The Mantrusian Affair: Chapter Nine
Iella

The pilots' quarters were housed in the subterranean levels of the I-M complex and provided a cool air-conditioned refuge from the heat. Wedge had changed out of his flight gear and pulled on the lightweight black pants he wore when dirtside. He drew a long draught of cool artesian water from the fountain in the corner of his room and lay down enjoying the comfort of a full-sized bunk for a change. Wedge was not a tall man, but after the cramped utilities on board the Mon Remonda he was going to savour a bit of minor luxury for a while.

Following Wes's lead he had spent a little time in front of the library console to fill the boring days in hyperspace. Admiral Ackbar had provided them with information about Iicini'ia's military capacity, and a brief background to their involvement with the Rebellion, but that was all. From the library data files, Wedge had discovered that the planet possessed a number of attractive tourist spots, and in its Imperial days had provided adventure holidays for the wealthy. Being mainly a producer of consumables, grain and seafood by-products, it had been no great economic loss to the Empire when it withdrew. Probably, he thought, the cost involved with maintaining its loyalty would have surpassed its usefulness.

The Cini System contained five planets, of which Iicini'ia was the second. Mantrusia was actually a moon, albeit a large one, of the third planet. The Iicini'ians spoke their own language as well as Basic, in fact there were a number of minority groups who had maintained their distinct cultures and languages, despite the xenophobia of the Empire. The Regional Governor had obviously been unsuccessful in enforcing the usual policy of cultural imperialism. As no one had suggested he and his pilots should learn any Iicini'ian, Wedge presumed that the people with whom they would be associating would speak Basic.

The heat was going to require some adaptation however. His room was cool relative to the outside, but the temperature was still warmer than the summer days he remembered on the farm school in Corellia's northern reaches. Strange, he mused, he hadn't thought about Corellia for a long time. Obviously the prospect of free time was making him nostalgic . . .

His eyes flew open and he sat up with a start realizing that he had been on the point of drifting off to sleep. Relaxation was one thing, laziness was another altogether. He decided it might be politic to run a quick round of the hangar and make sure the others weren't feeling similarly affected. Plus he wanted to check out the facilities, as the next few days would be a good time to catch up on some of the minor fix-it jobs required. He pulled on his maroon top, decided that his brown jacket was definitely unnecessary, and took the ramp up to the hangar level.

The larger vessels were docked at Iicini'ia's orbiting military space station, but the two fighter squadrons and the Millenium Falcon, along with the troop shuttles, were at present housed in the massive I-M complex. The fighters were in the hangar, while the other ships sat out on the landing field. Admiral Ackbar had ordered leave for the crews of the large ships and the corvettes on a rotational basis, so that all ships were staffed by a minimum crew at all times. For once, the pilots had come out with the better deal.

Wedge reached the hangar level and gazed around at the orderly rows of snubfighters, diagnostic equipment and Iicini'ian vessels. A few of his own men and women were pottering around: Tycho was in animated conversation with a muscular, dark-haired man in grey flight pants and tank top, and Plourr was sitting in the cockpit of her X Wing seemingly running some checks. He wandered down towards his own fighter when a movement further down and near one of the equipment stations caught his eye.

*****

Han gazed around the vast hangar until his eyes came to rest on a familiar figure leaning up against the supports of his X Wing.

"Wedge!" he called, weaving his way past a group of mechanics deep in conversation over the exposed hyperdrive motivator on a snubfighter of indescribable parentage. There was no reply; Wedge appeared to be lost in thought. Han called again, closer now. Wedge turned towards the voice.

"Han!" he grinned. "Long time no see."

Han threw him a wry look. "As we always seem to be in trouble when we see each other, I could say that the less we see of each other the better."

Wedge chuckled.

"You haven't seen Luke have you?" asked Han.

"I thought he traveled with you?"

"Yes and no," said Han mysteriously. "Big facility they've got, isn't it?"

Wedge nodded. "Never been here before. Quite a nice-looking place." His eyes returned to its former direction, and Han followed his gaze.

"Yeah," he drawled.

"I didn't know you two had taken up meditation," the amused voice beside them made them both start.

