"Vin," Charlotte spoke, her voice almost a hiss.
Vin froze when the feeling seeped into him and met her gaze in complete understanding. He could sense it too. It had come upon them so suddenly that there could be no doubt as to what they were sensing. A cold creeping sensation that invaded them with little or not warning. It chipped away at the strength of their resolve and infused them with icy tendrils that quickly wrapped itself around their spines with cold fingers. The power of it was made it impossible for them to be mistaken even though such total confirmation sent dread through every fiber of their being.
"I know," Vin responded gravely. "He's here."
They had just left Charlotte's lodgings in the Ithorian herdship, Seleusa Secanda, bound for the promenade deck where visitors to the city enjoyed the sights of Ithor beyond the confines of the self contained vessel that floated above the planet's surface. Charlotte's companion Maria had taken her daughter Lilith there in order to give her reunion with Vin some privacy. During their journey to Ithor, Charlotte had confided in Maria the nature of her relationship with Vin and upon learning he had finally made his arrival on board, had made a discreet exit to allow her mistress to deal with what was a difficult emotional situation.
Although Vin was certain his history with Charlotte was in no way resolved, he did not want to waste any time discussing it or for that matter, lingering in Seleusa any longer than he had to. When he thought about all those wasted years, where he had sought something to fill the void left behind by her absence, only to find out that she had always known that he was a Force adept, filled Vin with no small amount of anger. Those were years he could have spent with the Jedi before their ranks were so completely decimated by the Emperor and Vader. He felt as if she had stolen that from him by not telling him the truth. Even though he believed her when she said that she had done it for his own good, Vin could not help being resentful. Despite his deep feelings for Charlotte which would always remain no matter what course their lives had taken, he knew that the power she had over him was broken, perhaps for all time. He had come to Seleusa on the strength of a promise and once he delivered her an d her daughter to the Alliance, his ties with Charlotte could be severed forever.
In truth, part of his desire for haste had to do with Chris premonition that he would soon find himself face to face with Darth Vader. Vin was not customarily one who felt fear. As a bounty hunter, it was impossible to let the emotion have too much power over him. The nature of the work required courage and sometimes more stubborness then sense. Vin knew he fulfilled both requirements with ease but Vader frightened him. Vader frightened Vin because it was not his physical body that was so endangered but rather his mind. Vader could climb inside his head and attack the part of his psyche he allowed access to no one, not even Chris. However, even that terrifying exposure would not be as devastating if Vader managed to extract the location of the child from his mind. The boy had to be protected at all costs, even if it meant sacrificing Vins life to maintain his safety.
It was betraying Luke Skywalker that frightened Vin even more than dying.
"We have to get off this ship," Vin declared after a few seconds of regaining his composure where he fortified his inner shields to ensure the secret of Skywalker did not reach either Vader or Charlotte. After abusing his confidence in her the way she had, he was not ready to trust her with such a secret. If she learnt about the child, Vin could not be certain that she would not use that knowledge to save her daughter Lilith. As much as he hated to think that she would do something so heinous, he had to at least consider the possibility when the stakes were as high as they were. Whether or not Charlotte sensed his suspicions about her, she did not say and was more focused on their immediate concerns.
"Even if we left Seleusa, theres no way were going get past an Imperial destroyer," she pointed out as they waded through the sea of bodies that were presently on the promenade deck of the herdship. The entire deck was a wide, open plan area contained only by the plexiglass walls that allowed its occupants to look out in the sprawling vista of landscape that was Ithor. Azure blue skies eliminated the need for artificial illumination as Ithors sun shone through the glass. The promenade itself contained stalls scattered throughout the deck sporadically, its vendors selling everything from foods, to exotic baubles of native Ithorian art.
"Well Im not staying around to get caught," Vin returned shortly as they neared the glass. "Where is she?"
Charlotte paused and swept her gaze through the faces that were admiring the view outside. Human and non-human alike were staring at the scenery in the same awe. It was difficult not to when all they could see was an idyllic landscape of lush, green vegetation. A veil of mist lingered outside that was just thin enough to allow onlookers the spectacular view. She wished she could have allowed Lilith to enjoy this a little more since it was her daughters first interstellar trip. Lilith had spent her whole life on Atura and Charlotte was sad that her first trip away would be fraught with so much danger.
"Mommy!" Liliths voice found her first.
Charlotte and Vin turned sharply to the sound of the cheery voice in time to see a little girl with flaxen colored hair bounding eagerly towards her mother. She paused slightly at the sight of Vin and for a few seconds, powerful blue eyes stared at him in curiosity as well as wariness. Vin tried to offer the child a little smile to disarm her anxiety at being in the company of someone she did not know but Lilith nonetheless continued to stare at him, even after Charlotte had swept her little girl into her arms. Following Lilith closely was Maria, a sultry beauty that reminded him of Inez if he had known the lady a decade earlier. Vin made a mental note that when they returned to the rebellion to warn her about Buck.
