The Mantrusian Affair: Chapter Twenty-Nine

"Uh oh!" Luke stopped as they approached the gateway to Bakhunia's space port. "Those guards weren't there when we arrived."

"What's the bet we're responsible for this sudden concern with security?" murmured Tiirau to Kerensa.

She glanced up at him frowning. "Still can't fathom out why, but yes, I suppose it might be." She turned to Wedge. "Has General Tavaala come up with a logical reason for what happened to us at the station?"

"Not really. Although you'll be pleased to hear we did find the spy. He'd attached a beacon to your Y Wing."

"Yes, we fathomed that one out," said Tiirau grimly. "Did he say why?"

"Nope," replied Wedge. "Dead men don't talk. Suicide," he explained in reply to Tiirau's frown.

"Great," he growled. "The one time you actually want them to live, and they drop dead on you. OK, 'Rennie, how are you going to get us out of this one?"

She looked up thoughtfully. "I don't know. They're checking IDs, so it might be a bit tricky."

"Does this field have a force barrier?" asked Wedge, gazing at the adobe walls running around the perimeter.

"'Fraid so. It's pretty much standard practice in Tarsus," said Kerensa. "Goes back to the old days when there were a few unpleasant epidemics caused by stowaways. Plus it was a way of controlling smuggling. That's why they still use the space stations as customs checkpoints."

"That blows that idea then. I thought we could just sneak you in over the wall."

"Speaking of space stations, I presume you two did bring your ship down rather than use the public shuttle?" said Tiirau.

Wedge nodded. "Of course we did. We were working on the positive assumption we'd find you, and we could see too many problems trying to get you back on the shuttle."

Tiirau chuckled. "Thank goodness MPC worries more about what comes in than what goes out."

"Kerensa," said Luke suddenly. "Can I have a word with you?"

She stared uncertainly at the pale blue eyes, and then glanced up at Wedge. "If you're going to suggest what I think you're going to suggest, it's OK. Both Wedge and Tayne know about it."

Luke regarded them both in turn, and nodded, and a faint smile touched the corner of his mouth. "I have a confession. The reason Wedge and I came to Bakhunia was because of that message you sent us."

"Message?" she frowned.

"What message?" Tiirau demanded.

"Wedge and I both saw you last night. You were looking up at paintings and stars, and it looked like you were in some sort of gallery."

Tiirau nodded knowingly. "It was that place on the mountain," he said to her.

She stared at him dark eyes wide, and then turned to Luke. "You saw that?" she asked breathlessly.

"You're strong, Kerensa," Luke said quietly. "I don't think you realise just how strong you are. And if you're willing to listen, I'll explain how you can help us get through these guards. I have a plan."

* * * * *

It was a cold night in Starrich, and outside the fog clung to the Presidio with acid yellow fingers. The Imperials had long ago learned to paint all their buildings with a preparation to protect them from the corrosive chemicals trapped in the planet's atmosphere, so the fog was unable to eat into the walls as it did on lesser constructions. All it could was swirl and clutch menacingly as it responded to the convection currents created by a myriad industrial furnaces.

Inside the warmth and security of the admiralty building, Admiral Vyor Truin keyed off his communicator and sat frowning at it thoughtfully. Still no message from Kuzhak, and yet the Bloodhund had returned ten hours ago. Surely the shuttle crew had delivered the two captives so that Kuzhak could initiate the 'confuse the Iicini'ians' part of his plan. It seemed to Truin like a lot of trouble to go to, but as Mr Tsarkoni had pointed out, with the Rebels there as possible back-up, it was essential that they convince the Iicini'ian military that some unknown attacker had destroyed their station, and abducted their people. This would distract the Iicini'ians' attention from Kuzhak's prospective coup.

Since his discovery of the discrepancy between Kuzhak's description of Nerensai's fleet and Patal's, he had spent quite a bit of time pondering Kuzhak's part in the enterprise. He had raised the subject casually with Hoziak several times to probe some of the possibilities. Fortunately Hoziak's ingenuousness made such lines of questioning easy. Truin had established that Kuzhak's involvement in the Neresai project pre-dated his own, and that he had been working closely with Palpatine's personal researcher. This meant that Kuzhak had had what amounted almost to a close business relationship with the Emperor, and hence he had no doubt been promised considerable rewards. Now that Palpatine was dead, and Nerensai herself had finally been discovered, Kuzhak was naturally turning events to his advantage, and was aiming much higher.

