The Mantrusian Affair: Chapter Forty
"But why the interest in us?" asked Wedge tipping his head on one side, ostensibly to signal his curiosity, but in reality to gain a clearer view of one of Shanult's silent henchmen and gauge what weapons he might be carrying. The bulge near the man's shoulder suggested a standard blaster, but Wedge didn't discount the fact that it might some example of indigenous Cuvorian weaponry. He hoped the necessity wouldn't arise for them to investigate it at close range.
"What makes you assume we're not just simple seekers of knowledge?" he added.
Shanult responded with a series of snorts and rumbles that seemed to emanate from deep within his jacket so that he looked as if he was experiencing a volcanic spasm rather than chuckling. Eventually the shaking ceased and he cleared his throat.
"Oh, you're definitely seekers," he nodded appreciatively. "Simple however?" He studied first Wedge, and then Tycho and Sarash, and then shook his head in definitive reply to his own query. The semi-amused expression was replaced by a hooded stare reminiscent of a predatory avian.
"The New Republic," he began as if reading from an entry in an encyclopaedia. "Formerly the Rebel Alliance a disparate hotchpotch of genuine political dissenters, malcontents and mercenaries now a legitimate choice of government and a ray of hope for all those who suffered discrimination under the Empire. There's no way I would dare apply the word simple to a group that's achieved what you people have."
"So, uh, if you hold us in such high regard, why are we being detained like this?" asked Wedge.
"Well, you have to admit, Captain, that our sector hasn't exactly been a hotbed of Rebel activity. Even the Imperials here keep a fairly low profile. So for you people to visit, and to visit seemingly in order to investigate a piece of local history, which as I've said has suddenly become extraordinarily popular, suggests to me there's something going on I need to know about. The price of independence is, as they say, eternal vigilance. And of course, last time we lost our independence was when we failed to take this damn Nerensai woman seriously. Not a mistake I intend to replicate." He sat back comfortably and folded his arms, although a speculative gleam animated his eyes underneath their thick brows. "Now, perhaps you can begin to enlighten me. Why is the New Rebel Republic so interested in her?"
"Okay," said Wedge, imitating Shanult's casual pose. "As a matter of fact, it's not so much us that are interested as Iicini'ia. We're here on behalf of I-M."
To his complete surprise and consternation Shanult stiffened and then turned swiftly to the burly man nearest the door and gestured with his thumb towards the door. Silently, ominously, the man stepped outside.
"Switch off the recorders, too!" Shanult snapped. "We don't need a record of this."
Wedge caught Tycho's eye and responded in kind to his imperceptible nod towards the remaining guard. He was about to try and alert Sarash to their hurried improvisations when suddenly the big Cuvorian stood up, and to Wedge's growing confusion held up his hand in a conciliatory gesture.
"Don't alarm yourself, Captain. This isn't what you think. We rarely employ the kind of tactics you appear to be anticipating." He waved towards a small bulb-like device perched unobtrusively atop the doorframe and waited until it flashed; then he sat down. Wedge noticed that the predatory glint was gone from his expression.
"Now, let's find out what it is that Aari wants to tell me."
Realising his mouth had dropped open Wedge pulled himself up in his seat. "And here was me thinking what a relief it was to be able to visit your world as myself and not in one of General Tavaala's ridiculous disguises!"
There was another eruption from within Shanult's grey coat, obviously signalling his amusement. "Don't be offended that he's used you as bait. It's an odd system, but it allows us to communicate without apparently being in contact at all."
"I see," said Wedge. "And what would have happened if you hadn't identified us as Rebels and decided to question us?"
"Then he would have to devise some other method to get my attention all part of the challenge you understand. And it keeps us both on our toes." A faint twitch at the side of his mouth suggested a vestige of a grin. "I have to admit, however, that this time we did get some help namely Professor Sulaili's disappearance which the university reported a while ago, mainly because they were sick of fielding requests to contact him. That led us to inquire about him ourselves here at the Institute, which in turn alerted us to the great Nerensai awakening that appears to be going on." The man's grizzled eyebrow tufts twitched upwards. "You just happened along at the right time."
