As the time drew closer and closer to the deadline for Vaders ultimatum, there was still no solution in sight for the occupants of the Tracker and its captain. There was a great deal of activity taking place in the air and through the communications channels being employed by the Ithorians. Ships were leaving the herdships in a panic to escape the impending destruction promised by Vader in his threat. In the meantime, Ithorians authorities tried desperate to plead their innocence at the accusation of treason as well as clemency for their floating cities. The more Vin listened to the fear and desperation in their voices as they transmitted continuously to the Avenger and were met with repeated indifference, the apprentice knew that he was a harbinger of death for this world.
Charlotte had wanted them to leave with the exodus that was making it was out of the planets atmosphere at this time but Vin knew that would be a grave mistake. Vader was waiting for them to take the opportunity and with so many ships in the air all at one, it was tempting fate to limit their field of escape when the Avenger moved in for the kill, which it inevitably would. Thus for the moment, they waited impatiently in the canyon, trying to decide what to do. The Ithorian runners were no longer concerned about capturing them, preferring to expend their energies to disaster relief and search for whatever survivors that might be left after the destruction of Cathomira. However, Vin was realistic, they could not wait out this situation any longer, something had to be done. Unfortunately, the apprentice was not prepared to sacrifice himself until after he was sure that Charlotte and her family could leave Ithor safely.
"Shes asleep," Charlotte announced as she returned to the cockpit. Both Maria and Lilith were presently in the sleeping compartment of the ship getting some rest. Considering the uncertainty of the next few hours, it was prudent to take the time while they could. Charlotte herself felt a little drained but her mind was too filled with worries about their situation to be able to let down her guard enough to rest herself. Judging by manner in which Vin was staring out the cockpit window into the harsh, rocky terrain beyond the ship, she guessed that he was more or less in the same state of mind.
"How are you doing?" She asked even though the emotions she was sensing from him indicated his mood regarding their predicament was anything but optimistic.
"Im fine," Vin responded. "Best for Lilith to get some rest while she can," he returned in an effort to change the subject.
Charlotte let out a deep sigh and faced front. "Well get out of this Vin," she said trying to sound as hopeful as possible.
"Im not so much concerned about me getting out of this than I am for you, Lilith and Maria," Vin replied. "I accepted what could happen to me when I came after you."
"And you still did, even though theres nothing between us anymore." She stared at him.
Vin turned to Charlotte and met her eyes. "When you told me to go six years ago, something inside me died. I hated you for making me do that even though I knew it was probably the right thing. I couldnt take care of you or Lilith, no matter what I told myself. I spent who knows how long taking out my hurt on every bounty I claimed, until one day it stopped hurting and I found out that life goes on. There wasnt anyone after you until Alex. I used to blame you for that too but I dive in deep every time I start to care, thats my weakness but you showed me I could be that happy Charlotte. You showed me that I didnt have to be lonely and for that there will always be a part of me that loves you."
Charlotte smiled and reached for his hand. "Ill always loved Will," she stated, having no wish to lie to him. "I loved you in a way too. You came to me when I was so scared and alone, when I thought that my entire world, the world of the Jedi was over. I turned to you for all the wrong reasons Vin and Im sorry but I did love you. Im glad you found someone, Im glad that she makes you feel whole. You did that for me once and Ill never forget it."
"Chris told me before I left the Alliance that I would face Vader and that I would die," he said finally.
"No," Charlotte shook her head. "The future is unclear. Emotions always effect the outcome. What he saw may have been true for the time but now that you know what he has seen, it changes things. You know the trap, so you can avoid it."
"I know the trap," he looked at her, "but I dont think we can avoid it. Theres only one way off this planet Charlotte and thats through Vader. The important thing here is to get you, Lilith and Maria away safely. What happens to me isnt that important. Im not a full Jedi and you are.
"And do you think that makes you any less deserving to live? We both know if you face Vader, its suicide. Hes not only a full Jedi but also one of the strongest that has ever been. A fully trained Jedi Knight would be hard pressed to defeat him and you have been an apprentice for only a few months."
