The situation was as bad as it seemed.
Inside the walls of the rebel base, what had been home for some months to all of them had become a monument to chaos. The evacuation was in full swing and, even though it seemed like nothing was being accomplished in this cacophony of sound and motion swirling around them like a frantic mist, each person that was going about their business was only a small cog in a greater machine. The Seven were part of the machine too but for them, the task ahead was far bloodier than the simple evacuation of the base. Those who came across the Seven acknowledged their presence with respect and awe but did not intrude upon the moment shared by the men because they understood its importance. Considering what the Seven would soon be facing, privacy was the very least that could be afforded them from the rest of the rebels in the base.
Beyond the skies of the planet they were now attempting to flee in such haste, a phalanx of star destroyers had emerged from hyperspace and was closing in rapidly. The Powers That Be estimated that they had a matter of hours before the Imperials would converge upon them like a pack of wolves on a hapless prey. All that stood between them and complete obliteration was the seven men who were now gathered in the hanger, offering each other comfort in the unshakeable bond that had made their number transcend into the stuff of legend. Of course to look at them, one could be forgiven for thinking that they made for an eclectic combination, for their differences were so marked.
The Jedi and the leader among them did not wear the robes that marked a Jedi Knight from others. His robes were jet black, the symbol of mourning for a wife and child lost. Powerful green eyes pierced through the skin whenever his gaze was directed at anyone and captured everything he observed. His apprentice, younger but no less formidable, wore a black cloak but his clothes were lighter. It was said the master and apprentice could speak without words and indeed their understanding of each other seemed to indicate a kind of clairvoyance that others were not privy to. Together, they moved through the halls of the rebel base inspiring mystery and reverence in all that saw them, though the apprentice was certainly more approachable than his master.
In perfect contrast, the pilot was most approachable and hard pressed to be seen without ever wearing a smile on his face. His disposition was bright and it radiated through his persona to those around him like the blast of sunshine after a particularly cold night. His constant companion, a young man no more than twenty, if that, tried to look brave despite the knowledge of the bloody work to be done. Even though he still wore the look of a fresh faced youth, those who had seen him behind the controls of a gunnery turret knew that his skill was certainly not that of a novice. The two men shook the hands of the others in their circle and glanced at the fighters that were being readied by technicians for immediate departure. Their part of the defense would be played out in the two X wing fighters that were awaiting their arrival.
The task of meeting the enemy face was left to the most enigmatic member of the group, save the two Jedis. Clad in what was an officers uniform, the commander of the rebel warship known as the Purgatory was one of the most capable in the Rebel Fleet. Always exuding a persona of dapper charm, it was merely a façade to the sharp intellect that was usually evidenced by his superior sabaac playing skills until one actually saw him on the bridge of a warship. His best friend and second in command, a tall, impressive looking black man who was one of the first officers to cross over from Imperial service to the Rebellion was a contrasting figure by comparison. Unlike his superior officer, the second in command was a soldier and an idealist. He had recruited his friend to the cause and had been involved with the Alliance as soon as there had been an armed force to speak off.
The final member of the fellowship was a distinguished looking older man whose words and expressive eyes were the most telling thing about him. In another life, he had been a senator of the Old Republic. Along with Bail Organa, Mon Mothma and Bel Iblis, he had seen the dark times coming the instant Palpatine had elevated his position from Chancellor of the Republic Senate to Emperor. As a representative of Sollust, one of the oldest civilizations in the galaxy, not to mention the original architects of the Republic Senate, he had stood against the coming autocracy and had been branded a traitor. These days, he rarely played the role of diplomat and had instead evolved into a freedom fighter and a soldier. But more importantly, he was one of the Seven.
The woman appeared from the corner of the seven and if there was anyone who dared to intrude upon the seven men, it was the lithe, blond beauty that made her way towards them. Golden haired cascading down her shoulders, she captured the eye of every one who passed by her with a prompt salute. Her legend almost matched that of the Seven and together, they were a force to be reckoned with. On this occasion, her normally blue-grey eyes were devoid of their military authority, but instead laced with concern and anxiety. Anyone who was privy to what was happening could understand why this occasion was such an exception.
Mary Travis approached the group of men who were her closest friends and the most valued members of her command. It troubled her greatly that before this day was out; there was a good chance that some of them might not survive the evacuation. She brushed the thought away because it was no good for a leader to think in such fatalistic terms. While she, above everyone else, had to be realistic about their chances of escaping the Imperial force bearing down upon them, she refused to entertain the notion about losing any member of the Seven. The idea alone made her heart constrict in her chest and she crushed the sensation ruthlessly as she reached them.
