CHAPTER TEN

Ezra had been relegated to command duty after his confrontation with Nabb over the questioning of prisoners. In truth, he found this a more palatable a task than being present at an interrogation. He had not seen Nathan in almost a day, not since he informed his former best friend about the Colonel's plans for him and the friends they had captured trying to rescue him. A part of Ezra was ashamed to face his friend, perhaps feeling more than ever, the truth about the rebel's words. However, acknowledging that truth would led Ezra to a course of action he was not yet prepared to take. Thus, he was more than happy to be spared the need to make any uncomfortable decisions by being assigned to the command deck of the Doldur station.

The chronometer indicated that it was late evening and so far Nabb's interrogation of the three prisoners had yielded nothing further than what Buck Wilmington had already provided. The older of the three had been subjected to heavy questioning and Ezra's stomach hollowed realising that the interrogation would have most likely moved into the torture stage by now because the man was as adamant at revealing nothing to Nabb who was just as adamant about extracting it. The impasse could not last long, Ezra decided. The prisoner's endurance would not last indefinitely and if he did not die first, he would soon be happily telling all his secrets just to make the pain stop.

Ezra tried not to think about what the prisoners were enduring and how he would face Nathan when they were dead or broken. Instead, he allowed his sea coloured eyes to sweep past the command centre, watching a handful of officers behind their consoles, lost in their work which though important had the stale aroma of routine. Voices were spoken in hushed tones for it was unseemly to be loud in a place that ran on discipline as much as this. As he stood at the large window that stared across the landscape of the small moon where the base was situated, he saw an amber maelstrom brewing beyond the protective glass. Thanks to the gas giant that was Doldur 3, the intense gravitational forces emanating from the world turned the small moon in a swirling mass of sand blown storms. Survival outside the station was negligible which was why it served so well as a military base.

He could see the faint outline of Doldur 3 in the sky because the storms beyond the glass had more or less blacked out the sky with its high winds. Ezra sighed and turned away, suddenly feeling an intense feeling of homesickness for Coruscant, the centre of the galaxy as far as the Empire was concerned. Ezra loved it for more than just its political titles, for Coruscant was a place of marvels. The city that had encompassed the entire world was almost ten thousand years old and Ezra had spent much time exploring all the streets in Coruscant Centre, following the layers upon layers of streets and buildings that had been built over the centuries. There was always something to find, something to occupy one's time and everyone went to Coruscant.

Ezra had a strange premonition that he would not be seeing it soon.

"Captain," a young ensign called out to him from her station.

Ezra raised his eyes and returned his concentration to where he was and what he was meant to be doing. The young lady waited for him in expectation as he strode over and her gaze returned to her console when he finally arrived.

"Ensign Lumiya, is it not?" Ezra inquired politely. He knew the name and remembered that she was the sensor officer.

"Yes Sir," she responded. "I've detected something on our long range sensors, it just came out of hyperspace at Vector 23.2." Her eyes shifted to the screen before her, prompting Ezra to do the same.

Ezra leaned forward studied the readings and noted that whatever the signal approaching them, it was much too large and fast to be the normal commercial traffic that frequented the area. The only thing that moved like this was a warship and as far as Ezra knew the one that had deposited their prisoners to the base had since left the area and was on its way to Cordoba in order to investigate the information about the Rodian courier. Standing upright again, he turned toward the direction of the lieutenant manning the communications section of the command centre.

"Lieutenant," Ezra spoke up across the floor. "Are there any vessels due here today?"

The lieutenant conferred with his screen and then faced the captain once more with an answer. "Not that I am aware of Sir."

Ezra ignored the tightening in his stomach and considered what to do. "There is a ship approaching at Vector 23.2. Open a communication channel and ask them to state their business. Inform them that they are in danger of violating restricted Imperial space."

"Yes Captain Standish," the lieutenant returned automatically and faced his workstation to accomplish just that.

Ezra however, was not preparing to wait. There was something else at foot here, he could feel it with every fibre of his being. Not waiting for the lieutenant to provide him with a response, Ezra faced Ensign Lumiya once more. "Has it entered scanning range?" He asked.

"It will in approximately two minutes," she informed him and immediately noted the slight grimace that stole across his handsome features, indicating that two minutes was much too long for his liking.

