The Mantrusian Affair: Chapter One
Iella

{Six months after the Battle of Hoth.}

"Any luck?" Wes Janson grinned as the figure slumped at the desk jerked itself into an upright position, knocking over a pile of data cards in the process.

"Luck?" asked Wedge vaguely, simultaneously trying to blink himself into wakefulness and to remember what had been occupying his attention before he fell asleep, as whatever it was obviously related to Wes's question.

"Contacting Luke."

"Oh," Wedge was unable to prevent the acknowledgment from turning into a yawn. He rubbed his eyes and stared blearily up at the two lieutenants nodding knowingly down at him. "No," he replied. He pressed his eyes shut again and was relieved to find, when he opened them, that not only were the two figures slowly telescoping into one, but also his mind had begun to clear as well.

"Nobody knows where he is," he added. "He's obviously gone to ground for a while - maybe he's on to a positive lead searching for Han and doesn't want his whereabouts known."

Luke Skywalker, the founder of Rogue Squadron, was still its nominal leader, although his status as a Jedi - the only known surviving Jedi in the galaxy - often forced him to leave the squadron in the capable hands of his Executive Officer, Wedge Antilles. Wedge had been acting superior officer now for several months. Luke had gone initially to Tatooine hoping to search Obi Wan Kenobi's old abode for vital information about his Jedi heritage, but then he had joined Leia in her search for Han Solo.

"So - you'll be holding the baby for a bit longer," said Wes quietly.

Wedge shrugged, and then his lips crept up into a grin that was accompanied by the vestige of a twinkle in his brown eyes. For a moment the weary look disappeared to be replaced by a boyish one.

"In your case, Wes, that's probably not too far from the truth."

"Ooh, I am cut to the quick, my Captain. And here's little old me come to encourage you to join us in a little rest and relaxation," Wes affected a wounded look.

"Sorry, couldn't resist it," chuckled Wedge, then his expression lapsed back into seriousness. "I really need to recheck these cards from Maintenance, but as my last effort ended in me falling asleep, maybe I should take you up on your offer. What's everyone doing?"

"Believe it or not, yours truly has applied a little of his technical expertise, and we now have the main data screen in the pilots' lounge logged in to HoloNews Sport One. And - ta da - guess what begins in," he checked his wrist chrono, "three minutes from now?"

"You have me there," Wedge shook his head.

"The aeroball final between Coruscant and Team Iicini'ia," Wes announced triumphantly. "Don't I remember you admitting once that you were something of an aeroball gun when young?"

"I'm still young," Wedge reminded him wryly.

"Let's not wander off into side issues. You have time to grab a mug of coffeine from the dispenser, to which I will kindly add a spot of Whyren's Reserve from my rapidly depleting supply. Now are you coming, or shall I tell you about it later, along with a description of the amazing attributes of the some of the female players?"

Wedge held up his hands in defeat. ""You win," he grinned. "Just let me finish the card I was working on."

Wes checked his chrono. "Oh dear," he said. "I seem to have misread the time. The game is starting now, and the whisky offer is only valid for ten more seconds."

Wedge raised his eyes to the ceiling and switched off his datapad. He stood and held out his hand to the door. "Lead on, Lieutenant," he sighed. "And if we run out of space tape, or motivator grommets, remember - it's your fault."

* * * * *

As General Aari Tavaala and his companion stepped on to the disembarkation stairs from their diplomatic shuttle, the blast of pleasantly warm air which greeted them confirmed that the intensity of the marma had at last faded. Back at the Iicini'ian military headquarters, the heat was alleviated somewhat by the fact that most of the complex was subterranean. The main reason for this was to protect it from aerial attack, but it also served to shelter its personnel from the three months of heat and humidity which the marma brought every year.

General Tavaala glanced around as he dismounted to the floor of the landing platform atop the Farayna, the massive building which housed the United Iicini'ian Council. The Great Equatorial Ocean stretched out on all sides, aquamarine until it faded into the grey heat haze at the horizon. The early morning sea breeze had died, and the stringent salty odour of the surrounding water rose into his nostrils. The Farayna stood on an island, the Isle of Castazi, which was separated from Iicini'ia's main landmass, the continent of Mesotonia, by two kilometres of ocean. It had been built into the bedrock of the island so that one-third of the structure lay below sea-level. The room where the two men were heading, however, was in the upper level, which afforded a magnificent lighthouse view of the surrounding seascape Obviously the building's designers had decided that the movers and shakers of the planet deserved at least one luxury while they battled with the more unsavoury aspects of political responsibility.