"Well hi, stranger!" Han sounded mildly annoyed. He waved vaguely towards an old SoroSuub speeder with its bonnet hatch up. "We were, uh, just admiring the local equipment."

"Oh?" Luke gazed blankly in the direction he indicated. Someone wearing a tatty old pair of work-shorts was standing on a hoist-stand, bent over the rim of the open engine department. "Oh," he said knowingly as the figure straightened, jumped nimbly down and squatted beside a box of tools.

"Pretty stylish model too, may I say," mused Han.

Luke looked at him sharply.

"I know what you're going to say," Han held up his hands. "But there's no harm in looking, is there Wedge?"

In the ensuing silence first Han and then Luke turned to the pilot. "See," said Han triumphantly, "he agrees with me."

"Eh?" said Wedge distractedly.

Luke tried to look reproving, but found himself grinning.

"I remember where I've seen that girl before!" said Wedge suddenly, obviously unaware of the last few exchanges. "She played in the Aeroball Champs last year."

"Aeroball?" Han raised his eyebrows. "She doesn't look like the aeroball sort to me. Don't you have to be vaguely psychopathic to play that?"

"No, that's smashball you're thinking of," Wedge grinned, knowing Han's addiction to the sport. "Aeroball requires a fair bit of skill and intelligence."

"Can't say it has the same watchability as far as I'm concerned."

"That's because it's still amateur and you can't bet on it," Wedge explained humorously to Luke. "Anyway I remember that girl and she was good. Played hooker."

Han snorted.

"I was referring to her role in the team."

"Right, we're being serious here," Han managed to restrain himself. "Why don't you go over and ask for her autograph or something, she sounds interesting."

Wedge shook his head and coloured slightly. "I'm more of the distant admirer type."

Han turned meaningfully to Luke. "I was on my way to find General Madine," he said.

"You know," Han tucked his thumbs in his belt. "I despair of you young guys. Am I the only red-blooded one around here?"

Luke chuckled. "Just watch that she doesn't want to check that claim out too literally," he quipped, and he patted Han affectionately on the arm before moving towards the access to the lower levels.

Han placed a firm hand on Wedge's shoulder and began propelling him towards the girl. "Come on, Mr. Distant Admirer. I am going to demonstrate the Solo technique with women. Watch and learn."

As they approached the disembodied set of legs, Wedge stopped, but Han marched boldly up to the speeder and patted the side. "Hey, this is an old XP-30 isn't it? You don't see many of these around any more."

The girl straightened and looked down at him, rather imperiously. It was a look that reminded him rather poignantly of Leia. "It serves its purpose," she said. "Most of the time that is."

"We were wondering if you'd like a hand. By the way, I'm Han Solo and this is my buddy, Wedge Antilles." The girl gazed coolly down at them and Han received the distinct impression that he in particular was being assessed, somewhat unfavourably.

"Pleased to meet you," she said rather formally. "I gather you're with the Rebel contingent."

Han noticed the girl's attention flick momentarily back to Wedge before focusing on him again. She was not, he decided, what you'd call beautiful, she was more exotic; an impression created partly by her eyes which were like dark pools, and partly by her hair which was a deep luminescent copper. At the moment it was pulled neatly into a band on top of her head from where it tumbled in ringlets. She was slim, but not so slim that she lacked curves; and athletic, but not to the extent that she seemed hard-muscled. Instead she moved with a kind of fluid grace that made the casual observer turn back for a second look.

"Well," said the girl as she stepped down. "I guess you two might be able to make yourselves useful." She handed Han a king-grip. "One of my repulsor coils is jamming, and I can't seem to get the access plate off. Maybe it needs a bit of male elbow-grease."

Han grinned and climbed up on the stand. "Woowee!" he whistled. "Are there any XP-30 bits actually in here?"

The girl had clambered into the cab and was leaning over the windshield watching what he was doing. "Enough. That's the bolt there."

"Did you buy it like this?" Han clenched his teeth as he eased out the troublesome bolt. The girl shook her head. "You're not going to tell me you made all these modifications yourself?"

