The Mantrusian Affair: Chapter Ten
Iella

Luke was about to give up when he heard footsteps approaching. He poked his head around the port landing strut of his X Wing thinking how ridiculous it was to be sneaking around like a spy. Next, he thought, he'd be donning false beard and ... That's funny, where's she gone? He stepped out into the empty aisle between the Rebel vessels and the parking area for I-M personnel, checking back towards the ramp entry from the lower levels. Except for two security droids the hangar was empty and the external security barrier was down, most of the day staff having already left. Han, Leia and a large group of the Rogue Squadron pilots were eating in the cafe, while some of the frigate crew had been shuttled into Ta'arota, the nearest town.

A faint scraping made Luke turn, and nearly fall over. The mysterious Ensign Kalichi was already sitting in the cab of her speeder. He leapt toward it just as he heard the clicking of the warm-up on the coils.

"Ensign! Wait!" he jogged up to the front of the vehicle and stood looking up at her.

"Can I help you Commander? Or is this the latest in the Rebel arsenal of novel diplomatic approaches?" She gazed down at him imperiously. Although he was carefully avoiding reaching out his senses, he caught a tremor of apprehension, like a ripple in an energy field.

"Er, no. I realize it's a bit unconventional, but I rather got the impression you wanted to avoid me."

"I do," she said flatly.

Luke hesitated. Such honesty was disconcerting. "It's just, I haven't met anyone with your particular ability before," he said, trying not to sound lame.

She glanced quickly around the hangar, and flashed him a warning look. "Jump in!" she commanded quietly.

Luke gazed up perplexed, but she pointed rather fiercely to the seat beside her. Uncertainly Luke clambered in, and she quickly pulled forward on the repulsor control, raising the old speeder into the air. A tweak of forward thrust moved it sedately towards the security barrier. She slipped her ID into the slot, and the next minute they were out gathering velocity as she guided the vehicle across the landing field.

Luke thought she might be going to stop on the other side, but once past the guard at the external security gate, they began to accelerate towards the foothills of the distant peaks of what Luke had discovered earlier were the Fastazi Mountains.

"I'm afraid if you want to talk about what I think you do, then you're going to have to do it on my terms. If you're unhappy about it, say so now and I'll take you back."

Luke looked across at her. "I'm not really so much unhappy as confused," he replied. "But if I've caused you any distress, I apologize."

"I'm not distressed, I'm angry. Nobody knows about my Force ability," she turned to him dark eyes threatening, "and no-one is to know."

Luke gazed back. Under Palpatine those who were Force sensitive had been hunted and killed or turned to fulfil his evil purposes. Kerensa had no doubt concealed her powers to protect herself, but that old threat no longer existed. Perhaps her antagonism was just habit.

"There's no longer any danger for people like yourself," he said kindly.

She was silent for a moment as she guided the old SoroSuub through a patch of rough scrub peppered with boulders and scree.

"Says who?" she said finally, eyeing him coldly.

"I'm assuming that you've kept your Force ability a secret for fear of repercussions," he said frowning slightly.

"That's one way of putting it," she replied mysteriously. She pegged the thrust lever back to slow their progress towards a ragged line of rocks, eventually easing the vehicle through a gap. The vista that opened before them made Luke catch his breath. Spreading like a rich green and grey-mottled cloak at their feet lay a huge forest which stretched to the north-western reaches of the mountains. To the west, in the distant shimmers of heat haze, he caught the glint of light reflecting off transparisteel suggesting the location of a town. But separating them from the valley below was a cliff which fell away at a terrifying angle. Eons before, the rock had been eaten away by streams of water as it coursed its way down from the foothills to the valley floor, leaving a labyrinth of channels and uplifted furrows of rock. Kerensa levelled the speeder with the angle of descent and angled it slightly to port. Then without hesitation she pulled the thrust lever forward.

