Admiral Jeya swallowed deeply as he proceeded towards the Sith Lord staring through the huge pexiglassed windows of the bridge at the planet below them. No doubt, Vader already knew the news Jeya was bringing to him but that did not make the admirals fear any less. Vader was known to have little tolerance with failure and the number of commander who had died at his hands made him just as infamous. All these facts were prevalent in Jeyas mind when he approached the tall man completely encased in black. He could have been mistaken for a dark statue if not for the raspy breath that could be heard through the audio amplifiers of his cybernetic armor. For some, that hoarse electronic breathing could follow one into their nightmares as it had for Jeya on numerous occasions since he had become master of the Avenger, Vaders personal ship.
There was no need for Jeya to announce himself upon reaching Vader. There was not a person on board who could sneak up upon the dark lord, not unless they were a Jedi but those too were becoming extinct, if they had not become so already thanks to the efforts of Vader and the emperor. Even though Jeya had been informed that their mission to Ithor was for the purpose of capturing an important member of the Rebel Alliance, Jeya did not believe that was all there was to it. The expenditure of using a super star destroyer to retrieve one rebel seemed excessive and Jeya had started to suspect that the illusion of capturing a rebel insurrectionist was incidental to a hidden purpose that Vader had not deign to reveal. Not that he wanted to know of course. It was wiser to remain oblivious to the business of the Sith Lord and the Emperor if one wanted to survive in the new order.
"Yes Admiral," Vader broke the silence in his heavy, ominous voice. "You have something to report?"
Jeya swallowed thickly, trying to hide his anxiety before answering. "Yes my Lord. As you may have seen, the Tracker has entered the Ithorian atmosphere. I believe they will take refuge in one of the herdships. It may be necessary for us to send our agents to make a more direct retrieval."
"Your stupidity does not cease to amaze me Jeya." Vader swung around, his dark cloak flowing around him as he faced the frightened Admiral. "Vin Tanner is no fool. He will not return to the herdships. He knows that the Ithorians probably monitored his departure and the hostilities above their planet. They will not offer him sanctuary in any of their cities now that they now we are involved. He has one choice only, to land on the surface of Ithor itself."
"The Ithorians will go mad!" Jeya exclaimed. "They consider home soil to be sacred! Theyll kill him before we ever get our hands on him."
"Tanner is a Jedi." Vader stared at him through his mask. "The Ithorians will not catch him."
Jeya began to understand once he was provided with that information. "He may elude us if he makes it to the surface, my Lord. The Ithorians will not permit our stormtroopers to land in order to make a search, we may have to wait him out until ."
"There will be no waiting," Vader cut him off. "The Ithorians are member of the Empire, they will allow the search once weve made our point."
Jeyas blood ran cold. "How would we do that my Lord?"
"Bring the Avenger closer to the atmosphere and target the herdship closest to the landing coordinates of the Tracker," Vader ordered.
"That would be Cathomira. Lord Vader, there are 1 million people in that city," Jeya declared. "Some of them are loyal Imperial citizens." His horror had overridden his natural fear to make that declaration.
"Compassion is misplaced in a man of your rank Admiral," the dark lord hissed. "The Emperor has long disapproved of Ithors arrogance in believing its position as a producer of food should place it above the interests of the Empire. We will rectify after this day. Now carry out the order."
"Sir," Jeya protested further, his courage not completely deserting him yet. "Not all the inhabitants of Cathomira are Ithorians, some are humans."
"Sacrifices must be made for the greater good Admiral," Vader retorted, starting to get impatient with the man and all his questions. "This will bring our prey forward without having to expend any considerable man power in retrieving him. Now I have indulged you long enough Admiral," his voice became sinister with warning. "Carry out the order or I shall find someone else who can."
The threat was clear and in the face of his absolute certainty that he would die here and now if he said another word in protest or questioned the dark lord further, Jeyas courage evaporated completely. "Yes Lord Vader."
With that, he turned on his heels and walked away, eager to put some distance between himself and the dark lord whose decision just condemned a million people to their deaths.
Klaxons were screaming across the ship as the Tracker breached the perimeter grid that surrounded the planets surface.
The Grid as it was known to native Ithorians was a highly sophisticated security net employed by the Planetary Agricultural Sector to prevent illegal incursions into the rich farming land by smugglers and other non-authorized persons. Only harvester ships and planter vessels were allowed to land on Ithor. Harvesters collected the profitable food crops for processing and export off world, while planter ships did exactly as their name implied, planted new seeds to replace the ones that had been reaped during the harvest. Only these ships possessing the appropriate access codes that could allow them passage through the net without alerting every alarm attached it.
