The Mantrusian Affair: Chapter Thirty

"But how do you do it?" asked General Tavaala, regarding Kerensa with fascination. "Do you alter someone's perception, or did you simply make them think they've seen something they haven't?"

"Well it sort of varies, sir, according to circumstances," she replied awkwardly. Trying to explain how she used the Force was something she had never had to do before, and to be perfectly honest she wasn't sure how she did some of it herself. She simply visualised the required result, and the process seemed to take care of itself. "In this case Luke gauged the guard as being the sort who was fairly weak-minded, and so we convinced him that the holocards Tayne and I presented were our IDs. It wasn't terribly difficult because the cards we got in the market were similar in format, and all we really had to do was make the guard see our faces rather than the ones that were actually there, and forget about checking the details."

"Smashball players I believe Master Skywalker said?"

"Yessir," Kerensa couldn't help smiling. "Tayne was Yslettse Gorvanti and I was Hui Jio'sn."

"Senior or junior?" asked Colonel Fa'arika dryly.

"Junior," she replied. "Apparently the Jio'sn senior ones are like pinyo's teeth. At least that's what the woman who was selling them in the market told us. In actual fact I think she had a few and was just trying to jack the demand and the price up."

Tiirau grinned to himself. Shopping with Kerensa on their limited funds had been an interesting experience. Luke had decided that to make it easier for the deception, she and Tiirau should look as ordinary as possible. Hence he had dispatched the two of them to a nearby market to buy another skirt so she could get rid of her attention-gathering lump, and also to buy the cards. They had emerged with not only the skirt and cards, but also a stylish pair of dark blue Cuvorian military-cuts to replace Tiirau's bumpkin style pants, a furry toy rumpol with large floppy ears -- for the chucksta of course -- and a bag of delicious orange goas. A few minutes in the public refreshers, and both he and Kerensa had emerged looking decidedly average, and after feasting on the goas they had returned to the port; Luke and Kerensa had done whatever it was they did to the guard's mind; and not long afterwards, they had been heading away in the old yacht towards the jump zone. Easy as one-two-three.

"Have we mentioned the stormtroopers?" he asked her.

"Oh, I'd forgotten. The men in the ship that captured us were definitely stormtroopers, sir, because one referred to another by number. Plus I'm sure the crew of the recovery ship were, too."

"Their weapons were marked with the Imperial crown," agreed Tiirau.

"Yes, that backs up Commander Antilles' observations," Tavaala nodded at Admiral Ackbar. "Probably Truin's men."

"I'll have to keep myself more up with things," grumbled Tiirau. "Last I heard, Tyzander was admiral of the Circle fleet."

"Truin only took over last year. I believe he served in the Rim, is that right Admiral?"

The Mon Calamari bowed his head slightly in assent. "I'll check our Intelligence files for further information. It's always good to know exactly who we're dealing with. Unless you know something?" he fixed his large eyes on General Madine.

"Went from commander to vice admiral to admiral pretty quickly," replied the brown-haired man thoughtfully, stroking his chin. "Other than that he's unremarkable."

"Interesting rate of ascent for someone who's unremarkable," murmured Fa'arika.

"My thoughts exactly," agreed Madine. "Pity we can't establish whether it was Truin or Hoziak who was communicating with Kuzhak."

"I suggest we send in a reconnaissance team to see what both of them are up to," said Ackbar firmly. "It's obvious that one or both provided the ship which captured the surveillance station, for Ensign Kalichi has told us that it contained stormtroopers, and General Solo tracked its destination as being Hocqyellen."

"I agree. And there's another thing which is beyond doubt: Kuzhak is definitely behind all this unrest. The Constabulary won't be acting on their own, because they are strictly under the control of the governor's office. I think it's time we sat down and went through the most likely scenarios this pageant is going to produce." He turned to Kerensa. "You say that both the speaker and the hologram were exhorting the crowd to disrupt the pageant."

"Yessir. They were trying to convince the people that disobedience to the current regime is proof of their loyalty to Nerensai."

