The Mantrusian Affair: Chapter Nineteen
"What's all this about, Commander?" Wes inquired loudly as he caught up with Wedge at the entrance to the hangar. Mechanics and orderlies hurried amongst the X Wings, clearing the area of tool sleds and ladders, and Tycho and Dllr Nep were already powering up.
"Not sure yet," Wedge raised his voice above the blaring klaxons. "Don't think it's a drill, though; it's not dinner time." It was a standing joke with the squadron that when Admiral Ackbar ordered a practice session it was invariably during meal time, usually just before dessert.
A voice from the loudspeakers echoed above the hubbub. "Rebel X Wings required in the air immediately - rendezvous at I-M Space Control and await orders!"
"Guess this is it then," said Wes as he hauled himself up into the cockpit. Wedge's reply was lost in another klaxon blast, and a repetition of the order to scramble.
As his fighter responded to the upward movement of the stick, and the I-M ground base faded rapidly to a smudge on the landscape, Wedge felt a twinge of guilt at the surge of relief he was experiencing. He knew that their being required meant someone somewhere was in trouble; however, the pounding of his heart and the familiar sense of icy cold in the pit of his stomach meant that he was reacting normally to a prospective engagement. This was how he should have felt yesterday. As the spidery shape of Iicini'ia's military space station grew larger in his forward screen, the communications light flashed green, and General Tavaala's voice came over the link.
"Rogue Squadron, we're responding to an incident at our surveillance post. Proceed to exit point at zero-eight-five two-nine mark three-zero. Jump coordinates will be relayed en route. Target: Class four corvette with orange lightning insignia." The voice broke off suddenly, and then resumed after a pause. "Will update shortly, please proceed at maximum speed to exit point."
The ice extended its fingers up his spine and into his heart, where it slowly began to spread throughout his body. A voice crackled over one of his private frequencies.
"Do I remember you saying Kerensa was on surveillance today?" asked Tycho tentatively.
"Yes," Wedge replied with difficulty, for his jaw felt as though it had locked.
"Do you suppose it's her post?"
"I don't think there are any others," said Wedge. Because the proximity of Iicini'ia to Ootacini'ia produced such a large gravity well, any vessel wishing to make a hyperspace jump either had to travel sunward quite a distance towards the tiny first planet of the Cini system, or had to take the slower option, and fly to a second safe zone in the void between Ootacini'ia and Cini #4. Wedge urged his sub-light engines up to maximum thrust and ordered the others to do the same. The faster they reached their exit point, the sooner they could find out what happened at the surveillance station.
"Are you all right?" Tycho's voice sounded matter of fact, but Wedge could sense his concern. Before he could reply, a button flickered on his navicom and the screen filled with numbers.
"Rogues, check jump coordinates," and he read the information from his console. A series of acknowledgments assured him that everyone at least knew where they were heading, even if they were unsure as to what was waiting for them when they got there.
"We wondered if you'd ever seen those markings before," General Tavaala was gazing at Han with such hope that the Corellian felt almost guilty about having to shake his head.
"An orange lightning bolt cutting through a black cloud," said Leia quietly, as if describing them would somehow trigger a memory.
"No," he replied with a wry upturn of his mouth. "Sorry."
"It's a pity Lando isn't here," mused Leia, "maybe he would recognise it."
"There's nothing in your data files?" General Madine asked, missing the look of irritation which Han threw the lithe, dark-haired young woman at his side.
"We've run back through the records for the past two hundred years," Colonel Fa'arika held his hands up in a gesture of resignation. "Nothing. A complete blank. Either it's a new group, or it's a disguise."
"More likely the latter," growled Han. "What would a pirate group want with a surveillance post. It doesn't make sense."
Fa'arika sighed. "Very little of this whole situation makes any sense."
"I want to know how they found it," growled Tavaala. "We've kept the location of that station under a tight cloak of security."
"I'll be looking into that personally, don't you worry," said Fa'arika grimly.
"I could take the Falcon out and do a grid search," Han offered.
Tavaala shook his head. "I have Rogue Squadron investigating it now," he began, "but ..." A sudden beeping interrupted him, and he pulled a comlink from his belt and flipped a switch. "Tavaala."
