After Mary had gone to the Purgatory, she left behind an atmosphere of heavy foreboding. Although the situation left the base charged for action, there was no doubt in anyones mind that their departure from Siraj was going to be anything but easy. While no one had seen the star destroyers for themselves, the Imperial ships were present in the thoughts of all rebel personnel as they raced against time to complete the evacuation they knew would not be accomplished before those destroyers arrived. Knowing that sapped morale considerably, from the maintenance tech working in the depths of the base to the higher offices of the command structure, especially when they bore in mind that their leader Mary Travis was facing those destroyers with less than adequate defenses. Marys legend had great effect on those under her command. Her ability as a military commander and the warmth of her command style had produced unswerving loyalty from those serving under her. They returned her protectiveness for them in kind and were mindful that when she faced the four ships coming for them, she may not survive the encounter.
Chris could feel their concern as he aided in the ground defense of the base. How much they cared touched him on a personal level since he too, was filled with the same worries and at that moment, more than any other, he felt the deep kinship that had been formed since he had joined the Rebellion. Chris had never thought he would come to care for anyone as much as he had cared for the order of the Jedi and the family he had lost. However, the entry of Mary into his life had changed things for him so much that the possibility that she could die filled him with singular dread. Despite his effort to crush the fear inside him because it was a mind killer and the most dangerous liability a Jedi could have, he could not keep thinking about Mary and what she was facing. He thought about the kiss they had shared together and was somewhat unsurprised that she had the courage to take the first step in altering the boundaries of their relationship. They had been dancing around each others feelings for too long now and he supposed that it was just like Mary to be more decisive.
She had always been the stronger of the two of them.
Chris and the rest of the seven were still inside the hangar bay. Following Marys departure, the fighter squadrons had lingered long enough for orders to be given. Buck was leading a squadron against the fighters, while JD's would provide air support to the departing transports. Some of the commanders involved in the ground assault were flocking around Nathan who did not appear to be pleased giving the orders. Although he was something of her executive officer, meaning that he kept track of the all the incidentals that allowed Mary to do the things she needed to do as commander, Nathan was not much of a strategist himself. He was capable at ensuring people and resources were utilized to their fullest capacity and Chris could sense how much he loathed being charge of so many when the slightest error could cause them their lives. Nathan was too much the idealist to be issuing commands that could sent people to die.
"I want all our portable batteries on their carriers and ready to go to the northern perimeter," Nathan declared, issuing orders to the ground pounder commanders who were listening to him for instructions to proceed. "I want all the portable armor piercing weapons we have issued to those in the front lines. Ive seen those Imperial walkers and AT-ATs, theyre almost impossible to destroy without air support."
"How we gonna beat that kind of assault?" One of the voices asked.
"We dont have to beat them, we just have to delay them long enough for the rest of the base to complete evacuations procedures."
No one seemed very hopeful and who could not blame them? The chance of surviving an Imperial assault of the magnitude that was coming at them was next to impossible. The Empire was better equipped and had more access to unlimited reinforcements, where else the rebels of Siraj would be fighting with what was on hand and when that was exhausted, there would be nothing else. Still, they all understood the cause for which they fought and all of them understood that dying was a required sacrifice when one was fighting for the freedom of an entire galaxy.
"I want all ground troops ready to move within the next twenty minutes," Nathan continued to speak. "We need to set up a defensive perimeter just beyond the range of the base. The enemy will be attempting to disable our shield generator through any means possible. If they cant do it by air, theyll make the attempt by land, which means theyll be coming straight for us. If the shield generator is destroyed, well completely defenseless and theyll begin bombarding us from orbit."