Admiral Ackbar had been studying Kerensa closely. Suddenly he leaned forward and caught her attention, fixing her with a searching gaze. "Ensign Kalichi, you are partly Mantrusian, how do you react to this type of incitement?"

She leaned back, and her eyes slid away to some distant space while she considered his question thoughtfully. "I find it disturbing," she replied slowly.

"Why so?" asked Ackbar with interest.

"Speaking as one who is, as General Tavaala explained at our first meeting, a generation removed from their Mantrusian roots, I'm unaffected by it personally. I don't think there's any factual foundation to the various legends, so therefore I don't believe that Nerensai is going to reappear. But I do know that the average Mantrusian will believe it, mainly because they want to, and when their hopes are dashed they're going to be very upset. What disturbs me the most, however, is the mentality that thinks it can use a people's weaknesses for personal gain, because either they're going to get a big surprise, or worse, they know full well how the people will react and already have measures installed to control it. Hence, the stormtroopers." She gazed around the circle of faces, her dark eyes wide, and Tiirau, who was closest, could see they were glistening with tears. "Mantrusia tends to be regarded as a bit of a way-out place, and the people as backward, superstitious, light-fingered: you're probably familiar with all the jokes. But the people are actually quite kind-hearted, and they have a great capacity to enjoy the simple pleasures. The thought that this Kuzhak and Truin are using them for their own purposes is despicable. The spirits condemn them both."

Tiirau let his eyes flick quickly around the faces of the other men, noting with amusement their surprise at the sudden change from reasoned logic to deep emotion. Kerensa may be one generation removed from her Mantrusian roots, but in some ways she was Mantrusian through and through.

Admiral Ackbar bowed his large head again in acknowledgment, and his barbels twitched. "Thank you, Ensign," he murmured.

"Sorry, sir. I got a bit carried away," she said pulling herself upright in her seat again.

"No, far from it, Ensign," replied Ackbar kindly. "I think you've shown us a little of what we might have to expect."

"The Mantrusian people are not violent by nature, sir," she informed him earnestly. "And it worries me that a lot of them might get hurt simply because of their beliefs. I wish we could do something to stop this pageant."

"President Manalooa has been trying to contact Chief Elozhi since yesterday, when General Solo and Princess Leia returned from the MPC station with news of it. He keeps getting the Aide, who is as usual less than helpful, however we live in hope." He glanced across at Tiirau and nodded gratefully. "Thanks Lieutenant, and you too of course, Ensign. We've all heard quite an amazing story," he exchanged a quick raising of the eyebrows with Fa'arika. "However, as you both no doubt would like to get home, and as these gentlemen and myself have much to ruminate on, I think we'll call a halt."

He paused, and then turned to Kerensa. "If you could just stay for a few more minutes, Ensign, there's something I'd like to discuss just briefly." He turned back to Fa'arika. "Take Admiral Ackbar and General Madine to my office, we might continue in there, and Lieutenant Tiirau, you're dismissed with thanks."

"Thank you, sir," replied Tiirau as he got to his feet.

"Certainly," Fa'arika replied with alacrity, "this way gentlemen. Lieutenant," he acknowledged Tiirau's salute, and let the big Iicini'ian pass through the door before following him out.

Tavaala waited until they had gone, and then eased himself back into his seat, and fixed his grey eyes on Kerensa's. To her surprise he shook his head and a faint smile lit his normally austere features.

"Did Tseraan know?" he asked.

"No, sir," she said quietly. "My mother was the only one who knew I had inherited the Force, but she forbade me to use it, made me promise never to mention it to anyone, not even my father or my brother or my grandparents. I honoured the promise, but I'm afraid I didn't stop using it."

"You say that regretfully, yet it allowed you to save Lieutenant Tiirau and yourself."

"I know." Her eyes slid away from his and focused on the table in front of her. "It's a dubious gift, sir," she said after a pause. "You have to be very careful you're using it properly. You can't just use it for selfish reasons."

"Do you feel you used it for the right reasons in Mantrusia?"

