The Mantrusian Affair: Chapter Six
"Iicini'ia!" repeated Admiral Ackbar blinking slowly and thoughtfully. "Yes, I know a little about their situation. They withdrew from the Empire after Yavin as a protest against Alderaan. I believe their senator was on the planet when it was destroyed."
"I remember Senator Kalichi," replied Mon Mothma quietly. "A very strong-minded man, but also a great believer in peaceful protest. Both he and Bail Organa shared a similar philosophy."
Ackbar nodded. "They joined us a few months before Endor. I was impressed, because although I believe their military resources had been severely depleted by Palpatine, they still managed to send us a small fleet when we put out the call. In fact their A Squadron performed with great credit if I recall: they ran cover while our Y Wings put a few gunships out of contention."
"Doubly impressive when you consider they had only just managed to pull that group together," interposed General Madine. "Their Chief of Intelligence, Fa'arika, paid me a goodwill visit just after they officially joined. They'd spent the bulk of their defence budget on the A Wing shells and had them finished by Tyro-Cini I think it was. They're a big industrial concern in that sector," he explained to Mon Mothma. "Young guy that led them was a bit of a rough diamond, but he could certainly fly."
"Yes, well their military capability is still a lot less than they would wish," she said. "The whole planet led a hand to mouth existence for several years because the reparations Palpatine demanded for their withdrawal reduced their ability to trade, and they were forced to become almost wholly self-supporting." She paused and her grey eyes surveyed the two men thoughtfully. "However, I have not called you here to discuss their economy," she sat forward in her seat and the slight frown on her forehead informed Ackbar and Madine that the discussion was about to become serious.
"Their President, Ineya Manalooa, has contacted me with a formal request for aid in a situation developing on their neighbour, Mantrusia. The Iicini'ian military have been monitoring a case of suspected Imperial collaboration there for several years. When the Emperor died they expected it to cease, but instead it has if anything escalated, and the planet is experiencing some serious civil strife." She turned to General Madine. "I believe Colonel Fa'arika discussed some of the details of the Imperial connection with you during his visit?"
Madine nodded and leaned back in his seat. The meeting was being held in Mon Mothma's suite on board the Argent Sprite, a converted freighter which was serving as her temporary headquarters. Since the Battle of Endor, the woman who had headed and coordinated the rebellion against the Empire had spent several hectic months consolidating forces, and performing the necessary welcomes to a growing barrage of planets wishing to throw in their lot with the Rebel Alliance. The tired lines around her eyes were testimony to the long hours of effort she had been forced to contribute to what now seemed a momentous task: to build a provisional government strong enough to withstand the backlash from those still loyal to Palpatine. The glow within them, however, showed the fire that burned within, and her immense determination to succeed. Madine found that fire to be inspirational.
"He did, ma'am. They had evidence that suggested one of Mantrusia's provincial governors, a chap called Vadeem Kuzhak, was communicating with one Professor Ban on Coruscant, and Fa'arika asked me to run a check on him as there was some mystifying archaeological work being done in Mantrusia with which he was affiliated."
"And did you find out anything useful?"
"We found out that Ban was the leader of a group Palpatine had designated to research supernatural phenomena within the galaxy. The centre of interest was the palace of a former Mantrusian queen, and Fa'arika admitted they'd drawn a blank on figuring out the connection, although they thought the Emperor might be after some artifact." He scratched his head, frowning. "I tried to organize a meeting between Fa'arika and Luke Skywalker, but he had gone to ground somewhere organizing the rescue of Captain Solo. Rather annoyed me actually. Skywalker has an interest in the supernatural and I thought he'd be able to help."
"It's disturbing to hear this Imperial influence has continued," Ackbar mused. "If it was an artifact they were seeking, I wonder if perhaps they've found it, and are about to use it in some way."
"What could you conceal in an old palace?" shrugged Madine. Mon Mothma had been gazing at Madine without really seeing him, obviously focused on some inner reflection. She sat up straight suddenly, and a perturbed expression passed over her face.
"Strange," she said quietly, "I could have sworn something came into my mind just then ... something from the past." She stopped, frowning thoughtfully. Suddenly she looked up at Madine, and her brow cleared. "That's right, I do remember -- the senator from Ithor told me about a group of researchers visiting his planet in order to study the healers in their work. He was curious about the interest, and questioned the chief healer later. The woman had received the distinct impression that the group was seeking some sort of specific healing power source."
"Another reason why Skywalker would be useful," nodded Madine."Did Colonel Fa'arika think his situation was Force-related?" asked Ackbar.
