Ezra Standish never thought he would ever like being in command.
In fact throughout his career, he had gone through great pains to avoid being in charge of anything. It was not that he did not have the ability, far from it actually. His instructors at the Academy had branded him with the qualities of a natural leader but it was not commanding others that Ezra had always shirked away from, it was assuming responsibility for them that was the hard part. Suffering for his own mistakes was something Ezra did not mind enduring but it was another thing entirely to have others suffer because of his short comings. His entire career until this point had been an exercise in ensuring that he avoided taking centre seat at all costs.
Of course things had changed. When he had asked for a transfer to Cordoba it had been for purely selfish reasons. Someone had to be close enough to Nathan to ensure the man did not get himself killed for his seditious activities. Ezra had assumed he would be given some minor position where he dissolve into the background and keep his ears open for any information that would keep Nathan and his skin from being two separate entities. Never in all his imaginings did he consider the possibility that they might saddle him with command of the entire outpost.
True, Cordoba was hardly the dream assignment for the up and coming Imperial officer. It sat on the border of what was called Wild Space euphemistically known as the Territory because beyond it was the emptiness between galaxies. The Territory was as close to the galactic rim as one ever wanted to get. Being so far from the core world also made it a place running rife with all kinds of villainy.
Cordoba itself was the end zone for what was called the Correllian Run where the natural pilots of that world, ignoring all sensible laws of navigation fought immense gravitational forces to cut through several systems to reach their destination a great deal sooner. There was only one thing worse than the Corellian Run and that was the Kessel Run, but as of yet, there was no pilot insane enough to make the attempt. However, aside from crazed Corellian pilots dealing in search of glory or a blazing end to their career, Cordoba also had to contend with dealing with gangster, specifically those emanating from Tatooine, Zhar, Alzoc 3 and Ryloth, worlds that were firmly controlled by the Hutt overlords.
It was a challenging assignment that was remarkably suited for someone with Ezra's talents because he knew how to deal with such people and he had made it an art to out think them. Also, being so far from Coruscant meant that he was away from the political jockeying that seemed vital to the place's functioning. Besides, despite there being a rebel cell in the area, the Alliance kept their activities in this area to a bare minimum so he did not have to worry too much about being at cross purposes with them.
When it was all said and done his assignment here was also rather routine, which was what Ezra, craved. He had his own office, an adjutant named Claire Moseley who ensured that he never missed any of his meetings and he sensed knew what was going on around the place a lot better than he did. She did however, seem to disappear quite a bit but was always there when he needed her so he did not complain. She was a pretty little thing with gold hair and delicate features. Ezra spied a wedding band on her finger but Claire seemed reluctant to talk about her husband so all Ezra knew about him was that he was the First Officer of a military ship. He who understood a persons need for privacy, did not press for more information, liking the woman enough to leave her, her secrets.
Ezra was in his office that morning going through the daily ship traffic reports when Claire burst into his office unannounced. She was normally the picture of efficiency so this interruption was all but forgotten in the light of what had precipitated it. Claire's expression was one of fear, again something not normally seen on the capable young woman and Ezra immediately rose to his feet behind his desk. "Lieutenant?"
"He's here," she swallowed, her eyes wide open.
"Who?" He looked at her confused.
"The Executor." She cleared her throat. It was clear she had run all the way to his office. "It's pulled into orbit. You have to see it Sir. It's one of the new Super Star Destroyers. It's enormous. It's almost the size of a dreadnought or a space station but then it's his ship so he would have the best....."
"Claire, Claire," Ezra rounded his desk and approached her, putting his hands on her shoulder to calm her down. "You are babbling. Please try to make a little sense."
"Lord Vader," she replied and in that one word justified her agog manner.
"He is here?" Ezra's eyes widened.
"He is on his way down in a shuttle. He will be here in ten minutes," she answered, the frightened look in her eyes deepening by the second.
