The Mantrusian Affair: Chapter Twenty-Two
Iella

"So that's what happened," Kerensa leaned back against the wall and regarded Tiirau earnestly. The big Iicini'ian was resting propped against one of the soft bolsters. He shook his dark head and gazed at the basalt fountain for a while. One of the younger animals kept dipping its paw into the shell-like bowl at the bottom and scooping up water, making loud slurps as it drank.

Tiirau began to chuckle. "If I didn't have total faith in your honesty, I'd have to say that's one of the craziest stories I've heard."

"I wish it was a story," sighed Kerensa. "Then someone could interpret its meaning for me. The more that happens, the more confused I become. I mean, who is this Truin character? Have you heard of him? And what would he want with us?" She looked over to where the eight older creatures were sitting patiently on some of the larger cushions. "And what are these animals, and how come I've got one at home?"

Tiirau eyed the group curiously. "It is strange I admit. But I have to say 'Rennie, I'm awfully glad they like you. I wouldn't want to experience those claws or fangs close up." He yawned. "Damn that stuff they gave me, I feel woozy again."

"Well you'd better rest while you can, because we're going to have to figure out how to get back home," she got up and filled a small marble bowl that one of the creatures had found with water from the fountain. "The more water you can drink, the quicker it will flush that stuff out of your system," she said handing it to him.

"The only problem I have with that theory is to point out that what goes in must eventually come out. You haven't noticed a 'fresher around anywhere, I suppose?"

"Are you desperate?"

"I can cross my legs for a bit longer, I suppose."

"Well, I'll tell you what. I'll have a bit of an explore, and you think up a plan for getting us home."

"How far is it to the nearest port?"

"Halpurnia's quite a way from civilisation. The nearest port's in Garnitz, but it would be better to head south for Bakhunia. It's bigger, and the more people there are, the less likely we are to stand out. And anyway, now we're here we might as well try and do some fact-finding about this Kuzhak." She slid off the cushion and immediately the group of animals were on their shaggy feet, gazing at her expectantly.

Kerensa frowned at Tiirau. "I keep getting this feeling that they want me to do something for them. But I don't know what it is."

"You're the one with the Force. Can't you read their minds?"

"The only one I can get any coherent thoughts from is the big one with the very dark fur. I keep seeing images of a garden, and I get the feeling that he thinks I know where it is. But the only garden I know is mine, and if I took them all there, it wouldn't be a garden for very much longer. It would be wasteland."

There was a sudden crash and the sound of something shattering. Kerensa's frown deepened and she dashed towards the archway at the opposite end of the room. As soon as her foot passed the threshold the room flooded with light, revealing a small circular space bounded around its wall by a long marble bench. On the far side there was another arch, and as Kerensa stepped through it, the light switched off behind her and illuminated the space ahead, revealing two guilty looking pairs of yellow eyes staring at what had once been a second decorative fountain above a large sunken bath. There was an angry growl behind her, and the two culprits took off into the darkness, before the biggest animal could reach them. Kerensa was about to console him with the news that at least they had found the sanitary facility, when a series of bone-crunching thuds and confused yelps emanated from the other side of the exit.

Outside was a landing which ended in another of the semi-circular lens-like constructions. The two smaller animals must have collided with it and were now flattened up against it, grunting and pushing at it with frustration. The leader stepped forward and cuffed them both on the side of the head, and hurriedly pulled them out the way. Kerensa looked up into the huge animal's eyes curiously, and became instantly aware of his excitement.

"Is this the way to the garden?" she asked him. He gazed back gravely, and she could feel the image strongly She took a deep breath and stepped up to the lens.

The passage on the other side wound upward in a tight spiral, and ended in another of the lens contraptions. The animals crowded behind her and she could feel their hot breath as they uttered excited cries. She could also feel the leader urging her to step through. She teetered on the threshold for a moment, but then stepped back. There was something very strange about this one that made her want to hesitate, and over the years Kerensa had learned to trust her feelings even though she seldom understood them. Whereas the other doorways, if that's what they were, led to different sections of the complex, this one led to darkness, a strange and unearthly darkness which was almost fluid in appearance.

It wasn't just that the place looked and felt odd, or that, unlike the rest of the complex, it was cold: there was a presence there, and for a moment Kerensa fancied she heard it calling to her. She dismissed that thought almost as soon as it had formed in her mind. Obviously the strangeness of the place was affecting her reason. She turned to the leader, but he stood motionless, watching her carefully and trembling slightly.

"I really want to help you," said Kerensa earnestly, "because you've helped me, but I honestly don't understand what you want me to do. You keep showing me pictures of a garden, but this obviously isn't it. Is there a garden here somewhere?"