Everyone understood and Chris noted the grim determination on the faces of those present. Suddenly, the somber mood of overwhelming odds was replaced by purpose. They needed something to do and Nathan had just done himself a favor by giving those under his command an achievable goal. Forgetting for the time being the grander scope of their situation and concentrating on a less daunting task had gone a long way to convincing those assembled that they might survive the day. Chris could feel it surging through them, the iron clad resolve that was infectious in its own way. Nathans expression had altered from trepidation to powerful desire to see his comrades through this present crisis. Beneath that however, Chris sensed Nathans silent wish that Ezra Standish was here instead of him. Chris could not deny that he wished the same thing.
Ezra Standish was cut from the same cloth as Mary, except he was more prone to denying it than Mary who saw command as her responsibility and was determined to use what fate had been so gracious to provide her with for the betterment of those she served. It was through his abilities as a Jedi that Chris was able to deconstruct the complex structure of Ezras psyche. A normal person could not have done it because the façade Ezra had constructed around his true self was almost fool proof. Beneath that veneer of dapper charm and confidence was someone who wished very much to belong and still felt alone in a crowd. Humiliations early in life had eroded Ezras esteem to almost nothingness and instilled at the core of him, a deeply rooted insecurity that because he would never be considered good enough, there was no reason to try.
It was terrible waste, Chris thought. It was a waste because if he simply allowed himself to believe that he was the equal of any man present, he would learn that his ability to lead was almost equal to Mary. She held the advantage because she did not doubt herself to the degree that Ezra did. Her mindset was simple, to the job by any means necessary while Ezras was do the job, but cover all bases in case it failed. It was a minor difference to anyone else but to the persons that they were, it was a gulf as vide as galaxy itself. For the moment however, whatever the differences in them, the Rebellion could sorely use Ezras leadership about right now.
"Alright, move like you got a purpose!" Nathan barked finally, scattering the soldiers present before him with that loud demand.
Chris and Vin took that moment to approach Nathan, aware that their services would be best utilized if they were fighting at their friends side who appeared to need all the help that he could get. Around them, the evacuation was in full swing. Technicians and maintenance crews were packing as fast as they could, gathering objects in priority in case they were forced to leave before the evacuation process could be completed. Everyone was mobilized and hard at work. In the hangar bay, cargo was being moved into the transports with pilots standing by, hastening the process as much as they could.
"Nathan, where do you want us?" Chris asked.
"Right on the line with me," Nathan answered. "I need all the help I can get leading this ground assault. Josiah will be joining me as soon as he gets Casey squared away."
"Oh that will be easy," Vin retorted, knowing how difficult the young woman could be about matters of her own safety when she had decided that she was capable of helping though none of them thought she should.
"Yeah," Nathan nodded before his expression soured. "You notice we havent been bombarded yet?"
"I thought were still out of range," Vin retorted, finding that fact somewhat comforting. Aside from everything else that they would be soon facing, having the structure above them blasted into rubble was something they did not need just yet.
"We should be in range of a destroyers main guns. They may not be able to penetrate the shields but Ive never met any commander worth their salt who wouldn't try to soften us up before they really start laying their artillery on us."
"Maybe they want to send the fighters in to take out the generator," Chris responded.
"Could be," Nathan frowned, appearing as if that answer was not quite good enough to satisfy his curiosity. "Im probably just a little jumpy. I dont like taking top spot. Im a middle man, making sure everything runs okay."
"I know," Vin replied, sensing the same things Chris did in the captain. "But youre doing good. People look at you and know that if you can hold it together, so can they."
"Thanks," Nathan smiled, genuinely grateful for their vote of confidence.
"If it makes you feel any better, Ive got some strange feelings myself," Chris volunteered.
Both Nathan and Vin looked at him. Although Vin could sense most things from his master, he knew that Chris sometimes put up walls between them for the sake of his privacy. Considering what emotions must be running though his mind about Mary, Vin could understand why Chris had erected a shield over his thoughts for the last few hours. However, Chris bringing to light something unusual beyond what he must be feeling for Mary immediately sent waves of caution through the young apprentice.
"What sort of strange feelings?" Vin questioned because he had sensed nothing himself.
