It was almost a full day before the rebels returned to their secret base deep in the heart of the Territory. Even though Buck wanted very much for Ezra to return with them to the base, the Commander of the Cordoba outpost sensibly declined the offer, citing that it was safer for everyone if he did not know its location. With Julia Pemberton becoming more and more suspicious about him, Ezra was unwilling to risk the safety of his friends by risking their lives if he should be captured by the Empire and tortured for what he knew. Thus the Purgatory returned him to Pzob where he had discreetly returned to Cordoba once again. At the same time, Nardo and Selkik were also released on Ryloth so that they could make their way back to Tatooine. Buck was almost sorry he could not see how they would explain to Jabba their tremendous blunder but supposed the Maw had the tendency to unnerve anyone, although he did not think Jabba was going to be very forgiving when he heard that excuse.
"So what are these things?" Nathan Jackson asked Buck shortly after his return to the Siraj base.
Buck had removed one of the cages containing the ysalmiri in order to show the rebel captain what had been the reason for his being coerced into entering the Maw. Unsurprisingly, Nathan was somewhat skeptical that the furry little creatures could have been the sole purpose for his being forced into making such a dangerous trip. As Buck placed one of the cages on the workbench in the corner of the hangar, he noticed that the little creatures immediately enchanted a small group of passersby. It reasserted Buck's belief that these yslamiri indeed had no value other than as pets. The yslamiri themselves did not like the attention and shrunk back at the first finger that tried to pat their sniffing noses. Buck could hardly blame them they appeared unhappy at being removed from their natural habitat.
"They're called yslamiri," Buck repeated himself as he opened the cage and wrapped his hand around one of the creature's elongated bodies. He extracted the small creature from its cell and tentatively tried to feed it with some vegetables he had stolen from the mess for the purpose. He had no idea what he was going to do with them but he was certainly not letting them starve in their cages. The little yslamiri in his hand picked up the morsel of food it had been given and began gnawing on it immediately. "Some Grand Admiral by the name of Thrawn was adamant that these were taken through the Maw."
"Grand Admiral Thrawn?" Nathan asked, unfamiliar with the name. The Alliance made it their business to know every high-ranking officer in the Imperial Fleet and Thrawn was a name he had never come across before.
"Yeah that's what Selkik said," Buck answered offhandedly as he lowered the yslamiri back with the others and started emptying the rest of the food into the cage. "Some kind of master strategist. Apparently, he's non human."
"That's impossible," Nathan retorted. "Palpatine doesn't have non-humans in the Fleet. Especially one with the designation of Grand Admiral."
"I wondered about that," the Correllian answered as he kept a close eye on his new charges as they devoured the food he had provided in their cages. "Selkik was pretty sure too. He's also pretty sure that this Admiral was a species he's never seen before with blue skin and red eyes and looks mostly human."
"I've never heard of a species that looks like that," the soldier frowned, disliking this Grand Admiral the more and more he heard about the man. "I'm going to report this to the High Command. If there's a Grand Admiral out there we don't know about, it could mean Palpatine's keeping him a secret for a good reason."
"Hey looks like Chris and the others are back," Buck remarked as he saw the Tracker gliding into the landing pad in the distance. Technicians and astrodroids were gathering in small numbers, preparing to take charge of the ship once it had landed. "I hope JD is okay," Buck found himself admitting. "I really hated those guys for taking him."
"Relax," Nathan answered scratching the nose of one of the yslamiri that was peeking through the cage and sniffing to find more food. "From what Mary says in her last transmission from the Tracker, no one got hurt and it looks like the kid convinced Jabba to keep him around by taking part in some kind of a pod race."
"Pod race?" Buck raised a brow at that familiar with JD's prowess as a pod racer. "Did he win?"
"Mary didn't say," the rebel captain shrugged. "I think she was mostly glad to be getting off Tatooine in one piece."
Buck did not press the issue, deciding that when Chris and the others emerged from the Tracker in a few short minutes, he would get further details regarding their dealings with Jabba, though Buck could not imagine that any encounter with a Hutt ganglord to be pleasant. Still, he was grateful that his friends had come away from this unscathed and JD had not been harmed while being kept a hostage because of something Jabba needed Buck to do. That had been the worst part of this whole business with the Maw, the fact that they had taken JD in order to coerce him into cooperating. Buck would never have forgiven himself if anything had happened to the young man because of him. Fortunately, everything had turned out well but he still needed to see for himself. Leaving the yslamiri to their meal, Buck and Nathan approached the launch pad and waited patiently while the Tracker went through the motions of disembarkation.
