CHAPTER NINE

The warship had seen better days in Chris' opinion but as the Tracker flew towards the coordinates for the rendezvous with the Rebel Alliance; the evidence of extensive refit was visible across the hull of the large vessel. The cruiser, which appeared to be Nubian in origin, had probably done most of its service during the Clone Wars and had recently been subjected to the engineering wizards at the Sluis Van shipyards who had probably ensured that the ship was a match for any Destroyer. Circling it like the spawn of some ocean leviathan, were at least a dozen X-Wings, fast becoming known as the fighter of choice for the Rebel Alliance. Designed specifically to be a highly manoeuvrable craft for close quarters aerial combat, the X Wing had proven itself in several encounters to be far superior and more serviceable than Imperial TIE fighters.

The minute the Tracker landed in the hanger of the warship, which Mary told them, was called Purgatory; it was clear to both Jedi and bounty hunter just how much authority Mary wielded in the Rebel Alliance. There was not a person on board who did not recognise her or move to salute her as she walked past. A young ensign had been despatched to escort her to the bridge where she would be expected to take command as master of the vessel. As she walked with them through the innards of the ship upon leaving behind the landing bay, her departure was observed by most of the technicians on deck and the impression that Chris got from them was one of silent awe. Vin noticed it too and was staring at the blond woman in a new light, wondering what she had done to earn such respect from those around her.

Mary seemed uncomfortable by the attention however, even when the ensign rabbited on endlessly about how they had all been looking forward to her arrival and despite the loss of Josiah Sanchez and Nathan Jackson, were glad that her safety had not been compromised. Chris could tell that she was very nearing the end of her patience with the ensign because it did not comfort her to know that Nathan and Josiah had been placed in their unfortunate situation because of her.

"Those are the new X wings?" Vin inquired, still staring at the docked vessels as they exited the hangar where the rest of the X Wing squadrons for the Purgatory was berthed.

"Yes," Mary answered; glad for the change in subject that would not require listening how thrilled everyone was to have her here. Command was something she had to live with it; she by no means enjoyed it to warrant such fanfare. " They were designed by Corellian engineers for the Naboo but since the upheaval there, the manufacturing funding ran dry and production stopped midway. The Alliance was able to step in and purchase the prototypes and complete the design with a few modifications."

"Like what?" Chris inquired, admiring the sleek snubbed nose vessel. He liked their expedient and compact design and wondered how they handled.

"Well they have a greater fuel capacity than most fighters which means they are capable of making long range flights without having to stop and refuel. Considering what activity we engage in, our biggest weakness is that we have to stop at outposts and stations to refuel when flying missions where there is no warship accompaniment. We have a better chance of survival if our pilots do not have to stray into populated areas for refuelling."

"Good point," Vin agreed. "I noticed your engines are different too. You have additional boosters don't you?"

"Two," Mary confirmed. "Mostly to give us just a little more speed than your standard TIE fighter."

"Who pays for all this?" The bounty hunter inquired. Compared to the Empire, the Rebel Alliance was fledgling but there could be no doubt that the organisation was well equipped. It took millions of credits to achieve half of what Vin was seeing here and this was meant to be only one ship out of hundreds the Alliance was purported to have in its arsenal.

"Most of it comes from our supporters who used to be in the Senate. When Palpatine turned it into the Imperial Senate, he made no secret of whom he considered unwanted elements to the body. His method of ensuring they stayed out of politics was extreme to say the least. Most of them went into hiding and prior to doing so dissolved all their assets and donated it to the cause. There's a slush fund on Alderaan, Mon Calamari, Sluis Van, Corellia, Sollust and some smaller star systems, not to mention they divert their supply surplus to us when they can and then there's the private sector. More and more governments are joining us, we estimate once the segregation policy comes into effect, there will be a lot more."

"You expect to win against the Imperial war machine?" Vin could not help but be dubious despite the impressive show of coordination being displayed. As he walked down the corridors, he had to admit that this was no group of rabble. The men and women he saw, both human and alien were in every strict sense of the word, soldiers. They conducted themselves like officers of the Republic and inwardly, Vin could not deny that he would like to see them prevail in the face of their conviction and obvious dedication.