Pestage lacked the advantage of Palpatine's supernatural abilities, and his assumption of power had displeased many Imperials. Already some were beginning to consolidate personal power bases rather than work towards unification. Truin was loyal enough to his calling to appreciate the necessity of working together, but he was also tempted by the fact that he had been given another chance to capitalise on the information in his little thak hide box. So far it had brought him an admiralship. If he was clever it might yet bring a grand admiralship, or, if Nerensai's affection for Patal carried over to his descendants, it could yield much more. Not only would he be working to keep the Empire together, he would be doing so from a position of extreme power. Hence his curiosity about Kuzhak's intentions, for at the moment it was the Mantrusian who had Nerensai's ear -- assuming he had indeed found her. Nothing Hoziak had told him so far confirmed that fact; nor had his contact in Mantrusia reported any solid evidence of her existence, only rumours of possible sightings. Judging by the extent of the cult which had developed, however, Kuzhak would be on dangerous ground if he was simply playing a giant hoax. Truin had therefore decided to accept for the present that Nerensai was definitely alive, but on the subject of her fleet he chose to remain sceptical.

He touched the covering on the box in front of him and lifted the lid. He was positive that Kuzhak would have no knowledge of this, and as knowledge was power, lack thereof meant the opposite. In Hoziak's case this was especially true. It had always annoyed Truin how many ignorant, ineffectual types there were in positions of responsibility. Advancement within the Imperial hierarchy was not always according to ability, a fact which Truin had learned early. The odd few made it because they possessed flair or charisma, or had performed spectacular feats, but generally the process demanded other methods. No doubt Hoziak had bribed his way in somehow.

Truin himself had managed by cultivating a network of contacts, and by training himself to store away any item of news, or snippet of conversation which he felt might contain information for future reference. The system had proved effective, for a chance conversation with a friend from his academy days, about a research project the friend was involved in on Mantrusia, had provided Truin with his current position. But he felt in his case the advancement was justified, for he had proved himself to be a good leader: efficient, reliable, and he was sure if the need arose, courageous. A descendant of whom Patal could be proud.

He fingered the contents of the box, Patal's bequest to his descendants: his journals and the little holocube which carried his record of the final hours of his life. One face contained his account of the battle with the Old Republic, his premonition that this fight would be his last, and his intention to sacrifice himself in order to allow Nerensai and her crews to escape. The opposite face activated the holograph which showed the view from Patal's external holocams before the escape, during which he and two other capital ships held off the entire Old Republic forces. It was a stirring story, one which never failed to make Truin glow with pride, and his own research about the battle had confirmed that Patal did indeed achieve his aim.

To have such a man as an ancestor left much to live up to. And it was obvious that Patal hoped his legacy of bravado would be continued, for after encrypting the holocube with this last view of the mysterious Mantrusian fleet, he had placed it with the little box containing his journals into a message cylinder and dispatched it on its long journey to his son's family on Fin'kru in the outer reaches of the Hapes Consortium. Through countless generations the old box had been handed down from eldest child to eldest child, until eventually it had ended up in Truin's possession.

Others before him had been content to read and dream and wonder, shake their heads at the passing of a more adventurous age, and carry on with their lives. Truin, however, reacted differently. He was young when his father died, a solitary child who lived in a fantasy world of glory-seeking and dreams of wealth. He made up his mind quite early that, regardless of his mundane roots, his life was going to be better and more exciting than those of peers. When he sat down with the little box, and read about Patal, he realised he'd found a role model.

The journals not only revealed facts about Patal's life, but also his personality. He was, like many villains, a peculiar mixture of anomalies, capable of cruelty and violence, but at heart a romantic. His first wife, whom he loved unreservedly, died while quite young in childbirth, and this event plunged the pirate into a period of despair. He left his helpless baby in the care of his wife's family, and embarked on a series of vindictive wars with rival pirate groups. Eventually on Cuvor he took on a group with better resources than his own, and, limping home sorely wounded to his hide-out in Mantrusia's frozen north, he crashed and would have died had he not had the good fortune to be rescued by Nerensai. She restored him to health, the two fell in love, and that was the beginning of a long and amazing period in the history of the Tarsus Sector.

