"I can’t believe I’m wearing this thing," Mary Travis grumbled as she sat in the back of the landspeeder as the terrestrial vehicle took them through the Dune Sea towards Jabba’s fortress. It was bad enough that the heat on this world with its twins suns was hellish to say the least, but to be wearing this outfit made of leather and string was beyond humiliating.

"I think you look great." Vin looked over his shoulder and smiled. In truth, both she and Alex looked extremely delectable although he was not about to make any more specific observation about Mary when Chris was around.

"From the voice of morons," Alex grumbled, similarly disgruntled at the scanty garments she was forced to wear. She stared down at her exposed cleavage and felt another need to pull the material up in order to cover herself further.

"Be nice," Vin met her eyes with a wicked smile. "Or I’ll tell Jabba you have a thing for Hutts."

Alex glared back at her and said sweetly, "do that and Jabba won’t the only one who lacks the anatomy to deal with human females."

"Ouch," he chuckled obviously enjoying her discomfiture.

"You’re having way too much fun with this." Chris gave him a look from where he was seated in the back with Mary.

At present, they were travelling at high speed over the Dune Sea, an area of Tatooine known to be inhabited by the Sand People. Chris felt a little uneasy because it also the residence of Ben Kenobi but shrugged off the concern because the Dune Sea was almost thousands of miles of open desert and the chances of their confrontation with Jabba the Hutt spilling over into Ben’s location was remote. Chris could tell that despite Vin’s jokes at the expense of the ladies, the former bounty hunter was being visited by images of home. This was after all, the world where he had been born a slave, the world he had been forced to escape in order to know any taste of freedom. Chris saw the parched desert sands running as far as the eye could see and thought how different from Corellia this was and could not imagine anyone growing up in such a harsh place. However, Vin’s hardiness had everything to do with the fact that he had been a native of this planet. Growing up in an environment like this tended t o make a man tough and Vin had grown up under the tutelage of the Sand People, Tatooine's most resilient folk and had survived his slavery learning their ways.

"Nothing about Tatooine is fun," Vin remarked quietly as he drove the landspeeder over the endless crests of dunes that seemed to be ahead of them.

"You were born here weren’t you?" Mary asked recalling something about Tatooine being in Vin’s past.

"Yes I was," Vin answered, allowing his gaze to sweep across the horizon in the direction of the moisture farm he could not see from here but had been the place where he and his mother had lived. It had been months since he had been back to Tatooine but Vin could not help thinking if his father had been from here too. Since meeting Chris and discovering the Force inside of him, Vin wondered if Chris was right; that perhaps his father had been a Jedi. One of these days, he was going to have to make a serious effort to find out although the trail to begin was almost non-existent.

Alex could tell that Vin was uncomfortable about speaking about so personal a subject and surprised herself at her empathy with his feelings. "So what happens when we get to Jabba’s palace?" She asked, in an effort to change the subject.

Vin glanced at her briefly, sensing the real reason for her question and allowed a faint smile to cross his lips. This was one meant for her specifically, devoid of cockiness and humor but something that came from the heart and had more power to move her than she had thought possibly. She turned away; feeling slightly embarrassed at having been caught out.

"Well once we get to the security perimeter we’ll go according to plan and let Chris out. It’s about a mile or two to the fortress so you should be able to make it in good time once I’ve found JD," Vin replied looking at Chris.

"The kid’s there," Chris said firmly. "Now that we’re closer, I can feel him."

"What about Buck?" Mary asked automatically. "Can you sense him?"

A visible frown crossed over the Jedi’s face and he shook his head slowly. "I don’t sense anything from Buck. Not a goddamn thing." All he could sense was this empty void where Buck should be. It was almost as if that whatever surrounded Buck was not of the galaxy but seemed to exist a part it because it was beyond the power of the Force. In all his life, Chris had never sensed anything like it and his reason for finding Buck other than the obvious was to learn what was the nature of this mysterious void. Was it a weapon to use against Jedis? A new toy that Palpatine had fashioned to continue his war against the Jedi. Chris did not know for certain but he could not deny that it frightened him a little.

"I’m sure he’s alive," Alex declared optimistically. Alex did not know the young man very well but was aware that he was something of a favourite among the six men that made up the Magnificent Seven as Mary secretly called them. "If Casey is right, getting into more trouble than he’s worth," she added, recalling what Casey had said to her prior to their departure from the rebel base.