"The story of our lives," Wedge murmured sardonically. "As you can deduce from our coming here, there's a lot we need to find out, but we'll certainly fill you in on what we know. However, there is something I'm curious about, and that's the identity of the other people who you say have been here to see Sulaili or to look up the Nerensai file. I gather you'll have names or holos?"
Shanult nodded. "We'll take you to headquarters so you can check them out yourself. After the university notified us about the last inquiry, we commandeered the Institute's security tapes, plus we also took their file of data request forms the same ones you had to fill out. The university has no visual records, but the departmental secretary was able to piece together a list of Sulaili seekers." He produced his strange chuckle again. "A lot of them were acquaintances or academics, but it's just occurred to me now that the so-called Iicini'ian Mystical Association that tried several times to contact him was none other than I-M. Aari will give me a hard time for missing that little clue."
"You two obviously enjoy a stimulating relationship," Wedge commented dryly.
"Like I said, it keeps us both on our toes." Shanult turned back to his large associate. "We need to take all this stuff with us, Jaiden. Make the appropriate noises to the attendant, will you, so we can okay it with the Director." He turned back to Wedge as the guard departed to carry out his task. "No doubt she'll object these academics always seem to imagine they have the sole ownership of intellectual property, tangible or not. However, we need more room than they can offer us here plus I think we're going to need copious quantities of coffeine. And there's no way Mistress Director is going to allow that in here!"
Wedge nodded, and then remembered the datacard that Shanult had waved at them earlier. "That file of Suliaili's on Nerensai's fleet," he said. "Why did you remove that from the package?"
"Ah, that's right." Shanult drew the card out carefully and handed it over. "Better keep it all together I guess. That was the only card the last chap to come here wanted. I had thought you might be able to explain the significance of it." His shrewd blue eyes regarded them each quizzically.
Wedge shook his head. "Sorry. All we know is that Nerensai was some kind of witch who ruled Mantrusia for longer than the average lifespan, and was eventually defeated by the Old Republic." He returned the card to its place in the storage box, and glanced up at the security chief. "Who was it that was looking?"
Shanult studied Wedge thoughtfully for a moment as if debating whether to reply or not. "You tell me who you think it was?" he said finally.
Wedge exchanged glances with Tycho and Sarash. "We'd say Governor Vadeem Kuzhak of Mantrusia."
Shanult cocked his head. "Interesting," he mused, "but wrong. It was a chap called Truin, Vyor Truin to be precise recently promoted to Admiral of the Imperial Hocqyellen Fleet. Know anything about him?"
Wedge felt his brow crease with a frown. "Not much. Except that we think he was connected with a recent unsuccessful attempt to capture two members of I-M."
Shanult was suddenly alert. "Hmmm. Sounds like this is going to get complicated." A curt double knock at the door interrupted them, and the second guard poked his head back in.
"Director wants to see you, boss," he growled.
Shanult rolled his eyes. "Of course she does." He beckoned to Wedge to stand. "Jaiden, you and Romi carry this stuff to the front desk and wait for me there. And call HQ to clear out the Ops room I want the tables clear and a pot of hot caff ready asap." He took a few steps out the door and then turned back to them, a cunning gleam in his eyes. "On second thoughts how about you come with me, Captain? I think I might need that winning smile of yours. Mine's too world weary."
Wedge heard Tycho snort, and he threw him a menacing glare. "If she wants assurance that we won't damage the data, take Sarash. He's done academic research before, so he's familiar with the process and the lingo."
"Works for me," said Shanult breezily. "Come on, sunshine."
Sarash nodded obediently and followed the big man out.
"The sooner we get out of here, the sooner we sort this mess out."