"No. At least if he did, he didn't mention it. But he did think it was connected with the mystical realm in some way. In addition to Ban, Kuzhak personally received another visitor from Coruscant last year: a Captain Ulo Dravet of the Imperial Intelligence service. We identified him from the files Fa'arika's watcher sent him. As far as they know, Dravet is still there." Madine turned to Mon Mothma. "I gather, ma'am, that when you say the Iicini'ians require our aid, they mean it in a military sense."
Mon Mothma smiled -- not the sort of smile to light her face however, but more one of acknowledgment. "At present there is no sign of conflict, but President Manalooa also sent me a communication from his Chief of Staff, General Tavaala, outlining the current situation and their recommendations. General Tavaala would like a task force, large enough to remind the troublemakers that their activities won't go unchallenged, but not large enough to be regarded as an outright threat. Their recent recordings of transmissions suggest that Governor Kuzhak and friends are now in contact with someone on Hocqyellen, but they are transmitting from Secheniz Province in the north rather than Kuzhak's home province of Bakhunia. Of course the general admits that they can't be absolutely sure it is Kuzhak, and although they have tried a few surreptitious reconnaissance sweeps over Secheniz, they haven't found anything. Apparently the area has some geological peculiarities which affect electronic equipment. However, General Tavaala strongly suspects that they are there somewhere, and that their Hocqyellen correspondent is Moff Hoziak."
"Hoziak!" snapped Ackbar. "I would have thought they would be trying to insinuate themselves with Pestage."
"That's what General Tavaala would have expected, too, but his surveillance team have picked up no further communications with Coruscant. As far as we know, Ban was with the Emperor on the Death Star, so that means that he's been effectively removed from the picture. Unfortunately the general has since recalled his Mantrusian watcher. The man returned one day to find his lodgings had been ransacked. It may have been just a burglary -- apparently crime is rife in Mantrusia at present -- but they decided to play safe just in case. The watcher had however managed to establish that Governor Kuzhak made a quick trip to Hocqyellen not long after Palpatine's death. General Tavaala suspects there may be a plan underfoot aimed at building up a power base to remove Sate Pestage from his position."
"What sort of military resources do the Mantrusians possess?" asked Ackbar.
"Pretty basic," replied Madine. "That's the curious thing in all this. Fa'arika said himself that there has been no overt military build-up, no new purchases of destroyers or weaponry as you would expect. The central government itself was, as far as Fa'arika could surmise at the time I spoke to him, unaware of any problem. Kuzhak seems to be acting alone."
"They are becoming uneasy now," Mon Mothma interposed. "In General Tavaala's communication, which I will play for you shortly, he states that Chief Elozhi agreed to meet recently with President Manalooa to discuss Iicini'ia's concern at the level of civil unrest in Mantrusia. However, although Elozhi accepts Manalooa's concern, he argues that it's an internal problem and bears no relationship to Imperial influence. As an independent planet Mantrusia has always had business dealings with a number of Imperial worlds, and he feels Manalooa was misinterpreting economic with military interest. Nevertheless, General Tavaala wishes me to visit Iicini'ia with whatever force we send, so he can ask Manalooa to organize another meeting with Chief Elozhi. He would like to employ some scare tactics to awaken Elozhi to the realities of what the Imperials can do when they set their minds to it."
"Surely we could contact the man directly?" Ackbar sounded surprised.
"No," said Madine. "Apparently Palpatine made that mistake when he first tried to contact them. The Mantrusians have an aversion to droid technology, Fa'arika doesn't know why, but he thinks it's some historical thing. They've always been hard to deal with, at governmental level anyway; unless you have a translator they find acceptable, they simply aren't interested."
"Preposterous situation!" exploded Ackbar. "How do they trade?"
"Oh, apparently at the lower echelons they will provide their own interpretors, although I've heard even they can suffer from selective deafness when they want to if the trade deal doesn't go their way," Madine grinned laconically. "But if you want to contact Elozhi, you'll have to go through the Iicini'ians and use their translator."
"I can't make the trip myself," the chief of the Rebellion said quietly. "I've promised Borsk Fey'lya my attention to meeting and advising some of the new members on the council. I've decided to send Princess Leia in my place; in fact she is due here shortly so we can brief her fully on the situation. She proved herself more than equal to the task on Bakura, but I also felt that this assignment might allow her a little break. I believe the trip itself takes twelve days in total, in which time she will more or less have to rest."
"I'd strongly advise you send Skywalker as well," added Madine."I gather we are going to comply with General Tavaala's request for a small task force?" asked Ackbar.
