There were some days when it just did not pay to get out of bed.
For Mary Travis, today was one such day.
It was bad enough that she was forced to say goodbye to her son Billy after a month long stay at the rebel base but on top of that, she had just discovered that Command had opted to send her a morale officer. That in it was irritating enough and Mary had accepted the news with resignation, realizing that she was adaptable to the situation. However, that was before she learnt whom they had decided to send in order to fill that role on her base. There were certain things and people she accepted without question, that was what made her such a good commander but as she stood before her new morale officer, she knew it was going to be a cold day in hell before she stood for this particular appointment.
"Nathan," Mary said icily, her eyes fixed on the new morale officer as she spoke. "I want an immediate patch to Command."
"Yes Sir," Nathan answered automatically not about to argue with that voice.
"Well it's nice to see you too Mary," the tall red head named Louisa Perkins greeted smiling sweetly at Mary even though it was clear that she was enjoying the fact that she was such a matter of consternation for her new commanding officer. Louisa was an extremely attractive woman and wore her Alliance uniform almost as if it were fashion statement. She studied Mary and those before her with laughing green eyes and her manner was one of confidence for every occasion. She was in other words, always relaxed in the face of adversity. "And you too Lex."
"Thats Alex to you," Alex replied sarcastically.
Mary looked at Nathan who was like Chris and Vin, watching the exchange between the females in their prescence with fascination. "Why are you still here Captain?" Mary asked sharply. "My call?"
"Sorry," Nathan shook his head and hurried off in the direction of the command center of the base, suddenly thinking it might not be such a bad thing being out of the line of fire.
"Now Mary, are you still afraid of little ol me?" Louisa asked in. Without waiting for an answer, she turned towards Chris and Vin. "Dont mind us boys, Mary gets a little testy when shes around me. We go a ways back."
"I can see that," Chris answered neutrally, trying to stifle a smile. "How far back?"
"The preparatory for the Academy and then the Academy itself," Louisa responded as Mary seethed. "And you must be Chris Larabee, the Jedi," she said sweetly, "I heard that we had one of you boys here."
"Louisa, why here?" Mary asked abruptly, not all liking how Louisa was regarding Chris. "There are almost twenty five other scattered across the galaxy, some in a lot more charming places than wild space. Can you please tell me what twisted set of cosmic circumstances put you on my base?"
"Thats easy," Louisa returned. "I asked for this posting."
"Figures," Alex remarked, watching Marys pupils dilate at the thought that Louisas presence here was not a set of freak circumstances. "I supposed you did that asking in your usual way?"
"What way?" Vin looked at her with curiosity.
"On her knees with her lips puckered," Alex returned with narrowed eyes.
Louisa did not seem to mind the insult even though Chris suddenly found reason to avert his gaze and Vin merely shook his head with a quiet mumble that sounded like thats cold.
"Oh Lex, youre gonna have to do better than that to get under my skin and for that matter, might I just add that you look simply fabulous now that you lost all that weight. You should have seen her as a teenager, I declare she was a chubby little thing, or maybe little isnt the right word," Louisa returned just as sharply.
Alex opened her mouth to speak when suddenly; Chris broke in. "Alright ladies," the Jedi looked at the trio in his presence, with less than amicable feelings towards each other and decided enough was enough. "I think thats enough. Were all in this together."
"Spoken like a man," Mary growled with a hard stare, which required no telepathy on his part to realise that she wanted him to stay out of this. "Alright Louisa," she faced her adversary of so many years once more. "Youre here and for the moment, I cant do much about that. Until I do, you will not interfere in the smooth operation of this base. We have people here who live their lives with the fear that at any moment and Imperial warship can come out of hyperspace and vaporize us all. I do not want their thoughts fixed on anything but their jobs."
Louisa straightened up and returned with just as much vehemence. "I know my job commander and while youre so eager to have people remember that they could die any minute, also remember that theyre people and unless they find some outlet to remember that, they will snap under the pressure. Not everyone is built like you Mary. Some of us do not go to bed at night thinking they can take whatever comes without a single worry. Some of us," she narrowed her eyes as she made the statement, "some of us are actually human."
Chris saw the hostility in Marys eyes melt as Louisas remark had precisely the desire effect that the morale officer had intended. Personal feelings aside, Marys dedication to those who served with her was first and foremost in her mind. Whatever she felt about Louisa would take a secondary position in comparison to the people that followed her with dedication. "You make a good point Captain," Mary said quietly.
"We dont have to like each other," Louisa retorted. "But we do need to work together."
"I dont have to agree to that," Mary returned firmly, not about to call their battle of wits over just yet but rather drawn to an uneasy compromise. "However, I can let you do your job just as long as you remember that vigilance is necessary in this place."