"I suppose if they wanted Buck to cooperate with them, taking JD would make sense," Mary mused as she considered what the young man was doing on Tatooine. "I mean what else would make Buck agree to fly the Maw if he barely made it through the first time."

"She’s right," Vin agreed. "It would explain why Dengar took off in his own ship and Buck took of in the Rogue. He probably delivered JD to Jabba for safe keeping so that Buck would do as he was told. It sounds like Jabba’s style alright," Vin added with a hint of distaste.

It would also explain why he could sense JD and not Buck, Chris thought silently to himself. Even now, he could feel the young man’s presence in the Force. Earlier on, it had been difficult to detect because of his proximity to JD and the lack of any long established link between them that allowed for easy detection. While Chris could not pinpoint exactly where JD was, he knew they were getting close to his present location. Buck was an entirely different situation. Other than the factual data of knowing that he was needed to fly through the Maw, Chris had no sense of him as at all.

"Did you work for him long?" Mary asked as she brushed a loose strand of gold hair from her face. Her hair was bound into a thin braid that spilled over her bare shoulders.

Despite all his efforts not to, Chris could not help but admire how lovely Mary looked in her rather scandalous clothes. The outfit had been designed to show every bit of curve she possessed and to its credit, Chris had to confess that she looked utterly spectacular. From the way the material seemed to cling to her slender form, to the way the slit on either side of her revealed, long, supple legs, it was enough to shake the resolve of even the most disciplined Jedi Knight. It was hard to picture her as the responsible rebel leader when once saw her like this. At the moment, she seemed more comfortable lounging about in one of those luxurious pleasure resorts that were prevalent in the core systems. He also found himself thinking in very un-Jedi like fashion that if Jabba the Hutt laid one slimy finger on her, it would be the last thing the Hutt would ever do in his life once Chris was through with him. Chris did not want to admit to being possessive or territorial for that matter but a lad y of her standing deserved to be treated with respect and while the situation required her to carrying this façade of playing the slave girl, Chris did not like it any better than she did.

She was simply too good for it.

"I worked for him on an off for a couple years," Vin replied. "He was one of my first few clients after I gave up playing bodyguard."

"You played bodyguard?" Alex stared at him. That part of Vin’s history was unknown to her since his reputation was mostly based on his career as a bounty hunter.

"For a while," Vin replied shortly. "It didn’t work out too well so I gave it up."

Chris turned to Vin at that statement, sensing something veiled behind those few words. The apprentice was keeping his inner shields firmly in place in regards to that subject and Chris had too much respect for his privacy to delve further into what the younger man was hiding.

He supposed that like everyone, Vin was entitled to his secrets.

Ezra Standish wanted to know what the hell he was doing on the bridge of a rebel ship in command.

When Inez had made the request of him, Ezra had not even needed to think twice. Buck was in trouble and he needed help, Ezra had not thought beyond that. Obviously Ezra could not conduct any search through Imperial channels without compromising himself thus the provision of the Purgatory at the time had seemed like a sensible idea. However now that he was here, seated in the chair normally taken up by Mary Travis, Ezra decided that perhaps he ought to have given this more thought before assuming command. While the rebels around him understood that he was someone to be trusted, they could not get past the fact that he was not exactly a member of the Alliance and when he left the bridge of this vessel, it would be to assume command of an Imperial Command.

Fortunately, the first officer of the vessel, Lieutenant Commander Chano was well aware of who Ezra was even if he did not make that revelation known to his wife who was Ezra’s own adjutant. When Chano had learned that Claire Moselley was not brought into Ezra’s confidence regarding his rebel sympathies, Chano had chose not to tell Claire about it as well. Obviously Ezra had his reasons and Chano guessed that it might have to do with his wife’s protection as well as Ezra’s own. As far as Chano was concerned, if Mary trusted her ship to Ezra then that alone was good enough for him. So far, the man had made no ill decisions and had taken Chano’s opinions in good stead. He displayed all the earmarks of a good commander and Chano was convinced Mary had done right entrusting the Purgatory to Ezra.

Inez had opted not to follow Ezra onto the Purgatory and they had parted company shortly after she had brought him details of the rendezvous he would have to make with a rebel shuttle in order to be taken to the Purgatory. Ezra noted her worry for Buck and could not help feel a tinge of jealousy at the possibility that her feelings for her ex-husband might be deeper than she let on.