Although the others could hear the voice only faintly, they heard enough to understand the infusion of red into the general's cheeks.
"Rogue Squadron are unable to enter hyperspace - their drive motivators have all malfunctioned!"
Han stared first at the look of consternation on General Madine's face, and then at the one on Leia's. There was an icy silence.
"Thank you, Lieutenant," Tavaala's voice was so dry it was crisp enough to crack. "Order them to return immediately so we can begin repairs."
"That's definitely an inside job," said Fa'arika, but Tavaala had already switched channels and raised the comlink again.
"Maintenance, I want a list of those assigned to work on Rogue Squadron's equipment on my desk in five minutes, and I want a team of mechanics, not including any from that list, doing a thorough check on A Squadron, ASAP." He switched channels again. "Reconnaissance, send Green Flight out to Exit Point Cresh. We need a complete scan of the area, and a trace on any emissions." His mouth tightened. "Plus pick up samples of any wreckage. There is a possibility, albeit faint, that the intruder might still be there. Warn them to be prepared for evasive."
"Can I see that holo again?" asked Han as Tavaala replaced his comlink. Something about the image had bothered him. The big Iicini'ian reset the projector, and the disk-like corvette reappeared as seen from the station's holocams. Han walked over to it and peered more closely, then poked his finger into the middle.
"That shimmering," he said, "I thought it was distortion, but if you follow the motion," he traced a ripple upwards. "See how it's all going the same way. That's a tractor beam."
Everyone gazed at the shifting patterns of dust.
"He's right!" said Madine, but then he frowned. "Why would anyone want to steal a surveillance station?"
"Maybe they weren't after the station. Maybe they were after the people." Tavaala gazed at the hologram, his grey eyes troubled.
"Doesn't make any more sense than the other options, but I suppose in a way it's a slightly more positive scenario," Fa'arika murmured.
"There was definitely no verbal transmission?" Leia asked him.
"They tried. They established contact, and we heard the word In, or it might have been Inquisitor, but that was it. After that it was all static jamming." He exhaled loudly with frustration. "Until we can establish what has happened to that station and to the two people, there's not a great deal else we can do. Even if A Squadron's fighters check out, the intruder will be long gone before they get there." He glanced across at Han speculatively. "Any guesses as to who he is and where he's gone?"
"It seems to me there are two possibilities," replied the Corellian rubbing the scar on his chin thoughtfully. "He's either someone unknown who's grabbed the post or the people for reasons unknown and left the system for a destination unknown. Or, he's someone we already suspect who's taken out the post because he's discovered it's monitoring his activities."
Tavaala nodded. "Stated in those terms, it would seem we do have at least one area of investigation open to us," and he threw Han a shrewd look. "And hopefully at least one vehicle which hasn't been hobbled. You haven't been involved in any operations which would have blacklisted you with Mantrusian Port Control, have you General?"
"None that I know of. Hadn't even heard of the place until recently. And I can assure you that no-one could have tampered with the Falcon. Nobody touches that ship except Chewie and me."
"I'd like you to take a look," said Tavaala. "It may be that our recon team might find evidence to suggest some other destination. But I have a gut feeling that that's where we should look in the meantime."
Han turned to Leia. "Think it might be worth a visit?"
"I guess we won't know till we go there," she shrugged.
It was a strange sensation to be hovering on the brink of semi-consciousness, Kerensa decided. She had a feeling she had actually blacked out for a while, for one minute she had been being lifted from the Y Wing, and the next she had found herself motionless and surrounded by a sense of enclosure, as if she was in a small room. There were voices, but they were distant, or perhaps they were whispering. It was hard to tell. She felt herself fading again, and upped her respiration rate a little. Either she had put herself into too deep a trance, or she had inhaled more of the gas than she thought. She wondered about Tayne, and reached out to find him. Yes, there was somebody near her: a large presence. She was about to refocus her attention on the voices, when she felt flickerings of confusion and then heard him groan. She wanted to be able to tell him to lie still, but getting a purchase on his thinking was difficult because his brain patterns were foggy.
"He's coming out of it!" a voice said urgently.