Iicini'ia was a pleasant world, in fact some would have called it a paradise. It was large and, except for a few industrial installations, had remained under-developed technologically and commercially because of its status in the Old Republic as a recreational spot. The climate was conducive for agriculture and holidaying; and the nature parks and reserves, mountains and beaches provided plenty of outlets for hunters and thrill-seekers.

When Palpatine came to power and the Old Republic ceased to exist, Iicin'ia was absorbed into the Empire. Initially the status quo remained relatively unchanged, but gradually the effects of Imperial policy began to filter through. First the Empire wanted to centralize the grain co-operatives, which would have taken away their traditional economic freedom to find the most lucrative markets. Then an entire island was confiscated from its inhabitants and converted into a recreational spot for the Imperial navy to use as a shore leave location. When the governor of the sector tried to force discriminatory laws against some of the non-human settlements, the Iicini'ians, although human themselves, began to object. The final straw came when Alderaan was destroyed. The entire planet rose up in disgust and rejected Palpatine and his New Order.

General Tavaala turned to his companion, whose uniform was emblazoned with the red and yellow triangles of the lesser rank of Colonel. "I have a feeling this is going to be a long and difficult session, Naroo."

Colonel Fa'arika nodded and threw the general a wry look. "I think you're right, although it's going to be hard to argue against these," and he held up the plastine container which held a set of holographic data wafers.

"Hard to argue their existence, yes. Not so easy to argue about their interpretation and what we should do about it."

The grim expression which usually inhabited Fa'arika's face returned. Too many years of prying into the muddied depths which underlay the mock altruisms and overt propriety of politics had left its mark. "Well in my book the interpretation is simple. The Imperials have insinuated themselves into Mantrusia, and any Imperial activity within striking distance of Iicini'ia doesn't augur well for our planetary security."

"Let's hope Manalooa agrees and gives this the urgency it requires."

"I think it's got to the stage now where he has no choice. Even the factions are beginning to agree that it's no longer acceptable to sit on the fence. There's going to be one almighty showdown soon, and most of us know which side we want to win."

Tavaala had reached the observation lift, a transparisteel quarter-sphere which crawled up and down the side of the upper levels of the Farayna and allowed its occupants a magnificent view of the ocean. Usually he would have utilized the faster interior turbo-lift as it was a more appropriate indicator of the urgency of their business.

"I thought we'd go scenic today," he shrugged in response to Fa'arika's questioning look, "we need all the uplifting we can get." He turned to the Intelligence Chief as the door descended and closed them in. "By the way, any update on your Mantrusian operative?"

Fa'arika shook his head grimly. "I think we've lost him. The last report I had from him, he was on his way to investigate some rumours he'd heard about a mining venture in Secheniz Province."

"Could be just maintaining silence for a while. That's rough territory, too, perhaps he's hit a communication black zone."

"Possibly, except he has an intermittent pulse transmitter for such situations. Usually we'd hear from him one way or the other once a week, which makes him now a week overdue." He sighed and gazed at the perfect aquamarine of the ocean, noting the jagged upthrusts of rock concealed beneath its unruffled surface. "He was a good man. If he's gone, I'm sorry, and not just because he'll be almost impossible to replace." Fa'arika glanced up at Tavaala quizzically, eyebrows raised.

Tavaala shook his head firmly. "If you're suggesting what I think, the answer's no. She's far too young, and it's far too dangerous."

"I know. But she's the only one who speaks Mantrusian well enough to pass herself off as one. And you must admit she has shown an aptitude for this kind of work. Just look at her scores on her simu-ops."

"Granted. But I can't OK it for two reasons: first we need her translating skills, and second I owe it to Tseraan."

"You won't be able to protect her forever, Aari," Fa'arika said softly as the lift door ascended to allow them out.

"I know. But as long as I can, I will," the big man's voice was quiet. Fa'arika knew that quiet note: it meant that that line of conversation was now at an end. "Now, let's hope the Council are ready for us. I hate long waits," and they set out along the sunlit corridor to the Council anteroom.

"Whose sympathies are we playing on today?" Fa'arika asked wryly.

"Anyone who can galvanize that idiot from Sarashui'ia into being proactive for once in his life," replied Tavaala grimly.

