As an uncle, Josiah Sanchez was well aware that he had been lacking. In some ways, he was closer to Mary Travis in that role then he was to the child of his sister Hannah. This state of affairs had mostly come about because Mary was a native of Coruscant and during his career as a Republic senator, had spent most of his time there rather than his native Sollust. He had missed the most important times in Hannahs lives although as siblings went, they were close and had corresponded regularly. His responsibilities on Coruscant had kept him away and Hannah understood this because being the representative of their world on such a galactic stage meant that there was a price to be paid. Hannah knew that she would have to be content with her brothers time being spent mostly in Coruscant and continued with her own life, treating his appearances as lifes little pleasures.
When Palpatine had made his bid for power and Josiah threw his lot in with the voices that stood opposed to his proclamation of instilling himself as Emperor, Josiah had never dreamed what a terrible cost Palpatine would exact in response to their defiance. Even now, whenever Josiah thought about that night, his blood would boil in his veins and the need for vengeance would strip away years of polished calm. None of the senators defying the shift in government from democratic to autocratic had any notion of what Palpatine had planned and the attacks had come in the night across a dozen worlds at almost the same time. Thus no one was able to warn each other until it was too late. They had come for Hannah and her husband in this manner, murdering them in their beds and the same fate might have befallen Casey had she not been staying with visiting the home of her Aunt Nettie.
In assuming responsibility for her, Josiah had thought at first that it was safer to keep her at a distance but her near capture by Imperial forces on Bespin had taught him how much of a mistake that was. Thus he decided, though somewhat reluctantly that perhaps it would be wiser to keep her closer to him, so that he could personally attend to her safety and her growth. Of course, having an impetuous seventeen-year-old with more than a passing knowledge of codes and slicing techniques did pose problems of his own. Josiah had endured most of it stoically because she was his blood and because she reminded him a great deal of Hannah and Josiah was determined to do better by Casey than he had with his sister. However, at this moment, he wished she was anywhere but here and despite the fact that the feeling would probably pass with the danger, he could not help cursing himself for placing her in this position. Especially when she had ideas of her own.
"But Josiah I can help!" She cried out as he stood by and watched her pack her things.
"No you cant," Josiah retorted, his voice coming from him in a growl. "The minute youre packed, you and Captain Perkins will be lifting off in the Rogue. I want you out of here."
"Josiah I know I can be of some help!" Casey insisted once more, not about to let the matter rest. "By the looks of it we need all that we can get."
"Casey," Josiah sucked in his breath and straightened up, a gesture, which indicated to his young niece that he was not appreciating this continued debate. "Everything that can be done is being taken care of. Right now, the best thing you can do is to be out of harms way."
"Dont you mean out of your way?" She accused with just a hint of petulance in her voice.
Josiahs expression hardened. "What do you mean?"
"I think that you just dont want me getting underfoot. Im not a child anymore," she declared, holding her ground and not about to let him brush her off.
"I know youre not a child," Josiah sighed, wishing he could carry on this conversation any time but now. "I want you to go because Im not sure Ill be able to take you myself."
The words sunk in after a second of their speaking and she swallowed visibly, having never considered the possibility that the situation might become so dire that his life was in jeopardy by choosing to remain behind to defend the place.
"Josiah are things really that bad?" She asked, her voice nothing more than a soft whisper.
"Yes," Josiah nodded supposing in the last few minutes that she was right, she was no longer a child anymore. She was almost a young woman and the life she had chosen for herself in the Rebellion had certainly earned her the right to know everything, no matter how brutal that knowledge may be for her sensibilities. "The general consensus is that if we make it out of here, we will be lucky."
Casey said nothing for a second, feeling tendrils of fear moving through her body at the prospect of losing the only family she had left. Even though she spoke rarely about it, Casey missed her mother and father terribly but voicing that hurt would only serve to have others treat her even more like a child and that was not what she wanted. She wished they would understand that there was no reason to protect her because she had seen first hand what dangers existed beyond the veil of safety they tried to provide for her. She could see Josiahs own anxiousness at what awaited him and she understood at that moment that his reason for sending her away was not that he feared for her life but rather he feared the effect that losing his would have upon her. He did not wish her to see him dead, not until it was absolutely necessary. In understanding that, the fight left her like a breath exhaled and she raised her eyes to it, somewhat sedately but in full comprehension of the situation.