"How long until they reach the perimeter of the deflector shield?" Ezra inquired after a second's pause trying to determine what to do. If there was one thing that Ezra knew how to do with flawless accuracy, it was the ability to judge a situation when the pressure was on. At this moment, his senses were warning him of danger and he could feel time pressing up against his spine, demanding that he acted before it was too late.

"One minute," she answered, realising now that he had good reasons for his suspicions.

"Captain," the lieutenant called out. "The vessel is not answering our requests for identification. I'm also detecting a number of localised short ranged signals. They are not very dissimilar from the kind of signals that are exchanged between fighters during combat."

"That is what I was afraid of." Ezra nodded and realised that he had enough information. "Put the base on red alert," he ordered no one in particular but heard the klaxons which indicated that his demand was nonetheless obeyed. "Lieutenant Tank, contact Colonel Nabb at the detention block, inform him we may be under attack and activate the deflector shield immediately."

"Yes Sir," came a return response through the howling of klaxons throughout the command centre. The lethargic pace had disappeared entirely and as the red glow of alert flared throughout the area, everyone was mobilised for trouble.

"Deflector shield activated!" Someone announced and Ezra could see the evidence of it on the screen before him as the image projected the invisible grid around the base that could not been seen through the naked eye but was definitely there.

"I've identified the ships Sir," Ensign Lumiya finally replied once the data had come up on the screen. "The lead ship is definitely a warship. Its Nubian," she recited the data to him. "Heavy combat cruiser with reinforced armour and multiple gun batteries. The smaller ships with it, I count at least a dozen at this point, are X-wing class fighters."

Ezra let out a deep sigh and responded. "In other words, rebels."

"The deflector shield is up." Mary's executive officer stated as she sat in her command chair on the bridge of the Purgatory, as the vessel closed in on the Imperial base. In the view screen before her, the sky was filled with the gas giant that was Doldur 3 and almost insignificant in comparison, was the small moon on which their target was waiting. The activation of the installation's deflector shield ensured that the installation could endure orbital bombardment for quite some time and while the structure itself would take a beating, the Alliance would not be able to completely topple its defences before the Empire was able to send reinforcements. No doubt even as she sat here, the Imperials would already be calling for help.

"Alright," Mary answered, expecting nothing less. "Tell our fighters to make their run at the shield. The purpose is to make a lot of noise, not to take the base."

"Aye Sir," she heard the Lieutenant Commander Chano respond in the background. As he went to carry out her orders, Mary flipped a switch on the armrest of her command chair. While she waited for the customary cackle of electronically depicted air, Mary glanced at the screen and saw the X-wings accelerate ahead of the warship, the flare of blue igniting in their thrusters as they pulled further ahead. It was a breathtaking sight despite the circumstances and she could not help but become lost in its beauty for a few seconds.

"Mary," Chris' voice escaped the in built speakers in her chair. She blinked away the reverie she had indulged herself and returned to the grim reality of the day.

"The X-wings are moving to engage now," she informed him coolly. "Are you and Vin ready to launch?" The inquiry was made with a completely dispassionate tone but inwardly, she worried a little about him and felt guilty that she had forced him out of his cocoon into this deadly situation.

"Yeah," his soft voice responded and left tingles on her skin after the speaking. She wondered if his Jedi senses picked up her concern but supposed he would have to be in the room to do that. "We're on the launch pad."

"You have a go then," she answered, sounding a little mercurial but that was the best way to be around him. "Good luck," she added finally. Once again, Mary hid all evidence of her personal feelings in the matter, sounding as if he were just another soldier under her command whom she was sending out on a mission that could kill him.

"Thanks," he responded just as neutrally. "I'll see you when we get back." With that, the line between them was severed and for a few seconds after his voice faded into the memory of her mind, a sense of awkwardness gripped her. She chided herself for not saying more but then on closer thought could not imagine what more might be.

A small voice in the back of her mind whispered it to her and Mary baulked immediately at the notion. Her husband had been gone almost as long as Chris' wife and child had been dead. Unlike he, she had not disappeared into a bottle from grief but then men dealt with pain a lot differently than women. They liked to think that they were stronger but in actual fact, their tolerance for such things was remarkably lacking. It made no difference who they were and what station in life they occupied, it effected them all the same way but with a Jedi Knight it had to be more profound. It was one thing to know that your loved ones were gone but Mary could not imagine what it must have been like for Chris to feel it.

