"Buck," JD Dunne glanced at Buck Wilmington as he looked up from the communications section of the cockpit controls of the Rogue. "I'm receiving transmissions from Ithor."
In the cockpit window before them, the planet Ithor glimmered iridescently against the velvet beauty of space. It was one of the most picturesque worlds in the galaxy and its surface, though one could never land on it, was similarly gifted in its rich, textured landscapes of lush, green vegetation. On more than one occasion during his trips to Ithor, Buck had enjoyed the vistas to be seen from the decks of the herdships that hovered above the surface. Unfortunately, this was one instance where the journey to Ithor would not allow enough time for such pleasantries. The Rogue had managed to enter Ithorian space, escaping the formidable sensors of the Avenger whose presence above the planet was nothing less than ominous. Buck only hoped that its remaining status around Ithor, meant that they had yet to acquire Vin Tanner. If this was indeed the case, then there was still a chance to retrieve the apprentice before the situation worsened.
"Transmissions?" Buck returned the younger man's gaze. "What sort?"
"Well I'm not sure, there's a lot of them," JD responded and tapped his com unit just to ensure that it was not a hardware malfunction. "There's so much of it. It's almost gibberish."
"Let me hear it," Buck ordered and JD complied immediately, flicking a switch and filling the cockpit with a cacophony of frantic voices, overlapping over one another. It was almost frenzied. Buck tried to filter out the noise to hear one specific thing but did not help and finally he came to the conclusion that all this chaos could have only one cause. "There's some kind of a planetary disaster," he guessed. "I can't imagine anything else that would cause this much excitement down there."
"What kind of disaster?" JD inquired, immediately running a scan on the planet to find if Buck's supposition were indeed true.
"You tell me," Buck responded.
JD frowned since it was a rather silly question since he was manning the sensors and continued with his scans, finding no destruction on the surface that could be considered a planetary disaster, no stray meteors findings it way into orbit, no volcanic activity, or seismic disturbances, nothing at all. "Nothing Buck," JD answered after a moment, puzzled. "There's nothing, Its peaceful down there."
"Could be one of the herdships," Buck suggested. "Check it," he instructed when suddenly the interlapping noises was overshadowed by a powerful transmission that sliced through all the others with a burst of static that made both men wince.
"Damn! What is that?" JD swore as the squeal droned out all the voices.
"Someone is sending a planetary wide transmission. If there's anything capable of receiving down there, they'll pick this up," Buck explained. "Can you pinpoint its source JD?"
"Yeah," JD nodded and acted quickly to give Buck a response. It took him a few seconds to complete the task but when he did so, the expression on his face told Buck it was not good news.
"It's coming from the Avenger."
"Attention citizens of Ithor," a voice started speaking no sooner than after JD had made that revelation. "This is Admiral Jeya of the Imperial flagship Avenger. As you now aware, we have opened fire on the herdship Cathomira. Ithor is charged with giving aid and comfort to a member of Rebel Alliance and an enemy of the state. Until you surrender him to us, we will begin orbital bombardment of all herdships. You have three hours to comply."
With that the transmission ended.
"Hell," Buck gasped, unable to believe that the Empire could resort to such brutality in the capture of one rebel.
"Buck what are we going to do?" JD looked at him in outright fear.
"I don't know," Buck replied shaking his head. "Whatever it is, we better do it quick, because to save those people in the herdships Vin is liable to give himself up to Vader."
For a moment after the transmission was heard, no one in the cockpit of the Tracker could speak.
Charlotte was right, Vader had destroyed the herdship because of them. When she had first stated it, Vin could not believe it. He did not imagine anyone being so callous as to murder a million people just to acquire one person. The atrocity of it was beyond his ability to comprehend and yet upon hearing the cold blooded demand made by the Admiral of the Avenger; Vin had to concede that there were no depths to which human ugliness could sink. The choice before him was clear even though he was terrified of making it. However, he had accepted the consequences of his actions before he embarking upon this journey and now that the moment was upon him, he could not change his mind.
"I have to go," he said quietly.
"No!" Charlotte returned firmly. "I would never ask you to do that and I don't expect you to."