"Alright Josiah," she nodded obediently. "When Louisa gets here, Ill go."
"Thank you," Josiah said relieved but saw that she understood his intentions. "Whatever happens, I need you to stay alive."
"Whatever happens," Casey met his gaze. "I need you to try to do the same."
On the bridge of the Purgatory all was deathly silent.
Perhaps it was because the situation as so critical. As Mary Travis sat in her command chair, she showed no evidence of any anxiety that the rest of the bridge crew must surely be experiencing as they saw in the main viewer the sight of the four destroyers that were coming for them. Until now, the Shadowstar had only engaged the Purgatory and that effort had been obligatory. Mary suspected that it was mostly to keep her from going after the Phoenix, which was attempting to deploy its troops on the surface of the planet. What disturbed her however, was the lack of action from the two other ships, the Nimbus and the Chimaera. For the moment, the two star destroyers seemed content to hold back and watch her engage the Shadowstar. Something about that disturbed Mary greatly and she knew it bothered Chano too but the exec was keeping it to himself for the time being. It was bad for morale if both command officers displayed their lack of facts regarding the battle ahead.
"Chano," Mary motioned her exec to her side.
"Yes Sir?" Chano leaned closer to her, taking note of the tone in her voice to know that she wanted their conversation discreet.
"Does this feel right to you?" She asked quietly.
Chano took a deep breath before he answered, his gaze instinctively moving towards the viewer before him as he saw the ships before them. The larger two vessels, the Chimaera and the Nimbus remained motionless as if it was waiting for something. Icicles rippled down Chano's spine when he considered what that might be. The fact that Mary did not know disturbed him because his commander always had some idea of what was taking place in a battle. He had served with her long enough to know that it was rare that she was captured completely unawares. He did not relish that this time might be the first.
"No," Chano shook his head. "Do we know who is in command?"
"I'm almost certain that the lead ship is the Chimaera," Mary responded. "But there is almost nothing on record about its crew or who is in command of her."
"That's unusual." Chano stared at her in some small measure of surprise. "Normally there is talk. Imperial commanders like to boast and I find it extremely unnerving that none of our spies know anything about it. I thought we usually had full appraisal of these things."
"Obviously not," Mary returned. "He's holding back and I don't know if its because he's trying to see what I'm going to do or is it because he's trying to exhaust our forces. They know we only have one ship, so maybe he is trying to wear us down."
"Then we're wasting our resources dealing with the Shadowstar," Chano retorted. "Maybe we should be conserving our strength."
"For what?" She stared at him. "We're not going to be able to withstand all of them when they finally make their move and that's what I think they're trying to do. I think they're trying to get their pieces into place and then converge upon us."
"Against all four of them?" He hissed and felt his stomach knot in fear. They would never survive that united assault.
"We have to outthink them," Mary pondered the question a moment. "We have to outthink them. The Chimaera is leading the attack," she stated firmly. "If she's pulling all the strings in the background, maybe we can cut them long enough for our transports to get out the systems. Remember, we can't beat them but we can disorientate them enough to give our people an opening."
"How do you suggest we do that?" Chano asked, seeing the flicker in her eyes, which usually indicated that she had some kind of a plan. It made him feel a great deal better knowing that she had some kind of strategy in mind. Sometimes, it was all that kept them from being defeated in a battle.
"We go straight for the jugular." Mary sat up straight and this time her voice escaped her loud enough for everyone to hear. She was no longer afraid of being heard because she knew what had to be done.
"Straight for the jugular?" Chano looked at her in confusion.
"Helm," Mary spoke up, ignoring his question for the moment. "Break away from the Shadowstar and proceed at maximum burn towards the Chimaera. We're going to take out their lead ship and mop up later."
"Commander are you certain about this?" Chano could not keep himself from asking following Mary's issue of orders.
"Yes," Mary nodded. "It's the only chance we have against these kind of numbers. We'll send a spear right through the heart of them and take out the lead ship. "Chano, issue attack orders to all pilots, tell them to concentrate all fire power on the Chimaera."
"Yes Sir," Chano and immediately carried out the order.