She turned to Luke, scrutinizing him guardedly. "I've got to be honest, Commander. I don't really want to discuss the Force with you, but seeing you've forced my arm, so to speak, I'll comply. I don't do so willingly, however."

A jagged fist of rock grabbed at Luke's ear and he flinched involuntarily before his instinct to reach out with the Force took over, allowing him to swing with the movements of the speeder.

"I also resent having my mind invaded, and I'd thank you not to do so."

"Er, you seem to be able to counter that fairly effectively," he said, simultaneously becoming aware in his peripheral senses of a feeling of enclosure as the channel narrowed and deepened.

"And if I couldn't, would you keep doing it?" she asked coldly, swinging the SoroSuub to starboard and slipping past another outcrop.

Luke hesitated. It occurred to him that reaching out to people with his Force sense had become so much of a habit that he seldom stopped to question the morality of it any more, mainly because he used it most frequently in situations of danger where it was a boon. He was about to justify his behaviour when the channel before them narrowed even further into a convoluted series of S bends. The old speeder slipped gracefully left and right, floated up to top a tooth of rock, ducked under a crescent carved from the rim of the course and sailed back out into the intense, but now welcome, light of the lowering Iicini'ian sun. Luke turned back curiously to gaze back up the precipice she had just negotiated and felt his scalp prickle. Before he could comment, Kerensa turned to him, her dark eyes boring into him.

"My family died because of the Force and my grandfather was killed because of it too. The Force brings nothing but unhappiness and death. I used it before I realised what it could do. But after Alderaan I made a vow never to use it purposely again. And nothing that you're going to say is going to make me change my mind," she said firmly.

He flicked another backwards look and frowned, positive that no-one using only innate ability could have flown down the channel with such ease. But somehow this did not seem to be the appropriate moment to question her about it. Perhaps a more indirect route was going to prove more fruitful.

"My sister's family was killed on Alderaan, as was the family of one of Wedge's men."

By now they were skimming sedately along the mossy floor of a corridor which divided the forest into two flanks. Kerensa turned towards him curiously.

"I thought Wedge was a pilot?"

"He is," replied Luke, a little non-plussed. "He's the Squadron Commander."

Her eyebrows arched, and she gazed ahead at the forest. "Well, well," she murmured. "C vto fohr mye djiroynea."

He threw her a quizzical look.

She gave a dismissive shake of her head. "It's an old Mantrusian proverb, difficult to translate literally, and totally unrelated to the discussion. I'm sorry about your sister's family, but surely they were your family too."

"We were separated at birth and brought up by different families. We ... only learned about each other recently." The truth from a certain perspective, he thought wryly. Ben would probably be smiling that sagacious smile of his, and nodding knowingly.

Kerensa glanced across at him again, before turning her attention back to the route ahead. They followed the edge of the forest in a wide outwards swoop and then turned to the right towards what looked like a silvery bubble. As they drew closer Luke realised it was small spherical house, nestled in a hollow in the forest.

"That can't have been easy," she said sympathetically, "but it's better to find family than lose them. And if it wasn't for the Force and all its possible abuses mine and your sister's would still be here."

"It isn't the power itself, it's the user. Palpatine and Vader were twisted by the Dark Side because of their lust for power. They'd forgotten that a Jedi is only an instrument for the Force."

"And that," she said, pulling back on the thrust and letting the vehicle settle on its supports, "is why I can't be trusted with it, because I too have used it for personal gain." She jumped down lightly and gazed up at him. "I'm sorry I was rude earlier. But you must understand, I cannot use the Force. And I meant it when I asked you to keep my sensitivity to it to yourself. I hope I can trust you."

"You can trust me to keep your secret, but I would still like to try and understand your feelings about the Force. I meet so few people with any sensitivity to it at all that to meet someone like yourself is - well," he held up his hands, "it's amazing." He could see the dark eyes softening a little, but she still looked apprehensive. "The way you were able to block me out earlier, for instance. How did you do it? Is it something you were taught?" She had begun to walk towards the door of the bubble house, so he jumped down and caught up with her.

