They were in the middle of a bog and for the life of him, Buck Wilmington had no idea how they had come to be there. The fighter that they had arrived in was hopelessly caught in the bog, mud creeping up the sides of its hull in an effort to drag it down to its murky depths. Buck and Vin had managed to climb out of the descending craft to find a solid bit of ground upon which they could take refuge while they attempted to decide what they would do next. Vin was already in possession of a foul temper at being forced to concede with Chris' desires for him to go to Dagobah instead of turning back to Zhar in order to help the Jedi in his confrontation with Darth Vader. Unfortunately, there was nothing Buck could say to him to assuage his annoyance at their present situation because the pilot himself had no idea how it had happened.
Dagobah was hardly the most hospitable world in the galaxy, being just another marsh filled bog with all too many insects for his liking. The atmospheric conditions of the planet did not indicate that Buck needed to be particularly cautious about his entry and so he performed a routine landing procedure. However, the moment they penetrated the thick shield of clouds surrounding it, the instrumentation on his cockpit controls began to go haywire. There was magnetic interference and all other kinds of other difficulties, which very quickly saw the loss of attitude control. What should have been an easy landing suddenly became a struggle to keep the ship from slamming into the planet like a bug on the pod shield. They had made it to the ground in one piece but not before Buck could steer the craft away from the swamp they now found themselves trapped within.
"I can't believe this!" Vin swore for the hundredth time since they had stepped onto this small plateau of wet earth. "I should be on Zhar, helping Chris. I thought you could fly through anything!"
Buck bristled; telling himself that Vin had reasons for his vitriol. The young man was probably worried sick about Chris. The two had a bond that he could not understand because he was not force adept and that friendship had been enough for Vin to make some monumental decisions in his life that now saw him a fugitive and a member of the Rebel Alliance. It was a profound relationship that could cause one of the galaxy's best bounty hunters to walk away from the life to something so uncertain.
"I usually can," Buck tried to explain himself, while making a mental note to stay calm. "There was something weird about what we just came through though."
"What do you mean weird?" Vin straightened up from the rotting log he had been sitting on.
"One minute everything was fine," Buck responded, recalling the last few minutes of normalcy in the flight prior to everything going to hell in a hand basket. "Then suddenly the instruments went crazy and we make for the planet like a meteor about to hit. Usually, I get some idea that something is coming before it actually impacts on the sensors like that. Don't make any sense."
"Nothing about this makes sense." Vin looked around the grim surroundings. The whole swamp seemed bathed with a gray pallor, from the thick trees with its roots half protruding from the murky water, to the fine gray mist that drifted through the reeds and patches of earth. "This is one hell of a place to find a Jedi Master. Do you know anything about Dagobah?" Vin asked Buck who was rummaging through the supplies they had managed to take from the ship during their hasty departure.
"Not much except that it's here," Buck admitted. "Not exactly one of the hot spots of the galaxy as you can probably see." He gestured to the sweeping landscape of mud, mist and insects buzzing above the surface of the greenish swamp water.
However, Vin was not listening to him. The bounty hunter had become still and rooted to the spot. A stricken expression descended over his face and his hand subconsciously grasped at his chest as if he were feeling pain.
"Vin?" Buck stood up suddenly and crossed the space between them. "What is it?"
"It's Chris," Vin muttered softly. "Something is wrong," his voice escaped him in soft gasps. "He's been hurt, badly." Vin's head throbbed and the sensation was so unpleasant that he forced himself to his feet. While he could not see the images himself, Vin could certainly feel something. It was unlike anything he sensed and the closest comparison in which he could draw was the feeling that overcame him the minute Vader had arrived in proximity of Zhar. This however, was more intense and with an insight he could not understand but was nonetheless compelled to believe, he knew that Chris Larabee, wherever he might be at this moment, was dying.
"I think he's dying." He stared directly at Buck.
"How can you know that?" Buck asked mutely but already knew the answer to that question. It was the same way that Chris had known before arriving home on Corellia that Sarah and Adam were already dead.
Vin returned his gaze blankly, unaware of how to explain it but knowing for a fact that what he felt was real, that somewhere Chris was dying. "We've got to get back to the ship," the bounty hunter retorted as he started walking towards the downed vehicle. "Maybe we can blast out of that bog."
"Vin," Buck try to calm the young man down but it was not easy when he was in a similar state of distress himself. He wanted to rush back and help Chris but if Vin was right about what he saw, then by the time they even reached the Jedi, it would be too late. "We'll never get to him in time."
"We've got to try!" Vin barked back. "We've got to try something!"
"Trying to get out is always harder than getting in," a peculiar voice said behind them. Both Vin and Buck swung around instinctively, drawing their weapons at the direction of the voice that had suddenly spoken.
What stood before them was a most unusual life form. Neither Vin nor Buck recognized the species but the impish looking alien that stood before them, clad in dark robes and carrying a gim stick was no more than three feet high if that tall. Vin saw nothing consequential in the brownish robes it wore but Buck did.
"Are you the Jedi Master Yoda?" Buck asked tentatively. It was understandable that Vin would not recognize the garb of the Jedi when Chris was his first introduction to the order and opted to dress entirely in black. Buck had lived through the times when the Jedi had its day throughout the galaxy and though Yoda's robes were faded and smaller in scale, the style, colour and cut were unmistakable.
"You're kidding," Vin exclaimed in disbelief. This tiny creature that looked like something out of a children's book could not possibly be a Jedi Master.
"And why not?" The Jedi Master turned his attention to Vin, his impish ears extending outward as he demanded the question. "Judge you by my size, do you?"
"Master Yoda," Buck bowed his head reverentially and glared at Vin with instruction to do the same. If he expected this elfish being to teach him, then Vin had better start showing a damn sight more respect than he was presently affording the Jedi Master. "I'm glad we found you."