* * * * *

Governor Vadeem Kuzhak heard the door close lightly behind him but he remained standing in front of his huge picture window, hands clasped casually behind his back, enjoying the view of his city. He was a man with a taste for the dramatic and he enjoyed making the most of any opportunity to strike a pose, especially when he knew it would accentuate the athletic tapering of broad shoulders to narrow hips, or the perfect cut of his official tunic. The fact that he knew the man entering to be his aide, Tsarkoni, made no difference. Kuzhak believed in the constant reinforcement of his image as the suave, unflappable leader. Mantrusians were by nature a people with an almost romantic belief in the superiority of their heads of state. The importance of the ceremonial in their lives was a feature Kuzhak had recognized at an early age, and he had used this knowledge to his advantage ever since.

"Ah, Tsarkoni," he projected his deep voice so that it would bounce off the expanse of transparisteel before him and amplify as it filled his oval office. The acoustics, he had discovered after a series of experiments, worked extremely well from this particular spot. "Bakhunia is looking extraordinarily beautiful this evening, do you not think?"

Tsarkoni rolled his eyes, but approached the window as he knew his superior intended. Four and a half years in Kuzhak's service had provided him with a greater insight into the workings of the megalomaniac mind than he wished to possess, yet it never ceased to amaze him how easily Kuzhak could manipulate him, nor how willingly he allowed himself to be manipulated. Some were born to lead, and others born to follow: he had come to accept the fact that he belonged to the latter group.

He stood beside his taller superior and made the appropriate appreciative grunts. In spite of the sense of compulsion however he had to admit the long southern twilights did have a beautifying effect on the city. The purple shadows smoothed the stark geometry of the old university buildings, outlined the smooth curves of various shrines and galleries, and covered the stained squalor of the encroaching ghettos. Tsarkoni remembered a time when the slum areas were contained within a small square on the southern side of the city. Although the home of Bakhunia's poorer folk, they possessed an almost exotic atmosphere with their loud colourful markets, street entertainments and lines of ragged, but clean, washing fluttering like banners above the narrow winding walkways. Vital, that was how he remembered it: vital, energetic, and with a peculiar dignity of its own.

It was difficult to equate that older reality with that of the present. As a child he had thought nothing of roaming the streets of Southside, as it was known, mouth slightly agog at the hustle and the hustlers. Now it was a place he would venture only when armed with an efficient side-arm and a troop of bodyguards. Nor should it be called Southside any longer, for it occupied the entire central zone of the city, stretching in an ever-widening corridor from its old location up to within one and a half kilometres of the Governor's Palace. Now it provided a home for Bakhunia's growing numbers of unemployed and homeless people, as well as a maze of warren-like hideouts for the criminal population. The only banners fluttering today were the markers denoting the insignia and the territory of the main crime syndicates. Nobody cared about clean washing any more, the place was stained both physically and morally.

Stained? Instinctively Tsarkoni threw a quick glance down at his hands. Kuzhak caught the movement in his peripheral vision, and turned slightly to regard Tsarkoni's profile with detached interest. Half-smiling he turned back to the horizontal and vertical lines with which the city imposed itself against the horizon, and which were accentuated sharply now by the approaching indigo clouds of night. He sighed peacefully and nodded to himself.

"You've dealt with our intruder, I gather?"

Tsarkoni looked up and nodded curtly.

"Did he divulge any useful information, or was he brave and silent to the end?" Kuzhak had the amazing ability to turn even torture into the essence of a dramatic performance. He'll be dressing us in costume next, Tsarkoni thought, and assigning us parts.

"I'm afraid we got nothing very coherent out of him, sir. But on investigation we discovered that two of the guards remembered him from the excavation work on Nerensai's palace. Apparently he was one of the diggers."

"Ah, well, obviously he enjoyed the work so much he couldn't wait to sign on again for the new project. Horrors, Tsarkoni, maybe you've killed our most enthusiastic worker!" Kuzhak's blue eyes regarded him humorously.

Tsarkoni raised an eyebrow. We're obviously doing comedy today, he thought, and he wondered idly if Kuzhak's apparent buoyant mood was a result of their successful eradication of the spy, or was more to do with his superior's adoption of a new mistress and the successful relocation of the old. The realization that Kuzhak's romantic life could well continue unabated for another twenty or even thirty years suddenly filled Tsarkoni with weariness. He was rapidly running out of suitable high-class apartments or country estates for those who had passed their used-by date, or had simply ceased to amuse.

"Enthusiastic, but for all the wrong reasons. And as you well know, the location for the new dig is at present a well-guarded secret. The only way he found it was because he was looking."

"You say you got nothing coherent. What did you use?"