She shook her head. "I was never taught." She placed her hand over the identification slot and the door slid open. "I just found out I could do things that nobody else seemed to be able to do." She walked across to a bench on the other side and lifted the lid of a compartment set within it. A delicious aroma made Luke suddenly aware that he hadn't eaten since mid-day and was now quite hungry.

"Good, that's all ready to eat," she said. "I hope you don't mind vegetarian food?"

Luke gazed at the bunches of herbs and bulbous fruits hanging around the window above the bench area. The house smelt homely, and it felt strangely peaceful, reminding him poignantly of his Aunt Beru's kitchen back on Tatooine. He and his uncle hadn't often seen eye to eye, but Luke had always been able to find a refuge in the company of his aunt as she toiled away cooking and attending to her role as housekeeper.

"It's not going to make you short if I stay?" he said uncertainly.

"It will probably make me short-tempered," she said wryly, "but not short of food."

"Oh. Well, I must admit I'd be grateful for a meal, and no, I don't have any preference for meat." He moved closer to accept the platter full of steaming stew and caught sight of the garden with its colourful profusion of trees, shrubs and vines. "You must be almost self-sufficient," he said admiringly. Iicini'ia was about as different from Tatooine as it was possible to be.

"It was a lesson we unfortunately learned from necessity. When Iicini'ia withdrew from the Empire, Palpatine made it almost impossible for us to trade. It was a case of provide for ourselves or perish, so we chose not to perish." She flipped closed the lid of a cool-server and handed him a tall beaker full of some sort of juice. "Now it's a case of he who laughs last, laughs best."

Luke followed her towards the door.

"There are a lot of people in your debt you know, Commander. When I heard you'd killed Vader and Palpatine, I have to admit, I danced for joy. I hope they suffered."

Luke sat down on the log she indicated, feeling rather uncomfortable. Rumours as to the events at Endor varied in degrees of inventiveness, but all agreed that he was, dependent on one's point of view, the hero or villain of the hour. The problem for Luke lay in the implications involved in providing the correct version. He knew how difficult accepting the truth of his own parentage had been, but he had eventually been able to work through the process slowly. To the average person, especially those with Rebel sympathies, it was nigh on impossible to accept that the saviour of the galaxy had been the son of one its major oppressors, and that that oppressor had in his last moments found redemption. People had wanted blood and revenge, not sacrifice, for somehow a last minute act of self-sacrifice denigrated their own suffering. He had mentally placed himself a number of times in Leia's position, and always the thought had arisen that if Vader could in his last moments save one from the Emperor, why could he have not acted earlier to save billions. It was emotionally easier to accept the rumours.

The other problem he was experiencing was the strange effect Kerensa seemed to be having on him. Under normal circumstances he could sense people as occupying a space within the Force, and the patterns this space invoked in his mind gave him an idea of their strengths and the bent of their personality. It varied in intensity from person to person, but in Kerensa's case it was incredibly difficult to read. She shone with a luminosity he had only encountered once before, and that was with Yoda. No doubt he would have sensed it with Obi-Wan too, if he had had sufficient training at the time. At the same time, however, he felt as if this image was suffering some sort of interference, for it appeared to fluctuate. Whatever it was that was causing this, he found it disturbing and inexplicable.

Luke gazed at her thoughtfully, and then resolved to take a gamble. Perhaps she might be more amenable if she realized that she was not the only one plagued by skeletons in her closet. "I didn't actually kill Vader, I only defeated him. And it was he who destroyed the Emperor."

Kerensa turned to gaze at him in astonishment. "What do you mean, Vader destroyed the Emperor?"

Luke took a deep breath. "Darth Vader was my father. The Emperor orchestrated events so that we would confront each other; but when I refused to turn to the Dark Side and become his puppet, he tried to destroy me. He would have succeeded but my father interceded and destroyed him instead. My father died as a result of his injuries, but his final act saved me. In a sense it saved us all."

