THE APPRENTICE by Linda T.


This was pure hell.

The blood red sun staring down at the garrison of stormtrooper seemed to be waiting for something. The men were sweltering under their uniforms, wondering whether there was any point to this exercise that would kill them before they were done accomplishing the mission they were sent here to undertake. However, indecision and questioning the orders of Coruscant was never a wise thing to do whether one was a foot soldier or an upper echelon officer of the Imperial forces, the consequences was almost always the same and though it was unspoken, everyone knew that that meant. A swift death usually delivered in secret. There were lots of secrets in the Empire these days and once again, it was an unspoken rule that its citizens continued their daily existence without ever mentioning them.

Most people still pined for the Old Republic; unable to come to terms with the new rules even though it was universally agreed that there was certainly more order in the galaxy now that the Empire was in charge. No endless squabbling by senators who could never get anything done because the foot of bureaucracy was holding them down allowing confusion to reign. At least with Palpatine's rule, actions was swift and decisive, opposition was dealt with ruthlessly and the Empire grew beyond the dreams of avarice until within a few short years of its establishment, felt like a dark monolith that had always been there. A surprising number of star systems found it easy to be yoked to the great machine of Imperial rule because of the order and infrastructure it allowed them to stabilise their own governments.

And then there were places like this one, who fought the assimilation of Imperial rule with every fiber of their being, who were determined to break off the shackles of Imperial rule no matter what the costs to themselves or their world. Okanah was a star system on the edge of the Minos Cluster, a wholly unremarkable world except for the mother lode of deutronium ore that seemed to exist beneath the surface of its desert sands. Their open resistance was met with Imperial force and that seemed to drive the rebels deeper into the desert. Since the bulk of the deutronium was found in the desert belt, the rebels had been relentlessly attacking the Mining Guild's efforts to extract the ore. Finally an Imperial task force comprised of a garrison of surface shock troopers were deployed to deal with the rebels on Okanah.

It was meant to be a smooth and simple operation. The stormtroopers would sweep the desert like locusts and destroy anything that came across their path. Unfortunately, it had been anything but simple or textbook for that matter. The soldiers were in the desert belt for a month before conceding to finding nothing. With no sign of activity anywhere, the Guild was allowed to mine its ore without incident. The directives from Coruscant ordered them to keep searching and so they continued their mission of search and destroy. Weeks passed and still they found no trace of the rebels. Resources were dwindling as rapidly as morale. The heat was damn near insufferable and soldiers were plagued with heat stroke on a daily basis.

Then the attacks began.

Small guerilla incursions slipped into their encampment in the dead of night. Casualties were small, often limited to just wounded. There were deaths but only a small number. The day after the first one of these attacks, the Imperial commanding officer had made an oath that the rebels would pay and so the pursuit in the deep desert began. For days on end, there was no success and the commander had started to think that perhaps they should be thinking of turning back. That night another attack followed with the same kind of casualties and the chase continued. Deeper and deeper they went until they were so far from civilization that turning back was impossible without an extraction by ships.

During the last of these attacks had seen the rebels destroy their communication equipment. Now they found themselves in the desert alone and cut off from reinforcements, supplies and escape. The mood was dismal and many had tried deserting but with desert terrain surrounding them in every direction for hundreds of miles, there was nowhere to go even if they did escape without being shot. The commander was certain that they were close that if they persevered just a little longer, they would find the rebel enclave and complete their mission. After all, they were the ground-pounding arm of the Imperial war machine; they could not be defeated by a group of deutronium miners who had suddenly taken to insurrection. Eventually, military superiority would win out because the Empire had it in abundance and the Okanah had nothing but pride.

Actually, the Okanah did have one thing the Empire did not; Mary Travis.

The lovely blond rebel leader peered through the binoculars that allowed her to see into the heart of the enemy camp, a little smile crossed her lips because things had transpired exactly as she had planned it. When the Okanah had contacted the Rebel Alliance two months ago, pleading for assistance because the Empire was coming to take control of the planet, there had been little the Alliance could do in furnishing aid to the distant world. The Alliance was still a fledgling movement and while it had ships and weapons, it had nothing that could even compare to the awesome might of the Imperial war machine. However, the threat of what a garrison of Imperial troops would do to the even more fledgling local resistance movement demanded the Alliance at least try to make some effort to help the Okanah.

The help arrived in the form of Mary Travis and a group of her best warriors. No sooner than she arrived Mary had assessed the situation the Okanah faced with and came a battle plan that would allow them to survive their confrontation with the Empire. Other than deutronium, the Okanah had very little on their planet that could be called redeeming. It was mostly a mining world that for centuries had enjoyed the protection of the Old Republic and thus had no army or military forces of its own to speak of. However, Mary soon came to the conclusion that conventional weapons were not needed here.

