The Mantrusian Affair: Chapter Twenty-Five

The injured animal lay with her huge head on the leader's lap, and the two children were still huddled beside her whimpering. Kerensa ran her eye over the other assembled beasts, but other than a few singes here and there they seemed to be all right. She sank to her knees beside the wounded female and studied the extent of her injury. Knowing where these animals kept their vital organs would be a help, but the biology of different animal species had never been an area she had felt any need to study. The leader gazed at her hopefully, and the word heal echoed in her head. She stared back at him curiously.

"I get the funny feeling you know more about me than I do," she murmured. "How do you know I can heal?"

"Sounih." It replied cryptically, making the girl sigh.

"I still don't know what you mean. But, yes, I can try to heal your ... mate is it?" The animal's eyes softened in affirmation. "But I'm not very good at it. Mackshi tried to teach me, but I wasn't a very attentive pupil. I sort of know the process, but I'm afraid the practice is lacking, especially for something like this."

She placed her hands beside the animal's forward set of eyes, hoping to find her nerve centre or brain, or whatever organ controlled her nervous system. She found what she was looking for inside the extra thick pelt at the back of the skull, and began to probe. There was a major field disruption in what Kerensa assumed must be the beast's trauma centre, the synapses which should have been sparking in orderly procession to hasten the healing process were instead wildly out of kilter, and in some cases working against each other. As a result the animal was trembling and hyperventilating, and her pulse rate had shot up to such an alarming degree that Kerensa was concerned she might suffer an arrest.

She tried to think what Mackshi would do in a situation like this. The beast was not so much badly injured as badly shocked, and obviously her lack of experience at being the victim of violence meant that her nerve system had no remembered behavioural pattern of coping with such an occurrence. Play to your strengths, a voice seemed to say. My strength? She considered this for a few seconds and then reached a resolution, and placing her fingers at the points which she could feel matched the strategic nodes in the animal's simple brain, she passed it her image of peaceful sleep. It sank immediately into a catatonic trance, and gradually the whirling interference patterns ceased.

"Now that she's asleep she'll forget she's been hurt, and things should start working properly again," she told the leader, not really expecting it to understand her. She didn't comprehend the process herself, but Mackshi had often said that left to itself the body has the potential to heal itself, and it was our own sense of doubt which stopped it being able to do so. Unconscious, and with reason temporarily annulled, the survival instinct became pre-eminent. Kerensa hoped that the same situation existed for animals.

"My friend's going to find a spot near the mountain where we can drop you, and I'll bring her out of this trance then. I just hope it's long enough to get the self-heal process working. Physically she's in excellent health, so the injury itself shouldn't be too much of a problem. You look after your ... family, is it, well." The huge beast nodded wisely.

"Protect," it said again.

Kerensa shook her head and smiled wryly. "Protect. Sounih. I wish I could make some sense out of all this." She stood up and patted the beast's shoulder. "I will come back and try to help you do whatever it is you seem to think I can do, I promise. But first my friend and I have to get back to our home for a while and help sort a few things out there. I want to thank you for the way you've helped us. We couldn't have done it without you."

Home! The thought filled her consciousness along with a sense of intense joy and anticipation. She was still puzzling over this when she felt their forward motion cease, but the process of unloading the animals and calling the injured one out of its trance drove it from her mind.

* * * * *

"Well, at least somebody's doing something," grumbled Han as he walked with Luke and Wedge across the landing field towards a nondescript looking space yacht General Tavaala had conjured up from somewhere. "You know how to handle one of these old things, I suppose?"

The mild hopefulness in his tone wasn't lost on Luke. He knew Han hated enforced passivity as much as he did, but the identities General Tavaala had organized for himself and Wedge as buyers for a wealthy Tyroveran art collector didn't fit with having a buccaneer type as a pilot, especially one who tended to shoot first and ask questions later. He chose to ignore the indirect message in his friend's question.

"I'm sure between the two of us we'll manage," he replied. "What we could do with is a rush course on art appreciation. We're just going to have to hope that no-one asks us any penetrating questions about form and style."

