The Mantrusian Affair: Chapter Thirty-Eight
The ancient city of Fenastobah was still sleeping when three X-Wings, emblazoned with their distinctive red stripes, emerged like silver protrusions from the cloud cover and began their approach to the spaceport.
"Wow!" Wedge heard a gasp that he identified as coming from Sarash.
"Ditto," said Tycho, and then after a pause. "No TIE ambush. What's the matter with this place?"
"That's what you get for visiting a non-aligned planet, Tycho," explained Wedge.
"Well, it's not good enough. I demand at least a few welcoming shots from a ground-based E-Web. Don't they know we don't feel at home unless we're being shot at."
"I doubt they even know who we are," replied Wedge. "But I'm sure they'll have security measures -- they're probably just very unobtrusive."
"True," agreed Tycho. As they dropped lower he was able to admire the almost organic nature of the cityscape with its bulbous towers and curving balustrades stretching out like tendrils from building to building. It reminded him a little of his home on Alderaan.
"I think the Historical Institute is just ahead of us," said Wedge.
"It's bigger than I thought," Sarash said admiringly.
"Apparently Cuvor's been the hub of academic life in this part of the galaxy for thousands of years," Wedge told him. "Mantrusia matched it for a short period of time under Nerensai -- although apparently even then Cuvor was the place to come for anything to do with history."
"What do you make of this Nerensai business?" asked Tycho. He had meant to pick Wedge's brains on the latest developments before they left, but hadn't been able to locate him.
"I really don't know what to make of it, Tycho." Wedge led them towards the western section of the spaceport to their alloted landing bay. "But whatever people know about Nerensai will be recorded here, so hopefully it'll give us more facts to play around with. What would really be helpful would be if we could locate this Professor Sulaili, but nobody seems to have heard from him in a while -- since he retired in fact."
"Probably find him lodged under a pile of datacards in his study," chuckled Tycho.
"Covered in dust," added Sarash.
"Hope not," said Wedge. "Tavaala seems to think he could be our trump card."
"Tavaala's obviously not a sabacc player," observed Tycho duplicating Wedge's perfect three-point landing.
Wedge grinned. Tycho's reference to Tavaala had flipped his thoughts back to Iicini'ia and to the person who had dominated his thinking during their journey. He was still smiling two hours later when they walked through a set of cavernous carved doors into the atrium of the venerable University of Cuvor and followed the multi-lingual signs directing them to the Division of Tarsan Studies.
"Can I be of any assistance?"
The three men turned towards the young woman at the reception desk.
"I hope so," said Wedge politely. "We're looking for Professor Norafizin Sulaili. I believe he works here."
"Ah," nodded the woman, and she quickly finished keying something into her datapad and stood up. "Yes. Professor Sulaili did work here, but he retired last year."
"Oh." Wedge hoped the disappointment sounded genuine. "Well, would you be able to give us his home address. We've come quite a long way and were really hoping to meet him."
"I'd love to be able to help you." The woman smiled apologetically. "But unfortunately when Professor Sulaili retired he relinquished his professorial lodgings on the campus and left on a study tour. As far as we know he hasn't returned."
Wedge turned to Sarash and Tycho who looked suitably put out. "There must be some way of contacting him, surely. What about the hypernet? Does he have a dropbox?"
"Yes, he does, and we've tried to contact him ourselves through that, but so far he hasn't replied."
"Isn't that rather unusual?" Wedge's concern was genuine.
"I suppose it would be for most people. But the professor is -- well, I suppose he's what you might call eccentric -- and he's also very absent-minded. He has been known to disappear for quite long periods of time, especially when he's off on one of his research projects."
"Oh," Wedge sighed. "Are you sure there's no way of contacting him? Nobody who might know where he is?"
"The only place I can think of," said the woman regarding him thoughtfully, "is the Historical Institute. He practically lived there when he wasn't here or away on a field trip. We did enquire there a while ago when we had a message from an organisation trying to track him down, but at that stage nobody had heard from him. However, you never know -- he may have contacted them since."
Wedge and Tycho swapped knowing looks. The organisation the woman was referring to was probably I-M.
"Well, in that case we'll try the Institute," said Wedge throwing the woman a grateful smile. "Thanks for your help."
"My pleasure." The woman returned the smile. She opened her mouth as if about to say something else, but then appeared to reconsider, and simply nodded at them instead.
"Well, that certainly hasn't helped us much," Wedge murmured to Tycho as they wound their way back to the main entrance.
"No, although to be fair I think that woman was being as helpful as she could be. In fact I think she was quite taken with you."
Wedge turned to his friend and noticed the blue eyes twinkling.