"Maybe its destiny," Vin retorted, having heard all the reasons for his not going because he had been debating them for quite some time himself. However, for all the arguments and points of contention, one fact remained irrefutable; he had to go. "Charlotte, youre probably right but I dont have to win when I fight Vader, I just have to keep him busy enough for you to escape."
"And what about what you know?" She accused desperate to keep them from reaching the decision she knew was fast becoming inevitable. "Dont you think that is too important to fall into his hands?"
"Ill die before he takes it from me," Vin said firmly and so certain of that fact that if nothing else.
"You cant keep him out," Charlotte countered.
"Yes, I can. Hell be too busy fighting me to try and read my thoughts," Vin replied.
Charlottes eyes narrowed and she stared at him. "Vin, have you ever fought another Jedi before?"
"Ive sparred with Chris," he shrugged uncomfortably in his chair.
"Thats not what I mean," she answered. "I mean actually fight a Jedi to the death?"
"No." Vin dropped his gaze to the steel deck.
"Well I have and its like nothing you can imagine. Its not just fighting Vin, its trying to keep the dark side contained. Its walking a razors edge where you have to keep from falling over to the dark side while actually fighting it, to keep the fight defensive, not offensive," she explained. "Ive done it a few times and its a terrible thing to kill one of our own when the dark side has claimed them."
"Charlotte," Vin raised his eyes and touched hers. "There is no other way."
"How am I going to look your Alex in the eye and tell her that I let you do this?" She asked quietly. "If you care nothing for yourself, think about her."
"I do care about her," Vin said quietly, wishing she had not brought up Alex. "I dont want to do this Charlotte but I have to."
Suddenly, a console on the cockpit controls flickered to life, indicating with successive flashing on the small screen that something new had developed. Vin immediately caught sight of it and read the message flickering on the digitized screen at two-second intervals.
"What it is?" Charlotte asked as Vin leaned over for a closer look.
"Ive got a message coming on a carrier wave band," Vin said with a little smile.
"A carrier wave?" She stared at him in astonishment. "Who uses that anymore?
"The Alliance," Vin retorted shortly and immediately punched in a response through the keypad before the screen. "Its an emergency frequency we use sometimes when we cant trust a scrambler. That means someone from the Alliance is here." Vin almost hoped it was Chris but knew it was impossible almost immediately after the thought had crossed his mind. Chris was in no shape to make such a trip, not even the amazing abilities of Jedi recuperation could allow for that.
"Whats the message?" Charlotte asked, a surge of hope moving through her that help had come and that Vin would not have to go through a confrontation with Darth Vader.
"Its from Buck," Vin announced. "Buck Wilmington, a good friend of mine. Theyre in Ithorian space. Im going to tell them where we are."
"Thank goodness," Charlotte exclaimed and eased out of her chair, feeling a flood of relief.
Vin said nothing, keeping carefully hidden even from her that even though Bucks arrival was a fortuitous, it did not change their situation. The Rogue was no more capable of escaping the Avenger than the Tracker had been and with Lilith and Charlotte on board, there was no guarantee that Vader would not be able to pinpoint them on the ship. If anything, the arrival of Buck Wilmington convinced Vin that it was now possible for him to be sure that if he went to face Vader, Charlotte and the others would be safe.
It did not take long for the Rogue to find the canyon in which the Tracker had used for a temporary refuge from the Imperial ship in orbit around Ithor. Buck was relieved to know that the apprentice was still in one piece, having entertained some rather disturbing thoughts that they might have been too late, that Vin had already gone to Vader in order to save the Ithorians from further destruction. As the Correllian freighter landed inside the corridor through the mountain, Buck was impressed by Vins selection of a hiding place and was glad the young man had not done anything rash.
"Hows Chris?" Vin asked first when the three friends were finally reunited and introductions were made. They had retired to the passenger cabin of the Tracker, where they could talk for a moment about the crisis they were presently embroiled and how they would extricate themselves from it.
"Well he was more than ready to climb out of bed to come after you," Buck said with a frown. "Took Mary and me quite bit of talking before we convinced him to let us handle it."
