JD had seen a number of worlds since joining the rebellion and he could say with absolute determination, he did not like Tatooine very much.
Heralding from a planet covered in almost entirely in agricultural land, he had grown up with rolling forests, large tracts of emerald perfect pastoral lands that seem to run into horizon forever and a lush, healthy climate that had the power to make one feel very grateful to be alive. His idea of a living, breathing planet was his home world of Odete, a place with an abundance of life not only in its inhabitants and native fauna but also in its vegetation. JD supposed that no matter how much he had seen since leaving Odete, a decision which he never regretted, he had no idea how much he was going to miss the planet of his birth.
To JD, Tatooine did not seem quite real with its vast deserts and parched skies. As the bounty hunter Dengar landed his ship in a rather unimpressive town called Mos Eisley, JD was allowed to take a good look at the terrain as the vessel lowered itself in the local spaceport. He saw a town slightly smaller than Cordoba City but with a decidedly far more eclectic assortment of life forms than he had ever imagined. JD would have even liked to explore this new world under different circumstances but he did not at all like the idea that if Buck did not do as he was told, there was every chance that JD might not leave Tatooine alive.
The bounty hunter acting as his keeper during his journey to Tatooine and to Jabba the Hutt did not address JD other than a few obligatory remarks to mind his behavior. As bounty hunters went, Dengar was as different to Vin Tanner as one could possibly manage. Where the former bounty hunter, now Jedi apprentice reminded creature of Voris cat, a creature renowned for the hunt because it its agility, power and ruthless determination, Dengar was the exact opposite. There was nothing about him that could be called sleek or graceful. He was a clumsy collection of cybernetics. Vin Tanner said that he had started his career as an Imperial assassin until the bad wiring in his head made him unreliable and he broke away from their control. He fell for a time into the employ of Laurel Chase and Black Sun who had him dispatched when he failed her too.
However, JD was not stupid enough to believe that ferrying him from Gammorr to Tatooine was too difficult a task for the bounty hunter and had no wish to provoke the man. At least until not he had come up with a plan of how he was going to escape and get word to the Rebellion that Buck was in trouble. He had no idea what the Maw was but that was real fear JD had seen in Buck's eyes when the Rodian had turned his attention to JD about flying through it. In all the time that JD had known Buck Wilmington, fear was something he had never seen in the man's eyes and there was not a patch of space anywhere in the galaxy that JD was sure Buck could not fly through.
What was the Maw?
"Hey," JD asked, seeing no reason why the bounty hunter would not answer him since it appeared that JD was very much in his power anyway.
Dengar was at the pilot controls and he glanced over his shoulder at JD, who seated in one of the passenger seats in the compartment with him and guarded closely by Jabba Gammorrean guards, before retorting gruffly. "What?"
"Can you tell me what the Maw is?" JD asked, thinking he did not have much to lose.
The Gammorrean sitting across him snorted as if the question was a source of humor and his and his companion took great amusement in chuckling over the next few seconds. JD frowned, feeling foolish for asking when he noticed that there was no such derision in the bounty hunter's expression but rather thoughtful consideration as to whether or not his question ought to be answered.
"I'd really appreciate it," JD tried once more. "I just want to know what Buck is going to face because of me," he added just enough farm boy innocence to his voice to make it sound that he was asking for the sincerest of reasons. For some reason, this tone of voice often got him answers whenever he employed it. He was starting to see it as a very useful advantage.
Whether or not Dengar saw through it was unknown but the bounty hunter faced front again and answered with a deep rumble of a voice that sounded somewhat like Josiah's but lacking all the erudite eloquence. "It's a cluster of black holes in the space between Almania and Yavin. They call it the Maw because the only way to successfully cross it is to skirt the event horizons. Almost everyone who's made the attempt has died. Wilmington was the only one who made it through."
That did not surprised JD in the least. If any one could do it, the young man had no doubts it was Buck Wilmington. However, he had also remembered the look in Buck's eyes at the suggestion and knew that it was not a task the pilot wanted to attempt again. He had been doubly horrified at Nardo's suggestion that JD undertake it in his place. JD had a terrible feeling that the reason for Buck's resistance to the idea was the possibility that he might be able accomplish a repeat of his earlier success. With that idea firmly entrenched in JD's mind, suddenly the idea of escape took on a more urgent need. Somehow, he had to extricate himself from these men in order to get word to the Rebellion.
