The Mantrusian Affair: Chapter Thirty-Three

"Kerensa -- this is a surprise!" said Luke.

"No it isn't," she replied laconically. "You started saying my name before you even saw who it was."

Luke smiled and shrugged. "You know how it is."

"Unfortunately, yes I do." She smiled, but her expression was rueful. "The curse of the Force users. No chance of any of us being able to enjoy a surprise party."

"Well, I got a pleasant surprise last night," Luke said, waving her inside. "Admiral Ackbar informed me you'll be joining our cause." He reached out and touched her arm. "I'm really pleased -- both for us and for you and Wedge."

"Thanks," she said, dark eyes softening. "I still have to keep pinching myself to make sure it's not a dream."

"I gather he got away okay this morning?"

She nodded and then giggled. "He had an awful idea that dear old General Tavaala was going to make him dress up in some embarrassing disguise again. He was so relieved when he found out he could actually go as himself."

"Well, I guess as Cuvor is independent, there's no need for any masquerades," replied Luke.

"It certainly makes it less complicated. Let's hope they track down that Nerensai expert, or at least unearth something useful at the Institute."

"Who's gone with him?" Luke sat down on the edge of his bunk and indicated for her to sit in the one chair the room possessed.

"That very polite guy from Alderaan -- Tycho is it?"

Luke nodded.

"And another one -- very serious looking. Looks more like a student than a pilot."

"Ah, Sarash," Luke nodded. "Good choice. He was actually a student, but then after Alderaan was destroyed he decided that sitting around philosophising about right and wrong wasn't enough, so he joined us."

"What was he studying?"

"History and Political Science I think."

"Oh well, this'll be right up his alley then. I expect that's why Wedge decided to take him." She sighed and eyed Luke thoughtfully. "I suppose you're wondering why I'm here."

Luke tipped his head to one side and gave her a sly grin. "Note that I haven't tried to intrude into your thoughts to find out."

"Noted and appreciated," she said blithely, although her eyes remained serious. "It's that place on Mount Halpurnia. I can't get it out of my head." She paused, staring past Luke into the space beyond. "There was someone there," she said finally, "someone who knew me."

Luke studied her rapt expression curiously. It occurred to him that this is how he must often appear to his friends -- wrapped up in a world of awareness way beyond their ken. That they must sometimes feel frustrated and inferior suddenly made their love and loyalty even more precious. He silently thanked Kerensa for the insight she had unwittingly given him.

"What makes you say that?" he asked quietly.

"They called to me by name ... and they exuded this sense of familiarity. It was weird."

"Yet you have no idea who it is?"

Kerensa shook her head slowly and then added. "But I got the impression it was a woman."

Luke thought about his occasional contacts with Obi-Wan. "Did you get any visual impression?"

"No," she replied ruefully. "But whoever she is - if it is a she -- I think she's connected with those animals, because they seemed to want me to go through the door-thing through which I heard her voice. They kept giving me this picture of a garden, so maybe that's where she lives."

Luke was thoughtful for a long time, and then he looked up and caught her eye. "What do you want to do about it?" he said, his voice strangely expectant.

"I don't want to do anything really, except wait here for Wedge to come back. But I feel this ... this compulsion to go and find out who she is. And, well to be perfectly honest Luke, I've been walking around ever since Wedge left thinking about it. I can't help feeling that that place is important somehow to what's going on -- although why I should think that, I have no idea."

Luke gazed at her earnestly. "The fact that the mountain itself has that peculiar mythology associated with it, that your actions happened to bring you down there of all places, and then that the animals found you and led you to the complex itself suggests a rather unusual chain of coincidences. Personally I don't really believe in coincidence. I think it's more likely that you experienced what you did for some reason, and that your feeling that that place is important is correct."

Kerensa was silent and thoughtful for a moment and then she looked up and caught his gaze. "Bother," she said. "I was hoping you'd contradict me. I suppose if I ask you to come with me to investigate it now, you'll say yes."

