What had he been thinking?

He thought this would prove him to be the best there was. He thought that once he made this run, he would be known throughout the galaxy as the undisputed king of the space ways. After all, flying was in his blood. From the first skip runner he had ever taken up, to the Republic fighters that came after her received his commission, he knew that he was destined never to be grounded. Those who saw him at the controls of a ship called him gifted. Perhaps that was true but at this moment, he wished that gift had been tempered with a little common sense. Unfortunately, he had never been able to walk away from a dare and when he had entered that tavern in Almania, spouting off how he was the best, it was only a matter of time before someone threw down the gauntlet of challenge.

And as always, he was eager to pick it up, never considering the consequences before hand.

Well he was considering them now. In the situation he presently found himself in, there was nothing he could do but consider it. It would have helped if he had given the matter some thought before he embarked upon this voyage. Unfortunately at the time, he had been so fired up to prove that he was the best that it never occurred to him that being the best was also knowing when to pull back when the odds were against him. He set out to conquer the challenge offered to him, without even giving second thought to what he would be facing until he was knee deep in trouble with no recourse but to go ahead because he had gone too far to turn back.

At the moment, tremendous gravitational forces was threatening to strip the hull from the superstructure of his small fighter. The controls were fighting him hard as he struggled to maintain the course he had laid out in the nav computer prior to making this dangerous attempt. While space was meant to be a vacuum devoid of sound, he could almost hear the roaring vortex beyond the canopy of his ship. Of course, he could see none of it even though every instrument in the cockpit registered the presence of the cluster. Angry red lights were flashing from every gauge and counter, telling him what his brain was already doing so by producing secretions of fear throughout his body, that he ought to get out of here while he still could.

Unfortunately, he had gone too far for such an easy solution to his present crisis. He had to maintain the course he had set for his small fighter and ride out the storm he had ventured into. It was the only way he could survive this expression of egotistical foolishness. He felt beads of sweat trickle down his forehead, further plastering his hair to his skin underneath his helmet. He was scared and he was not afraid to admit it. A man could not venture into this place and not be anything but a little frightened for he was a fool if he was not. There was plenty to be afraid. The kind of death that he had voluntarily placed himself in reach of was not one he would wish upon anybody.

The Maw had claimed enough lives that way already.

For years, Buck Wilmington had thought the Maw to be some old spaceman’s legend, like the bogeyman who frightened children at night, the Maw was its equivalent for budding young star pilots with more bluster then sense. Later on, after he had become a pilot with the Republic Fleet, he learned that it was anything but a myth. The Maw was real and to pilots who wanted to prove themselves, it was the ultimate test of skill. Unfortunately, it was a test no one had yet to pass.

Having no wish to be counted as an Imperial with the political upheavals that were taking place galaxy wide, Buck had left the Fleet in order to go into business for himself. He had his severance pay and quite a bit saved up for the purchase of an Incom Corsair, a dealer in Sluis Van was willing to sell him when he got there from the outer worlds. Pure chance had made him stop in Almania where he had entered a discussion about the Maw and somehow allowed himself to get dared into making the run. The Maw was one of those places that even experienced pilots stayed away from. It was similar in treachery to the Kessel Run and no one had made a successful attempt of that either. Buck should have walked away from that Rodian Nardo but the slaver/ smuggler had been so obnoxious that Buck was eager to knock him down a peg or two.

In retrospect, Buck had to wonder who had knocked who down exactly.

The Maw was easily one of the most treacherous areas of space in the entire galaxy. It was a galactic blindspot, devoid of stars, planets or any other solid astronomical bodies. It was region of space almost 100 light years across, running parallel to the Hydian Way and existed between the Almanian and Yavin star systems. Its principle feature however, was a cluster of super black holes. All spaced in relatively close proximity to each other, the gravitational forces running rife through the region ensured that hyperspace was virtually impossible to maintain because of the stresses put on the dimensional bubble required to travel at faster than light speed. Theoretically, the only way to make it through this spatial mine field was to set an automated course that would allow a ship to skim along the event horizon of each black hole until it reached the other side. To deviate from the course set, even by a parsec would see a ship being sucked into the heart of whichever singularity had strong est claim to it.

Buck had declared that it was not impossible, that it could be done even though many had died in the attempt. When he set out for the Maw, he had honestly believed he could successfully navigate through it but now, as he found himself fighting his ship to hold course, he knew better. It was not the dying that frightened him so much but rather the way he would see his end. If he became trapped in a black hole, he would have no idea of it at all. Time itself slowed down once past the event horizon, those trapped would be oblivious until they reached the singularity and then there would be no time at all to do anything but be crushed into an orifice, no wider than an atom.

The small Republic fighter that he had borrowed from Fleet command to take him to Sluis Van was heaving in protest all around him. The astrodroid sitting in its slot at the rear of the ship attempted to repair the damage caused from all the stress the ship was being subjected to. Buck was fighting the controls with every ounce of strength he had. The ship’s natural inclination was to follow the powerful currents leading it to a black hole he could not even seen but instrumentation assured him he was there. He was more than half way through but his ship was taking a tremendous pounding. Buck felt the muscles in his hands strain as he forced the control stick to remain where it ought even though it was veering towards the intense gravitational pull of multiple black holes. His problem was not only becoming trapped in the currents of one but being ripped apart by many others at the same time.

"I know we have to get out here!" Buck swore at the astrodroid when it screeched its panic at him. The small screen at the base of the cockpit translated the litany of hoots and whistles into an understandable language.

"Divert more power to the engines," Buck ordered.

A return hoot indicated that his RU20 unit had a problem with that request.

"I don’t care where you get it from!" Buck returned sharply. "Take it from auxiliary power if you have to. I only need enough life support power to get to Yavin, so you can tap into that as well."

A series of beeps and whistles followed by the translation on the screen indicated that the astrodroid had complied with his demand and the controls became a little easier to manage but not much.

"I don’t know what I was thinking of," Buck spoke out loud. "If I get myself killed, Inez is never going to forgive me."

R20 bleeped a response unaware that his master was not talking to him.

Buck read the words and growled. "Yes I know it won’t matter when I’m dead but you don’t know Inez."

Suddenly the control stick almost tore itself out of his hands when the ship shuddered violently. He heard something rip through his ship like paper and Buck saw the warning lights on his screen reach a new level of urgency as all systems began flashing a condition red breach. It took him a few seconds to regain attitude control and maintain course but it was the longest seconds of his life.

"R20! What happened?" Buck demanded.

There was no answer.

Buck craned his neck around as far as it could and saw a gapping hole where the astrodroid was normally nestled. Wires and metal had been torn from the hull and there was no sign of R20. Buck felt his heart sink as he realised the dependable little android was most likely on its way to the heart of a singularity by now and wondered how long it would be before his master joined him…

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