The girl met his mischievous grin. "Not if you don't want me to," she replied cheekily. "Have you got it?" Han looked blank. "The control box - can I have it?"

"Oh, of course," he handed her the box and watched while she disconnected the interior contacts.

"Thanks," she said peremptorily and jumped down again from the cab. An irritated roar made Han turn.

"Hi, Chewie," he said. "This is my copilot, Chewbacca," he explained. "Chewie, meet, uh?"

"Kerensa," the girl smiled at the Wookiee. Chewie tilted his shaggy head in an unusually polite gesture of acknowledgment, and then grumbled at Han, indicating back the way he had come.

"OK. I'll come and have a look," said Han resignedly, "but I don't think it can be leaking that badly. Nice to meet you," he grinned at Kerensa and threw a significant look at Wedge, "maybe I'll catch you later."

Wedge returned the grin, but inwardly he felt a moment of panic. Making small talk to girls, especially ones with legs that seemed to go on forever, was not an activity he got to indulge in very often, and he didn't find it very easy. Fortunately, the subject of his discomfort came to his rescue.

"Is he normally that forward?" she asked.

"I'm afraid so," he replied. "It's what makes him so lovable."

She nodded. "I see. I gather he's a pilot."

Wedge noticed that she used the word as if it were an insult. "Er, no. He's a General," he said, shuffling his feet awkwardly.

"You're kidding?"

Wedge shook his head and pushed back his dark hair before it could flop in his eyes. "No," he assured her, "but he did used to be a smuggler."

A faint smile touched her lips. "Ah, now that figures." She placed the control box on the stand and began to dismantle it. "And what about you? Where do you fit into the Rebel machine?"

Wedge hesitated. "I'm afraid I am a pilot," he tried not to sound apologetic.

"Really?" Kerensa scrutinized him curiously, then her dark eyes twinkled mischievously. "You don't seem to be wearing your ego today."

Wedge clicked his fingers in mock irritation. "I knew I'd left something behind."

Kerensa tossed her head back and laughed. "Obviously it pays not to have too many preconceived notions," she said. "Are you an X or a Y?"

Wedge's eyes widened, uncertain as to the implications of her question. "Oh," he said, seeing the cheeky smile. "I'm with the Xs."

"You must lead an exciting life. I'm afraid you'll find it a bit boring here."

"Boring would be a welcome change actually," he replied. "Anyway this place is quite interesting, your facilities are top notch."

"Are they? I've always assumed everywhere else is bigger and better - the result, I suppose, of living a fairly insular life."

"Oh, I don't know. Weren't you in the aeroball champs last year in Coruscant?"

She looked up, surprised. "Yes I was. One of the few times I've ever been off-system." There was a slight accent to her Basic, Wedge noticed, a faint aspiration on the open sounds. "Were you a player?" she asked.

He shook his head. "I watched it on the holonet. I used to play when I was a kid, but never anywhere near top level. You're, uh, very good. We all thought your team should have won. That referee must have been wearing blinkers."

"Don't get me going on referees," she said fiercely, waving the hydro-spanner at him. "And yes, he was wearing blinkers with big credit signs on one side."

"You reckon it was rigged?"

"Of course it was rigged. The great Imperial city had to win at everything."

Wedge suddenly remembered an incident in the game which had almost tipped the balance back Iicini'ia's way. "What happened to that big guy who was carried off, the one who collided with you?"

An expressionless mask crept over her face as she looked at him. "He developed a sudden kneecap problem," she said mysteriously. "It happens to people sometimes when they keep wandering around off-side."

Wedge stared at her for a moment. "Ah," he nodded. "If you ever take up smashball, remind me to back your team." He watched as she deftly removed the malfunctioning motivator from the control-box. "I could offer you a hand with that, but it doesn't look like you need it."

She sighed. "I think I'm going to have to face the fact soon that this poor old thing has had its day," she motioned towards the speeder. "But like a lot of things it has sentimental value."

"Some of our X Wings are like that," replied Wedge. "All that's holding them together is desperation and space tape."

She chuckled. "We've got a squadron of Y Wings that operate on those principles."