Luke felt his eyebrows shoot up, but he controlled his surprise. "I'd be very interested in seeing this place actually," he said, and then added curiously. "Did a method of getting there unobserved factor in your thoughts at all?"

Kerensa threw him a guilty look. "I'm afraid to say it did. As I was wandering round the landing field I couldn't help thinking what a useful sort of ship the Millennium Falcon is -- good size, yet obviously still very manoeuvrable, and very unIicini'ian."

"One of the more ingenious ways I've heard for saying it looks like a heap of junk," grinned Luke, remembering the Iicini'ian fetish for tidiness and order.

"Oh no, I didn't mean that at all," Kerensa corrected him. "I mean it literally. There's no way anybody in all of Tarsus could possibly associate the Falcon with Iicini'ia. It looks just like something that would belong to a smuggler -- and that's exactly what we want."

Luke threw her a confused look. "You're way ahead of me here."

"Secheniz was traditionally a popular hiding place for pirates, smugglers and general ne'er-do-wells," she explained. "Admittedly they've stamped most of that out now, but most Mantrusians still see it as a bit of a criminals' haven. Anyone who did happen to see us cruising around, therefore, wouldn't be all that surprised."

"What about Mantrusian Port Control?"

"Not a problem. We just approach the same way the smugglers used to -- using the planet to mask us from the station. And fortunately -- not a word I ever thought I'd use in relation to this individual -- I know just the guy to do it. The same one who did the surveillance runs to Secheniz a few months ago."

Luke sat back and looked at her quizzically, his head on one side. "Are you sure he'll be willing to do this?"

Kerensa's smile wavered. "That's going to be the difficult part," she sighed, "lowering ourselves to the level of common flatterers and boot-lickers. Do you think your Jedi powers can cope?"

Luke winced. "I don't know that they've been tested in that department. Let's see shall we?"

* * * * *

The room swam back into view for a second time, confirming Han in his opinion that it looked like some sort of storeroom. The strange square droid-shaped thing was still there, too, sitting in the corner as it had been earlier. He focused his attention on it and after a while it resolved itself into something familiar.

"You!" Han sat up and pointed an accusing finger. He held the pose for a split second before gravity overcame him and he sank back on to whatever it was he was lying on. He felt strange -- as though his body had somehow become disconnected from his brain.

"Rest easy, soldier," a voice spoke from behind him. Han heard footsteps and then saw the green-eyed man appearing above him. He watched as the man turned to the cloaked humanoid in the corner.

"Thanks, Ciely. You can go for lunch now," he said.

"Yeah," sneered Han, although it took him a few seconds to convince his mouth to form the correct configuration. "Use those credits I gave you to get yourself something nice."

"Believe me," smiled the stranger. "With inflation running the way it is, seven credits would barely get her a cup of stim tea."

"My heart bleeds for her," Han muttered. He estimated the distance between himself and the man, and tentatively tried flexing his leg muscles.

"You'll fell a bit sluggish for a while, so I wouldn't try any sudden movements. And," the man added as he watched Han slide his hand into the front pocket of his cloak, "your friend will be out of range. You're no longer in Starrich." He held up Han's comlink for a second before returning it to his breast pocket.

"Okay," muttered Han. "So you've got me. What do you want -- some sort of special deal with the guild, or some free metalwork?"

The man rubbed his chin, partially masking the shadow of a grin. "Very good," he nodded. "But you don't need to keep up the pretence -- we know where you're from."

"That I seriously doubt," said Han in all honesty.

"All right," the man sighed and sat down in the chair the humanoid woman had vacated. "I'll be more specific. We know where you've just come from. How is Colonel Fa'arika by the way?"

Han eyed the man suspiciously, but had to admit that without the shadow of the cloak's hood masking his green eyes and thin face, he no longer looked threatening.

"Colonel who?" he asked, with a blank expression.

The man grinned openly and knocked on the wall behind him. "You'd better start drinking a bit of fluid to swill out that knockout potion we pumped you full of. I'm sorry about the histrionics, but we're an underground organisation and we intend to keep it that way."

"Underground! Hey buddy, I didn't come here to deal with any underground. I think you've got the wrong guy."

