THE APPRENTICE by Linda T.


"We finally meet," Darth Vader responded to the challenge offered by Charlotte Richmond, once the surprise of her arrival had worn off. "I would have thought you and your child would be on your way to the Alliance by now."

"Matters on Ithor required that I remain," Charlotte said coldly, keeping her light saber against Vader’s to ensure he did not make any sudden moves towards Vin. Charlotte tried to keep her eyes averted from Vin's body lying on the tarmac, or notice the crimson pool that was spreading around him was blood from a grievous wound. Behind her, JD Dunne was moving towards the fallen apprentice, cautiously keeping an eye on the two Jedis whom were about to do battle.

"Get him out of here JD," Charlotte ordered, never moving her eyes away from Vader as she spoke.

"He’ll never leave the system alive," Vader hissed, keeping his gaze similarly focused Charlotte and paying little attention to the young man whom was trying to remain beneath his notice.

"He’ll take his chances," Charlotte answered for JD. "Go on JD, take him out of here!"

JD did not pause to answer her. He had heard descriptions about Lord Darth Vader from those who had seen him in person and none of those descriptions did the man any justice. Seeing this cloaked figure in black armor was possibly one of the most frightening moments of his young life. He did not know anything about Sith Lords but if they all looked like Vader, then JD was extremely grateful that the Sith only came in twos; a master and an apprentice. For an army of such creatures was the stuff of nightmares. JD did not think he would ever be able to hear the sound of a respirator again without shuddering inwardly or connecting that chilling sound to Vader. However, he could not dwell on the sinister looking Jedi when Vin Tanner needed help so desperately.

JD lowered himself to Vin and took hold of the apprentice’s wounded body, trying not to be affected by the metallic stench of blood suffocating the air around him or the sight of so much of it that it was a puddle of black on the ground. Vin’s arm was barely attached to his body and when JD lifted him off the floor, he had to do so ensuring that the arm remained that way since there was no longer any bone to support its weight. Muscle and sinew were sliced apart and what remained connected to Vin, did so with the flimsiest threads of flesh. JD felt his stomach lurch and thought he might gag at the gruesome sight but he fought the sensation away because Vin needed his help. Vin was barely conscious, blood frothing at his lips with each exhale and JD could tell that unless he was brought to the Tracker where the medibay would stabilize his condition; Vin would die before they even left Ithorian orbit.

"Come on Vin," JD said softly as he hauled Vin to his feet and began dragging the apprentice towards the lift module once more. Charlotte was still Vader at bay and as he moved away from them, he noticed Vader’s eyes following their departure. Never in his life did JD wanted to be away from any place badly and the dark lord’s gaze only made him move faster. He wanted to call after Charlotte but knew it was a futile effort and he knew it. She had already told him what his instructions were once they had reached this point and the situation was too critical to deviate from it now. Besides, he had a feeling she had known that this was the way it was going to go from the moment she decided to help rescue Vin.

The Tracker was presently docked and waiting their arrival at the spaceport. JD did not think they would have much trouble from the Ithorians trying to prevent their depature because on when he had accompanied Charlotte here, the sight of her light sabre had been enough for them to step aside. JD was convinced the look in their eyes when they saw her was almost one of reverence. JD had never made a solo flight himself but he was confident Buck had taught him well enough to try, besides they was no choice. He had to get Vin help and there was no alternative for him but to succeed because the consequences for failure was not something he wanted on his conscience.

Arriving at the lift doors, he cast a gaze back at Charlotte and Vader who was staring at each other like titans about to do battle and appeared as if they were waiting for him and Vin to go before they began to fight. He wished he could say something to Charlotte as the doors slid open and he stepped inside. JD wished he could tell her how brave he thought she was and how she should be coming with him now that they had found Vin but he dared not risk disrupting her concentration with such a formidable enemy before her. However at this instant, he understood now what she had said before they had arrived here, that one of them would have to remain behind to keep Vader busy while the other rescued Vin. And since the one who remained needed to be a Jedi, there was never a question in her mind that it was going to be her.

Go!

JD blinked when he heard her voice in her mind. Go now, while you still can!

This time there was no hesitation as JD entered the small compartment of the lift module, hanging on to Vin, once her voice had faded out of his mind. Activating the control mechanism against the wall, JD could only stare as the doors started to seal and Charlotte disappeared entirely out of his view, to be frozen forever into his memory.

She attacked the moment Vin and JD were out of her sight.