"Calm it!" said a second deeper voice which seemed to be moving towards them. There was a rustling noise. "Hold him for me will you."
"Easier said than done," the first voice sounded strained. "Ouch!"
"In the name of the Emperor, hold his arms down. Sit on them if you have to."
She felt Tiirau's anxiety, and sensed his efforts to throw off his captors. But then something like a howl of frustration echoed in her ears and his energy began to fade.
"The little one looks like she's still under," the first voice suddenly sounded quite close. "Breathing's awfully shallow. There's no chance we made the mixture too rich I suppose?"
Kerensa could sense definite nervousness in the question.
"Hmm." She felt an object moving close to her face, and next minute someone was peeling her eyelid back. "Wouldn't have thought so." There was a pause. "This stuff affects everyone differently, and as there's not much of her, she wouldn't need much to knock her out. Still, maybe we'd better not top her up just yet."
Ah, so that was it. They had given Tayne an intravenous dose of some drug, Somnavol perhaps. This was weird. It was obvious every effort was being made to keep them alive. But why? And who were these people, and where were they taking them? One thing was certain, however. If they were still on the corvette, which she was reasonably sure they were, there was no chance of staging an escape, not with Tayne unconscious beside her. The best she could do was to monitor him carefully, and as soon as he started to regain consciousness, try and contact him mentally and convince him to stay still. That was if the drug wore off before they reached their destination. Wherever that was!
"Ha, will you look at that! An old civilian-class Peth-4 station. Last time I set foot on one of these was somewhere in the Rim," Han leaned back in his pilot's couch and half-turned towards the occupant in the seat behind him. "I meant to ask you. Did you catch up with Luke yesterday?"
Leia folded her arms and rested them on the back of his seat. "No," she sighed. "See Threepio said he'd gone to find somewhere to practise with his lightsaber. Every time I try and get to talk with him he disappears."
"Couldn't be that he senses that and wants to avoid you, I suppose?" suggested Han, pushing back on the thrusters as they came within hailing distance of the orbiting sphere which comprised Mantrusia's sole space station.
"I could be paranoid, but I'm beginning to get that feeling," she replied musingly. "Either that or ... ," she cleared her throat.
"Or?" he flicked a questioning glance at her, before turning back to his console.
"Or, he's got himself involved with another woman."
Han had been about to activate his communicator. Instead he turned around and gave Leia a wide hazel-eyed stare, then he laughed. "Well if he has, all I can say is it must be catching."
"What makes you say that?" she asked with interest.
"Didn't you hear about the set-to in the caf this morning?"
"No," Leia's brown eyes sparkled with curiosity.
It's good, Han thought, to be able to do something normal for a change. They had had far too few such opportunities in the past four and a bit years. In fact Leia, who had been involved with the Alliance since she was a mere teenager, had seen so little of what Han would have called 'everyday life', he wondered sometimes if she knew what it was. But here she was, eyes glistening eagerly in the expectation of a juicy piece of gossip. He smiled his lop-sided grin.
"That A Wing muscle-boy with the long hair had a bit of how's your father with Wedge, over, if you can believe this, a girl."
Leia's mouth dropped wide open. "Who?"
"Little leggy number I introduced him to. Don't know where she works but she's a pretty darn good mechanic. Name's Carrie or something."
Chewbacca looked up from the main monitor, in which he had been carefully scrutinizing by telecam some of the larger vessels docked at the station's equatorial mooring cubicles. He ululated a name at Han, and then returned to his task.
"That's right - Kerensa," he said triumphantly. Then he added in a mock serious voice. "She's got attitude. Reminds me of someone."
"Yes," Han nodded. "That was it."
"Unmarked freighter, identify yourself and state intention," came a business-like voice over the communicator.
"Millennium Falcon requesting landing permission. Intention: casual visit, possibly vacation," replied Han in a similar tone.
"But Han, that's awful," gasped Leia.
"Oh, come on. It wasn't serious. They didn't kill each other or anything."
"Permission granted," came the nasal voice. It had a slight accent noticeable on the vowel sounds. "Docking cubicle twenty-six on landing platform three. Hope you enjoy your stay. Welcome to Mantrusia." The final two statements were uttered tonelessly.
