The Mantrusian Affair: Prologue

The crackling and wrenching of branches breaking or being torn bodily from their parent trees filled the cockpit of the old Y Wing as it ploughed relentlessly forward, gouging an unsightly gash in the floor of the forest. The port wing sheared off a sapling at mid-section, and the tiny tree seemed to throw up its spindly arms in despair as it was dragged under the vessel's fuselage. Kerensa cringed and quickly returned her gaze to the forward viewscreen, but then wished she hadn't, for the frame was filled by a massive grey and silver tree trunk which was growing visibly closer at an alarming rate. The thunderclap of their impact resounded inside her head, but the noise was nothing compared to the sudden pain in her chest as the thwarted Y Wing's momentum was channelled into the bodies of its two occupants. She choked, gagged, could have sworn that her ribs were being bent in half and she was dying, when suddenly the pressure eased and she felt the welcome sensation of air filling her lungs again. She turned to her partner, Shne, to squeeze her arm in heartfelt relief, when the flashing screen before them diverted her gaze. An outgrowth on the giant trunk had penetrated the pilot's side of the cockpit. Kerensa was going to have to complete this mission alone.

Standing under the shelter of the giant trees, she gazed down dully. Although she had tried to arrange her friend's body in a position which invested it with some dignity, she couldn't help but be affected by the shapelessness which death imposed on its victims. Nor did the random nature of these situations escape her. It could just as easily have been Shne standing here in her place.

Now, however, it was imperative that she organise her thinking, but the vertiginous descent of the Y Wing after one of a pair of pursuing TIE fighters had taken out its starboard engine had left her feeling disoriented. Shne Per had rectified their gyroscopic motion by cutting power to the port engine, and angling their approach through the atmosphere perfectly to prevent them burning up. Their target area was Nngaruahi, one of the northern islands, and they had been gliding towards it from the south, using intermittent bursts of repulsor power to keep them airborne, when the TIE had appeared on their screens again. It was almost within firing distance when they passed over the russet cliffs of the island's southernmost headland, and plunged beneath the welcome cover of the giant kutapihi'i forest.

Kerensa closed her eyes, breathing calm into her racing thoughts and oxygen into her tensed muscles. The mission was tantamount; grief would have to wait. She checked the micro-datapad in the front pouch of her flight jacket. Their original plan had been to land at Nngaruahi's small space port, and, in their guises as members for the Tarsus Sector Merchants' Guild, make their way to their contact in Roanahi using the speeder bikes installed in the hold. Like them, he was in reality no merchant but a watcher employed by the Iicini'ian Military, and it was their responsibility to collect his latest surveillance information about the build-up in Imperial activity on the island.

Obviously somebody had discovered their intentions and attempted to stop them, which might mean that the watcher himself was in danger, or possibly already captured; or worse. Kerensa sank down on to the spongey humus, and began working through her options. For the moment it would be sensible to assume he was still free, as any other assumption would imply she abandon the mission now. That would be defeatist, and of all the vast list of failings she could apply to herself, defeatist was definitely not one of them. The immediate question, therefore, was how to get to Roanahi, or even more importantly: where was Roanahi relative to where she was now? How she would get off the island with the precious information would be a problem she would address later.

She clambered back into the cockpit of the Y Wing and reactivated the navicom. The readout gave her their position relative to the planetary grid. She magnified the screen display limiting it to the region between the fortieth and fiftieth parallel, plotting their location as a red dot. The good news was that Roanahi was the closest major town; the bad news was that the terrain between it and the coastal forest was not conducive to ground vehicles. Kerensa chewed her lip thoughtfully, and then called up the data files on Iicini'ian geography held in the onboard computer. She selected the elevation maps for Nngaruahi, and studied the southern reaches carefully.