Truin's initial fascination was in the events of the pirate's life and his character. The more he studied the cube, however, the more he felt that the pirate had intended it as a challenge to his descendants. Unravel the cryptic final message and find our fleet, he seemed to be calling. Take over where we left off. Become a true inheritor and not just another bystander. Truin had read that message so frequently over the years that he could soon repeat it by heart. I am at peace and am prepared to face my end so that my true love may escape. As long as she lives, then I who am part of her will not die. I will fight so that she and her loyal servants may retreat to a place where no-one will find them: no-one in the galaxy, no-one in the universe. Till they choose to return.

In the early years of his service in the Rim, Truin had spent much of his spare time studying the various missing fleet legends of which there were quite a few, the most well-known being the famed Katana Fleet. One day, however, on leave on his native planet of Fin'kru he made a startling discovery. Whereas Patal's journals were written in Basic, he spoke his final message in an old Fin'kru dialect, obviously the one he thought his son's people would understand. Although there was a little variation in some of the case endings, the dialect was not so different from the modern Fin'kru language, and Truin had felt confident about his translation of it. When out of curiosity he ran the message through one of the droid translators in the Ancient History Room at the Fin'kru Museum, however, he noticed that the droid translated the definite articles as demonstratives, so that the cryptic clause read: no-one in this galaxy, no-one in this universe. He rechecked it several times with the other droid, but the result was the same.

It was at that point that Truin realised that he may be dealing with a situation beyond his own rather pragmatic field of expertise. He mulled this over, until his next leave, spent on Coruscant, fortuitously provided him with the information about Palpatine's Nerensai project. Palpatine -- the one man with the kind of knowledge of the paranormal required for this mystery. The opportunity was too good too forego. On his next leave, Truin packed his box and approached the great man, and a few months later packed his bags for the Circle.

Now it seemed as though Patal's legacy might be about to yield further fruit. Truin's green eyes lighted again on the communicator, and he keyed it on. If Kuzhak had still failed to make contact by dinner, Truin decided, he would alert his contact on Mantrusia to find out why not. His thin face twisted into a laconic smile. Perhaps Nerensai had decided to do without the good governor's services? Patal's journals certainly implied she was a woman to be wary of, and like Patal himself she was unpredictable.

A faint shiver ran up and down his spine. So far he had never had to prove himself in a truly dangerous situation, and to be true to his fantasies, he had a lot to live up to. He was confident he knew what to expect from Nerensai, but Kuzhak was the unknown factor in this. Perhaps it might pay him to investigate Kuzhak more thoroughly. He pondered this a little further, then nodded to himself and entered the access code for Intelligence. Patal would approve, he thought, for one of the pirate's basic rules for success had been to know his enemies. Play on your strengths and the other fellow's weaknesses, he had written. It works every time.

* * * * *

Coming home was always a good feeling, and when the place you were returning to was warm and peaceful, it was better than good. Kerensa was luxuriating in the comfort of clean clothes, a clean bunk and the welcome familiarity of Iicini'ian Military Headquarters. The day and a half since she and Tiirau had been captured felt like an age, not simply because a lot had happened, but because most of it was confusing. The strange feeling of disorientation -- similar to being lost in one of the old Cuvorian mathematical mazes -- was something that even now she couldn't shake off. Better, for the moment anyway, not to think too deeply about it.

One good thing -- at least their escape from Mantrusia had been uneventful thanks to Luke's plan. She had just begun to relive the more amusing moments when a quiet knock at her door forced her out of her reverie.

"Come in," she called, failing to mask the irritation in her voice. Duty calls, no doubt, she thought grimly. She sat up and swung her legs over the side of the bunk as the door slid open, but her annoyance melted rapidly when she recognised the figure waiting there.

"Hi," he murmured apologetically. "Sorry, were you asleep?"