Unfortunately, the Tracker had no such permission and when the Slipstream cruiser penetrated the Grid, it immediately set off all the alarms and sent Ithorian security forces scrambling to their ships in order to hunt down the trespassers. Vin was aware of the danger when he had changed course and headed towards the surface. However, he was more certain of their chances against the Ithorians than he was of the Avenger and at this moment, the agrarian race seemed the lesser of the two evil. Vin estimated a matter of minutes before the first Ithorian ship fell into pursuit and immediately sought a suitable landing site so that they could avoid an aerial chase.
"Everybody brace yourselves!" Vin shouted as they skimmed the surface of Ithor, swooping past fields after fields of farmland, ranging from arable across the flat even terrain to terrace farming on the slopes of high mountains. It seemed as if every inch of Ithor had been
"Why?" She looked at him.
"Because were going to have company soon and its going to get rough," Vin responded shortly.
"Ithorians?" She asked, hating the idea of dragging more innocents into their flight from Vader.
"Planetary Security," Vin confirmed. "However, I dont think the Ithorians will fire on us because were too close to the surface. Ships blasters might harm the vegetation and they wont have that. Chances are theyll try and force us to land."
"I thought we wanted to land," Maria asked, wishing that this flight was over and trying to hide the fact that she was almost as frightened as Lilith.
"Not under their control," Charlotte answered before Vin could. "Ithorians arent stupid, theyll hand us over to Vader to save their own skins. They riding a thin line with the Empire as it is. The Emperor has no love for them even if they are a substantial food producer. If anything that makes it worse. The Emperor hates having to rely on a non-human world. It wouldnt take much for him to come in and completely subjugated the population."
"Ive got three ships coming in on attack vector," Vin announced as he saw the readings on the screen of the cockpit controls. "Theyre going to try and box us in to force us to the ground."
"What are you going to do?" Charlotte asked fearfully as she looked out the window and searched for the ships they had yet to see.
Vin did not respond; his attention was too focussed on the ships closing in on them. He could see them accelerating from the readings on the screen next to him and knew that they would soon try to trap him. Instead of giving them that opportunity, Vin diverted more power to his thrusters and the Tracker surged forward, slamming its occupants into their seats with a sudden jolt. The land beneath them began to sweep past faster, green fields blurring until the colour became a blend of vegetation, earth and water. Behind them, the Ithorians ships had raced to catch up but Vin was utilizing his Jedi reflexes and he managed to navigate the twists and turns of the terrain they were flying past with a little more advantage than his pursuers.
The Tracker flew close to the ground, so much so that Vin could almost feel the tops of trees and other natural formations scraping the bottom hull of the craft as they skimmed across the surface. Vin could see the communications indicator flashing at him repeatedly, no doubt trying to convey the message of warning from the Ithorians that they were trespassing on protected terrain. Vin had no desire to hear what he guessed would be the standard message that warned them that they would be boarded if they did not comply with the directives to break out of Ithorian space. Studying the readings of the ships that were following them, Vin deduced that they could were short ranged pursuit vessels. This meant that they were not equipped for an extended chase and had only a limited amount of fuel before they would have to break off and return to base. Fortunately, the Tracker did not have that problem and unless a phalanx of TIE fighters joined the pursuit, Vin could keep going until h e exhausted the Ithorian efforts and they were forced to discontinue.
Suddenly, Vin saw a number of other blips appear on the console screen. He counted a dozen and those ships were coming in fresh and from a completely different location. They were preparing to surround the Tracker and cut off its route of escape. Vin immediately pulled up, forcing the Tracker to begin climbing towards the stratosphere once more to avoid from being hemmed in by the Ithorian ships. The Slipstream barely made it past the kill zone that the Ithorians had attempted to create around them and as the Tracker continued its ascent, Vin knew that he would have to open fire on them or else they would never be able to land on the Ithor.
"Im going to have to open fire," he said after a pause.
"Vin are you sure?" Charlotte asked as she turned to him at that statement. She was trying not to let her fear get the better of her but she had come to the same conclusion he had even though she was not flying. She could feel his attempt to avoid shooting innocents but they no longer had a choice. Their options were dwindling with each passing moment and there was no other recourse left to them.