"Lilith," Charlotte looked at Vin. "This is Vin. Hes an old friend of mine."
"Hey," Vin greeted her, wondering why those familiar blue eyes were scrutinizing him with such depth.
Lilith did not respond and continued to study him, an unfathomable expression on her serious little face. Vin was almost tempted to probe her mind to see what it was about him she found so intriguing but invading a childs mind was beneath a Jedi and so he restrained himself, deciding that the less he had to do with her the better. She was Will Richmond's child and no matter how much Vin might have hated that fact once, it was true, she like her mother was a part of his life he was going to try and distance himself from when this was over.
"Is there something wrong my Lady?" Maria asked anxiously, knowing Charlotte enough to note that the situation had become infinitely more tense since the last time they had been together.
"Vader is here," she said tautly. "If he hasnt sensed us yet, which is extremely unlikely, he soon will."
"How did you get here?" Vin asked. "Commercial transport?" That might have been the most logical way to track their departure from Atura to Ithor.
"No," Charlotte shook her head. "I have my own ship."
"You docked under your own name?" Vin stared at her, hoping she was not that careless.
"Of course not!" She declared indignantly, wondering how he could think of being so foolish. "Will bought the ship " her voice trailed away and dismay etched into her features. "Vader could have gotten the registry codes from him."
Vin tried not to be affected by the fear he saw in her eyes for her husband and old feelings of jealousy surfaced inside him where they had no business being. He crushed the emotion mercilessly and looked down to see the little girl staring at him again. Why did she keep doing that? He wondered to himself and decided he would debate the question later. "Alright, if theyre on the look out for your ship, they wont be keeping an eye for mine. Vader doesnt know our history."
That was something anyway, Charlotte thought to herself. "You think we can sneak out of Ithorian airspace?"
"I hope so," Vin replied as he gestured them to start following him as he made his way to the space port. "Vader can sense us through the Force, getting past him wont be easy. If we can keep ahead of him long enough to jump into hyperspace, we should be okay."
However, Charlotte could read the thoughts he did not say and knew perfectly well that his words were a far cry from the reality depicted in his mind and that reality did not give them much hope of survival beyond Ithor, let alone making the desperate jump into hyperspace.
Mary sat in the command chair of her bridge and let a bemused smile cross her face whenever she glanced in the direction of Buck Wilmington who was occupying an observers station on the command deck. The pilot kept glancing at the helm of the great ship, trying to hide the fact that he was bored out of his mind and would have preferred to fly his own ship the Rogue towards Ithorian space. At the moment, the freighter was nestled comfortably in one of the berths within the Purgatory, a state of affairs Mary was certain was driving Buck mad with distraction. The pilot was used to flying himself from place to place and seeing someone else at the controls was more than he could stand. In contrast, JD Dunne had been talking to all the bridge officers, learning what they did even though the boy was a born fighter pilot if Mary had ever seen one.
"Buck," Mary stifled a smile as she pointed her gaze at the Correllian. "Is everything alright?"
"Im fine," Buck muttered with a hint of annoyance. He kept staring at the helm station, wishing all kinds of terrible things upon the poor lieutenant who was piloting, just so the Mon Calamarian would vacate the helm and that he could have a shot a piloting the warship.
"I see." Mary exchanged a glance with Chano who knew just as well as she did what was bothering Buck and shared the same amusement. "Have you ever piloted a Nubian warship before?"
"How hard can it be?" Buck returned cockily, earning a snort of derision from the helm officer, as evidenced by the surge of bubbles in the breathing helmet she wore around her head.
"A warship isnt like flying a Correllian freighter full of illegal modifications Buck. They dont handle nearly as well and they take a great deal of concentration. From your service record, you hardly logged any star time at a helm of warship."
"A ship is a ship," Buck returned. "I aint met one yet I couldnt handle. Im that way with women too." He winked in her direction.
"That explains you and Louisa anyway," Mary returned not at all offended. She had gotten used to Bucks manner around women. He was hardly sexist but he could not help flirting around women.
"What is it with you two anyway?" Buck asked, knowing full well that both women had little love for each other. However to be fair, the relationship had improved to a point where their hostility was displayed only by the digs they took at each others expense which Buck was starting to suspect was more an indulgence in friendly mischief between the two than any real dislike.
"Nothing you should ask about if you want me to let you have a crack at piloting this bird." Mary gave him a warning look.
"Consider the question withdrawn," Buck retorted. "Youd really let me have a shot at piloting this baby?"