Ezra could hardly blame her of course. One could not be a member of the Empire without knowing with whom she was referring to with such fear. Darth Vader was the undisputed right hand of the Emperor and though Ezra had spent most of his time on Coruscant, he had been fortunate enough to never cross paths with the dark Jedi. The rumors ran thick throughout court about the man's reputation and Ezra had heard enough to know that there was a very good reason, people prayed never to fall under his notice. Not even Palpatine himself generated such fear. They said that he was a Sith Lord, a legendary order of dark Jedi who did not seek to dispense justice but rather advanced their own ambitions of power. From Chris Larabee, Ezra knew that it was largely through Vader that the Jedi were being hunted into extinction.
Ezra was in trouble and he knew it. His complicity in the Rebel Alliance was a secret known to himself but Vader might learn the truth if he probed deeply into Ezra's mind and Ezra had no doubts that the man would do so. He frantically tried to remember what Chris had said about the Jedi ability to sense thoughts and knew that it was usually harder to do so with a will that was strong. Chris had once told him that he was hard to read because he was able to hide so much of himself behind the facade of indifference behind which he shielded his emotions. Ezra knew that to completely hide his state of mind from Vader was impossible but if he could obscure the thoughts behind the emotions then perhaps he would be able to get past Vader's telepathy without giving himself away.
"Sir I can't be here," Claire spoke up suddenly.
"Why is that?" He looked at the young woman.
"I just can't," she whispered. "I can't have him looking into my mind. I couldn't stand it Sir," her voice was almost pleading with him.
Ezra stared at her for a moment. "What is it you have to hide?" he wanted to ask her.
Claire did not know what to do. She was certain that Ezra would not turn her in if he was told her secret but she was not absolute on that belief. However, without a proper explanation, he would not let her leave and if she were here when Vader arrived, then it would matter little anyway. She would be caught in this untenable position. "My husband is a member of the Rebel Alliance," she answered finally, watching him closely for reaction.
Ezra nodded. Somehow, he was not surprised. Claire had asked for this assignment, just as he had and no one asked to be sent to Cordoba without very good reason for doing so. He supposed it made perfect sense when he thought about it. He had read her record and found that Claire had until this posting, a promising career. He had wondered about why she had requested this assignment but believed it to be no one's business but her own and thus never pressed the issue. Besides, they worked well together and she made his tenure as commander of this post a lot less tiresome than it should be. For that, he was grateful and he would not allow any harm to come to young woman.
Ezra did not answer her, turning instead to his desk where he picked up a data pad and immediately jotted down something on the screen. Claire stared at him anxiously, wishing he would say something but not daring to prompt him into speaking in case he said something she did not want to hear. After a moment, he faced her again and handed her the data pad.
"What's this?" she asked.
"It is my authorization for you to take one week of furlough," Ezra said quickly, aware that time was of the essence. "You may take it anywhere you choose. My advice would be off world. Take a passenger cruiser to Ryloth, I believe their annual summer carnival is about to start. The decision is yours. I will expect you back in one week." He gave her a lock of mock command.
"You're letting me go?" She looked at him with astonishment and relief.
"I cannot do without my adjutant can I?" He gave her a little smile.
"Thank you Sir!" She embraced him hard, unable to believe her fortune.
"This overt displays of emotion will do nothing to impress me when it comes to promotion review," he joked even though he hugged her back for a second before pushing her away to a more appropriate position.
"Now you have to go," he said firmly, this time he was completely serious.
"Yes Sir," Claire smiled. "Thank you."
"My pleasure," the commander smiled as he turned towards the door. "Let us hope I will still be here when you return."
Everyone was assembled and waiting by the time the shuttle sailed into the Cordoba Imperial outpost. Personnel had fallen into formation on the deck of the hangar floor, standing erect and at attention as they waited for the visit of the most important arrival to the base in its entire history. A thick plush length of carpet had been hastily rolled out at the exit of the berth where the shuttle would be making its landing, flanked on both sides by impressive looking Imperial officers and storm troopers alike who were eager to have their curiosity satisfied about Vader. Most had heard of his reputation and Ezra doubted that there was anyone here who had actually seen him.
However, from all accounts, Ezra was told that those who saw Vader, never forgot it.