Wedge was aware of Shanult's voice fading as he hurried away with Sarash, and of the teasing expression still on Tycho's face, but he his thoughts were concentrated on issues of his own. He felt as though there was something hovering at the edges of his awareness, some fact he should be able to grasp; a connection that so far he hadn't recognised. It was annoying, and frustrating, to knowingly be within reach and yet still be without that vital last link.
Without consciously knowing he was moving, he registered the venerable atmosphere in the atrium, the spacious dome above his head, the warm deep russet of the tooled wood panelling. What was Truin after, and why was he involved? What was that place Kerensa had discovered near the spot where she crashed?
Sighing inwardly, he resolved not to rest until he discovered the answers, because no matter how he tried, he couldn't shrug away the horrible feeling that their time was running out.
The air filtering into General Tavaala's office brought welcome traces of night fragrances to the group of men arranged at neat intervals around the operations table. The placement of the chairs was, however, the only concession to traditional Iicini'ian orderliness, for the men themselves were in various stages of minor dishevelment dependent on their state of wakefulness when Tavaala had summoned them. Fa'arika stretched back in his chair and scratched the grey stubble on his close-shaven scalp to alleviate the effects of the humidity as he contemplated the recording Tavaala had just played them Elozhi's call for help delivered by his flushed and flustered looking aide.
"Good old Elozhi," he growled. "Never let the fact you're facing potential disaster disrupt the correct protocol and force you to actually lower yourself to talk to us commoners face to face."
"You often find that people do stick even more desperately to familiar procedures in extraordinary circumstances," Crix Madine pointed out. "Rock in the storm mentality, I suppose something to cling to. How long ago did you receive the message again?"
"An hour," replied Tavaala. "It went to the Aureg Base relay station first coded strictly for Princess Leia, and then she alerted me."
"And at that point Elozhi had imposed martial law and was moving his staff temporarily to the MPC station." Madine glanced toward Tavaala for confirmation.
The big Iicini'ian nodded and exhaled noisily. "The aide said he'd sent his personal security contingent there to clear the executive level of any unnecessary personnel."
"Did he mention anything about the other governors?" Ackbar asked. Of all the members of the assembled group, the Mon Calamari general looked to be the least discomfited by the lugubrious humidity. In fact, quite the opposite, he appeared to be revelling in it.
"He said that they had all left to institute the martial law edict in their own provinces."
Ackbar tipped his head forward in the semblance of a nod but his eyes remained firmly on Tavaala; the pellucid membrane that protected them was tinged with a speculative glimmer. "I'm curious to know what Governor Kuzhak's next move will be, especially as it's obvious he's had a hand in inciting the unrest."
"Exactly. The other question mark is Truin. I " Tavaala's statement was cut short by a loud interchange outside the door.
"What the " began Fa'arika, but the door burst open before he could come out with an appropriate expletive, and a familiar tall and extremely tousled figure in a grey boiler suit burst in.
"General Solo!" Tavaala threw him a relieved salute. "I was hoping you'd be back in time to give us some feedback." He pulled the seat from his desk over to the table and indicated to Han to sit down, studying him quizzically as he complied. "Did you manage to contact our man?"
"Interesting question," Han replied sardonically, and threw Fa'arika a jaundiced look to which the Intelligence Chief responded with a toothy grin. "Next time you send me on a mission, remind me to wear body armour."
"Ah, but that would have made you overly suspicious," Tavaala pointed out.
"True," Han acceded. "So what's up? I hear Elozhi's been in contact. And sorry about the loud entrance by the way, but your guard didn't seem to think I should be allowed to join in."
"No apology required," said Tavaala breezily in a way that made Han suspect his arrival had been less of a surprise than he expected. "On the contrary, we need every bit of information we can accumulate at the moment. And it would be most helpful to know what Admiral Truin's up to."
Han sucked his breath in between his teeth. "The boy's been busy apparently. He made a short trip away about two standard weeks ago, and since then he's been to-ing and fro-ing between Starrich and his flagship. He's got two groups assembled and in battle readiness in the Hocqyellen system, but when I left he was still planet-side in the Moff's presidio in Starrich."