Suddenly from the corner of the hangar, Buck caught sight of a ravishing beauty with sultry looks and magnificent red hair walking towards them on a set of spectacularly shaped legs. She did not wear a uniform but the bars he saw on her clothes indicated that she was definitely a member of the Alliance. She met Buck's gaze with hazel colored eyes and the twinkle in them as she looked upon him was a clear indication that she liked what she saw. Buck could not fault her for that because he certainly liked what he was looking at. He liked it a lot.
"There's a new woman on base and you didn't tell me?" Buck shot a furious glare at Nathan as he saw her approach, nudging Nathan in the ribs for his trespass.
"Hey, do I look like your dating service?" Nathan growled annoyed. "That's Captain Perkins. Our new morale officer."
"Well," Buck grinned. "She's doing wonders for mine."
Nathan rolled his eyes sarcastically. "Yeah I'll bet."
"Captain Jackson," Louisa said smiling at Buck as soon as their eyes made contact, barely noticing Nathan even though she was talking to him. "I take it this is the famous Captain Wilmington?"
Before Nathan could open his mouth to speak, Buck was already stepping forward to respond. "You can call me Buck, Captain Perkins is it?"
"Louisa." She batted her eyes as she answered. "Louisa Perkins. I'm pleased to meet you."
"The pleasure is all mine," Buck responded, taking her hand in his and raising it gallantly to his lips in a most gentlemanly greeting.
"I had no idea that Corellian pilots could be so charming." Louisa smiled at the handsome pilot.
"I've got lots of talents that you'll find just as charming, Louisa," Buck drawled suggestively but Louisa did not seem offended, if anything she was rather taken by it. "Has anyone given you the tour? It would be my pleasure to escort you and familiarize you with every aspect of this base."
"Well I have seen it," she remarked coyly.
"Not the way I show it," Buck retorted and offered her his arm.
"Now who can resist an invitation like that?" She beamed radiantly at him.
Nathan thought he was going to be sick but had the politeness not to say it out loud. "Uh Buck, didn't you want to see how JD and the others are doing?" He reminded.
"Oh yeah!" Buck exclaimed. "This will only take a minute."
"Glad to see you priorities are intact Captain," Mary Travis declared as she approached with Chris, Alex, JD and Vin. "I see you've met Louisa." The ice in her voice was unmistakable.
"I've had the pleasure yes," Buck replied, noticing some tension between the two ladies in question but quickly disregarded it when he saw JD. "Hey you!" He grabbed JD in a headlock and ruffled the boy's hair playfully, perfectly aware that JD abhorred it.
"Quit it Buck!" JD grumbled but could not deny that he was too happy at seeing Buck safe and sound to get mad.
"I'm glad to see you kid," Buck laughed when he let JD go. "I was worried about you."
"Me too," JD admitted freely. "If it weren't for Chris, Mary, Vin and Alex, I'd still be stuck there on Tatooine."
"Well Mary, it appears your trip away did wonders for your dress sense." Louisa stepped to the front of the group and let her eyes move over Mary and Alex's attire. Neither woman had the opportunity to change and both were still in the slinky clothes that they had been forced to wear during their tenure as Jabba's slave girls. "I had no idea your tastes ran so glittery."
"How would you like to be reassigned to quarters on the same level as the sanitation center?" Mary snapped.
"You really need to lighten up," Louisa retorted and Buck looked questioningly at Nathan who simply shook his head to let it go, lest he wanted to be caught in the crossfire between two extremely formidable women.
Suddenly, Alex noticed that neither Chris nor Vin had said anything since they emerged from the Tracker. Both men appeared disturbed somewhat. Chris was actually the worse of the two. He appeared pale almost as if he were sick. "Chris? What's the matter?"
Everyone's attention turned to Chris immediately. The Jedi's breathing was shallow and it almost looked as if he was having an anxiety attack. "I can't sense anything," he whispered.