She did know one thing with absolute clarity, if anything happened to him out there and he died because she forced him into helping her then it would be Mary who would certainly feel it too.

The small snubbed nose fighter escaped the launch bay of the Purgatory looking like the dozens others that were already in space, heading towards the base where they would soon be confronted by the deflector shield. Although there was almost no chance of penetrating it, the ships would nonetheless fire their torpedoes, creating enough of a distraction so that the Empire would be too busy trying to survive the attack, to give serious considerations as to why the rebels had suddenly become so bold. Prior to this, the rebels had made one thing clear; they did not believe in open engagements or attacking on the offensive. Mary had hoped the distraction would not only give Chris the window of opening they needed but also keep the Empire off balance about the Alliance's tactics.

The last X-wing to emerge from the Purgatory did not join the rest of the squadron, choosing instead to pull away from the small fleet. Losing itself in the wilderness, it plotted a wide course towards the moon, careful to remain out of sensor range of Imperial scanners who by now ought to be more interested in the squadron firing torpedoes at their deflector shield in an attempt to breach it. The lone X-wing would circumnavigate the satellite, flying close to the ground beneath scanner range until they were on top of the station. A ship of this size had no cloak and so they had to rely on the atmospheric disturbances of the small moon to mask the rest of their approach.

"How she handle?" Vin asked as they closed in on the moon. The battle taking place on the other side of the satellite was hardly noticeable and all they could see was the glow of Doldur 3 bouncing off the horizon.

"Pretty good," Chris responded and could not deny that he enjoyed piloting again. It had been too long since he had done it and quickly discontinued the memory because the last time he had flown anywhere was during his return home to Corellia, fighting time and hope to reach Sarah and Adam before it was too late. And of course it had been. However, he knew the danger of allowing such thoughts to filter into his mind and thus crushed them under the weight of his perfect control, now well and truly surfaced in his personality once more.

"Can you tell me something?" Vin asked once again, his voice somewhat ginger because he was not certain how Chris would take this particular question. "When you were talking about Tatooine, I felt something from you."

Chris tensed and told himself that he would have to shield himself better. In fact, should he survive this mission, he was certainly going to reacquaint himself with some Jedi exercises to return him to his former level of mastery over the Force. There was a time when such lapses were impossible from him which only proved what a year of drinking and not giving a damn could do to a person. Chris was somewhat surprised he was still alive to be incensed by his behavior.

"What was that?" He asked calmly, trying not to show that he was uncomfortable with the topic at present. However, it was just the two of them and Chris knew that whatever he told Vin would not leave the confines of this ship or make it through the vacuum to reach someone else.

"It's not so much as a feeling as it was a word," Vin tried to explain and hoped in the future, such discussions would become easier because at the moment, it felt like hell. He was not a vocal person to begin with and feelings were something he kept close to himself so discussing them felt extremely alien to the lone bounty hunter.

"And that word was?" Chris prompted, having a bad feeling that he knew what it was going to be even before Vin spoke it out loud.

"Skywalker."

Damn. Damn. Damn.

Chris swore repeatedly in silence, unable to believe that he had let that of all things slip out of his mind. He trusted Vin Tanner but that kind of information could conceivably get the bounty hunter killed should those who cared were made aware of his knowledge. However, Vin was strong in the Force and Chris wondered whether telling him might cement the young man's understanding of Chris' trust in him. Besides, the truth was, he needed to tell someone. If anything should happen to him and it was possible because as a Jedi he was far from anonymous as Obi-Wan was, someone had to warn the Jedi Master on Tatooine should danger come his way or the very least, safe guard his interests from offworld.

"What I about to tell you stays here, do you understand?" Chris answered finally. "Make no mistake on this, if the Emperor finds out what I am about to tell you then it will make a bounty on your head seem incidental by comparison. They'll hunt you down and find you, no matter how far you run."

Vin shuddered because he could actually feel the intensity of Chris' words through the compartments in the cockpit where the Jedi was seated. The cold darkness that filtered into his self was like ice water running through his veins and he wondered what other surprises Chris had in store for him. "Okay, okay, I got it. Turn it off, whatever it is you're doing."