"Mary?" Vin stared at him in surprise because the commander of the rebel base was absent. "Where is she?"
"Shes two hours behind us," Buck explained, observing Charlotte as he spoke. She was a pretty thing, not quite what Buck expected actually but just the kind of looks that would make someone like Vin go off and do something stupid, he supposed. "Shes coming on board the Purgatory."
"She shouldnt," Vin frowned unhappy about that. "The Purgatorys no match for a ship like the Avenger."
"The Purgatory is a warship?" Charlotte ventured a guess.
"Yeah," JD nodded in response. "A Nubian with a lot of refitting to make it a match for any destroyer." There was almost a hint of pride in the young mans voice but then he had every right to feel that way. Since coming under Marys command, the Purgatory had much reason to be so celebrated among the members of the rebel alliance, almost all of Marys victories in space had been on the bridge of the Purgatory.
"Not the Avenger," Vin returned crisply.
"Relax Vin," Buck interceded before this conversation went any further. "Marys not going to engage the Avenger, shes not that crazy. She intends to run a little interference for us so we can make the jump into hyperspace."
However Vin was not about to concede that their problems were over. "Did you hear the transmission from the Avenger?" He asked the older man.
Buck nodded grimly, meeting both Charlottes gaze and that of the apprentice. While Vin was determined, Charlotte appeared afraid and if it was Vins intention to play martyr, then Buck could very well understand her anxiety. "I heard it. Theyre trying to make you give yourself up Vin, pure and simple."
"Unfortunately its working," Vin retorted. "If I dont show in two hours, theyre going to destroy another herdship."
"Only because they think youre still hiding out," Buck pointed out. "When we get past them, theyll know different and abandon the target practice. Look, Vader may get away with one city but he wont with two, Im sure he knows it. Ithor is a rich planet and holds considerable importance in the food supply of the Empire; they cant afford to alienate them too much. The destruction of the first herdship was to show the Ithorians that the Empire could do it. If they went in for a second, there will be a mass riot that even the Emperor is going to have to explain and I dont think he wants to tell the Imperial Senate that his henchman shot down a city because of one man."
"Listen to him," Charlotte declared, glad that she was not the only one who was opposed to Vin making a sacrifice of himself. "Hes right."
Bucks argument though good did not sway the young apprentice because the government that would allow the slavery of dozens of worlds would have little difficulty in accepting the injustices presently taking place on Ithor, Vin was sure of it. "Well we should take advantage of the fact that they dont know about the Rogue."
"Thats a idea," Buck agreed with that. "What do you have in mind?"
"Buck, Charlotte is a Jedi," Vin announced and she glanced at him, wondering why it was necessary to make that revelation to the pilot in his opening statement, even though it was not really a secret.
Buck could not hide his surprise and understood now why the lady had been hiding as well as her strong connection to Vin. He absorbed the information and turned back to Vin after a moment. "Thats real interesting Vin but whats it got to do with your plan for getting out of here?"
"With Vader being on that ship, the minute we leave orbit, hell know who we are. He can sense us on whatever ship we might be on. So I figure we split up."
"Split up?" Buck stared at him, not liking this idea at all. "Why?" He asked suspiciously.
"That way, it will give Vader two targets to track and one of us can get away while the other can head back down here and wait until Mary gets here with the Purgatory," Vin suggested.
"Not bad," Buck responded but his gut told him that there was something more at work here but for the moment could not guess what. However, to prevent Vin from making any heroic gestures that would get himself killed, Buck had one condition on his plan. "Alright but JD goes with you."
Vin met Bucks gaze directly and answered. "Sure, no problem."
"Then its a plan," Buck responded, still a little uneasy about it all.
Something about Vins acquiescence made it too easy and he could tell by the expression on Charlottes face that Jedi or not, the lady held similar feelings of discomfort about Vins ready agreement to his conditions. Only JD seemed oblivious to it all, though the young man was curious as to why Buck was so insistent that he play co-pilot to the Tracker. The Slipstream did not require a co-pilot as much as the Rogue but he supposed that Buck had reasons he would let JD in on later.
