The Mantrusian Affair: Chapter Twelve
Iella

By 18.00 the humidity had risen to such an extent that one of the group of I-M pilots clustered near the main hangar egress had activated the control to open it fully. A cool breeze would have been welcome, but none such eventuated. Nevertheless, Wedge felt a certain relief as the drier, high-terrain air filtered slowly into his lungs, and he felt less as though he was inhaling through a damp sponge. The effects of a long spell under the cleanser jets had already begun to wear off. Wedge hoped Kerensa's debriefing would be short, as she had suggested, otherwise he was not going to be as nice to be near as he had intended.

He leaned languidly against the cab of the SoroSuub, and glanced over at the group by the now cavernous mouth of the hangar. Like his Rogue pilots they were a mixed bunch, although their different colourings and statures were more a reflection of the varying physical characteristics of Iicini'ia's main racial groups. There was one Sullustan - a woman - but the one who caught the eye of the casual observer was the man whom Wedge had seen with Kerensa earlier: Neekau, the Squadron Commander. Even from a distance Wedge couldn't ignore the man's impressive musculature, enhanced further by the scanty grey tank top he wore tucked casually into his flight pants.

"Whew - made it!" came a voice beside him. "I thought dear old General Tavaala was going to go on all night."

"He's certainly thorough," Wedge grinned down at her, noting that she had changed from her formal clothes back into her grey fatigues. He had seen Luke and Leia disembarking from the shuttle on its return, and with a little careful questioning had discovered that Kerensa was their translator. Hence the dress.

"Thorough," she mused. "That's very diplomatic."

"Well, I could have said boring, but that's probably being a bit blatant."

"And you're not the blatant sort?" she teased, climbing up into the cab.

"Generally speaking, I find diplomacy more effective," he chuckled, slipping down into the seat beside her.

She threw him a quick smile as the whine of the vehicle's repulsors descended to a thrum. She engaged forward thrust and wove carefully down the corridor between the private vehicles and the A Wings of I-M's fighter group. The Sullustan woman raised a cheery hand as they passed, and Wedge noticed Neekau's dark head turn too. On the other side of the door, he took a deep breath and let it out slowly with a grunt of pleasure.

"It's not like this all the time," she reassured him. "We get about three months of this, and then it cools down and becomes quite pleasant." Once through the outer security gate she sped up and turned the speeder towards the foothills. "They reckon that it's something to do with the fact that Ootacini'ia's orbit is close to ours, astronomically speaking, and because it's such a big planet, it exerts quite an effect on our tides."

"That's the planet that Mantrusia's a moon of?"

She nodded. "Yes. It's a constant effect too, because Ootacini'ia travels much faster than Iicin'ia, so we're always relatively close. I believe that's fairly unusual."

"Well that particular instance is, but it's not unusual to find unusual occurrences. The galaxy's full of them," he replied.

She laughed. "I suppose it is." She glanced at him curiously. "Where are you from, Wedge?"

"Corellia." He relaxed back in the seat and rested his elbow on the side of the cab to maximize the airflow. He had donned the lightest shirt he possessed, a light-weave cream syplex he had picked up several years before in a market on Thabaan; but even that had begun to feel like a damp rag back in the hangar.

"Really?" she gave him a cheeky look.

"Don't say it," he grinned. "How many Corellians does it take to change a glowpanel?"

She laughed. "Well if it's any consolation, we have the same jokes here, but they're directed against the Mantrusians instead."

"Yeah?"

"The classic is about the man who returns to Mantrusia after being away for twenty years." She eased the thrust back a little as they approached a jagged outcrop of rock. "He's walking around the Capitol, and when he reaches the main plaza he puts his travel bag down in amazement. Ah Mantrusia! he says wringing his hands, I no longer know you! He gazes at all the tourists, the old markets gone, and the posh new ones which have replaced them." She corrected the forward pitch as the speeder began to descend what looked to Wedge like an old channel strafed to smithereens by a crazed blastboat gunner. "Ah Mantrusia, he says appalled, I no longer know you! Then he looks down to where he'd put his bag, and of course it's gone. Ah!" she imitated the fictional traveller's raised finger of recognition. "Mantrusia ... "

"... now I know you," finished Wedge.