"Does the data base have anything on the Maw?" Ezra asked following their jump into hyperspace.

It would take several hours to reach the stretch of space where the Maw was supposed to be. Ezra knew if that had been Buck’s original destination when he had blasted off Gammorr using those tell tale registration codes then their hopes of catching up to him were next to impossible. Even as they traveled to the wilderness between Almania and Yavin, the reality of the situation was that the Rogue could already be battling the Maw. What made the whole thing worse was if that were indeed the case, Ezra could do nothing to help Buck until he crossed the treacherous terrain.

"Not really," Chano answered. "My grandfather used to say that it was the gateway to hell."

"Not entirely an inaccurate description," Ezra remarked with a smile. Chano had made some mention of his grandfather being and ore captain in his day. It appeared that like most spacers, Chano’s grandfather had his own theories as to what the Maw was. "A cluster of super black holes can be considered that if one is unfortunate to wander into its path."

"It’s going to disrupt sensors severely," Chano said grimly. "It will be difficult to locate Captain Wilmington if he’s already in the Maw."

"I believe he already is," Ezra returned without hesitation. "He had a head start on us and if he is under coercion to enter the Maw, I find it very unlikely if he has not already arrived there."

"So what are we going to do?" Chano stared at Ezra, unhappy to think that they would be completely helpless when they finally arrived at their destination.

"The only thing we can do," Ezra glanced at him. "Wait."

"Wait?" One of the junior officers on the bridge blurted out. "What about the Captain?’

Chano glared furiously at whomever had spoken and identified immediately a furry Bothan with the bad habit of speaking out of turn. The first officers turned to the navigation officer with a scowl because Mary would not be treated with such insubordination and Ezra should not have to put up with it either. "Ensign, we are well aware of the Captain’s situation without requiring your input," Chano said sharply, already writing that reprimand in his head.

"The ensign’s question is noted," Ezra spoke up smoothly, grateful for Chano’s annoyance for his sake. However, Ezra could appreciate how the crew of the Purgatory looked upon him with suspicion and Buck Wilmington had legendary status among the rebel junior officers who were well aware of the man’s skill as a pilot. Turning his direction to the Bothan, Ezra met the young officer’s gaze and explained himself, aware that he was not required to but hoping the gesture would mean something to the others on the bridge who had doubts about him.

"A ship the size of Purgatory does not have the maneuvering capability to survive the Maw. If what I was told about the area is accurate, the intense gravitational forces would tear us apart if we made any attempt to retrieve Captain Wilmington. In truth, he would have better chance of navigating the Maw than we would. I also have no intention of risking almost a thousand people on this ship to rescue one man. No matter how valuable that man might be, I am sure Commander Travis would agree with me if she were here. Our mission is to assist the Captain once he makes it through the Maw. With Nal Hutta being involved, there is a chance that once the Captain makes the trip to the Maw, those who have coerced him into this situation may no longer have any need for him. They may choose to dispose of him and take his ship. We will be on hand to ensure that does not happen."

"Does that satisfy your curiosity, ensign?" Chano asked the navigator with an icy edge to his voice.

The Bothan swallowed thickly and answered. "Yes Sir."

"Good," the first officer retorted, his voice dripping with promise that when this trip was over they were going to have a private discussion about this matter.

Ezra saw the slight prickle in the Bothan’s fur and was glad that he was not on the receiving end of that irate voice. The Imperial officer had no doubt that while Mary sometimes came on board and took charge of the Purgatory, it was Chano that ensured that everyone and everything on it ran smoothly for her to perform her feat of devilry on the Imperial fleet. With a smile, he realized that Chanos’ wife Claire, played the same role for him on the Cordoba base and could see why they were so well suited.

"You always run such a tight ship Commander?" Ezra asked with the faint hint of a smile.

"I have to keep things from falling apart around the center seat don’t I?" Chano returned just as jokingly.

Ezra would only offer him a sidelong glance before remarking. "I see where Claire gets it from."

The wind rushed at JD as he forced the pod through the narrow valley that made up part of the racing course. Flanking him on either side were the jagged edges of the valley walls threatening to tear him and his vessel apart if he made one error in judgment. The young pilot banked hard, narrowly avoiding a protrusion of rock that seemed to come out of nowhere as he turned the corner, gliding effortless over the obstruction and then through the eroded pathway out of the treacherous enclosure of rock and sand. JD could feel grains of sand ingrained in his skin as the powerful engines of the pod racer blew dirt in all directions. He could feel his face burn from the feel of sand rubbing his skin raw and was glad that his eyes were protected for the gust of sand and heat would have surely blinded him otherwise.

