The Mantrusian Affair: Chapter Thirty-Six
Iella

"It's almost as if it wants to open but something's holding it back," said Leia from her position beside the lens device. She turned to Luke. "When you get right up against it, it pulses in the middle, then it freezes and seems to smooth over."

"That's interesting," mused Luke. "I wonder why I get that reaction with this one but not with the other."

He and Leia had just spent the last hour trying to activate the lens device through which Kerensa had disappeared. When that had proved impossible, they'd almost been tempted, out of frustration, to try cutting it open with Luke's lightsaber. The only thing that stopped them was the fear that damaging the lens might render it useless, although they realised that that fear was predicated on their vain hope that Kerensa would be able to return. Still, hope was better than the alternative.

They had tried using the weapon to penetrate the wall beside the lens in the hope of finding out what was on the other side, or even maybe uncovering the mechanism that operated it. But it was all to no avail. The wall was coated with a conductive substance that absorbed the energy of the blade and dissipated it. Glumly, they had returned to the last of the devices through which they'd passed together, in the hope that it might be more yielding. One thing was obvious, and that was that they would have to find some way of opening the things. The alternative -- incarceration within the complex -- was a singularly unpleasant prospect.

"Don't ask me," Leia replied with a shrug. "You're the expert on the weird and wonderful. All I can say is the device that seems to have swallowed Kerensa looks different from these others, so maybe it's programmed differently too."

"Programmed," murmured Luke. "Now there's a thought. Artoo, show us that wave recording again."

Artoo tipped himself forward slightly so that the holographic image he was projecting was sitting at Luke's eye level. It was a visual representation of an electromagnetic wave pattern, the very pattern that their last entry through the lens device had produced.

"Okay," said Luke. "Now, record what happens when I approach this thing."

Artoo whirred compliantly and a small cylindrical antenna shot out from a slot between his carapace and his dome. When Luke stepped back from the lens, the little droid warbled and clicked a few times, and a second beam emerged from his projector eye displaying a second graph.

"That's interesting," said Luke. "Look at that."

Leia scrutinised it closely. "Yours has a single pattern and hers has a double!" She traced the fluctuating waves with her finger. "It's like your graph is half of hers."

Luke pointed to the crest of the wave. "See -- up until that point we're the same, which is probably why the middle of the lens starts to respond. But then on her graph a second wave begins."

"At which point, the lens freezes," nodded Leia. "So, where does this leave us?"

"Well," said Luke, "I suppose it leaves us trying to replicate that second wave."

"Oh." Leia glanced from Luke to See Threepio and then to Artoo. She shrugged, and turned back to Luke. "I guess you could say making waves is something we're all reasonably good at."

****

Chief Elozhi huffed with appreciation as the slender singer sank down in a graceful curtsey, and moved back to rejoin the ranks of her village troupe. He loved the old love ballads, especially those of his native Garnitz province. He banged his palms on the arms of his seat in the sheltered viewing box his staff had set up for him on the balcony of the Council Hall. Elozhi was pleased to see that his pageant had attracted so many people. The wealthier citizens occupied tiers of temporary seating, while others were content to stand in the space in the middle of the plaza.

The performers from Garnitz filed off from one side of the stage and another group clambered up the stairs on the other side to take their place. Elozhi watched as the holocams slid along their gantries filming the spectacle from different angles in order to satisfy the crowds watching in similar plazas in the various provincial capitals. Mantrusia was a small world, but even so its people seldom displayed the sense of unity he felt in the crowd tonight. As a male speaker moved forward and began his address, the old man turned to the younger one at his side.

"Your people look wonderful, Governor. You must be very proud. I wonder what treats they have in store for us."

Kuzhak tipped his head on one side, his blue eyes sparkling with boyish anticipation.

"No doubt we shall soon find out, Excellency, but from what I've heard, it's going to be highly interactive."

"Excellent," Elozhi's chins wobbled his appreciation, and he turned back to listen to the Bakhunian speaker.

"- a piece of our Bakhunian history," the man was saying.

"I think we can rest easy as far as the crowd is concerned," the big man murmured to Kuzhak. "Our enforced curfews and other punitive measures seem to have done the trick." He waved a pudgy hand to encompass the orderly rows of watchers.

"Yet again, we acknowledge your wisdom, Excellency."

Elozhi smiled indulgently at the governor's bowed head while the Bakhunians on stage parted to reveal a dais supporting a flowered arch. The dais moved forward slowly and the arch wobbled slightly, but all eyes were focused on the delicate figure standing underneath it. A whispering sound rustled like a sudden breeze through the motionless onlookers, and then they became so silent that Kuzhak could hear the laboured wheeze of Elozhi's breathing.

"The tale of Queen Nerensai's love for her people -- a love so powerful that it transcends time," said the speaker. "And now we will perform for you the dance we perform every year on the occasion of the Queen's naming day."

Elozhi's brow furrowed in consternation. "I do not think this advisable, Governor," he spluttered as the performers grouped themselves into clusters of five, and the musicians struck the opening chords of the dance.

"I agree," replied Kuzhak. "Nobody told me they were going to do this." Not a lie either, he laughed to himself. They didn't need to tell me as it was my idea.