To win against the Empire on Okanah would require a very different kind of weapon. Desert power.

"They're done," she stated firmly with a smile curling the edge of her sun cracked lips after lowering the binoculars from her face and retreating beneath the cover of the sand dune from which she had been making her observations.

"Are you sure?" The Okanah beside her asked.

Aleyan son of Lahis, was the leader of the rebel movement on Okanah. Aleyan had won this distinction because he was the last surviving member of the ruling body known as the Habasha. The Empire's first act upon annexing Okanah for its own was to kill all the members of that august body, including Lahis who was its First Minister. As a memorial to the institution that had led the Okanah through many years of peace, the rebel movement given life in its harsh deserts called itself the Habasha, so that the people would always know that the Habasha survived in spirit if not in form.

"Yes," Mary nodded, meeting his eyes with a nod. Okanahs were mostly humanoid in shape with darker skins and their strong limbs characterizing them after centuries of mining. Their body's ability to store water in their tissues, far more than humans were capable, made them the perfect desert dwellers. They had no eyelids to speak of but a translucent layer that slipped over their irises to protect their vision from Okanah's harsh desert storms. An Okanah in the desert could last for weeks, while a human would die in a matter of days. They had little hair on their bodies and distinguished themselves and their family name by the symbols that were tattooed on one side of their face.

"I can sense their fear," Chris Larabee remarked next to the two rebel leaders. "They're disorientated and afraid. If we attack them now, they'll never regroup in time to offer any kind of resistance."

"Perhaps we should wait a little longer?" Aleyan suggested, not at all eager to take their battle to the next level when the guerilla tactics they were employing had work so well.

"Nope," Mary pushed herself upright and started walking. "We can't afford to waste too much time lingering on this."

Chris gave Aleyan a look, which told the Okanah that he was free to argue with the headstrong woman if he liked but it was pointless. Once Mary made up her mind on such things, there was very little that could change it unless the reason was extremely compelling. At the moment, Aleyan's fear of failure did not fall into that category. Besides, if there was one thing Chris had learnt by now, Mary was the best military tactician he had ever fought alongside of and when she directed a battle, she almost always won. Both men were quick to follow her as she proceeded to the trio of Roia steeds awaiting them. The Roias were sleek, graceful animals that were usually the preferred mode of travel by the Okanah.

"Why not?" Aleya asked as Mary climbed into the saddle of her steed. "We have spent weeks on guerilla attacks and they seem to be working, their numbers are dwindling rapidly. Many are dying just being in the desert."

"Yes that is true but as I explained this to you before," Mary said with a hint of impatience. "A full frontal assault on a garrison of fresh Imperial stormtroopers would only have gotten every one in your Habasha killed."

"Will not attacking them now do the same thing?" Aleya demanded.

Bad mistake, Chris thought as he saw Mary inhaling deeply, usually an indication that her patience with her Okanah counterpart had been taxed to breaking point. The Jedi considered saving Aleyan from himself but then gave up the idea when he decided that he simply enjoyed watching Mary in action too much to let the opportunity slip by. For the past weeks, Chris had watched Mary turn a crack garrison of Imperial shock troopers into a scattered, disorganized bunch of desert wanderers about to reach breaking point. He awed at the mastery of her strategy and knew that the Okanah would not only survive the enemy that had invaded their world, but thanks to Mary, they were going to defeat them.

"No," Mary straightened up in her saddle glaring at the man with imperious fire in her eyes. "Look at them," she threw the binoculars clipped to her belt and allowed him to catch it before speaking again. "They're done. They've been marched to hell and back. We've worn them down. They are in no shape to mount a defense, let alone be able to withstand a full front assault at this stage. We'll wipe them off the face of Okanah because they'll have no comprehension of what hit them until its too late. However, if we wait any longer, Coruscant might wonder why their garrison has not returned any of its scheduled transmissions and might send someone to investigate, investigations like this are usually accompanied by a Star Destroyer. Trust me, you do not want a destroyer in Okanah space. If they choose they'll annihilate you from orbit or at least turn this planet into a radioactive ball of mush out of sheer if they think they can recover their troops."

