The Mantrusian Affair: Chapter Thirty-Four
Kerensa stood in front of the lens staring into the inky blackness beyond, while Artoo Deetoo moved around her probing at the curved surface. She wondered for a moment if she should go and get the leader of the animals, for it was obvious that he was familiar with the device. But although he had been excited to see her again, he had made no effort to follow her beyond the room with the sky dome. Instead he had settled down on the cushions, leading the rest of the group to follow suit. When Kerensa had reached out to his mind, all she received was a feeling of peace and contentment.
"Technically, he seems to think it's the same as all the others," C3PO explained. "But he says he'd like to perform some more tests on it."
"What sort of tests?" asked Kerensa. The smaller droid emitted an involved series of warbles and beeps in reply.
"He says that he noticed an interesting electrical effect when we passed through each of the other entry devices. It's similar to the effect you get when a circuit is activated. It appears that you, Mistress Kerensa, are acting as a type of switch."
"A switch?" Kerensa stared at first Luke and then Leia and then shook her head in confusion. "Well, I suppose that's better than some of the things I've been called," she said wryly. Suddenly she stiffened and appeared to be listening intently to something.
"Perhaps-" began C3PO helpfully.
"Shhh!" Luke commanded him, watching Kerensa carefully. "Was that the voice?" he asked when her look of concentration had faded.
She nodded, her expression serious. "Do you still want to do this?"
"Definitely," said Luke.
"I'm in, too," Leia assured her.
Luke watched as Kerensa took a deep breath, let it out and then stepped up to the lens. He beckoned to Leia, and they both moved up close behind her. There was the customary flash of light, and then, to Luke's surprise, the experience of finding that he was standing with Leia, C3PO and Artoo in exactly the same place he had started from. Of Kerensa, there was no sign whatsoever.
"It's just as well I'm sitting down, you realise." Tsai Newson's green eyes regarded Han with a mixture of astonishment and disbelief. "If I'd been standing up when you told me about all this Mantrusian business I'd now be lying flat on my back."
"I'm surprised they haven't informed you about it," replied Han. He was pacing around in front of Tsai and another member of the underground organisation, a native Hocqyellenite called Martuch. As soon as Han had eaten, Martuch had advised him to keep moving in order to stimulate his circulation and enhance the purging effect of the liquid he had drunk. As a result, he was now feeling normal again, but the need to purge himself of the salutory liquid was growing stronger every minute.
"We have no direct contact with Fa'arika," Tsai explained. "In fact, I haven't seen him since I came here. It protects us all -- no contact, no suspicion."
"I must admit, I'm beginning to develop a grudging admiration for the Iicini'ians. Even though they did set me up."
"Ah." The big humanoid nodded vigorously and the nictating membrane that protected his eyes closed slowly and opened again with a shutter-like motion. "There is little going on in this sector that misses General Tavaala's attention. But he's very, very cautious. He never acts until he has all the angles covered."
"You'll probably find he has understandings with organisations like us all over the sector." Tsai leaned back in his seat. "In our case we trade information about the fleet for any useful intelligence about the indiscretions -- financial or otherwise -- of the Imperial companies making money out of our resources. Plus we get a little support in the form of equipment, and Fa'arika's provided us with some good operatives. However, back to this Mantrusian affair. I must admit I find it all pretty spooky, especially since we've noticed more activity amongst the fleet groups. Last week our watchers reported that Groups One and Two were involved in a training exercise near Nan'tik, something they haven't done for a while." The man's green eyes studied Han with a hint of amusement. "And apparently Truin's been skipping backwards and forwards like a ... like Han Solo on a coffeine high. Are you normally this hyper?"
"Over-saturation I'm afraid." Han grimaced. "Show me your little room, and then you can fill me in on what else Truin's been up to."
Martuch chuckled throatily, and pushed himself up on to his trunk-like legs. "Come General Solo -- let's hope our information is adequate compensation for the indignities we've made you suffer."
"Think nothing of it." Han's eyes swept both men's faces with a sardonic glint. "Compared to some of the missions I've been involved in, this one's been a real knockout."
"She's what!" Atanei had been poking around in the galley investigating Han's food supply hopefully when the comlink had crackled to life with Luke's voice. "Ouch!" he squawked as a cupboard shelf impeded his reflex to stand bolt upright. "Aw -- ha ha! Wait a minute. She put you up to this, didn't she? Well, tell her she got me." He rubbed the back of his head. "Now, how's it really going?"
There was an awkward silence interrupted only by spasmodic bursts of static, and then Luke's voice replied, sounding calm but with a note of urgency that Atanei recognised as meaning he was serious.
"This isn't a joke, Captain. We got into the complex okay, and Kerensa led us through that series of entrance devices that she described on the trip. But at the final one she, um ... as far as we can tell, she went through and we ... stayed here."
"That's crazy." Atanei found that he had walked back to the cockpit. He went over to one of the side viewports and pressed his face against it, straining to see the top of the mountain. "Well, she must be in there somewhere. Hang on a minute." He turned back quickly to the controls and switched on the navicom. "Maybe she's somehow ended up on the outside of the mountain. I'm going to scan the ... Spit!"
A high-pitched squeal rent the air and the scanner screen came to life in a crazy pattern of colliding pulse lines. Atanei uttered what Luke took to be a specifically Iicini'ian curse and hit the off-button.
"What the hell's going on?" growled the pilot.
"I wish I could tell you. We tried to call a few minutes ago but couldn't get through because of the interference. The problem we have is that we're stuck here, unless we can figure out how to operate these door devices. And you're stuck there because you can't get in."
"Are you normally this helpful?" Atanei threw himself down in the pilot's seat in frustration.
"I am working on it," Luke assured him.
"Well, you'd better get a move on." The tanned Iicini'ian peered up at the mountain again and a tingling sense of foreboding began to prickle at his scalp. "I'll try the scanners again in a few minutes. I don't like the thought of sitting here blind."
"It might pay to try the engines, too," suggested Luke. "I'll keep in touch."
"Yeah." Atanei tucked the comlink in his jacket and continued his close scrutinisation of the ancient volcano. "Where can you go to on a mountain?" he muttered.
The flash this time was so intense that Kerensa felt a momentary pain at the back of her eyes, and when she opened them again all she could see was a red haze. She pressed her hands to her eyes for a moment and then released them, blinked a few times and turned, frowning, to see if Luke and Leia were all right. She felt a jolt run through her body. All she could see behind her was the lens, and beyond that was the unearthly darkness.
"Luke! Leia!" She placed a hand on either side of the lens and shook it violently, as if the vibration would shake her friends out of it. To her surprise the sudden activity made her feel weak, and she thought for one horrible moment that she was going to faint.
"It's no good." The voice came from behind her. "Only you can travel through the portal."
Kerensa turned slowly, still feeling groggy. To her right, under a circular shade, sat an old woman. Her gnarled hands were folded neatly in her lap, and she was regarding Kerensa with an expression that was simultaneously regal and appraising.
"Kerensa." Her wrinkled face suddenly broke into a fond smile and she sighed. "I knew you would come."
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