As the viewer shifted its electronic eye away from the ships and followed the Purgatory's shift to port, Mary could see the console screen next to her command chair that revealed the progress of the fighters beyond the hull of the ship. There were so many TIE fighter and X-wings in the air that it was hard to believe that there was space between them to move. Although space was a vacuum that allowed little sound to penetrate through the hull of the Purgatory, Mary could hear the explosions that must be erupting when any ship on the screen before her was destroyed. The Purgatory had pulled away so abruptly, the Shadowstar had little opportunity to react until there was an ample amount of space between them. Mary's observation of her console revealed that the X wings were breaking and following the Purgatory as it moved at juggernaut pace towards the Chimaera.
That was the only way to win this, she thought as the Chimaera appeared in the distance twilight displayed on the viewer. Go for the jugular.
"Sir she's coming straight for us!" Pallaeon exclaimed as he saw the Purgatory cutting its way through space on a direct heading for the Chimaera.
Thrawn allowed himself a little smile because he had been expecting this ever since the Purgatory engaged the Shadowstar. It would not take Travis long to deduce which one of the four was the lead ship and as it was in keeping with her brilliant and unpredictable style of command, the only way for her to beat the odds before her was to come for the lead ship. It was a bold effort and had it been anyone else but Thrawn in charge of this fleet, it might have worked. Fortunately, Thrawn had taken the time to study his enemy and her tactics in warfare, enough to be able to predict with a fair amount of accuracy she would do when cornered in such a manner. It was part of the reason why he had kept his command of the Chimaera such a closely guarded secret. He did not intend to give her the same advantage.
"You were right Sir," Pallaeon said in a softer voice once the obvious became known.
"Order the Shadowstar to keep on her rear," Thrawn continued, staring at the viewer on his own bridge with silent contemplation. "Maintain the illusion that we are trying to prevent her from reaching us. Tell him to concentrate all firepower on the ship's rear engines. That has just enough desperation about it to convince Travis that the Shadowstar is determined to stop her.
"What about the Nimbus?" Pallaeon inquired. "Commander Husten will want orders."
"Tell him to lay an ample barrage but ensure that a sizeable gap remains between them for the time being. Has the signal come in from the Phoenix?" Thrawn glanced at the younger man briefly.
"Yes Sir." He nodded automatically. "The troop carriers and armored walkers have been deployed."
"Good," Thrawn answered, pleased that everything was falling into place. Even now, he could see the Purgatory surging away from the Shadowstar, its fighters following the Nubian warship closely and providing air support where the ship's guns could not reach. "Order him back here immediately and tell Commander Daris that when the Phoenix arrives, I want him to lay in course for the planet. The Phoenix, Nimbus and Chimaera should be more than a match for the Purgatory."
Pallaeon open his mouth to comment but Thrawn cut him off abruptly. "If he complains as Daris is often likely to do when he thinks he's being robbed of the glory, tell him that I have something particular planned for him and he will know it is when it presents itself to him."
Pallaeon who was aware of what the Grand Admiral was thinking could only nod in agreement because the rebels would have no idea what hit them when Thrawn's genius revealed itself.
It started with slight tremor of sound. A low rumbling that could have been mistaken for the ground quaking if not for the rhythmic pace. One after the other, it was not so much a sound as it was a trembling in their bones that they could not discern cause. During the onset of its emergence, too much was focussed on their preparations in facing the enemy that it never occur that the shudder they were all feeling was not the fear of the battle ahead but the reaction to something real and tangible. Chris sensed it far sooner than that although he said nothing at first, preferring to study the horizon at the end of the field they were presently occupying. As Mary had suspected, the ground assault had come from the north because the terrain was level enough for the AT-ATs and the armoured walkers to traverse.
The rebels had taken up position at the edge of the woods that faced the grassy plain, using the cover of trees to keep their true numbers concealed. A short distance away from where they were presently preparing to face the enemy, were all their ships awaiting their departure once the evacuation process was completed, allowing them a hasty retreat when their work was done. Chris could feel the Empire approaching and as he walked to the edge of the tree line and peered into the distance, he knew without doubt that they were coming. Glancing at the rebels who were present, he saw them assembling the portable cannons and the large blast cannons that were manned by artillery units who would use them to battle the AT-ATs everyone knew they were ill equipped to defeat. Chris could see the apprehension on their faces. It was coupled with grim determination to succeed no matter what the cost. He admired them for their courage and the devotion to the cause of freedom. There was honor in dying for a just cause.