"When do we leave?" JD asked.
"The sooner the better," was Vins taut reply.
The Admiral was not surprised when the transmission from Ithor finally reached him from the communications officer of the Avenger.
Considering what Lord Vader planned to do if the rebels did not capitulate to his demands, he supposed the only surprise to be had in this whole incident was the fact that it had taken them this long to make their response. With only an hour left until the deadline, the transmission had come exactly when they had anticipated, although for the purposes of pure drama, Jeya would have preferred it if the rebel had left it until the last moment to create some sense of occasion. Still, the rebels were hardly an imaginative lot. Self-appointed heroes seldom were. However as he read the message transcribed before him, Jeya had to confess that the rebel Vin Tanner was not entirely stupid.
The message demanded Lord Vaders attention immediately and thus Jeya departed off the bridge in order to deliver it personally. Usually a junior officer would undertake such errands but on the ship where Darth Vader was master, even an admiral was reduced to delivering messages with the rest of the rank and file. Vaders quarters were the largest on board the Avenger and it was where he spent most of his time when he was carrying out the Emperors orders. It was rumored that the dark lord had been given a fortress in Coruscant but spent most of the time on board this ship since he very rarely out of the Emperors service. Still, Jeya wondered how did the man spend the scant time he had to himself? Every man in power tended to have excesses, even the Emperor was known for his voracious indulgence in young courtesans. Vader seemed more machine and man and yet who he once was remained a mystery. Did he have friends? Family? A wife somewhere perhaps? Jeya doubted it. A person such as Vader wou ld not allow himself the indulgence that would weaken him.
Arriving at Vaders quarters, Jeya was mindful to be invited before entering. Vaders quarters were modified just for him. When the door slid open before him, Jeya stepped in and paused, taking a moment to compose himself so that he would not stare when he saw the dark lord inside the cybernetic chamber he used to maintain the infamous armor. Circular in shape, when it was activated, the outlet would seal the dark lord inside its confines, possibly giving him a moment of respite from the armor that kept him alive. Jeya suspected that it was the only place that Vader ever removed his outer casing. Vaders protective orb was exposed and the dark lord was nestled on a chair within it, appearing deep in thought.
"Yes Admiral?" Vader wasted no time with the pleasantries and asked. "There is news?" He asked, perfectly aware that must have been for Jeya to be here.
"Weve received a transmission from Vin Tanner," Jeya announced himself.
"And?" Vader made no move to leave his seat.
"He will await you in Seleusa at the end of the deadline," Jeya continued. "However, you must let the others with him leave. He does not name the ship in which they will be departing."
"He is aware that I will know which it is," Vader retorted in anticipation of a question originating from Jeya in regards to that point.
"Your orders my Lord?" Jeya asked.
"We must not keep Tanner waiting. When his friends attempt to leave Ithor, let them through and have my shuttle prepared for departure immediately," Vader spoke after a pause. "With some added embellishments of course."
The embellishments did not bother Jeya as much as the notion of letting the other rebels go. "My Lord are we to let them go?" Jeya exclaimed.
"It is Tanner I want." Vaders voice seemed to become deeper and louder at the same time. "The others are of no use to me."
"What about Governor Richmonds daughter?" Jeya pointed.
"If I have Tanner, then I have no need of her," Vader answered, keeping to himself that once he extracted what he needed from Tanner, he would have no need of Lilith Richmond.
Instead, he would have a young Skywalker.
Once Charlotte, Lilith and Maria had returned with Buck to the Rogue and Vin found himself with a temporary co-pilot in the presence of JD on board the Tracker, it was time to make their departure from Ithor. Both ships took of at relatively the same time and made quick progress out of the atmosphere although they maintained radio silence as they approach the atmospheric shield around the planet. The exodus was still taking place and it was not difficult for them to insinuate themselves into the path of the ships that were leaving the Ithorians herdships in an effort to avoid the impending destruction. As the ships climbed into the atmosphere, Vin kept a close eye for the Avenger, perfectly aware that when Vader detected the presence of Jedi, the temporary cloak this fleet of ships around them had provided would disappear.