Southern Nngaruahi was rugged territory. From the cliffs, the kutapihi'i forest led up to a narrow mountain range, low by Iicini'ian standards, but contorted into thrusting peaks and chasms by eons of tectonic movement. For a person on foot the mountain passes would be difficult but passable; for a TIE pilot the shifting thermals would make navigation dangerous, but not impossible. If there were TIEs out there waiting, it might be safer to wait until dark. Only the smallest of Iicini'ia's two moons would be up tonight, and with just infra-red tracking as an option it would be impossible for the enemy pilots to differentiate between human or animal.

Animals! Now that was a thought. What sort of animals would she be likely to encounter? Judging from the angle of the sun when they had been making their approach and the geographical fact that darkness here would fall quickly, Kerensa knew that soon the forest would be alive with nocturnal snufflings and grumblings. If it came to a choice between human and animal predators, she knew which she would prefer. She sat for a moment longer finalising her plan, then reached over decisively and switched off the computers. She grabbed a handful of energy bars from the ration box under her seat. The cockpit was already dark and gloomy, and when she reached the floor of the forest and peered up, she could see the bright yellow of the leaves had dulled to dark brown. She checked that her small stiletto-style vibroblade was still safely tucked into its boot pouch. It was time to move.

The bank to her left was higher than that to the right, so she climbed to the top and then skirted the ridge searching for the tallest kutapihi'i. The trunks of the huge trees were encrusted with gnarls and knobs which made climbing a breeze, and from the top Kerensa was able to establish that their ship had crashed about five kilometres in from the scrubland which led up into the foothills of the mountains. Hopefully by the time she would have to brave it through there, it would be completely dark. Unless ...

Her father had always joked that to discover the quickest way to do something, one should give the job to the laziest person. Would a lazy person climb through a mountain pass if another less arduous route presented itself? Kerensa lay back in the comfortable hammock formed from the springy kutapihi'i branches, flicking through her mental catalogue of Nngaruahian wildlife. Then she reviewed her memory of the elevation map.

A distant whine which grew rapidly into a grating screech overhead made her blood run cold, and she felt the shadows of the two fighters flicker over her. Even though she knew logically they would be hard put to find her, the sound invoked both fear and anger. Obviously that was their intention; to try and rattle her into making a hasty decision. That thought filled her with a sudden burst of energy and determination, and she returned to her cogitations. As the shrill screaming of the TIEs faded she swung down three branches to the cluster of newly ripened kutapihi'i nuts she had noted on the way up. She smiled to herself as she plucked them from their cup-like calyces and began filling her pockets. Boy, she thought, aren't those giant tevathors going to love me.

Twenty minutes later with the pockets in her jumpsuit bulging with nuts, Kerensa set off down the far side of the ridge. The ground under the kutapihi'is was deep in humus, but lacked the tangle of the sub-tropical forests with which she was accustomed. By the time the small pasty-faced moon had risen, Kerensa had found a stream; and when the moon's orb had climbed ten degrees, the stream had widened into a pool. She sat beside it and took out some of the nuts. The moon climbed a further ten degrees. A large multi-legged creature with a horny carapace reached down wavering from the nearest trunk, took purchase on the fabric of her flight jacket and motored down the front of it towards the nuts. It stopped before them wriggling its antennae suspiciously.

"I hope I'm right about this," she said to it conversationally, "because I much prefer rivers to mountains."

The creature waggled its feelers at her, and then at the pool. Kerensa turned curiously in the same direction just as the surface heaved, and a giant pair of eyes popped up above the level of the surface. The insect sped hastily away, but the girl held up a nut. Another pair of eyes sloshed to the surface to her left, and another directly ahead. Soon there were five pairs of bulbous eyes heading towards her. She arranged the nuts in five groups, and squiggled backwards to make room for the animals to clamber out. The water coursed down off their armoured hides as they heaved themselves up on to the bank, and they clacked loudly.

"Yes, they're for you. And they're fresh. Much nicer than the ones you've probably been eating off the ground," she informed them. The largest animal stared at her, its eyelids closed and a muscle at the side of each twitched, so that when they reopened they extended out towards her on fleshy tubes, perusing her from several angles.

