The Mantrusian Affair: Chapter Two
President Ineya Manalooa surveyed the members of Iicini'ia's governing body, the United Iicini'ian Council.
"I take it that there are no more items of general business?"
A mass shaking of heads around the table answered his question, so he pressed a button on the arm of his contour squab. A thin, rather harried little man scuttled in from a door to the side.
"You may inform General Tavaala and Colonel Fa'arika that we are ready for them," he told the aide who promptly disappeared, and was shortly replaced by two decidedly more athletic specimens in the distinctive clean-cut grey of the Iicini'ian military.
"Gentleman," Manalooa acknowledged their brisk salutes with a nod, and waited while the aide directed them to their places. "General Tavaala and Colonel Fa'arika are here to discuss a situation in Mantrusia which Defence Minister Tow primed us about in our last session. Minister Tow, do you wish to bring us up to pace on this situation, as some of us may be somewhat hazy on the details."
"Having acquainted myself with some of the intricacies of this matter, I feel it more appropriate to hand over the floor to General Tavaala," he replied. "General, will you update us please."
"Certainly." Tavaala stood and walked slowly but purposefully to the head of the semi-circular table which dominated the room. Behind him the shimmering blue-greens of sea and sky filled the transparisteel of the window, and he appeared to the watchers as a portrait framed against a translucent background. He was an austere-looking man, calm but impressive, and the deep grey of his eyes suggested he possessed a deep pool of wisdom born from a lifetime of confrontation with experience.
"Distanced though we are from the centres of Imperial control," he began, "it came to our notice as long as four years ago that the Empire, or more specifically Emperor Palpatine himself, had an interest in our neighbour Mantrusia. At that stage you may recall, we ourselves were dissatisfied with the extent of Imperial interference in our administrative processes, and had begun to voice our discontent through Senator Kalichi. One of our scouts, returning from a routine mission, reported that they had seen the Emperor's private shuttle docked at Mantrusian Port Control, and we received later confirmation that he had landed in the Capitol. We were suspicious of this personal approach. We were concerned it might foreshadow something more sinister. Unfortunately our Mantrusian translator, Tseraan Kalichi, was in Coruscant on Senate business at the time, and we were unable to contact Chief Elozhi directly. Of course as you recall Tseraan never returned, then we withdrew from the Empire and the depredations began, leaving us semi-powerless."
"We were able, however, to send in a watcher whose brief it was to monitor the comings and goings at Mantrusia's space-ports. A file he provided for us, which detailed visitors to the Port of Bakhunia, revealed this man," and he inserted a holowafer into the display console. An image of a thin, bookish-looking man with greying hair formed in the air above it. "Professor Syen Ban. He arrived in Bakhunia about a year after the Emperor's visit, and was a guest of the governor, Vadeem Kuzhak. The local media reported him as being connected with the Encyclopaedia Galactica, but when we checked back over old records extracted from the holonet, we discovered that Ban had been seen in the company of the Emperor himself. It seemed likely therefore to connect the purpose of Ban's visit with that of the Emperor's. A year later Ban visited again, and then early last year our watcher reported Governor Kuzhak had become a regular visitor at an archaeological dig in the foothills of the Bakhunian mountains. None of this seemed to make much sense, and we lacked the resources and contacts to make a more thorough check on Ban, so we sent in an operative who signed on as a digger at the excavation site."
He replaced Professor Ban's holo with a scene showing the remains of what had once been a palatial building set amongst forested foothills. The building had once had magnificent grounds surrounding it, but now secondary forest growth had swallowed the gardens. An area immediately surrounding the building had been cleared and marked with posts to which field generators were attached. The front angle of the shot allowed the council members to see two men, seemingly unarmed, but obviously standing guard at the entrance.
"Whose palace was that?" asked the silver-haired woman seated beside President Manalooa.
"It's the old palace of Queen Nerensai; and if you, unlike me, managed to stay awake during history lessons, you may recall that she created havoc in this sector a thousand years ago when she managed to turn Mantrusia into a great military power. I tried contacting the Tarsus Institute for Historical Research on Cuvor, in the hope that someone there might be able to cast some light. Unfortunately their expert on Mantrusia is now retired, and left recently on a research trip to Mantrusia to gather information for a history file he was compiling."
There was silence for a moment. Councillor Liitar gazed thoughtfully at General Tavaala, and then redirected her attention to the holographic representation hovering above the projector table.
"General Tavaala," she said, "you told us that what got you interested in the first place was that the Emperor himself approached the Mantrusians about something. Was this palace the reason for his visit?"
"That unfortunately we do not know. The Mantrusians, as you realize, don't make diplomatic approaches easy. We are lucky now to have once again the services of a translator whom their ruling council will countenance: she's the daughter of our previous translator, Tseraan Kalichi, and we are at last beginning to make a little progress. Apparently Chief Elozhi didn't actually meet the Emperor face-to-face. Palpatine docked at Mantrusian Port Control and requested permission to land in the Capitol, which they granted. But when Chief Elozhi heard that Palpatine was going to use a protocol droid, he took it as a massive insult and refused to see him."
The council members exchanged ruefully humorous glances. "I'd love to have been a matzi bug on the wall of his shuttle when he heard that," said Minister Tow quietly. Colonel Fa'arika snorted a few times to himself in what the people beside him hoped was amusement.