"I dont sense any danger coming," Chris said with a slight grimace on his face. "Normally I get some indication that something is on the horizon, but not this time. Not at all. It was a complete surprise."
"How much of a surprise?" Nathan questioned.
"Like it just came out of thin air," the Jedi Master responded.
"I dont like it," Vin declared immediately. In his case, he was far too new at using the Force or being a Jedi for that matter to have the premonitions that Chris was referring. However, Chris visions were shockingly accurate. He could personally attest to it because Chris had warned him that he would face Vader, less than a day or two after it had actually happened. If there was danger, Chris would normally have sensed it days before hand. Vin had thought it a little unusual that he had not seen this happening to some degree but had not mentioned it because even the Jedi were fallible.
"Neither do I," Nathan responded. "Unfortunately, it doesnt matter a whole lot since we know theyre here now."
"True." Chris nodded in agreement before he noted Buck and JD moving across the hangar deck, about to get to their ships now that they had finished debriefing their pilots.
"Buck!" Chris called out, not wishing to let his friends go before he said goodbye. While his senses had not given him any warning about what they were facing, it did tell him that such efforts were worth taking the time to accomplish since the battle they would all be facing were dire indeed.
The three of them made their way to the pilots who were readying their X-wings for departure while at the same time waiting for them to approach before they climbed into the cockpits of their respective ships. The future was always difficult to see and in this case, it was opaque as opposed to vague. Emotions always played a large hand in the outcome and with the heated feelings moving through the base at this time, their fates beyond this day was a mystery.
"Chris," Buck replied, "you caught us just in time." He gestured to all the other pilots that were climbing into the fighters around them. "We were just about to go."
"I guessed." Chris nodded. "You want to talk care up there flyboy?"
"You know me," Buck said with a cocky grin. "Ill give em hell."
"Well youre good at that," Vin retorted.
"Thanks a lot junior," Buck smirked. "Youll try not to trip over your saber I hope?"
"Its gonna get intense up there," Nathan said unable to joke at a time like this. "You just stay alive and dont do nothing fancy?"
"Me?" Buck gave him a look but his eyes said different. His eyes understood completely. Although no one had said it, it was anticipated that the X wing squadrons that went to join the battle along side the Purgatory would sustain heavy losses. Mary had asked for her most experienced pilots to be in the air with her because she had known that only the best would survive.
"Yeah you," JD responded. Even though JD was one of the best young pilots in the air. He was still lacking in experience and his assignment to act, as escort to the transport ships would ensure that he acquired some in the future. "You aint that good."
"Good enough to teach you a couple of things!" Buck declared and ruffled his hair, a gesture he knew JD loathed.
"Quit it Buck!" The younger man snapped. "Im serious!"
"He knows JD," Nathan put his hand on the younger mans shoulder. Nathan could see how afraid for Buck JD was.
"Ill be fine." Buck looked at the younger man, allowing himself to show the warmth and affection that he often revealed only in his protectiveness. "You make sure you stay out of trouble too."
"I will if you will," JD replied, hiding how much he wished he could be at Bucks side, watching the star pilots back.
The other pilots were already in their ships and Buck knew that he and JD had to get a move on. "You guys take care down here. Kellis is a good man but even he aint gonna be able to stop what youll have coming at you."
There was a moment of silence when the friends made their farewells with Chris wishing JD the best and Vin and the young man engaging in a little banter before it was time for the two pilots to go.
"Hey wait up!" Another voice entered the mix before Buck could turn to his ship.
The five friends turned around and saw Louisa Perkins approaching them. Since her arrival on the base, Louisa and Buck had become something of an item and his deepening affections for her could be evidenced by the fact that since she had entered his life, Buck did not seem as bothered about Inez and Ezra as he had been before. In fact, the pilot had come to the acceptance that life moved on and some times the roles people played in each others lives also altered in the same fashion.
