According to Maude Standish, Black Sun kept its location a veiled secret from most. Laurel Chase was said to have many enemies, Hutts notwithstanding and often moved her base of operations from place to place, thus never allowing those who would harm her a reliable target at which they could strike. However, like all secrets, there was always someone trading in information and quiet whispers that knew more than was preferred known. While Maude rarely had reason to employ the talents of such men these days, she did know of their existence and pointed the seven in the direction of a local snitch named Kelso.
By the time seven arrived at Kelso's usual haunt, the man had already concluded his discussion with Mary Travis and Alex Styles regarding the location of Black Sun's most current address. Chris had entered the seedy dive and immediately knew the man they were seeking; shifting through the conundrum of emotions that emanated from the patrons of the establishment, to capture the flash of memory in Kelso's mind at the unmistakable visage of Mary Travis. While Kelso had no suspicion regarding who he had spoken to, Chris saw a face that was Mary's and not quite Mary's either. It would have been a source of great discontent if he had not realized that Mary would have been too astute to embark on a crusade like this without taking some precautions to hiding her identity.
Despite having missed Mary and Alex in what appeared to be a matter of hours, Kelso was still able to impart them with the same information that he had produced for the two rebel commanders. It did not even require coercion in any form; the same method that had proved so successful at extracting information from Maude Standish was also employed by Chris on the sniveling Mr. Kelso. Less than fifteen minutes after their arrival into the tavern, the seven were on their way out of it, this time headed for the spaceport once again. If there were lucky, the Tracker might not have departed but if it had, then they themselves would be departing for Orron 3.
"What do we know about Orron 3?" Josiah inquired as the entered the confines of the space port with its menagerie of different alien species, bound by a similar state of transit.
"It is a barony," Ezra explained. "Nothing much in the way of profit but someone with dreams of a title established something of a colony there about 120 years ago. I believe it is mostly an agricultural world and earns its lot by providing sustenance to the rest of the worlds on Stars End. In its way it is wealthy but not exactly the most sought out place on the tourist agenda. Unfortunately, it has the dubious honor of being last star system before the galactic rim. Being so far away from civilization, makes it a perfect venue for Lauren Chase' purposes."
"Probably full of dumb farmers with no idea what she's up to," Buck drawled, having visited similar worlds and found that the people usually had very little interest anything other than seed, weather and livestock. It explained why the women were always so starved for company.
"That would suit her just fine," Vin retorted, not at all happy to be running into the lady again. "Secluded with people who don't know any better what she's doing and wouldn't be able to do anything about it even if they did."
"Is she really that bad?" Buck glanced at the bounty hunter turned apprentice, unable to believe any woman could inspire such fear. Of course, he understood that he was probably a bit near sighted when it came to the members of the opposite sex. He so loved women that it was impossible for him to imagine that they could be so devious or sadistic, in the case of Black Sun's feared leader.
"I know a couple of bounty hunters who did work for her once," Vin answered as Nathan went to the counter to inquire after the arrival of any new ships in the last day that might have departed a few hours later. "Said they wouldn't work for her again. Rookie named Dengar had his faced mangled by one of her people when he brought in a mark dead instead of alive. Half his face was gone because she set a krayt dragon on him."
"A krayt dragon?" JD exclaimed, hearing of such animals spoken of as if they were things of myth, not real. As far as he knew krayt dragons were big and mean, with a tongue that was capable of stripping think layers of skin off flesh. There was no death more agonizing than being the meal of krayt dragon.
"Yeah," Vin nodded, not at all exaggerating which only made his story all the more chilling. "Dengar got out alive because he was pretty smart but he ain't much to look at any more."
"This does not give me much hope for Stephen," Josiah muttered glumly.
"Same here," Chris frowned, sensing real fear in Vin beyond what he was telling them. There was very little that tested the bounty hunter's resolve but Chris sensed that it was more the woman's consummate evil that frightened him rather than actual fear for his own life. Chris could appreciate that. When he had been fighting with Vader, just sensing the darkness radiating from the Sith Lord had been enough to make him shudder. It was a hard thing to know that just as there were inordinately good and noble people in the galaxy, there were also vile creatures that had no business breathing the same air as the rest of them. "
"I am afraid there is every reason to be concerned regarding the state of Mr Travis," Ezra replied. "In recent years, her name has been whispered about in dark corners because no one wishes to incur her wrath. The lady does not kill her enemies cleanly. I have heard of poor souls in her clutches who have endured most lingering ends."
"The idea of Mary being anywhere near a creature like that is decidedly unpleasant," Josiah remarked.