Kerensa giggled. "There, you see. We are both the victims of the same cruel galactic humour."

"The unfortunate thing about that joke is that in the case of Corellia it is absolutely correct," he said uneasily as an outcrop of rock grabbed out at the sideshield of the speeder.

"That's what makes it a classic," she said, unconcerned at the contorted jumble of granite in front of them. "It's true of Mantrusia too."

"Er, uh ... Kerensa," he said. "You do come this way regularly don't you?"

She glanced across at him quickly. The speeder began an undulating rock and roll through the tangle and then emerged into the clear with a welcoming view of forest terrain ahead. Wedge wondered about the black spots in his field of vision, thinking they might be some form of Iicini'ian insect life, until he realized they were due to anoxia. He breathed out and in, and they disappeared. He also let go his grip on the side of the cab.

"Of course," she replied simply. "It cuts half an hour off the alternate route."

"Ah," he nodded. "Why else would you commit near suicide twice a day."

"Don't you ... ," she started, then stopped. She had been about to say Don't you start, but that would have necessitated some awkward explanations. "Don't you worry. It's really only once a day. Going up's not much of a buzz."

Wedge stroked his chin and regarded her profile wryly. "Perhaps I should have taken out some travel insurance. I'm beginning to think I might be in dangerous company."

"Ah well. You know what they say. Avians of a feather flock together."

Wedge nearly jumped out of his skin at the sudden brush of a wing on the side of his face. He turned aghast to see a massive hawk-like creature gripping with grey talons on to Kerensa's shoulders. The hopeless thought that he had no blaster had begun to course through his mind when he heard Kerensa laugh with delight.

"Keetay!" she cried, reaching up to stroke the magnificent head with its hooded eyes and horned antennae. She glanced at Wedge and caught his apprehension.

"It's OK," she assured him. "I know she looks ferocious, but she won't hurt you. She's come for her treat." She flicked the cruise control and jammed one knee under the steering bar to hold the speeder on its course as they skirted the edge of an extensive chunk of forest. She pulled a small parcel from a pocket on the front of her fatigues. The massive avian stomped up and down uttering excited rasps as she unwrapped it.

"I don't know why, but she seems to have developed a taste for exotic food," Kerensa informed him, holding up a cluster of orange Calamarian dekapi on her palm. "A friend tried some of these the other day, but she didn't like them, so I brought them home for the sea-wits. Keetay found them, and since then she expects them every day."

The hawk selected one of the tiny creatures with lady-like delicacy, tossed it in the air, caught it nimbly and tipped her head back to let it slide down her throat. Kerensa glanced at Wedge. He was watching the avian with an expression of total disbelief.

"I thought she was going to fly off with you for a moment," he said with an uncertain laugh.

"Mercy! She's not that strong. And anyway, most of what you see is pelt. See!" she pulled out the fan of velvety segments of membrane which protected the creature's belly. The plain grey and green exterior colouring was in stark contrast to the bright yellows and reds underneath. "She can flex this to show the colours she needs for camouflage. Amazing isn't she?"

A long chute-shaped proboscis emerged from the animal's curved beak, and absorbed the remains of the salty brine in which the dekapi had been preserved. The hawk blinked its great hooded eyes at the girl, then lunged upwards, her wicked talons folding neatly underneath as she swooped level with the speeder. She wobbled a salute and then disappeared amongst the branches of the highest trees. Kerensa wiped her hand on the side of her pants and flipped the throttle back to manual.

"Do you like animals, Wedge?" she asked matter-of-factly.

"Uh, yeah," he replied slowly, still amazed by the hawk.

"Me, too," she said warmly. "You know where you stand with animals. There's none of those complicated emotional games. If they like you they let you feed them, and if they don't they either avoid you or kill you. They're the ultimate minimalists really."

