The Mantrusian Affair: Chapter Three
"So, Professor Ban. You have a progress report for me."
Syen Ban regarded the hooded man's reptilian-like features impassively. Ten years ago, when he had first been co-opted from the University of Coruscant into the research team whose job it was to seek out Jedi artifacts and histories for Emperor Palpatine, the mere sight of the man's shrivelled, vaguely foetal face had been sufficient to give him nightmares for a week. Now familiarity had produced a situation where Ban found himself more attuned to the Emperor's mood changes, themselves usually signalled in the changing tones of his voice, than his unsavoury appearance. Knowing when to step carefully and when to retreat had allowed Ban closer and longer service to Palpatine than many who were less astute. Survival was an ability which he had turned into an art form.
"Yes, your Excellency. On my recent journey to Mantrusia I examined Governor Kuzhak's latest research on Queen Nerensai, and it is sound. It is a shame that we didn't get on to this new source of information earlier, as it would have saved an expensive operation on the palace. But there again without the excavations, we would never have discovered the man concerned. He's a private citizen from Cuvor, and as none of his research in this area has been published, there was no way Kuzhak nor I could have heard of him."
"Yes." Palpatine drew the word out as if savouring it. "I'm impressed with the Governor's thoroughness. And his ambition." Ban noticed the skin stretching tautly over Palpatine's cheekbones in what he knew by experience was a laconic smile.
"This man turned up at the palace excavation, you said?"
"Yes. They caught him poking around in the upper levels."
"And the guards were punished for their laxity?" The Emperor's lizard eyes glowed almost red under the shadow of the cloak's hood. He had sent Kuzhak four members of the Coruscant Imperial Guard to help with security at the site.
Ban nodded wryly. "Of course."
Palpatine sighed very faintly. "One forgets how distant Mantrusia is. Away from the main centres of our influence even the most reliable, tightly disciplined troops appear to become lazy. You must remind Governor Kuzhak of the need for constant reminders, constant examples must be made of both good and bad."
"I think the good Governor has caught on to that rather well." Palpatine's colourless eyebrow arches raised quizzically in response.
"He told me about a recent incident at the new area of investigation," Ban explained, "concerning a spy, apparently from Iicini'ia. They made every effort to find out what the man knew with their limited resources, but apparently drew a blank. Kuzhak's expressed some concern that the Iicini'ians may step up their surveillance, especially as they must now realize they've lost their man. He would like some help from Imperial Intelligence."
"We shall send them an adviser and a reliable operative. The Iicini'ians will be nervous because they have perceived an Imperial connection, which suggests they may know more than Kuzhak suspects. Although their strike capacity is negligible, they have an extraordinarily well organised, although misguided, military establishment. They are not to be under-estimated."
The tone in Palpatine's voice implied definite warning, and Ban made a mental note to include the Emperor's observations in his next communication.
"They know that they were treated with unusual clemency when I allowed them to withdraw." The ghoul-like eyes glinted. He had allowed the Iicini'ians to believe they had triumphed, doubtless reassuring themselves that their distance from Imperial Centre had protected them from more serious reprisals. What they failed to realise was that he was simply biding his time; allowing them the opportunity to build up their resources again, knowing full well that once his Mantrusian project achieved its aim, retribution would be swift and final. Delayed gratification would make his enjoyment of their destruction so much the sweeter. So also with that flabby, petty-minded idiot, Elozhi, who headed the Mantrusian Council. His refusal to agree to a meeting would be rewarded in kind, too - in time. In the grand scheme of things, a few years, even a decade, was mere piffle.
"This new researcher - is he co-operative?"
"Kuzhak has formally employed him, so yes he is. His name is Sulaili. He's a social historian, retired, who's apparently been researching Nerensai's life and times, and the mystery of her disappearance: a pet fascination from his youth that he now has the time to indulge."
"So. We strike gold, Professor." The skin stretched slowly again into the cadaverous smile, but the eyes remained cold and impassive.
"Indeed. This professor has over the years built up an extensive knowledge of her private life, an area in which I now realise our information was a little misleading. We were all looking for references to Patal, as this was the name mentioned in all the legends, and in the information you received yourself last year confirming the escape of her fleet. However, Sulaili's research identifies Patal as one Creon Te'ruan, a native of Fin'kru. It's true Te'ruan was a pirate, but he didn't change his name until after he became Nerensai's consort. Patal, in Mantrusian, means great warrior apparently. According to Sulaili, Te'ruan had a hideout which he had stolen from another pirate group in the northern mountains of Mantrusia. He was on his way there one day when he crashed, difficult country I believe, and Nerensai found him, cured him and took him as her lover. Not a woman to let the grass grow underneath her feet as they say."
