The Mantrusian Affair: Chapter Seventeen
"So, uh, which one of us should go see the med-droid first, Commander?" Tycho asked laconically as Wedge slid down from his cockpit. Wedge stared at him quizzically. "For the holidayitis which seems to be spreading like wild-fire amongst us," explained Tycho.
A resigned expression entered the Corellian's brown eyes, and he sighed. "I think the buck stops here," he said, pointing with his thumb at his chest.
Tycho shuffled his feet awkwardly, but when he looked back at Wedge his eyes narrowed slightly. "I know it's none of my business, but that little Ensign seems to have you running around like a droid with a hydrospanner in its motivator. I hope you're ready to listen to Neekau tomorrow for at least two hours on how he almost singlehandedly ruined our battle plan."
"By the end of the two hours he'll have convinced himself it wasn't just almost," said Wedge grimly. He gazed out the hangar entrance at the distant shapes of the Iicini'ian fleet for a moment before focussing his attention on removing his flight gloves. "But you are right, it is none of your business."
"Well, how long's it going to carry on?" asked Tycho provocatively. "Just so's we know when to start keying our comlinks long distance to wherever she lives."
Wedge stopped pulling off his left glove. "That's not what it's like," he said meeting Tycho's piercing gaze.
Suddenly Wedge seemed to wilt, and he sat down on the bottom step of a nearby ladder. He threw both gloves aside rather viciously. "Well I'm telling you it won't be like that, ever."
Tycho frowned down at his leader. "I'm afraid you've lost me."
A hopeless expression crept over Wedge's face. "One, she'd probably just think I was taking advantage of her and set some of her pet animals on me. Two," he shook his head, "I don't want to do anything to ruin it." There was a long pause. "I think I'm in love with her."
Tycho looked around and seeing nowhere to sit, leaned back against the welcome solidity of his fighter's landing supports. "But we've only been here a few days. You hardly even know the girl."
Wedge shrugged. "That's just it. I feel like I do."
"Well, how does she feel about you?"
Wedge shrugged again. "She definitely likes me. Other than that I don't know. To be perfectly honest, Tycho, I'm not much good at this sort of thing," he pushed his hair off his forehead, and lapsed into silence again.
"OK," prompted Tycho. "Let's be practical. Question one: when you say that you think you're in love, what percentage are we talking about?"
"I dunno. How can you quantify emotion?"
"Try," said Tycho through his teeth.
Wedge gave him a helpless look, but then seemed to reconsider. He stared down at his feet for quite sometime. "OK," he said finally. "I'm seventy per cent sure it's love."
"So what comprises the thirty per cent doubt?"
Wedge was silent again, but Tycho could see he was thinking. "I guess maybe I think I might just want her because she's pretty, she's good company, and she's not exactly averse to me."
Tycho considered this for a moment. "You've just described Nasha perfectly - do you think you're in love with her?"
Wedge shook his head.
"Well I think we can discount that possibility then, so that accounts for ten percent," said Tycho firmly. "What else?"
"The situation, I suppose. Shore leave, pressure's off, discipline's a bit relaxed."
"You have the time, you're in the mood, and she's available you mean," nodded Tycho, wondering how far he could go with the provocation.
"More crudely than I would have put it," said Wedge tersely, "and I don't like the inference that she's made herself available. She's not like that. And neither am I," he added.
"That gets us up to ninety," said Tycho breezily.
Wedge glared at him, fighting an irrational desire to punch the irritatingly calm, analytical expression from his friend's face. He studied his boots instead. "I think what's really got me confused," he began, "is the fact that I feel so comfortable with her. We seemed to click right from the start, as if - and I know this sounds stupid - as if we're kindred spirits. We like the same music, well, except for the Starboys that is; we've read the same poems. We even laugh at the same jokes."
"You mean she actually laughs at your jokes?" Tycho said wide-eyed.
"I wasn't being funny," said Wedge.
"That was sort of my point."
"If this is your idea of being helpful, it's not working."