Kerensa stared at him aghast, her bowl of stew threatening to tip over in her lap. She could see from the haunted expression in his pale blue eyes that such honesty had not been easy for him. "So his last act was good?"

Luke nodded.

She gazed into the distance. "All those people he murdered," she murmured, her voice tight.

"I know," said Luke quietly. "It's easier to relate to the monster than the saviour."

She continued staring out towards the blue-black peaks. Finally she shook her head. "I can't accept this easily," she said dully. "I know there's never any purpose in death, but I had taken consolation from the feeling that justice had been done, that a good man had destroyed evil. Now I have to accept that evil was destroyed by evil." She turned towards him and her dark eyes searched his. "I realise, Commander, that it must have been doubly difficult for you to have had to accept that ... man as your father," she shuddered. "But it will take me a while to assimilate what you've just told me." Her gaze slipped down to her lap, and she righted the bowl but made no effort to eat. "I gather that this is not common knowledge."

Luke shook his head.

She studied him guardedly for a moment. "So what you're saying is that we all have our secrets and you have told me yours, and now it is my turn to spill the beans."

Luke gazed back. "I would like to try and understand why you say you can't use the Force."

She held his gaze, but a tortured expression passed over her face. "You have to understand, Commander, that I have never told anyone about this. Even my family didn't realise I was using the Force."

"But there must have been Jedi in your family?"

"Yes, my mother's father was one. But I didn't learn about him until after I'd started playing around with the Force. To start with, you see, I didn't know anything about it. I just assumed it was normal to be able to move things around and make people do the things I wanted. But then as I grew older I clicked that others couldn't do the same things I could, and I began to wonder if I was some sort of witch, like the witches in the old Mantrusian legends my father read us."

"Did you ever ask your parents about it?"

"That's the funny thing, Commander. I think I must have sensed some sort of negativity towards it because I know I never did. Perhaps I knew instinctively that what I was doing was wrong, or maybe it was because the witches in the stories were always bad, who knows? Anyway it all came to a head one day at a family friend's house. I got into a temper over something," she made a rueful face, "apparently I was always throwing tantrums, and when they all started laughing at me I made a priceless vase fall off its stand." She stirred patterns in her stew with her scoop. "I don't think anyone except my mother realised exactly what had happened, but when we got home she sat me down and told me about my grandfather. She said he had had a special power called the Force, but he was killed because of it, and that if I let anyone else see that I had it I would be putting us all in danger. Maybe if she'd stopped there I would have been sufficiently scared to stop too Unfortunately she also threatened me with all sorts of dire punishments if she caught me using the Force again."

Luke eyed her circumspectly. "A white flag to a stormtrooper, you mean?"

"You read me rather too well," she said wryly. "My mother didn't, however, or maybe she was just too worried about the possible consequences. Whatever the case, she obviously felt that was the end of it, but I found the attraction of doing something forbidden to be too great. So I went underground so to speak." She took a mouthful of stew. "My brother Kalab and I were quite close, especially when we were younger, and although he didn't have my ability he was quite intuitive."

"He may have had a latent Force ability. Some people probably do, but never actually realise it."

"Yes, that is possible I suppose. Anyway I learned to erect a sort of Force barrier to protect my thoughts and intentions, and to avoid discovery," she threw him rather a poignant look. "It worked quite well until today, but there again I'm a bit out of practice not having had to use it for so long." She paused. "The thing is, Commander, I respect what you've done, and I respect who you are, but I am not the sort of person who should be allowed to use the Force. You use it to help others. I used it purely for myself: for revenge, to humiliate people and make them do silly things, and to augment my own physical skills. You name it I've done it, especially if it gave me sway over people."

"But that was because you'd never been trained how to use it," said Luke insistently.