"And for one hundred years, thanks to her, he was maintained in perfect health and perpetual youth."
"Indeed, with no sign of physical deterioration whatsoever," Ban nodded sagely.
"They are sure that the ruins they have discovered belonged to this man?"
"Oh, yes. Their initial probe uncovered articles, fragments of clothing and more importantly remains of a small craft with Patal's pirate group's insignia on, which prove beyond doubt it was his den."
"Good, good." Palpatine's hollow laugh echoed around the confines of his office, making even the plush nauga-velvet wall hangings seem cold and insubstantial against the force of his destructive personality. It was a mark of the esteem with which the Emperor held Ban that he met with him in the privacy of his office, rather than the more spectacularly intimidating throne room with its holographic representations of the various sectors of Imperial space.
"I so look forward to meeting her, Professor. The woman who possesses the thing which will complete my power." Not that Nerensai is the only possibility I have under investigation. Nor is her redoubtable restorative ability all that I seek from her.
"A woman I believe who enjoyed the taste of power herself." The faint hint of warning in Ban's voice was not lost on the galaxy's greatest despot.
"Ah yes. A woman not to be trifled with. Which is of course what makes her discovery all the more exciting to anticipate."
"So. Glad to be back to the old grind, 'Rennie?" Lieutenant Tiirau had ceased addressing his partner by her military designation several months before. Close quarter work in the old reconstituted weather station which Iicini'ian Intelligence and Communications had installed inside the orbitting rings around Cini #5 had quickly broken down the formal barriers of rank between the two.
"I am actually," she smiled up at him cheekily. "Coruscant isn't my kind of place, I'm afraid."
"Sure it just isn't sour grapes 'coz you lost?" he said laconically. Ensign Kalichi's expression darkened, and Tiirau noted the familiar angry deepening of the brown eyes making them appear almost black. "Just teasing!" he pleaded.
"Sorry, Tayne. I'm still a little sensitive about that issue," she threw him an apologetic look. "I still have fantasy dreams about what I'd do to that ref if I ever see him on the street."
"Fortunately for him, there is no chance of him ever visiting our little backwater," he chuckled. "Still, it must have been an experience visiting the great centre of Empire. I kept an eye on the holonet for any news of unexplained acts of terrorism or sabotage, but I assumed in the end you'd left all your concussion detonators at home."
"Oh well, sport is sport, although if the Emperor had deigned to descend from his lofty tower, the temptation to spit in his eye would have been overwhelming. I thought we'd be able to do it metaphorically by winning, but that was not to be." She sighed, playing with the keys on her monitor.
"You had the moral victory, though," he consoled her. "Your team were the favourites, and you would have won with a neutral referee."
"Meet any millionaires looking for a new wife?" The remark was intended to distract her from her bitterness about Iicini'ia's loss in the Galactic Sports Federation aeroball championships. Instead it made the dark brown eyes flash black again.
"Men!" she spat back. "Don't get me going on men."
"Oh dear. Here's little old me trying to calm you down, and I'm making it worse. What happened? Tell old uncle Tayne all about it."
"This utter jerk called Shizor or Incizor or something. I've never been so angry in all my life."
Tiirau felt his eyebrows shoot up: that would have been a sight worth seeing. He wondered if the man had escaped in one piece.
"I was in the shower trying to calm myself down after the final, and this ... this ... reptile, and I mean Reptile, barged into my room all lovey-dovey raving on about my wonderful athleticism and implying that maybe I'd like to fill a position which had been recently vacated in his household."
"A service position?" Tiirau looked innocent.
"Yes well, I gave him some service right there and then."
"Did he survive?"
"He'll be able to sing in the Imperial choir again," she grinned cruelly. "In the soprano section. Anyway he wouldn't have suited my decor - he couldn't seem to decide what colour he wanted to be."
"What colour was he when he left?"
"A sort of a blotchy greeny-grey. A bit like old Palpatine's face."
"Ooh, you are cruel," Tiirau smiled, "but I like you. Hello, we ... wow!" He jerked off the earpiece, frowning and rubbing his ear.
"What's wrong?" Ensign Kalichi looked over at him, concerned.
"Feedback!" Tiirau swallowed quickly a few times in an effort to clear his hearing. "Is it Kuzhak?"
"It ain't the Starboys, I can tell you that," replied Tiirau adjusting the volume on his console. He handed his partner the earpiece. "Here, what do you make of that?"
She listened for a few seconds and twiddled the resonator.
"They've changed the resonation factor." She turned the dial to zero, watching the oscillations on the monitor.
"That's bad," murmured Tiirau, "means they're suspicious."
"Mmm. Or they know. Can you replay that bit?"