Unlike Vin who had been a novice, Charlotte was not out of practice and although she had never shown her daughter her skills as a Jedi Knight, there were many nights when both Maria and her daughter had been slumbering when Charlotte had crept out train and keep herself sharp. Whether or not it was enough for her to prevail against Darth Vader was another thing entirely but she was not afraid. If this entire affair had wrought anything, it had shown Charlotte the folly of fearing too much. She was done with her fears and her insecurities. Lilith was safe and beyond the Empire’s reach now, Charlotte could feel it and she also knew that Vin would do everything possible to protect her. Whatever the future held for her, Charlotte could face it knowing that.

She swung hard at Vader and he raised his saber blocked her blow, staggering backwards at the ferociousness of her attack. Like a mother rancor protecting her young, Charlotte maintained the devastating pace, using all the skills at her disposal to fight a seemingly invulnerable enemy. Leaping into the air, she somersaulted over his head and landed behind him and kicked out her foot no sooner than she had touched the ground, sending him forward clumsily before she came at him again. Vader recovered quickly, fast coming to the realization that he had to re-evaluate his attack strategy because he was no longer fighting and inexperienced opponent. Obviously Governor Richmond’s wife was a skilled Jedi and would need to be treated as such.

This time he met her offensive, putting a great deal of power into his return strikes. However, as strong as he was, Charlotte was faster and there was a grace and agility to her movements that was not capable of being repeated by his body armor. She dodged out of his way easily and slammed her sabre down, this time connecting with the crook of his shoulder long enough to cause sparks to spit from the ruptured wires of the cybernetic covering. Vader uttered a cry of pain and lashed out a gloved fist in wide swing. His knuckles met her jaw and she stumbled back, reeling in disorientation but not enough to be caught at a disadvantage. She brought up her weapon once more as he thrust his own blade in her direction and she shoved the weapon away from the torso it would have otherwise penetrated. The sound of lightsabers clanged loudly, its sounds reverberating through their bones as the battle seemed to be gain momentum almost to fever pitch.

"Your husband has underestimated you greatly," Vader remarked when a break in the fighting had come. "He said that you had forgotten your skills, that you had left the Jedi way far behind you."

"My husband has been mistaken about a great number of things," Charlotte declared, aware that this effort at conversation was merely a tactic in delaying the battle while Vader came up with a plan. It was time she did not intend to give him. As a Jedi he was the strongest but he was also a Sith Lord, drawing on the dark side for his power and the Force lost it potency when employed in such a manner. She may not be able to beat him but she could certainly hurt him. Charlotte raised her weapon and swung the energy beam at Vader, only to have him deflect her blow. For a few minutes, they stood before each other, matching one another in skill and strength.

Charlotte fought like a hellion giving him little or no time to catch his breath because the only way to defeat someone like Vader was to wear him down. They both leapt into the air, charging each other in flight as their sabers slammed dangerous against each other, until the sound of the wind blowing was drowned out by the noise of their weapons. They landed on the ground again and to resume the dance once more. Neither of them were aware that they were being observed closely by the Ithorians and the newly arrived Imperial troops who had seen the departure of the Tracker from Seleusa and deduced that something had gone wrong with the dark lord’s audience with Vin Tanner.

Vader was using his physical strength in the battle ensuring that each time he made a strike, it would require a good deal of effort on Charlotte’s part to keep it from reaching its mark. The mechanics of his body allowed him that advantage while taking away the graceful agility of movement. Charlotte on the other hand moved swiftly, never remaining in one place long enough for him to concentrate his attack to such a point that she had trouble holding her ground. Leaping and twisting in the air, she was like a wind sprite, delivering her strikes and then slipping out of reach before he could move to engage. Spark flew from the meeting of their blades and the fierce fighting continued, waiting for one of the combatants to weaken.

"Not so easy to kill us when you’re not hunting down our families and butchering us with your Imperial dogs is it?" Charlotte hissed as she struck him again. This time her sabre catching him on the side, creating a fissure that bled the cybernetic gases that kept him alive inside the dark armor. He uttered another cry and she relished the sound of his pain. Concentrating hard, she allowed herself a momentary indulgence and sent him flying through the air, his dark cloak billowing in the wind as he crashed on the floor not far from her. Breaking into a running start, Charlotte raced towards him, weapon drawn and prepare to leap when suddenly out of nowhere, a blast of energy struck her full on the side.

Charlotte uttered a scream as she collapsed on the floor, feeling the sting of what she knew could only be a bolt from an Imperial stormtrooper's blast rifle.