"But Commander, don't you see. It's the mind-set that's the problem. It's whether you think in noble or ignominious terms. Palpatine used his powers to augment his own power, and I did exactly the same. When he destroyed Alderaan he didn't think about the individual suffering he was causing, and neither did I when I played all my spiteful little tricks. I had forgotten I was dealing with people, because all that mattered was what I wanted. They were just my pawns."

"But it was just kids' stuff," returned Luke, stifling a rising feeling of exasperation.

"Not towards the end," she said quietly. Luke glanced up, and was startled at the way her eyes had suddenly become almost black. "I think Alderaan was for me a punishment as well as a warning. If I hadn't been misusing the Force, I would have been there with my family. Death would have at least been peaceful oblivion in contrast to years of guilt."

"I don't understand," Luke shook his head.

"The reason I was left behind when Kalab and my mother went to join my father on Alderaan, was that I was going to represent Iicini'ia in the Sector Games on Cuvor. I was junior swim champ you see, and I'd been training for the long distance ocean swim. It's a gruelling race, but I'd found a number of ways to make it easier thanks to the Force. Needless to say, I'd used the Force in other ways too: to get rid of the opposition in the selection process for instance, because I really wanted to be the one representing Iicini'ia. I wanted the glory and the attention it would bring, so I organised a few little accidents and bouts of cramp to further my advantage. My family was really proud because they thought I'd won the honour because of natural ability. So it was because of my using the Force that I got left behind, and it was because of the Emperor's degraded use of the Force that they died. Something of a fitting parallel, don't you think?" The sarcasm in her voice faded in a dry sob, and she looked away quickly, taking a moment to recover herself before continuing.

"I made a pledge with myself to give up using the Force. The race became a sort of test, because I was determined to use only my own resources. It was freezing and I nearly developed hypothermia, but I finished. I didn't win the race, but I won a battle against the pride and the greed that had motivated me up till then."

She focused on his face again. "I'm keeping my pledge. I said Alderaan was a punishment and a warning. The punishment I live with daily, but I have taken heed of the warning and avoided any use of the Force. I like working for I-M, because I feel as if I'm part of something bigger than myself; and I enjoy my duties as translator because I feel as if I'm carrying on my father's work. Being a small cog in a big machine is a good feeling."

Luke nodded and sighed. "I do understand where you're coming from, believe me." He paused frowning, unsure exactly as to the best way to proceed. He thought about Dev Sibwarra and the hopes he had entertained about teaching him the true nature of the Force, and his sense of loss at the young man's death over two months before threatened to overwhelm him again. Obi-Wan had said that luck did not exist, hence these meetings with other Force sensitive people had to be for a purpose. In Dev's case it appeared that his purpose had been sacrifice, but his loss still didn't rest easy with Luke. This girl is too strong to give up on easily, he thought.

"I'd feel happier if you'd quit calling me Commander, by the way. Luke is fine."

"You don't like your rank?" the questioning look she threw him was rather imperious. Sometimes she reminded him of Leia.

"I resigned my commission when I handed over the squadron to Wedge. I want to concentrate on developing my understanding of the Force."

She regarded him thoughtfully. "Oh," she said finally.

"You say your grandfather was a Jedi. Do you know anything about him?"

"A little. He was a judge and something of an academic." She paused, chewing thoughtfully. "I suppose you're rather a man alone aren't you? The galaxy's not exactly abounding in Jedi thanks to Palpatine."

"That's what you might call an understatement," he said wryly.

"Well, I'm sorry to throw a hydrospanner in the Jedi recruitment scheme. But the further the Force and I stay apart the better for everyone. Do you want some more?"

Luke realised he had been scraping up the last few scraps in his bowl rather too obviously like a starving man, and he smiled apologetically.

"Actually, I would. That was really tasty. Was it all your own produce?"