The man shook his head and then waited patiently while another squat humanoid entered with a tray that he set down carefully beside the narrow settle Han had discovered he was lying on.

"One -- a Tyro-Cini trade shuttle, two -- the Tyroveran metal workers' guild insignia on your boiler suit," said the man, numbering each point off on his fingers. "As soon as Ciely observed those two little details she convinced you to buy the cloak and then she contacted me." The man reached over and lifted the hem of Han's garment to reveal a slight bulge at the side seam. "From there on you were under surveillance, and when you followed the course that Fa'arika always gives his contacts, we knew you were our guy." He held out his hand. "Tsai Newson. Originally from Tsu'por -- now a solid citizen of Hocqyellen."

Han hesitated and then sat up slowly and proffered his own hand. He still felt woozy, and was secretly relieved he wasn't going to have to indulge in anything more energetic than consuming the contents of the tray.

"Han Solo. Formerly of Corellia, now a member of the New Rebel Republic." The legitimacy of the words still sounded strange to his ears. "By the way, you don't look all that solid to me -- not as solid as the natives here anyway."

Tsai laughed. "Pretty impressive aren't they? Of course they've been exploited because of it. Since the Empire came into being, it's forced Hocqyellen industry to increase production a thousand-fold. But as you may have noticed, the average citizen hasn't seen much of the profit."

"You plotting your own rebellion?" Han asked.

"Support's growing for it," replied Tsai, "especially now Palpatine's dead and gone. Hence the connection with I-M. Iicini'ia is the most proactively anti-Imperial world in the entire sector. Tsu'por, Nantik and Tyrovera are sympathetic but still lukewarm when it comes to concrete support, and Cuvor is independent."

"What about Mantrusia?"

Tsai let out a snort. "I'd hardly factor Mantrusia into the equation."

"Boy," said Han grimly. "Have I got news for you."

* * * * *

"I can't believe I let myself get talked into this," muttered Atanei as he skilfully manoeuvred the old Corellian freighter along the vector that he had calculated would keep it blind to Mantrusian Port Control's sensors. "And on my day off."

"Rubbish," Kerensa's voice reached him from the seat behind. "This is much more challenging than racing beach pods round the sand dunes -- and more worthy. Think of all the people you're impressing."

"Oh, I know how you two flattered me into doing it," he said wryly, keeping an eye on the sensor alert. "I just can't believe I'm running the risk of getting caught and being seen in this crate. Think what it'll do to my reputation."

"Don't worry," she replied. "If we get caught, I'll shoot you, and that way your reputation is the last thing you'll have to worry about."

"Thank you, Kerensa," he said turning and throwing her a wolfish grin. "I knew I could count on your understanding. There," he added after a pause, and glanced across at Luke in the copilot's seat. "We're locked into an orbit that'll maintain our position relative to the station. Bring me up the map could you?"

"All flattery aside, that was good flying," the Jedi acknowledged as he complied with Atanei's request.

"I live to serve," he sighed. "Now for the real fun part. We have to get as low as we can as quickly as we can. As soon as we're down at about the level of the mountains, we'll be out of range of the station's sensors." He turned to the dark-haired woman who was seated beside Kerensa. "By the way, your Highness, does Solo know you've taken his baby out for a joy ride?"

"Not as yet," she said tentatively. "And hopefully we'll have it back well before he returns."

"Damn. I'd better not leave any marks on it to make him suspicious then had I?" said Atanei as he studied the contours of the map. "Okay, our orbit will bring us up on Secheniz in a few minutes. If you're not already buckled in, I suggest you do something about it now."

"It certainly is pretty uninviting," Leia mused as their angle of descent gave her a view of the ice-covered peaks.

"This area is," said Kerensa. "But some parts are rather beautiful." She didn't sound defensive, thought Leia -- just nostalgic. She supposed the girl might be realising that she would probably never see the place again. As she watched, she noticed Kerensa glance at her wrist chrono and frown.

"The pageant will be starting in a few hours."