"Mary," Chris Larabee greeted her with that simple utterance as their eyes met. The rest of the seven knew of the feelings between the two. Their relationship existed within the limbo of being more than just friends, less than lovers. There would come a day when that definition would be altered, but for the moment, they remained separated by inhibitions borne of mourning loves lost already in this terrible conflict.
"Im glad youre all here," she offered Chris a little smile and then faced the rest of the seven as her voice took on a more business like tone. "Although I dont know how glad youre going be after Ive finished saying what Im here to say."
JD involuntarily tensed, while Chris, Ezra and Vin showed no response. Nathan and Buck exchanged brief glances and Josiah took a deep breath to brace himself for the worse. It was Josiah who urged her to continue after she had captured their undivided attention with her ominous words.
"Scanners have picked up three destroyers. Two heavy cruisers and the third appear to be a transport carrier. The transport carrier will arrive here first," Mary answered after a pause.
"How long do we have?" Chris inquired, able to tell by her dark emotions that her answer would not be optimistic.
"Two hours at the most," she said softly.
"Two hours?" Buck exclaimed. "We cant get all these people out of here before then!"
"I know." Marys gaze dropped to the ground for a moment. "Thats why well have to let the transport carrier land."
"Marys thats an awful lot of troops," Nathan replied, completely aware of how many storm troopers a transport carrier was capable of ferrying.
"I know." She swallowed. "But we have to let them land and we have to hold them off from entering the base because ."
"Because if they dont, the Empire might just decide to annihilate us from orbit," Ezra finished off for her.
"Yes," she nodded slowly. "Thats right. We have to allow those surface troops to land and convince the attack force that a terrestrial victory is possible. That will give us time to evacuate the base and get our ships out of the area."
The enormity of what she was suggesting was not lost upon them. There was close to a legion of ground troops on a transport carrier, all who were well armed and equally well trained. It would not be easy to fight them off. This endeavor could not be undertaken without a significant cost in casualties. However, Mary would not have brought up this solution unless there was some other way. They could see how difficult it was for her to put this to them, how torn she was that she was forced to act in the best interest of her command rather than her personal feelings.
"Ill be leading the ground troops," she announced and immediately garnered a chorus of protest from those before her.
"You cant," Chris said firmly. "It's too dangerous."
"Which is exactly why I should be there," Mary said hotly, "I will not leave my officers to face this alone."
"With all due respect Commander," Ezra turned to her. "Of all the people here, you are the one who cannot stay most of all. You're our most decorated commander. If you were captured the military victory, let alone the blow to morale, would be unimaginable. We cannot risk you being captured or compromised. It cannot be you."
"I will not leave." Marys cheeks flushed red with defiance.
"Yes you will," Josiah Sanchez added his voice to the argument and he alone among them, had the authority to overrule her decision. Commander of the rebel base she might be, but he was one of the leaders of the Alliance, and in this matter he had the rank to impose his authority. "I realize you do not want to let others fight for you. I understand that more than you know but Mary, youre important to the cause and sometimes, to help the cause, you need to walk away."
Mary wanted to protest but she could not. She could not because he was absolutely right. The cause was more important than the individual and though she hated to do it, she knew that this time she could not be leading the charge. She was an asset as important as everything else they were working so hard to save in their hasty evacuation. "Alright," she whispered in a small voice, hating it that she was forced into this position. "Ill go." The words sounded like ash and they tasted almost the same. "But someone will have to lead our ground troops."
"I can do that," Chris volunteered immediately. It seemed the natural choice after all.
Mary turned to him, her face showing her worry for him on a very personal level but it was ruthlessly brushed away because she could not show that part of herself at a time like this. She nodded in acceptance of his answer, realizing there was little else she could do but agree to it because it was a good choice. Morale would be greatly raised in this matter if the ground troops knew they would have a Jedi leading them into battle. "Youll have to establish a perimeter line," she said meeting his gaze. "Chances are, theyll come at you with armored walkers first. Well set up an artillery line to give you some help with that. Theyll attempt to break through the line using the walkers, then, when were in disarray, theyll send in their stormtroopers. The best thing you can do to keep that from happening is maintain the battle line for as long as possible."
"Ill keep it in mind," he nodded, absorbing all that information, doing more than keeping it mind but rather committing her words to memory.
"If you dont mind," Vin Tanner drawled in his laconic manner. "Ill ride shot gun with you. Youre going to need someone to watch your back."