"Except that we've pretty much taken your percentage up to one hundred. Which brings us to the question of what you're going to do about it."
Wedge glanced at Tycho briefly, and then his gaze slid away. There was a hint of despair in it. "I don't know," he murmured. "I don't know how she feels about me. I mean, she likes me, but ... maybe that's the extent of it." He paused, and then resumed in a low voice. "I don't know if I want to find out in case that's all it is. And even if it is more, what can we do about it. When it's time to leave ... well, it's not going to be easy to come back."
Tycho stared at Wedge's downturned head, thinking that this was not the calm, never-say-die leader to whom he was accustomed to talking. Wedge was going to have to sort this out, and soon, or the results could be disastrous.
"I can't tell you what to do, Wedge," he said quietly. "But I can tell you that you need to decide one way or the other how you're going to deal with it. It seems to me you've got three options: carry her off to some unmapped corner of the universe where Ackbar can't find you, and carry on the human race together; make the most of her while you're here and then say goodbye; or end it now before you get in any deeper. What you can't do is carry on the way you are now. Today you were lucky. In a real engagement, that luck might not hold."
"You think I don't know that?" Wedge muttered, his tone somewhere between sarcasm and despair.
Now that he looked closely, Tycho saw that the brown eyes that rose to meet his looked weary. "You look like you need a good dose of coffeine," he said sympathetically.
"I do. But you'd better get someone else to pour," Wedge quipped, although his expression belied the humour.
"Governor Kuzhak is not here at the moment," said Captain Ulo Dravet to the pint-sized holographic image hovering over his desk communicator. "Is the message urgent?"
"He is there, though?" Tsarkoni chose to ignore Dravet's enquiry, delivered in its normal patronizing tone. It wasn't that he didn't like the man, for in actual fact Dravet's arrival had made his own job a lot less stressful. It had also meant that Tsarkoni seldom had to visit Secheniz, which was a god-forsaken place at the best of times, but in the middle of a northern winter it was like hell on earth, except cold. What did annoy him, however, was the way Dravet always made him feel unimportant, as if Kuzhak's governorial duties were in some way incidental to his schemes. Just because Dravet placed the Imperial cause above Mantrusian hopes of betterment, didn't give him the right to be so arrogant. After all, his great leader hadn't exactly lasted the course.
"Oh yes," replied Dravet smoothly. There was an awkward pause.
"Then perhaps you could inform him," said Tsarkoni stiffly, "that I called to check that he had contacted Admiral Truin regarding the first stage of Operation Nerensai."
"The message has been sent," affirmed Dravet. "I sent it."
Tsarkoni noted the emphasis on the personal pronoun, and the irritation in the Imperial's tone, which he sensed was not directed at him.
Then as if in answer to an unspoken question, Dravet added: "Governor Kuzhak is communicating with Nerensai."
Tsarkoni wondered if Dravet was as uneasy about the amount of time Kuzhak spent with the ancient queen as he was, or if not uneasy, at least curious. He decided now was not the time to discuss it, especially as he knew Kuzhak recorded all incoming messages.
"Ah," he acknowledged the explanation with a short nod. "Could you also inform him that the rally project is go. We've found suitable places for the holoprojectors, and if the conditions are good we should be able to project a fifty metre image."
"Fifty metres!" Tsarkoni was pleased to hear the surprise in Dravet's voice.
"Yes, should cause quite a stir. Plus the banners are ready and the speakers are primed."
"Good," Dravet drew the word out as he recorded the details on his datapad.
"That was all," said Tsarkoni brusquely, "unless the governor has any messages regarding Bakhunian matters?"
"None that I know of."
"In that case I'll sign off," and he deactivated the holorecorder before Dravet could switch it off at his end. It was good to have the last word for once.