"I haven't really had time to analyse it, sir. I don't know that I want to actually," she peeped up at him apologetically. "At the time I just did what I felt was reasonable. Things happened and I reacted. I feel bad about the men I killed though." She looked down at the table again.

Tavaala nodded and regarded the bowed head sympathetically. "It's the same situation as being in command. The decisions you make often have to be made on the spur of the moment with only the information available. But I feel you acted admirably. You were cool, you didn't panic and you were willing to take responsibility when your superior was indisposed."

Kerensa looked up in surprise.

"I'd like to offer you some options, Ensign. You don't have to give me any answers yet, I want you to think about them, talk them over with others if you wish. But in the light of your abilities and other factors which have come to my notice, I think you need to make some decisions."

* * * * *

Wedge stirred in his seat when the door swished open, and when Kerensa emerged he stood up, concerned she might not see him in the half-light. Indeed she did seem not to notice him, for although she was staring in his direction, it was with a wide-eyed look of wonder. He was just considering whether to wave for attention or not when she started, and a look of recognition appeared in her eyes.

"Wedge! Have you been waiting here all the time?"

He shrugged. "General Tavaala suggested it might be an idea if I made sure you got home safely. I think he was a bit worried you might fall asleep on the way."

"Oh, that was thoughtful. He's a funny old thing," she said, and a perplexed expression flickered over her face.

"I, uh, think he was quite worried about you," Wedge informed her. In fact Wedge had been quite surprised at the extent of Tavaala's concern, for after dismissing Luke, the general had requested that Wedge remain for a few minutes. What had followed had been in essence the type of chat Wedge might have expected if Tavaala had been Kerensa's father, and he had begun to realise that in the absence of her parents, the man had taken it upon himself to assume a role similar to that of guardian.

"Yes, he was," she replied, still a little vague. "I suppose you've missed out on dinner?"

Wedge shrugged again. "I'm not all that hungry." He bit his lip as the unmistakable growl of stomach juices disturbed the silence of the room.

"You big fibber," she giggled, taking his hand. "Come on. You can drive me home and I'll cook us some dinner. I'm hungry, too. The soup the medics gave me had meat in it, and I couldn't eat it."

* * * * *

"Er, 'Rennie, I know this is probably not a good time to bring up the subject, but I definitely think you use the Force to get down there," said Wedge, as his heart-rate began to return to normal, and he felt the sweat drying on his forehead. He pegged back the forward thrust and turned to gaze back up the old water course.

Kerensa threw him a troubled look. "Do you think I do?"

"Well," he pushed the lever forward and they began to move again. "I don't think I'm exaggerating my own ability to say that it's well nigh impossible to come down there at the speed you do using normal human reflexes.

"I've been coming that way for a year and a half -- maybe it's just habit."

Wedge shook his head. "I don't think habit would give the same level of proficiency. Maybe you just use the Force without consciously trying."

She frowned. "Maybe." The frown grew deeper. "But if that's so then a lot of the things I've been able to take pride in over the last few years haven't really been achievements at all."

"I don't get your point," he peered ahead into the half-light. "Am I going the right way here?"

She waved ahead towards where the forest swept out into a curve. "Just keep following the bulge. What I mean is that four years ago I made a decision to stop using the Force, and that from then on everything I did would be my effort. If I failed, I failed; and if not, well all and good. But it would be truly my failure or my success. At that stage I'd been competition swimming, but I'd been using the Force, so I gave it up and took up Rah Pouro instead."

"What's that?" he asked, surreptitiously checking the sky for Kerensa's huge avian friend.

"It's a form of self-defence. I did quite well in the age group games, but I got a bit bored with it so I joined a junior smashball team, and then one of the senior coaches asked me if I'd like to give aeroball a go -- so I did, and I ended up playing for Iicini'ia. But you see, Wedge don't you? If I've had the Force as a sort of ally in all this, them what I've thought of as my effort hasn't really been mine at all." She shook her head. "Maybe it's arrogant, but I've always been able to feel good about these things. I've always felt in some way that ... ," she sighed, "... that being a success has made up for the fact that I'm still here even though my family isn't."