"I would if you stopped calling my ship a baby. The Purgatory is a warship, a bird of prey in the sky. She is certainly no infant," Mary responded with a hint of pride in her voice.
"And you say Im touchy about the Rogue," Buck retorted with a smile.
"Touché," Mary answered smoothly. "If you like, you can take us out of hyperspace when we get to Ithor."
"I wouldnt mind trying, I mean if that kid at helm can do it, Im sure I can," Buck said loudly enough for the lieutenant to look over her shoulder and offer another annoyed snort, creating more bubbles in her water filled helmet.
"Youre charming Buck." Mary shook her head with a chuckle.
"So many women say that." He grinned at her.
"Commander," Chano suddenly spoke up as he was delivered some alarming news from the communications officer. "We have a problem."
The grave expression on his way immediately cut short the banter between Mary and Buck. The rebel leader swung around in her chair and faced her executive officer, her slender frame tensing as she waited for him to tell her news she was certain was not good. Even Buck had straightened up in anticipation of what was coming.
"What is it?" Mary asked.
"Its a transmission from one of our informants at the Ithorian space registry," Chano began, his expression neutral even though his eyes were filled with concern. "He reports that the Avenger has just entered Ithorian orbit."
"Aw hell," Buck mused while Mary remained stone faced, offering no reaction because it was not seemingly for the commander of the ship to show fear. Such a display had a habit of travelling down the change of command quickly, infecting the rest of the crew and instilling their abilities with a sense of hopelessness that could be fatal to the mission.
"How long ago?" Mary asked, inwardly grateful that Chris was not here. News like that would have him chewing at the bit and there was nothing worse than a Jedi with an attitude.
"1 standard hour," Chano replied automatically.
"How long until we reach Ithor?" She directed her question at the helm.
"5 hours," the lieutenant replied. "At maximum burn."
"Buck," Mary took a deep breath, thinking quickly. Something had to be done. "How long will it take the Rogue?"
"Three hours," Buck answered automatically, quickly grasping the plan she was putting together.
"The Avenger is a superstar destroyer," Mary continued. "Its a big ship, at least five times the size of a normal destroyer. Its armament is greater than a dreadnought. Its got multi-array sensor capabilities and an extremely powerful tractor beam. If Im not mistaken it has a fighter complement of four squadrons, thats almost as much as a space station. If you go in first, thats what youll be facing."
"I know," Buck stared at her understanding the risks all too well. He glanced at JD briefly and the young man nodded in his direction, telling Buck that he was ready to accompany him no matter what the danger. "But its got to be done."
"I dont want you to give away your presence," Mary said firmly. Buck had a tendency to act first and think later. The situation as simply too dangerous for such recklessness. "You will go to Seleusa and tried to locate Vin. If the Empire has him, we need to know if he is still on Seleusa or if he was taken on board the Avenger. With any luck, hell be on Seleusa still and we have some chance of getting him off the planet before its too late."
"Vin wont let Vader take him alive," Buck responded softly.
"I know," Mary sighed, aware of this possibility. "So weve got to let him know that we are in a position to help him if he has been captured."
Buck nodded but the truth was, if Vin was captured already and taken on board the Avenger, they would never get him back alive.
Vin did not allow himself him any satisfaction when they reached the Tracker without incident. Port authorities had nary raised a brow at the Tracker's request for immediate departure. Vin felt unsettled by the ease of their confrontation with Ithor's space officials but could not pin down for certain whether or not his wariness had to do with Vader's near overwhelming effect on his psyche or a genuine threat. Nevertheless this uncertainty plagued him as they nestled in the cockpit of his ship and he began preparing his ship for launch.
"You were right," Charlotte remarked as she took her place in the co-pilot seat next to him. "They're not looking for your ship."
Vin saw her seated in the co-pilot's seat and found his mood souring. "Well that doesn't mean anything. Getting past the Ithorians is one thing, getting past the Empire is something else entirely."
Charlotte did not say a word, aware that his acidic demeanor was directed at her betrayal of him no matter how much he tried to put it behind him. Hiding the hurt she felt at his manner, Charlotte told herself again that he still felt for her but he had every right to be angry. She should have told him the truth, not only because he needed to know what he was but also because he had the right to choose his fate and she had denied that by remaining silent. Taking a moment to compose herself, Charlotte kept her face turned away not only from Vin but also from Lilith. It would not do for her daughter to see her in such a state when they were in so much peril.
The Tracker's engines fired a second later, lifting the ship gently off the landing pad following the opening of the enormous bay doors overhead. The craft soared through the opening and continued at cruising speed into the atmosphere. Once again, their departure had not raised any attention and while Vin did not feel as if they had made good their escape; at least one hurdle had been crossed. He tried not to think of the behemoth waiting for them in the skies above Ithor, the silent predator they could not see but could definitely feel. Charlotte said nothing about Vader but Vin was wondering why the dark lord was going to so much trouble to get his hands on one child.