When Wedge awoke, the Iicini'ian sun had just extended a few tentative fingers over the Fastazi Mountains, tinging the horizon mauve. Although the pilots' quarters lay deep in the I-M complex, the skylights in their rooms registered the first vestiges of dawn just as if they had been above ground, thanks to the same system of refractors that were used for the courtyard. Wedge lay on his back watching the mauve fade to rose pink, thinking how the transition from night to morning replicated another emotional pattern: falling asleep cloud-walking, and waking up doubting. Tycho had suggested he should sort out the situation with Kerensa, and when he had been in his room the previous evening, tidying himself up in preparation for meeting her, he had had every intention of doing so. But when they had taken the speeder up to the lookout in the hills above the base, where the evening breeze was wafting through the feathery grass, it just hadn't seemed like the time and the place to speak seriously. Face it, Antilles, he thought, you don't have the guts to tell her that you love her. If she couldn't reply in kind, it would mean that it would have to end. Kerensa wasn't the sort who would maintain a relationship under false pretences.
He pushed back the light sheet and swung his legs over the side of his bunk, then sat gripping the edge of the mattress and staring ahead dully. Not only am I turning into a gutless wonder, I've let the squadron down. It hadn't bothered him the previous night. Once he was with Kerensa, very little from the outside world entered his mind. Now it ate away at him like the acid in a sarlacc's slow digestion processes. Some kind of commander I'm turning out to be.
He rubbed his chin and ran his hand through his hair - what he looked like he could gauge from the rasp of stubble and the lingering moist heat of a humid night. He shouldered open the door to the small cleanser unit, set the controls to lukewarm and let the fine spray work out the tightness around his shoulders. It wasn't as effective as Kerensa's magic fingers, but it eased away some of the tension. Then he set to work on his chin with the Smootho applicator. Feeling a little less like a Wookiee who'd been dragged through the trees backwards, he pulled on his black pants and a short-sleeved tunic top and set out for the canteen.
Admiral Ackbar had arranged for Rogue Squadron to use the simulators that afternoon so that Wedge could run his new people through some of the scenarios he had encountered at Bakura. The morning was free time, but there would be no trips to the beach today as Kerensa was on surveillance duty. Perhaps that's just as well. Now I've got no excuse not to sit down and sort myself out.
Kerensa had parked her speeder, and was about to jump down when she saw one of her friends from the Communications Division hurrying towards her from the direction of the ingress-egress tunnel.
"Hi," she called to Tew.
"Hi, d'you meet up with your man last night?"
"They got in a bit late, but yes I did," smiled Kerensa.
"He ... uh, say anything about their games yesterday?" Tew asked tentatively.
Kerensa regarded her curiously. "It wasn't one of the topics we discussed. Why?"
"Well, I thought I'd better tell you. Atanei's been making a big thing about how he and your guy had a bit of a ding dong, and apparently your guy didn't quite live up to his image. Atanei's on his way to the caf now, and quite frankly, Kerensa, I don't think they'll be exactly passing the time of day when they meet."
Kerensa frowned at her. "Do you know any other details?"
"Well, according to Teiri, Atanei pretty much singled him out and kept him busy, and as a result their Admiral chewed them out for not sticking to the game plan. It was sort of predictable that something like this would happen. Atanei's jealous."
"In a minute he's going to be dead," muttered Kerensa. "And he has no reason to be jealous because there was never anything between us."
"You did go out with him."
"Twice," hissed Kerensa thrusting two fingers in Tew's face, and making the girl step back in surprise. "The first time to test the water, and the second to jump out very quickly. You say they're in the caf?"
Tew had barely finished nodding before her friend had taken off at speed. "I'd better come with you," she called, racing to catch up with her.
"Good idea," replied Kerensa between gritted teeth. "You can organize the body bags when I'm through with them."
Tycho gave Wedge a meaningful look as he sat down at the seat opposite. Wedge raised his thumb half-heartedly in response to the look and tried to look positive. Stupid really, he thought, if I can't fool myself, how can I expect to fool him? He slid his breakfast tray on to the table and cast a desultory glance at the bowl of greyish grain custard he'd selected. He was about to comment on the canteen food quality when he noticed that the friendly hum of conversation had died, to be replaced by an expectant hush. He looked across at Tycho and caught the quick flick of the crystal blue eyes from his own to something behind him. He turned around and found himself looking up into a tanned face and a pair of dark brown eyes which were decidedly feral.
