seemed to turn against them? She clenched her teeth, took hold of the loose cable, and pushed it up until she heard it make contact.

"Tayne!" she shouted, craning her head back out of the opening as far as she could, and hoping the urgency in her tone would filter through the speaker. "I can't explain why right now, but you're going to have to tell me when to switch it on!"

There was a pause, but then his voice came back uncertainly. "OK. They're just moving under us now."

Kerensa closed her eyes and reached out mentally to the control blister on the other side of the wall. Panic fought its way up like bile in her throat, but she opened herself up to the solidity of the structures around her and let them absorb the disruption and return her to a state of calm. She focused on the power dial, and watched in her mind as it slowly clicked to the maximum setting she had visualised for it. Then she searched for the on-off lever.

"They're just off centre, 'Rennie!" warned Tiirau. "Wait! Now!"

The lever moved to halfway and faltered ...

"Now! Go!" the urgency and despair in the voice made the com system squeal.

... and then clicked down.

The pain in her head as it was thrown back against the edge of the door panel almost caused her to let go of the bucking cable, but she hung on grimly, and forced it to stay against its contact. She was determined that there was absolutely no way they were going to be beaten now, not after all this effort. Smoke billowed out from the conduit holding the other cable and there were sinister cracklings and a few bangs as the circuit began to overload, but the connector held. She felt the entire vessel lurch up, and frantic sounds filtered through from the corridor, high-pitched shouts and yowls. Whether they implied success or failure was unclear, for the smoke and stench of burning cable was making her cough and retch. She was still hanging on grimly when a pair of hands reached past and gently pulled at her fingers to loosen her grip. She turned, eyes streaming, and found herself being squashed against a large, comfortable chest.

"We did it! You little cracker! You should have seen them go! Whoomph!" he raised an arm and thrust it away dramatically. "Nearly hit light speed! Straight into the river!" He pulled her against him again, and then noting her silence looked down.

"You OK, old thing?"

She opened her mouth, but only coughing came out, and she peered up at him blinking. Then a thought made her stiffen.

"Um, Tayne. Who's driving this thing?"

"Hah! Had you worried didn't I? Found a flat spot up where the forest begins. Want to come and see what you did?"

From the cockpit Kerensa could just see the twin upper turrets of the gunboat poking above the surface of the Bovrin, causing the fast-flowing water to swirl around them. Wisps of steam were still curling up from the submerged wreck, and there were a few tiny figures on the far bank with what looked like a number of heads in the water moving towards them.

"I know this sounds stupid," she began, giving way to another coughing fit, and sipping the water with which Tiirau was plying her. "But I'm glad that there were some survivors. Until yesterday, I ... I'd never actually killed anyone."

Tiirau studied the serious expression in a face which suddenly looked incredibly young and vulnerable. He reached over and rumpled her tangled hair.

"I keep forgetting," he murmured. "You're only two years older than my Malisha." He ran his finger down her cheek, and then patted her shoulder comfortingly. "We're going to have to get moving again, 'Rennie. Is this the river you said that goes to Bakhunia?"

She nodded.

"We need to get as far downstream as we can. What do you want to do with these animals of yours?"

"They need to go back to their home."

He nodded and patted her shoulder again. "Sure you're all right?"

She smiled weakly, and stood up. "I can feel our home getting closer every minute, and I'm certainly not going to cave in now. I'll go and prepare them, plus I need to check the injured one."

"Any particular spot in the forest?"

She gazed up towards the mist-covered dome of Mt Halpurnia. "As close as you can get to the base of the mountain, Tayne. Now I've seen its spirits, I no longer fear it."

To Chapter Twenty-Three | To Chapter Twenty-Five

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