She nodded as she took his bowl. "Those big purple gourds growing by the trees make a good soup and stew base. I just add whatever's in season. At the moment it's wataini, and they are quite flavourful - they're little button fungi which grow on the tulo'o trees. Here I'll get you another drink," he handed her his beaker, and she took it and headed back into her little house.

Luke rested back against the base of the trellis and admired the luxuriant vine which wound its way up and over it. Above him hung a single voluptuous crimson drupe, its syrupy fragrance wafting down in the slight breeze which had sprung up with the advent of evening. It looked ripe for the picking. He sighed. At least he seemed to have won Kerensa's confidence, and she seemed no longer to be hostile, but she would need a lot of convincing to change her mind. And did he have any right to try and make her change it?

A faint movement in his peripheral vision caught his attention, and he glanced to the side. Something cast a huge shadow for a second beside one of the trees Kerensa had indicated as tulo'os and then disappeared. Luke focused his awareness and sensed a large presence of some sort. He stood up and walked noiselessly down towards the bank, which descended into the forest at the side of the garden, and stepped carefully amongst the trees. The tulo'os belonged to the lower tier and formed a boundary between the garden and the taller trees which marked the beginning of the forest proper. Luke crept amongst the dappled shadows thrown by the fleshy leaves towards the darker forest depths, and stretched out with his Jedi senses again.

Suddenly a loud grunt made him turn and he found himself staring into a massive grey-green furry chest. He stepped back, and his right hand flew instinctively to the hilt of his light sabre. The creature gazed at him and although Luke could only sense a primal intelligence, he saw the large yellow eyes focus on his right hand.

A twig snapped behind him, and without moving his mental attention from the beast, he spun, pulling and activating his light sabre in one fluid movement, expecting to see a second animal. Probably they hunted in pairs. His mouth dropped open when he found himself first to be the object of scrutiny of a pair of curious, dark eyes, and second a captive of the beast as it enfolded him in a vice-like hold. Kerensa took the sabre carefully, holding the shaft of light well clear of herself as she searched for the switch to deactivate it.

"C ksoi, Chitza. Ksoi," she soothed, and reached up and patted the huge animal on its shoulder. Then she pulled at his taloned paws. "Ka! ste v'itzi." She pulled at them again and the beast yowled apologetically and released Luke, and then to his surprise covered its eyes and whimpered.

"Mye, Chitza," she said softly and scratched its shoulder. The beast peered over the top of its talons uncertainly. "C vre nashkye. Nashkye, Chitza." Her eyes slipped to Luke's and he could see she was angry with him. "I'm telling him you're a friend, so behave like one and put this stupid thing away!" she handed him his light sabre. "He thought you were threatening me."

Luke was feeling decidedly confused, but he did as bid.

"Now, scratch his shoulder and let him sniff you," she directed, "and don't panic if he pats your head, it's his way of being friendly back."

"Sorry," he said cringing slightly as the beast patted him rather too enthusiastically. "I wasn't concentrating as well as I should have been." The truth was he was still finding Kerensa's presence in the Force perplexing. He hadn't sensed her behind him and that bothered him, for although he had been concentrating most of his awareness on the animal, he still should have been able to identify her. This was hardly going to help his cause as far as encouraging her to renew her use of the Force went.

"Hmm," she sniffed regally. "You're a little too trigger happy if you ask me," and she flounced back up the bank to her garden. "Your dinner's on the log," she threw back as she disappeared amongst a clump of rust coloured bushes, returning shortly after with an armful of maroon finger-shaped fruits.

"Ka! shtui Chitza," she commanded the animal as it lumbered up the bank after Luke. "Ka! latzi," the beast grabbed at the food, but she held it behind her back. "Mye! Ka! latzi," she insisted, and the beast sighed resignedly and plumped down on his ample backside, turning its head on one side with a challenging look approaching that of a naughty child. Despite his self-annoyance, Luke found himself grinning as she went to deposit the clumps of fruit on his lap, and slapped his paw as he grabbed again. This time she simply held up a finger, and the beast covered its eyes, peeking at her this time from between his talons. He waited until she had placed the bundle down before grasping it hungrily.