"You both look like you need someone to do that," Josiah spoke up. "Count me in."
The three men glanced at each other in acknowledgement and appreciation of being together, even during such hazardous duty. Chris could feel the others wanting to join him, but the truth was, it was likely Mary had plans for their skills to be employed elsewhere and they were waiting in anticipation of what their role in this evacuation would be.
"Whats to stop them from getting pounded from the air?" Buck asked, finding gaping flaws in the plan that would require Chris, Vin and Josiah to place themselves and a good deal of rebel ground troops in front of a sizeable Imperial force. "Theres no reason to assume that the Empire wont give air support to their troops."
"A contingent of fighters will be deployed to ensure that doesnt happen." Mary faced him automatically, having covered this ground long before she arrived here. "I was going to ask you to lead Gold squadron to ensure that our troops have the same advantage if the Empire chooses to go that way. Even if they dont, its still a good idea."
"Im there," Buck answered without having to think twice. He was the best pilot in the fleet and they all knew it. JD was raw but he was almost as good, destined to be even better once he had a few years under his belt.
"Me too," JD responded, never far behind where Buck Wilmington was concerned.
"It's gonna be rough kid," Buck gave him a look of concern. "You sure?"
JD had never been in a full-scale battle before and Buck was not afraid to admit he was concerned about whether the kid would hold up under pressure. Unfortunately, JD was too good a pilot not to have in this engagement and as much as Buck would have preferred he cut his teeth on something less dangerous, it seemed there was little choice at the moment.
"Ill be okay Buck," JD assured him, grateful for the concern shown by the older man but confident that he could deal with what was to come. Besides, their situation required the use of all available manpower and JD was almost as protective about Buck as the older man felt towards him.
"We still require a window of escape for the departing ships," Ezra pointed out to Mary. "We will need to engage those two destroyers directly."
"I know," Mary sighed. "Unfortunately, we have only one warship and since it's been made abundantly clear that I cant be on it, it looks like youre going to be in command Ezra."
Ezra had more or less expected that. "I take it I am to run interference?"
"More or less," Mary replied. "You need to give us as much time as you can possibly manage. We already have our smaller crafts departing the hangars by two. It's dangerous but we dont have much choice. The ion cannon will be giving you some support but mostly it's going to be you and all the fighters we can spare. Most of them will be able to make the jump to hyperspace but our short range fighters will have to dock on the warship."
"This is gonna be fun," Nathan commented. "Just how long are we expected to hold off against two star destroyers?"
"I'm not sure," Mary replied, wishing she could give him a better answer then that. "We're getting as many of our ships out of here as we can. We're hoping that most of them will be gone before you have to engage the destroyers. I'm sorry I can't be any clearer than that."
"We will do what we can," Ezra said confidently, aware that she was feeling bad enough about not being able to stand with them in the defense they were preparing to mount.
Mary had been a hands on leader from the moment she had assumed command of the rebel enclave in the portion of space known as the Territory and she was never willing to risk anyone on a venture she was not prepared to undertake herself. While Chris Larabee's feelings towards her were obviously more than mere loyalty, the rest of the seven were just as fiercely devoted to her as the rest of the rebels under her command. If they were to win the day, it would be in no small part thanks to their determination not to fail her.
"I know you will," Mary responded turning away, the tough mask of the commander fading for an instant.
Chris gave the others a quick glance, indicating that he wanted a moment alone with her. The six men discreetly withdrew, painfully aware that if things went badly today, it might be the last time that Chris and Mary saw each other.
"Mary, we'll be okay," Chris assured her once they were alone, or as much as could be managed with all the activity that was taking place around them.
"I know," she nodded, trying hard to believe it because if she thought for a moment that she might lose any one of them, then the fight she had dedicated her life to would cease to have it meaning. What was the point of fighting for freedom if those she wanted to share it with most were dead? "I just wish I was out there with you."
Her gaze dropped and she was certain her emotions were an open book to him. Suddenly, she felt his finger on her chin, lifting her head up gently so that she could look into his eyes and understand that he felt as deeply as she did. "We'll be all right, all of us," he declared firmly with a deep, meaningful gaze. "I promise you."
"I'm going to hold you that." She swallowed thickly, her gray eyes so filled with hope and worry that Chris knew without doubt that if he managed nothing else today, he was going to make sure that he did not disappoint her.