"I wont forget it," Louisa replied, glad that they had come to some kind of understanding. "Now, if one you charming gentlemen would be so kind as to show me to the quartermasters office, Ill find a place to bunk down."
"Im going that way," Chris volunteered, deciding that it was best to put some distance between Mary and Louisa for the moment. It surprised him to feel a tinge of jealousy emanating from Mary at his offer and he stared at her for an instant, wondering what on Twin Moons made her so threatened by this woman. Surely, she could not imagine for one minute that his offer could be anything more than sheer politeness?
Stop thinking like a Jedi and start thinking like a man, Larabee.
His inner voice said derisively and Chris winced inwardly remembering what effect single women who were more than a little friendly towards him had on Sarah. She would give him the same look that Mary was giving him right this second. Suddenly Chris had an idea that it was not a bad idea if he got out of Marys way for a while too.
"Ill see you later," Chris muttered gingerly returning Marys look and took note of the smoldering heat behind those blue grey eyes before turning to Louisa, "shall we?"
Louisa was not blind to the effect of Chris playing escort was having on Mary and indulged herself a little further at the expense of the Jedi who was trying hard to play peace maker but was fast becoming another spark in Marys igniting temperament. "Why thank you," she said deviously, sliding her arm around Chris even though the Jedi did not offer it.
Vin Tanner stifled a laugh, watching the expression on Chris face change into helplessness as Louisa drew him away. If there was one person in the universe Vin did not want to be when Mary caught up with him again, it was Chris Larabee. He had no idea getting caught in the crossfire between two women could be so hilarious when viewed from an outsiders perspective. And Chris thought being a Jedi was hard.
"I hate that woman," Mary remarked, invisible threads of steam rising from her as Chris and Louisa disappeared out the hangar.
"I wasnt fat," Alex insisted defiantly.
Vin could not resist that opening. He gave her a once and over before remarking. "I dont know, I can picture you ."
"Finish that statement and you die." Alex turned on him with a menacing glare.
"Im going to my office," Mary grumbled. "Let me know if the day can get any worse." She stormed without saying another word as Alex and Vin watched her go. The devil in Vin was actually looking forward to more exchanges between Mary Travis and Louisa Perkins.
"Come on pudgy," Vin grinned evilly at Alex once Mary was out of sigh. "Ill buy you lunch at the mess."
Alex fumed and retorted in a low voice. "Keep pushing it Tanner, just keep pushing it."
Buck Wilmington had no idea where JD was and it was driving him crazy.
He would have refused to cooperate entirely with Nardo and his Gammorreans friends if it were not for that fact alone. Unfortunately, no sooner than he had allowed himself to be coerced into agreement regarding the undertaking of the Maw Run, the Gammorrean enforcer, Selkik had called for reinforcements. They had arrived soon after, a number of men led by a known bounty hunter named Dengar. Dengar was a patchwork of human and cybernetic parts, a result of having an unfortunate run in with Black Sun, so rumor had it. No sooner than Dengar had arrived with his entourage, he had taken charge of JD and disappeared out of the hanger before Buck had a chance to protest. Of course he knew exactly what they were doing by taking the kid.
Without Buck having any idea of where JD was, there would be less likely chance of him doing anything foolish during the course of the trip through the Maw. With JD hostage, they could be assured of his good behavior. Nevertheless, Buck also was wise to the reality of his situation despite his momentary capitulation to Selkiks requirements. He had no doubt that once he was done taking their cargo from one end of the Maw to the other, JD would cease to be of any further value to them and if the boy was lucky, they would kill him. If not, Buck was perfectly aware thanks to Vin Tanner, that Jabba the Hutt was known to keep human slaves. Somehow, Buck had to get word back to the Alliance.
It was his and JDs only hope right now.
"Alright, whats the job?" Buck demanded after JD had been taken and he was alone with Selkik and Nardo on the Rogue. They were assembled in the main passenger compartment of the Rogue, with Nardos gun still aimed in his direction.
"His Excellency, the almighty powerful Jabba has been approached by an Imperial commander of great note," Selkik explained. "This individual wishes Jabba to ferry cargo to be picked up at Myrkr and taken to an outpost on the planet Bastion."
"Myrkr?" Bucks brow rose in curiosity. "Theres nothing there. Its a forest world, no commercial value whatsoever. Whats the cargo?"
"A life form," Selkik responded readily.
"You better kill me now and the boy," Buck said angrily. "I wont be a party to slavery." He meant it too. There were not many things he was willing to die for even to the extent of sacrificing JD but slavery inspired his deepest contempt and it was the one thing he would not do no matter what the price.