"You, er, obviously don't need to worry about security with him around," said Luke.

"I don't know," she said wryly, "someone to guard my precious plants wouldn't go amiss. All he's done since he arrived is eat."

"Is he a pet?" Luke tucked back into the stew again, the satisfaction at having decent food overcoming his sense of failure.

"Well I suppose he is sort of, although I've never seen anything like him before."

"Are you sure it's a him?" asked Luke eyeing the huge animal. It was tearing voraciously at its food, spilling juice down its ample chest.

Kerensa placed a scoop of stew in her mouth and chewed thoughtfully. Finally she shrugged. "No I'm not, I just assumed he was."

Luke took a deep breath, wondering whether now was the time to risk stepping from the skillet into the fire. "I think you do know, and I think it's because you feel his essence in the Force."

Kerensa regarded him, rather, Luke thought uncomfortably, as if she was studying an unusual example of lower-order insect life.

"Oh yes," was all she said, albeit dryly. Having expected hot denials, Luke was uncertain as to how to proceed. It was obvious Kerensa's childhood experiences had provided her with some effective nullifying tactics.

"I also think that you used the Force to get down that cliff," he added, bravely.

She raised her eyebrows and inclined her head impudently. "I think I must have let that juice ferment for too long," she said, "it seems to be going to your head."

"I'm not suggesting you use it knowingly. But you definitely use it."

She held his gaze, with the sort of neutral expression a sabacc player would have applauded. Underneath, however, he could feel the familiar disturbances he associated with anger.

"It couldn't just be that I'm a good pilot I suppose?"

Luke stared back at her, countering his own rising irritation. "Well, I'm not saying that you're not. What I am saying is that because you're Force sensitive, you could use it instinctively."

A small teal blue avian fluttered overhead, and then to Luke's surprise landed on Kerensa's knee. Without hesitation she plucked a purple seed kernel from her bowl and held it out. The little creature eyed her from first one eye stalk and then the other, grabbed the offering and proceeded to crack it open with its sturdy beak.

"I can't see how that would be possible. You have to actively stretch out to the Force, and I know I don't do that."

"Yes, but maybe because you grew up using it, you use it involuntarily without having to go through a conscious process. Maybe you're in tune most of the time."

Another larger and rather ungainly avian flopped down beside them, and flexed its quartet of wings hopefully. Kerensa held out a soft piece of vegetable flesh to it, and a long curling tongue emerged, wrapped itself around the morsel and disappeared back into the creature's black muzzle. The large furry beast, having finished its meal of finger-fruit burped rather juicily and clambered back on to its trunk-like legs, splattering Luke with juice and seeds.

"Hmm. I think we'll have to work on table etiquette," mused Kerensa, as he lunged back into the forest. The small avian chirped stridently. "Yes yes, Tutti, there's more," and she held out another purple kernel. "Well I don't know, Comma ... Luke," she shook her head, "I'm a bit confounded by all this. By the way you'd better give her that piece of ruta'ai skin or she'll have your plate over, she's a bit clumsy."

Luke started as the larger avian advanced its long neck towards him, and he held up the yellow roll for which it seemed to be aiming. The soft tongue curled out and sucked it out of his grasp.

"I mean how can you not know you're doing something?" She looked over at his bowl. "Do you have any of those seeds left?"

Luke fished two out for her.

"Thanks." She fed them to the avian on her knee, watching as it cracked each open. Suddenly she shook her head, making the oblong earring which dangled from her right ear jangle vigorously. "No, I don't think I can accept that. I know I don't use the Force. When I was training for I-M there were a number of times I was tempted to make it easy for myself, especially on the physical courses, but I resisted. I've even got the scars to prove it," she pushed her fringe up to reveal a thin white two centimetre line on her hairline. "That was the result of poor judgment in a hand-to-blade. Not the sort of mistake you make twice may I say."