"Bit of a back to front welcome. Wonder if the planet's back to front too," Han mused.
"No, you don't understand. Kerensa's one of the ones missing from that surveillance post." She gazed out the main viewport with a troubled expression in her eyes. "I thought there was something between Luke and her, but obviously I was wrong."
"Well, who's to say there's not, from his point of view anyway. But Wedge has definitely been seeing her, and obviously she's had some sort of relationship with muscle boy." He closed the gap skilfully between ship and mooring post until the merest touch on the thrusters took them inside the magnetic seal of the cubicle. Chewbacca powered down the repulsors and the Falcon settled gently on her landing skids. Han glanced at Leia, suddenly thoughtful. "It's not going to be easy on Wedge knowing she's missing."
Leia raised her eyebrows. "All the more reason to try and find her I suppose." A frown creased her forehead. "I still think there's something going on between her and Luke. There's a sort of tension there. That's why I wanted to find him, so I could ask him about it." She paused. "Or maybe I'm just going mad."
Han had turned to her, and he reached out and caressed her cheek affectionately. "Do you want the good news or the bad?" he grinned, making her smile too, albeit weakly. "I think that all this Vader business has made you a bit ultra-sensitive about your sensitivity, if you get my point. You're substituting Force for natural intuition, and reading too much into it."
"I suppose," she nodded again slightly.
He stood up and leant down to Chewie. "Better stay here, pal, and keep her warm in case we need to make a quick getaway. And keep a channel open to I-M, just in case they come up with something."
The Wookiee nodded his shaggy head and roared an acknowledgment.
"Ready to do the tourist thing?"
Leia smiled wryly. "Some holiday this is turning out to be."
The medical crew of the former customs corvette, Bloodhund 3, were on the horns of a dilemma. They had checked and re-checked their female captive for signs of cognisance, but all their instruments suggested that she was still well under the influence of the ether bomb. At the back of their minds, they could hear Admiral Truin's crisp tones as he had issued them their orders, carrying with them the usual veiled threat of what would happen to them if they failed. The orders were specific: the station operators were to be taken alive, and delivered to Governor Kuzhak in Secheniz. Truin had offered no reason for the choice of captives, but both men received the impression that they were intended to be used as hostages.
The captain of the Bloodhund had suggested that they consult with the experts in Hocqyellen's Covert Operations Section on the most reliable method of achieving this aim, and they had followed it to the letter. Why the little ensign wasn't responding as expected was perplexing. They were afraid to give her more of the drug in case it resulted in an overdose, but they were equally concerned lest she awake after they had transferred her into Governor Kuzhak's shuttle. In the end they decided the safest option would be for one of them to accompany the two sleeping Iicini'ians on the second stage of their journey, and administer more Somnavol if she showed signs of waking. A skinny little bint like that couldn't cause much trouble anyway, the chief officer had told his subordinate reassuringly.
They installed their supine captives in an anti-grav sled designed for the transferral of bodies; and after the Bloodhund had docked at Mantrusian Port Control, the deputy medical officer disembarked with it in the company of three troopers. Meanwhile, the major in charge of the stormtrooper unit, which Tsarkoni had requested from Truin to reinforce Kuzhak's existing group, organized the deployment of the rest of his men. He had, as Tsarkoni had demanded, disguised them as civilians, but was still having difficulty getting them to remember to stop referring to each other by number. Imperial indoctrination was frighteningly effective in removing individual personalities.
"This is like searching for a biscuit crumb in the Dune Sea," grumbled Han as he and Leia reached the end of yet another line of mooring cubicles.
"You had to remind me of that place, didn't you?" she said wryly. "Although this Iicini'ian business is perplexing, at least it's a pleasant enough place to be perplexed in. I'd just about successfully wiped all images of Jabba's Palace from my memory."
"Yeah well. I never thought I'd hear myself saying this, but it's a shame we weren't allowed to bring Artoo and friend with us. They probably could have plugged into a computer outlet somewhere, and got us a visitor listing."
"Who's to say we can't do that ourselves?"