"Charlotte it isn't your choice!" Vin snapped. "You heard him! If I don't turn myself in within three hours, he'll shoot down another herdship!"
"Wait a minute..." Charlotte stared at Vin. "Him. That admiral said him, didn't he?"
"Yes," Vin nodded wondering what she was getting at when suddenly it struck him too what she was trying to say. "I thought he was after you and Lilith. They're not suppose to know about me."
"They're not suppose to," Charlotte's mind started racing. "But they did know about your ship even though they were supposed to be searching for mine. How could they know? You said you had false registration codes since joining the rebellion, unless someone recognized the ship itself, the Avenger should not have been able to identify the Tracker."
"Youre right and somehow they knew I was the one who was coming," Vin agreed with her deductions. "Vader couldn't have just sensed me when he dropped out of hyperspace on the Avenger. I was careful."
"He would have sensed a Jedi, not necessarily you," Charlotte retorted. "Besides, I've been reinforcing your shields with mine. He could not know about you unless he knew you were coming."
"What?" He stared at her in accusation, not at all liking the idea of her being inside his mind. Her hiding her Jedi ability and his for so long was still a sore point with him. "You've been in my head?"
"Yes," Charlotte nodded as if it was a secondary issue because in truth, it was. Their immediate concerns made the matter of violating his personal space a little trivial at this time. "Considering what you have in there, it was a good thing I did. He would have kept at you until he broke through your defenses."
"You mean you know about...."
"Yes," Charlotte raised her eyes and met his, perfectly aware of why he had concealed things from her and felt a little hurt that he would consider her capable of such betrayal. Whatever else she might have done, she was no traitor to the Jedi. "Whatever you may think of me Vin and no matter how justified that opinion might be, I still know what it is to be a Jedi. If keeping what you know a secret from Vader ensures that bastard and his Emperor is destroyed, my life and that of my daughter is worth sacrifice."
"I'm sorry," he started to apologize but there was no apology he could make that would take back the sting of his suspicion and he could feel the hurt inside Charlotte. However, he knew not what else to say that would make that hurt dissipate other than trusting her a little more than he had until now. Charlotte the woman he once loved and the Jedi were two different entities and somehow he had to trust in the latter even if he could not trust in the former. Their survival depended upon it.
"It explains one thing then," she dropped her eyes to her hand and specifically the band of gold around her wrist that had been given to her on the day of her matrimonial. Her face tried not to show the sadness at realizing the truth but there could be no other explanation. "We were set up."
"Set up by whom, my Lady?" Maria asked unable to imagine who could have done it when the only persons knowing about their departure from Atura was presently in the cockpit of the ship.
"By Will," Charlotte whispered softly, trying to hide the tears that were threatening to spill over her lashes onto her face. "He set us up."
"I'm sorry," Vin reached for her hand and squeezed it gently, knowing that it was cold comfort. As much as he might hate the idea even now, Charlotte did love her husband and she was right, he must be responsible for the situation they now found themselves, although Vin suspected that Crawl might have have something to do with it as well. Will Richmond could not have been responsible for this entirely on his own. If Vader were searching for Vin and intended to use Charlotte as bait then there was only one person who could have given him that information and that was Crawl. While Vin was certain that Crawl would not have surrendered willingly, no doubt he would have told Vader everything he wanted to know after being tortured or simply because Vader had ripped it from his mind. Vin shuddered at the thought and hoped the Modrek was still alive but somehow he doubted it. "But I think Vader would have approached Richmond first. I may not think much of Richmond but I do know he loves you, he wou ldn't use you for anything."
Charlotte turned to him in surprise, never believing that Vin could be magnanimous enough to be so charitable in his opinion of her husband. Years ago, when Will had learnt about her affair with Vin, he had reacted violently, sending thugs who ensured that Vin was left in a medical centre long enough for her to be spirited secretly away to the Corporate Sector, out of reach or so Will thought. He had underestimated just how persistent Vin could be and eventually that persistence led to their last meeting where she had told him to go. "But he did Vin. He used me to lead Vader to you. He knew that a threat to Lilith would send me fleeing off planet and straight to you for help because I had no one else to turn to."
"I still don't think he would have sacrificed you," Vin declared. "Not willingly."