Tiirau put the earpiece on again, and tracked back to the beginning of the interference. They watched the patterns on the screen as the message ran through. Kuzhak was using a technique invented by one of the many smuggler groups in the sector. To avoid competitors hijacking a profitable trading deal, one group had hit upon the idea of keying their messages to complement the natural resonation of the transmitter set. The other partner would be provided with a duplicate set, hence making communication between the two possible, but meaning anyone attempting to listen in would receive nothing but interference. The sets were usually produced with structural peculiarities to make the resonation factor difficult to duplicate.
The Iicini'ians had learned about this from Imperial Intelligence in the days when they still belonged to the Empire, and had aided the Imperials in putting a damper on smuggling activity in the sector. That knowledge had been stored away in Intelligence files, until Lieutenant Tiirau and Ensign Kalichi had unearthed it and applied it to the problematic interference on their surveillance recordings. Proof yet again, General Tavaala had reminded them, of the advantage of running an orderly and well documented Communications and Intelligence Section.
Up until now the resonation factor of Kuzhak's messages had remained the same. In order to even begin the work of decrypting the latest transmission, the two were going to have to find the new resonation frequency.
"Knickers, this complicates things," the girl muttered. "What are the most obvious ways of altering the resonation?"
"Changing the structure of the sets in some way, or installing two completely new ones," replied Tiirau airily.
"O.K.," his partner frowned. "If you were Kuzhak, what would you do?"
Tiirau stroked his chin thoughtfully. For a minute or so all that could be heard was the quiet rasping of his thumb.
Ensign Kalichi grinned in spite of her irritation.
"You sound like a skewa beetle in full mating cry."
"Come to me my leetle darling and ve vill fly avay together," he grinned back.
"Not until you pretend you're Kuzhak and answer my question."
"Is that a promise?"
"Tayne!" She pretended to grab him by the throat.
He laughed. "I think if I were Kuzhak I would take the most flamboyant option."
"New set, new factor, new encrypt, you mean?"
"I think I prefer you as a skewa beetle," she said glumly. "Oh, well. I guess it's back to square one again."
Tiirau sighed and set the message on constant slow replay, while his partner reset the oscillatory controls on the monitor. They would have to search for repetitive patterns and work back from there until their receiver was responding with the exact opposite. He glanced down at the look of concentration on her face and smiled affectionately. After three months of working with Kerensa Kalichi he still found it difficult some days to keep pace with her quickfire mood changes. When his chief had first assigned her as his partner he remembered having severe reservations, for at seventeen she was by far the youngest partner he had ever had. Initially he had explained the fiery temper which could flash unheralded and then dissolve as rapidly as a marma rainstorm as a feature of her youth. As he had become more acquainted with her background, however, he'd begun to realize it was more a result of her Mantrusian ancestry. Mantrusians were by nature, as far as one could assign ethnic stereotypes, a fairly volatile bunch.
From some of the things she'd told him about her father, whom she had adored, he'd discovered that she and her brother had been brought up multi-lingual and with a strong awareness of Mantrusian customs and protocols. Little did Tseraan Kalichi realize at the time the importance this was to have later. Without Kerensa as their translator the Iicini'ian Council would have been lost in hyperspace without a motivator.
One thing Tiirau had discovered was that the more he worked with her the less aware he had become of the twenty-five-year age gap between them. She possessed a quirky sense of humour, which helped to alleviate the many boring hours they had spent monitoring sub-space transmissions, and she was certainly not lacking in the intelligence stakes. While she was away in Coruscant with the aeroball squad he had been surprised to find how much he missed her conversation, and her uncanny ability to isolate repetitive sequences. With his efficiency and Kerensa's flair, he knew they made a formidable team.
"I wonder if this is what they were talking about in that last message," she said suddenly.
Tiirau thought for a moment. A communication he and Kerensa's substitute had isolated two weeks before, still encrypted with the imprest figures from one of Kuzhak's trading companies, had seemed to be referring to a projected equipment update. Perhaps the equipment being updated was the communications system.
"You could be right," he mused.
"Do we still have that in these files?"
Tiirau shook his head. "No, I gave you the wafer from here."
"Maybe there's some clue there to the change of encrypt." She was silent for a moment. "Wasn't there a list of optional model numbers?"
"Yeees," he frowned as he tried to remembered the details.
"I wouldn't be surprised if those numbers hold the clue we need. Could be some old Imperial code. I'll have to listen to the transmission again. In the meantime we can at least try and work out his new resonation factor." She turned her attention back to the dials on the console.
"Don't worry, kiddo," said Tiirau, "we'll work on it here as long as we can, and I'll run off a copy to take back with us. I'm sure if we're systematic about it, we'll get it."
Kerensa's frown of concentration was replaced by a smile. "You're a comforting old thing, aren't you?"