On stage the groups pulsed in and out in the steps of the dance. Kuzhak snatched a sideways glance at the old Chief, noting with satisfaction the slight tremble in his hands and the sweat beginning to glisten on his bald pate. Then he turned back to watch the figures on the stage. A man wearing a purple cape swung over his shoulder in swashbuckling style wove his way amongst the dancers until he reached the motionless figure standing under the arch. He reached his hand up to her and all of a sudden she came to life -- slowly stretching an arm down to him. The jewels on her dress caught the sunlight, as did those decorating the complicated loops and braids in her hair.

Kuzhak wondered if any Mantrusian had noticed the way Nerensai's image had undergone subtle changes from manifestation to manifestation. He doubted they would have noted the metamorphosis of her original red-gold tresses into those of a deeper more copper hue any more than they would the difference between this Patal and the original. Where Patal himself had possessed the physique of a warrior and thick dark brown hair that fell in careless waves to his shoulders, this version of him had the more gym-honed musculature of Kuzhak. The Bakhunian pondered as to whether Chief Elozhi had observed the similarity.

The Nerensai figure on the stage had stepped down and taken "Patal's" arm and the two stepped to the front. Meanwhile the dancers had begun to move down the stairs at each side into the crowd. The musicians increased the tempo and in ones and twos people began to join in the dance until several long lines of jiggling bodies could be seen weaving through the masses. The music grew louder and then struck a final triumphant chord. A cheer rang out, but then gradually the sound transformed into a chant. It reverberated amongst the tiers of seats and the towers of recording equipment, its regularity soon making the microphones protest with squealing feedback. Elozhi covered an ear with one hand, and clutched desperately at Kuzhak with the other.

"Instruct them to switch off the recorders!" he shouted breathlessly.

"Immediately, Excellency," said a concerned Kuzhak. "But I don't think you should stay here by yourself. Come back into the building so we can contact security."

"No, I ... " Elozhi began, but what he saw next made his jaw sag. The crowd turned as one towards his balcony, and although the chant of "Nerensai, Nerensai" continued unabated, it took on an angry tone, and he saw raised fists waved in his direction. When a piece of fruit flew through the air and landed just short of his feet spilling its crimson pulp like blood, he hurriedly stood up and backed away, not protesting as Kuzhak bundled him protectively into the room beyond. The governor switched on the intercom to convey Elozhi's instructions to the recording crew only to be met with a burst of static. His blue eyes met Elozhi's, which were now wide and staring.

"Don't worry, Excellency. Security will soon get them under control. We're perfectly safe here."

"I don't understand, Governor." The old man stood trembling, and had Kuzhak been capable of empathy his heart would have melted at the expression of pain and bewilderment on his leader's face. "Why are they behaving like this?"

"They think they want Nerensai. They want to return to the past." He paused. "I really think this situation has got beyond our control. We need outside help."

"The New Rebel Republic, you mean?" Elozhi sank his bulk into a nearby the chair.

"I'm afraid so, Excellency. After our troops have quelled the crowd, I think you're going to have to call the other governors here and see if they'll agree."

"I don't want Iicini'ia involved," said Elozhi stubbornly. "Nor do I want Mantrusia to become aligned with the Rebel Republic."

"I'm sure that you'll be able to negotiate an agreement that will be mutually favourable," soothed Kuzhak, closing the transparisteel vents to cut out the angry roars of the crowd and the screaming of security sirens. "My understanding of the New Republic is that they will willingly accept any form of support. You could probably trade goods in return for a temporary peacekeeping force. They've been expanding at such a rate since Endor that they must be having to spread their resources fairly thinly, so the prospect of a reliable supplier of matériel would be an attractive proposition."

Elozhi's expression lost a little of its tension. "It's possible," he said rather stiffly. "But we need to discuss this as a group. We may be suffering a little strife, but we will not let a few rabble rousers cause us to relinquish our dignity or our protocols."

"We bow to your integrity, Excellency," said Kuzhak effusively as Elozhi's aide bumbled into the room pink with exertion and confusion.

"Ah, Jehrom," Elozhi beckoned to the man regally. "Please contact the governors and tell them to make their way here as quickly as possible. I'm scheduling an extraordinary council meeting to discuss the current situation tonight. We will convene as soon as we have a quorum."

Jehrom was quivering like a sea slug, but he hastily bowed and disappeared towards the turbo-lift.

"Excellency, I think it advisable that I consult with Security," said Kuzhak. "Just to ensure that we'll receive no unwelcome interruption while the governors are here."

"Thank you, Governor." Elozhi waved a pale hand vaguely to acknowledge Kuzhak's statement. He was gratified to feel his composure returning, and he began to prepare a set of procedures for the meeting. His eyes caught the welcoming glint of his crystal khamira bottle and he sat for a moment contemplating its amber contents. Surely under the circumstances he was justified in indulging himself. A good worker deserves his comforts.

He pulled his unwieldy body from his chair and grunted appreciatively as the mellow flavour gave way to its usual stringency. A perplexed frown creased his forehead as the burning sensation increased. He swallowed, and it moved down to become an agonising fire in his stomach. Gasping like a beached krakana, he slid slowly to the floor.

To Chapter Thirty-Five | To Chapter Thirty-Seven

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