It was not often that Inez Recillos had much opportunity to visit the Cordoba Imperial out post but Ezra had come to learn that it was usually the result of some urgent business that could not wait until his next visit to the Four Cornerss tavern. When Claire announced that Inez was requesting permission to see him, he immediately dispatched his first officer to the odious task of conducting a surprise inspection of the base hangar bays, an undertaking that would expend her time quite completely for the next few hours. Unfortunately it would do nothing for her disposition. Nevertheless, Ezras autonomy over his command was something she could not disobey if she wanted to remain his first officer for any length of time. Though fuming as she went, Julia had complied with the order and ensured his audience with Inez was conducted in privacy.
Claire showed Inez into Ezras office shortly after all the arrangements had been completed. The arrangements being Julia, who was now on her way to the far side of the base and the activation of the devices installed in the room that would ensure their conversation was not being monitored by any covert means. It was a measure he had been force to adopt prior to Julias arrival at the base, since he was painfully aware that her purpose here was as more than just his second in command. Claire who had affiliations with the Rebel Alliance herself, made sure that he was protected from any such implications and Ezra in turn ensured that her loyalties were never questioned. They made a good team and sometimes, Ezra wished he could take her completely into his confidence but knew that was not wise. If either of them were placed under any form of duress, they might unwillingly give each other away.
Claire showed Inez into his office and then made a discreet exit. The young adjutant had no idea about Inezs affiliations with the Alliance and Ezra wanted to ensure that state of affairs remained. As far as she was concerned, Inezs presence in his life was merely romantic. It suited Ezra for her not to know otherwise. Once Claire had departed, Ezra ensured all his security devices were activated before he gestured Inez to sit at the chair he had pulled out for her, in front of his desk. It felt somewhat odd for him not to see her in the reassuring confines of the tavern but he was nevertheless pleased to see her. She was still dressed in the clothes she wore while tending bar so whatever had brought her here, must have been important enough for her to leave the establishment abruptly.
"What has happened?" He asked immediately, albeit in a low voice.
"Bucks been taken by Jabba the Hutt," Inez answered in turn, keeping her tone just as hushed.
"The gangster?" Ezras brow cocked in surprise. "What interest would Nal Hutta have in a rebel pilot?"
"According to the Alliance, they want him to fly through the Maw." Inezs expression shuddered visibly at the thought and the fear in her eyes surfaced despite her best efforts to hide it. She remembered when Buck had undertaken the crossing the first time and never regretted her love for the pilot until then. She had not been able to imagine anyone taking such a ridiculous risk. It was part of the reason why they had went their separate ways. She had been unable to tolerate him taking so many risks with his life especially when he thrived on them.
"What pray tell is the Maw?" Ezra looked at her, never having heard the term before.
"I dont have time to explain it to you now but its a treacherous area of space that no one has been able to cross except Buck," Inez explained in one breath. "Mary wants you to rendezvous with a rebel ship within the hour and take command of the Purgatory. She needs you to go after Buck. Chris and the others are on their way to Tatooine."
His expression became nearly ashen from disbelief. He wondered if they knew what they were asking of him but supposed they did if they were desperate enough to ask. "I do not understand, I thought Buck was kidnapped by Jabba the Hutt. If that is so, he will be on Tatooine."
"Theyre not sure," Inez explained, becoming agitated because she was being revisited by old fears, especially about the Maw. She had remembered how uncomfortable Buck had been discussing the place, even after he made it across successfully and became the only pilot who had ever managed the feat. However, he had spoken about it enough for Inez to know that he was terrified of going through the Maw again and anything that frightened Buck was something she ought to fear as well. "Chris thinks he might have been taken to Tatooine but theres also a possibility that he might be taken straight to the Maw. If hes in the Maw, you cant help him but if you can catch him before he gets there ."
"I see what you mean," Ezra nodded in understanding. It was likely that after Buck had taken his perilous journey through the Maw, Jabba might decide to kill him anyway or worse yet, turn him to the Empire. "Where exactly is this Maw located?"
"Between Yavin and Almania," Inez answered automatically.