Unfortunately, as he stared at the Gammorrean guards, keeping close eye on him, with blasters drawn now that they were preparing to land in Mos Eisley, JD did not see that opportunity arising. Nevertheless, he would have to devise one. He just had to do as Ezra Standish often told him whenever the Imperial agent was in their company.
Watch and wait. The odds always shifted during the game. You just have to make sure they shift in your favour.
He would do that. He would watch and wait until the game shifted.
After everything that had transpired in the rebel base today, with the departure of Billy Travis, the arrival of Louisa Perkins and the subsequent events that followed which saw him caught in a tug of war between two women, the Jedi decided to make himself scarce. Chris retreated to his quarters, unable to understand why Mary could be jealous of Louisa about him. How could she for a second, imagine that his attention could be swayed from her? Did she not know how she felt? As he thought more deeply on the subject, he determined that she probably did know she was never in danger of losing him to anyone else but then jealousy was never about the obvious he supposed. It was in a way flattering, he thought to himself with a little smile. However, if he pointed that out to Mary, he would have better luck fighting Darth Vader then getting past her with his skin intact.
Thus he chose to stay out of her way until she calmed down. He wanted to meditate because despite the superfluous trivialities of Mary and Louisa on his thoughts, Chris' Jedi senses had felt a disturbance in the Force, particularly around his old friend Buck Wilmington. He did not know why exactly he felt this sense of foreboding but it was there, like some tangible force skirting on the edges of his unique perception. Sitting down cross-legged on the floor in the center of the room, he took a deep breath and focussed.
Images of Buck Wilmington filled his mind. Old images of their youth in Corellia which brought a smile to his lips even though he ought to be concentrating on finding his friend and seeking the root of this ominous feeling that he had sensed about Buck earlier. However, those old memories were hard to resist and Chris drank them in for awhile, feeling himself returning to a simpler time when the heat of the Corellia sun on his face was the sunshine of the only world he had ever known. He remembered being a teenager watching across the horizon at the race where he had first met Buck Wilmington.
The General was home and was with him. Chris was fifteen years old and he had never been happier that the old man had agreed to join him at the race. The General had such difficulty understanding him and Chris guessed it was mostly because the man failed to understand how a military war-horse like him had produced a Force adept son. But then Chris' ability did not come from the General at all, but rather his mother, Annika Buran Larabee, a member of the Jedi Council.
The town had been buzzing about the race for weeks. The boy who had challenged Erson Vix, the best speed racer on Corellia some said, was a nobody. The boy had been on the racing circuit for some time and was reputed to be unbeatable even though he had never faced a true professional like Erson before. There were also whispers that his mother was a courtesan or someone equally disreputable but the fact that Erson had taken up the challenge was enough to bring out everyone in droves, despite the challenger's reputation or scandalous lineage.
He was cocky and he was very good, Chris was later to find out. He kept on Erson's tail throughout the entire race, maintaining speed, matching the professional, curve for dearly curve on the uneven landscape. The crowd roared with awe and Chris wondered if the boy had the Force. The General smiled and said no, he was just a natural. He won the race of course and later on Chris discovered that his name was Buck Wilmington and with his Jedi senses, though nowhere as acute as in his latest years, Chris found the only thing bigger than' s Buck's ego was his heart.
Chris drew away from the pleasantness of the memory, shifting through mire of emotions and feelings to seek out Buck Wilmington. His body relaxed and he was soon bombarded with other images, some he could not distinguish, some he recognized, others he simply ignored. He felt himself drawn to something in the fog, watching it swirl past him as his momentum increased and he knew that he was reaching Buck wherever he was. Soon, he would find Buck and his fears would be allayed by seeing how the pilot fared. He would be rid of this unpleasant sensation that had given him a vision of slow, lingering death for his oldest friend.
Except suddenly Chris was blind.