"Less of the old please!"
"I was being endearing. By the way, speaking of old, why was old Minou running around like a pinyo with its head cut before we left."
"Apparently that new mechanic had filled up those new A Wings with a lesser grade coolant. In actual fact it doesn't matter terribly as the squadron was only going on a practice run, but you know Minou. Since his hands have crapped out on him and he can't fix anything himself anymore, it only takes the smallest aberration from the normal to get him going."
"I don't like that new guy," stated Kerensa.
"Well, I guess he's male. In your book that tends to be a major disadvantage."
"We are sharp today. Anyway that's not true, I like some men. I like you, and General Tavaala. I think men are like wine, they improve as they grow ol . . . as they mature," she hastily corrected herself, giving him a mischievous look.
"Pardon me while I ferment!" he laughed. "Let's give this two more hours, and then we'll pack up and go home. But I'll lay a wager that when we next come out, we'll have this little hiccup sorted out."
Wedge flinched as the searing blue flare of another explosion stabbed its imprint on his retinas, the light being so intense that it physically hurt them. For a split second his mind disconnected itself from the situation and he wondered if it felt that way to the pilot at the centre of the explosion, or have I already surrendered myself to oblivion? Maybe one day it'll be my turn to find out He searched the vicinity of the explosion for the ship which had vaporised the now non-existent TIE, and saw it tumbling in a helpless spiral away from the triangular bow of the Star Destroyer which had interrupted their departure.
"Blue One, come in Blue One!" although Wedge's tone sounded controlled to his pilots, he felt the familiar taste of bile at the back of his throat.
"Blue One . . . Pash!" he willed the pilot to reply.
"I'm OK," Pash's voice sounded distant, but whether this was due to injury or dizziness was uncertain. "Got a little toasted, but I'm all right," the voice continued, this time a little stronger.
"I'm on my way." Wedge throttled forward to catch up with Pash, at the same time unleashing a double burst of laser fire at a passing TIE. The number of enemy fighters had decreased rapidly in the ten minutes since their sudden appearance at the edge of the system, just as the Rebel supply train was preparing to jump. Both Rogue Squadron and the new squadron of A Wings under Pash Cracken's command were on escort duty. Another system jump, another scuffle. This had been the story of their lives ever since the Empire's victory over them at Hoth.
With superior ships and equipment, and more numerous forces, the Empire should by now have been able to wipe the Rebels from the face of the galaxy. But like annoying insects against a lumbering giant they not only continued to exist, their ranks were growing, as more and more planets adopted their cause. Freedom from fear and persecution was worth fighting for. It was even worth dying for. But it looked as if death had satiated itself for another day.
As Wedge approached Pash's A Wing, now no longer spinning uncontrollably towards the void, he noticed that the few remaining TIEs were beating a hasty retreat to the mother ship, the pristine lines of which had themselves been sullied by a well co-ordinated attack by two Corellian light cruisers. "Light" in this case was something of a misnomer. A team of ingenious Rebel mechanics had added sufficient extra laser turrets and shielding to the two vessels to turn them into a formidable attacking force. The Destroyer finished loading its decimated squadrons, and then picked up speed as it began the run to light capacity.
There was no doubt in Wedge's mind that the captain, although unsuccessful in that he had lost a number of his pilots, would regard the encounter as a partial victory in this war of attrition; for he had proved to the Rebels yet again that their every move was anticipated, and he had reminded them that their convoys would be constantly dogged by Imperial attack. To be forever on the back foot was to know that the enemy held the psychological advantage.
Still, this time Wedge had retained all his pilots. He breathed a sigh of relief and focussed his attention on his friend.
"Whew!" Pash echoed his sigh. "It's going to take me a while to get used to the acceleration on these things - the throttle's almost too responsive."
"They're certainly zippy - but I think I'll stick with my X Wing. I like time to think while I'm maneuvering."
Pash's hearty chuckle rippled through Wedge's comlink. "Oh yeah! In between knitting socks and penning a little light poetry while you line them up, Wedge. How many did you add to your silhouette collection today?"
"A few. But Hobbie's our top scorer this time. Did you see that double loop he pulled?"
"'Fraid not. Tell him to perform it again next time, and I promise I'll watch."
Wedge laughed. "Better not tempt fate. If you're OK, we'd better get back to the others."
"I guess," replied Pash. "Can't let them have all the fun to themselves, selfish lot."
"Do you think those things'll shape up?" asked Wedge curiously, watching with not a little admiration as Pash's sleek red and silver ship swept past his cockpit.
"Got a few little adjustments I'm going to suggest to the mechanics, but overall, I'm impressed. It's one more unknown to throw at the Empire, and the more of those the better."
"True," said Wedge. Too true, he thought to himself.
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