Tavaala made a rueful face. "Not good news about the fleet. But it is good that he's still there, at least in terms of this projected meeting with Elozhi." He stopped for a moment knitting his dark brows together. "The only loose cannon is Kuzhak. Although Elozhi claims he's in Bakhunia, we have no guarantee of that."
"Except that he obviously wasn't with Elozhi, and hence possibly won't know about Elozhi contacting Princess Leia," said Fa'arika. "Unless of course he has the Capitol bugged."
Tavaala's furrowed expression expressed the depth of his concern. "I don't like the idea of sending Princess Leia and the others into a situation with so many variables."
"What other choice do we have?" said Madine matter-of-factly. "I think we should contact Elozhi at the MPC station and let him know we'll be there as soon as we can. How long is it going to take to get everyone who needs to go together?"
"Not long. The only one not actually on the spot at present is Ensign Kalichi," grunted Tavaala. For a moment his face took on a world-weary expression, but it faded as quickly as it had appeared.
"Crix is right," agreed Han lowering the flimsi which Fa'arika had handed him that contained a summary of recent events. "We need to get over there while everyone's busy controlling the chaos, and before Truin decides to move."
Tavaala studied him thoughtfully, his serious expression making his tanned complexion seem darker. "That was Princess Leia's feeling, too." He sighed quietly. "I shall contact Elozhi then and inform him that the Princess will meet with him."
"I volunteer the Falcon as transport," said Han quickly.
"I appreciate that, General Solo." Tavaala's frown lessened slightly.
"Do you want me to contact Ensign Kalichi?" Fa'arika asked quietly, noting that Han had turned to discuss something with Madine and Ackbar.
The big general nodded slowly as if his head had suddenly doubled in weight. "Thanks, Naroo." He turned aside so that his words could be heard by Fa'arika alone. "Tell her it's a case for diplomatic garb, but she has my approval to carry any weapons she can successfully conceal inside it. And warn her to keep her eyes peeled."
"Will do," replied Fa'arika with a nod. He went to stand up, but then changed his mind. "Speaking personally, Aari, I'd feel very sorry for anyone who does make the stupid mistake of trying anything funny. They'll probably find themselves disconnected into parts and wired into the Falcon's defence system."
A faint grin temporarily reduced the grave expression in Tavaala's grey eyes. "Now there's a positive thought," he murmured. "But there's too much in this situation that I can't figure out and that makes me very uncomfortable."
"I agree," replied the shorter man. "But don't worry. I'll warn her." He threw the general a quick salute and slipped away quietly, leaving Tavaala to turn back to Han.
"Once we've organised everyone for this meeting with Chief Elozhi, General, I'd like to hear what Mr Newson's been up to."
Han grinned laconically and settled back in his chair as if selecting the most comfortable position. "In that case a pot of coffeine wouldn't go amiss, or of course anything stronger you might like to offer me. It's going to be a long session."
The Iicini'ian's expression lightened again. "Excellent," he growled. "In that case I'll see what I can find for you."
"But no Churban headbangers, please," Han added with a warning stab of his finger to emphasise the point. "That Hocqyellen variety was far too effective for my liking."
Anybody entering the operations room at Cuvor's military headquarters could have been forgiven for thinking that they had mistakenly stepped through into a secret research annex of the university. Data screens at both ends displayed various sections from Professor Sulaili's records, while the operations table was festooned with yellowing document rolls, wallets of flimsi sheets and series of data cards. General Shanult had shed his long overcoat and, resembling an over-worked clerk in his rolled up shirt sleeves, was busy entering the information Wedge had given him about the current situation on Mantrusia, muttering to himself occasionally as he struggled to spell some of the foreign words. He peered over curiously as the screen Wedge and Tycho were studying brought up a schematic representation of a fleet of ships.
"Ha so this is what our dear friend Truin was interested in, is it?" He scraped his chair back and wandered over to take a closer look, noting the troubled frowns on the faces of the two pilots. "Have you seen anything like these before?"