For their sake, Chris hoped those were just not words.
Once he was certain that what he was sensing was the approaching Imperial attack force, Chris found himself seeking out Nathan who was issuing orders to the commanders in charge of the cannons, Josiah included. The ground pounders were checking their weapons, settling into position while Vin joined the snipers. Chris himself had relinquished his light sabre in favor of a blaster since he would be of more use to the fighting in that manner. Suddenly, Chris noted that Nathan had dismissed those before him when his com link began to beep a message. Only Josiah remained after the others had left and Nathans expression following his receipt of the transmission made to him spoke volumes. His emotions were a mixture of sorrow and acceptance that immediately brought Chris to him.
"Whats happened?" Chris asked.
"That was Colonel Kellis," Nathan said softly. "The Empire hit them with almost the entire fighter complement of two Star Destoryers. He doesnt have enough pilots in the air to keep those fighters from coming down on us."
"What about the Gold and Blue squadrons?" Josiah asked, his gaze shifting to the sky to see whether there were any signs of the TIE fighters that were on their way to them.
"They cant be called away," Nathan replied promptly. "The Purgatory is on its own up there, it needs all the help it can get. We managed to recall some of the pilots escorting the transports out of the system but theyre short too."
"My ship near by?" Chris asked suddenly.
"Yes," Josiah stared at him. "You know that."
"Good," Chris responded promptly. "Tell Kellis Ill be up in the air within the next ten minutes."
"Chris, we need you here!" Nathan retorted, not wishing to see the Jedi leave. Chris presence offered morale as well as experienced combat experience.
"One more shooter is not going to make much difference down here Nathan," Chris gestured to the ground pounders before them. "However, one ship might be different."
Nathan wanted to offer more protest but the truth was, the Jedi was correct. They needed air support or no matter how well they stood up against the ground assault, it would mean little if they were blasted to kingdom come from the sky above. "Alright," Nathan conceded defeat and the words felt like ash in his mouth. "Go on and take care of yourself."
"Give them hell brother," Josiah added with a smile hating to see Chris leave the field as much as Nathan but like the captain, appreciated that Chris was most needed behind the controls of an X wing, not down here being one more gun where it would make little difference.
"Whats going on?" Vin Tanner asked. He had seen the trio gathered in the distance while he had been preparing his blast rifle for the battle and had come to investigate.
"Im going up there," Chris said promptly.
"Going up where?" Vin asked, his expression a little dismayed because he knew what up there meant.
"Im going to join Colonel Kellis. Apparently our fighters are taking a beating. They need all help they can get."
That might be true but Vin did not wish to see Chris risking his life especially when he was not there to watch the mans back. However, he also knew his friend well enough to know that any protests he made in that regard would more or less go unheeded. Besides, if it had it not been for the fact that Vin was more useful behind the scope of a blast rifle, he would have joined Chris himself. Joining the Rebellion meant going where one was needed most and down here, Chris would be another gun lending his fire to a whole line of blasters. Up there, he was one ship that could make all the difference between victory and defeat. Of course he had to go.
"Good idea," Vin nodded, hiding how much he worried for the Jedi. "Watch your back though. Those Imperial flyboys play for keeps."
"Ive been known to be able to hold my own against them but Ill keep it in mind," Chris afforded Vin a little smile of thanks that he was not making an issue of this. Chris knew how protective Vin sometimes felt towards him. The truth was, he more or less felt the same way about the apprentice and would have objected if it were Vin making the offer. However, a Jedi had to follow ones own path and his instincts told him that at the moment, he was needed up in the sky more than he was needed on the ground. If there was one thing that Chris had absolute faith in; it was the Force. The Force guided him in and through all things, no matter whether they were tragic or fortuitous. He had to believe that was a reason why he felt so strongly about joining the aerial siege above Siraj.
"In the meantime," he added just before he left them. "You guys make sure you stay alive."
"We will," Josiah returned. "The Force is with us all."
With that Chris acknowledged his departure with a slight nod and he was striding off the field towards the safe haven where their ships were awaiting for him. Chris X-wing was already there and would no doubt be fueled and ready to leave in anticipation of his joining the battle above when Chris informed flight techs of his arrival. For a few seconds, Vin Tanner watched Chris moving further away into the distance and wished he could be as confident as Chris that he was needed elsewhere because Vin's own feelings told him that Chris had taken his first step into a world of trouble.