Aleya's throat rippled with rings of fear at hearing that possibility but Mary was not about to discontinue her speech just yet. "Our only chance of them defeating them is if we strike before those reinforcements come. How did you think this was going to end? I never promised you a way of defeating the Empire, just a way of solving your immediate problem. If we wipe out this garrison, we may make the Empire believe that its complete failure would make a further occupation of Okanah unfeasible. The Empire is currently deploying all its forces to consolidate the worlds its been annexing, Okanah is a minor consideration at this time. They won't waste a ship trying to recover troops who are already dead and their decision making regarding Okanah will be made for the purpose of expediency. The Empire has dozens of worlds eager to the yoke where deutronium can be mined easily without the danger of local trouble but all this depends on taking care of that task force out there first."

She made a compelling argument, Chris thought as he watched her waiting for Aleya to give her an answer even though Chris could tell that she was confident of what that response would be without the benefit of telepathy to give her any special insight. In truth, Aleya had no choice but to follow Mary's lead because the Okanah had come too far too turn back now. Their open defiance was known to the Empire and unless they showed Coruscant that they were a forced to be reckoned with, the Empire would run them into the ground as it did so many other worlds that had been forced to accept its occupation.

"Alright," Aleya conceded gloomily and very much against his will and he mounted his own steed, his gaze still staring at her in a mixture of hope and fear of what Mary might bring upon his people. "We will attack. I hope you are right about this."

Mary was right about this. As Chris climbed into his steed next to hers, he could feel the strength of her conviction that this was the time to act that they had waited long enough. She had been waiting for weeks, ever since this campaign of exhausting the enemy to this point had been put into effect. There would be no better time for their final attack then at this moment. Even Chris was convinced of that by now. For the rag tag resistance group known as the Habasha, they would never have a better opportunity to defeat an Imperial garrison. If they waited too long, the chance would slip past completely and reinforcements would come, bringing an end to any chance the Okanah might have had of surviving Imperial occupation.

"He's afraid," Chris remarked gently when Aleya broke away from them and started riding back to camp.

"I know," Mary said in understanding. "He's the youngest surviving member of the Habasha and he's scared of letting his people down. It's a big responsibility for him to have so soon. It should have been years before he was called on to make such decisions for the Okanah."

"I guess the Empire didn't give him much choice," Chris sighed feeling some measure of pity for the youthful leader of his people.

"One makes the choices one has to," Mary replied sympathetically. "Unfortunately assuming responsibility and leadership of your people is a choice. You are either up to it or you're not. There are no in betweens."

"I suppose," Chris replied. "But some people aren't you either," he pointed out. "You need to remember that."

Mary groaned and looked at him with a frown. "I hate it when you do that you know."

"What?" He looked at her innocently.

"You know, making me feel bad because I might be just a tad too insensitive." She glared at him with a crooked brow.

"Me?" Chris said nonplussed. "I never do that."

"Sure you don't," she retorted dubiously.

The sun overhead was glaring down across the sandy white landscape, baking the grains until it appeared almost like crystallized glass. Even though it seemed as if there was nothing ahead but sand dune after sand dune, the Habasha's encampment was very close by. How close would have surprised the Imperial garrison if they knew. The Habasha had been following the Imperials for as long as they had been wandering through the desert, allowing the Empire to believe they were the hunters when in fact it was the garrison who was being stalked so expertly. At least by the end of the day, the question would be settled once and for all. The Habasha was just as eager to end this as the Imperial troops sweltering under the heat.

"Vin will be glad to know we're finally moving," Chris commented, thinking about how the apprentice's disposition had been of late. They all knew what was at the heart of it but most of them had said nothing, least of all Chris who knew just how private a person Vin really was. Even though he was good natured and generally unflappable about most things, Vin considered things close to his heart a non-issue he discussed with no one. Buck Wilmington who could never keep his mouth shut when he really should know better had been on the end of a very stinging rebuke when Vin had told him in no uncertain terms to mind his own business when Buck had tried coaxing Vin to talk.

"Yes, I've noticed he's been a little twitchy lately," Mary remarked.

"He's been twitchy ever since Alex left," Chris pointed out because it was no great secret.

"Well I don't think she was too eager to leave him either," Mary agreed, recalling how close Vin and Alex had gotten since the operative's stay at the rebel base. "Unfortunately, she is the best covert operative we have. She could not stay away out of the field for too long." Mary had to confess that she missed Alex almost as much as Vin. They had been friends for almost a life time and it had been good having Alex back on a day to day basis rather than the fleeting appearances they had been making in each other's lives the last few years. "Still I don't think it will be too long before she gets back, not if the way she was looking at him was any indication."