"You come to see me off," Buck smiled in genuine pleasure at seeing the lovely redheaded morale officer.
Louisa offered him a dazzling smile and did not care that she had an audience when she came right up to him and planted a warm kiss on his lips, indicating her regard for him if not her worry about how he might come through this battle. Chris and Vin could sense the strong emotions emanating from her and knew that she was very worried indeed about how Buck would emerge from this crisis. However, Louisa was ever the morale officer, preferring not to show Buck her concern because it would only affect how he would conduct himself when he went to aid the Purgatory.
"Well I couldnt let you take off without at least making sure you know you got to come back to." She smiled, her eyes twinkling with suggestion.
"Youre a woman after my own heart." Buck smiled as he continued to hold her in his arms.
"Its not your heart Im after," she teased.
"Now Im wondering I ought to be going at all," he laughed.
"Well you know what you men are like," she chuckled. "Always getting into one scrape or another. Leaving us women to clean up the mess."
"And were all terribly grateful for that maam," Vin could not help remarking.
"Especially when some get into trouble more than others." She gave him a pointed look.
"Thats my girl," Buck said proudly but soon shifted to a more serious note. "Now youre taking my ship out of here aint ya?"
"Yes," Louis nodded, trying to sound braver than she actually felt. She was scared and she guessed that Chris and Vin could probably tell that she was but she was certain that they would keep it from Buck. He did not need to know that she was terrified for his life. He did not need that complication on top of everything else he was required to face today. "I've talked to Josiah and I'll be taking Casey with me."
"Casey's going with you?" JD found himself asking interrupting the moment between the two lovers. "On a transport? Is it safe?"
"That's not reassuring coming from the fact that you're going to be defending them JD." Buck gave the younger man a look.
"That's not what I mean..." he stammered, not coming out and saying absolutely what he meant, especially not in front of his friends.
"We get the idea," Chris said gently, understanding completely that JD's affections for Casey was something the young man was not about to admit.
"It should be alright," Nathan spoke up since he was in a better position to comment on the situation than anyone else present. He had stood alongside Mary when she had first formulated her strategy on the deployment of troops and ships to launch the rebel counter attack on the Imperial offensive. "We're guessing they'll be more interested in lowering our shield generator and taking down the Purgatory to come after our transports."
Although he tried not to react, Chris could not help but stiffen slightly at the probability that those four star destroyers were more interested in the ship Mary was presently commanding than the rest of the rebellion. Worries for her life surfaced inside him once more and Chris crushed them mercilessly a split second later but not fast enough to keep Nathan from seeing the expression on his face at the mention of it.
"Aw hell Chris," Nathan quickly apologized. "I didn't mean it that way."
"Its okay Nathan," Chris replied, putting the dark man at ease. "I understand the risks she has to take. Its what she is."
"Look," Louisa spoke out loud. "I know Mary Travis longer than anyone else here and she may be a stubborn, thick headed, arrogant..."
"I am guessing this is going somewhere?" Buck glanced at her.
Louisa ignored him and continued. "She is also the brilliant commander I have ever served with and if anyone can fight those Imperial ships up there. Its Mary."
Chris offered the lovely redhead a smile. "Thank you."
"You better get going," Nathan spoke up. Buck and JD's squadron were awaiting them to proceed and time was too much of a factor to waste on lengthy farewells. He hated being the voice of reason but as commander while Mary was off the base, he had no choice but to make the hard decisions. "They're waiting for you up there."
"Yeah," Buck nodded in understanding and turned to Louisa once more and kissed her again. "You know I'm crazy about you if I'm letting you take my ship."
"That's for sure," Vin remarked and earned a slight jab in the ribs from Nathan for the effort.
"I promise that I won't get a scratch on her," Louisa said holding her hand to her heart. "If you promised to stay in one piece."
"You can bet money on that." He grinned and turned towards the small leader that led to the cockpit of his X-wing fighter. "JD, you keep her safe now."