Wedge stared at her uncertainly before noticing the teasing grin. "Now I know I should have taken out that insurance," he said, with only partial mock apprehension.

Kerensa chuckled and turned the speeder in a wide swoop towards a small hemispherical building nestled in the clearing before them. She maneuvred into a shelter at the side of the bubble-house and let the vehicle settle on its landing skids. Wedge looked closely at the construction, which appeared to be some sort of ceramic material. Probably moulded on to the framing, he thought. The windows looked smoky from the outside, but when he followed her in he could see out of them clearly. Obviously they had been treated with filters to mute the effects of the strident Iicini'ian sunlight. The roof of the bubble was composed of the same transparisteel as the windows, and comprised two sections which could slide apart for ventilation.

Wedge placed the tray of Bakuran liqueur delicacies he had managed to unearth amongst his possessions on the small table nearby. He had been uncertain as to what sort of offering to bring. Flowers were the obvious choice, but the I-M base was singularly lacking in flower-sellers. He had considered trading with Han for a bottle of Corellian wine, but then, he thought, what if she's a teetotaller? Plus Han would have pumped him with all sorts of awkward questions. It was at the last minute that he remembered the sweets, and had been pleasantly surprised to re-discover that they were already gift-wrapped. Kerensa finished unfolding a delicately painted screen to hide the lower half of the bubble which served as her bedroom, and saw the package as she stepped back into the living area.

"They're Bakuran," he said. "Hope you have a sweet tooth."

"Yum!" she said investigating the layers of frills. "Even the wrapping looks good enough to eat - but you didn't need to bring anything."

He looked past her through the curved windows. "My original plan was flowers, but I don't think I could have competed with that."

She followed his gaze. "Yes, it is looking good at the moment. Come on, let's take the dinner out there. But we'd better leave the sweeties inside for a moment. If Chitza smells them he'll never leave us alone."

"Chitza?" said Wedge, feeling edgy.

"Don't worry," she waved a hand reassuringly as she opened the lid of a compartment set into the servery bench. "He's big, but he's quite harmless. All he likes to do is eat."

"Ever thought of working in a zoo?" teased Wedge.

"I do," she said, straight-faced.

Wedge watched as she tore up what he assumed were salad vegetables into two bowls. He felt the same then as he had the previous night, when he had reviewed the conversation they had had in the hangar: very at ease, except for the animal thing of course. Usually he found comfortable repartee with women a little difficult, except in his imagination before the event, or after, when he ran through the revisionary analysis.

Kerensa had chopped up a selection of red and yellow herbs which she had sprinkled over the salads, and was now in the process of scooping soup out of a tureen sitting in a slow cooker on the other side of the first compartment. Wedge had always maintained a curious interest in the varied domestic facilities he discovered from planet to planet. On long and boring sojourns in hyperspace, he sometimes mentally designed the perfect house, or the ideal apartment block. If he had never found himself driven by circumstances into service with the Alliance, he might have been an architect. He shrugged. No chance of that now. Kerensa loaded the salad and soup bowls, and a pitcher of extra soup for seconds, on to a tray. She opened another smaller lid on her bench, some sort of cooler Wedge guessed, and proceeded to pour a clear, sparkling liquid into two fluted beakers.

"Want me to carry that tray out?"

"Mmm, thanks. I'll bring these." She picked up the drinks, then seemed to reconsider. She reopened the cooler and, reaching down deep, extracted a small ochre-coloured fruit which she deftly sliced, arranging two slices over the edge of each beaker.

"Ta-daa," she smiled triumphantly. "How's that?"

Wedge pretended to consider for a few seconds. "Four stars," he said.

"Ooh - tough customer, eh? You realize if you don't give me five you get to do the dishes."

"OK, you've twisted my arm. Five," he chuckled.

"The best spot," she said walking down the steps, "is under a trellis round the back. On the grass is where I feed the avians, so if we sit there you'll probably have your salad raided."