"I have a feeling he falls for women hard," Chris responded, unwilling to pry into Vin's pysche to find out if that was true or not. Like Mary, he was intrigued by the reference Jabba had made to the lover that Vin would absolutely not talk about to anyone, not even him. He remembered that when Mary's husband Stephen had surfaced for a time, Vin had made some mention of pining for a former lover he could not have. Is that why Chris sometimes sensed a dead zone inside his friend that nothing could penetrate? Its substance and consistency resembled the wall he erected around his emotions about Sarah and Adam. Was Vin's experience with that past love just as tragic?

"Of course he does," Mary agreed without hesitation, utilising that female intuition that guessed things so accurately at times. "He's young, probably didn't had many opportunities to meet women when he was a slave on Tatooine and trying to forge relationships when one has been in an emotional vacuum for the first twenty years of life can be difficult."

All this without the benefit of Jedi abilities, Chris thought as he stared at Mary in affection. "You're probably right. So," he met her gaze seriously, moving to a more important subject. "We're definitely attacking today?"

"Yes we are," Mary nodded, her tone becoming serious now that they were discussing warfare. "We don't have much time. The Imperial outpost in the Kathol Sector are probably wondering why the task force has not made its scheduled check in yet. If Kathol follows standard Imperial procedures, they'll attempt communication with the garrison to find out if the situation is nominal. If there is no response within 4.5 hours, they'll make a report to Coruscant. We cannot allow that to happen. I've already got Casey decrypting the Imperial codes from their stolen communication equipment. Once she cracks the correct security codes, we'll contact Kathol ourselves and send a false transmission that the garrison's situation is fine. We'll use the codes to delay Kathol's report to Corsucant indefinitely but for any of this to work, we have to finish the garrison today."

"Do you think the Okanah are ready for this?" Chris inquired. "I'm sensing a lot of fear from them Mary."

Mary could very well believe it and responded softly, "I've seen it but if they intend on resisting an Imperial occupation, they are going to have get blooded. I know that's insensitive but I cannot think any other way. The course the Okanah has chosen for them does not give them the luxury of second chances. The Empire has them marked as hostile territory now and unless they're willing to defend it, the occupation if it comes will be brutal. If the Okanah are afraid that's not entirely a bad thing. A little healthy fear will keep them alive. I don't mean to be hard on them Chris, but I don't want to see what happened to Wookies on Kashyyyk happen to the Okanah."

Chris could understand that. The Wookies were now a slave race, being sold off world as a hard labor work force thanks to the Empire. The complete destruction of its society was only the first in the long list of atrocities that were being committed against non-human worlds across the galaxy and Okanah would be treated to the same brutality if Imperial occupation was allowed to take place on their planet. Sometimes Mary's ability to think like the Imperials made him glad that he was just a Jedi.

In no way would he ever want to be forced to think the way she did in order to lead. There were some thing even too hard for the Jedi.

Vin Tanner felt like a teenager.

Or worse yet, a rancor with a bad tooth. He could not believe how much he missed her. In fact, Vin had not been this miserable over any female since.....

He could not even bring himself to say the name for fear of reopening old wounds that would only double his emotional torment at this time. The truth was Vin knew that Alexandra Styles would have to leave sometime. She was a commander in the Rebel Alliance, one of their best covert operatives. She had a life that did not halt simply because she had met him and yet ever since she had gone, from the Siraj base, Vin could feel nothing but this unending ache in the pit of him for the want of her. The days following their return from Tatooine had been wonderful. Even though their relationship had been heated, neither had been foolish enough to rush into anything intimate and Vin tended to think that made the power of their attraction all the more intense. It was good being with someone who cared for him unconditionally and cared little for what he was or the fact that he had nothing to offer her but his affection.

Was he in love with Alex? If his reaction to her being gone the past few weeks were any indication, Vin would say, hell yeah.

He was in love with her and it was good to know that she felt just as strongly, that she had no secrets to keep from him and the facets of her heart was splayed openly for him to explore. Vin sat inside his tent, away from Okanah's hot sun staring at the holo-crystal with Alex's image inside of it. It was taken only days before her departure because he knew that it would be all that he had to remember her by when she was gone. Despite knowing that she was very good at what she did, Vin could not help worry that she was living a very dangerous life. As a covert operative, garnering secrets for the Alliance, she could be discovered at any time and the casualty rate for rebels in that line of work was invariably high. He saw her smiling back at him through the crystal and felt a stab of pain at imagining what would happen if she were taken from him.

Vin could not go through that again.

He had almost died the first time it happened. Everything that felt anything was destroyed the day she had told him to go away and leave her be. He did not think he would have survived it and barely felt anything emotionally until the day he came across Chris Larabee who with his friendship healed Vin somewhat. If Vin were to lose Alex, he did not think he would be able to recover at all. Even though their relationship was fledgling, Vin suspected how much he felt for her now was only a splinter of what could be when enough time was given them. He felt whole when she was with him and now that she had gone, his heart felt as if it had been cleaved in two and she had taken one part of it with her.