"Actually I don't think that's what you got to worry about," JD said offhandedly as they reached the departure terminal of the spaceport, in order to learn whether or not the Tracker had departed Etti IV in the last few hours.
"What do you mean?" Buck looked at the young man in question.
JD looked up and swallowed thickly upon realising that an explanation was demanded of him for his statement. He took a moment to articulate what he was going to say into something that would not make him appear foolish in the company of his more experienced companions. "Well Mary's no fool. This Chase woman may be bad but we are talking about a commander whose got more guts than I've ever seen, not to mention she's real smart. She runs a rebel base doesn't she? She figures things out way faster then any of us. I mean when we had to escape from Zhar and that Destroyer was waiting for us? Until she came back on board with Chris, we weren't sure we were going to get away. Ten minutes after she took the bridge we jumped into hyperspace. I don't think we ought to be worried about how much trouble she is in but rather how much trouble she's willing to cause to get to her husband. I figure nothing is holding her back so maybe we ought to figure out what to expect instead of trying to save he r from Chase. Besides, knowing Commander Travis, she's got that part figured out all on her own."
For a moment, none of the six men spoke and when the silence was finally broken, it was Ezra Standish whose voice was heard commenting first. "Granted I do not know Commander Travis as closely as you do but I do believe the young man has made a valid statement. The lady is known for her ability to handle herself."
"You're right JD," Chris added, similarly impressed by JD's insight. They had been so worried about Mary, he included, it had never occurred to him what a force she could be if unleashed. Mary was passionate about the things she loved and being on the receiving end of that affection, he reminded himself that she had once abandoned her ship to come save his life because she refused to let him go out of this life so needlessly. When Chris had been willing to die, it was her voice that had brought him back from the brink. Now he had to do the same for her, even if it meant losing her to Stephen Travis. "Mary would have had a plan for how she was going to get Stephen back. If we go in there without any idea what she's got in mind we could get her killed, not to mention ourselves."
"So what do you suggest?" Josiah asked.
"When we approach Black Sun, we do not make any reference to Mary," Chris stated.
"That's going to be hard," Vin retorted. "If this place is under Chase's thumb, we'll need a good reason to go there."
"If I might make a suggestion?" Ezra spoke up. "All of you are known criminals who are wanted in every civilized star system in the Empire. The location of Black Sun's present hideout is remote enough to warrant the interest of persons other than herself as a refuge from the authorities."
"If she's holding Stephen Travis prisoner, might our arrival, as known members of the rebel alliance make her a little suspicious?" Buck returned.
"Yes it would," Ezra nodded with a smile. "However, do you know of a better way to get in?"
Nathan Jackson took that moment to return to his companions, an expression of grim disappointment on his face. It required no clairvoyance to guess what the results of his inquiries had been. In truth, it had been a slim hope that Mary would remain in Etti IV after learning what she needed from Kelso. Her actions so far had proved that she was determined to find Stephen and would waste no time or expense in achieving that end. She had left everything behind her when she departed the rebel base with Alex Styles.
"A ship matching the Tracker left here about an hour ago," Nathan announced. "The flight plan they lodged for the records indicated that the ship was bound for the core worlds."
"That's just a smoke screen," Buck guessed immediately. He had pulled that trick several times when he had come across customs officials with a little too much interest in his business. "Something safe that won't make the Espos blink twice. She's on her way to the Rim."
"Well at least my ship is in one piece," Vin grumbled, still unable to believe that Mary had opted to go on her crusade on his beloved vessel.
"Which is more than I can say about your lightsabre," Nathan deadpanned and was shot a dark look from Vin as a small burst of laughter erupted.
"Are all of you gonna give me grief about that?" Vin glowered.
"Only until you build it." Buck grinned at him.
"We better get after her," Chris cut in, reminding them they had purpose, as he started towards the bay where the Rogue was presently berthed. "At the rate we're going, we're not going to catch up with her until the dust settles."
"Why can't I come with you?" Casey Wells whined shortly after the Tracker had landed in the rustic surroundings of Orron 3. It was night on the planet and their landing site had been a clearing in the woods since the main settlement on the world and the most likely place to find Black Sun, had no space to speak off. Thanks to Vin who ensured his craft was outfitted with military grade sensor equipment, they had been able to detect the main focus of settlement on the rustic world. The rest of the planet was undeveloped, with large tracts of vegetation and forested continents, steeped above calm, blue oceans. If not for its remote location, the planet would have settled by more than just farmers trying to eke out a living in this isolated corner of the galaxy.