"Oh well excuse me your Royalness, but for some strange reason I don't seem to be equipped with the right appendages." A wicked expression crept over his face. "Of course, I do have ..."
"I meant," she interrupted emphatically, "why can't we find their information desk and ask someone. After all, what would most people do if they were expecting to meet some old friends here, but had temporarily forgotten their cubicle number."
"And the name of the ship they were on," added Han, the slightly lecherous smile being replaced by one more inspired, and he grabbed her arm and led her back to a holocube plan of the station set in the wall at the entrance to the corridor.
The turbolift stopped two levels down in order to let on a hearse which was accompanied by four mourners. Leia gazed up appealingly at Han, and they stepped out.
"Sorry," she mumbled apologetically. "That thing reminded me of the sled they put you in on Bespin. Seems to be my day for being haunted by memories."
Just have to hope there're no holograms of exploded planets, thought Han to himself ruefully. Since their arrival on Iicini'ia he had noticed that Leia had become a lot more relaxed, and although they still sparred, the interchanges were becoming increasingly good-humoured. Mon Mothma had made a wise decision sending Leia here, and he didn't want anything to spoil it. He linked his hand with hers, and squeezed it affectionately.
"We'll walk," he announced, weaving a path for them through a milling crowd towards the down-ramps.
"This place is quite busy," Leia observed a few minutes later. "You wouldn't think a planet like Mantrusia would attract so many visitors."
"Maybe they ain't visiting. Maybe they're leaving."
"Well they're mainly men, so I suppose they're no great loss," she grinned, dark eyes glinting.
Han raised an eyebrow. "We have our uses, don't you worry," he informed her. "Here it is - Information Service, and would you believe it, not a protocol droid in sight."
"May I help you, sir?' asked the bored looking woman behind the desk.
"Yes," Leia pushed in front of Han, and smiled her most charming smile. "A friend of ours had said he might be arriving about the same time as us, and we were hoping to catch up with him before he went dirt-side to find out where he was intending to stay. Unfortunately," she looked at the woman sheepishly, "we've both forgotten the name of the ship he said he'd be on. All we can remember is that he said it had a lightning bolt painted on it. We thought it was quite fitting, because he's a pyrotechnic expert you see." Am I really turning into such a proficient liar?
The woman chuckled, and her bored expression cleared a little. "He must be here to help with the celebrations," she said. "A ship with a lightning bolt, you say. Hmmm," she thought for a moment. "The best place to look would be in one of the transit lounges. They run external holocams on all arrivals and departures. Maybe you'll catch the ship as it's coming in."
"Where's the nearest lounge?" asked Han.
"Next level down."
"What are these celebrations you were talking about?" asked Leia, suddenly alert.
"I don't know how much you know about Mantrusia, but one thousand years ago there was a big battle here - the Battle of Mantrusia - and they're having a major cultural event to celebrate it. Should be worth your while staying on for it if you can."
"I see. We might just do that," Leia glanced up quickly at Han, and they both nodded their thanks to the woman and moved away.
"That must have been what Chief Elozhi meant when he spoke about measures to control the unrest," she said to Han in a low voice.
"Sounds like a recipe for disaster to me," he muttered. "Come on, we need to establish if that ship is here."
"I hate the fact that we're having to sneak around like this. Outright warfare is so cut and dried by comparison."
"Yeah, I know. You just burst in blasters raging, rescue your hostages and make the getaway. No need to worry about diplomacy and taking care not to be seen as the aggressor."
"Is that what you think, that they're going to be used as deterrents against us getting involved?"
"I don't know what to think," Han shook his head. "But I can't think of any other reason for capturing them. If they have been captured, that is," he added. "Who's to say they're not floating around amidst that dust cloud outside Cini #5."
"I don't know what to think either," she admitted, "but I definitely don't want to think about that."
They stepped on to the turbo lift and almost immediately stepped out again on to the next level. The transit lounge was just to their left, and was empty. This level was desolate in comparison with those above it. Beside the main viewport, a flickering screen conveyed images from each of the various mooring platforms in succession.
"Logically speaking, we should be able to go back over the day's arrivals on this inset screen," said Han, fiddling with the controls. "Yes!" he murmured triumphantly, as it flickered to life.