"Veranol. But I think he'd been taking lotiramine, and the chemical reaction between the two gave us a jumbled account of his obviously problematic relationship with his father, a series of bizarre confessions about some of his childhood misdemeanours and a herbal cure for hangovers. He seemed able to access the distant past, but not the last few months. In the end we had to resort to more primitive methods."

"Any chance he was a Rebel?"

"Very unlikely." Tsarkoni shook his head firmly.

"Why so?"

"Wrong profile. He was Mantrusian: that Bakhunian earring had been in since close to his birthdate, and there are no Mantrusian Rebel sympathiser groups. We also found a transmitter concealed in the fatty tissue at the top of his arm." He glanced up at Kuzhak and threw him a wry grin revealing uneven, yellow teeth "Found it purely by accident when he was being flogged thanks to an inexperienced hand with the laser-whip. We couldn't trace the signal destination, because the thing self-detonated as soon as it was exposed to the air, but we did manage to analyse the remains."

"And?" Kuzhak was following the details with great interest, the ins and outs of Intelligence never ceased to fascinate him.

"There were some filaments which matched the atomic structure of an element called tri-siliconium which is rare in this system but which the Tyroverans produce in abundance. Most of it's used in the production of domestic appliances, but the Tyro-Cini Group, who specialize in sub-space communications equipment, use it in their circuitry boards. Tyro-Cini has a big installation in Iicini'ia. I'm sure our man was working for the Iicini'ians."

"Amazing!" Kuzhak shook his head wonderingly, but his expression conveyed no concern. "So it looks like we have Iicini'ian Intelligence on our tails."

"So it would appear."

"Perhaps it's time to indulge in a little intelligence gathering ourselves. If he's been feeding information back to them I'd like to establish how much they actually know." He paused, pressing his lips together the way he always did while thinking. "Of course, he could be one of Elozhi's men."

Tsarkoni's reply was decisive. "No. Again, wrong profile - far too organized."

"You insult us, Tsarkoni." Kuzhak's mouth turned up into what would have been a mischievous grin if the sarcasm dripping from his words hadn't ruined the effect. "Mantrusian Intelligence isn't that useless, surely?"

The question was obviously rhetorical, saving Tsarkoni the effort of replying.

"The Iicini'ians have always been the loose cannon in this. Frankly, I'm surprised it's taken them this long."

Kuzhak glanced down at his aide, his curiosity kindled by the musing tone in his voice. He took the time to concentrate his attention on the gaunt expression on the smaller man's face, and he felt a twinge of, not compassion, but understanding. He knew Tsarkoni well enough now to recognize the various indicators of his moods. The haunted look in his dull grey eyes would hover for a few more days, until he'd manage to rid them of the image of the dying spy. But that compulsive fingering of his belt buckle? When Tsarkoni started doing that it meant he was edgy. "You mean, maybe it hasn't taken them this long. Maybe they've been watching for a while."

"Mmm," Tsarkoni's eyes flickered briefly up to Kuzhak's before returning to the darkening cityscape. "It's the Imperial presence that would get them nervous."

"But they would have had to have been monitoring us to notice that presence?"

"Yes, I know. Which came first, the pinyo or the egg?"

"Unless they have recourse to other Intelligence sources."

"There's been a ground movement there for a while to join the Rebels, but as yet the Council haven't reacted." Tsarkoni rubbed his chin, absent-mindedly rechecking his palm for bloodstains before resting it on the window-ledge. Kuzhak noticed the movement again, frowning this time. Tsarkoni's mannerisms had definitely begun to become obsessive.

"You think the military may have been making their own overtures?"

Tsarkoni inhaled noisily, letting the breath out slowly before answering. "Put it this way - it would not surprise me if they have, even though politically they have no mandate to do so."

"Yes, well. The Rebels certainly didn't get where they are today by following political protocol." The ice-cold glint in Kuzhak's eyes signalled the change from his earlier bouyant mood to one more serious. "Even if they are monitoring us, I doubt that they would have clicked to our transmission technique, but maybe it's time for us to do some checking up on what they do know. When Professor Ban arrives I shall request he organize an Imperial operative for us. The thought of conscripting any of the current crop in M-Intel fills me with horror: we want to infiltrate, not entertain."

"He'll be arriving in two weeks, we can ask him then," said the smaller man.

Kuzhak's face regained its expression of good humour. "Things are coming together well, Tsarkoni. Inform the construction team that I expect them to have vehicle access to the upper level prepared in two weeks when Professor Ban and I will pay them a visit."

Tsarkoni nodded. And the gods help them if they haven't, he thought grimly.

To the Introduction | To the Prologue | To Chapter Two

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