"We have to get past them," Vin sighed heavily. "If we dont get past them and they take us alive, it's over. You know that."
Their eyes met and she nodded. Yes she did know that for a fact. "You get past them," she offered after a moment. "Ill take the gunnery turret."
"Can you handle it?" Vin stared at her, unaware of how much experience she had. Unfortunately, he needed to focus on getting past the Ithorians and could use her help in manning the guns.
"Yes," she nodded taking a deep breath. She knew he could see just how fearful she was, not only of letting them down at this crucial point but because it had been a long time since she had used her Jedi abilities. Fear for her child had forced her to hide the best part of herself and though it was good to finally admit openly what she was, Charlotte could not help feeling the awesome weight of responsibility that came with being a Jedi. "Yes," she said after instilling herself with resolve. "I can do it."
Vin gave her a look of understanding before facing front again. "I'm going to do everything I can to shake them. I want you disable their ships. I don't want to hurt them unless I can help if but we have to get them off our backs before the Avenger decides to give them some help with a squadron of TIEs."
Charlotte absorbed his words and unfastened herself from the seat in order to reach the Tracker's gunnery turret. Vin took a deep breath and faced front again. The ship was starting to enter the upper atmosphere and Vin knew that if they entered space once more, they would come under a renewed attach by the Avenger. Turning the Tracker sharply towards the surface once more, the Slipstream cruiser sliced through the air as it surged back towards land. Immediately he saw the pursuing Ithorian ships falling into pursuit and knew that they would be converging upon the Tracker as soon as it made another attempt to land. Fortunately, the Ithorian Runners were not made for upper atmosphere. Their purpose was mainly to chase away trespassers from their territory, which gave Vin some room for maneuvering.
Unfortunately, the Tracker could not remain airborne for very long and no doubt the Avenger was monitoring their progress within the atmosphere. Somehow, he simply had to land. There was no other recourse. If the Avenger itself did not capture the Tracker, the TIE fighters it would soon send against them the longer the ship remained in the air would. The sound of approaching Runners could be heard by the increased pace of digital beeping that emanated through the cockpit the closer they reached the surface. Vin could see them spreading out around his ship once more, preparing to ambush him in the same pattern used earlier.
"Charlotte," Vin spoke up knowing that audio receivers in the gunnery turret would allow her to hear him. "They're moving in for the kill. Are you ready?"
"Yes," she answered. Her voice was still a little uncertain but he could feel her resolve even from the captain's seat. "Let's do this."
The Tracker surged into the kill zone with gun ports firing. The blasts were accurate, owing to Charlotte's amazing reflexes thanks to her adeptness with the Force. The initial blasts served to force the Runners to fall back, taking them by surprise because their prey had taken so long to fire, they had believed that the Slipstream craft had been incapable of doing so. For a few precious seconds, they were disorientated by the vehemence of the attack and debated at what was to be done. To fire on the enemy craft could mean harming the vegetation they were so determined to protect. However, their prey was not limited by such considerations. Once Charlotte had overcome her anxiety, the rest came easily and the gun ports began to fire with such speed the pilots in the Runners had difficulty coping with the barrage.
In the meantime, Vin was navigating through the aerial traps the Runners were attempting to ensnare them in an effort to make the laser assault ineffective. However, Vin was much too seasoned a pilot to fall for such tricks and Buck always said that the best way to outwit a computer guidance system on another craft was to ensure you didn't fly using your own. Vin used the Force to guide him through the zig zagging ships that crossed his path, determined to bring them down. The Tracker was his ship and he knew what she was capable of doing. With Charlotte at the gunnery turret, they were a deadly combination and ships began falling out of the sky as Charlotte followed Vin's advice and disabled the Runners instead of outright destroying them.
The Ithorians, whose physiological differences made their reflexes slower, were no match for a full Jedi and an apprentice. Very soon, all the Runners were either limping ineffectively behind them in vain hope to catch or had simply broken off the pursuit, returning to their ships to tend to their damaged crafts before they crashed on the surface. After what seemed like an eternity of time, the Tracker was alone in the sky once more and Vin found himself letting out a heavy sigh of relief as the danger passed for the moment.
"I don't think I want to do that again in a hurry," Vin muttered as he fell back into his captain's seat once he had found a suitable place for them to land. He had elected to land the Tracker in a series of canyons that were one of the few places on Ithor that was considered unsuitable for farming. The high walls and meandering paths would allow them an avenue of escape should Vader sent out TIE fighters after them.
