The Mantrusian Affair: Chapter Thirty-Seven
Iella

"My dear," said Nerensai, leaning forward and patting Kerensa's arm. "I wish you'd stop staring at me like that with your mouth open. You remind me of a little Tsu'porian bug-snapper I kept once as a pet."

"Sorry," Kerensa replied weakly. "It's just ... well, this is such a lot to take on board."

Nerensai smiled rather benignly. "Of course it is. I at least had the luxury of learning all this gradually. Arnush! Another cup of tchan for our guest. And bring some more tustatis too."

"I couldn't possibly eat any more!"

"Rubbish. You need to keep up your strength. You'll find travelling through the portal will tax you a little and rob you temporarily of your powers."

"Is that why I couldn't go back through it when I tried?"

Nerensai nodded. "The effect should wear off quite quickly. But the more you use the portals, the longer you take to recover. The effect seems to be cumulative, which, of course, is why the witches had to stop using them."

Kerensa shook her head in wonder again, making sure this time to keep her mouth firmly closed. So the legends about witches had some basis in reality after all. They were related to the powerful women who had ruled this other Mantrusia. In spite of the concern she felt for Luke and the others and her worries about the pageant, she was totally overwhelmed by the knowledge that she had entered another universe. It was almost too crazy to believe, and yet here she was, and to compound the problem she was incapable of doing anything positive about leaving it. Not only was it physically impossible -- for the moment at least -- but Nerensai's revelations about Mantrusia's history were holding her spellbound for they explained only too well some of her more confusing recent experiences.

"So these witches could use the portals even though they didn't actually build them themselves?"

"Exactly. Just like you and I can. It's something to do with the patterns our brain waves make. Our particular combination of tzensentye and Force powers creates an effect identical to that of the witches, which in turn was similar to that of the civilisation that built these portals.

"A race of inter-universe travellers," murmured Kerensa, her voice filled with wonder. "And the Tsu'por worm-hole is really another kind of portal -- a bigger one through which they must have brought their ships ... or whatever they used as transport."

Nerensai beamed. "Exactly. So you see the complex on Mt Halpurnia belonged to these ancient people. It was their private door and their communication link between the two universes. For all we know, they may have had other portals leading into many other universes."

Kerensa studied the old woman pensively. "Perhaps there are weak points in whatever it is that separates the universes, and these people learned to push through them."

"It's possible," she nodded. "I can't tell you anything more about them because all I know comes from the witches' records. And it's obvious that although the witches were able to use some of these people's technology, they didn't seem to know anything about them. They must have been long gone before the witches rose to power here."

"And you say that it was purely by chance that one of the witches discovered our universe?"

"Oh yes." The ancient queen folded her gnarled hands in her lap and settled back against the soft padding of her settle. The light in the room was dim now, and the sky was streaked with pink and grey. "It was the daughter of one of the leaders. She was returning to Mantrusia -- this Mantrusia -- and she miscalculated her route and swung too close to the wormhole. Her instruments went wild and she thought she'd made her last trip when suddenly everything returned to normal and she thought she was back to where she'd started. When she arrived at what should have been this Mantrusia, she found an uninhabited planet, and when she explored further and investigated what should have been the mountains near her home, her navigation devices started behaving like they had at the worm-hole. Naturally, she was confused, but she was young and adventurous -- like you -- and so she landed and began to explore. She found the door in the cliff, and, as you have just done, found her way here."

"And yet there's no similar complex here." Kerensa frowned as she gazed out at the expanse of trees and darkening sky.

Nerensai shook her head. "But they found evidence of there once having been a sky dome here. They assumed it was once a type of receiving place."

"Like a space port, only one for inter-universe travellers."

Nerensai laughed lightly. "What a wonderful analogy!" She nodded approvingly. "So the witches decided to build their own "port" here, partly to guard the portal I suppose. Then they began to think how they could use this strange new world they'd discovered."

"And they decided to use it as a penal colony." It struck Kerensa then that the idea no longer seemed so outrageous as it had when Nerensai had first mentioned it.

"Yes," Nerensai replied a little stiffly. "Although I prefer to think of it more as a place for dissenters and revolutionaries -- penal has rather a common sound to it."

Kerensa regarded her curiously. It was quirky little instances of queenly vanity such as this that convinced her that Nerensai was who she said she was.

"Of course, the tzensentya were one of the problem groups," the old woman continued. "Because the witches themselves had developed from the ranks of the tzensentya, so they regarded them as a threat."

"But the tzensentya are healers. They're not into power and aggression."

"I know, dear. But if a race of powerful witches can emerge from a chance seduction of one tzensentye by one warlord with supernatural abilities, I suppose they thought it safer to remove the tzensentya altogether to prevent any other opportune pairings. Sometimes the more power you have, the more paranoid you become -- myself excluded of course." She laughed her light-hearted laugh again.

She's as changeable as the Secheniz winds, thought Kerensa.

"So they sent the tzensentya and some of the other potential troublemakers to our Mantrusia." She steered the discussion back to the topic of Mantrusian history.

Nerensai selected one of the soft grain bars that Arnush offered her and nibbled it daintily. "Yes. They scattered them around in different colonies -- six altogether -- all underground."

"Why underground?" "Easy to police and hard to escape from. Each colony had a communication post that was connected to here through the complex on Mt Halpurnia. The mountain acts as a kind of transmitter."

Kerensa's eyes widened. "That must be why it does such strange things to ships' instruments."

"Oh yes. And the interference increases whenever the gate is used, or when one of the communication systems is operating."