"I thought we were leaving," Casey asked as Louisa Perkins strode towards the command centre. She was not at all happy to be leaving the rebel base but she did not wish to burden Uncle Josiah with fears about her safety and was thus begrudgingly accompanying Louisa without complain to the hangar for eminent departure.
"We are," Louisa remarked as she continued walking. "I just want to make sure that there are no last minute instructions before we leave."
It was hard to believe that Louisa could be at all flighty when the woman switched from the role of morale officer to rebel captain. This was the side of her she rarely showed anyone, especially Mary Travis. Sometimes Casey almost believed that Louisa enjoyed her adversarial role with Mary so much that showing Mary she was a capable officer would put them too much on equal footing. Besides, appearances could be deceiving on many fronts. For a long time, the rebel base had been their home and to a certain extent this isolated world removed from the rest of the galaxy while they fought their little battles against the Empire, seemed untouchable. Today, there was no illusion that this was anything but a place where death was the reward for discovery. The atmosphere inside the base was charged with people running up and down the catacomb like corridors, racing to undertake one task after another, against time and fear. The tension that soaked into Casey as she kept close to Louisa was almost choking and she began to understand why it was Uncle Josiah wanted her away from here so badly.
"I wont be long," Louisa remarked quickly following their entry into the hub of the rebel base.
She nodded just as quickly, her attention shifting towards the occurrences inside the operations center. The room was abuzz with voices of officers and soldiers, reporting their current status, requesting further instructions and relaying attack signals. There were other voices also, panicked cries of dying fighter pilots about to crash, the tense voices of Mary Travis relaying her orders, transports that were penetrating the blockade and those who did not. Casey shuddered hearing it and she finally found she needed to occupy her attention or she would run out of the room like a frightened child. She glanced at the communications station because that was something she could understand and the binary language of incoming and outgoing signals would not reveal the sheer human panic that came with more conventional forms of communication.
She saw it almost immediately and later on would realized that she was the only one who could because it was her particular gift. Hurrying to the console screen, she stared at the numbers and codes filtering through the screen as if running water was moving across the glass. For a moment, her eyes remained fix on the plethora of code that moved past her, reaching their apogee in a matter of minutes.
"When did this come in?" She shouted on top of her voice and froze everyone still inside the room by its intensity.
"What?" Louis turned to her.
"This!" Casey tapped her finger on the screen impatiently, demanding an answer because only she could see its terrible potential.
A technician chose to answer her. "About ten minutes ago," he said seeing a child and addressing her as one. "Its just one of our codes bouncing back to us. It happens all the time. A faulty node in the communication relay."
"Ten minutes?" Casey felt her heart pounding so loudly, it should have droned out the sound of everything else. Ten minutes was an eternity of time when considering the language of code. Without saying anything further, she pulled up a chair and sat down.
"What is it Casey?" Louisa who knew the girl, recognized the panic in her eyes.
"This code, dont you know what it is does?" She declared, her fingers pounding furiously on the keypad.
"This is crazy," the same technician replied. "Its just our signal!"
"It's not just your signal," she snapped glaring at them. "Its a burrow program! It uses one of our own codes to infiltrate our main frame!"
Casey tried desperately to stop it but the program gained strength with its invasions and by now it had breached the rebel safeguards so deeply that it was impossible to pry it loose or stop it for that manner. Her stomach knotted as she struggled to keep it from going any further than it had but the truth was, it was too late. She knew it but the others staring at her did not know the true scope of their troubles. Casey did not think it would be long before they found out.
"By the Force!" Louisa exclaimed. "Whats it trying to do?"
Casey did not answer however, suddenly the lights overhead flickered for a brief instance. The aberration had not confined itself to merely to the lights but also consoles screens, control panels and even sensor terminals rippled unsteadily before returning to normal once again. Everything that required power wavered for just a second but the alarm it sent through everyone present was not as fleeting.
"What the hell was that?" Someone demanded.
Casey studied the screen for another few seconds before her eyes met Louisa's. The expression on her face was one of absolute horror. "That was the shield generator," she said softly, her face almost ashen. "It just lowered."
No sooner than the words left her lips, the first explosions roared through the air.
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