"We're just going to have to hope that no-one asks anything, you mean," said Wedge. "I don't happen to speak any Mantrusian."

Han grinned. "Gee. I would have thought that you at least might have picked up a useful phrase or two, seeing as how you've been communicating regularly with one who speaks the lingo. Still," his grin widened, "I suppose art wouldn't be high on the topic agenda."

"I spent half an hour with See Threepio committing some basic phrases to memory," Luke came to the blushing pilot's rescue. "Plus don't I recall you telling me about a friend of yours who sometimes deals in this sort of thing, Wedge, and who you helped out on a few occasions?"

Wedge frowned as he tried to recall past conversations with Luke, and then his face cleared. "Oh, you mean Booster, Booster Terrik. Yeah, I guess if put on the spot I could come out with a reasonably credible spiel, as long as you could translate it."

"Well, hopefully everyone'll be too busy thinking about this pageant to worry about a couple of harmless artistic types," said Luke, stopping at the hatchway leading up into the yacht's interior.

"Reckon you'll find them?" Han asked seriously.

Luke shrugged. "I have a pretty clear picture in my head of what we're looking for, it's knowing where to look that'll be the problem. However, Tavaala's managed to dig us up a list of likely hits -- private houses of the wealthy from a helpful antique hunters' database on the sector hypernet. So that gives us a starting point."

Han shook his head. "Can't say I like the guy, but you certainly have to admire him. Taste in clothes is a bit off, though," he eyed their colourful multi-striped tunics and tight black leggings and boots.

"Apparently the Tyroverans are into unisex at the moment," Luke held up his arm to reveal the full sleeve gathered at the wrist in a laced hide bracelet with four symbols printed on it. "We're just not quite too sure how many sexes are incorporated into it." He grinned wryly and followed Wedge up the hatchway.

"Not too sure I want to find out -- my life's confusing enough with two," muttered Han. "Oh well. Good luck, kid Remember you've got the Falcon's private frequency if you run into trouble."

"Sure thing," Luke cocked his finger in a half-wave half-salute and disappeared into the yacht's inside. Han watched as the hatch slid closed, and then turned back to the hangar entrance. The time could be well spent in performing a few more repairs, but he felt too edgy for that so he decided to seek out Leia. She had a few magic cures for edginess. Then he remembered the comlink in his pocket and switched it on. No point in offering help if he couldn't hear when they called for it.

Luke noticed that Wedge had unselfishly taken the copilot's seat, and was about to suggest that they swap, when he became aware that his friend seemed transfixed by something going on outside. He looked, but all he could see was one of the mechanics working over the fuselage of an A Wing. The X Wings had been internally vandalised, while the A Wings had had jammers inserted into crevices on the exterior of their hulls. For a moment Luke thought Wedge might be experiencing another vision, for he seemed to be mentally out of it, but suddenly the brown eyes turned to him glittering with a combination of realisation and rage.

"That's how they did it!" he said through gritted teeth. He re-activated the hatch and swung out of his seat, tapping his foot impatiently as the hydraulics slowly responded.

"How they did what?" Luke turned to him confused.

Wedge thrust a finger towards the viewport. "That's the culprit, there. I remember now seeing him patting the Y Wing like that, only that time he was putting something on it. A beacon probably, so they'd know where to find them."

"So who would ...?"

But Wedge was already thundering down the hatchway, and before Luke could decide whether or not to follow him, a figure in a billowing tunic appeared in the viewport racing across towards the fighter. Accepting the fact that Wedge's wild appearance and speed of approach created a fairly disturbing image, Luke wasn't surprised by the mechanic's initial open-mouthed reaction, nor by his subsequent rapid jump into the safety of the cockpit. However, when he noticed the vehicle begin to vibrate with the familiar beginning upward thrusts as the repulsorlift coils warmed to their task, he realized that the man's behaviour was not that of an innocent.

Wedge had clambered up to the hatch and was trying to disentangle his blaster from the diaphanous fronds of his tunic. A vicious jerk on the controls by the mechanic threw him off and he landed on his front. For a moment he lay sprawled awkwardly, but then to Luke's relief, he struggled to his feet. Luke keyed on the communicator and adjusted it to match Han's private frequency.