Not in the literal sense but definitely in a state that robbed him of his extraordinary sight. For a moment, he had no idea what had happened. He had been close, he had could almost feel Buck Wilmington where ever he was but instead Chris had come upon this sheer wall of black and plunged headlong into it. For one who had never known a day when this second sight was not apart of his consciousness, being robbed of it sent Chris into panic. He gasped out loud, clawing through the black, trying to find some way out and then realised in his stark terror that whatever this was, it had found him because Buck. Feeling anguished inwardly because he knew what he had to do, Chris wrenched free the strands that linked himself and his old friend. He tore away and pulled back as far as he could, praying that the blackness would not follow him.
It did not.
Once he had let go of Buck, the images returned like clean water washing away dirt. It filtered through his thoughts and wrapped a kaleidoscope of sensation and emotions around him like a blanket of comfort. Chris opened his eyes and found his breathing was shallow even though the fear had passed. For a moment, he did not know what to do but sit there and ponder what had happened to him. In all the yeas he had been a Jedi Knight, Chris Larabee had never experienced anything like that. The totality of his blindness was beyond comprehension. It was like he was stripped of all his abilities and that made his heart pound in fright. For the first time, he wondered how those without the Force went through their lives in such blackness of unknowing.
With a sharp dose of clarity, Chris realised that whatever that blackness was, Buck Wilmington was surrounded by it.
Chris rose to his feet shakily, his mind whirling as he came to grips with what had just happened. Talking a deep breath, he mentally forced himself into a calmer state of being because his emotions were running so hot at the moment, he was little good to anyone, especially Buck whom Chris believed was in dire trouble now. Chris walked towards the door when suddenly, he heard it chime before he could activate the panel to open it. Instinctively, he pushed the button and saw it slide open.
"Chris," Mary Travis stormed past him before he had a chance to register that it was her standing there.
"What were you thinking?" She turned around and faced the Jedi. "Louisa is not interested in you! She's just using you to get to me! It's just like when we were in school, when she couldn't out do me in classes, she'd steal my boyfriends! This is the same thing all over again! She's insane I tell you. Insane!" Mary blurted all this without a pause or a breath.
Chris could only stare at her before he responded in complete exasperation. "WOMAN, WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT?"
"You and Louisa!" Mary replied confused. What else had they been discussing here?
Chris rolled his eyes, "I don't have time for this," he growled and started out the door again.
The look in his eyes immediately effected Mary like a splash of water on her skin and was startled back to her senses when she realised how ridiculously she behaved. With a groan of complete embarrassment, she hurried after him realizing that something was terribly wrong other than the fact that she had completely lost her mind. Oh, could she humiliate herself any more this day?
"Chris!" She called out to him while he was striding down the hallway.
He did not pause but slowed down slightly, allowing her to catch up with him.
"What's the matter?" She asked, concern flooding her voice.
"Buck," Chris said tautly. "There's something wrong with Buck."
"What do you mean?" She looked at him, wanting an explanation.
Chris paused and took a deep breath. "I can't feel him."
"Excuse me?" She stared back, not comprehending. "I don't understand, what do you mean you can't feel him?"
"I can't find him," he repeated himself. "I am a Jedi, I can feel people through the Force. I can feel you, Vin, anyone if I set my mind to it but right now I can't feel Buck. Where he is, there is nothing. I've never felt anything like it before."
She could tell that just by the look in his eyes. There were many things she could tell about Chris Larabee even without the benefit of being a Force adept and how much would have surprised him. Of course when Louisa Perkins was anywhere in the vicinity, her commonsense seemed to disappear but now that she had discarded such foolishness aside, she could tell what he was thinking just by the glimmer in his sea colored eyes.
And right now, his eyes were telling Mary that he was afraid.
The idea that Chris Larabee could be afraid was one that rather shocked Mary on a basic level. He could be somber, grave, and amazingly sensitive while still maintaining that rock hard exterior shell that hid his thoughts from everyone but fear was something she did not associate with him. "How is that possible?" She asked.
"I don't know," he shook his head and resumed walking.
"Where are you going?" Mary asked as she started following him.