"Is it Buck?" Mary asked, remembering the same thing occurring before.
"No," Chris shook his head meeting his old friend's gaze. "It's not Buck but there's something here. I can't feel anything. I can't sense any of you."
"Chris," Mary took his arm because it appeared as if he might pass out from disorientation. "Take it easy. You're starting to panic."
"I don't panic!" Chris hissed but the truth was, he did feel panic. It was like going blind! He had never known a day in his whole life when the Force was not with him and to feel it gone so suddenly was like being robbed of one's sight.
"I don't understand," Alex stammered as she saw Vin with the same kind of distress on his face although the effect of this 'Force blindness' did not seem so marked on him. "You guys were fine until we arrived here on the base."
"Something's different," Chris muttered, trying to quell the anxiety that was bubbling inside of him. "I couldn't sense Buck before but that was different. I could pull back but this is strong. I can't pull back and I can't feel anything!"
"Chris calm down," Mary's voice said firmly.
"Does he need a medic?" Louisa asked, all traces of smug mischief disappeared. At this moment, she sounded very much like an officer of the Alliance.
Buck's mind was whirling. Suddenly, he realised why a Grand Admiral was so interested in the planet Mykrr. Buck had been unable to fathom why the yslamiri was so important to the Empire, especially when they held no discernible value whatsoever. But the Chandra Fan named Elera had said something about a warning on the Jedi relic he had found which told the Jedi to stay away from Mykrr. At first, Buck had thought it was because there was something on Mykrr that was dangerous to the Jedi. Perhaps a weapon of some sort but now, it became so clear and it made perfect sense why Chris and Vin had been affected the moment they arrive on the base.
"Oh hell!" Buck exclaimed. "It's the yslamiri!"
"What?" Nathan shot him a look of absolute disbelief. "Those furry little things?"
"Yes!" He hissed and turned to Chris. "You couldn't sense me because I've been on the Rogue with these yslamiri since this all began. Come on!" Buck turned on his heels and strode towards the cages holding the animals in question, leading the others to see what he was talking about.
As they approached the yslamiri, Chris required both Mary and JD to keep him from passing out. The sheer number of the creatures had the effect of dropping him into a sensory deprivation tank. Vin who was only in the early stages of his training felt his head swim and needed Alex's support to stand.
"He's right," Chris managed to say. "This is where it's coming from."
"Wait a minute!" Mary gasped, recognizing the creatures as Laurel Chase's pets during her time with the Black Sun criminal organization. "You said you felt this way once before? When you came after me at Star's End?"
"Yes," Chris nodded, closing his eyes and trying to focus on the Force to no avail.
"Laurel had one or two of these creatures in her fortress," Mary stated.
"You're telling me these cute little things are capable of rendering a Jedi completely helpless?" Alex asked with clear shock in her voice.
"Not helpless," Vin grunted. "Just unable to use the Force."
"That's why this Grand Admiral wants it," Nathan deduced suddenly. "With just one of these, this guy can protect himself from any Jedi that comes after him!"
"It's more than that," Mary replied, her mind grasping an even more devastating possibility. "With these creatures, he can block out the Emperor and Vader."
"But why take them through the Maw?" Buck asked. "I don't understand why I had to go through the Maw with them. It don't make sense...."
"It makes perfect sense Lieutenant," Grand Admiral Thrawn explained from behind his desk on board the star destroyer Nimbus.
The young lieutenant freshly transferred from Coruscant was one of Thrawn's more promising junior officers. Although Lieutenant Pallaeon was as inexperienced as they come, having spend most of his duty on warships close to Coruscant, Thrawn believed the young man had potential and had requested his transfer to Thrawn's personal ship, the Nimbus. Those who served on the Nimbus found it an especial privilege to be working under the command of an admiral who was easily considered one of the most brilliant commanders in the Fleet even though his existence was generally kept a secret because he was non human. Palpatine had forgone his usual rule of keeping the Imperial Navy strictly human because Thrawn' s brilliance was a resource to precious to waste. His staff was unswervingly loyal because Thrawn was not merely a brilliant tactician, he was also the kind of commander that sought to teach and though he was ruthless in his dealings, he recognized that initiative, bravery and innovative thinkin g. That alone made anyone who served with Thrawn ready to die for him.