"Really?" he squatted down and held a bracket steady so she could extract the cable threaded through it. "They look fairly tidy to me."

"Something you will discover about I-M, Wedge," she said pulling out the troublesome section of cable, "is that absolutely everything here is tidy. Even the grease spots conform to patterns. General Tavaala can sniff out a speck of dirt or a crease in your uniform at one hundred paces."

Wedge smiled, but was only vaguely aware of what she had said. Instead he was thinking how much he liked the way his name sounded when spoken with a different accent.

"Which reminds me," she added, eyeing one of the ubiquitous timepieces which were placed at strategic intervals throughout the installation, "I'd better get a move on, or General Tavaala will have my guts for cargo straps."

"Whereabouts do you work?" he asked.

"In Communications usually, but today I've got to . . . Hah! I see what the problem is - look at that," she held out a section of cable showing him where the high tensile wire had burnt itself out. "That's what happens when you start modifying these things. Ah well, at least I know it won't take long to fix."

"Hey Wedge!" came a voice from above. Wedge peered up to find Wes's face grinning at him. "Admiral Ackbar wants a word - you coming?"

"Sure." He paused, glancing quickly at Kerensa, but she was bent over the control unit feeding a new section of cable back through the motivator bracket. "I'll be along in a minute," he said.

Wes glanced at the girl too, then gave his leader a knowing wink. "See you soon," he said, and turning away he began to whistle the chorus from the old Starboys romantic hit "When You're Mine".

"I gather he's the clown in the outfit," she said laconically.

"One of them," he replied wryly, "there are several."

"I suppose you'd have to develop a weird sense of humour to keep your sanity."

"Possibly," he reflected. "Although I think in Janson's case it comes naturally, because he lost what little sanity he was born with years ago."

He watched as she clamped a contact thread from the cable into its appropriate point and an unfamiliar feeling of lightheartedness and wellbeing took possession of him. The prospect of a break from duties and I'm behaving like a cadet on holiday, he thought. But still . . . He glanced down at the coppery head intent on its task. It was rare for him to feel so quickly comfortable with a girl, and there was something about her he found compelling. He found himself beginning to formulate a means to talk with her again. This afternoon'll be a dead loss, I wonder if she'll have any free time tomorrow.

*****

Luke sat between Leia and General Madine trying hard to concentrate on General Tavaala's update of the situation in Mantrusia. He had heard the first part in which the general had explained how Kuzhak's aide had departed Bakhunia to an unknown destination, and that it was suspected he was visiting Moff Hoziak. He had also heard Tavaala say that there had been no transmissions over the last two weeks, which had made them suspect that Kuzhak might know about their surveillance, which in turn suggested a security leak. After this however he had become aware of a strange sensation at the back of his mind, almost like a shadowy presence, and he wondered for a moment if Obi-Wan Kenobi might be about to contact him. He was vaguely aware of See Threepio's rather wounded tones assuring the General that "no he wasn't offended about his redundancy in this situation" and that "being a protocol droid he could appreciate unconventional protocol". Most of his attention however was directed inwards, attempting to focus on the strange things that seemed to be going on in his head. He stretched out with his Force sense.

A change in air pressure told him that a door had opened in the room, and he had just begun to register that the presence he had identified had come nearer, when he was seized by a feeling like a screen coming down on his outstretched senses. He started, and saw Leia throw him a quizzical look. He smiled reassuringly, although inside he felt only confusion. Then he noticed the girl's presence. She was standing at ease beside General Tavaala as he explained her Mantrusian background. It was the same girl that Han and Wedge had been admiring earlier, now attired in the ultra-conservative grey uniform of the Iicini'ian military. But that was not what made Luke frown. Somehow the girl was resisting his mind probe; and for her to resist meant she sensed that he was trying. Only someone who was Force-sensitive would be able to identify the intrusion of another consciousness on their own. An elbow poked him surreptitiously in the ribs.

"What's wrong?" whispered Leia.

He shook his head, again trying to look reassuring. "Nothing," he whispered back.

Leia glanced at him, noting the direction of his gaze and the mixture of fascination and surprise on his face. Oh no, she thought, not again! Surely Luke was not going to fall for yet another girl from a distant planet.