"Not immediately," Mary responded, not perturbed by the question because it was a valid point. "We are a long way from being able to stand up to Palpatine. We estimate that it might be a decade perhaps even two before we are really ready to challenge him. He's been preparing for a very long time to become Emperor and his people were placed well in advance before the Senate voted him as Chancellor. All we can hope to do is circumvent him where we can."

Chris said nothing because she was right. It would take twenty years, perhaps even more before the Empire was toppled. He knew this without doubt because prescience was a Jedi gift and while it was not always clear, some things impressed themselves more than others. Once again, he thought about Tatooine and what waited there for Palpatine and Vader, the secret that had to be protected at all costs from both men. If either knew about Tatooine, then there would be no future and the Rebel Alliance would be doomed.

"I have a request," Chris said suddenly. Mary was in a position to convey this point to the higher echelons of the Rebel Alliance. He was sure Obi-Wan would have taken precautions but he could not be certain absolutely since Ben had ensured that no one would be able to reach him on Tatooine.

Mary looked over her shoulder at him. "Name it."

"Tatooine," he stated firmly.

"Tatooine?" Vin looked at the Jedi wondering why his home world had suddenly been mentioned. "What about it?"

There was something in Chris' voice that made her pause and stare at him. His expression became stone, not unlike the tough mask he had presented to her when they had first met and he had considered her a stranger. "As far as I know Tatooine is under the purview of the Hutts, isn't that right?" She glanced at Vin for confirmation.

"Its considered part of Imperial space but they know who is in charge," Vin answered.

"The Rebel Alliance cannot go to Tatooine," Chris stated firmly.

"What's on Tatooine?" Mary asked, her curiosity piqued.

"Nothing that need concern the Alliance at this point. All you need to know is that you do not go there, you do not give the Empire any reason to take a closer look at it." Chris gazed across the corridor and the rebel officers walking past them on their way to other places in the ship. "If the cause you fight for means anything to you, you must not go to Tatooine. Trust me, there is more to Palpatine and Vader than you know. It won't be the Alliance that will stop them, it will be the Force."

"You're serious aren't you?" She saw the penetrating look in his eyes and knew that he was not telling her a lie. The rumours about the Emperor and Lord Vader were thick and rife. Mary had tried not to listen to them but it was hard not to believe that both were Sith Lords, a master and an apprentice, when they had taken so much exception to the Jedi and were determined to wipe them out of existence.

"Vader cannot go to Tatooine," Chris said coolly but his voice felt like slivers of ice and the two with him felt it most acutely. They did not know why Darth Vader could not go to Tatooine but every fibre of their being told them that it was vital that he did not nonetheless and if push comes to shove, they would be willing to prevent it at all costs. "If Darth Vader arrives on Tatooine, then its over. Your Alliance will die and you will never be rid of the Empire."

"What's there that's important enough to do that?" Mary could not help but ask.

Chris did not answer and kept walking. However, Vin sensed something from the Jedi and though it was vague, it had enough form for Vin to recognise the words if not the meaning.

Skywalker.

Ezra Standish did not wish to be at the interrogation of Buck Wilmington but considering his complicity in the matter, he found that it was impossible to stay away. Nabb had been with the freighter captain for hours now and although he was being treated to a veritable fountain of information, Ezra had serious doubts as to its validity. Once Ezra had imparted to the man how to save his youthful friend, Ezra had been morbidly curious to remain to see how the captain would take his advice. In truth, he was rather relieved that Captain Wilmington had opted to step into the place of his young companion because while it appear that he might hold up against a lengthy interrogation, it did not look like his friend could do the same.

Ezra remained in the background as always, preferring to allow Nabb to revel in the delight of centre stage because the man was ambitious and would no doubt credit the achievement of convincing Wilmington into talking upon himself instead of Ezra when he wrote his report. Ezra hardly cared. He had long passed the point where he actively sought recognition for his efforts. The way things were in the service of late; Ezra had come to the conclusion that the safest place for him to be was where no one noticed. On Coruscant, he had been allowed that anonymity. At the central hub of the Empire, he was just one uniform in an ocean of uniforms. He went about his duties and retired to the club circuit at night where he would lament the loss of friends and the way things used to be by taking helpless victims for everything they had in what usually started out as a 'friendly' sabaac game.