Ezra made a few calculations and came up with a figure immediately. "That is almost a three day round trip."
"Ezra," Inez implored. "He needs your help."
"I know," Ezra sighed, aware he could not turn the rebellion down on this matter but the logistics of this were still going to be difficult to work. "He is my friend, I will of course do everything I can."
Walking over to his desk, he pressed the com unit at the edge of the table and asked Claire to come into the room before facing Inez again. "Is Mary certain she wants me to take charge of the Purgatory?"
"Yes," Inez nodded. "She was specific about that. Something about you knowing how to get around the Empire if the Hutt has already contacted them about Buck."
That made sense, Ezra supposed but did not have time to debate the issue any further because Claire entered the office.
"You sent for me?" She asked politely, trying not to seem too interested in what was transpiring between the commander and his lady, even though Claire could not deny he curiosity as they seemed like such an unlikely pair.
"A situation has arisen," Ezra said firmly. "Miss Inez and I need to take a quick trip off world to tend to some private business."
"I see," Claire said as a matter of factly. "Shall I make your arrangements for travel?"
"No," Ezra shook his head immediately. "In fact, I would prefer if the powers that be assume that I am still in the Territory."
Claire met his gaze and began to understand. She shifted her eyes towards Inez for the barest hint of a second before turning to him again. "Our listening post in the Feris sector appears to have developed a down transmitter. They had been out of contact for almost a day," she offered a suggestion after much thought. "I was going to suggest we send out a patrol to investigate since the area is rather remote."
"There is a great deal of rebel activity in that area," Ezra pointed, catching onto the scenario she was offering him. "Perhaps I should investigate myself?"
"I think so," Claire retorted. "It would be unwise for us to send a task force out there prematurely if there was nothing to report."
"I trust you can take care of the incidentals?" Ezra stared at her, allowing everything that he needed of her conveyed through the unspoken words between them.
"Yes Sir," she nodded. "If you are to depart, it would be best if you did so immediately, before the inspection of the hangar is completed," she added.
Ezra understood perfectly what she meant. Claire was telling him to leave before Julia came back where his alibi would come under the first officers formidable scrutiny. If he wanted to do this thing with the rebellion then now was the time to depart.
"Yes," he turned to Inez and gestured towards the door. "I think you are right."
Inez said nothing, deciding that it was best if she commented on the situation as little as possible. Obviously Claire had some idea of what her commander was involved in although she was unaware of how similar the adjutant's situations was to Ezras.
"How long will you be away Sir?" Claire asked as Ezra and Inez proceeded towards the door.
"Four days at the most," he answered. "Are you able to handle things until then?"
"One way or another I shall manage it Sir." She offered him a little smile of confidence.
"Good," Ezra flashed her a return smile before walking out of the room.
Vin Tanner felt it the moment of he arrived on Tatooine.
It was like a strobe of light through a thick fog that the former bounty hunter could not help but feel drawn to. Unlike the desolate feeling he had encountered when Vader had pierced through his defenses on Zhar, this was a different kind of invasion. This was like being filled with a light so intense and brilliant there was no recourse but to allow oneself to become lost by the pure beauty of it. He had felt many things since becoming a Jedi, some he would never have dreamed when he first realised that the Force was with him. However, all those experiences paled in comparison to this one. If anything strengthened his resolve or brush away the doubts that still lingered in his mind about what business he had being a Jedi in the first place, it was the sensation of that incredible power filling him the moment he stepped onto the baked soil of Tatooine.
"Is that what I think it is?" Vin asked Chris shortly after their arrival in Mos Eisley. The Tracker and the X wing had entered Tatooine's airspace where the rebel fighter set down on the outskirts of the city, allowing Chris and Mary to board Vin's ship in order to make their arrival into town together. They had left what passed for the main space port in these parts and blended in with the rest of the locals. In Mos Eisley, that was not hard to do. The planet was a veritable mix of different life forms whose paths intersected in a most cosmopolitan surrounding.
"Yes," Chris nodded, feeling it himself but with a little more restraint that Vin. "It's the boy."