Chris allowed his faint smile but did not 'turn' it off as Vin asked, feeling the bounty hunter needed to feel it to truly appreciate what Chris was about to tell him. "Skywalker is Darth Vader's real name," Chris spoke after a lengthy pause. The nose of the X-wing had started to dip towards the lunar surface and Chris could see the storms of its tempestuous ecosystem as he directed the ship into the atmosphere.

"Skywalker, I know that name," Vin mused. "Why?"

"He was one of the greatest pilots of the Clone Wars, he was also a Jedi," Chris continued. "There was a prophecy in Jedi lore that there would come one who would bring balance to the Force. We believed that Anakin Skywalker was the one, his midiclorion count was unlike anything we had ever seen. Even more potent then some of the Jedi Masters of the time, including the oldest of us, Yoda. Skywalker was trained as Jedi but felt under the influence of Palpatine who as rumors suggest is a Sith Lord, an order of dark Jedi who draw their power from the dark side of the Force."

"The dark side?" Vin remarked, finding it somewhat silly. How many sides could there be?

"The Force gives us strength but how we accept that strength is what defines us. If we used our powers through anger, we are unleashing its dark side and once down that path, it is often hard to stop. The Sith Lords and there only ever two, a master and an apprentice, use aggression and hatred to feed that dark side." Chris was no Jedi Master, for that matter, not even a teacher. He hoped he explained it clearly enough for Vin to understand. "Skywalker became Palpatine's apprentice and changed his name to Darth Vader. With Vader at his side, the most powerful of the Jedi, Palpatine began the slaughter."

"So what's this got to do with Tatooine?" Vin inquired, appreciating the effort Chris was making to fill the gaps but it did not answer his original question.

"Before Anakin became Darth Vader, he was married," Chris resumed his narration after he sent the X-wing plunging into the atmosphere of the moon. The velvet darkness of space was soon replaced by swirling cloud of amber gas, making visibility almost non existent. However, Chris did not require scanners to lead him, the Force was a far better guide to that end. Fortunately both Vin and Chris were experience space travelers and the turbulence had little effect on either man. "His wife was pregnant when he joined Palpatine. Vader knows about the child but he doesn't know where it is. The mother has also gone into hiding, keeping herself as far away from the baby who was entrusted into the care of Jedi Master named Obi-Wan Kenobi." Chris saw no need to tell Vin about the other child whose best protection at the moment was the fact that Vader had no idea of her existence at all.

"I don't get it," Vin retorted. "What's the big deal if he knows?"

"The son of Skywalker cannot become a Jedi," he responded almost automatically. "A son of Skywalker would be just as powerful, perhaps even more than his father. We don't for sure but if anyone can stop Vader, it will be that child. He is our last hope."

Vin began to understand and realised now what he had let himself in for by pursuing the question with Chris. It shocked him that Chris trusted him with something that important but it also angered him because knowing had changed his life forever. He could never return to what he knew with this secret imbedded in his mind because if anyone ever suspected, Chris was right, he'd be hunted until they found him, no matter where he ran. "He's on Tatooine, isn't he?" Vin whispered softly, finally appreciating the intricate tapestry that Chris Larabee had crafted for him. "The child is on Tatooine, that's why you can't have Vader going there. He'll know. The minute he steps on the planet, he'll know."

"That's right." The Jedi nodded begrudgingly. "I told you because I trust you Vin and I've trusted you with the most important secret I have because I know you can keep it."

"You have my word Chris," Vin found himself saying, a sense of pride at having engendered such faith. "I know it doesn't mean much coming from a bounty hunter but I'll die before I tell anyone what I know."

"I need more than that from you," Chris countered, not preparing to settle for just that.

Fortunately, Vin understood that too. "I'll die before I let harm Vader harm the child."

It surprised the bounty hunter to make that admission. However through all this, Vin had realised one thing; he was the last of a proud tradition and until he accepted what he was and embraced it, he would spend his entire life wondering what kind of man he might have been instead of the one he could be. He was not Jedi and Vin suspected that he would never be but that did not mean the Force did not exist inside of him. All his life, he had searched to belong and suddenly, out of nowhere, he had found his place and strangely enough; it appeared to be at the side of this Jedi who counted Vin as one of his own.

It was a good feeling.

Ezra Standish had a bad feeling.