"You've been very helpful Captain Wilmington," Nabb's voice broke into Ezra's thoughts with that statement.

Ezra looked up in time to see Nabb preparing to ask his final question, perhaps the most important one that he had so far been holding back from Wilmington. The captain, who was strapped to a steel chair, appeared calm even though Ezra could tell that he was battling his own worries. This was not a man who felt fear often; Ezra realised after studying Buck Wilmington closely. Pilots rarely flinched when looking down the barrel of a gun. Corellians were even worse. Possibly one of the oldest space faring race in the galaxy, Corellia's main export were its pilots. There were none finer and they all came with the uncanny knack of being able to force a ship to do things that it would do for no other being in the galaxy. Wilmington glanced once or twice in his direction trying to ascertain Ezra suspected what he was in all this.

"Now," Nabb circled the prisoner again. "You will tell me where we find Mary Travis."

"I left her on Cordoba," Buck responded, perfectly aware that the minute he and the others had failed to return with Nathan, Mary would have contacted the Alliance to be taken off world. Besides, the Empire already knew that she was there. He would be telling them nothing new.

"Where on Cordoba?" Nabb inquired. The Colonel dropped his hand on Buck's shoulder and stared at the interrogation technicians who were standing by at the corner of the room with their mind probes and fire knives, ready to take over at his first order. The gesture was meant to remind Buck that Nabb had more persuasive methods at his disposal as if the sight of them was not already enough to do that.

Buck thought quickly, deciding there and then that the name they would not get from them regarding Mary's whereabouts was the Four Corners Tavern. He would rather die than lead this bastard to Inez. He was not afraid of torture if it meant protecting her but if he could avoid it, he would prefer to do so. Besides, he needed to be one hundred per cent if he was going to survive this and help the others, especially JD. Suddenly a flash of inspiration came to him that would have almost produced a smile of glee if the act would not have given him away.

"Do you promise to let the boy go?" Buck asked softly, meeting Nabb's gaze.

Nabb straightened up and glanced in Ezra's direction with another proud expression on his face before facing his prisoner again. "I might be persuaded to do so if you can deliver her to me."

"I don't know whether I can deliver her to you as such," Buck let out a sigh as if volunteering the information was making him visibly ill. His expression darkened and his voice became a hoarse whisper. "I can tell you to whom I entrusted her to get her off world if we didn't come back."

"That is a start," Nabb retorted. "Continue," he prompted with dwindling patience apparent in his manner.

"The Rebels have a courier on Cordoba they use to smuggle out important members. Most of the time they use my ship but when the heat is on like it has been since Nathan has been captured, my ship is considered a security risk and we transfer courier duties to another," Buck explained, hoping what he was telling this colonel sounded authentic.

"Go on," Nabb ordered, listening closely and appearing as if he did believe.

"The courier runs a freighter business out of the bar at the Cordoba space port. Most of his trade is legitimate passenger trips off world and his is a corvette which means he takes a lot of them at once. That's how he smuggles Alliance members through the customs officials, he make them all look like part of a tour group. Before I left Cordoba, Travis instructed me to take her to him. She claimed that she was not intending to leave until we got back but with us being overdue, it's a good bet she's skipped town. You can still track the corvette easily enough though. To keep up appearances, he has to do the full tour you know, so he won't be hitting light speed too much."

Nabb understood what Buck was attempting to say but he still did not have what he wanted. "The name of this person," the Colonel asked and the iciness in his voice indicated that he would not ask again.

"Nardo," Buck answered after a moment of hesitation, not wanting to appear too helpful. "He's a Rodian. Not many of them own a Corvette so you'll find him easily. I'm pretty sure he has leased a permanent bay in the station."

Nabb started to smile. "Well that was very helpful of you Mr Wilmington," the Colonel replied. "Now, the name of your companion?"