"I'm sure we'll be back well before we hear anything -- if there's anything to hear that is," she added, determined to keep a positive perspective.

"I'm not worried about that, I'm worried about the pageant itself. I just hope nobody gets hurt." She thought about old Jastani and thousands like him making the trip to watch the festivities, and silently muttered a prayer to the gods to protect them.

"There, Kerensa," Atanei's voice interrupted her thoughts. "Is that your mountain?"

She gazed down at Halpurnia's small crater gleaming with its virginal dusting of snow. Where once the sight of the mountain would have filled her with apprehension, now she stared at it unemotionally, wondering within which buttress lay the room with the sky dome or that tantalising entrance into the darkness.

"That's it," she replied softly.

Atanei reduced power and slowly brought the repulsors on line, studying the terrain as he guided the Falcon in a curving flight path around the base of Mount Halpurnia. The forest grew thick on the lower slopes, but on the eastern flank he found a small clearing.

"Looking good," he murmured as he positioned the ship above the gap in the forest, and feathered it down so gently that only the hissing of the landing hydraulics told everyone they had landed.

Kerensa undid her restraints and gazed up at Halpurnia's icy ramparts. She had to crane her neck at an awkward angle as they stretched up far beyond the limited scope offered by the forward view screen. Suddenly she became aware of the pervasive silence in the cockpit, and she glanced at the others to find them standing as motionless as stone statuary. She followed their collective gaze. Two shaggy beasts, similar to the ones she had encountered earlier, had materialised at the edge of the clearing, and as she watched a third and then a fourth shambled out from the darkness between the trees.

"Merciful stars!" gasped Leia.

Atanei's mouth had fallen open, but he closed it quickly when he saw Kerensa turn towards him. He sat back down in the pilot's seat and swung his feet up on the control console, settling back comfortably with his hands locked behind his head.

"Well, that's my contribution over for a while," he grinned triumphantly, his habitual cocky expression returning. "Looks like you get to deal with the welcoming committee."

"Wonderful," said Leia eyeing the growing group of animals dubiously. "I sure hope they've had dinner."

Luke stood up and patted his sister on the shoulder. "Believe me, their bark is worse than their bite. Come on, let's go and get the droids."

"I hope you're right," she replied uncertainly, following him out into the corridor.

Atanei frowned as Kerensa began unclasping her weapons belt. "You know if I didn't know you so well, I'd ask if you were crazy. But even knowing you're crazy, I still have to ask this -- what the hell are you doing?"

"I'm really not sure, Atanei," she replied in a voice that to his surprise contained no sarcasm. "I know I won't need weapons against them, and I just have this feeling that as I wasn't wearing weapons last time I came here, I don't think I should wear them now." She placed the belt in her chair and glanced up at him. "Do you want to open the hatch."

"Not really," he said wryly, but he pushed the control and watched as she left the cockpit.

"Oh, Master Luke," a prissy voice sounded from the corridor. "I have to say I really don't like that smuggling compartment at all. It brings back very unpleasant memories."

"I know, Threepio. But with the Mantrusians being so anti-droid, it was safer for you in there in case we were caught. You okay, Artoo?"

The little droid swivelled round and warbled an acknowledgment. Then he set off, dutifully following Kerensa down the hatch. C3PO went to follow, but a quick glance out into the clearing stopped him in his tracks.

"Oh my! Oh my goodness!" The golden droid threw his arms up in horror.

"It's okay, Threepio," said Luke giving him a not so gentle nudge forward so that the droid proceeded to descend the hatch with an apparent bravado belied only by his waving arms and high pitched squeal. "Their fangs probably won't work on metal."

"Do you know you're developing a cruel streak?" Leia murmured.

Luke threw her a knowing smile, and then stepped back into the cockpit. "Let us know if there's any trouble," he said to the tanned pilot reclining in Han's seat.

Atanei turned away from the viewport through which Luke could see Kerensa being greeted enthusiastically by the animals. "Likewise," he replied waving his comlink in a half wave, half salute. For once his tone didn't sound flippant.

To Chapter Thirty-Two | To Chapter Thirty-Four

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