"Nevertheless, we think that this Governor Kuzhak heard about the incident, and for reasons of his own chose to approach Palpatine himself. According to the local media the dig is being funded by the Encyclopaedia Galactica, and Professor Ban is the co-ordinator."
He replaced the wafer showing the outside view of the palace with one revealing an interior scene.
"This was taken in one of the lower levels. As you can see the digging process has been meticulous."
"Looks cleaner than my house!" someone muttered.
"Six months ago the excavation ceased. The workers were paid off and sent on their way and the site was abandoned, although it was left guarded."
"Do you think they were looking for something, found it and left?" asked Councillor Kyeterri, the representative for Nngaruahi.
"Initially we thought that might be the case. But when we weighed it up with the accounts our operative gave us, it didn't equate. According to him the excavation didn't stop until literally every corner of that palace had been investigated, and the atmosphere there over the last few weeks was tense. Kuzhak turned up at one point with Ban, looking very unhappy. We think he may now be involved with something in Secheniz Province in the north, but we've lost contact with our operative, so we are unable to confirm this at present."
"Do we have any other means of surveillance?" asked Kyeterri.
"We do. We had a little left over from that increase in our Defence budget you people granted in the last round to revamp our fighter squadrons, so we installed some of the latest Tyro-Cini gear into an old weather station and turned it into a surveillance post. We've been able to isolate a few transmissions between Mantrusia and Coruscant, and we're certain that the Mantrusian transmissions are emanating from Bakhunia. We can't prove it is Kuzhak who's involved as no names have as yet been identified, and the messages are contrived to look like company statements and trading deals. We think that they are in fact requests for funding and progress reports."
"What does Chief Elozhi have to say about this?" asked the Mesotonian councillor.
"Chief Elozhi is a difficult man to deal with at the best of times, and until we have some solid evidence to present it would be fruitless trying to discuss it with him."
"What about Mantrusian Intelligence?" asked a middle-aged woman beside Councillor Liitar. Tavaala and Fa'arika exchanged wry grins.
"Mantrusian Intelligence is what you might call an oxymoron, Councillor," Tavaala replied cryptically.
Concillor Liitar had been frowning thoughtfully during the last few exchanges, but now she looked up at the general.
"You made a reference to history lessons and Nerensai earlier, General," she said. "I seem to recall being told that Nerensai was some sort of witch, is this true?"
"I don't know if it's true, but that is the legend," he nodded. "The Mantrusians have always been a superstitious bunch, and legends of witches and spirits abound. Take Mt Halpurnia, and all the supposed disappearances that have been reported there."
"I just wondered. I know nothing of Kuzhak's motives, but I wonder if the witchcraft story may explain the Emperor's interest. He does dabble in that side of things."
"Palpatine uses the Force," corrected Kyeterri.
"Yes, but it's all to do with supernatural power. Maybe it's all connected somehow."
"Once upon a time we would have had people to consult about this," said Manalooa grimly. Everyone sat silently, some nodding their agreement.
"What about that Commander Cloudwalker guy," said Kyeterri suddenly.
Tavaala and Fa'arika raised their eyebrows at one another. "I think you mean Skywalker."
"That's it. Can we contact him?"
"We could if we had the ear of the top guns in the Rebel Alliance," said Tavaala.
"Maybe they could provide us with a bit more background on Ban, and perhaps Kuzhak as well. My instinct for some time has been that we join them," said Kyeterri defiantly. "But you all know that."
"It would certainly make our job easier," agreed Tavaala.
"Until the Emperor decides to treat us as an object lesson, the way he did Alderaan." The reedy voice of the member for Sarashui'ia joined the fray.
"We're too far out," said Kyeterri deprecatingly, "otherwise he would have done it the first time."
"Well I think it's very disconcerting to learn that Imperials have wiggled their way in on a non-aligned world, especially when that world happens to be our next-door neighbour," said Concillor Liitar sharply. "And this witch business makes me feel extra uneasy."
"My people have been agitating to join the Alliance since before Hoth," said the Mesotonian. "And I concur with Councillor Liitar. Anything to do with the supernatural gives me the willies."
"If we join them, we'll be obligated to provide military assistance," warned Councillor Nopiaru, the Sarashui'ian representative.
"And the converse applies too. Our joining might make this Kuzhak think twice before he involves himself any further with the Empire," countered Kyeterri.
"My constituency has also become very pro-Rebel," said a youngish woman beside Fa'arika. "Many of them feel that if we go, then it may encourage other independent worlds in this sector to follow. Tyrovera would probably go too, mainly to preserve Tyro-Cini's trading contacts."
"Do we wish to move urgency on this?" asked Manalooa. "Can I have a show of hands?"
Six hands shot up immediately, followed a few seconds later by two more. Gradually one by one, four more joined.
Manalooa nodded and turned to the two military men. "I'm afraid gentlemen that we will have to thank you for your contribution, but ask you to leave. What happens now has to be done in camera."
Tavaala nodded, and Fa'arika retrieved the holowafers from the console.
"Thankyou for your time," the general threw a quick all-encompassing glance around the chamber. "I'm sure you'll make the right decision for Iicini'ia." His eyes lingered a split second longer on Councillors Kyeterri and Liitar, and then he and Fa'arika turned and left.
"Do you think they'll carry it?" Fa'arika asked quietly when they were back in the anteroom.
"I think it may go to referendum," said Tavaala. "In which case I think we'll win. The average Iicini'ian has had it up to here with Palpatine and his pack of bloodsuckers."
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