"Han, Chewie, come in! There's an A Wing about to make a getaway out here. I'll try and force him down, but the yacht's got no weapons. Get someone in ion control to knock him out! Do you hear me!"

Wedge had already placed the vessel in warm-up mode, and as Luke was shouting into the com, he was also activating the repulsors and pushing up the prow to gain altitude on the A Wing to stop it escaping. He was surprised, therefore, to see the mechanic swoop the fighter towards Wedge, and try to knock him over. Wedge dodged, but positioned himself again and took aim with the blaster he had finally managed to extricate. In reality, he would have been able do little damage with it, but his audacity successfully provoked the mechanic to take another swoop at him. Suddenly Luke realised that it was Wedge's intention to keep the mechanic riled enough to concentrate on eliminating him, and hence give Luke and the others the precious seconds necessary to prevent the man's escape. He was about to shout into the com again when there was a welcoming crackle and Han's voice filled the cabin.

"Did I hear you right? Ion control?"

"They need to disable him. It's one of the A Wings. Wedge thinks he's found the saboteur, and judging by the reaction I'd say he's right. I ... hang on!" Wedge's provocation was working, but he was so engrossed with what was in front of him that he'd failed to kep tabs on where his lunges were leading him. Luke could see that any minute he was going to come into contact with the force barrier around the field.

"Just get someone up there, Han!" he insisted as he dipped the yacht down into the A Wing's sights in front of Wedge. The fighter swung back, but Luke had pre-empted this move and swung his own vessel back up so that it was sitting just above the other's cockpit hatch. Luke could see that he was going to have to force the man down, while preventing him the leverage to swing up or down so he could fire on Wedge or on the yacht.

Wedge was pleased to see that his plan was working. His crunching fall to the ground had knocked the breath out of him, but it had also revealed an interesting fact about the construction of the landing field. It was based on an old model which the Empire had utilised for a while in their military installations, and which obviously Iicini'ia had had installed at some point in its Imperial past. The surface was a sandwich comprising a thin topping of transparicrete, on top of a layer of compacted quartzite crystals, underneath which was the normal thick bed of ferrocrete. To walk on, it felt no different than any other landing field surface, but landing on it heavily from a height produced a peculiar squelching crunch. Initially Wedge had thought that was the sound of his own bones breaking, but when he looked closely at the surface, very closely in his case as he had landed face down with only his arms preventing an even closer view, he had noticed the transparency of the top layer, and he remembered being warned about this type of surface by a fellow pilot in his days as a freight operator. It had been designed to prevent strafing attacks, for the crystalline layer reflected laser blasts back on the attacker. Assuming that the mechanic would know about the nature of the field surface, Wedge decided to taunt him, and sure enough the man responded by lunging at him instead.

He took a step back as Luke brought the old yacht down and felt the warning prickle. Good, his instincts had been correct; he was close to the force barrier. This was going to be tricky. He couldn't move back further as a tangle with a force barrier, although certainly not fatal, would certainly render him useless for a few days, and that was the last thing he needed at present. By the same token, the mechanic would be unlikely to try and swoop at him again for fear of running into the barrier himself, and presumably he would now come to his senses and decide to make a run. He started to move up, and then obviously realising that Luke was there, he jigged to the left, but Luke stayed with him. Wedge aimed his blaster carefully. He remembered an additional point about this type of surface. The crystals not only reflected any blast, they intensified it, and a concentrated blast at full power on one of the stabilisers might just be enough to bring the A Wing down. The questions were: how good was his geometry, and which way was the mechanic going to move next?

A shout rang out, and Wedge tracked its direction to the gun tower where he had gone the previous night. It was still early morning at the base, but he could see a figure silhouetted against the pink haze standing by the ion cannon.

"Get clear!" it roared.

Suddenly Wedge recalled a third point about the nature of the field surface, and the reason for the Empire suspending its use. He stepped forward and waved furiously.