It was rare for him to experience such waves of foreboding. Normally whenever he sensed caution, he was able to read the situation and eventually disarm whatever threat was coming at him. It was unusual for the situation to escalate to the point where he felt such concern that it evolved into a physical sensation and yet, here it was, gnawing at his insides like a pair of womp rats feasting ravenously. The view outside the window of the command center yielded the same picture he had seen before all this had begun, a swirling tempest of radiation and gas. There were no signs of the danger that could be felt all around them at this moment.

"Get our fighters out there!" Nabb was screaming at Lieutenant Tank. "Kill those rebel bastards!"

"Sir, there's no reason to deploy our TIE fighters," the lieutenant declared helplessly, seeking Ezra's voice to support his statement. "The deflector shield is holding. They can shake us up but they can't penetrate the shield."

Unfortunately, he timed the end of that statement with another blast from the rebel ships firing torpedoes at them. The entire base shuddered at the impact of the energy burst. The ground trembled violently and the signs of apprehension became thicker and more palpable. It did not help that the commander on deck was screaming orders like a frightened child. Nabb was not a battlefield commander. He had gained his rank because he was the kind of sadistic operative that Palpatine's regime seemed to thrive on these days. He spent most of his time catching traitors and very little time facing combat situations like these.

"He's right," Ezra spoke up. "This entire escapade of theirs is foolish. They cannot penetrate the deflector shield and we are capable of withstanding their attack far longer than they are able to wage it."

"I don't care!" The man roared furiously. "I want those ships in the air now."

"Nabb!" Ezra retaliated, not even bothering with military codes of behavior or protocol any longer. "For our fighters to engage the rebels, we have to drop the deflector shield! They have a Nubian warship up there! All they have to do is target our shield generator and we will be defenseless. Panicking will not resolve anything! We can wait them out. We've dispatched a distress signal to the Destroyer Necromancer, it will be here and then we can round them up!"

"How dare you!" Nabb glared at him when he realised that the entire command staff had viewed the exchange between Captain and Colonel and were waiting in anticipation to see how things unfolded. Nabb's face turned a shade of crimson and continued his voice a growl as he spoke. "I will have you up on charges of insubordination! You will spend the next ten years in a cell next to your rebel friends! Lieutenant Tank," Nabb turned to the lieutenant. "Carry out my orders! Get our fighters into the air immediately!"

Ezra swore under his breath and stepped away, realizing that in this contest he would have to accept defeat because Nabb was in command. Once again that bad feeling washed over him because he could not understand this entire situation or the rebels' plan of attack. Surely they had to know they could not penetrate the deflector shield to begin with? They could not have anticipated Nabb's behavior to know that he would panic and send fighters after them. Only a fool would gamble on that but then if they were not expecting that, why attack at all? If it had been any commander other than Nabb, the shield would remain up and their attack would have failed completely. All they would have succeeded in doing was creating something of a commotion but the base itself would remain unaffected. Surely, they knew that?

And then it hit him like a splash of cold water. They did know that!

Nabb was giving them more of an opening than he realised and Ezra spun around towards the Colonel, ready to explain what he had uncovered when suddenly another thought entered his mind. The only reason the rebels could have for distracting them was to carry out another rescue. Ezra looked about to ensure no one was watching him which was easy enough to do because between Nabb and the pounding the base was taking, pandemonium seemed to be the order of the day. Ezra went to an unoccupied console and let his fingers flutter over the control pad in order to have his suspicions confirmed.

In a matter of seconds, they were. The lone X wing appeared on the screen, making good time through the atmosphere. It would remain on the scanner for just a few more seconds before it disappeared out of range, most likely because it was keeping close to the surface where the atmospheric conditions would allow its approach to continue unseen. They were coming for Nathan. This entire attack was because of Nathan!

"What are you looking at?" Nabb asked from the center of the command deck

Ezra glanced at the ship on the screen and suddenly found himself faced with a most difficult decision, the one he had been trying so hard not to make for fear of the consequences to his life. The pilot of that ship was embarking on what should have been a suicide mission in a vain effort to rescue the only person whom Ezra trusted with his life. Now Ezra himself was faced with the choice of staying true to the Empire or allowing that pilot to succeed. It should have been hard when Ezra found it staring him in the face but strangely enough, a sense of clarity reached epiphany inside of him at that moment and worked his fingers almost unconsciously. The X-wing disappeared with the deactivated screen and Ezra turned to Nabb.

"Nothing," he answered coolly. "Nothing at all."

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