"But they wouldn't get used any more," Kerensa frowned. She studied Nerensai's expression for a moment. "Would they?"

The old woman returned the girl's stare and sighed, and suddenly she looked as though the weight of the world was on her shoulders. "There is so much I have yet to tell you, Kerensa. Please." She bent slowly forward and poured a cup of the fragrant liquid from the elegant tchan pot. "Drink and eat. Soon you must return to do what I am no longer capable of doing. But you need to know all that I know in order to do it."

*****

"Look, Skywalker." Atanei Neekau's tanned knuckles turned white as he gripped the comlink in a manner suggestive of what he would have liked to do to Luke, had he been there. "I'm not interested in all this mumbo-jumbo talk. The facts are quite simple. Either we find Kerensa or we all prepare ourselves for untimely and painful deaths. Tavaala and Fa'arika are merciless, not to mention what Antilles'll do to you."

"I understand your concern, Captain," Luke began. The Iicini'ian's implication that he would be unaffected by Wedge's retribution wasn't lost on him but he didn't consider it worth pursuing in the circumstances. Let the man bolster his ego if that's what he needed. "We are making progr-" His voice dissolved in a violent burst of static.

Atanei launched into a series of colourful invectives directed at the comlink and then suddenly stopped. "Oh, wonderful. Not only are we stuck on this godforsaken mountain on this godforsaken planet, but now I'm beginning to have conversations with inanimate objects." He peered up at the mountain again, remembering some of the training exercises he and Kerensa had been involved in and thinking about Luke's revelations about her Force ability. "I suppose at least all this explains how she used to get herself out of all those impossible predicaments. Although," he added, "I can think of better situations in which to come to that realisation."

He stopped again and stared at his reflection in the viewport. "Great. Now I'm talking to myself. Thank you, Kerensa, for finally pushing me over the edge."

****

"Why do we keep getting these bursts of interference?" Leia demanded, frustration adding an edge to her already frayed nerves. She stepped back just as See Threepio tottered more rapidly than usual around the bend in the corridor. "Oh, do move get out from under my feet, Threepio. No!" She held up a hand to silence him before he could come out with some arduous and probably self-pitying explanation. "I don't want to hear it. Go and look for secret panels, or better still see if you can turn some of your extraneous bits into a thermal detonator and blow us out of here."

"But, Princess, Mistress -"

"We're doing all we can, Threepio," Luke looked up at the droid from where he was kneeling in front of Artoo. He turned to Leia in an attempt to placate her. "If we could just get our patterns to fluctuate like Kerensa's we'd be okay, but Artoo can't establish any regular cycle to the fluctuations."

"Let's face it, we're stuck," his sister said pugnaciously.

"Princess, I really -"

"Right, that's it!" Leia reached behind the golden droid's neck and switched him off. "And now I'm going to do something I'm surprised I didn't think of doing earlier. I'm going to walk back up to that other ... whatever it is, and I'm going to scream. Kerensa!"

"Well," sighed Luke tiredly as he clambered back to his feet. "I'll give this another go, but if it doesn't work I think I might be screaming 'Kerensa' with you." He laughed shortly. "You never know, it just might work."

"It did!" said Leia. "She's here."

Luke spun on his heel and gaped.

"Oh dear," said Kerensa. "I'm terribly sorry about all this."

"Where have you been?" demanded Leia, pent up frustration overcoming her relief. "We've been worried sick."

"Um -- well, I'm not really sure," the girl shook her head vaguely. "Oh mercy. Sorry." She leaned against the wall and sank down slowly.

"Are you okay?" Luke bent down and took her gently by the shoulders only to recoil in surprise. "You're frozen!"

"I'll be alright -- just give me a moment." Kerensa leaned her head back and closed her eyes.

"Oh great," said Leia after a rather long moment had passed punctuated by sympathetic warbling from Artoo. "One confused Jedi and one semi-Jedi in a trance. I'm actually feeling compelled to switch See Threepio back on again -- that's how bad it is." She watched as Luke touched Kerensa's neck gently and noted the look on his face. "She's awfully pale, Luke."

"She's put herself into a hibernation state," he said slowly. "But it's a fairly low-level one. I get the impression she's not capable of much more."

"I thought you said her powers were very strong."

"They are. But whatever she's just experienced has weakened her."

"Can't you help her?"

Luke shook his head. "In this state it's better if I don't. She's repairing herself, and if I butt in and speed things up it might harm her." He threw his sister a glance that carried the hint of a reprimand. "Perhaps this might be the moment to try a little Jedi calming technique yourself."

"Don't push it."

"See if you can raise Neekau," he suggested quietly, handing her the comlink.

Leia withdrew around the corner so as not to disturb the still form resting against the wall, although she doubted a full Alderaanian orchestra with horns and bells would have made any inroads into the girl's consciousness. She switched the device on and it crackled and then cleared, so she tested it with her voice.

"Neekau here," came the reply. His relief was palpable.

"Kerensa's back."

"Thank the gods! Where the hell has she been? Never mind -- just get back down here so we can get out of this place." Pulses of static masked a few of his words, but the effect was obviously lessening.

"You'd better get the Falcon primed," said Leia. "Well be down as soon as we can."

Something in her tone must have alerted him, for there was a pause before his voice came back uncertainly over the link. "She is all right isn't she?"

"She's okay, yes. But she is a little weak."

There was another pause and then what sounded like a snort, and Atanei's voice came over strongly again.

"Kerensa -- weak! This I must see!"

To Chapter Thirty-Six | To Chapter Thirty-Eight

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