"You feel guilty that you've survived, and you feel you've got to justify your survival?" Wedge caught the silvery glint of the bubble house in the distance.

"Perhaps that's part of it. It also doesn't help knowing that when my family was around, I wasn't exactly the wonderful child they thought I was. Most of the achievements that they took pride in were Force assisted."

"Guilt can sometimes be a good motivator, but you mustn't let it rule your life. I felt guilty when my parents died. They ran a fuelling station back home and there was some trouble between a ship that was refuelling and CorSec -- that's Corellian Security. The fuel lines exploded and they detached the fuel module so as not to endanger the station. They ... ," he faltered. "I had to watch them die. When something like that happens, you feel why should you be spared? What's so good about you that you get to survive, and yet the people willing to make sacrifices die? So you feel guilty." He powered down the repulsors and the vehicle settled on its skids.

Kerensa looked up with eyes full of compassion. "My parents, and my brother, were on Alderaan when Tarkin destroyed it." They gazed at each other in silence; the deepening twilight was somehow comforting. Wedge had begun to feel the familiar inexorable attraction of her lips when a grey-green mountain of fur erupted joyously from the trees.

"I should have known," groaned Wedge, following Kerensa and jumping down to meet the animal.

"Oh no, Chitza!" Kerensa complained as the huge beast began patting them both clumsily on their heads with obvious relief and affection. "Oh dear, poor old thing. He's been lonely."

"Doesn't seem to have affected his appetite," Wedge nodded towards the berry stains on Chitza's massive chest.

"I'd love to know how he got here," she mused, dusting the dried orange and purple pips from the animal's fur.

"You're sure he's the same as those animals on the mountain?" Kerensa had told them about the strange but helpful beasts in the yacht on the way home. She studied Chitza carefully. "No doubt about it: four eyes, funny ears, same fur, same size, same claws." She peered up at his mouth and pushed the leathery lips back to reveal his fang teeth. "His fangs aren't quite as yellow as the leader's. Perhaps Chitza is one of his children, and he sensed it and that's why he looked after us!" she said, a beam of inspiration in her eyes lit up, but then as quickly died. "But that still doesn't explain all the garden stuff, and the funny lens doors, and this sounih business."

Wedge shook his head, and gave her a confused look.

"I'm sorry," she stood up on tiptoe, gave his chin a quick kiss, and then grabbed his hand and pulled him towards the door. "No more puzzles I promise. We need to eat." She activated the opening device and immediately headed for the kitchen area, where she opened two of the cooler compartments. "I think I've got plenty of things in here. If you pour this," she handed Wedge a jug and two beakers, "I'll get some soup on the go."

She extracted a handful of pulpy yellow pods and a selection of soft green and purple drupes, and proceeded to chop them and place them into the infuser set into the bench. Within a few minutes, steam had begun to rise. She added a few twigs from the bunches of dried herbs hanging around the window, and clipped down the lid. An appetising smell filled the room.

Wedge handed her a beaker, and took a sip from his. "Wow!" he gasped. "This stuff sure packs a punch."

She smiled and tentatively took a mouthful herself. "Mmm, not bad. Probably could do with another day or so before it's one hundred per cent though."

"I hope you're not trying to get me drunk?" he teased.

"Depends whether you're a friendly drunk, or one that gets up and sings on tables."

"A sleepy one I'm afraid."

"Oh that's not much use. Just as well this stuff is completely non-alcoholic," she grinned.

He took another mouthful, and savoured the tingles as it slide down his throat. "Hmm, I don't know. Another glassful and I could probably do you a passable version of 'Nerf Hide Shoes'."

"Oh, mercy," she giggled. "Please, please not the Starboys. Still I suppose I could always take you into town and sit you on the sidewalk with a tin. Someone might pay to hear it." She reached back into one of the coolers and took out two cream-coloured slabs of what looked like granules, which she placed on a wire grid. She uncovered the soup, and placed the grid on top of it, then she picked up her glass and walked over to sit at the small table by the window.