"Because it isn't safe," Mary said wearily as she and Alex prepared to leave the Tracker. She check her gun once more and slid it into her holster while Alex powered down the ship and left minimal power running so that Casey would be able to use the amenities on board. Vin Tanner's ship had been his home as well as his main mode of transport and there was more than enough comforts on the vessel to ensure that Casey would not be languishing while they were continuing their search for Stephen. "We need a legitimate excuse to infiltrate Black Sun and with the identity papers that we managed to get on Etti IV, we might be able to bluff our way through Chase but you won't be easy to explain."
"But it's so unfair," Casey grumbled, her lips curving into a pout as she sat down heavily on the captain's chair, expressing her displeasure with a series of complaints. "I know I could be of help to you."
"You can." Mary did not look at her as she continued her preparations to leave the ship but she was nonetheless listening to what the girl had to say. "You need to make sure that nothing happens to our only way of this planet if anything goes wrong. Besides, we both have transmitters which we can use to communicate so we won't be completely out of touch."
"If anything goes wrong, I won't be able to leave the ship!" Casey exclaimed. "I don't know how to fly her."
"That is true," Mary turned to her patiently, frankly amazing Alex at her ability to endure this annoying child's prattling. "However, you do know how to send a coded signal better than anyone I know, so if we are in trouble I know I can count on you to get us help but that will only work if you don't get captured with the rest of us."
"Okay," Casey finally conceded defeat, appreciating the situation even though she did not like it
"Listen kid," Alex added after Mary had finished pacifying the young woman. "You're smart and much too young for Chase to take seriously. If we took you with us, we'd compromise our cover and honestly, you know too much about the Alliance to fall into the hands of a woman like that. She knows a prize when she sees it and you are a prize."
"Really?" Casey asked, unable to deny feeling some pride at having an agent of Alex's note endorse her contribution to the Alliance. Most of the time, she did not feel that what she was doing for the organization to be of any importance. She had hoped to aid Mary in her quest but despite her chagrin understood her limitations and why she could not go. Mary was taking a gamble by letting her stay on board as it was, instead of putting her on the first transport back to someone who could see her safely to the Alliance. Casey did not even want to imagine what Uncle Josiah would say if he knew she was here. There was probably so much going on with them discovering that Mary had taken off that they probably had not even noticed she was gone, not even that peasant JD.
Handsome peasant though. She found herself thinking unconsciously and shook the thought out of her head. Stupid farm boys were not good enough for her. She was an aristocrat.
"Really," Alex said with a warm smile, knowing that it would mean a lot to the girl. She was annoying and opinionated like every other seventeen-year-old that Alex had ever met but she was also spirited and unreasonably brave and Alex liked all those qualities too much to dislike her. "You're our ace in the hole in case we get into trouble. If worst comes to worse and we get caught, you're the only thing that's going to save our necks."
"We have to go," Mary declared finally. The time for this discussion was done.
Alex and Mary exchanged glances following that final statement. Their eyes held each other for a brief instance; the ritual between warriors about to embark upon an uncertain for a battle whose outcome they could not predict or were certain could win. However, there was no turning back from taking the path, even if it led to destruction or their oblivion. Even though the odds were good that they would not find Stephen alive, that this was a fool's errand, they had to try because of the circle. Their friendship had always been strong but when Mary through Alex's introduction had married Stephen, it had evolved through the marital union to be something special beyond the ability to describe. When Stephen had died the circle had not merely broken it shattered.
Now was a chance to mend it again, to make it whole, to make each other whole. His death changed everything. It had made Mary whom until then only considered joining the rebellion throw herself fully into the cause, forsaking everything. For Alex, who had tipped first, had lived with the guilt that perhaps is she had not approached Mary about the rebellion, if she had not brought Mary's attention to the cause, perhaps Stephen would have been alive. Perhaps Mary would have her Star Destroyer command.
"You be careful." Mary threw her a final warning at Casey as she and Alex started towards the Tracker's main hatch.
"Don't talk to any strangers," Alex winked at her.
"Good luck," Casey called out, watching them reach the hatch. Despite herself, as she watched them out to face an evil she could not imagine, the young woman suddenly felt a sliver of fear run through her at the prospect that if they did not return, she would be trapped on this forgotten world all alone.
The skies above Orron 3 were eerie.