"Do I pass muster?" she laughed. The creature snorted, almost as if it was chortling, and retracted its eyes. It lowered its massive shoulders, extended a forked tongue from its lower mouth to prod a nut which it placed daintily between its upper grinders. The others watched while it crunched and swallowed; then, as if on some signal, their restraint dissolved and they launched themselves on to the piles of nuts in a joyful frenzy. In less than a minute with much clacking, sucking and the odd sneaky tail swipe to push a neighbour off their pile, the nuts were gone.

"Good work," Kerensa stood up slowly, and regarded the waiting animals with her hands on her hips. "Now if you want more, you've got to help me."

Millennia ago a massive upheaval had produced an uplift rathThe creatures clacked at her hopefully.

"Oh, yes. Plenty more," she informed them breezily. "One more each now, and more the further you take me."

The leader sighed deeply and huffed at the others. They squatted and eyed her curiously. She walked along the line handing each another nut, and waited while they clacked and dribbled. They were much larger than she had imagined, easily three times the size of their smaller cousins with whom she was familiar. Their gnarled heads were nearly level with hers.

"The old manners need a bit of work, guys," she said shaking sticky fronds of saliva from her hand. "However, it's your navigational skills I'm interested in. If you are the greater spotted swamp tevathors which I believe you are, judging by your size and spots, you will be able to take me back the way you came to the swamplands around Roanahi. And as I would like to be there by morning if possible, we had best be on our way."

She turned and began walking downstream. Eventually she knew this little watercourse would meet others winding their way down from the southern face of the mountains through the forest. er like a long wavecrest in the land on which the forest now grew. On the southern side of this crest the streams ran down towards the sea; but on the other they joined to run through several narrow chasms between the mountains down towards the central plains.

It was up such a chasm that the tevathors travelled to reach their favourite seasonal food supply, and it was back down it that they led the diminutive human in the grey jumpsuit, stopping and butting her gently every now and again to extract from her a tasty snack. She was right: these were by far the most succulent nuts they had tasted for a long time.

As they progressed further along the chasm, the volume of water increased, churning and seething over boulders. The channel through which it had to pass was definitely too narrow for TIE fighters, and eventually it became too narrow for the tevathors. Kerensa had just begun to wonder if they had chosen the wrong return route when the leader disappeared beneath a rocky outcrop, followed closely by the one she suspected was his mate. She followed them into the shadow of the cliff, and to her surprise found herself sliding down a slippery limestone path which led into the mountain. Gradually the path widened into a cavern, through which she could hear faintly the echoing roar of water. The tevathors marched steadily onwards: down another slippery chute, into a larger cave which contained a dark pool, and along an undulating passage with a rounded floor. It occurred to the girl that this was probably a flood channel, etched through the soft layers of limestone over time by the eroding force of the water.

Eventually the roar of the river began to increase again and the tingle of fresh air currents told her they would soon be leaving the protection of the rock. When they emerged above the foaming torrent, the tevathors stopped and looked up at her beseechingly, then squatted patiently while she gave each in turn a handful of nuts. She patted the leader's horns thoughtfully, and gazed around while they chomped down their snack.

She estimated they had been walking for about five hours. The tevathors' direct route had brought them out on the other side of mountains, but she knew from the map that the foothills on this side stretched for miles. Still, as long as they followed the river they couldn't fail to wind up near Roanahi eventually. The question now was whether to approach her contact by day or to wait until the next night; assuming he was still there, of course. She frowned. Obviously this mission was going to test her to the full.

The leading tevathor clambered to his feet, yawned loudly and shook himself, making the interlocking plates of semi-flesh, semi-bone which comprised his armour rattle. This seemed to be the signal to continue, for the others took their place in line and followed him along the cliff beside the river. The trek took them slowly down through first rock and then feathery srye-grass country, stopping as always for the odd nibble and rest as before. Once the ground levelled out, the leader let Kerensa travel on his broad back, and she couldn't help but admire the tevathors' steady plodding progress, and the way they used their muscular tails for balance and sometimes for leverage up the steep bits. Like a lot of large animals they were vegetarians, and their horns and armour were there for self-defence, although she had heard of attacks by them on humans.