Pallaeon had served only a few months on board the Nimbus before he was given one of the most coveted promotions on the ship, that is being Thrawn's personnel assistant cum adjutant. It was a position that Pallaeon felt singularly honored to have earned, though he wondered why Thrawn had elected someone as young as he for the purpose. He even dared to ask once, only to Thrawn reply simply that he had potential that required cultivation. That was the highest praise that Thrawn could give anyone, least of all a nobody like him. On this occasion, he did not feel that his potential as Thrawn had put it was living up to his best because he still felt some confusion as to the Admiral's dealings with Jabba the Hutt. Personally, Pallaeon felt that the like of Jabba was simply beneath the Admiral but Thrawn had an agenda and his agendas usually held some intricate web of planning whose ultimate purpose was beyond Pallaeon's ability to understand, let alone conceive.
"But we lost the shipment," Pallaeon responded, repeating the words that Jabba the Hutt had used to explain how the mission went awry.
"It was never about the shipment, Lieutenant," Thrawn said with a little smile. "I can send a squadron of my best fighters to Mykrr to retrieve the yslamiri if I required it. I did not need Buck Wilmington's ship for that."
"Then why send him through the Maw?" Pallaeon wanted desperately to see Thrawn's overall plan. However, he was starting to realise that perhaps he simply did not have the ability to think on Thrawn's level.
"To see who would come after him," Thrawn explained, aware that he had lost the young man and decided to be a little more basic. "Buck Wilmington's value to me was not the fact that he could cross the Maw but rather that he was the friend of Chris Larabee, a Jedi knight. I was aware that the yslamiri are able to repel the Force but I had to be certain of it. I have my confirmation that Larabee was unable to track his old friend because he went to Tatooine in search of Wilmington. If he had full use of his Jedi senses, he would have instantly known that where Wilmington was going. The fact that he ended up on Tatooine while Wilmington carried the yslamiri proves that Larabee could not sense him and that is a very valuable commodity indeed."
"So you sent him through the Maw because he'd think that's the reason why you picked him?" Pallaeon ventured a guess. "Because he crossed it before?"
"Exactly." Thrawn nodded, pleased that his young protege had grasped some measure of his plan. "But in truth, he was chosen because he was Chris Larabee's friend. The Maw was a convenient excuse."
"But why Sir?" Pallaeon asked, now that he understood that the real purpose of the plan was test the yslamiri on Chris Larabee. "Larabee is a Jedi. Wouldn't it be more expedient to let Lord Vader deal with him?"
"Yes it would," Thrawn answered. "Unfortunately, at this time, Lord Vader and I are at cross purposes."
"How so?" The young man asked, shuddering slightly to think that Thrawn might be coming into conflict with a Sith Lord on any issue.
"Vader wants Larabee because of his apprentice Tanner. Apparently Tanner knows something of great value to Vader and the Emperor. While it would serve my purpose to find out what that is, I have no use for Jedi secrets. I prefer something more tangible. If Vader finds Larabee he'll most likely use him as bait to lure Tanner to him. However, I have my reasons for wanting Larabee neutralized."
"Why?" Pallaeon inquired, unable to imagine what Thrawn would do with a Jedi knight.
"Larabee is in the rebel enclave commanded by Travis."
Pallaeon gulped involuntarily. "Mary Travis?"
"You know her," Thrawn stated not a all surprised. Despite the fact that Mary Travis was one of the most wanted rebels in teh galaxy, her prowess as military commander was a source of some awe among the Imperial fleet. It was considered a challenge and an honor to be able to defeat an enemy of her caliber.
"Only by rumor Sir," Pallaeon remarked feeling somewhat embarrassed at being caught out.
"Well the rumors are true," Thrawn confirmed. "She is the best military mind the Rebel Alliance has and the Emperor has charged me to bring her in. I intend to deliver Mary Travis to the Emperor and when the time comes, no Jedi will get in my way. Thanks to the yslamiri, I now have a weapon against Chris Larabee and any other Jedi that tries to stop me. One way or way or another, I will have her."
Pallaeon stared at Thrawn's crimson colored eyes and knew that if anyone could best Mary Travis it was the Grand Admiral.
Wherever she was, Mary Travis had better watch out because Thrawn was coming for her.
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