"It's not a sentient life form," Selkik countered immediately, not wishing a situation to arise when there was no need for it. "They are called yslamiri."
"Never heard of them," Buck answered sincere in that statement. Of course in a galaxy as populous as they one they presently inhabited, such a statement was not beyond the realms of possibility. There were billions of life forms out there, half of which had yet to be classified as any particular genus. These creatures could well exist without Buck ever having heard of them once, no matter how well traveled he might be.
"They are found only on Myrkr," Selkik, obliged to explain in greater detail since Bucks tone was not ambivalent but generally curious as to the nature of the precious cargo they required him to move with such secrecy through the Maw. "Secrecy is of utmost importance. Our client does not wish to be picked up by Imperial agents of any kind that is why we are taking the route through the Maw. If you were to travel to Bastion by regular means, then you will have to pass through the Hydian Way and that may necessitate discovery."
"There are ways around the Imperial boys that dont require us going through the Maw," Buck pointed out.
"Our client insists it be this way," Selkik returned. "He has paid his Excellency the Mighty Jabba very well for this privilege and so it will be so."
There was no point arguing with him on that point, Buck supposed but he did find it somewhat curious about the yslamiri creatures that were being freighted from one end of the spiral arm to the other. Almost as curious about this Imperial commander who wanted to hide them from his own. "Any idea who this Imperial commander is?" Buck inquired, hoping to glean some useful information.
"Only that he is from the Unknown Regions," the Gammorrean responded with enough tremor in his features for Buck to see that this disturbed him for some reason. "He is not human."
Now that did surprise Buck a great deal. Even before the segregation policy had become firmly entrenched, Palpatine had been removing non-human personnel from the ranks of the Imperial fleet by any means necessary. Most went when they saw the shift in the wind, choosing to go voluntarily while others who were more stubborn were removed by more permanent means. Some were discredited and discharged, others were forced to leave because of secret coercion against their families and home worlds and then there were rumors of those killed outright. The fact that there was an Imperial commander of non-human origins who still remained in the Emperors ranks indicated two things. One that he was so valuable to the Emperor that his services simply could not be dispensed with and another was that the Emperor had not gotten around to removing him yet. The latter explanation seemed to make sense if the man was enlisting the aid of a gang lord like Jabba the Hutt to conduct his business.
"Youve met him?"
"Ive seen him at his Excellencys palace," Selkik answered. "They saw that he is a master strategist."
"This master strategist have a name?" Buck persisted.
"What is with all these questions!" Nardo interrupted. "You need not tell him anything!" The Rodian barked at the Gammorrean.
The Gammorrean glared at Nardo, giving him a warning look to remind the Rodian who was in charge here. It was a hard stare more than enough to send Rodian cowering back to silence but Buck could see that Nardos remark had left an impression. However, Selkik felt it permissible to give Buck one further morsel of information before he revealed nothing further about his masters client.
"Thrawn," Nardo responded. "He is called Thrawn and I have never seen a race like him."
Thrawn? Buck had never head of an Imperial commander called Thrawn; not did he recognise the origins of the name. While it would have been wiser to simply let it go at that, Buck was intrigued enough about this mysterious Commander Thrawn to inquire further information. It was obvious the Gammorrean felt some inner disturbance about the man and was volunteering information because if anyone knew what Thrawn was about, it would be the Rebel Alliance. Since Buck was now known as a card-carrying member, it was the closest Selkik would ever get to satiate his own questions.
"Do you know what colour his uniform was?" Buck inquired. It was one way to narrow down the list of possibilities.
"White," Selkik answered almost immediately, as if that were the most telling thing about the man other than his non-human status.
"White?" Buck exclaimed and knew that there was only one designation for any Imperial commander in white and that was Grand Admiral.
There was Grand Admiral pulling the strings on his trip through the Maw. Buck wondered just how much worse things were going to get.
When Ezra Standish walked into his office several hours later, it was actually morning on Cordoba. Owing to the difference in standard galactic time, a matter of hours made the difference between night and day when held comparatively between Gamorr and the region known as Wild Space. It was still early as far as he was concerned and yet the hot climate of Cordoba was already making itself felt as the Commander of the Cordoba outpost entered his private sanctum. He tugged at the collar and told himself that while the uniform did look handsome, it was hell to wear in this heat. Unfortunately, Ezra was too fastidious to look anything but the paragon of military discipline and bore his clothes with a stiff upper lip.