The shuttle sailed into the hangar and promptly made its way to the berth where it was assigned. The sleek white craft seemed to glide through the high ceilings of the hangar, oblivious to those watching it as he landed soundlessly in the berth, its white wings pulling close to the hull as it set down on the ground and rested comfortably on its landing ramps. The low hum of its engines died down a few seconds later and the faint smell of ionised gas wafted through the large area before the ventilation system eradicated it completely from the air supply.
Ezra took a deep breath and hope that Claire was well away from here. He took a deep breath and steadied himself; completely aware of the manner his state of mind had to be if he was to face Lord Vader and walk away with his skin intact. He steeled himself as he stepped forward to greet the Sith Lord, forcing himself to slip into that place he often found so comfortable when playing a hand of sabaac, the place that kept his opponent from guessing what he was holding in his hand. The main hatch had started to slide open as Ezra reached the entrance to the berth and he paused upon arriving at the doorway.
Two storm troopers emerged first; taking flanking position as either side of the hatch before the dark lord made his exit. When Darth Vader stepped into view, Ezra realised that his fearsome reputation was completely justified. Clad entirely in black armor from head to foot, he was a vision of fear to anyone who came across him. No part of him remained exposed, from the mask that covered his face to black rubberized material that kept him protected within it. A long black cape followed him and as he stepped further into view, Ezra could almost feel the ripple of apprehension that swept through the room. Almost as bad as his black armor was the raspy sound of his breather at work. That cold, metallic sound of breath being taken had the ability to pierce through the skin, Ezra thought.
"Lord Vader," Ezra greeted, wearing the best poker face he had ever been able to muster in his entire life. "It is an honor to have you here. I am Captain Ezra Standish of the Cordoba Imperial Outpost."
Vader did not waste time with such salutations and nodded slightly in response to Ezra's greeting before he launched into the reason for his arrival. Vader did not stop walking, knowing already where he was going as soon as he stepped off the shuttle. He strode down the carpet aisle way fashioned for his arrival, ignoring the soldier snapping to attention as he passed by. He did not even look over his shoulder to see if Ezra was following him. He knew with absolute certainty that the captain was keeping pace with him.
"Captain Standish, you're aware of the kidnapping of Bail Organa's daughter, Leia?" It was not a question.
"Of course," Ezra answered automatically. At the moment, the kidnapping was high profile news over the galactic band. As an Imperial officer, he would have been extremely remiss if he was not aware of the abduction. Bail Organa leader of Alderaan, one of the jewels of the core worlds was also an eminent member of the Imperial Senate. An aristocratic statesman, Bail Organa had been one of the strongest voices in the Republic that had somehow managed to make the transition to the Senate without being erased from existence. It was a testament to his skill that he was able to navigate the minefield of politics these days when it was very likely that he was one of the leaders of the Rebel Alliance.
"I have information that the kidnappers might be in collusion with the Rebel Alliance," Vader continued to speak. "I understand that there is a local cell here."
Remember, absolute indifference to the subject, Ezra told himself and immediately put up the necessary fortifications in his mind as he thought of nothing else but the question, focusing on it with the same razor sharp intensity that he might used to play a particularly sharp game of sabaac. "There have been numerous sightings of rebels on Cordoba, I believe they use it to be a point of transfer for personal and other transactions. Of course, catching them is another thing entirely."
"Yes," Vader hissed and there was clear malevolence in the raspy breathing following that word which suffused Ezra with enough concern for the dark lord to sense it. "Am I bothering you Captain?"
They had left the hangar and though they were walking side by side, Vader clearly knew where he was going. Ezra realised that he was heading to the command centre of the station and supposed if he were seeking information on possible rebel activity on Cordoba, that would be the place to be. Ezra allowed himself to feel no apprehension on that count, realizing that it was a sensible course of action. However, Vader's question was meant to provoke a response and Ezra realised that sometimes, the best way to deal with an enemy who was doing a very good job of scaring you, was to let him know it.
"Frankly, yes," Ezra answered honestly.
Vader glanced at him briefly and faced front again. "How refreshing. An honest answer." There was nothing complimentary in his tone. "And for what reason do I frighten you Captain?"
"Besides the obvious Lord Vader?" Ezra asked, not wishing to be insubordinate but he was getting a sense of the man and playing him for anything but the terrifying figure he was, would be making a fatal error.