The creature made a whirring noise and shook itself vigorously.

"I can feel something here. Can you feel it?"

The yellow eyes focused on hers and the word sounih popped into her mind.

"Sounih! Mother," she muttered, frowning. "Mother, garden. I suppose a garden could be a mother in a way. They're both a source of nurturing." She shook her head. "Oh I don't know. This is so confusing. If I had the time I'd stay and help, but ... ," she looked up at the leader seriously, "I don't know if you can understand this or not, but my friend and I and a lot of other friends have a huge problem on our hands at the moment. A problem which could result in a lot of good people being hurt and killed. It could result in a war, in which case things will be destroyed, maybe even this place." She filled her mind with images of the dome room in ruins and laser blasts descending from the sky, and pushed them into the animal's consciousness until he shuddered. Then feeling a little guilty at using such an emotive method she reached up and rubbed his shoulder. "I must leave here and do what I can to stop these bad things. But as soon as I can, I promise to come back and help you."

The creature stared into her eyes, and she could feel a probing sensation inside her mind. Then his eyes softened and he raised his paw and stroked her hair, and transferred a picture of her standing before a cheering crowd.

"I wish I had your confidence," she smiled weakly. She gazed through at the blackness before glancing back at the leader. "I must get back to my friend, otherwise we might have a minor flood on our hands." She turned back down the corridor, and waited at the lens while they straggled down to join her. She didn't dare turn, for she knew the sorrowful looks which matched the emotions she was sensing would have broken her heart.

Tiirau was fast asleep again when they returned, and even the sound of plodding feet and air escaping from cushions as heavy bodies flopped down on them failed to disturb him. Sensing the general air of melancholy, Kerensa lay back and stared desultorily up at the dome. She knew they weren't real stars, for they didn't twinkle, but as reality had become rather confusing of late it was somewhat relaxing to be able to escape from it for a while. She searched for the familiar constellations, which logically speaking should not be all that different on Mantrusia from how they appeared on her own world. She thought she'd found one or two that looked vaguely familiar when her eyes began to close. She forced them open and tried again, but somehow the key points seemed out of place. Obviously the artist hadn't been an astronomer.

Looking up at the stars made her think about Wedge, which led on to thoughts about Iicini'ia and General Tavaala. She knew that neither General Tavaala nor the Rebels' military leaders wanted to make a move on Mantrusia until they were certain about the situation, and one thing they needed to avoid at all costs was doing anything which would cast them in the role of first aggressor. For the Rebels especially, this was critical, for as soon as they began riding roughshod over a planet's right to autonomy, they would lose their credibility as the restorers of freedom. Although Kerensa was confident that nobody back home would do anything rash, she was also aware that their ignorance of her and Tayne's whereabouts gave the enemy a tactical advantage. If she hadn't disabled the communications system on the shuttle, they could have risked going back and sending a message to let I-M know where they were, or at least that they were alive. Then something Tayne had said earlier popped into her mind. You're the one with the Force.

Ever since Alderaan she had made every effort to forget that fact and rely purely on her own skills, and, regardless of what Luke had said, she was sure she had succeeded. Now here she was seemingly using her old Force tricks all the time. Admittedly, her use was not selfish, well not completely anyway, for in keeping herself out of the hands of the enemy, she was keeping her partner safe too. But it worried her that she'd been able to slip back into her old habits so easily. It might be because of the situation, but it could also be a sign that she was forgetting her loyalty to her family.

She sighed and pondered the possibilities for a little longer. What would her father do if he was here? Would he use what power he had to inform his superiors that he was still alive, knowing that knowledge might prevent others from unnecessarily risking their lives? Or was she just using this line of thought to make her own intentions seem altruistic, when all she really wanted was to try and contact Wedge and thereby comfort herself? Sometimes, it's difficult to determine your own motivation, especially when you're only too aware of your own faults. But there is one rule that I believe takes precedence, and that's the one General Tavaala instilled into us at training: if soldiers become separated from their company, they must make every effort to either return or contact their commanding officer. She closed her eyes, and let her muscles relax. And anyway, there's no guarantee that this is going to work, she thought. She cleared her mind of its current concerns, and began to stretch out to the world beyond the dome.

The forest was vibrant with colours and patterns, and initially she found it difficult to reach outside it. She was about to give up in frustration, when she remembered what Luke had said about using the Force without thinking. She stopped consciously trying to push out, and instead drew on the energies she could feel around her, letting them flow in until they became part of her. She felt herself growing larger and more diffuse, until the clouds above the mountains and the void beyond all lay within her boundary. At the farthest edge she felt a familiar flickering and folded herself around it. Suddenly a strong wave rippled against her consciousness, and she felt her eyes spring open. There was only one person who had such power.