"Captain. Can I help you with something?"
"Maybe. Although I think perhaps you're the one who needs the help - with your target practice that is." Neekau grinned showing a set of perfect white teeth. The grin, however, was far from friendly.
Wedge held his gaze. "Well," he said, maintaining a matter-of-fact tone, "there's always room for improvement, I guess. That was good flying by the way."
Neekau cocked his head sideways to one of the two men flanking him. "The master says we done good," he said slyly. Then he turned back to Wedge and folded his arms so the biceps in his upper arms bulged. He was a rather magnificent specimen, Wedge had to admit grudgingly, with his midnight black hair which fell in crimped waves to his shoulders and his impressive breadth of chest.
"Funny thing," continued the Iicini'ian. "If a guy can paint two Death Stars on his X Wing, I have to ask myself is he a good pilot, or just a good artist? Yesterday, I think I discovered the answer."
Wedge raised his eyebrows in feigned amusement. "I guess yesterday was just an off-day."
"Bio-rhythms a bit off you mean?"
"Yeah. Could be."
Neekau chuckled. A growl would have had more warmth. "That's the trick isn't it? Getting the right balance. Too much fighting, and not enough relaxation - makes for a hard life but a good pilot. Too much relaxation now - that kinda saps the energy, eh?"
"If you've got a point to make, I suggest you make it," replied Wedge, feeling the irritation rise again and getting to his feet, "because I'm beginning to take exception to the inferences you're making."
The two men glared at each other, and the tension crackling between them was tangible; so tangible that a small group of Sullustans at the table behind Tycho hastily removed themselves to one at a safer distance. Wedge became aware that he was flexing his fingers, but the action seemed at a remove, as if the hands belonged to someone else, a distant forbear perhaps, preparing to defend his possessions.
"Inferences?" Neekau raised his perfectly-etched eyebrows. "Ah, you mean like inferring maybe you're finding the heat's a bit much and you can't quite hack the pace." He stepped back into a space between tables, beckoning to Wedge with his fingers. "Like inferring you're staking a claim on territory you have no right to."
Wedge frowned. He knew that Neekau was goading him, and in actuality he should do the logical thing and tell him to get a life. Unfortunately, he didn't feel particularly logical anymore; so when he noticed the muscles in Neekau's right knee flex, he sidestepped neatly, grabbed the leg lashing towards his midriff and jerked it up. Neekau landed on his back with a bone-rattling thump, but let his momentum carry him over in a roll to land neatly back on his feet again. The feral expression in his eyes intensified.
"Lucky hit," he said. "But there again, it's not your instinct that's the issue. It's the control," and he lunged with his left fist.
It missed, but only by a fraction thanks to Wedge's lightning dodge to the left, which he was forced to follow up with a forearm thrust to block Neekau's savage right-hand punch. With his belly momentarily unprotected, Neekau was not surprised to feel the thrust of a fist in his stomach, but even so, he was unable to stop himself retching and bending over double. Wedge stepped back, and a split second later found himself on the floor with electrical tingles shooting up and and down the tendons at the back of his legs. He looked up in consternation just in time to see Neekau topple down opposite, and Kerensa's copper ringlets tumble over her shoulder, as she bent over and extracted a slim vibroblade from a pouch on Neekau's boot.
"Come on, guys. You don't need to draw it out like this. Why don't you finish each other now?" She threw the blade in the air and caught it neatly with the hilt, flicking the switch and thrusting it, hilt first, towards Neekau. "Here, you first, Atanei. Clean and quiet - that's what we were taught, wasn't it? Ah, but how silly of me," she pulled the blade away before he had a chance to even think about taking it, and waggled it thoughtfully. "Quiet isn't in your vocabulary, is it? But there again I have to ask myself, what is? The odd grunt maybe and a lot of bluster - but as we all know, big thunder makes small noise." She dug the blade savagely into the nearby table and grabbed two beakers which were sitting there. "A small, very insignificant noise," she said, and slowly and deliberately she tipped the beakers over and let the contents pour over the dark heads of the two men at her feet.