"Hey." Buck Wilmington drew the tent flap back and entered the cool confines beneath the canvas.

Vin looked up and groaned inwardly, hoping that Buck was not here to try and cheer him up again. The pilot had made it his personal business to nurse Vin through this difficult period of initial separation and Vin was nearing the point where he was either going to shoot himself or Buck, whichever came first. Buck believed that his experience with the ladies as he called it put him in excellent stead to dispense advice even though Vin had made it clear that he did not want it. However, a man who refused to leave Chris Larabee alone following the death of his wife and son was either in possession of a monumental death wish or a great aversion to seeing his friends suffer and thus was not easily deterred.

"Buck." Vin tensed, waiting for the usual plethora of cheerful words that told him that she would be back and that absence made the heart grow fonder or some other meaningless platitude.

However, this time Buck did neither. The big man saw Vin putting away the holo-crystal and let out a little sigh. "Vin," he said, in a tone that was very different from the one he had used to approach Vin on previous occasions, much to the apprentice's chagrin. "You're gonna have to let her go."

"I'm fine Buck," Vin said gruffly, having no wish to discuss this.

"No you're not," Buck retorted firmly. "If you don't want to talk about it that's up to you but you need to let her go. She loves you and she'll be back but you're no good to anyone if you let her the best of you every time she goes."

"I'm doing fine," Vin repeated himself but something of what Buck said was penetrating. He knew he had been difficult to cope with the last weeks since Alex had left. Chris was too much of a private person himself to meddle, while Nathan and Josiah seemed reluctant to say anything because Vin had made it clear that he had no wish to discuss his feelings. JD was too young to offer anyone advice but Buck Wilmington did not care. He went freely where angels feared to tread and it was one of the things that made him such a great pilot but an even better friend.

"Vin," Buck sat down in front of him. "When Inez started going with Ezra, I never thought I would be able to stand it seeing her love someone else. I guess it ain't no secret I still felt strongly about her."

Vin could not disagree with that. Buck's disposition had been like his was now. The pilot was openly disgruntled about Inez's relationship with Ezra even though Buck considered Ezra a friend and had no right to feel any kind of jealousy, considering his track record with the ladies since he and Inez had gone their separate ways. "Not a very good one," Vin remarked with a smile.

"Right," Buck laughed and continued. "I hated seeing them together but then I realised that I had to let her go. She don't belong to me any more and she's certainly let me go. Now it ain't exactly the same thing with you and Alex, cause there's no hiding the fact that the lady is crazy about you but you can't hold someone like her too close Vin, what she is, demands freedom. You tried to rein her in and you'll just lose her. Just like she would if she tried to do the same to you. Reason you both get along so well is cause you're both something unexpected. Two kinds of different making sense together."

"You got a way with words Buck," Vin found himself saying because Buck's reasoning did have some sort of logic to it. He always fell hard for his women and sometimes his passion overrode good sense and Alex was something wild and free, like himself he supposed. He would not want to clip her wings anymore than he would like his own hindered the same way. "Maybe you're right. It's been a long time since I've felt this way."

"I kind of guessed that," Buck smiled, no hint of teasing or usual cockiness in his voice. "She's a beautiful woman and I'm sure she'll be back in no time but even if it is some time before you see her again, you just got to know by the way she looks at you that she loves you."

"You think so?" Vin asked softly, his head still dancing with Alex but Buck was right. He had to start thinking straight or he was going to get himself killed; or worse yet someone else.

"She must," Buck retorted. "I mean how else can you explain her looking straight past me and going for your scrawny ass?" The pilot grinned.

"Taste?" Vin returned with a chuckle.

"Maybe some women are more accommodating than others," Buck teased when suddenly a voice interrupted them.

"Hate to interrupt this intellectual conversation you two got going," Nathan Jackson remarked having caught the tail end of Buck's talk with Vin, "but Chris and Mary are back. Looks like we're going to attack."

"Finally," Vin replied starting to rise to his feet. "Time to put those bastards out of their misery."

"You got a strange concept of mercy, Vin." Buck frowned as he did the same.

"Trust me," Vin gave him a look. "I grew up in a desert, nothing worse than being lost in one. We're doing them a favor."

Buck supposed Vin was right but still he would not call it a favor. When the Okanah attacked the Imperial garrison out there on the dunes, it would be a massacre, nothing less.

Unfortunately, the Empire did not deserve anything better.

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