The concentration required to sustain the effort was exhausting, and as the wave died, so did the contact. She lay back feeling suddenly weak, and also feeling the faint stirring of guilt. If she had been receptive to Luke, instead of letting her anger guide her thinking, she might have let him begin to teach her how better to use her power. Maybe she would have been able to give him an accurate picture of where they were. As it was now, she was unsure how successful their contact had been.

"We've got to get home now," she told the sleeping man beside her, wearily. "I've got two people to apologise to." Then her eyes closed and she lapsed into an exhausted sleep.

* * * * *

The big moon had set hours ago, and now just the small dough-coloured one cast its feeble light over the landing field, rendering it as if lifeless. Wedge gazed down at the silent laser turrets and the ghostly silhouette of an ion cannon. He had climbed up to the lookout platform an hour before, not really thinking about where he was going so much as walking around until he could find a place to be alone. While he had had the investigation of the damage done to his squadron's hyperdrive motivators to occupy his mind, he had been all right. But once the disabling devices had been located and the process to remove them begun, he found himself constantly reliving the events that morning in the cafeteria, and trying to make sense from the theories being bandied around regarding what had happened to Kerensa and her partner.

It didn't help that he felt partially responsible for what had happened. Normally the presence of the squadron's astromechs would have prevented any acts of internal sabotage, but the astromechs were all undergoing overhauls. Wedge had scheduled this himself to begin the day before so that it co-incided with their practice maneuvres, for as his X Wings were posing as TIEs they had not required their R2 and R5 units. Whoever had done the damage would have had ample opportunity to render the hyperdrives inoperable and slice in patches to hide the damage from the ships' diagnostic computers.

The samples which the reconnaissance team had collected definitely pointed to the destruction of the station, for they were analysed as consisting mainly of tri-siliconium and ceramoplast. There was no evidence of organic residue, nor a sufficient concentration of durasteel or titanium to suggest any Y Wing debris. Unable to come up with any sensible theories himself, Wedge clung to those which involved capture, favouring Han's suggestion that perhaps Kerensa and Tiirau were going to be used as hostages. As time had elapsed, however, and no communications from the kidnappers had been received, it was becoming harder to convince himself that this was a viable possibility. He had let Tycho talk him into eating some dinner, and had listened to Wes and Plourr convincing him that Kerensa seemed perfectly capable of looking after herself. He appreciated their concern, but in the end had felt the need to escape the solicitude. If he was never to see her again, he wanted to at least be able to decide how he was going to remember her.

Images of the past few days tumbled through his mind: Kerensa laughing up at him in the rain, racing him to the surf at the beach, gazing up with those mysterious dark eyes as she divulged her Force abilities. He stood stockstill staring into the distance, his fingers slowly turning white as he gripped the rail. Then he quickly retraced his steps down the ladder and set out purposefully across the field towards the entrance to the complex. Three levels down he stopped and knocked on a door.

"Who is it?" called Luke.

"It's me, Wedge. D'you mind if I come in, I need to ask you about something." There were some rapid footfalls, and the next minute Luke's pale blue eyes were peering up at him.

"Any more news?" he asked anxiously, standing back to let the Corellian walk in.

Wedge shook his head. "Not as yet. But I didn't come about that so much," he hesitated, but then folded his arms and fixed Luke with a gaze that was both intent and serious. "The thing is, Luke, Kerensa told me about her Force sensitivity, and as you are very adept with the Force I wondered if you could try and contact her somehow. I don't know if it works that way or not, but if it does, well -- I'd like you to try."

"To be perfectly honest, Wedge, I have been trying."

"And?" he asked breathlessly.

Luke held his gaze for a minute, and a slight frown creased his forehead. "I have to be honest and say that I can't actually feel her presence," he said slowly, "but by the same token, I don't feel her absence." Wedge stared at him blankly. "It's difficult to explain, but I have the feeling that she's definitely still in the same realm as you and me, but exactly where I couldn't say."

"She's alive?"

Luke's frown deepened. "I think so. But you've got to realise, Wedge, that I'm still not sure about some of the feelings I get."

"In other words, you're saying 'don't quote me on it'?"

"I guess that is what I'm saying," he said apologetically, then his expression became quizzical. "She actually told you about the Force?"

"Yeah. She didn't really want to, but she was afraid I might think some of her behaviour a bit strange if I didn't know about it," he coloured a little. "Not that I'm suggesting I think you're strange."

Luke chuckled rather wryly. "Oh, I wouldn't worry. Strangeness seems to go with the territory."