"How strong is he?" Vin whispered as Alex and Mary walked ahead of them attempting to look inconspicuous as they decided their next move.
"He is Anakin's son," Chris pointed out. "I'm assuming his level of adeptness will be the same." What Chris did not mention that the boy had to be exceptionally gifted because the Force was exuding from him even though the child had little or no control over it.
Vin could finally understand why Chris had been so adamant about ensuring that there was no rebel or Imperial presence on Tatooine. The child's anonymity was the only thing that was keeping him alive. If Vader ever had reason to come here, Vin shuddered to think what the consequences would be. If an apprentice like him could sense the boy then there was no way Luke Skywalker could hide anything from his father.
"I had no idea," Vin remarked softly and somewhat in awe.
"Now you understand," Chris looked at him. "Why he has to be protected at all costs."
"I do," Vin nodded. "Is your friend here too, the Jedi Master?"
"Ben's here," Chris answered. "He won't be as easy to find as Luke mostly because he knows how to shield his thoughts. Trust me, if a Jedi Master wants to hide, there's no way in the universe anyone is going to make that different."
Vin could well believe it. "Well let's stick to why we came here then."
"Good idea," Chris nodded. "How do we get to Jabba?"
"Well he has a fortress on the Dune Sea. It's not all that far from the Pit of Karkoon," Vin answered after a moment.
"The Pit of what?" Mary asked as she and Alex paused and waited for the two men to catch up.
"Karkoon," Vin replied as a matter of factly. "Problem is not where he is, but how we are getting to him. There's a reason why they call it a fortress."
"Can't you get us in?" Alex asked.
"Jabba's extremely suspicious," the apprentice answered after a moment's consideration. "The Hutts are always killing each other, jockeying for position so he's very well protected. Surrounds himself with Gammoreans and anything kind of hired help than don't mind killing and are good at it."
"Sounds charming," Mary grumbled. "If we go in there with a full frontal assault so to speak, we're going to get Buck killed," she pointed out.
"She's right," Chris nodded. "Somehow, we're gong to have to get in quiet."
"I can get in there without any trouble," Vin confessed and then turned his eyes at both Alex and Mary with a predatory smile that sent shivers up both of their spines.
"Why are you looking at us that way/" Alex asked suspiciously.
"I got an idea of how I can smuggle Alex and Mary in," Vin replied, that smile becoming a full-blown smirk, particularly when it was directed at Alex.
Judging by the look on his face, Chris did not need his Jedi senses to know that it was a method that neither woman would find particularly palatable. "Go on."
"I would have to bring him a gift." Vin cleared his throat and dropped his gaze to his feet momentarily before adding further. "Actually two gifts."
"Oh no," Mary started to protest. "Don't even think about it!"
"Is this really a plan or some misogynistic fantasy of yours?" Alex demanded angrily. "Because you can just forget it right now!"
"It's the only way!" Vin exclaimed in desperation, his earlier amusement subsiding now that the idea was out there for all too see and not being received with much favor. Unfortunately, it was the only plan he could think of and thus their only option. "He likes women! Pretty ones. Especially, those who ain't got a lot on!"
"Vin," Mary said firmly. "I am not going to be presented to a Hutt as a gift!"
"It won't be for long," he returned. "I mean if you want to get inside Jabba's palace that's the only way. As it is I have no idea how Chris is going to be able to manage it. I've known Jabba. Hell I've even worked for him but he still doesn't even trust me enough to let me bring all of you in!"
"I can get in on my own," Chris said confidently before turning to Mary. "You said you wanted to help. If this is the only way in, we don't have much of a choice."
"Damn!" Mary swore again, turning away. "Are you telling me that I'm going to have to do this? Wear a slave girl's outfit and prance in front of that, that oversized slug!"
"Don't forget oversized drooling slug," Alex pointed out.
"Well thank you for that necessary observation," Mary glared at her friend.
"What are you mad at me for?" Alex retorted. "I have to wear the same stupid outfit and I'm as out of practice at prancing as you are. Just be grateful that he's incapable of doing anything else but look."
"What do you mean....," Mary trailed off before wrinkling her nose in disgust. "That's appalling! You just had to put that picture in my head didn't you?"