She turned to go, but stopped and swung back to the gaping officers at the table. "The guy in the fancy pants will fix you up for the drinks," she told them. "I'd ask the guy in grey, but he's so stupid that every time he tries to add up one and one in his head he always gets sex." She threw a look of such contempt that Wedge felt icy fingers grasp his stomach; then she took off imperiously with a toss of her head towards the exit. The gathered crowd parted noiselessly to let her through.
Wedge and Neekau glared at each other through dripping locks of hair. Wedge was the first to overcome his stasis, and leaping to his feet and gritting his teeth to ignore the buzzing in his leg muscles, he reached into his pocket and threw two coins at the two I-M officers. Then he set off in pursuit of Kerensa, grimly controlling his legs so the limp would not be too obvious.
Tycho stared at Plourr, and then at Wes and Hobbie. "Whew!" he gasped. "Fiery little number!"
"Rubbish. She's magnificent," Plourr contradicted him shortly.
"Yeah? I reckon he's done his chips," said Wes.
Plourr shook her head firmly. "She just doesn't like being humiliated."
"Humiliated?" Tycho gazed at her in disbelief. "Excuse me, my dear Plourr, but what would you call what she did to those two? Gentle chastisement?"
"They were fighting over her like a piece of merchandise," she replied stubbornly, "I would have done the same."
"Viva the sisterhood," said Wes wryly, raising his beaker and catching Tycho's eye. "Maybe it's solved our little problem."
But Tycho was watching the crowd pulsating in and out like a giant amoeba as a dark, wet head forced its way through.
"No hope," he murmured. "It's just made it worse."
Wedge caught up with her near a bend in the corridor. He reached out to place his hand on her arm, and she spun around, dark eyes flashing.
"Don't touch me, Wedge," she warned, her voice husky with rage. "I've never been so humiliated in all my life!"
Wedge snorted. "Humiliated! You want to feel humiliated, try having someone nearly half your size throw you on the floor and pour juice all over you. It was juice, I presume?" he asked suspiciously, pushing back his dripping fringe and wiping his eyes.
"Yes that's right, make a joke of it. You men are so funny aren't you, or perhaps I would prefer the word pathetic. Tens of thousands of years of so-called civilisation, and you still think of us as objects to be fought over."
"He was insulting you," Wedge raised his hands despairingly.
"No - he got at your ego. There's a difference. I'm really disappointed in you, I thought you were a cut above all this." She glared up at him, cheeks burning, and then turned on her heel and stormed away. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly, watching her retreating figure and wondering how on earth he could have been so stupid.
He caught up with her a second time at the entrance to the hangar. "Kerensa!" he called.
She kept walking. He called out to her again, and the touch of desperation in his voice resounded amongst the rows of empty snubfighters. She stopped, but remained with her back to him.
"I don't want you to go off angry like this," he said in a reasoning tone.
She turned around slowly. "Oh, beg pardon sir, but perhaps you should have thought of that before you and Atanei started lobbing testosterone bombs at one another."
"OK. I apologise. It was silly. But I didn't like what he was implying."
"Atanei reduces everyone and everything to one level - his. Intellectually, the guy belongs in a cave. And what's more I've never been his territory, and I have no intention of ever being any man's. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm running late." She gave him a final roasting with her eyes. "Don't expect to see me later," she said, and turned back towards a Y Wing with the name Y Mee painted on it, waiting by the hangar entrance.
Wedge watched her stride away defiantly, but made no more effort to stop her. A tall, well-set man with an emerald green lieutenant's triangle on his epaulettes was standing in the cockpit, checking a control box at the edge of the hatch. Wedge stared grimly at the ground, and when he looked again, Kerensa was climbing up the short set of mounting stairs. He turned back down the tunnel, not taking much notice of a figure in mechanic's garb who was patting the underside of the Y Wing. As Wedge disappeared, the man waved at the occupants, signalling the OK to leave.
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