"WHO DARES!" She heard Vader roar through a haze of pain encompassing her whole body. Her vision was cloudy and she could not see well but the sensation of agony was most acute and she could only hiss quietly in pain because there were little strength left in her for anything else. Her sabre was still in her hand and though she knew she was dying, Charlotte would not let Vader claim her dead boy as a prize. Taking a deep breath, she rolled onto her stomach, unaware she was trailing blood as she moved forward painfully. The action alone drew her a frustrated cry of agony with each inch she managed to cover. In the distance, she heard Vader demanding the contingent of stormtroopers, who had given them authority to intervene and the one who had shot her was soon writhing on the tarmac, being strangled by the dark lord for his interference in what was clearly a Jedi matter.

None of this mattered much to Charlotte who left Vader to his petty tyrannies and ignored the death scream of the man who was summarily executed for taking her life. She saw the edge of the roof come into view and stared at the beauty of Ithor for once last time. Forcing herself to her feet took every ounce of strength left in her but Charlotte was determined to die well. She heard someone shouting at Vader, alerting him to what she was doing but paid little attention to it. It was too late for that anyway. Taking a deep breath, she took a second to admire the pristine beauty of blue skies and a majestic landscape of rolling green fields. As the last thing she would ever see in this life, Charlotte was pleased with the view.

She could feel tendrils of Vader’s power reaching for her, attempting to keep her from completing this one final task. However, he was not going to take this away from her. Closing her eyes, Charlotte ran forward shakily and with the power of the Force masking the pain in her legs and her torso enough for her to make that running start, Charlotte jumped over the edge. She heard Vader scream behind her in fury but she did not care, she could feel the wind in her hair and the lush scent of Ithor’s air in her lungs. She did not look at the ground miles below for she would make acquaintance with it soon enough.

Until then however, Charlotte would dream of her daughter's freedom and ride the wind into eternity.

Buck could not believe that woman had done something like that to him! The Rogue was already in hyperspace; her course was set so Buck could do nothing to change it until he reached the other side of the dimensional passageway. Although it was possible to change course in hyperspace, Buck was not prepared to do it when there was a child and a girl not much more than a teenager on board his ship. He would not risk their lives in case he miscalculated even by a fraction. An incorrect calculation on his part and he could cause the Rogue emerge in the middle of a supernova or a black hole and that was not how he wanted to end his day. Besides, despite her manipulation, Charlotte Richmond was right, her daughter did need to be taken to safety.

Inwardly, he was still furious how he could have fallen under a Jedi mind spell so easily. Chris had done it to him a few times in his life, usually when Buck had gotten his mind to chase after some woman Chris knew would get him killed. Buck was usually pretty sore with the Jedi after that but things always had a way of working out just so that Buck would realize that Chris had actually done him a favor as opposed to robbing him of a glorious night of passion. However, he was still unimpressed by having fallen under its sway when exerted so expertly by Charlotte Richmond. One minute he was arguing with her about the ludicrous notion of her returning to Ithor herself and the next thing he knew, he was staring at his cockpit watching the spots in front his eyes disappear after making the jump to lightspeed.

Buck wanted to go with her so that he could get JD back himself. Even though the young man had learnt a great deal since becoming his co-pilot, Buck was not at all happy that he was on Ithor alone while a superstar destroyer was in orbit around the planet. Now he would have to return to the rebel base, leave Charlotte's daughter and the girl Maria before being able to return to Ithor to find out if JD and Vin were okay, not to mention the crazy Jedi who had put him in this situation in the first place.

He glanced over his shoulder and saw Maria staring out the cockpit window, her eyes very far away as she held the blond waif in her arms. Both females seemed somber and Buck could not blame them for that. The little girl in particular was feeling her mother's departure profoundly and once again Buck cursed himself for being so weak willed to fall under the suggestion of a Jedi mind trick and let the woman go off on her own.

Suddenly, Lilith sat up in Maria's lap with her eyes wide open and squealed. "MOMMY NO!"

"Lilith!" Maria looked at her in concern. "What is it?"

The child had started to cry, anguish contorting her features into an expression that broke Buck's heart into a thousand pieces at seeing it. "She's dead!" Lilith started to sob loudly. "Mommy's dead!"

"Of course she isn't," Maria said quickly, embracing the little girl, with panic clearly marking her own features.

"Yes she is!" Lilith bawled loudly the way a six-year-old would. "Mommy's gone! I felt her go away!"

