The Mantrusian Affair: Chapter Sixteen
Iella

Kerensa wandered slowly amongst the transplanted kooli palms until she reached the alley which led away from the main quadrant to a secluded spot at the rear of the Communications and Intelligence sector. Usually she either ate her lunch in the cafeteria or at one of the tables set up in the quadrant in front of it. Although the I-M complex was mainly subterranean, the architects had decided that its personnel deserved at least one semblance of the garden world outside, so they had installed a system of refracting conduits through which daylight was channelled down and diffused over a massive courtyard. The area possessed its own micro-climate capable of supporting trees and shrubs, and small colourful avians had been brought in to help keep it clear of refuse. Except for the fact that the greenery was arranged in patterns too symmetrical to look completely natural, it was a pleasant enough replica of a real park. Today however, Kerensa fancied solitude, so had slipped away from her friends, taking with her some grain and seed bars left over from the picnic to eat while she thought.

The smell of the koolis reminded her of the previous night at the beach, and she smiled to herself as she remembered Wedge's expression when he had seen the beachhopper, and his modesty about wanting to kiss her. She wished she'd had a bit more experience in the field of romance to judge whether it was just technique, or whether he really felt as strongly as those kisses, especially the later ones, had seemed to imply. Maybe it was simply an effect of the setting. Moonlight and the warm, peppery fragrance of the koolis was rather conducive to that sort of behaviour. Although then again, he'd kissed her again that morning. He'd caught up with her as she'd been hurrying down the ramp to her sector, and they'd ducked into an alcove quickly. She had wished him luck for the maneuvres, and had promised to meet him in the cafeteria when they returned, even though she knew they wouldn't be back until late. At the moment all she wanted to do was be with him, and when she wasn't with him, she thought about him. Logic told her she shouldn't, but something stronger than logic seemed to have taken control of her.

She started to sigh to herself, when suddenly she stopped. There was a strange crackling, humming sound coming from around the corner. She poked her head around, and nearly dropped her plastine lunch container. A set of pale blue eyes met hers over the shaft of light.

"Mercy," she gasped, inwardly feeling her spirits sink. So much for solitude.

"Sorry," said Luke self-consciously. "I thought I'd found the one spot where I wouldn't be in anyone's way." He reached up to deactivate the remote and switched off the light sabre, intending to return it to his belt.

"No," said Kerensa, rather surprising herself. The last time they had spoken she had been too upset to take much notice of his appearance, but now she looked closely she could see something in his expression that tugged at her heart strings, something almost vulnerable. "You go ahead. I can eat my lunch anywhere, but there aren't very many places you could practise undisturbed. I suppose when they built the base, they didn't take Jedi into account."

Luke smiled. Although he had heard a little antagonism when she mentioned the Jedi, she was obviously in a mellow mood. He pondered the morality of taking advantage of that.

"A Jedi practice room would have been a nice afterthought," he quipped.

To his surprise she smiled too. "I'm sorry I was so rotten the other day," she said humbly. "I have a bit of a bad temper, and it often gets me into trouble. You keep up your practice. I'll toddle back to the courtyard."

"No, don't go," Luke tried to sound casual. "I'm pretty much in need of a break. You can only do so much with a remote; after a while it gets a bit predictable."

Kerensa tilted her head and regarded him shrewdly, although without malice. "You mean you'd prefer a human opponent."

Luke pursed his lips and regarded her for a moment, taking every precaution to avoid any unwitting outreach to her emotions.

"It would make it more realistic," he said earnestly. "Because part of fighting as a Jedi is sensing the opponent's thoughts and feelings, and a remote can't offer that. It can only test your speed and your Force sense of where things are in relation to you." He turned to the blue and silver dome-topped droid who had been watching silently under one of the koolis. "Thanks, Artoo." The droid wheeled over, and a compartment opened on its side into which Luke placed the remote. The droid blurped what sounded like a casual acknowledgement.

"He's a useful little character," said Kerensa. "I could use one like him when I'm gardening, I'm always losing my pruning blade."

"His name's Artoo Deetoo," Luke turned to the droid and waved a hand at Kerensa. "Artoo, this is Ensign Kalichi. She's our translator."

The droid emitted what sounded like an admiring whistle, and then a sigh and a low raspberry.

"What did he say?" she asked, fascinated.

"I think he's implying you're an improvement on See Threepio. The two of them work together quite a bit," he explained.

"Oh," Kerensa nodded, and a cheeky expression passed over her face. "I get the impression that See Threepio's services are appreciated more than his personality."

