CHAPTER THIRTEEN

"Get back, get back!" Vin Tanner shouted at the top of his lungs.

Behind him, a dozen storm troopers ran up the corridor in pursuit with their guns blazing. The corridors erupted with the sound of blasters being fired and stray bolts of energy flying about in all directions, ricocheting and impacting against walls. Farther along the corridor, the newly rescued Nathan Jackson was covering Vin's retreat, firing into the thickest part of the approaching group. Vin did not need to look behind him to know Nathan had killed several of the enemy troops. He could smell the scent of burning flesh and synthetics carried through the smoke of blaster discharges. Once he rounded the corner, he spun around and fired again, giving Nathan the chance to make a similar retreat. However, his one weapon was not enough to completely prevent all six or seven of them from shooting.

Chris was up ahead, keeping the way clear while Vin and Nathan took the rear guard. JD was still helping Josiah who had regained something of his strength. However he was a big man and despite the youth's determination, helping him to move quickly was hard. Buck who had managed to retrieve a weapon from one of the dead storm troopers alternated between shooting and was helping JD where possible. Ezra and Chris led the group, mostly because no one knew their way around the meandering corridors that led to the landing bay better than the Imperial captain. Chris on the meantime, ensured that any opposition encountered ahead did not remain there for very long.

At the moment, there were prisoner alerts screaming throughout the entire station because Chris had released all the captives in the cell and directed them to the landing bay. With Nathan and Josiah in their company, Chris was certain that the retrieval efforts would focus mostly on the rebel prisoners and allow the non-human escapees to make it to the hangar unaccosted by Imperial security. However, the reality of the situation was that they simply could not save everyone no matter how much Chris might abhor the idea.

As Vin ran to safety around the corner the others had already disappeared behind with Nathan following, he could feel the heat of stray bolts impacting into every possible surface along the narrow corridor. Intense energy hit the steel plating and sent sparks and fiery embers skittering across the floor and onto his storm trooper's armor as he hurried past. The corridor was starting to fill with the smoke from the laser discharges and it was becoming increasingly harder to see. Meanwhile, Nathan was dusting away the hot embers on his sleeve before finally jumping to safety just as he heard another discharge behind him. He landed in a roll and got to his feet quickly as Vin kept firing to keep them away at least for a while.

The others had paused long enough around the corner for them to catch up. Ezra and Chris had gone ahead in order to find an alternate route to the landing bay where the Rogue was being kept. Once Nathan was on his feet, he hurried to Vin's side and added his blaster to the firefight. Surprisingly enough, the former Imperial Captain was doing quite well in cutting down the latest group of storm troopers attempting to recapture him. Their numbers had dwindled from six to two. Vin had thought an Imperial officer who spent most of the time on the bridge would not be so adept a marksman but Nathan had surprised him.

"You do much target practice on the bridge of a warship?" Vin inquired.

"Enough to show you a thing or two, bounty hunter," Nathan retorted with a little smile. He was still apprehensive about Vin Tanner being among them but a Jedi's endorsement was nothing to take lightly. Suddenly, he saw something at the corner of his eye and realised that more soldiers were behind them.

"Let's go!" He said pulling Vin's arm.

"Wait a minute!" Vin returned and took careful aim. There were two troopers left standing. While the logical thing for the remaining duo to do was wait until reinforcements came, it was conceivable that they might ignore good sense and follow the prisoners. Vin was not about to let any one of his companions get shot in the back.

Vin fired twice. His aim was deadly accurate and they collapsed on the deck among the dead bodies of their former comrades. The corridor was littered with corpses and Vin tried not to remember that he had caused all this carnage. He disliked killing because even when it was necessary. When he was a bounty hunter, he tried not to kill unnecessarily but the nature of the profession made it impossible. However, this though in self-defense, still left a bad taste in his mouth.

"You're good," Buck, who had dropped back to aid them, remarked, staring at the bodies.

Vin swallowed and wiped the sweat from his brow. "Its what I do," he shrugged.

"And well," Buck replied impressed by the marksmanship he had witnessed from the bounty hunter and for the first time, understood why Chris had trusted him so much with their lives.