Chris had led him to believe that the extermination of the Jedi was for the purposes of the Emperor having no one to challenge him, not to create a dark order of Sith Lords. Traditionally the Sith Lords composed of a Master and an Apprentice, the most basic of Jedi relationships; a school of Sith Lord apprentices though frightening in its possibility seemed unlikely. Vin remained silent about his suspicions because he was feeling a little guilty at how he was regarding Charlotte and knew he had hurt her. He could sense it despite her efforts to hide it from him. If there was not so much emotional connection between them, she might have succeeded in her efforts.
Although he felt uncomfortable talking to her about their past in the company of her daughter and her companion, Vin did not want her to feel any worse than she already had. Charlotte had acted as she had not out of any sense of malice but a desire to protect him. No matter what he might think about her actions, he could not deny that what was done had been borne out of her love for him. He was not blameless for what had transpired between them six years ago and so it was very selfish of him to be judgmental when his behavior had not been any more honorable than hers.
"Charlotte," he said gently. "We'll get out of here, I promise."
She turned to face him because of the tenderness in his voice and met his gaze. "I am sorry Vin," she whispered. "I never meant to hurt you."
"I know that," Vin answered. "I just missed you for so long and suddenly my life started moving past you. I never expected to see you again."
Charlotte was about to answer when suddenly, a sharp beeping sound filled the air and immediately drew Vin's attention to a console screen at the corner of the cockpit control board. They had just breached the atmosphere and Vin had set the coordinates for their jump into hyperspace when the alert was sounded. Vin saw the readings on the screen and knew that his worst fears were confirmed. While he could not see the ship on the screen yet, he knew it would be a matter of seconds before they received a visual sighting. The ship was moving into interception trajectory and would reach them in a matter of seconds.
"Mommy look!" Lilith cried out.
"By the Force!" Maria's exclamation followed.
Vin looked up and saw the great ship sail into view of the cockpit window. He had heard about the Avenger's size from those who had seen it but it was nothing compared to the reality that appeared before him. For an instant, he was gripped with nothing less than awe as he saw the ship which made star destroyers looked infinitesimal. It seemed to fill the sky as it soared towards them, its engines seemingly like comets forcing a huge dark star forward. Vin swallowed thickly and reminded himself that if they did not escape that floating behemoth now, they never would. Wasting no time, he let his fingers fly across the cockpit controls, altering his trajectory to take his ship as far away from the giant warship.
More emergency signals began sounding throughout the cockpit confines and since Vin was too busy trying to put some distance between the Tracker and the super star destroyer, Charlotte assumed the office of the chair she was occupying. "They're moving into intercept!"
"We've got to get out of their tractor beam range!" Vin shot back as the Tracker made a sharp turn away from the Avenger and began surging ahead.
"They're in pursuit," Charlotte reported, her eyes watching the screen that told her the Avenger was bearing them on them hard.
Vin poured more power to the engines, hoping to outrun the craft in order to make the jump to lightspeed but the Avenger was the most sophisticated ship in the Imperial fleet and she wanted her prey badly. No sooner than that thought had crossed his mind, the Tracker shuddered violently. The floor under his feet seemed to give way as the ship dipped sharply to a side. Without being told he knew that the Avenger was firing upon them. The blast that had bombarded his ship was not enough to destroy the Slipstream cruiser but continued assault would polarize her deflector shield and disable their ability to jump to hyperspace. He thought quickly, they had one chance and one chance alone to escape the Avenger before they were battered into submission.
"Charlotte, set course 3.3.4," Vin instructed and prayed to the Force, he was not making a fatal mistake by this desperate inspiration.
"What?" She stared at him in astonishment. "Are you serious?"
"Do it!" He ordered sharply.
Charlotte swallowed hard, wondering if he was mad but capitulating to the realization that they had no choice. "The course set."
"My lady, what is happening?" Maria asked as she clutched Lilith closely. The little girl terrified by the situation was clinging to young woman since her mother was busy helping with the business of keeping them alive.
"We've changed course. We're not going to make the jump to hyperspace," Charlotte answered softly.
"But why?" Maria asked horrified by the idea that they would be remaining in Ithorian space.
"Because we'll never gain enough speed or distance away from that ship to make the jump," Vin retorted. "There's only one place we can go right now that the Avenger can't follow us and that's into the atmosphere."
"Back to the herdship?" She questioned once again, dubious about the plan as it was.
"No," Vin shook his head. "I have a feeling that this time around, they won't be so eager to let us back in. So we're going down to Ithor itself. We're going to land."
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