"No," she said happily, slipping rapidly over the space between bunk and door, and into his arms. "Just feeling too lazy to get up. I guess it's our turn to be debriefed now is it?"

General Tavaala had decided to allow his two people time for welcome showers and rests before going through their account of events, so he had taken Luke and Wedge into the debriefing room first to listen to their story. He had also organised reunions with the worried families: in Kerensa's case, with her grandmother; and in Tiirau's, with his wife and three children. Neither Tiirau nor Kerensa were to leave the base until they had been thoroughly debriefed, and so after their relatives had been safely transported to their respective homes, Tavaala had sent them off in the care of one of the medics to use the facilities in the medical centre.

"Not quite," Wedge replied. "I think he's expecting you to have a rest first. I, uh, wasn't too sure whether to bother you or not, but I ... well, I just wanted to see you. It was a bit difficult on the yacht with the others."

"Wedge," she pulled her face away a little and regarded him smilingly. "You know what I like about you?"

"I'm kind of hoping you'll say my body, but I have a feeling I'm going to be disappointed," he grinned.

"No, no. I do like your body actually, especially in those tight pants. But I thought you might find it demeaning being thought of as a sex object."

"Oh, I don't know," he said, grin widening, "I could probably adjust given time. Although I must point out that the sooner I can get back into my own clothes again, the happier I will be."

Kerensa giggled quietly, and cuddled against him. "Never mind, at least you didn't have to dress like a village idiot like poor old Tayne. What I was going to say is that I like your thoughtfulness, and your modesty, among a whole lot of other things, of course." She peeked up at him again. "I'm so sorry for throwing that wobbly yesterday. I really must learn to control this awful temper. If I ever find out who I inherited from, I'll kill them."

Wedge chuckled, and nuzzled her hair. "Oh, I don't know," he said more seriously. "Anger can be useful sometimes."

"I can't imagine you ever getting that angry that you'd lose it," she said softly.

"Oh, don't worry, I have," his eyes clouded, as a scene that would be forever etched in his memory returned: a fuelling station, its detachable module aflame, and himself in a Headhunter blowing the ship which had caused the destruction to smithereens. "When my parents were killed, I definitely lost it. But I don't regret it. There are some circumstances when you need to get angry, you need that emotional push. Let's face it, 'Rennie, we're emotional beings." He gazed at her for a moment, and pushed away a tendril of still-damp hair that had stuck to her cheek. "I'm so relieved you're OK. When I first heard about the attack, I was ... well, I must admit I was beside myself. But there again, since I've met you I haven't exactly been very together. You seem to have turned me into one big mess."

"You've done the same to me," she smiled and snuggled back against his chest.

"I think the problem is," said Wedge slowly, willing himself the courage to finish what he had come to say, "I think it's that I've fallen in love with you.

He felt Kerensa become very still, and when she looked up a third time there was a deep apprehension in her eyes. This is it, he thought. This is when I find out whether I'm moving this relationship on to a higher level, or destroying it.

Oh help, she thought. This is what I wanted to hear him say, but now he has, I have to come clean. She looked away uncertainly, her legs suddenly feeling weak; but she steeled herself, rallied her flagging courage, and met his gaze.

"Wedge, there are things you don't know about me."

He shrugged and tried to appear nonchalant, although he was convinced she could feel his heart pounding. "There are things you don't know about me."

"Yes, but ..." her eyes slid away again, and she felt the dryness in her throat. "I have these powers."

"I know about that. I know you have the Force."

"Yes, but I have other powers you don't know about."

Wedge stared down at her perplexed.

"In Mantrusia there are women known as tzensentya," she said dully. "They have a strong affinity with the natural world, and they're able to heal and cure people. It's a very old inheritance; it goes back as long as anyone can remember. My grandmother is a tzensentye, and I have the ability too. I'm not what you could call a proper tzensentye, because I've never learned all the techniques. But I do have the power. I can do simple healings, and I know how to make some of the cures."

She stopped, and looked at him sadly. "I think Mackshi has always hoped that I would let her train me, so that I can carry the tradition on properly. In Mantrusia it's regarded very highly, and the tzensentya are taken incredibly seriously. But because of the way I abused the Force, I thought it better to stay away from learning anything too complicated. I can't help feeling that the two powers together could be very destructive, especially when wielded by someone like me."