It was almost the best time he had ever had in his life.

The pod was a dream to fly. The Twileki mechanic who had built and designed her was in JD’s opinion the best pod man he had ever seen for this vehicle was not just a racer, it was a thing of beauty. If anything reminded him of what it was he had abandoned when he had decided to join the rebellion, it was being in this small craft, ripping through the landscape, challenging fate and sense as he sped through course at speeds no human ought to be travelling on land. He was almost euphoric as he guided the pod through the racing course that he would be required to race for real in a day or so. Initially, this had been a bid for escape but now JD was having so much fun he almost forgot all about that.

When he had met the Hutt, the Twileki had spoken on his behalf as promised when JD first encountered him and beseech the ganglord that the human was capable of winning him the pod racing championship about to take place only two days away. Jabba had not been that impressed with him but was willing to give it a chance for the prestige of winning the race. He had JD fitted with a tracer, a device won around the wrist that would automatically detect JD wherever he was and if where he was happen to be anywhere he was not supposed to be, the tracer also had the ability to discharge enough energy to kill him. JD had studied the object in private and was certain that he could disarm it if necessary but first he had to bide his time and wait for the opportune moment. The opportune moment, he had decided would be during the race.

Sooner than he would have like the treacherous terrain dissolved around him and JD found himself in open and flat country ounce again. Beyond the laborious canyons where most of the race would be run tomorrow was nothing more than flat craggy terrain, covered in sand and rock. It did not take him long to see the small party of Jabba's employees for waiting for his return. If it were not for this stupid tracer around his wrist, he would have kept going and left that far behind. Certainly none of their land speeders could keep up with the pod if he were to escape. Unfortunately, for the moment, he would just have to tolerate being in their company for a while longer and began slowing the pod to a crawl as he approached them.

JD climbed out of the pod and was immediately greeted by Orran Kah, the Twileki who had pinned his hopes of victory at the race tomorrow. JD had wondered whether or not Kah would be willing to help him escape but decided against making the inquiry. Besides, if what he heard about Jabba was true, the consequences to Kah if he should help JD escape would be fatal to say the least and JD was not prepared to sacrifice someone else's life for his own.

"Not bad for a human," Kah declared when JD pulled of his goggles and climbed out of the pod's cockpit.

JD could tell that despite that understated compliment the Twileki was very impressed. However, JD noticed that none of these non-humans seemed to think that humans were capable of anything lately. He had a feeling that much of this sentiment was due to the backlash from Palpatine's segregation policy. During his one evening in Jabba's throne room, he had heard the discussion between the Hutt and his employees about the segregation policy and how quickly it was spreading throughout the quadrant. While the Hutt himself seemed relatively concerned, JD noted that the same could not be said of the aliens who frequented Jabba's court.

"That's what you say," JD replied cockily. "I saw my time on the chronometer, I was 2 seconds faster than the winner in the last race."

"There's a difference between running the course alone and doing it with others," Kah retorted, not about to concede that the human was promising enough to win the race tomorrow despite all evidence to the contrary.

"He did good Kah," Dengar rumbled next to him. Although the tracer that JD wore ensured he could not escape, Jabba had nonetheless assigned Dengar to watch him in case he made any foolhardy attempts during this training run through the course. "Better than the last winner I might add."

"Who was this guy?" JD asked.

"Don't remember," Dengar met JD's gaze with a little smile. "The only reason he won was because he was the last one to crash."

"You're kidding," JD asked, certain the man was attempting to frighten him but when he turned to the Twileki and saw the man stroking his leku, the appendages that grew from his head rather nervously, JD realised that it was the truth.

"How often does anyone finish the race?" JD demanded, starting to get a very bad feeling about this whole thing.

"Does it matter?" Dengar replied. "If you finish the race, you can give yourself a few days before Jabba decides to kill you and if you die on the track, it works out just the same."

JD let out a deep sigh and looked at his tracer, reminding himself he had better think of some way to get the accursed thing off his arm before tomorrow because this deal with Jabba was getting worse by the minute.

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