"The kid?" Buck swallowed, realising that the Colonel had started to guess that Josiah might be more important than he looked. All this time, Buck had been providing the man with all sorts of information he knew would be made worthless, the moment the Alliance knew that he had been captured. The efficiency of the organization in that respect had no peer. The Alliance knew how to protect its own and one of the first things Mary would have done upon learning of his capture was minimise the danger he posed should he be coerced into this very same position. Operatives would be told to disappear, contact points would be abandoned and the Imperial advantage of having this information would very quickly disappear. However, Josiah was another thing entirely. Josiah had access to everything, including the names of higher echelon Alliance members.

"You know perfectly well I am not referring to the boy," Nabb retorted, his lips thinning with menace.

"All I know is that he's a member of the local rebel cell of which Travis was supposed to assume command. He was meant to escort her back to their secret location," Buck responded. "I don't have that information because I never went there. It was considered too risky because I might get captured."

Ezra found his voice at that point. "That would be logical," Ezra said to Nabb. "If he's just a courier, there would be no reason to tell him and as we know by now, the Alliance does not like to risk its members unnecessarily."

"Did Jackson tell you that?" The Colonel asked with a hint of accusation.

Ezra straightened up, pretending to take more offence at that remark than he really felt. "What are you implying?" He demanded coldly.

"Nothing," Nabb retorted. Ezra may have been his junior officer but if the captain chose to push the point, he could. Since Nabb had made such an obvious slur at his loyalty, Ezra was perfectly entitled to bring it to attention of Coruscant to address the allegations. If Nabb did not have any proof to substantiate his claim then he would be censured, even if he was a Colonel. "I was merely noticing that you seem to be supporting this rebel and his statements."

"I am not supporting his statements," Ezra said hotly. "I am merely pointing out that this is the proven standard from the other rebels we have captured. If you are slandering me simply because I did the research and you did not, I would like to know it Sir. I will file my report next to yours regarding my insubordination."

Nabb took a deep breath and considered the inconvenience of such an action from the captain and realised that it was not worth the trouble. As it was, he had no intention of letting his superiors know how manageable Ezra had made the prisoners, since he had been intending to take the credit himself. Should Ezra submit a report of his own, it might look contradictory to the one he would submit and would raise embarrassing questions. "No need for such drastic action," Nabb replied calmly hoping that would soothe his ruffled feathers. "Just making sure you were on the ride side."

"The only side I am on Sir, with all due respect, is mine." Ezra glared at him with unmasked hostility to ensure that Nabb knew just how seriously he took the insult.

"A wise choice," Nabb remarked. "Since you harbour no personal feelings in this matter, you'll return this prisoner to his cell and give instructions to bring his older companion here." The colonel tried not to mind the fact that a subordinate had backed him into a corner and told himself inwardly to keep watch on the man. Anyone that fiercely protective of his skin had something to hide.

"Yes Sir," Ezra said sweetly and with exaggerated care, aware of the danger he had now placed himself by his response and wondered whether he should have taken it as personally as he had. However, the more Ezra started to think about it, the more repulsive this entire situation was becoming and in particular, his part in it. Ever since Nathan had been captured and Ezra summoned here, he had been giving his situation a great deal of thought and kept returning to the one answer he did not at want.

Because for the first time, Ezra was starting to believe that Nathan might be right.

Although her crew expected her to take command, Mary had chosen not to for the moment. She had appeared on the bridge long enough to make the obligatory speeches and introduce her two companions. Vin, as expected raised an eyebrow because he was clearly identifiable as a bounty hunter, not merely by the weapons he carried on his person but the faded emblem on the collar of his jacket that indicated he was apart of the Bounty Hunters Guild. She strongly suspected that had it not been for her endorsement of him, the man would have found himself languishing inside the brig at first opportunity. Fortunately however, their attention on Vin was fleeting once they saw the faint outline of a lightsabre hanging from within the folds of Chris Larabee's robe. The Jedi had always inspired awe and Chris Larabee was no different. His persona was such that he captured the room anyway but when coupled with the mystery of the Jedi, no one could turn their eyes away.