"So far so good," JD remarked as he helped Vin with the co-piloting of the Tracker since Vin seemed unusually tense. JD himself had no idea who Darth Vader was aware of how dangerous a dark Jedi could be and everything he had heard about the Sith Lord seemed to indicate that he was someone JD had no wish to see anytime soon. If someone like Vader was gunning for Vin in particular, JD could not blame the apprentice for his concern. JD had seen what Vader had done to Chris and that was enough to scare him, let alone imagine wondering what someone of lesser skill might endure facing the Sith Lord.
"Yeah," Vin said shortly, his eyes watching the blue of Ithors sky disappearing for the twinkling sparkle of space. Somewhere in all the beauty was the Avenger, Vin thought grimly.
Almost as soon as they broke through the atmospheric layer of the planet, the Avenger swooped down on them, like a shark attacking a school of fish. The other vessels scattered and it was evident that the great ship was only interested in one craft and it was not Vins ship. The Tracker was swept out of the way by the destroyers inertia, losing control of its anti-gravs for a brief moment. Both Vin and JD struggled to remain in the chair as the leviathan swam past and began concentrating its fire on the Rogue.
"Buck!" JD cried out as he saw the freighter take heavy bombardment as it struggled to shake off the massive ship coming at it in a ferocious vector.
"Buck, Im going in!" Vin shouted into his com unit. "When you see an opening, get the hell out of here!"
"I aint leaving you both!" Bucks determined voice returned a short time later.
"You dont have a choice!" Vin retorted. "You have to get Charlotte and the others away."
With that the apprentice terminated the conversation and immediately angled his ship at the destroyer. He glanced at JD and took a deep breath. "JD Im sorry." Vin looked at him.
"Youre sorry?" JD stared back at him in confusion. "I thought we were going to give Buck an opening?" The young mans demanded.
"I am," Vin replied. "Just not the kind you think."
Without saying another word, Vin slammed his elbow into JDs face. The youth slump backwards against his seat, his head impacting hard against the headrest as he slumped into unconsciousness with only his belt keeping him in the chair. Taking a deep breath, he steadied himself and turned his ship around. The stars in front of the cockpit showed his radical change in course and saw his com panel flare with incoming transmissions. The Avenger having noted the change in the Trackers trajectory, immediately discontinued their attack on the Rogue and began to veer away. The freighter, taking advantage of the situation immediately put a good deal of distance between itself and the departing destroyer. Vin ensured that the Avenger knew that he was heading back to the Ithor before he answered the frantic transmissions coming from the Rogue.
"Vin, what the hell are you doing?" Buck demanded.
"What I have to do Buck," Vin responded firmly, daring not to think too much about what he was doing or he would lose his nerve. "I made a deal with them Buck, my life for all of yours. As long as I keep my end of the bargain to meet Vader on Seleusa, the Avenger wont fire upon you when you try to leave Ithor."
"Are you insane!" Buck sputtered in response. "What about JD?"
"JDs going to be fine." Vin glanced at the young man who was still quite unconscious. "Ive set the Tracker on autopilot, shell set down in the canyon again until the kid comes to. Im going to get to Seleusa on a life pod. My trajectory takes us straight past the herdship."
"Vin dont do this!" Charlotte cried out frantically. "Dont throw your life away for us! Please!"
Hearing her plea was like feeling knives piercing his heart but Vin refused to be swayed by them. He had made a bargain with Vader and it looked like the dark lord had honored his end of the transaction. Now it was Vins turn. Swallowing hard, he answered softly, "Im not throwing away my life but all your lives for mine is a small price I dont mind paying," Vin answered, starting to find it difficult to keep talking but his emotions were starting to overwhelm him. "Tell Alex I love her and tell Chris, that he was right."
With that Vin terminated the channel between them and hoped that Buck would relay those last words to the people he cared about because he had a feeling he would never see them again.
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