"Ensign Kalichi will liaise with you, Princess Leia, regarding the Mantrusian greeting ceremony. Fortunately as this meeting is on our territory, and we are therefore receiving Chief Elozhi, our contribution will not require a lengthy address. Ensign Kalichi suggests that you and she go over it on the journey in the shuttle tomorrow."

Leia nodded, resisting the urge to show relief. She was familiar with a number of lengthy welcoming protocols: some could last for hours! However, she could see the girl scrutinizing her curiously; and although Ensign Kalichi was younger and only a little taller than Leia herself, Leia suddenly received the distinct impression that she was not the sort of person one would want to offend. She remembered her father introducing her once to Senator Kalichi, and although she could only vaguely recall the man's appearance she did remember that direct gaze. She knew her father (adoptive father, she reminded herself ruefully) had thought highly of the man from Iicini'ia. Some instinct told her that Senator Kalichi's daughter possessed the same uncompromising attitude to justice, and also the same no-nonsense approach.

"Thank you Ensign Kalichi," General Tavaala was saying, "you may return to your division. Report at the shuttle bay tomorrow at 11.00."

The girl saluted briskly, making the creamy-jade earring in her right ear swing to and fro. "Yes sir!" she said respectfully, and turned towards the egress.

Luke shifted restlessly, and Leia threw him a quizzical glance. He shook his head, but the poorly concealed look of disappointment on his face made her uneasy. While the girl had been in the room, Leia had noticed that she hadn't looked in Luke's direction once, although she had given everyone else a perfunctory examination. Why she had avoided Luke was somewhat mysterious.

*****

Chief Elozhi keyed off the holo-review his aide had compiled for him and leaned his large frame back uneasily on his conformatic couch, a gift from the people of his native Garnitz Province ten years before on the event of his kucharni - the sixtieth anniversary of his name day. He fingered his naming earring, a jet loop in the shape of the famous Garnitz tsorzh or ring fungus. The riots in Vosk, the attacks on the Governors' Palaces in Garnitz and Bakhunia - never in all his years as head of the Mantrusian Council of Governors had he seen such unrest, such civil disobedience. The Mantrusians were by nature a contrary people, but usually their grievances could be dealt with at the provincial level, and because of their contrariness, they seldom could agree in sufficient numbers on any issue to make an effective protest. Now however it seemed that the planet was uniting in its demands for a return to monarchy, and to what it insisted on calling the Golden Age.

Elozhi wondered how many of the protestors had the vaguest idea about the facts of this time. Certainly it had been a time of economic wealth and military triumph, but at the cost of individual freedom. Queen Nerensai had been a great warrior and a strong ruler, but her cruelty was legend: it was said she could strike an enemy down on the spot by a look. Elozhi doubted that this was any more than fanciful fabrication, it was more likely she simply employed a particularly effective execution squad. Still the people's desire to return to a time when such a woman was supreme was disconcerting, for it suggested an inherent desire to be ruled. One thousand years of relative political freedom obviously meant nothing.

To his surprise his mind flashed back fifty years to his time as a student, and the face of his old history professor formed in his mind as clearly as if the man had been standing in front of him. The most significant thing we learn from history is the fact that we don't learn from history. And the reason we don't learn is because our natures remain unchanged. History is the story of cycles of error. Was this current situation the sign that the wheel had run its course, and Mantrusians now wished themselves back at the point from which they started one thousand years ago? Again the earring jangled, and the furrows on the old man's brow deepened.

For thousands of years, old Mantrusia had consisted of six kingdoms each with its individual royal family. But then Nerensai had become Queen of Bakhunia, and gradually she had taken over the other kingdoms eventually declaring herself queen of Mantrusia. Under her leadership Mantrusia's coffers began to bulge, and the people grew to appreciate the benefits of a wealthy society. Her own power increased to terrifying degrees and she launched an offensive first against Iicini'ia, then Nantik, Tsu'por, Cuvor and finally Tyrovera. The move against Iicini'ia had brought condemnation from the Old Republic and a visit from an envoy who never returned to lodge his report. Eventually with the attack on Tyrovera the Old Republic was forced to engage in a full-scale war against Nerensai, a war which decimated Mantrusia, leaving it leaderless and impoverished.