"Besides the obvious, Captain." There was almost a hint of sardonic amusement in his mechanically amplified voice. Ezra took that as a good sign.
"I am concerned why you are handling this matter personally," Ezra responded. "I appreciate the Emperor's interest in the kidnapping, after all Senator Organa is a respected member of the Senate but there are just as qualified people in his service to undertake the retrieval of a little girl instead of someone as important as yourself."
"Flattery does not impress me Captain," Vader replied smoothly. "However, you are correct in assertions. I commend your astute observation."
"Then there is more taking place here than we know?" Ezra ventured a guess as they rounded the corner.
Vader paused a moment and regarded Ezra for a few seconds. Ezra kept thinking of the wall inside his mind, the one that hid his secrets and then he started thinking about the game of sabaac, how it was played, what suits made a winning hand. He began calculating the probabilities of how he could win the game with one particular set of groupings and filled his mind with all matter of trivialities. After a few seconds, if there were anything important for him to reveal, Vader would have to sift through all the other thoughts in order to reach it.
"Are you hiding secrets from me Captain?" Vader asked, his mechanical voice seemed low.
"Yes," Ezra answered honestly once again. "I know that you were once Jedi and that you can sense things from me. My thoughts are no one's business but my own. I have nothing to hide that is any danger to the Empire but I will not allow my mind to be open to your abilities. If you require assistance, I will do everything in my power to aide you and more but I will not tolerate you being inside my head."
"Do you have any idea who I am?" Vader asked again, once again there was the trace of amusement, like he was curious to see what Ezra would throw at him next.
"I know who you are and I know that with a simple thought, you make me a memory but if I am afraid of you then I became of afraid of everything and I will be not be afraid of everything," Ezra responded, hoping he sounded as brave as he was trying to be.
Behind him, Ezra could hear Vader's entourage of lower ranking troops listening in breathless anticipation for what the dark lord would say. They had enough experience with Vader to know that demotion was the last thing this captain had to worry about. If he felt so inclined, he could kill Ezra on the spot and there would not be anyone who could either stop him or would even dare to for that matter. Vader's place next to the Emperor was that secured.
"Your will is strong Captain," Vader answered after a moment. "An unusual trait but I see no reason to take this any further. I have things to attend here and you will assist me."
"It would be my pleasure to do so," Ezra offered, wondering if Vader had any idea how relieved he was inside. He supposed the Sith Lord probably did.
"In three days, the Imperial Senate convenes on the issue of segregation," Vader resumed speaking as he started towards the command centre once again. "This is an act that will have far reaching consequences throughout the Empire and the Emperor wants it passed at all cost. Organa is our strongest supporter of this policy and I believe that the child was kidnapped in order to coerce Organa into voting against the law. Therefore, the Emperor has directed to personally take charge of this situation to retrieve the child before the Senate meeting convenes."
"I see," Ezra nodded in understanding. "Having his daughter would certainly give them a great deal of leverage, especially with the Alliance. I believe the rebellion is composed of multi-racial factions, Organa's situation could undermine the Emperor's wishes for this Act if they blackmail him to vote otherwise."
"You see the problem," Vader responded. "So we must find them. I believe that the kidnappers will attempt to enter Cordoba in order to find safe haven with the rebels."
"That would make sense. As you said, Cordoba is a main transfer point for them," Ezra agreed. "If the kidnappers are rebels then all we have to do it wait for them to enter our trap."
And all Ezra had to do was somehow warn them.
Ezra did not dare to do anything until after Vader had returned to his ship.
For a long while he paced the floor of his office, trying to decide whether or not he was going to do what he had to and risk his life in the process. He knew that most of the story that Vader had told him was nothing but a lie. Ezra knew Bail Organa's reputation enough to know that the man was one of the staunchest opponents of the segregation policy and that he would never support the bill in the Imperial Senate. Ezra was uncertain what Vader's true intention were to Princess Leia in all this but he did know for a fact that he was not going to stand by and allow an infant to be used as an instrument of blackmail.