As dawn began to tinge the horizon orange, the ground began to feel decidedly soggy. The tevathors grunted as they sloshed between bundles of swamp rushes at the water's edge. The river had divided itself into several channels which meandered lazily across the fertile central plains. In the distance Kerensa could make out a wavering line of grainheads silhouetted against the skyline. She slipped down the creature's armoured flanks and emptied her pockets of the last few handfuls of nuts. The tevathors gathered around her one last time. She unwrapped a few energy bars as well and divided them up, then scratched each on its knobbly head, and set out towards the fields. Behind her she heard squelches and contented sighs as they settled down to rest in their swampy home.

The outskirts of Roanahi were still quiet when she reached them, and she was glad that she had resisted the temptation to steal the farmer's small boundary speeder she had seen parked outside a granary dome. The less noticeable her presence, the better. In which case, I'd better do something about my clothes, she thought. And if I am not mistaken, she sniffed the air, there is the answer to my problem.

The distinctive acrid smell of sulphur became stronger as she approached a semi-cylindrical transpariplast structure, from which she could now hear the hollow echo of voices and the splashing of water. She slipped a half-credit into the admittance box, and the platform on which she was standing dropped her down to the changing rooms. The warm moist atmosphere was almost too tempting, and for an instant Kerensa yearned to be able to relax in the soothing water of the hot pool. Nngaruahi possessed a number of geothermal attractions, and most of the towns and even some private homes had sulphur pools.

Recreation, however, was not her purpose. She ran a quick check around the room for security devices, and keeping her ears open for the sound of approaching feet, she gave the various bundles of clothing a rapid perusal. What sort of a girl would be most likely to be roaming the backstreets at this early hour? She snorted wryly, discounting a few of the options, then quickly selected a few items from different piles. That way, she thought, nobody will be completely embarrassed. She wrapped her flight jacket inside her jumpsuit and placed it neatly in the corner, tucked her tiny datapad into her new belt pouch, adjusted the waist-tie on a pair of rather funky lime srye-cloth pants, and then checked her reflection in the shiny transpariplast wall. Rather incongruous military boots covered by pants? Yes. She frowned at her hair; then pulled it out of its clip, tousled it and let it fall over her shoulders, removing the odd stray leaf. That was better - vaguely ditzy. She stepped on to the egress lift.

Roanahi had a simple town layout which hadn't been difficult to memorize. Her contact ran the local office for an independent grain merchant, and lived in the apartment above it. The office was on the east side, away from the main businesses, so she set off at a vague diagonal, working on the principle that a straight line was always the shortest route between two points. She hoped she was not too late. That would mean ...

A flash of reflected light made her jump back to the corner of the building she had just rounded. Pressing herself flat against the cool stone she heard the familiar thrum of a speeder's repulsors fade and stop. She peered cautiously around the edge of the wall. Two men, heavy-set and armed with blasters, swung down and gazed around the empty street. Kerensa was sure she was only one street away from her destination, so she retraced her steps intending to skirt around several blocks and come in from the back.

At the next street-crossing she stopped and listened carefully. She could hear the speeder again but it was moving away, so she risked peeping around to make sure, and found herself gazing down the barrel of blaster. She stared up blankly at the cold green eyes above it.

"Funny time of day to be sneaking around here, don't you think?" he asked caustically.

"Mercy!" she gasped, holding her hand to her head helplessly. "I thought you were my dad for a minute!"

The man frowned, looked at his blaster and then back at her. "Your father threatens you with blasters? Come on, give us a break!"

Kerensa screwed up her face.