Wedge's dark head shook a silent negative.
"And I thought the Ssi-ruk were odd!" muttered Tycho.
"The Ssi-ruk were odd," said Wedge. "These are positively bizarre."
"Those fighters look like larger versions of something you'd see in an atomic microscope," Shanult suggested after studying them from several different angles. He traced his finger around a faint bluish line surrounding one of the ships. "If you can imagine the ship as the nucleus of an atom, that could almost be an electron path."
"I think that's their shielding system," said Wedge musingly. He flipped to the next screen and studied the image of the small fighters regrouping in a manner reminiscent of atomic bonding. "Your analogy could well be right, General. When the ships clump together, those floating shields or whatever they are reorient to protect the group. A cluster of those things would be pretty difficult to eliminate because you'd have to hammer through the equivalent of four, five even ten sets of shields."
"And even then the ships could break up into individual ones or twos again," added Tycho. "It'd be like swatting myrmin."
Shanult raised his shaggy eyebrows and gazed at Wedge thoughtfully. "Pretty useful technology if you ask me. Does Sulaili say what happened to the fleet?"
"He doesn't know for sure what happened to it, but he's collected a lot of evidence to suggest what didn't happen to it."
"Well, he reckons it wasn't completely destroyed," replied Wedge. "He claims a remnant of it survived, but disappeared with Nerensai."
"You're saying she wasn't killed?" Shanult frowned.
"Not according to Sulaili," said Tycho. "The lover Patal was, but Sulaili's certain that Nerensai escaped."
Shanult's frown deepened and he returned thoughtfully to his seat at the operations table. "Okay," he said slowly. "So what we have is in effect another missing fleet legend one which appears to have whetted the interest of our shifty Admiral Truin." He reached over to his datapad and deftly punched in a series of commands, and then sat impatiently tapping the table with his fingers. "And one which he seems to be taking seriously enough to make a special trip here just to check it out. So let's see if we have anything on him that might suggest why."
"That might help," agreed Wedge. "I-M didn't have much and certainly not anything that seemed relevant, except the fact that he'd been promoted rapidly."
"Really? Well, that is a little suspicious," said Shanult. "But I guess the thing that makes me curious is Truin's apparent singular interest in the fleet, whereas Professor Ban whom I-M claim was implicated with Governor Kuzhak had a more comprehensive approach and left no stone unturned in his avenues of research." His attention was diverted by a beep from his datapad, and he turned hopefully to study the details his search had elicited. After a few seconds he grunted disconsolately. "No obvious connection between Truin and Mantrusia or Kuzhak. According to this, Truin's from Fin'kru which is at the edge of the Hapes Consortium."
"What was that?" demanded Sarash suddenly.
"Fin'kru," Shanult repeated. "Never heard of it myself. I "
"No," Sarash interrupted, becoming a little red-faced at his necessary rudeness, but equally certain that Shanult had just said something important. "I mean what did you say about Fin'kru?"
The Intelligence man shrugged good-humouredly. "Apparently it's the home of our suave and urbane friend Admiral T ah ... ah ... ruin!" he sneezed violently.
To Wedge's surprise, Sarash spun round and stared agog at them.
"'Scuse me," Shanult spluttered, and then grinned. "I always tried to convince my teachers I was allergic to studying seems like I've just proved my own lies." He threw Sarash an amused glance, but the young Corellian was focused on his datapad, scrolling backward so rapidly that the successive screens became a blur of superimposed glyphs.
"Fin'kru ... Truin ... Te'rouan," he muttered. "Creon Te'rouan. Fin'kru." He stopped. "There it is!"
Tycho glanced at Wedge and followed him over to peer at the screen that Sarash had selected.
"Creon Te'rouan," the young pilot announced waving at the image in front of them. "The man who became known as Patal."
Wedge managed to keep his jaw from sagging as much at the serendipity of Shanult's sneezing fit as at Sarash's discovery. "Truin Te'rouan," he murmured, shaking his head in wonder. "I think we've found our connection."
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