Buck knew she was right and before he knew what he was doing, Lilith was in his arms and he was holding onto her tight as she buried her face into his shoulder and sobbed loudly without restraint. He wished with all his heart that the little girl was wrong but his own instincts told him that it was a futile hope. Adam, Chris' son had been the same way. The boy had always known when his father was near and Buck had seen them have conversations without ever saying a word to each other. He and Sarah used to marvel at the strength of that bond as well as envying it at times. If Lilith said her mother was dead, then Buck believed her.

"I'm sorry darling," Buck whispered softly in her ear. "I'm so sorry."

However, despite admonishing himself for feeling so selfish, Buck could not help wonder that if Charlotte was dead, where was Vin and JD?

"Charlotte...," Vin groaned as he lay on the bunk in the Tracker's medibay.

"I'm sorry," he wept softly, tears streaking down his cheeks as he surfaced in and out of coherence. JD had placed him inside the automated compartment and placed him under the ministrations of the medi-droid that was keeping his vital signs stable and pumping him full of pain nullifying drugs for his trip back to the rebel base. She was dead. He could feel inside his soul and knew that at that moment, wherever she was, her life had come to an end. He felt her consciousness extinguish in one final instant, before fading away like smoke forever. "I'm sorry," he whispered his eyes blinded with tears as he stared into the ceiling above.

With the knowledge of her death heavy in his mind, the pain he was enduring seemed far away although Vin could not be certain that it was not the drugs that caused it to diminish. Whatever the reason, Vin forced himself from the bed.

"Sir, you must stay in bed," the droid declared reproachfully but Vin ignored it. His left side and his arm were encased in a stasis pack and he was still very weak but Vin could hear the sounds of bombardment against the hull of ship and knew that they were far from out of danger.

"To hell with it," he grunted weakly and stood up. He could not just lie here when so much was going on outside. Besides, if he stayed where he was he would have nothing to do but think about Charlotte and the fact that she had died for him. At the moment, Vin was too raw inside to endure that.

He made his way to the cockpit; not an easy feat to accomplish when the ship was being bombarded by what he was certain was energy blasts from fighter cannons. So far, the Tracker was enduring against the barrage and JD was holding his own to give the detonations against the hull down to a bare minimum. Bracing himself against the walls of ship with his uninjured hands, Vin walked slowly to the cockpit, feeling every shudder and every heave of protest uttered by the ship whenever the enemy's blast met its mark. He knew that his ship was being flown hard because he recognized the sounds it made and could tell when the superstructure was being placed under extreme pressure.

He arrived in the cockpit and saw the Avenger bearing directly ahead of the Tracker, looming closer and closer in the window as the smaller craft surged on ahead. Flying across the sky surrounding the Tracker, a dozen TIE fighters were literally swarming around them in frenzy. Vin watched JD at the controls of his ship, flying the Slipstream the way a mad man would but somehow, he was managing to keep them from being destroyed. Vin struggled into the co-pilot's seat next to JD; content to let the young man handle things even though Vin did not hold much hope for them to evade capture indefinitely.

"What are you doing here Vin?" JD asked horrified as he saw his friend next to him. To him, Vin looked half-dead and had no business being in that chair when he ought to be with the medical droid being treated and kept in stable condition. "You should be in bed!"

"What's the point?" Vin asked weakly. "It's going to take a miracle for us to get out this alive."

"Things are bad," JD agreed as he flew through the ships before them, trying desperately to put some distance between the Tracker and the superstar destroyer determined to capture them now that Vin had reneged on his deal with Vader and had fled Ithor. The great ship had closed in on the small ship as soon as the Tracker had left orbit, this time making no mistakes as it sent a phalanx of TIE fighters to cut off any route of escape. The net was closing in on them but JD was not going to taken without a fight. Buck Wilmington had taught him that lesson most succinctly. "But we're getting out of this."

"Charlotte is dead," Vin answered him with that statement.

JD cast a brief glance at Vin and sighed heavily. "I'm sorry Vin. She was a brave woman."

"I should never have come to Ithor." Vin shook his head, hardly noticing that they were engaged in their fight for their lives outside the hull of the ship. "I killed her by coming here!"

"VIN!" JD said sharply. "I don't have time for this!" The younger man barked at him and surprised the apprentice by the intensity of his voice. "I'm sorry Charlotte is gone but you didn't kill her and she knew very well what she was doing when she came to rescue you. I need to concentrate on getting us out of here alive and since you can't help me with that, I suggest you sit quietly and let do what I can. That lady gave up her life so that you and I could escape with ours, I sure as hell am not going to let that sacrifice go to waste."