"Perhaps not," she whispered. "But his cooperation ensured that you would be captured and I would be the cause. I can't forgive him for that. Because of us and what he did, those million people died when they didn't have to."
Unfortunately Vin could not disagree with that, although for the moment it did not help their situation. "Still doesnt get us out of trouble."
"Knowing the presence of a trap or the formulation of one is the first step to keeping from being caught in one," Charlotte remarked and sounded very much like the Jedi she claimed to be. It still took Vin a little bit of getting used to.
"Well we know its there, question is how do we get out of it? At this moment, the only way of getting out this mess is for me to give myself up in exchange for letting you, Lilith and Maria go," Vin answered gravely. He had no wish to be a martyr but the truth was, he could not stand by and let those people die. He would could never live with all those deaths on his conscience, even it meant his own.
"Vader would never keep that promise Vin," Charlotte responded, not about to entertain the idea of his sacrificing himself that way under any circumstances. As it was, she was furious with Will for using her as bait to lure Vin from the safety of the Rebel Alliance because she would never condone such an act of betrayal which was precisely why Will did not tell her his plan, she supposed. "Hed wait until you were in his power and then come after us. As grateful as I am for you would take that risk for us, its pointless."
Vin did not think so but he remained silent for the moment. They would try another way to extricate themselves from their present dilemma but if things deteriorated any further, Vin would have to decide whether or not one life was worth the sacrificing if it meant the saving three others.
"Mommy, Im scared," Lilith responded.
"I know sweetie," Charlotte turned to her child and open her arms so the little girl could come into her embrace for a little comforting. "But this wont be for long. Soon well be away from here."
"Im not afraid of being here," she answered as she nestling unto her mothers lap. "Im afraid of the bad man in my head."
Both Charlotte and Vin stared at the child sharply. It was no wonder the child kept staring at him! She could sense Vin just as Vader could now sense her. "Aw hell!" Vin swore. "Could he know where we are?"
"No," Charlotte shook her head. "Even Lilith doesnt know, he could not garner enough information from her mind to pinpoint us."
"He makes me feel cold, mommy." The girl looked at her mother, hoping that she would have some way to make the unpleasantness stop, as all mothers often did.
"Lilith," Charlotte said firmly. "I want you to listen to me carefully. You do not want the bad man in your head, so you need to think that there is a wall between you two. Close your eyes and picture that wall. Imagine it there Lilith, imagine it now."
Lilith closed her eyes and her face contracted in concentration as she tried to do as instructed, while listening to Charlottes voice. After what seemed like an eternity of minutes for those inside the cockpit with her, Lilith finally opened her eyes and responded. "I can feel him going away now mommy. I can feel him behind the wall."
"Good," Charlotte smiled and planted a kiss on her forehead. "When you think hes in your head, you just think of that wall and nothing else."
"Is that how you do it mommy?" Lilith asked.
"More or less." She nodded; proud of her daughters achievement; however, the new problem that just surfaced was not lost upon those present. "We have to get out here."
"I know," Vin agreed, "but thats easier said then done. Somehow we have to get past the Avenger and make sure they know were leaving so Vader doesnt decide to use the rest of the herdships for target practice."
With all the activity and panic taking place on board the herdships across the planet, the Rogue entered Ithorian space without raising barely a hint of interest. As the ship flew into the atmosphere, Buck could only imagine what kind of chaos had been borne out of Vaders threat to destroy the floating cities. Even as his ship penetrated the skies of Ithor, he could see the mass exodus of ships departing the herdships. Those who were fortunate enough to own ships were speeding away from the planet determined not to get caught in the crossfire between the Empire and its quarry. For those who were not so lucky, there would be bribes and threats for passage off world.
Despite himself, Buck marveled at the genius of Vaders strategy even though he did not think Vin would be foolish enough to fall for such a ploy. No doubt, Vader believed that Vin might attempt to take advantage of the mass departures and lose the Tracker in the ships that were leaving Ithor, while the Avenger waited like a predator in the dark. However, if Vin did not choose to take the opportunity and remained bound to the planet, the deadline would eventually draw him out because Vin would never allow so many innocents to die for him. Buck was certain that he would give himself up rather than face that possibility.