"Yes, Admiral," replied Mon Mothma firmly. "I realize this is not a good time to scatter our resources, but I also believe the Icini'ian problem may not be limited to their own sector, not now that this Kuzhak is in touch with other Imperials. I would advise sending your Mon Remonda and one of the smaller frigates, possibly the Reliant, which has been busy non-stop since Endor with a number of clean-up missions in the Rim. I believe Iicini'ia would be the ideal spot for shore leave."
Ackbar scrutinised his chief's expression. "Ah," he nodded, and a faint look which might have been amusement appeared in his large eyes. "The overt and the covert. If this Kuzhak wonders why we're there, we can honestly say we're having a rest."
"And complying with President Manalooa's invitation," she affirmed. "He has informed Chief Elozhi that we will be paying Iicini'ia the courtesy visit welcoming it into the Alliance which we were unable to do earlier due to the war. Officially it is an opportunity for our military commanders to meet, trade war stories and compare arsenals. General Tavaala has declared his interest in your new B Wing design, so this is a chance to explain it to him personally."
"And maybe indulge in a few war games to compare strategies," finished Madine.
"Why gentlemen," smiled Mon Mothma slyly, "if we didn't understand each other so well I'd swear the Force was helping us to communicate."
"Let's hope it's with us in this," said Ackbar. "But just to make sure, I'd like to see Rogue Squadron included in this exercise. Unlike other fighter units they have the capability for ground operations if necessary."
"I agree. Plus it will give Commander Antilles a chance to put his new people through some simulation exercises. Since that business with Grand Moff Nivers at Tandankin, he has been too busy with escort duty to spend much time with training. General Solo will be going too, of course. Both he and Leia should be safe from bounty hunters thanks to Iicini'ia's friendly status." She stood up and moved gracefully towards the door. "I have the message ready in the briefing room. We'll discuss the details and timing of the trip after you've heard what General Tavaala has to say."
He entered the room and stood before the screen. The air rippled around him and the familiar prickling of his scalp alerted him to Nerensai's presence. The screen resolved itself into her face, regal but compelling. She regarded him speculatively, and suddenly her eyes sparkled.
"You have good news, Vadeem?"
He smiled partly in assent, and partly in response to the use of his first name, for he took it as evidence that his plan was working. It was still necessary at present that he be seen to spend the bulk of his time in Bakhunia, attending the normal round of duties and administrative meetings. It had always been a slight worry having to rely on Tsarkoni to perform as both governor's aide and hatchet man in the Nerensai project. Now Kuzhak was in a situation where Dravet, the adviser, maintained a tight security over his Secheniz operation, while Tsarkoni kept his Bakhunian office running smoothly. His staff were unaware of the amount of time he spent at Patal's den, and when anything urgent arose that required his presence, Tsarkoni was able to summon him directly on their private communications channel. He was confident that this time away from Bakhunia had been well spent, and Nerensai's growing friendliness towards him pleased him no end.
"I have indeed, ma'am. We've found two women who have the correct profiles, and some unobtrusive investigation of their personal histories has suggested that it is probable they have the required abilities. Difficult to prove, you understand, due to the climate of fear allied to such powers."
"Such foolishness!" she snapped derisively. "But no mind. May I see the candidates?"
"Certainly," smiled Kuzhak, and he activated the miniature holo-viewer he was carrying. A quarter-sized image formed in the air in front of Nerensai's face, and she regarded it analytically.
"And the other?" she said, her expression inscrutable. Kuzhak complied. She eyed the woman up and down, her head on one side. Then she nodded and sighed.
"You have done well, Vadeem," she purred. "Very well."
In spite of himself, Kuzhak felt a tingle of boyish pride. The time he had spent in Nerensai's company had alerted him to the insidious power she possessed, and he understood how easily a weak mind could fall prey to her particular brand of emotional and sexual manipulation. Even without a body, the feelings she could invoke were tangible. Professor Sulaili had described the relationship between Nerensai and her people as something approaching a love affair, and Kuzhak was beginning to understand what he meant.
"And now I will explain to you the little test you can give these women which will determine if they are indeed worthy."
Kuzhak started to nod, and then stopped and cleared his throat. "I give them a test? I assumed that we would bring the women to you so you could decide?"
She laughed airily. "No, no. That could become unpleasant. If neither is suitable you would have to kill them, and if only one is suitable then you would have to kill the one who isn't. I don't want to inflict that sort of pain on you, Vadeem," her voice dipped huskily, and the black eyes flickered over his. "My method is, for you, pain-free. If the women fail, then someone else can tidy up the mess. Now you must listen carefully while I explain what you must do."
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