It was eerie because in one corner of the sky, the stars glittered against the canopy of space like diamonds scattered on a bed of velvet. The core systems were gleaming jewels in the night, moving towards the horizon of tall, deciduous trees, before disappearing like the sun setting in the distance. The rest of the sky, however, was empty. It was the stark contrast between the two which produced the constricting fear of the immense blackness of what lay beyond the edge of the galaxy, where there was truly nothing but emptiness, soul crushing in its depths. It was one to thing to hear of it, to know it existed somewhere but to see it for oneself, to find the edge of the maw and stare into its cold darkness, could crush the spirit from the sheer understanding.
It had been no easy feat to find a suitable place to land amidst the thick covering of trees beyond the main settlement of Orron 3. Alex had circled the ship above the vicinity of the settlement, in search of a landing site that would not be too far away since they would have to reach it by foot once they were on the ground. Now as they walked through the ring of forest that surrounded the clearing of land where the town was situated, they could see the flicker of lights in the distance. Glittering points of light beckoned them in the night and Mary estimated that the town was only slightly smaller than the outpost on Cordoba. According to the military grade sensors that Vin Tanner had fitted onto his ship, there was very little technology on the planet. However, she did not delude herself with notion that someone like Laurel Chase would not know how to circumvent sensor readings if she desired. However, this played out, Mary knew with absolute certainty that if Laurel did not already know about the arrival of the Tracker to her bastion at Stars End, she would do so when they entered the settlement and showed themselves. No doubt, Laurel would have agents planted in the community to keep an eye on her interests.
Neither spoke for a time after leaving the ship, their minds fixed on private thoughts as they journeyed through the darkness towards the settlement. Mary kept thinking about Chris and then invariably felt guilty for doing so because she was meant to be singularly focussed on Stephen. Her feelings about him were confused especially now that there was the possibility of finding Stephen. No matter how much she tried to concentrate on the task of freeing Stephen, Mary found her thoughts drifting almost involuntarily back to Chris. It angered her that she could not put him behind and because the reasons of why that might be were more than she could cope with at this moment. It remain inside, a Pandora's box she dared not open for once unleashed inside of her, would taint everything she was trying to do and everything that she was.
You weren't afraid of opening it before.
That was before, she told herself defiantly. Before Stephen. Before she had gone from being a widow to a wife.
She needed to talk about something else. She needed to think about something else or she would be no good to Stephen when she finally found him. No good at all.
"Do you care about him?" Mary spoke up, breaking the silence in the darkness.
Alex looked up and then at her. "Who?" she asked in puzzlement, the question coming too quickly for her mind to grasp its meaning on first hearing.
"Vin," Mary said with a little smile, noting that her friend seemed somewhat introspective about the bounty hunter.
"I don't even know him," Alex returned quickly. "It was just one kiss and I think he only did that to distract me from kicking his butt."
"Obviously it didn't work," she declared, perfectly aware of the thoughtful expression that crept into Alex's face at that moment.
"Obviously," Alex said shortly.
"I see," Mary remarked somewhat nonchalantly and the pause stretched for a few seconds although to Mary she knew it was inevitable that it would be broken, she knew her friend well enough.
"Okay, maybe it worked a little," Alex spoke as predicted. "I mean it's been a while. Men don't usually affect me that way with a kiss. I mean it wasn't even a long kiss, just a quick one....uh kiss that is. I mean where the hell would a bounty hunter learn to kiss like that anyway? I never heard him having a reputation with women, just a reputation as the most relentless bounty hunter around. I mean when I heard that he was with you, I thought you were insane but then I also remembered that you would know better than anyone would what you're doing."
"Alex, you're rambling," Mary pointed out.
She fell silent immediately. "I was not."
"You were rambling," Mary declared firmly. "You were rambling like that time what his name asked you out two months after we first bunked together at the Academy, remember?"
"What's his name?" Alex looked at her blankly, unable to recall that far back in time. It was almost another life away. "Oh him, with the freckles. Hey we were fourteen years old! We all rambled, you about Stephen and pierced ears."
Unconsciously, Mary reached for her ears. "Where did it all go?" she asked in a small voice.
The moment was over and Alex looked up at the sky. "We grew up."
"It was not supposed to happen like this." Mary blinked and suddenly tears ran down her cheeks. She did not know when they had even started to form in her eyes. "If he's alive my whole life changes, you know that? I will walk away form the rebellion because when I let the cause become more important then my husband, I lost him. I won't make that mistake again. Stephen deserves his family, Billy deserves his father and Orin deserves his son."
And she would do it too, Alex thought. She would do it because she was Mary Travis. There was no other explanation beyond that simple declaration. If Mary said this was what she would do, Alex believed her. "And what about Chris?"
Another tear ran down her alabaster skin as she blinked. "There is no Chris."
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