"Which way next?" Nathan asked when Ezra returned to them.

"That way." Ezra gestured to the intersection of corridors up ahead. "We make a left turn at the junction and continue down the corridor until we arrive at the maintenance deck. It travels directly under the flight deck. At the end of the deck, there should to be a stairway leading us directly to the landing bays."

"You know where my ship is kept?" Buck asked, not at all prepared to leave the Rogue in this place. That ship was his pride and joy. It was as much a part of himself as a limb and he would not leave it if there was the slightest chance of retrieving it.

"I would be leading on a fool's errand if I had not," Ezra deadpanned.

"You alright Josiah?" Nathan turned to the former statesman in concern.

"I was a science officer for the Republic when you were in diapers Nate," Josiah said with dignity. "I'll manage."

"Something is happening above," Chris returned to the group and announced. "They're terrified."

"What do you mean?" Buck asked. "Terrified of what?"

"I don't know," the Jedi shook his head unable to grasp that much, only aware that the emotions he sensed was one of fear. "They've forgotten about us. I think they're trying to evacuate."

"Evacuate?" Ezra asked confused. "Why would they evacuate...." Suddenly, the answer dawned upon him and he swallowed the lump in his throat. "We have to get out of here now. They only evacuate if there is a danger of the entire base being destroyed."

"How?" JD exclaimed.

"I do not know," Ezra retorted as he pushed past Chris and gestured for the others to start moving. "Perhaps you may ask the hero of Jofa the next time you meet her, if we leave this place alive to put the question to her."

"The hero of what?" Vin said blankly.

"Mary," Nathan declared as he tugged at Vin's arm to follow. "He means Mary."

Ten minutes earlier, Mary found herself standing at the viewer, watching the progress of Colonel King's ship across the sky. The X-wing flanking her fighter was firing relentlessly at the surrounding TIE fighters as it burned through space on a direct heading for the Star Destroyer. The Destroyer was attempting to maneuver out of the way, having sensed the danger that was coming at it. However, Mary ensured that the Purgatory kept the large vessel from veering too far from of the course she needed it to go. The offensive action was taking its toll on her ship however; the Star Destroyer was making every effort to shake off the interference from the Purgatory, firing all guns at the Nubian warship.

Even as she stood on the deck of her bridge, Mary could feel the heaving and protest of the vessel's superstructure as it was bombarded by enemy fire. She could hear the chatter of her officers on the deck, battling to keep the Purgatory together as they dealt with the numerous systems alerts that was flashing across their console screens while at the same time performing the miracles the ship needed to let Mary's plan succeed. Mary knew the ship could not take much more pounding and glanced at the viewer once more and felt a surge of relief realizing that its punishment was at an end.

"Now, Colonel," Mary barked out loud because Colonel King was listening for the order. "Eject!"

"Yes Sir," came the cackling reply of static before a loud roar filled the air. It ripped through the stillness of the bridge, like a gust of wind escaping and Mary knew immediately that it was the sound of the canopy being discarded and the pilot ejecting from inside the cockpit. She could not see the Colonel's body in the viewer but hoped that the emergency pod was on its way toward retrieving the woman.

"What about her ship?" Mary demanded of her executive officer.

"On its way to the target," Chano answered as he kept his eyes trained on the scanner, watching the progress of the X-wing as it continued its trajectory towards the Star Destroyer. The great ship was attempting to veer out of the way but Mary had timed the maneuver in this way in order to take that chance away from the enemy. Forcing the X-wing to use maximum burn to close in on the Imperial war machine prevented any TIE fighters from shooting her down before she reached her destination. Chano had been correct when he claimed that no fighter would be able to inflict much damage on the bridge of the Destroyer, even if its deflector shield in that area was disabled.

However, crashing into the bridge without any protection was another matter entirely.

The X wing fighter, abandoned and pilotless sailed forward in a neat line through the zig zag of blasts from enemy sips that were trying to halt is advance, carried to its destiny by auto-pilot and forward inertia, could now be seen by the bridge crew of the Star Destroyer. The officers on the deck started running for safety even though in their frantic minds, they knew that once the impact was made, there would be no safe place to hide. A few held their ground, choosing to meet the end with dignity and there were the screams as the X- wing loomed large in the wide window of the command deck.