Although Mantrusia had always been an independent world, the Old Republic provided it with a Jedi protector who oversaw the establishment of a new political system. The old kingdoms became provinces, and provincial governors were democratically elected. When the Jedi left he was replaced by a nominal protector, a senior governor who became known first as the Chief Governor, and eventually simply as the Chief. Although the Chief represented no specific electorate, his or her role being intended as senior statesman and adviser, the position quickly became invested with various ceremonial requirements. The Mantrusians loved festivals and parades, any display in fact which implied power or evoked emotion. Over the centuries some of the old protocols had been added to the Chief's role so that it had become that of figurehead. No doubt there were many Mantrusians who regarded the Chief as their true leader.

What was most worrying to Elozhi was his knowledge of the Mantrusian psyche. The average person loved to grumble and complain about their lawgivers, but the more uncompromising those lawgivers were the more respect they were afforded. To say the masses were masochistic would probably be an exaggeration, but only a very slight one. As Chief, he had seldom had to play the role of despot for usually the council process worked successfully. When he had been forced to over-ride the governors' decisions however, he had always been amazed at their lack of fight. He had been a bit of a firebrand when he was a governor, and yet he remembered the times he had been censured by the incumbent Chief. He recalled his respect for the firm hand, the sense approaching relief that a difficult decision had been made for him. Perhaps the people had reached a similar point, where they were simply tired of self-determination and yearned for a ruler who would do their thinking for them.

Elozhi had been both surprised and irritated when the Iicini'ian military commander had informed him that his organisation suspected there was Imperial activity in Mantrusia. The irritation arose from the realization that the Iicini'ians had been snooping where they had no mandate to do so. The surprise was his reaction to what he initially mistook as stupidity. Surely the Iicini'ians realized that the Mantrusians traded with Imperial worlds just as they had with members of the Old Republic? Then it occurred to him that this accusation of Imperial influence might be a paranoid misinterpretation of these trading connections. The rough treatment Iicini'ia had received at the hands of the Empire had naturally made it overly suspicious, and President Manalooa and friends were quite simply over-reacting.

He plucked a fat yellow zehnkye from the platter beside his couch and felt the juice trickle down his chin as he bit into the soft flesh. Still, this unrest was disturbing, and the more he considered his analysis of the Mantrusian character the more he felt it might be time to exercise the strong hand the people obviously required. He took another large bite and then stopped, a look of distaste forming on his pudgy face. In the core of the zehnkye lay a spuk, its needle-thin body coiled possessively around the fruit's seed. He spat out the pulp in his mouth and threw the ruined fruit on the floor. Impossible to tell from the surface if one of those parasites had crawled in! Automatically, he began to run the fingers of his right hand diagonally over his heart. Then rationality took control of him again, and he frowned at his superstitious reaction. This disobedience is affecting me more than I expected: I'm seeing omens in zehnkye!

He took another piece of fruit and checked its shiny surface carefully before taking a bite. When under threat one's instinct tended to assume control, and instinct took one back to one's forebears, to times of superstition and chaos. At all costs he must ensure Mantrusia was not allowed to return to this. He stretched out a dimpled hand and rang the tiny zirconium bell which sat beside his food platter. A large man, bald like himself although a little younger, entered from a curtained alcove to the side, and bowed his head briefly in acknowledgment.

"Jehrom, I wish you to contact the co-ordinator of M-HoloNews and organize a meeting for the day after tomorrow, early morning. I'm also going to require a meeting with the captain of the Guard - preferably prior to the other - perhaps tomorrow evening, after my trip to Iicini'ia."

The man nodded dutifully, and bent down stiffly to pick up a piece of fruit from the floor.

"I'd also like you to bring the Council meeting forward to the afternoon of the day after tomorrow. Short notice I agree, but I'm sure no one will object. They are all as concerned as myself about the internal situation, and I'm sure they'll be relieved with my suggestions."

To Chapter Eight | To Chapter Ten

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