Of course the only people who could prevent this were the Rebel Alliance and Ezra had no idea where their base was to contact them. It was by his own desire that such information was withheld from him because Ezra's position made him a vulnerability they did not need to have. However, for once he was going to have to forsake his own rules about contacting them because Nathan needed to know this information. Nathan would take what Ezra knew to someone who could be of aid to the young Princess. After much soul searching, Ezra came to the conclusion that he would have to act no matter what the risks to himself. There was still enough conscience left inside of him to know that the oath he took as a soldier a long time ago still meant something to him. He was not going to be party to harming a child.
Thus Ezra found himself sneaking out of the base after Lord Vader's departure, certain that his absence from the outpost would be missed if he stayed away for any more than a brief period. Making his way through Cordoba, he went to the only person he knew who could put him in contact with the Rebel Alliance; the small tavern and hostel owned by the lovely Inez Recillos Wilmington. Ezra had met the woman on the few occasions he had visited the establishment to see Nathan and the rest of his friends and found her to be rather charming and compelling much to her former spouse' chagrin.
He immediately captured the attention of everyone in the tavern the moment he entered the premises. Imperial officers usually did in this place. A few patrons chose to depart their booths hastily, obviously conducting enterprises that were so illegal that even the possibility of an Imperial interest was enough to send them scurrying. The others merely continued with their business, whether it be drinking, gambling or taking company in some of the young ladies that frequented the place in search of business of their own. Inez was behind the counter serving and Ezra took a moment to admire the beauty of her as she offered her customers a warm smile with their orders.
Upon seeing him, her face lit up with a smile that was more than obligatory and despite himself, Ezra's jaded insides found himself glad to see the lovely Miss Recillos. He walked up to an unoccupied section of the bar and pulled himself up on a stool before she joined him.
"Captain Standish," Inez said sweetly to the handsome officer. "It's a pleasure to see you."
Ezra took her hand gallantly and planted a small kiss on the delicate skin of her knuckle and responded just as smoothly. "Likewise dear lady." He smiled, dimples at their most boyish as he looked at her.
"Your usual?" she asked.
Ezra was rather surprised she remembered. After all, he could count the number of times he had been here but then supposed that it was no feat of magic that she remembered, Inez after all was quite remarkable. "If you please," he answered and let out a soft sigh when he saw her withdraw to go fill his order.
He wondered if she knew how utterly lovely she was and was certain that half the reason her human customers kept coming back to this establishment when there were so many more in Cordoba with far better facilities, was to enjoy a taste of her lovely smile and pleasing manner. Ezra knew that he would gladly have come back here time and time again, even if it were not Nathan's favorite watering hole whenever he had business in Cordoba, not to mention the fact that this was a safe haven for all members of the Rebel Alliance.
Inez returned a moment later and served him his Tynnan whiskey in a small glass. "There you are," she answered. "Just the way you like it."
"I would like it with you in a private berth of a passenger cruise taking a tour of the Sullustian Rings," Ezra remarked with a hint of flirtation. "But this will do for now."
"You do know how to talk to a girl Captain," Inez leaned closer, appearing as if she'd like to stay where she was for awhile, talking to him. Ezra had no objection to that either and took a deep breath of the floral scent that clung to her body so enticingly.
"I do but as much as I would love to be able to do nothing but focus entirely on you as you deserve, I pray I cannot." He lowered his voice even though the disappointment was clear in his voice. "We have a situation and I need to contact your friends most urgently."
"I see," Inez nodded. "Does it have anything to do with that super star destroyer that's in orbit around Cordoba?" she asked, her voice becoming serious now.
"How did you know?" he asked with surprise.
"That's been the topic of discussion for most of the clientele tonight. It's not often a ship of the line enter Wild Space. Who is on board?" Inez responded, having heard endless speculations from her customers for most of the evening. A ship that size was hard to miss and she was certain that similar discussions were being conducted throughout the city regarding its origins and purpose here.
Ezra exhaled loudly and replied. "Vader."
Inez's eyes widened in shock but she managed to control her surprise with admirable restraint. "Lord Darth Vader?"
"The same," Ezra nodded somberly.
"I'll contact my friends immediately," she answered.
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