Once the formalities were taken care of however, Mary, Chris and Vin retired to her new private office where the requests she had made of her crew prior to boarding were already laid out waiting for her perusal. This included the best the Alliance could manage in producing a layout of the Doldur Imperial base where Nathan, Josiah, Buck and JD were being kept at the moment. In this case the layout was the original construction blue prints which thought technically perfect were not as accurate as they would have liked. However, it was better than nothing and at least, they had some idea of where the terminal ports were located and what was the best place to penetrate the energy shield.

"Your best chance is through this sewer hatchway," Mary noted as the studied the plans on the viewing table below them. Her finger traced the line of passage on the luminescent screen so they could see to what she was referring. "I know it's hardly the best way to tour the facility but if you can avoid their sensors, you'll get a considerable distance into the installation without being detected."

"It comes out short before the brig though," Vin pointed out as he made the examination for himself. "But we wouldn't have far to go." He paused a moment and considered an idea that suddenly formed in his head. Looking up a second later he met Mary's gaze. "Do you think you could get me a storm trooper uniform?"

Mary allowed her gaze to sweep past him and remarked with a wry smile. "You're a little short to be a storm trooper."


"Hey," Vin remarked, giving her a look as she and Chris chuckled softly.

"I think we can manage," she nodded sobering up after the moment of levity, which in retrospect, she decided they sorely needed. "What do you have in mind?"

"I'm thinking that if we have to come out in the open to reach the brig, we could use it as a way to be less noticeable. After all, we're marching into a detention block, it won't seem out of the ordinary if I look like a storm trooper escorting a prisoner."

"Makes sense," Chris agreed. "We might use to the same tactic when we try to get back out again."

"Which brings us to the next problem," Mary sighed. "If we're going to do this, we've established you can't use the Tracker to reach the surface. However, if we use anything larger than a fighter, its going to get attention and this entire operation will be for nothing."

"You mean we'll have to make our way to the landing bay and steal a ship?" Vin exclaimed.

"More or less," Mary retorted. "Hence the problem."

"We don't have a choice," Chris retorted, aware that if Buck was still alive and at the moment, Chris could feel that he was, the captain would not at all be impressed that his ship would have to be left behind. "Do we have any intelligence that the Rogue was brought to the station as well?"

"The Rogue," she mused, having considered that before. "I had forgotten about Buck's ship. She's a Corsair isn't she?"

"A Corsair." Vin raised a brow. "That's a nice ship. Especially an Incom Corsair." He knew the reputation of such vessels and as a freighter, she was fast and well armoured. With multiple gunnery turrets and extra shielding, she could take several direct shots from a large warship and still maintain deflector strength.

"This is an Incom Corsair," Chris informed Vin automatically, recalling with a little smile how proud Buck had been when he first presented the vessel to Chris. It was just after Buck had walked away from the service of the Republic but then the military life always seemed ill suited for his friend. Buck was a wild spirit and he was never more so when behind the controls of that particular ship. Chris supposed it made all the difference when it was his own.

"Well if they followed standard Imperial procedure, they'll want to examine the ship from top to bottom to see if there is anything on board that can lead them to us. I would seriously doubt they would do this search on a Destroyer so I believe there is a good chance that the Rogue will be in the Doldur installation. You can confirm this when you interface with a terminal port. The docking manifest should have that information," Mary explained and then added after a moment's thought.

"A full scan would require the facilities on an Imperial base. They'll want to get into the main computer and review all the data in its memory banks. Since they're after us, I'll almost guarantee they'll pay extremely close attention to all port of calls and passenger manifests, in order to correlate the names and places with the whereabouts of known Alliance operatives."

"So it would be a good idea to get the ship back too," Vin concluded, secretly coming to the conclusion that if he got out of this with his skin intact, that in itself would be a miracle.

"Add that to the shopping list." She flashed them both a smile of mischief.

"Shopping list." Vin frowned and added with a devilish grin of his own. "Women."

Chris remained silent though he was well aware that their attempt at humour was an effort to hide just how dangerous this mission ahead truly was, not just for himself and Vin but for Mary and the Alliance. He would have liked to have joined in himself but his emergence from his self-imposed exile was still too new. Although he trusted Vin Tanner explicitly and his feelings for Mary Travis were undefinable by any standards, he just could not bring himself to get too attached to either of them just yet.

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