"Han! No!" He cupped his hands to make sure Han could hear him, and unthinkingly moved further away from the barrier. "Don't use the cannon! It'll ionise the field!" He took another deep breath and bellowed as loudly and clearly as he could. "It's a deflectocrystal surface!" I hope he knows what that means, he thought, because if he doesn't I will become a charged particle. He thought he saw another figure climbing up the ladder, but a shadow in his peripheral vision made him dive to the ground. Blast, now I'm a sitting target. He looked up to find the A Wing almost directly above him, giving him a clear view of its port stabilisers. Now or never, he thought; aimed, double-checked the angle between himself the ground and his target, and fired a long blast. Then he rolled and scrambled away from both barrier and toppling fighter. There was a sense of darkness descending and an almighty crash, then silence.

The fact that he could feel no pain, even though he was sure the vessel had landed on top of him, was definitely a bad thing as it meant it had probably broken his back. Tentatively he opened an eye, and found to his surprise that on the ground in front of him was the definite outline of his own shadow. He looked up to find the top of the sun's disk glittering above the distant mountains, just to the side of the starboard wing of the fighter. Another shadow loomed to his left and he turned to find himself looking up at a human mountain topped by a head of midnight black hair, and a set of brown eyes which were studying him appraisingly. The figure placed tanned hands on his hips.

"First you move in on my woman, then you wreck my ship. I'm wondering what you're planning to do next, Antilles?"

Wedge grinned in spite of himself, mainly from relief. He heard shouts and curses above him, which by their tone suggested that the mechanic was being successfully apprehended, and heard the hiss of hatchway hydraulics from somewhere nearby. He wiped his hand across his mouth, gazed at the blood for a moment and realising it must have come from his nose, wiped that instead and stood up. He gazed at the guards pulling the mechanic from the cockpit, and the A Wing squatting dejectedly on its dented fuselage.

"I'm sorry about your ship," he said, and then realising who it was that he'd seen climbing up to Han, he turned back to Neekau. "Thanks for stopping Han frying me, by the way."

Neekau's eyes glittered momentarily, but then he shrugged. "Didn't fancy the retribution when she gets back. There are parts of me I wouldn't mind keeping intact."

Wedge snorted back a chuckle, but then threw Neekau a serious look. "There is a strong chance we won't find them, you know. We're sort of working on hunches and, well, other things."

Neekau nodded, and he stared at Wedge shrewdly as if deciding whether to speak or not. Suddenly he seemed to reach a decision.

"You know, Antilles, I've heard about some of the things your Skywalker can do. Pretty amazing stuff some of it, so I have no doubt that if anyone can find them, he can. But, you know, even if you weren't here, I wouldn't be surprised if she turned up again. I've been with her on exercises where you'd swear she had no chance, and damnitall if she hasn't got through all the obstacles somehow. Never fathomed out how she does it -- trickery I suppose. No-one expects someone that innocent-looking to be so downright sneaky." His mouth turned up slyly as he ran his eye down Wedge's attire. "Mind you, the same may be said for you I suppose."

Wedge decided not to take offence at the inference. "Yes, well we'll certainly be watching our backs."

The Iicini'ian's grin became laconic. "Especially when you're in the 'fresher." He paused. "That was good shooting, by the way."

Wedge returned the grin. "Lucky hit," he shrugged.

"You OK, Wedge?" came Luke's voice as he appeared from behind the wing.

"Might need some repair work on the clothes, but otherwise yes."

"I've been on to Tavaala. Needless to say he wants to see us, but we're still go as far as Mantrusia's concerned. That was quite a shot."

"Desperation. I thought Han was going to deactivate me."

"Nah. Decided to let you suffer for a bit longer. Although if you keep sounding like See Threepio, I might change my mind. " Han turned to Neekau and thumped him gratefully on the shoulder. "I owe you a drink, buddy. I just about had that ship lined up."

"No, he owes me," Neekau pointed at Wedge and threw him a meaningful look. "I'll collect when you bring them back." He nodded at Han and Luke, and sauntered off.

"There you are Wedge, you not only get the girl, you get a guy as well. Must be the clothes," Han patted him affectionately on the back, as they turned towards the hangar. "Or the legs," he added chuckling.

To Chapter Twenty-Four | To Chapter Twenty-Six

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