"I'm going after him," Chris replied firmly and had not really decided what he was going to do until she had asked the question. All he had been doing ever since he left his quarters was reacting to that awful darkness he had seen.
"Go after him?" She exclaimed. "You don't know where he is. On last report he was on route back to us from Kashyyyk."
"Then I'll start there," he stated with conviction, not about to be deterred from that plan.
"Chris, let's think about this." Mary tried to reason with him, knowing all too well what it was like to run off half cocked without thinking about the consequences. She cared about Buck Wilmington too but she did not want Chris to endanger himself by rushing off without being aware of what he could be facing when he got there. He was too valuable to the rebellion and to herself personally, to lose so recklessly.
"I don't have time to discuss this with a committee," he barked.
"I am not a committee!" She snapped and kept up with him, not about to let him do anything foolish. "If you insist going on then I'm coming with you."
Chris came to a halt abruptly and stared at her. "No you're not."
"Don't tell me what I can and cannot do on my base Mr Larabee," she retorted with a determined set of her jaw that indicating she was not budging on this matter.
"Mary...," Chris started to try a different tact.
"You try leaving this base without proper information about where Buck might be and I'll have you grounded so fast it will make your head spin."
"You wouldn't." He met her gaze in disbelief.
"Try me." She saw through narrowed eyes. "I did something very stupid a month ago and almost got everyone I cared about killed in the process including myself, I am not letting you endanger Buck by rushing off without any idea of what might be out there. You said it yourself, for some reason your sight does not work where Buck is concerned. Do you mean to tell me that you're not vulnerable because of that? You are no good to him if your Jedi abilities are useless to you."
In truth, if he wanted to leave, there was very little that she could do to shop him. He could take a ship out with virtually no resistance from just the respect he commanded among the rank and file. However, he did not want it to come to that and as much as Chris hated to admit it, she was right. If he went after his old friend, it was likely he would run into whatever it was that was blocking the Force around Buck Wilmington. His Jedi senses would next to useless and if it was something that Chris could not handle, then he was not only dooming himself but also Buck.
"Alright," he let out a sigh, conceding defeat. "Can we track him?"
"Well try," Mary said automatically, glad he had chosen to see reason. She had no wish to carry out her threat against him, perfectly aware that if he had gotten it in his mind to leave, there would be very few people who could stop him, if any. "I know he left Kashyyyk on schedule. Lets wait until to see if he exceeds his ETA back to base. If he does, then Ill alert our people to start a search."
Chris hated to wait but knew that he had no idea how to proceed to even locate Buck. Even if he took off, he would not even know where to begin. Beyond Kashyyyk, Buck and the Rogue could be anywhere in the galaxy and that was too vast a space for a Jedi to search, particularly when the source of his quest seemed surrounded by something capable of repelling the Force. "You do that," Chris nodded. "But the minute we know for sure hes late, I want to start looking myself."
It was something of a compromise in Marys opinion but not much. However, it was better than nothing. "Well find him Chris," she placed an arm on his shoulder. "If it's all possible, well find him."
They had better, Chris thought inwardly, because he sure as hell could not.
It was hours later before Ezra could leave the Cordoba outpost without raising the interest of his First Officer who seemed to be watching his every move closely. Fortunately, his staff was accustomed to seeing him dine outside the base during lunch and thus when he had departed the premises bound for the Four Corners Tavern; no one was in the least bit surprised. Besides, those under his authority were perfectly aware of the relationship shared between their commander and the owner of the tavern. Those who had seen the lady themselves could well understand his infatuation for she was certainly handsome.
It especially served his purpose for them to think that when she was also the only link he had to the Rebel Alliance. Their relationship had the added feature of giving him a plausible cover for his frequent visits to see her. A short time after his arrival in the tavern, Inez had relinquished the bar tendering duties to one of her employees and joined him at the table they normally occupied whenever he was in the place. If there was anything that could be considered a perk of this posting, it was the opportunity to meet her and everything they had shared since then.