"Nothing on here so far," Leia reported, watching an old corvette with a badly scored fuselage emerging from one of the mooring cubicles. "How long would it have taken them to get here if they'd come here immediately."
"Assuming they did the obvious and made a micro-jump to just outside Ootacini'ia's gravity well, and allowing a little time for the actual capture, I'd say about three quarters of an hour max." He began running the digital display back, watching the chronograph wind back as he did so. "Let's see," he checked his wrist chrono, "if I take it back about forty minutes. There. OK, let's see if we can speed this up," and he pressed the cue button. The display dissolved into jagged lines.
"This is just one accident after another!" Leia groaned. "Switch it back to normal, at least then we can actually see the ships."
They had watched a selection of yachts and freighters moving in and out, and Han felt his attention wandering to the lounge viewport, when suddenly Leia grabbed his arm.
"That's it," she hissed. Han refocused on the screen in time to see a dull silver corvette edging towards one of the docking arms. On its upper fuselage was the unmistakable orange lightning and black cloud they had seen in the holo transmission.
"Platform five, cubicle seven. Let's go!" He took off at a run, causing a group of blue-skinned women in headscarves to scatter wildly.
"Sorry, ladies," he turned back and threw them a charming smile, before being pulled away by Leia.
"They'll survive," she muttered.
As they boarded the lift, Han pulled his comlink out of his pocket. "Chewie," he said quietly. "Check out platform five if you can on visual, it's two above us."
There was a silence, and then an angry roar.
"It's obscured," he explained in reply to Leia's quizzical look. "Don't worry about it Chewie, we're on our way. Just get the Falcon ticking over for a quick take-off."
The turbo-lift stopped at the next floor and took on a full load of passengers, and Leia was pushed back into the opposite corner from Han. The smell of assorted, cheap aftershaves and other not so pleasant odours was overwhelming. When the lift stopped at the level they wanted, it took Leia a while to push her diminutive form through the crush of bodies. Thankfully, the corridor outside the turbolift was relatively quiet when they emerged, and there were no impediments to them making rapid progress around to where the mooring section began. She couldn't help feeling that there was something strange about the uniform appearance and the silence of the men in the lift. But there again, Mantrusia seemed to be a strange sort of place, and perhaps Han was right in suggesting that she was reading to much into her Force connections.
Unfortunately, as the space station was the checking place for Mantrusian Customs, there was a security gate at the entrance to each docking arm. Leia smiled hopefully up at a burly security guard who gazed back with a typically bland expression.
"A friend of ours is in a ship docked at this section, and we were hoping to catch him before he left," she explained. "I don't suppose you could let us through so we can catch him?"
"No," replied the guard derisively, "I don't reckon I could. Which ship was he on?"
"We can't remember the name, but it had a very distinctive insignia -- an orange lightning bolt." Leia fought the impulse to wipe the smarmy look from the man's face.
The man fiddled with the controls on his screen, and then he turned it towards them, eyebrows raised. "That the one?"
"Yes," they both replied, exhaling relieved sighs.
The man fiddled some more, and the image on the screen faded to show a similar ship leaving. "Ah. Pity," he said rather disinterestedly. "You've just missed him. That ship left ten minutes ago."
"That's not the same ship," said Leia firmly, "it's got no ... oh!" She studied the uneven glint on the ship's fuselage, which on closer scrutiny revealed a middle section which looked as though it had been newly scraped.
"Looks like they got sick of their decoration," said the guard flippantly.
Leia glared at him, and then at Han, who was staring grimly through the man as if he wasn't there.
"Thanks," he growled and took Leia by the arm, but then stopped. "Where were they heading? Just in case it's anywhere near where we're going?"
The guard checked his screen again. "Hocqyellen. Not much of a tourist spot."
Han raised his eyebrows sarcastically. "And this is?"
They left the guard staring daggers at them, as they returned sedately to the corridor, and then once out of sight began racing to the lift.
"What reason are we going to give Port Control for our short stay?" she asked after the guard at their customs checkpoint had let them through.
"It's not our kind of place," he grunted.
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