"Evasive action!" Some one who still had presence of mind screamed loudly but it was too late.

From the bridge of her ship, Mary saw the explosion as the X-wing collided with the Star Destroyer. The explosion was not large in comparison to those, which might signal the destruction of such a massive ship, but it was more than enough for her purposes. Mary saw the spidery webs of energy crackling through the main deck of the Destroyer as the amber heat dispersed throughout the command deck and sent debris, some of which were bodies floating out into space. The effect of the action was almost immediate on the vessel's trajectory. The Star Destroyer began to dip at the nose, the gravitational field of the moon capturing it almost immediately and forced it to begin drifting aimlessly towards the lunar surface.

Cheers erupted throughout the bridge of the Purgatory as the gamble Mary had taken came to fruition. It was clear that the Destroyer had been rendered effective and was spiraling out of control towards the moon. No one noticed Mary's expression as she saw the trajectory the Destroyer was headed and knew where it would crash, when it arrived on the moon.

"Oh no," she uttered with a strangled whisper. "Chris."

The landing bay was in pandemonium when they arrived at the hangar where the Rogue was berthed. The evacuation process was well on the way with personnel running back and forth across the deck, trying to reach ships in order to make their escape from the calamity that was coming. Technicians were hastily preparing fighters for launch, while transport vehicles and shuttles began soaring out of the hangar at rapid pace. The Rogue was relatively untouched when the seven arrived inside the berth. Buck in particular, was euphoric to see his ship in one piece.

"Oh baby, am I glad to see you again!" He gushed as he ran towards the hatch and activated the ramp. Buck had never been so happy to see the Corsair in all his life and was eternally grateful that they had left his prized possession in one piece.

"Enough with the reunion!" Chris barked more than accustomed to Buck's passionate reunion with his ships and frankly was in little mood to endure another bout of affection at this time. "Something's coming at us and its coming at us fast!"

"Can you tell what it is?" Vin asked, he did not know what the possible danger was but judging the way emergency klaxons were screaming and electronic voices over the speakers were telling everyone to evacuate, Vin supposed it was urgent indeed. The pandemonium of running feet and terrified expressions confirmed that if nothing else.

"No," Chris shook his head, unable to sort out through the noise of panic and fear that war running rife through his senses. He had to shield himself from it because the volume of terror was so palpable it nearly choked him with its intensity.

"Nathan," Ezra said suddenly. "This is where we go our separate ways."

Nathan, who was taking strides towards the Rogue, stopped dead in his tracks and turned around slowly. "What do you mean?" He stared at his old friend who was holding position and did not appear to have any intention of boarding the freighter with them. "You can't go back, they'll kill you," Nathan exclaimed with genuine fear. When Ezra had helped him escape, Nathan had been euphoric at the notion that at last his friend understood what it was he was fighting for. The disappointment of learning other wise stung him intensely.

"I am not ready to be a rebel yet, Nathan," Ezra confessed with utter sincerity. "My life is the way I like it and while I did not wish to see you harmed, I am not prepared to join you either."

"Ezra don't be a fool," Vin found himself adding. If Chris trusted this man, then his life could not simply be wasted by such a foolish act. Besides, Ezra had led them here despite of the danger to himself and had been instrumental in their escape, he was someone Vin would trust in any fight. "Your access code got us into that detention block, they'll know you were responsible for us getting away."

"Maybe," Ezra retorted, not about to deny that but not about to give up everything he had worked for either. "But I am willing to chance that I may explain my way out of this."

By the time, Buck had activated the ramp of the Rogue which extended outwards at the same time the hatch slid open and waited for them to board. Buck took a step onto the walkway and glanced over his shoulder at his friends. "Look, I don't mean to be rude but we need to move our asses if we're gonna get out of here."

"You heard Mr Wilmington," Ezra replied turning to Nathan with the most genuine expression of affection the man was capable of displaying on that usually mercurial face. "You need to go, now."