"I will," JD promised, trying to hide his own fears for Buck's life and started towards his own ship after receiving further words from his friends wishing him a safe return.
"Hey Buck," Chris called out as Buck climbed into the cockpit. "I think I've gotten too used to you butting into my life so make sure you don't stop any time soon."
Buck stared at his oldest friend in the world and nodded in silent understanding of what Chris was attempting to say. "I don't intend to."
With that, he slid into the cockpit of his ship and pulled the canopy of her his head. The others watched him for a few more seconds before they in turn began to scatter. There was too much too do and not enough time in which to do it. Chris noted how Louisa was staring at the X-wing as its engines came to life a few seconds later and felt the outpour of feeling for her to know that she did love his friend but the nature of what she was kept her from saying it out loud.
It was an affliction that a good many of them were suffering at this time.
On board the Chimaera Thrawn stood beside the slicers he had under his command, watching them work as he put into effect the plan that he told none of the other commanders about. In his lifetime, Thrawn knew that the best way for the machinery of war to function was to not tell all the cogs in it what the others were doing. Although he doubted that the other commanders could do very little to effect the duty he was watching the slicers at the console perform, Thrawn liked to minimize the risk by keeping as many people out of the loop as possible. When the time came, what he had done here would be clear to them and they could act upon it, as he desired. However, for the moment, the secret was his and he intended to savor it for as long as it lasted.
"How long?" He asked one of the code breakers at their station.
The leader of the group looked up immediately and answered. It was never wise to be silent when Thrawn demanded a response. "It is a complex program," the young man swallowed nervously. "The burrowing takes time. Piggybacking the signal as is needed to spear through their outer defenses is not easy. It takes a great deal of coordination."
"I am certain that you will get it done soon," Thrawn said sharply. The menace in his voice was clear.
"Yes Sir," the man nodded, his Adam's apple bobbing nervously and the feeling rippled through the faces of all those present at the station with him. "It will be done."
Thrawn nodded and strode away, returning to the center of the bridge and was immediately met by Pallaeon who had been issuing his attack orders since the Grand Admiral had taken a moment to check on the progress of the duty he had assigned the slicers. Thrawn returned to the command chair as Pallaeon took up position next to him to offer the latest intelligence on the deployment of ships. The bridge was a scene of frantic activity with officers and personnel crisscrossing the floor to issue orders and make progress reports as they carried out their assigned tasks. Thrawn watched the pace and found himself taking a deep breath, almost as if doing so would allow him to take the charged atmosphere into his lungs and strengthen him.
"Any sign of the Purgatory?" Thrawn inquired as he swiveled around in his chair and faced the large window that gave a spectacular view of the space they were moving through. In the distance, the iridescent glow of the planet that was home to the rebel base lay in the foreground while behind it; the watery texture of the star itself glimmered through the twilight space.
"She's moving towards the Shadowstar to intercept," Pallaeon answered automatically. "As you suspected she would."
"Well its not a difficult assumption," Thrawn replied indifferently. Almost everything was transpiring as he had expected it would. That was the advantage of laying good groundwork to a expedition such as this. "She needs to get her transports away. No doubt an evacuation process is hastily being undertaken within the rebel base. She believes if she can drive the Shadowstar away from the planet, it will open up a corridor of space wide enough for her people to make their escape."
"Should we not move our ships to keep that from happening?" Pallaeon inquired and then wondered why he was questioning Thrawn who had no doubt anticipated this eventuality long before it had formed in his head.
"No," Thrawn responded, forgiving the lieutenant for his naivete. "A few transports getting past us is a sacrifice I am willing to endure if it means closing the net around Travis. In the final analysis, we will do far more damage to the Rebellion with her capture then we would destroying transport ships. Do not doubt that for an instant."
When it came to Thrawn, there was very little that Pallaeon did doubt.
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