"Actually," Vin cleared his throat again. "What Jabba lacks in anatomy, he tries to make up for....."
"Vin," Chris spoke up before the apprentice could finish his sentence. "We don't need that much detail."
"If I end up having to defend my virtue against a Hutt," Mary turned on Vin. "You will never live to become a JEDI!" She hissed.
"What she said," Alex added sweetly.
Vin suddenly had a feeling this was going to be a really long day.
The trip through hyperspace was normally a period of inactivity that Buck Wilmington loathed because there was little he could do but wait until his ship had passed through the dimensional realm that allowed for faster than light travel. However, on this occasion, Buck felt grateful for the prolongation of his stay in hyperspace, mostly because it would delay his inevitable arrival at the Maw. For a man unaccustomed to fear, the Maw terrified him beyond belief mostly because to him it was no legend, no figment of someone's fanciful imagination. The Maw real and its reality was far worse than anyone's nightmares.
Perhaps the most disconcerting about a black hole was the fact that beyond the swirling masses of the event horizon was an area of space that was so black that it seemed not like the entrance to a singularity but a gateway to some dark hell. Certainly Buck felt that way when he first made the journey through it. It had been the only time in his life where he had been afraid of being inside that cockpit and it was a feeling that he never wanted to feel again. It froze the insides of his soul to think that he would ever be afraid of flying unfettered in the sky. As a child, he knew instantly that he belonged there and through the space that was his playground, he would always be free. To feel chained by something one loved so much was a terrible thing indeed and those were just one of the terrors he had faced that fateful trip.
"You sure you boys are ready for this?" Buck asked as he sat in the pilot's seat, ruminating on the Maw and its effect upon his life. He had lost Inez because of this spacial monstrosity and though he was forever recognized as the man, who crossed the Maw, all he could think about was the loss of the only woman who had ever meant more to him than his sainted mother.
"I think you talk big Weelmington," Nardo declared from the co-pilots seat. "I think the Maw is nothing and that you make it out to be so terrible to keep the rest of us from trying."
"Fine," Buck snorted in disgust and removed his hands from the controls. "Why don't you fly her then? When we come out of hyperspace and you'll know it when we do, you can take the controls," he challenged the Rodian with every intention of letting the fool try.
"I am not the one whose pup Jabba is warming for the Sarlaac's belly," Nardo hissed with a malevolent smile.
"Jabba ain't as dumb as you," Buck retorted. "He can't get his payoff unless I make it through and if I even think that JD is dead. I'll fly the Rogue straight into hell and take his goddamn cargo with me."
"Enough," Selkik grunted in annoyance. "Jabba will honor his agreement if you honor yours." The Gammorrean looked at Nardo, defying him to say anything further to aggravate their pilot, especially when they were so close to the Maw. "Now you will concentrate on getting us there," he ordered.
Buck started to smile. "Ain't no reason to concentrate," he said smoothly and eased back into the captain's seat. "The Maw will tear you out of hyperspace. You see, the gravitational fields from those super black holes are like nothing you can possibly imagine. They destabilize hyperspace. It's like trying to hold a bubble together in water during a typhoon. It's just not possible. The Rogue will come out of it alright, pulled out of hyperspace like a screaming baby from its mama. Once we're out, you don't see anything except swirls of white, moving round and round. For a few seconds, it almost looks pretty until you stare into its dark eyes and see nothing there. You know what's worse than the most terrible thing you can imagine? Nothing. That's what you see in the eye of a black hole, nothing. It almost feels like it ain't got no soul, which of course it doesn't. It just looks back at you and tries to draw you in. If you caught, you won't even know it. You think you're getting away and sometimes, when time stretches it almost feel like you have until you realise that you're being pulled into a singularity, atom by atom."
"Shut up!" Nardo broke first. "You are just trying to frighten us."
"No I'm not Nardo," Buck said seriously. "You want to come with me into the Maw, then that's what you're going to be risking." However, the devil in Buck Wilmington could not resist adding with a wicked smile. "I just thought you ought to know."
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