Luke gazed at her thoughtfully, and then at the two avians alternately crunching and slurping. "Is Tutti male or female?" he asked curiously.

"I think he's a he," she shrugged. "Tsui's a she though."

He shook his head. "How do you know?"

She shrugged again. "Because he behaves like a he, and she behaves like a she I suppose. I don't know, I just know. My grandmother's family were circus people, and I've always assumed that I get my love of animals from them. I like them and they seem to like me."

A long tendril suddenly seemed to grow out of the vine beside her and tickled her ear. She giggled and turned towards it, holding her beaker up so the feeler could waggle around inside it. "Mind you, they probably only like me because I feed them, greedy lot." She looked at him shrewdly. "I suppose you think it's something to do with the Force?"

"I'm afraid to suggest it, but yes. The Force manifests itself in different ways, and different Jedi have different strengths."

"Yes but my grandmother had a first sister who could do amazing things with animals. You don't have to be a Jedi to have that skill."

"No," said Luke hopelessly, "I guess not." He paused. "I respect your reasons for not wanting to use the Force, but I can't help feeling that you do."

"Well. I respect your reasons for wanting me to use the Force, but I can't. And I know I definitely don't use it," she added shortly. "When you've finished eating I'll take you back to Base."

o

It was still muggy when Kerensa returned Luke to the I-M Base, and after he had watched the old SoroSuub's lights disappear against the vast backdrop of moonlit mountains and grey-black terrain, he decided to climb up to the viewing platform above the weapons emplacement. He was aware that solitude seemed to be becoming a way of life with him recently, but he also knew it was essential he sort things out in his mind. The discovery that Vader was his father had been a shock, but more recently a series of discoveries and events had caused him a lot of soul-searching. He still found it hard to think of Leia as his sister, especially as he had harboured romantic aspirations about her for four years. He also found himself occasionally questioning his decision to leave Bakura, for he had felt a very strong attachment to Gaeriel, and he wondered if his decision to return with the fleet was truly loyalty to the cause, or just moral cowardice on his part. Perhaps it was his way of avoiding commitment.

Whatever the reason, there was one fact about which Luke was certain: romantic relationships were going to be nigh on impossible. Even for the pilots and soldiers of the Alliance it was difficult to meet and establish anything other than casual friendships, but for him he could see the problem was doubled. Yoda had asked that he pass on what he had learned, but to do that required he be prepared to travel anywhere and everywhere, and commit himself wholeheartedly to what was going to be a mammoth task. What sort of woman would be prepared to put up with what could only ever be a part-time relationship: probably barely even that?

As well as that, it seemed to Luke that Jedi were not exactly flavour of the month in terms of favoured vocation. Gaeriel had disagreed vehemently with his use of power, and Kerensa was determined to avoid all connection with her Jedi origins. He shook his head. He was still positive that she had used the Force to fly down that cliff. And she herself had admitted that she had used it to block him out at the meeting, albeit in self-defence. Perhaps if she was willing to use it for that, though, he could convince her that she could still safely use her ability in other ways. He pondered that for a moment and then sighed again. He rather received the impression that Kerensa Kalichi could be extremely stubborn when she wanted.

Could someone use the Force without really being aware? And what about this affinity she had with animals: was that Force-related, or simply an inherited thing as she seemed to think? And why was he including Kerensa in his cogitations about romance? He paused, recalling the girl's appearance and the sense of mystery she seemed to possess, and sighed. Being a Jedi not only carried great responsibility, it also required an equal obligation in self-sacrifice, and sometimes Luke wondered if he was quite capable of the twin burden. He stood for a while longer, watching the larger of Iicini'ia's moons rising slowly from behind the eastern section of the mountains, and bathing their ridged tops in soft yellow light. Too many puzzles for one night, he thought, and turned back down the steep metal stairs.

To Chapter Nine | To Chapter Eleven

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