Wedge tried to think of something to say, but his mouth was failing to respond to the message to close, a position it had been in quite frequently lately.

"I love you, too, Wedge. The way I feel about you, I have never felt about anyone else." She shook her head hopelessly. "I just wish I was normal."

"You are normal," he insisted fiercely. "And anyway, so what if you have a few extra abilities. You're still flesh and blood like the rest of us."

"I guess I just can't help feeling that my powers could cause complications, and relationships are difficult enough as it is. Especially for people in our situation. I mean, once this is over, you'll be gone, won't you?"

Wedge pushed a copper ringlet behind her ear, making the jade earring swing to and fro. "I know it's not going to be easy," he sighed, "but there again nothing worthwhile ever is. And I don't think either of us can say for sure what will happen, the future's always in the balance until it becomes the present." He gazed down for a moment and then bent his mouth down to hers. "I just wanted you to know how I felt," he murmured a little while later.

"I feel the same," she mumbled. "Although at the moment, I feel quite strange."

"Sorry," he said hastily. "I'm being selfish. You need to rest."

"No, you're much nicer than rest. It's just that when you kiss me like that, it makes my legs go all funny."

Wedge chuckled. "I won't tell you what your kisses do to me. You're young and innocent."

"I'm willing to change," she said impishly.

"Nah, don't do that. I kind of like you the way you are," he teased.

A light blinked on above the door and a female voice sounded through the speaker.

"Ensign Kalichi, General Tavaala requests you go to Room Four-Oh-One for debriefing."

Kerensa made a wry face. "Oh well, here goes. I hope General Tavaala's prepared for a long session, we have quite a lot to report. I gather he knows about my Force ability, does he?"

Wedge nodded.

"I feel guilty now for not telling him." The voice broke in again above them with the request to attend debriefing. "Yes, yes, Tew, I heard you the first time," Kerensa said loudly. "I'm on my way." She looked up at Wedge. "Since I joined I-M, I think he's tried to look after me out of a sense of duty to my father. I hope he wasn't upset that I hadn't confided in him."

"Luke explained that you had good reasons for not telling anyone. But he'd probably appreciate hearing you telling him what those reasons were." He bent down and kissed her again, and then reluctantly released her. "You'd better go."

"I know, punctuality is next to saintliness," she smiled. She took a few steps into the corridor, and then turned back to him, a little shyly. "I love you," she said softly, smiled again, and set off around the corner and out of sight.

Wedge stood for a minute and then sat down on the edge of the bunk, staring into the distance. Images of his parents flooded into his mind, images he usually kept safely locked away in the recesses of his memory: fragments of scenes from childhood which confirmed the deep affection and friendship the two had shared along with their love. Theirs was a relationship that had provided both Wedge and his sister with a solid sense of security, the kind of non-judgmental support and unconditional love that every child needs. It was the type of relationship he assumed one day he would be able to offer his own children, although the last few years hadn't exactly allowed him much time to do anything positive in that direction. He thought about it now, though; had found himself occasionally wondering about it ever since the day they had arrived and he had spoken to Kerensa for the first time.

If he believed in providence, he would say that he had been brought to this distant spot for the sole purpose of meeting a soul mate. Seven years of hard work and too many close battles had taught him that providence was something people shaped to suit themselves. Luke was right about relationships being difficult in their situation, and Kerensa had voiced the same thought just a few minutes ago. But would he have to move on alone? Or, there again, did he really have to leave?

The light in the filters above had begun to fade in unison with the sinking sun outside when the shift bell jolted Wedge from his cogitations. He checked his wrist chrono and stood up with a start. He needed to rid himself of his ridiculous clothes, and as yet he hadn't eaten dinner, but the hunger he felt inside was not the kind which could be satiated with food. He strode out the door and down the corridor, and took the lift for the pilots' quarters. A quarter of an hour later, after what he thought might have been the fastest shower and shave in history, he arrived at Room Four-Oh-One. To his relief, the light above the door was still shining, so he settled down in the anteroom to wait.

To Chapter Twenty-Eight | To Chapter Thirty

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