"Theyre all leaving." JD stared in horrified fascination as the ships, ranging from small shuttles, to large cruisers streaked through the sky like vermin deserting a doomed expedition.
"No one wants to be incinerated JD," Buck said tautly. Unable to make his move until they were well beyond the notice of the Avenger, Buck had been waiting for their insertion into the atmosphere in order to act. "Alright, were under the planetary cloak, I want you to send a message to the Tracker, using the carrier wave."
"Carrier wave?" JD exclaimed. "But thats primitive!"
"I know but Casey came up a with the idea of using a carrier band signal to get past Imperial surveillance. We cant use scramblers to contact him. They may not be able to track the signal but their sensors will still register one and right now its better if the Avenger doesnt know were here."
"Will Vin?" The young co-pilot questioned. "He might not be in the Tracker."
"Hes in it," Buck said confidently. "If he was on a herdship, the Ithorians would have given him long before the Vader found it necessary to start shooting down them down."
JD could not fault that logic and decided to question the order no further. "Casey come up with this idea?" JD asked instead and tried not to sound surprised that the haughty young woman was so capable despite her sheltered upbringing and her decidedly arrogant aristocratic mannerisms.
"Yeah." Buck glanced at him cockily. "That girlfriend of yours is pretty smart you know."
"Shes not my girlfriend," JD barked back. "I hate her."
"I used to hate the first woman I fell in love with too," Buck returned with a little smile.
"So what happened?" JD asked as he began transmitting the message to Vin that they were here and more importantly that he was not alone.
"Oh not much," Buck grinned at him. "I just married her."
"It is gone," Vader declared as he continued his vigil by the enormous window on the bridge of the Avenger.
Since this had become his personal carrier, Vader had come to the begrudging realization that this was his favorite location on the great ship. When the Avenger sailed away from Coruscant Vader often found himself here, watching the other ships sweep past, seeming infinitesimal in the face of the super star destroyer. It gave him a sense of power ands seemed to enhance the fearsome aura around him. The reputation of the Avenger alone was already synonymous with Darth Vader. More often than he had thought possible, people had begun to associate the arrival of this ship with his presence. Vader did not mind that at all. Fear was good and coupled with the black mask that was more than just a protective armor but the second skin of the man he had become; he felt damn near invincible.
"Gone Sir?" Admiral Neya, prompted by Vaders statement had left his position on the command deck to investigate.
"I felt the child," Vader answered. "I felt her mind for a brief time."
"Governor Richmonds daughter," the Admiral responded in understanding, aware that Charlotte Richmond was once a Jedi and those genes would surely have passed on to her offspring.
"Yes," Vader nodded. "The Force is strong in her."
"Old enough to begin Jedi training am I correct?" Jeya ventured a guess. He could still remember what it had been like when the Jedi was at the height of their power. Children identified with a massive midiclorion count were soon assimilated by the Jedi order, taken for training before they were handed over to the masters who would oversee their apprenticeship. If the Republic still lived, undoubtedly, Lilith Richmond would have undergone such training.
"Yes," Vader answered neutrally.
Jeya stared at the man before him, wondering how the Jedi had been so wrong about Vader. For all their prescience, they could not foresee the danger in making Darth Vader one of them. "How old were you when you undertook the training?"
Vader turned to him slowly and Jeya wondered if he had overstepped his bounds by making so personal inquiry. The Admiral swallowed thickly, anticipating a quick death by way of the invisible talons Vader employed effectively so often.
"We were not discussing me, Admiral," Vader warned. "We were speaking of the child. When we apprehend Tanner and Richmond's wife, I want the child brought to me."
"To you Lord Vader?" Jeya's brow raised in question. "I thought we were returning her to her father, the Governor."
"I am altering our bargain with the Governor," Vader retorted sharply. "Considering his complicity in all this, he should be grateful that I do not alter it further. When the child is in custody, she will be brought to me."
"May I ask for what purpose?" Jeya asked before he could question the prudence of the inquiry.
Vader did not answer but Jeya was certain whatever the reason, it could not bode well for Lilith Richmond at all.
Comments to: firstname.lastname@example.org