"Well I wish I had some strangeness sometimes, and now is one of those times. I just wish I ... ," his voice faded and when Luke stared at him he was gazing at some point in the distance. Luke was about to ask if he was all right, when he felt a sensation like a pulsing of light inside his head, and he had a sudden clear vision of stars and red-headed women. He closed his eyes and let his consciousness flow out, reaching further and further towards distant energy sources. When he opened them again, Wedge was sitting on the bunk watching him.

"That was her, wasn't it?" he asked.

Luke nodded. "And you saw it, too."

"I didn't really see anything, I just suddenly felt like she was beside me. Did you see where she was?"

"Not specifically. But I did get the impression she was somewhere looking up at the stars."

"In a spaceship?"

Luke frowned thoughtfully. "No. There were women there, but they didn't look real. It was more like a cathedral or art gallery."

Wedge groaned. "I don't know what's more frustrating, knowing nothing or knowing this. Can you tell if it was somewhere close?"

Luke seemed to focus on some distant point in front of him. "I don't think it was on this planet, but it could very well be within the system. I don't think I'd have such a clear picture if it was too distant."

"OK," said Wedge, "now tell me how we're going to convince Tavaala that we need to search the system for a place where there are stars and red-heads."

"Ah," said Luke, "now that might require a little Jedi influence," and for the first time since landing on Iicini'ia, he pulled his cloak out of his bag and slipped it on. Wedge gazed into the shadow now making his friend's face seem somehow austere and wise beyond his years. He held out an arm and stood back to usher Luke through the door, but the younger man hesitated.

"Wedge," he said tentatively, "I know you've probably had a number of people telling you this, but my impression of Kerensa is that, if cornered, she could be a rather formidable opponent. She's very ... "

"Independent?"

"I was actually going to say stubborn and potentially dangerous, but was trying to phrase it so you wouldn't take offence. That was an impressive display this morning."

"Nah, that was just stupidity." He gazed down at his feet, his cheeks colouring slightly. "She thought so too. It sounds pathetic, but I can't stand the thought that the last time we saw each other we were fighting, and if something has happened or does happen to her, that'll be her last memory. Assuming she's thinking about me at all, that is," he added. "I suppose it's only excessive male ego that would assume she would be."

Luke reached out an arm and pushed the pilot ahead of them through the door, patting him on the back encouragingly. "I wouldn't be so hard on yourself. I would say that for her to voluntarily tell you about her Force background means that she must care about you a lot. And maybe it will make her all the more determined to get herself out of whatever it is she's in."

"I hope you're right," said Wedge seriously. For the first time in hours he felt the faint light of hope flickering in the darkness.

* * * * *

Kuzhak stared into his glass of khamira, the contents of which he had barely touched even though he had poured them an hour before, just after Dravet had brought him the news that the search team had reported locating a beacon signal emanating from the vicinity of Mt Halpurnia.

"And did they send a team down to check if it was our shuttle?" Kuzhak had asked.

Dravet's face had assumed an expressionless mask as he phrased his response carefully. "I sent a Mantrusian team to search, as I felt they would be more familiar with the area, and with the disruptions it causes to the scanners," he had replied. "Unfortunately, I hadn't realised their depth of superstition. They refused to land, or even to fly over the mountain to locate the spot, because they claim the mountain is haunted by evil spirits."

Kuzhak couldn't believe it. The one team of native Mantrusians he possessed, and it had to be them to make the discovery, assuming that it was indeed their shuttle, of course. If it was, it was considerably removed from the flight plan, and he had spent a large portion of that last hour wondering what had happened to cause the deviation. An unpleasant gnawing sensation in the area of his entrails was beginning to suggest that it might be somehow connected with the girl, for although their research hadn't revealed any public recognition of her abilities, he wondered if perhaps she might have kept them secret. Jedi powers had long since ceased to be desirable. If she did know how to use the Force, she could be a dangerous opponent.

Another thought had occurred too, one which had made him march down to the operations room and personally organise the rapid deployment of the recovery team. The xechei who lived on Mt Halpurnia, and whose destruction of any intruders had long ago convinced the Mantrusians that the mountain was haunted, wouldn't harm the girl. If she had survived, and he preferred to believe she had, she would be safe amongst them, although doubtless the animals would have killed the crew. He made sure the members of the recovery team were armed to the teeth and returned to his office to await their arrival at the site of the crash. With one sub-atmospheric recovery boat possessing high definition infra-red sensors, one gunboat, and the additional advantage of four AT-ST walkers, he was confident that his men would be able to keep the xechei at bay and find Ensign Kalichi.

To Chapter Twenty-One | To Chapter Twenty-Three

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