"Chitza's been eating my pitaro vine, bother him," she pointed out into the purple haze of garden, as Wedge sat down opposite. He went to peer out in the direction she indicated, but the tired, dry feeling behind his eyes got the better of him and he was forced to give them a rub. Kerensa reached over, and ran a slender finger lightly backwards and forwards over his forehead.

"What did you do?" he asked, blinking. The tension which had been gripping his head like a tight band for the past day disappeared, and his eyes suddenly felt clear and cool.

"It's something Mackshi taught me." She sighed and studied him thoughtfully. "It's a question of sensing interference patterns. But like the Force, I can't explain it, I just do it." She paused. "I suppose I really should have told General Tavaala about the tzensentye thing, but I thought he had enough on his plate coping with the Force."

"Did your mother have the healing skill too?" asked Wedge curiously.

"Mackshi's my father's mother," she corrected him. "And apparently there are no male healers, it's only manifested in the women. I didn't find out I had it until I went to live with Mackshi after Alderaan. I suppose I should have really tried to learn more about it, but I was so determined to live without the supernatural that I was a rather unwilling pupil."

"Your grandmother doesn't know you have the Force?"

Kerensa shook her head, and got up to check the soup. "I suppose I'll have to tell her now, since you all know. It wouldn't be fair otherwise. She is after all, the only close family I have left." She reached up to a shelf for two bowls, placed the grain slabs in them and poured the soup over the top.

"You have a very precise system of ethics, 'Rennie," Wedge smiled, as she placed the steaming bowl in front of him.

She threw him a quick, almost shy glance, and then bent to take a scoopful of soup. She seemed to hesitate, then she gazed back up at him.

"General Tavaala, offered me a promotion," she said in rather a neutral voice.

"Hey, that's great," he swallowed quickly and beamed across at her. "Congratulations, Lieutenant Kalichi."

Kerensa smiled, but then her eyes dropped down to her bowl, and she stirred the contents, obviously uncertain about something.

"What's the matter, 'Ren?" he asked softly, thinking that the adrenalin rush of the last day might be catching up with her emotionally. It was a situation he had been in only too often himself, and he remembered the strange feeling of deflation once a dangerous situation was over, and the way his mind would analyse the decisions he had made and the actions he had taken.

"My father would have been really proud. He had a great respect for I-M." She hesitated. "I guess I feel a little guilty, because I don't think I want to accept it."

Wedge put down his scoop. "Why ever not?"

"Because he ... also offered me an alternative," she murmured.

"An alternative?" Wedge sat back in his seat and stared at her perplexed.

Her dark eyes flickered back to meet his. "He felt that in the light of my obvious Force ability I might be more useful if I was working directly for the Rebel Alliance, so he suggested that I consider a transfer. Apparently he had already discussed it with Admiral Ackbar, and he was all for it." She took a mouthful of soup and swallowed. "I'm to think about it and talk it over."

Wedge felt a tremor run through his body, and a hot surge, like rising lava, ran up his spine. So that's what Tavaala was up to, he thought, and he was instantly filled with a tremendous sense of respect for the man. In his own quietly efficient way he was taking care of his friend's daughter the best way he knew how. He had established that Wedge's intentions towards her were honest, and then he had organised a place for her in the Rebel ranks -- should she so wish.

Up until now Wedge had managed, although frequently only just, to keep the extent of his feelings for Kerensa in check, initially for fear she didn't return the love he was sure he felt for her; and since she had informed him that she did, out of respect for her need to recover from the events since her capture. He reached out for her hand and saw that it was trembling as much as his own.

"The problem is, I don't really know what to think. One minute things are just running along as normal, then all of a sudden the universe lurches and everything's turned upside down. I think I'm a little bit scared that any minute it's going to lurch again, and the good things from the last reversal will be taken away."

"Even if it does do another lurch, do you think that what I said earlier would change?"

Her eyes flickered over his face and then dropped to the hand caressing her own. "I don't know Wedge, but I know that what I said won't."

"I think we need to talk, 'Rennie," he said.

"Yes, we do," she replied softly.

To Chapter Twenty-Nine | To Chapter Thirty-One

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