Luke grinned. "That," he said, "could be regarded as an understatement." He noticed the girl's eyes had focused on the light sabre which he was still holding in his hand. "Did your ... I mean, are you familiar with one of these?" he asked tentatively, watching her carefully.

She gazed at him for a moment head on one side, as if considering whether to answer or not. "No," she said finally. "And it's just as well. If I'd had one of those things, I could have really done some damage."

"Do you really think you would have? Or do you think your finer instincts would have stopped you?"

"I don't know," she stepped over to the bench and sat down. "Here, peace offering for the other day," she held up what looked like some sort of energy bar. "Hope you don't mind me stuffing myself, but I'm starving, and I only get a short lunch-time today because my partner and I are on surveillance duty tomorrow, and we've got some equipment to fix. General Tavaala, lovely man though he is, is a bit of a slave driver. You're taking advantage of the fact I'm in a good mood, aren't you?"

"Sorry!" Luke rasped after he had finished coughing up the mouthful of sticky grain and dried fruit which had threatened to choke him. "Yes, I guess I am," he said penitently. "That extra strong thump on my back sure did the trick, by the way."

"Any time." Luke noticed a sly smile playing around the corners of her mouth, then it faded and she looked at him seriously. "I really don't know how far I would have been prepared to go, Luke, and that's what worries me. Naturally I'd like to think that I would have stopped short of actually physically maiming anyone. But then again, I did cause people to have accidents, and really it's only a matter of a difference in agency. I mean what's the difference between pushing someone into a river, or making the boat they're in capsize?"

"Essentially none, I suppose."

"Or using the Force to make yourself swim faster, while everyone else has to train hard for months."

"Did you train as well?"

"Yes, but I still used the Force to help me."

"How? What did you actually do?"

"In that circumstance I didn't really do anything, I just used to let myself relax until I could mentally touch everything around me, and then I'd let myself be pulled towards things or pushed away from them. But it was still cheating, because the others couldn't do it, so it gave me an unfair advantage."

"But what about someone who had trained extra hard, surely that would give them an advantage the others wouldn't have?"

"Yes but only because they'd been prepared to put in the extra effort. The others could have worked just as hard too. But they obviously weren't as dedicated as the one who did."

"How do you define dedication?"

"Putting in your absolute all to achieve something."

"Weren't you putting in your all?"

She paused, and frowned. "Yes, but only because I wanted to win."

"But surely that's why the others put in their all too. It's just that the all in your case was different."

"Luke, I made things happen to people," she insisted quietly.

"I realise that, and that was definitely wrong. But it seems to me you're saying that because you created situations in which people got hurt, you were using the Force wrongly, full stop. What I'm trying to point out is that not all your use of the Force was wrong. There is essentially nothing wrong with the will to win, nor with using whatever skills you have to achieve it." He put his half-eaten bar on the seat, aware that he was using it as a pointer to emphasize his argument. "I mean according to your argument I was wrong when I used the Force to help me destroy the first Death Star. I should have let Wedge and Biggs do it, because that would have been fairer."

"Don't be daft. That thing had destroyed a planet, and the people who designed and controlled it were evil."

"Were they? How do you know they were all evil? A lot of those soldiers on it were just ordinary men obeying orders."

She sighed, and shook her head making her ringlets bob up and down.

"And," continued Luke deciding to push home the advantage. "You could also argue that it's unfair that I should be acclaimed as a wonderful pilot, when a lot of my skill comes as a result of the Force. The truly wonderful pilots are people like Wedge and Tycho and Han who have fought through the entire campaign using only their own skills. They can't call on the Force when they're in a tight spot. Yet by the same token, I don't think we'd be having this conversation today if I didn't have the Force."

Kerensa had been studying his face as he spoke, but now her gaze slipped away and she seemed to be mentally somewhere else. Luke wondered if he had gone too far; but as she wasn't actively objecting to what he said, he decided to finish his argument.

"Any use of the Force is open to certain moral considerations, Kerensa. It's something I do battle with regularly. But having the Force is a privilege, especially now that the Jedi no longer as such exist. Sure, you've used it badly. But you know you've used it badly, which means you're able to be objective about it. It's when you lose that ability to judge yourself that you run into trouble. And I still don't believe that all your use of it was bad. Using it to enhance your performance, for instance - there's nothing wrong with that. It's no different to someone who has a gift for music, and who never practises, winning a competition against someone with no gift who practises every day."

She turned back towards him and gazed earnestly into his eyes.

"Don't you sometimes wish you were just normal?"

The question took Luke by surprise, and he sat back uncertain as to how to respond.