"Well, you see," she began quietly. "I have this guy, and he's ..." she shrugged and wiggled appealingly. "Well, you know, and well dad doesn't like him anyway, and he's threatened to kill me if he catches me with him. Not that he would, but he's sort of over the top, you know. And now if I want to see him I have to sneak out at night after dad's asleep. But last night we sort of, well you know, and that's why I'm ..."

A glimmer of uncertainty passed through the man's eyes as he listened with a glazed expression to her garbled teenage lingo, and she could see that he was wondering if she was in fact genuine. The blaster slipped down to point beyond her shoulder.

"Urh!" the man grunted as Kerensa chopped the blaster from his grip with a swift upward slice from her right hand, while she drove her left fist into his solar plexus. As he bent double she brought her knee up between his legs; then struck the base of his neck with the sides of both hands, picked up his blaster and sent a stun bolt into his prone body.

She raced across the expanse of street, along and round the next block of buildings, across another open space and then stopped to listen for the speeder. Silence. It had either stopped or was gone, but somehow she doubted the latter. She crept on, hugging the walls of a large seafood outlet, then scuttled up an alley which stank of decaying refuse, emerging near the corner of the block. Across from her diagonally lay the grain merchant's office. The speeder was absent, but the door was very slightly ajar. She checked the transparisteel panes for movement, but they gazed back at her blankly. Keeping one eye on them and the other on the open space around her, she ran lightly over to the narrow alley beside the office and made her way carefully past two tall silos presumably containing grain samples.

The back entrance to the building was a wide metal grating - obviously a delivery area, and it was already rolled up. Kerensa stepped inside lightly and melted into a dark corner to listen.

"You will tell us," she heard a clipped voice say, "either today or tomorrow, but you will tell us. Of that I can assure you. Now, why not make it easy for yourself, and give us the information now."

Kerensa felt the familiar sensation of her heart trying to leap out of her chest, but she willed everything to stay put, taking three long slow breaths. She checked the power level and the setting on the blaster, and then began to creep stealthily towards the voices.

The men were in the storeroom behind the office. There were three of them: one, obviously the speaker, in a grey Imperial uniform, and another, tall and muscular, holding a vibro-blade. The third, bloodstained and cradling one hand in the other against his abdomen, was cowering against a metal ladder. At his feet lay what looked like a severed finger.

"I don't know what you're talking about," he gasped. "I just run this office. If there's information here about something you'll have to ask the boss."

"Another finger, Koyia!" commanded the Imperial. The man stepped forward to grab the agent's hand, but halted in consternation when a bolt from the doorway bathed the blade in his hand with white light. He cursed, dropping it before the molten metal could burn him, and was reaching inside his jacket when a small figure stepped lightly into view.

"Freeze! Both of you. Now, step back. And keep your arms above your heads, if you want to keep them that is." The two men exchanged glances, but when she directed a bolt which lit a hole in the floor between the officer's feet they complied. Rule one: only kill if it proves essential for survival.

"You, Agent. Walk over to me but keep to the side. I don't want to lose sight of these two."

The man had begun sidling towards her when she caught the change from relief to horror in his expression. She had already leapt to the side when she heard his warning cry, simultaneously reaching a decision regarding his torturers. One to one, she knew she stood a chance; one against three was a different story. She quickly unloaded two bolts into the Imperial and his henchman, and was turning when a huge hand grabbed her arm and spun her savagely against the wall.

"Get out!" she managed to shout to the wounded man a micro-second before the impact knocked the breath out of her. She slid to the ground and saw the gleam in her attacker's eyes as he prepared to pounce on to her. Crouching, with her back to the wall, it only took the briefest of movements to pull her own blade from her boot pouch and switch it on. As the man landed, the blade juddered its way into the middle of his chest. Kerensa felt a ringing in her ear, and she collapsed under the man's dead weight. There was a moment of welcome silence.

"Clear run," came a voice from the doorway. "Well done, Ensign Kalichi."