"Buck would not do that," Inez declared feeling a tightening in her chest at the possibility her ex-husband might be in danger. She knew Buck's habits and she knew that he was no fool. He would never use his original registration codes for the Rogue unless there was good reason for it. "Hed know the minute he used his original registration, the Empire would find him," she whispered quietly to Ezra over their meal.
"I am aware of this," Ezra responded quietly, just as concerned of this as she. "I am assuming that the only reason he would do this is to alert the rebellion to the fact that he is in some kind of difficulty, so that they may determine his last known whereabouts."
"But why?" She exclaimed. "Who could have him? The threat cannot be from the Empire if they were notified first."
"Agreed," he nodded. "Whatever danger he is presently experiencing, it is not from the Empire. Gammorrean authorities merely forwarded the information to me because I had standing order requesting all information regarding the Rogue. They sent it on to me expecting me to take action."
"Did you?" She asked tautly.
"I had no choice Inez," Ezra confessed reluctantly. "The information was brought to me by Julia. If I did not act upon it, it would give her reason to suspect my loyalties are anywhere other than where they ought to be."
She nodded in understanding, having no reason to question his actions because Ezra had proved more than once how much he was willing to risk in order to help the rebellion. Just how much was often a source of great worry to her because she cared deeply about the man and would have devastated if any harm should befall him.
"I know," she said with a little smile and leaned over to kiss him, a gesture of apology that he was more than happy to receive. Their lips met tenderly and in the dim light of the tavern were ensured a certain amount of privacy.
Her kisses were truly electrifying, Ezra thought almost dreamily as their tongues dueled in heat. She smelled of all things warm and delicious, of spice and sensations that tingled his skin.
"Am I interrupting?" A new voice entered his paradise of feeling and tore him unwillingly from it.
Ezra shifted his gaze and his head enough to find himself glaring hard at Julia Pemberton, standing by the table watching them closely. "I trust you have an extremely good reason for being here." He turned to her, his voice cold like ice.
"I had heard so much about this place," Julia remarked, pleased to see him a little shaken from his usual cool facade. "I thought I would come and see it for myself."
"You are always welcome here," Inez said with a smile, noticing that there was something in the way this woman was staring at Ezra that was more than just professional interest. "Ezra has told me so much about you Lieutenant Pemberton." Her words were one of greeting but the tone was warfare declared with as much hostility as two armies about to kill each other in a bloody battle.
"I'm afraid he has said nothing about you," Julia retorted shortly.
"I do not see how my personal life is any of your business..."Ezra started to say. He was angry and not about to hide it.
"It is my business Sir, when it is possible that she is a rebel collaborator," Julia declared triumphantly.
Ezra stood up firmly and said in a low voice, betraying nothing. "Explain yourself Lieutenant."
"I had a check run on her," Julia returned, staring at Ezra dead in the eye and realizing how furious he was even though he was attempting to remain composed. "She was married to Buck Wilmington many years ago."
Ezra took a deep breath and answer. "Just how do you think we became acquainted in the first place?"
Julia stared at him, not understanding for a moment. There was no surprise or anger on his face at her revelation, just her personally. "You mean you know?"
"Of course I knew!" He hissed. "I am member of the Imperial fleet, do you think that I would be foolish enough to consort with someone who was suspect? However, as records have also shown, that marriage was dissolved some years ago. I met Ms Recillos when I was inquiring after the whereabouts of her former husband."
"I was very helpful," Inez said with a little smile, amused to no end by the stupefied look on the lieutenant's face.
"My dear," Ezra turned to her and said graciously. "I must apologise for all this."
"It's alright," Inez said rising to her feet. "I always knew Buck was going to be trouble, even after I divorced him."
"But..." Julia opened her mouth to speak, unable to imagine how the situation could spiral out of control so quickly. She had been so certain that Ezra had been unaware of this woman and her past affiliations just as Julia was sure that Inez Recillos was a rebel sympathizer using him to gain information. Now, in retrospect, she realised that Ezra Standish was too crafty to be used in that way. Unfortunately, it was a realization that had come too late.
"Enough." Ezra shot her a look that silenced her immediately. "We will discuss this in my office."
Yes, Julia thought gloomily, far too late.
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