Vin did not answer and looked away from JD, feeling warm tears in his eyes because the younger man was right. Charlotte had sacrificed her life for not only the two of them but for her daughter as well. It was wrong to let that sacrifice be for nothing. Closing his eyes, he felt droplets of moisture run down his cheeks even though he kept himself facing away from JD. "What do you need me to do?" He turned to face JD a moment later, an expression on his face that told the younger man that he was not angry at what JD had said to him. It was actually rather justified.

"At the moment?" JD asked as he banked the Tracker hard and it slipped in between two TIE fighters that could not pull up in time. Their collision and destruction bathed the cockpit in a flare of light as the Tracker flew through the momentary debris field and started streaking towards the huge destroyer at accelerating speed. "I just need you to sit there and stay alive. You don't look capable of much else," he added with a slight crook on his lips.

"I'll see what I can do," Vin returned softly and noted the trajectory of the Tracker. "JD are you attacking them?" He asked with a little grunt.

"No," JD shook his head as the distance between the small ship and Vader's personal carrier began to close. "Buck told me once that the tractor beams on Star Destroyers have a very narrow field to be so precise. I figure that it I can get close enough to it, I can skim the edge of the tractor field."

"And keep those fighters from firing on their own ship," Vin responded impressed but was starting to feel his energy reserves dwindling again. The drugs were making it hard for him to keep alert even though so much was happening around him.

"That's the theory," JD replied with a deep breath, hoping the gamble did not get them both killed.

The Tracker flew towards the Avenger fearlessly while still dogged by a number of TIE fighters that were less anxious than they were before earlier about firing upon the small craft when it was so close to the large destroyer. Instead, they spread around the Avenger, attempting to box the Slipstream cruiser around the massive breadth of the ship, forcing it to break off and head back into open space so that they could pummel it with more laser blasts. If it were not for the inordinate thickness of the cruiser's hull, the Tracker's shields would have buckled already but despite its reinforcements, the smaller craft was reaching its limits. When its shields collapsed, nothing would keep the Tracker from being destroyed. The powers that be wanted the passengers of the craft brought in alive and so the squadron leader of the TIE fighter contingent was herding the Tracker in for boarding, rather than disintegration.

The Tracker remained closed to the hull of the Avenger, skimming dangerously near the surface of the last craft and further limiting the TIE fighter's ability to shoot them down. Unfortunately, the ship was corralled and unless JD wanted to head back into space once more, they would be more or less threat. If Buck was here, JD might have been able to remedy their situation by getting into the gunnery turret but the precision flying required to stay ahead of the TIE fighters could not be duplicated by auto-pilot. Vin was in no condition to take his place either, hell the apprentice should not even have been out of the medi-bay let alone at the controls of ship trying to evade capture by Imperial pilots.

Just when JD started to contemplate the notion that perhaps they ought to take their chances in open space once more, a most curious thing happened. One of the TIE fighters exploded and it had nothing to do with the Tracker firing upon it. The flare of its destruction lit up the sky and was quickly followed by another and then another, until debris started to fill the sky.

"What the hell?" JD mused when suddenly a voice came through the comlink.

"Tracker get your ass to the hangar bay doors. We're wide open and we don't have time to stop," Mary Travis' voice ordered sharply throughout the small cockpit.

"ALRIGHT!" JD grinned as he stared at the external scanner and saw the Purgatory swooping from nowhere, ploughing the space between them like streaking comet. She was laying down heavy fire and moving fast in an effort to shoot down any TIE fighter's in the air while at the same time, keeping her momentum so that she could escape the super star destroyer.

"Yes Sir, we're on our way!" He declared jubilantly as he angled the Tracker away from the destroyer and rushed to meet the Purgatory. "We're gonna be okay Vin!" JD grinned as the Tracker swooped in behind the Purgatory and quickly positioned itself to sail right into its open landing doors. Pouring all power to the rear thrusters, the Tracker surged ahead, keeping pace with the Purgatory as well as gaining a little more distance so that it could enter the landing bay.

"We made it!" JD declared exuberantly as they heard the hangar doors closing behind them once they were inside the Purgatory. Shutting down all the ships' system, JD never thought he would be so glad to catch a ride home instead of making the journey himself. "You're going to be alright Vin," he said as he was flicking switches. However, when he looked over his shoulder, Vin Tanner had lapsed into unconsciousness again.

With a sad sigh, JD added softly even though Vin could not hear him. "At least I hope you're going to be okay."

Comments to: scribe32oz@optusnet.com.au