"I think I understand why you don't live in town," he said. "There'd be no animals."

"Oh, you could probably build feeders and things. But you're right, it wouldn't be the same. Anyway, it's peaceful here." She placed the drinks on a stone beside the vine-encrusted trellis and picked at the side of her fatigues. "Pooh!" she wrinkled her nose. "I'm sorry, but thanks to those dekapi I smell all fishy. Not very considerate of me - I should have changed my clothes."

Wedge put the tray down carefully on a flat-hewn log and sat beside it. "I don't think the dekapi will have much chance amongst all this," he waved an arm to encompass the vibrant colours and fragrances in the garden.

She laughed and sat down. "You're such a gentleman, Wedge. Rogue Squadron is obviously a misnomer."

"Gentleman Squadron doesn't have quite the same sense of potential threat." He took the bowls she handed him.

"No, I guess there is that to consider. Not the sort of title to spell fear into the Imperial heart. Here's a scoop for your soup, and a spork if you want it. But eat with your fingers if you like - a lot of Iicini'ians do." She handed him his drink. "I suppose you're used to dealing with all sorts of different customs."

Wedge took a sip and was about to comment on the taste, when a tiny avian, about the size of his small finger, landed on the side of the tray. It bobbed up and down, its bright black eyestalks waving up at Kerensa.

"Oh dear," she sighed. "Tutti may be small, but he's the greediest character you could wish to meet." She took several leaves from her salad, picked the little creature up on her finger and carried him down to the end of the garden. "Hopefully that'll keep him busy for a while," she said apologetically.

Wedge put his scoop down. "Kerensa," he said curiously. "This is probably a stupid question, but are there any animals on this planet that you're not on personal terms with?"

She took a mouthful of soup and nodded. "Yes. And quite a few of them work for I-M."

He chuckled, half-expecting some sort of cheeky reply.

"Speaking of animals," she continued. "Have you come across Captain Neekau yet?"

"Er, yeah." Wedge nodded and crunched a mouthful of salad vegetables. Normally salads were something he forced himself to eat occasionally, mainly in deference to his mother's oft-repeated advice when he was a boy to be sure to eat his vegetables. It had been something of a family joke, and had given rise to his nickname, Veggies. But the flavours Kerensa had combined were about to force him to change his opinion on the subject. He took another mouthful.

"One of the original primates, you know," Kerensa was saying. "I hope you ignored everything he said - if you understood it, that is."

"He's reasonably articulate about a few things."

She nodded. "I can imagine. Most of Atanei's conversation with other men centres around the size differential."

Wedge was glad he had no food in his mouth at that moment, as the guffaw he gave would have sprayed it everywhere.

"Actually, most of his conversation with women centres around that too, except with a different emphasis. At least I hope so, for the men's sake! So don't take him seriously, he's just a big boastful jerk."

"Is he Iicini'ian?" Wedge asked curiously, remembering the man's impressive physique.

"Oh, yes. He's a northerner, from Nngaruahi. It's a small island with a very outdoorsy culture. Do you remember Tiimou Rayhana?" Wedge nodded. "He was from Nngaruahi."

Rayhana had been the champion aeroball player throughout his childhood. It had been Rayhana who had both inspired him but also caused him to eventually give the game up. He had been about fifteen when he realized he would never grow to reach Rayhana's Mr Universe proportions. With a typical teenager's logic he had decided if he couldn't be another Rayhana, he didn't want to play at all.

"Do you want more soup?" her voice broke in on his reminiscences.

"I wouldn't mind actually." She filled his bowl again from the pitcher. "You're definitely a five-star establishment."

She smiled. "Well, we can't have you leaving Iicini'ia thinking our food is like the stuff they serve in the caf."

Wedge chuckled, but then a thought oozed its way in to dampen his high spirits. The idea of leaving was at that moment singularly unpleasant.

To Chapter Eleven | To Chapter Thirteen

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