"Colonel Fa'arika!" she gasped. "Mercy," she struggled to her feet and saluted as briskly as her tired muscles would allow. Now the tension had disappeared, she could feel every part of her body screaming for rest. "I didn't realize you would be overseeing us, sir."

"Well. Lieutenant Salurio got a bit edgy when you didn't come out of the forest where he expected, so he called me up here. I think he thought you'd met with that pack of tevathors that got the hunter last month," he smiled. Kerensa nodded, amused. "I was sure you'd turn up, but I must admit, I still can't quite figure out your route."

"Well, sir. I thought they would probably put Atanei in one of those TIEs, and as he's familiar with this area I knew I had to be a little unconventional in my choices."

"Ah, competitive. Well, if it works, use it I say." He turned to Kerensa's last victim. "The target sensor works well Rusi, can you build a few more?"

"No problem, sir," grinned the man as he unstrapped the duraplast carapace he was wearing.

"Pity you can't make them for heads," said Kerensa throwing him a wry look, and rubbing a scar under her fringe.

"Well, never mind. We're even now," he said ruffling her hair. "Anyway, I only nicked you, but you totalled me."

"Hey, 'Rennie," called the man with the bloodstained shirtfront, "fancy some finger food?" He threw her a fake finger.

"Not enough sauce," she quipped, throwing it back. "Eek, a ghost!"

Shne's jowls wobbled as she chuckled. "You are the one who looks dead."

"I am," affirmed Kerensa. "Dead tired."

"Why did you lay me out?" the Sullustan woman murmured.

"I sort of got a bit caught up in the atmosphere I think. Sometimes these simulations are so real you actually find yourself thinking what you would do if one of your friends died. And anyway," she smiled, "you were doing such a good job of being dead, I thought the least I could do was honour your customs."

Shne smiled back and patted her arm as another person entered the room.

"Teiri," said Colonel Fa'arika, "I don't believe you've met Ensign Kalichi before, have you?" He grinned teasingly.

"Sneaky little piece of work," the man replied, green eyes twinkling. "I actually thought I had hit on a wayward teenager for a moment." He proffered his hand. "Pleased to meet you," he said pleasantly.

Kerensa returned his greeting and then turned to the senior man in battle fatigues. "Um, Colonel Fa'arika. I think perhaps I'd better return these things I stole from the hot pool."

He nodded. "Definitely. And while you're there, I suggest you have a good soak. In fact anyone else who wants to avail themselves of a bit of sulphur therapy is welcome to go. Meet back here in an hour and a half." He nodded to everyone and then motioned Kerensa over, turning towards the wall so he could speak to her privately.

"I know I ask in vain, Ensign," he said. "But is there any chance at all you would consider transferring from navy to ground forces. I really could use you."

The girl gazed up at him, her dark eyes apologetic. "I'm sorry, sir. I've really set my heart on the fleet. But if I change my mind, you'll be the first to know."

Fa'arika nodded and ruefully returned her salute. He watched as a young, well-built man with shoulder-length black hair walked in.

"Atanei," acknowledged the man with the bloodstains. "Want to come and help 'Rennie return her ill-gotten gains?"

"I reckon." He fell in step beside her as the group moved out into the street. "Where the hell did you get to?" he asked, an irritated expression on his tanned face.

"I went where you couldn't follow me," she replied simply.

He threw her a quizzical look. "I've flown through those mountains regularly, I know the air-currents like the back of my hand."

"Ever flown down the eastern chasm?"

He snorted. "Ever committed suicide?" he retorted. She remained silent, and he glanced down at her. "Kerensa, there is no way you could have gone down there." She shrugged, and sped up to catch up with the others, but he kept pace with her. "Even a raft would have trouble down there, and you certainly couldn't have swum it."

"No," she smiled mysteriously, "I guess you're right."

"O.K. Be difficult," he said. But next time the shoe'll be on the other foot, you'll see."

"As long as they both fit in your mouth," she said sweetly, "I suppose it doesn't matter."

To the Introduction | To Chapter One

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