"You should smile like that more often. It gives you that look of boyish vulnerability that women seem to like."
Wedge threw him what he hoped was a dark look. "Any more comments like that and we'll soon see who's the vulnerable one."
"Sure thing, smiley."
Wedge's second attempt to look threatening failed even more miserably than the first, and he questioned whether bringing Tycho and leaving Janson behind had been as inspired a decision as he had originally thought.
The blond receptionist watched the three young men as they trooped back down the corridor. Although they looked disconsolate, they still carried themselves with the casually upright bearing that she associated with the military. A door opened behind her, and she turned around to face the serious-looking man with the untidy thatch of white hair.
"Was that okay, Professor Pillai?"
He nodded. "That was fine, Narinie. That's all we need to do with these enquiries."
"They seemed quite nice," she said.
"They were certainly polite. Much better than that dreadful chap a couple of weeks ago."
"I wonder why everyone suddenly wants to talk with Professor Sulaili?" She sat down at her desk and switched off the alert signal she had keyed open on her datapad.
"Complete mystery to me I'm afraid. I just wish he would contact us so we don't have to keep dealing with these people. We're a university not a missing person's bureau." He turned on his heel rather grumpily and returned to his room.
Narinie sighed and entered a few more items to the list of recent examination results she was preparing for the academic records section. The image of the young brown-eyed man popped back into her mind. I hope they'll be all right, she thought.
"I'm really not used to people who actually want to be helpful," said Wedge as he sat down in their small cubicle in front of the pile of datacards and rolls of flimsy that the assistant at the Historical Institute had brought them. Not only that, but she had also promised to pass on their enquiry about Professor Sulaili in the hope that someone might know where he was.
Tycho chuckled. "Just keep smiling, Captain. Soon the galaxy will be fawning at your feet."
"You know, I had thought it was a good decision I'd made to bring you and not Janson -- but now I'm beginning to revise it."
"Sorry. I guess a break from the boredom of perpetual escort duty has gone to my head."
"Yes, well -- this is a fairly serious matter you know. I mean if Palpatine was interested in this Nerensai woman, it obviously wasn't because of her smile."
"Reprimand ackowledged and understood, sir." Tycho threw him a mock salute. "Okay, where do we start?"
"Well," said Wedge. "Although I can see Sarash is longing to get his hands on those scrolls, I think we need to get Sulaili's take on all this. So let's look at the venerable professor's material first." He lifted up a plastine cube almost full of datacards and read the list of contents, and then began flipping through the cards. Suddenly he stopped. "That's funny -- the last one's missing." He stared at Tycho, suddenly alert. "What did that assistant say about Nerensai being popular?"
"She said that Nerensai seemed to be becoming a popular lady because there's been quite a few requests for information about her in recent years -- not to mention someone asking about her only two weeks ago."
"Looks like he or she might have taken a souvenir."
"Which card was it?"
"The one entitled Nerensai's fleet."
"Nerensai's fleet," mused Tycho. "Why take that one and not the others?"
"And how did they get it out?" asked Sarash. "The security here is pretty thorough."
"Very thorough, actually." The unknown voice made them all jump. They swung around to find they were the objects of scrutiny of three sets of eyes -- cool appraising eyes. The owner of the voice held up a datacard. "I gather this is what you're looking for?"
Wedge noticed that the stranger was studying each of them carefully, and gauging their reactions. He exchanged a quick glance with Tycho, and then returned his gaze to the man taking in his weathered features and shrewd expression.
"I don't know. Which one is it?"
The man smiled and nodded almost appreciatively. He slipped the card back into the pocket of his grey jacket and, his eyes never leaving Wedge's face, he drew out a small cube.
"Captain Wedge Antilles, New Rebel Republic Starfighter Command." He nodded with a hint of formality that might have been genuine had his face been more expressive. "Lieutenant Tycho Celchu, former Imperial pilot and, last but not least, Flight Officer Sarash Gion, native of Corellia. Not as much on you as your superiors yet, sunshine." He tossed Wedge the cube.
"Colonel Tyren Shanolt, Cuvor Intelligence Service," he read, instinctively glancing up to verify the man's similarity with his holographic image. "Intelligence?"
"We like to pride ourselves as possessing the same," Shanult replied dryly. Without turning he ushered his two large companions into the small study room, and, while the second closed the door, he pulled out the remaining seat and sat down.
"Now gentlemen." He smiled, but Wedge was aware that his eyes, behind their hooded brows, remained untouched by any warmth. "Let's have a little chat about Queen Nerensai, and why in the name of the gods every second person in the galaxy suddenly seems to find her so intriguing."
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