"What about you?" Chris asked quietly. He did not like the idea of Ezra leaving them, especially when the man had helped them so invaluably to retrieve their friends and his. However, Chris also understood that there was a line inside of him that he had yet to cross and until that day, Ezra would not be ready for what the Rebel Alliance required of him.

"You tell me." Ezra's lips curled into a smile. "You're the Jedi."

"It's a hard life," Josiah Sanchez suddenly spoke up. "You must choose your own way Captain," the former senator said looking at Ezra with those old and wise eyes. "We will be here if you wish to join us but we understand that you must make the choice yourself, we cannot help you to make it." With that Josiah, allowed JD to help him up the ramp, deciding that there was nothing more to say.

Ezra swallowed, wondering if Josiah knew how true those words were. "Thank you," he said quietly to the back of the departing senator before remembering himself. "Nathan, get going," he ordered and started turning away.

"No," Nathan protested. "I'm not going to let you do this Ezra."

However, Vin had locked a hand around the former captain's arm and was starting to pull him up the ramp. "Come on Nathan," Vin said casting a glance in Ezra's direction. "He's made his choice."

"Its crazy!" Nathan shouted angrily. "You're going to get yourself killed!"

"Nathan," Chris asked gently. "We have to go, now."

Nathan stared at the Jedi and Chris could feel the anguish in his soul as Nathan realised that Chris was right. They did have to go and Ezra had made his choice. "Alright," he nodded. "Goddamn it. Alright."

Nathan looked to Ezra, preparing to say some kind of goodbye, though he did not know what would have been appropriate for the moment but never had a chance to do.

Ezra was gone already.

It took Buck Wilmington a matter of minutes to prepare his ship for launch and blast out of the base. The Rogue became lost in the convoy of ships departing the moon hastily, attempting to put as much distance between themselves and the coming destruction, one of them being a TIE fighter that broke out of its launch bay at roughly the same time. It was only when the Rogue finally ascended into the air, did they finally realise what crisis had sent the base into complete pandemonium that the only way of escape it was a mass exodus. The Star Destroyer entered the atmosphere and immediately ignited. The sight was almost breathtaking in a horrifying way as the large ship streaked through the sky like a leviathan on fire. It trailed cloud of smoke as it continued on it collision course towards the surface.

The Rogue broke orbit just as the great ship impacted against the earth not far from the base. The ensuing fireball ensured the complete disintegration of the former Imperial installation, not to mention any unfortunates who were still trapped there. A mushroom cloud rose into the air with the catastrophic impact and even as the freighter soared into the darkness of space, the evidence of destruction could be seen in the fiery surfaces of the moon, that was quickly burning out of control by the radiated winds. It was a conflagration that would not stop until the entire surface was consumed.

In space, the TIE fighters had chosen to retreat to Doldur 3, now that the battle was more or less over with the morale crushing destruction of the Star Destroyer. The fighter were returning to the safer territory on Doldur itself while X-wings returned to the Purgatory that kept a vigil for all its returning heroes.

Ezra Standish saw the freighter in the distance and allowed himself a little smile knowing that his friend was safe. He did not know why he had not chosen to follow Nathan Jackson when the rebel had made his escape, even though Ezra knew that the Empire he served was evil. Perhaps it was a last desperate effort to cling to a life he knew was slipping fast through his fingers, giving way for one that was uncertain at best. Inside the confines of the TIE fighter he had commandeered to make his escape from what was the fiery wreck of the Doldur 3 Imperial base, Ezra suddenly felt time catching up on him and demanding that he make choices.

As he watched the freighter returning to the safety of the Nubian warship, he had until now only seen in the scanner, Ezra wondered when would come the time when he bridged that space to join it as well. Mary Travis had proved that she was an able commander in the field. She had proved that the Empire had a valid reason for wishing the return of the Hero of Jofa to their ranks. He wondered if Nabb had any idea of how he had been beaten by a mind that knew more about military tactics and battlefield ingenuity than he could ever dream of possessing. He would have liked to have met the lady Ezra thought but then supposed like everything else; he was not ready for that either.

Casting a final gaze at what might have been and what still could, Ezra Standish turned his attention to the controls of his ship and joined the other TIE fighters on their way to Doldur.

Comments to: scribe32oz@optusnet.com.au