"I suppose it is a gift like you say, but it's an awfully lonely one," she continued. "It sort of separates you out from other people. Since I've stopped using it, I feel ... normal, like I've got things in common with everyone else. Before, I always felt there was a barrier between them and me."

Luke remembered Ben Kenobi living as a hermit, and being regarded by many as a strange old wizard. He thought about Gaeriel. If he hadn't had the Force and the responsibilities that went with it, would he have stayed, even if just to see if the relationship between them would have blossomed into an enduring partnership? He had spent a large part of the journey here thinking about just that. He had thought he had it all worked out, but now Kerensa's question had proved that he was still capable of doubt.

"Will you at least think about what I've said?" he asked. "And I don't think you can say for certain that you don't still use the Force; in which case some of your worries about it may be unfounded."

She went to speak, but he held up his hand.

"All I ask is that you think about it."

Kerensa held his gaze for a moment, and then looked away to the side. When she returned her eyes to his, she nodded slowly.

"OK," she said. She stared at the ground, took out the last bar from her lunchbox and handed it to Luke. "Here, you'd better have this one."

"No, you eat it. I've still got the other one you gave me. It's delicious by the way," he turned to pick it up.

"I'm afraid Droopy and his friends got it while we were talking." Luke followed her pointed finger to where three red, green and blue avians with drooping head-crests were hopping about exuberantly on the turf. He thought they had three legs for a minute, but then he saw that the extra one was a feeding claw with which they picked up food.

"I'm afraid it's the quick and the dead around here," she said resignedly. "I'd better go, or I'll be joining the latter." She took a few steps towards the alley, and then turned. "I will think about what you said, Luke. But my father always said that people should learn to know themselves and let that knowledge guide their decisions. I know myself rather too well." She smiled apologetically and disappeared around the corner.

* * * * *

"By the Sith, that was a case of the quick and the dead!" Hobbie pulled off his helmet, and pushed his wet hair from his forehead making it stand up like a wave. "Who was that maniac with the five kills on his A Wing?"

"That was Captain 'Mr. Universe' Neekau," replied Plourr sourly. "If his chest expands any further it might just about match the size of his mouth."

"I dunno, Plourr," Wes had already discarded his orange flight suit. "I'd prefer to be flying with him rather than against him. The guy may be a pain, but he's got what it takes. Where's Wedge?" he asked Tycho, as the Alderaanian pilot came around the side of Hobbie's X Wing.

"When I last saw him he was flying around in circles with Neekau on his tail."

"I hoped you were going to say flying circles around Neekau," said Wes, wryly.

"So did I," Tycho's crystal blue eyes met Wes's for a few seconds over the heads of the others.

"So what's next on the list?" Hobbie asked completely oblivious to the edge in Tycho's voice.

"The hunt and destroy exercises, I think," came Nasha's voice as she joined the group.

Admiral Ackbar and General Tavaala had planned a full day of exercises, including tracking the hyperspace exit points of tiny recon droid vessels, tracking the vectors of the same vessels as they re-entered hyperspace, and speed tests to practise rapid unloading and loading of the fighters from the capital ships. The final exercise was co-operative, and involved both fleets practising various battle formations and strategic maneuvres. As Nasha began speaking again, another X Wing came in through the magnetic seal over the entrance to the hangar.

"Sorry I dropped out so early, Lieutenant Janson. I think the atmosphere here's upsetting my concentration. I just couldn't seem to take today seriously; until that maniac with the kills on his A Wing started hassling me, that is," she finished grimly.

"Yes, well you're not the only one with that problem," said Wes. He raised his eyebrows at Tycho, and the latter nodded and walked away in the direction of the fighter which had just settled neatly on its landing skids.

"I need a coffeine or three," said Plourr impatiently. "Who's coming?"

"Definitely me," said Sarrash, a grin making his boyish face look even younger. "You weren't the only hit, Nasha. I think that game of smashball yesterday drained me more than I expected."

Wes shook his head as the others headed towards the exit, and he glanced over at the orange-suited figure climbing out of the X Wing with the two Death Stars on its fuselage. Tycho's joke several days before about sultry Selenies suddenly didn't seem so funny anymore.

To Chapter Fifteen | To Chapter Seventeen

Disclaimer: All content is made up, and no profit or lucre is expected, solicited, advocated or paid. This is all just for fun. Any comments, please e-mail the author or WOOKIEEhut directly. Flames will be ignored. Characters and situations are based on those which are the property of LucasFilms Ltd., Bantam Publishing, Random House, and their respective original owners and developers. The rest is this story's author's own fault. This story may not be posted anywhere without the author's knowledge, consent, and permission.