"Are we safe?" Maria asked gingerly, almost afraid he was going to say they were not.
"For now," Vin sighed. "The Ithorians are going to regroup. Chances are they're going to ask the Empire for help."
"How long do we have until they come for us?" She asked once again, the fear in her eyes was more than evident.
"Not long enough," he did not look at her when he answered. He could still feel Lilith's gaze burning into his back and reminded himself that when this was all over, he was going to find out what it was about him that the child found so fascinating. "I'm kind of surprised Vader hasn't sent a whole bunch of ships after us. They're never been particular about minding anyone's territory. I can't understand why they haven't come after us."
"They want us alive," Charlotte retorted as she came through the cockpit door and took her seat in the co-pilot's seat. Now that the danger has subsided for the moment, it did not take long for Lilith to break away from Maria's grip to wrap her arms around her mother's neck and hold on tight in anticipation of a comforting embrace.
"We're okay baby," Charlotte reassured her daughter with a smile as she sat the girl in her lap after taking her seat. "We're gonna be okay."
Vin watched mother and daughter together and could not deny that Charlotte's love for her child was admirable. Once again, the wish that Lilith had been his surfaced again and Vin brushed it aside as foolishness, knowing it was never meant to be. Still, so much would have been different if the little girl had been his own child. They would not be strangers right now, they would have been family. Still the past was done and Vin did not want to let that harm their future friendship, if that was all that was left to them. "You did good Charlotte."
"Its been a while," she smiled, her mood a great deal better now that she was holding her daughter safely in her arms. "I'd forgotten what it was like."
"The rebellion can use all the Jedis it can find," Vin added as the Tracker started descending into the canyon. The illumination from Ithor's sky suddenly disappeared as the canyon walls surged up around them, blocking out the sunlight. "There aren't many of us left."
"Your Master," Charlotte asked. "Who is he?"
"Chris Larabee," Vin replied, finding it strange to be talking not just to another Jedi but to a Jedi that was Charlotte. He never thought that he would meet another one other than Chris and Ben Kenobi who was hiding out in Tatooine.
"I know Larabee," Charlotte replied, her features etching in recognition. "He fought in the Clone Wars. For that matter, so did I."
"You fought in the Clone Wars?" Vin turned to her in surprise.
"Yes," she nodded. "It was the first time the Jedi had ever become involved in a war but the cause was important enough."
It was indeed. The Clone War was a galactic conflict that would have toppled the Old Republic far more violently then the covert assimilation into the Empire. The Jedi Order, who had for a long time opted to remain neutral in such conflicts in order to demonstrate their impartiality, had joined the cause and it was perhaps the single greatest war ever fought in the galaxy. All the core worlds had participated, Correllia, Coruscant, Sluis Van, Mon Calamari, Nal Hutta and even the Hapes Consortium had banded together to fight the common threat. It was their finest hour and a poignant swan song to the dark times that would soon descend upon the Republic.
"I lost my father there," she said sadly.
"I'm sorry," Vin found himself saying. "I didn't know that."
How could he know, he thought almost instantly. She had never given him the chance to find out.
Suddenly, what felt like a maelstrom of terror and agony, ripped through his consciousness. The pain was so intense that it sliced through his mind with such force that for a second, he lost control of his ship and forced the autopilot to take over the descent of the Tracker into its predesignated coordinates. Vin almost blacked out from the pain and for an instant, he did not know even know where he was. His heart was pounding so hard in his chest, he thought it might explode. So disorientated was he that he did not even realize that the effect on Charlotte was worse. Half dazed, he turned in his direction to see her on the floor next to him, clutching her stomach as if she was going to gag.
"By the Force!" She was sobbing. "By the Force, what did he do?"
"Mommy!" Lilith was crying out, not understanding what had happened. Maria was on her hands and knees as well, trying to help her mistress to her feet. Vin could share Lilith's fears and her confusion because he was not certain what he had just experienced either. For the first time since this had all began, Vin wished Chris were here to explain it to him.
"Charlotte," he managed to say, the mind burst still sending shockwaves throughout his system. "What happened?"
"Oh Vin," she continued to weep, unable to look up at him. "They're all gone! He killed them all!"
"What?" Vin demanded, those terrible words bringing him out of the fog faster than anything else she could have said. "Who? What are you talking about?"
She looked up at him, her eyes filled with tears. "Vader just destroyed a herdship Vin. A million people just died because of us!" she wailed. "Because of us!"
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