They had chosen the system because it was in a remote location and had no value in commercial or strategic terms. The star system known as Colu sat on the boundaries of galactic space, an isolated and forgotten place that had never really inspired anyone to keep it in memory other than to note the fact that it existed somewhere on a map. Only one of the four planets orbiting its giant red sun was capable of supporting life, though sustaining it was another thing entirely. Its incapacity to be host for human habitation was born of the fact that it laid furthest away from its massive home star. Incapable of supporting any life forms more complex than lichens and mosses, it was this scant vegetation that had allowed Colu 4 to develop an oxygen rich atmosphere.
The rebel base had been situated on Colu for more than six months now but its occupants had always been painfully aware that this state of affairs could change rapidly if they were discovered. With Imperial forces combing the galaxy for all traces of their existence, it was the nature of things that they never became too accustomed to one place. An attachment to any one place was an unnecessary burden when discovery almost always meant fleeing. In truth, there was little about Colu that the rebels would miss terribly much. It was hardly the terrain that one could keep as a fond memory but they were standing their ground, preparing to defend it despite the fact that a good number of them would almost certainly be killed for their trouble. Because, for all its harshness, Colu had offered them, for a while at least, a safe haven to fight their cause.
Chris Larabee raised the binoculars to his eyes when he felt their presence.
He did not really need to see for himself what the Force had already revealed to him but for the sake of the others, a more contemporary medium of information was required other than Jedi abilities they could not fathom. He stared through the eyepieces, watching the world divide into the earthy colors of the Colu landscape and the light, watery tinge of the sky. He waited for a few seconds, continuing to watch even though he could sense their presence approaching. He could feel them, moving forward with earnest belief that they were patriots, not unknowing accomplices to a madman's desires. Without even lowering the binoculars, he knew Vin was waiting next to him, feeling the same things, requiring the same confirmation.
They came into view almost silently. Tiny specks in the distance with no shape or form. This would change soon enough; the more they closed in on their targets. The lack of definitive shape gave the rebels some hope that they could win the day. As much as Chris would like to believe that, he was not optimistic. Even a Jedi knew when the odds were stacked against them and on this occasion, it was never clearer. The AT-AT's came into view first, because they were the largest objects on the field. Their real names were All Terrain Armored Transports and their reputation was as formidable as their name. Huge mechanical transports that were so well armored, it required the sustained fire of an X-wing to penetrate it. Blasters would have very little effect upon them. Chris had never seen them in operation himself but he had heard the stories of the battles in which they were deployed. Almost every one of those saw an Imperial victory thanks to the use of these formidable carriers.
"I see them," Chris announced and captured the attention of every man present.
"How many?" Vin asked automatically.
"Two AT-ATs," he replied, watching the transports make their way across the dry, parched terrain. "Four Imperial Walkers," he continued to narrate watching the smaller battle crafts approaching and paused a moment before making his next revelation, an action which did not escape those who were watching him closely for information. "They've got a dozen mobile cannons and what looks like an entire division of stormtroopers."
"By the Force," Josiah Sanchez exclaimed softly.
Chris lowered his binoculars and made eye contact with both Vin and Josiah briefly. The others were depending on them to lead them through this crisis. They above all else could not show fear in the face of the odds before them. They were leading the ground defenses and no matter how insurmountable the odds may appear, they needed to hold the line so the rest of the rebel forces could complete the evacuation process. "I know it looks bad," he said quietly. "But we have to believe that we can stand up to them or none of us is going to make it off Colu alive."
"We'll make it," Vin nodded in understanding. "We'll make it or die trying and if we do, I ain't going without taking a whole lot of them with me."
"Good plan," Josiah agreed with a little smile. "You got any idea on how we're going to deal with all that Chris?" He glanced in the direction of the enemy.
"We have to disable those AT-ATs before they get here," Chris declared without needing to think twice. "Once they get in range of our battle line, they'll wipe us out."
"How?" Vin stared at Chris skeptically. He had a great deal of faith in the Jedi but getting through an entire division of Imperial troops was a hat trick even for Chris. "We have to penetrate their forces to reach the AT-AT's. Even if by some miracle we make it through those stormtroopers and walkers, we still have no chance of taking them out. Unless we can sneak in a blast cannon, we won't even be able leave a dent in that armor of theirs."
"Well we had better think of a way," Josiah retorted. "Or this is not going to be a defense but a slaughter."
"Okay," Chris interjected quickly before the mood became any grimmer. "If we can't reach those AT-ATs on the ground, then maybe the answer is coming at them by air."
"Buck." Vin latched onto his intention immediately.
"Yeah," Chris nodded. "Buck."
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