When he walked through the doors, he found his newly appointed First Officer awaiting him. Ezra tried not to frown as he saw the titian haired beauty that had obviously been sent here to spy on him. When he had encountered Darth Vader for the first time, the Sith Lord had been convinced that Ezra had something to hide and although Ezra had saved his life following a light sabre battle with Chris Larabee, Vader was still determined to uncover his secrets. His appointment of the lovely young woman had incensed Ezra to no end because he had thought Vader had respected him more than to believe a pretty face would get him to loosen his tongue.
Since her arrival here, Ezra had taken every opportunity to find fault with her work. He knew there were instances where he was being abjectly unfair and truth be known, it gave him no pleasure to be so hard nosed but Ezra could think of no other way of ridding himself of her without raising suspicion. Finding flaws in her performance was a legitimate way of transferring her off Cordoba without raising the suspicions of those in command. Ezra was certain that in the face of that reason, not even Vader would be able to block the transfer request without explaining why she had to remain where she was. Ezra knew military hierarchy well enough to be certain that none of them would be impressed that Vader was now planting spies in the midst of what were meant to be loyal officers of the Empire.
"Good morning Commander." Julia Pemberton rose to her feet at his arrival.
"Good morning Julia," Ezra said smoothly not in the mood to begin their verbal sparring before he had his cup of hot brew. The aroma wafted through the porcelain cup that was seated at the side of his desk and once again, Ezra gave silent thanks for his adjutant Claire who manage to leave small pleasures like this one when he came into the office. In his opinion, she was the only person who had any right to claim the title of First Officer on this base.
"Ive been going through the morning reports from communication," Julia responded smoothly, no love lost between them. "Ive found something interesting."
"Do tell," he said not really interested but Ezra knew how to manage a poker face better than any man alive and appeared listening as he nestled into his chair and took a sip from his cup.
Julia continued to stare at him for a moment as if she was making some observation about him that she was revealing to no one at this point. Instead she continued on the subject at hand. "Youve notified all commands to contact you in the event the ship called the Rogue is ever identified at large."
Ezra sat up immediately and paid attention. "Yes I had but I doubted I would get any results. The Rogue belongs to Buck Wilmington, a member of the Rebel Alliance. No doubt, they would have furnished him with forged registration papers after we identified him and his ship."
When Ezra had first assumed command of this posting, he had done so promoting the belief among his superiors that he wished to find the rebels in this area who was responsible for the destruction of the Doldur base where he was stationed. The illusion of vengeance ensured the powers that be that he had a personal stake in capturing the rebels in the area while giving him a perfect alibi to cover his activities as a Rebel Alliance collaborator. He had put all points bulletins on both the Tracker and Rogue, with instruction that he been reached the instant they had any intelligence about the ship. In that way, he was able to alert the Alliance whenever they were in danger of being discovered by local authorities.
"I realise that Sir," Julia agreed. "However, that ship was seen blasting off Gammorr seven hours ago."
Something was wrong, Ezra thought quickly. Buck Wilmington was not stupid enough to use the original registration codes for the Rogue without being aware that every Imperial command in the sector would be alerted to the fact. If Buck used those registration codes then there was only one reason for it; he wanted to be found. Ezra hid these ruminations from his first officer, because this was precisely the situation she had been waiting for in order to see how he would react, whether there was justifiable reason for Lord Vader's suspicions about him.
"It does not seem right," Ezra spoke after a moment and in that sense he was lying because it did not seem right that Buck would make such an obvious mistake unless it was the only way he could think of to signal for help. Buck knew that Ezra monitored any Imperial reports about the Rogue and the Tracker and would be able to get word to the Alliance. "Wilmington is no fool, using his registration code would allow us to find him. Did the Rogue launch a flight plan upon its departure from Gammorr?"
"Yes," Julia nodded after conferring with the transcript of the communications message she had received from the authorities on Gammorr. "Her flight plan was set for the Tion Cluster."
"I suppose that is possible," Ezra mused but knew that he ought to take that flight plan with a grain of salt. As far as he knew, Buck and JD had been escorting Josiah Sanchez somewhere near the core worlds for a rebel conference. Something must have happened in order for Buck to tip his hand like this, which meant he had to act quickly.
"What shall we do about it?" Julia asked.
"What is there to do?" Ezra turned to her. "Alert our people in the Tion Cluster to inform us as soon as the ship enters their space. Beyond that, it is very much out of our jurisdiction."
Julia frowned, knowing that he was right. Imperial procedure on this sort of thing was very specific. However, she could feel it in every fiber of her being that there was more going on behind those powerfully attractive green eyes of his and hated herself for the fact that she had noticed.
Somehow or rather Julia Pemberton had to find the evidence to finish Ezra Standish before he did the same to her.
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