"So sure are you I am he?" Yoda looked at Buck with his large eyes, much to large for his small face in Buck's opinion.
"Absolutely," Buck said with a little smile. "You talk like a Jedi."
Yoda smiled, it was hard to tell on that wrinkled face but Buck was certain that he was being regarded with amusement. Buck watched him hobble over to Vin, using the stick for support and had the impression that whatever he might look like to them and no matter how small in size might appear to be, he was also much older than either of them were. His movements were laced with the age of someone who had walked the earth for a great deal of time and there was similar wisdom in his manner.
"Much like Larabee are you." Yoda studied Vin for a moment. "Anger and undisciplined. The way of the Jedi is to feel the Force, not use it to close oneself from others."
"I think he's dying." Vin dropped to his knees, believing now that odd little alien was indeed a Jedi Master. "I think he's hurt. You have to help him."
"I felt his injury as you did." Yoda nodded somberly. "His fate is hard to see. His destiny has taken a different course than the one decided. He changed it."
"Changed it," Vin shook his head, unable to understand. "How?"
The Jedi Master regarded them both and answered simply. "By choosing to live."
By the time Ezra and the one storm trooper left in his charge had made it to the platform, the X-wing was gone, having departed before the arrival of Zhar's TIE fighter squadrons to intercept it. Ezra stepped out onto the platform and saw great chunks of stone and paving ripped out of place following the blasts by the X-wing's guns. Where the ground was not torn, it was cratered and there was still smoke rising from the blast points, prevailing against the rain that was pouring from the sky. There were no signs of any rebels in the vicinity but neither were there any traces of Lord Vader. However, logic dictated that he had to be here. Ezra had not seen him come down the lift and that was the only way down from the platform.
Ezra turned to the stormtrooper with him after a brief glimpse of the surrounding area and ordered. "Get more reinforcements here. We need to begin a comprehensive search for Lord Vader."
"Yes Sir," the trooper nodded and hurried the way he came, leaving Ezra alone on the destroyed platform.
Ezra was glad that Mary had come to the rescue because he had seen the killing blow that Vader had dealt the Jedi and was almost prepared to throw his career away at that moment when he saw Chris go down. However, the sacrifice was prevented by the timely arrival of Mary Travis. He had heard the Purgatory was presently engaging the super star destroyer in orbit around Zhar but had not anticipated her coming to the Jedi's rescue. Nevertheless, Ezra had been grateful that she had made his intervention unnecessary and allowed him for the time being, to remain an Imperial officer. Ezra knew that the day would come when he would have to make a choice between his loyalties and his career but that day was not yet, thanks to Mary.
He walked to the edge of the platform, wondering where Vader might have disappeared to when suddenly; he heard that familiar hoarse breathing through the rain. Ezra rushed forward to the stone railing, part of which was demolished by the potent blasts of the X-wings arsenal. He saw the black gloved hand clinging to the crumbling remains of rock only when he neared the edge with the entire city of Zhar below him. Without wasting any time, he closed in on the struggling hand and peered over the ruined palisade to see Vader clutching the rock with one hand. His dark cape was billowing in the wind and there was damage to his other arm. Wiring, torn shreds of thick black rubberized fabric and exposed pasty colored skin could be seen through the fissure in the dark lord's armor. He was hurt and badly enough that he could not pull himself back to safety. Considering what he had seen Chris do on occasion, Vader must have been in serious condition indeed to be unable to traverse that simple ledge. It suddenly occurred to Ezra that the armor the man wore around himself was as much for his prolonged health as it was protective gear. Did the armor he encased himself in, keep Vader alive?
He stood there at the edge and saw Vader trying desperately to use the Force to keep himself clinging to the edge and then supposed it was hard to summon up the concentration needed when one was dangling from a height as lofty as Vader. For a moment, Ezra considered letting the man fall. This was Darth Vader, one of the most insidious men in the Empire, save Palpatine himself. This was the creature who had brought death to the Jedi Knights and would bring death to millions with just as much impunity. No one would blame him if he let Vader fall. No one would even care he wagered. He could walk away at this moment and no one would know. There was no reason for anyone to believe that Vader had not fallen to his death during the first attack by the X-wing. No reason at all.
Except that he would know and strangely enough there was just too much decency inside of him to let it happen, even to someone like Vader.
Deciding whatever happened, would happen, Ezra lowered himself to the ground and called out to the dark lord.
"Darth!" Ezra's voice reached him and Vader looked up.
Ezra could see neither fear or expectation in the man's face because of the helmet and mask he wore, but decided that Vader was probably trying to figure out what his game was. Pressing himself as close as he could against the wet ground, he felt his cheek scrape against the surface of the platform as he extended one hand towards Vader, while the other caught hold of a more solid section of the palisade. Stretching forward as far as he could, Ezra wrapped his fist around the hand Vader was using desperately to grasp the edge.
"What are you doing?" Vader's voice rumbled suddenly.
"What does it look like?" Ezra retorted as he put his strength into dragging the man towards him.
"I do not require your charity," Vader responded coldly but there was no doubting he was injured. His breathing was labored and more or less confirmed Ezra's suspicion that he required the well being of his black armor to stay alive. Fleetingly, the captain wondered what kind of injury had been severe enough to warrant being encased in such foreboding garb.
"It's not charity," Ezra grunted in response as he continued to muster every ounce of strength inside of him to pull Vader's bulk upwards. "It duty."
"You could let me die," Vader pointed out. "You could walk away."
"I could," Ezra continued to huff and puff, speaking in between strained breaths. His arms felt like they were being pulled out of their sockets but by now, they were making progress. Ezra was able to reach Vader other's hand and braved letting go of his safe handhold to haul the Emperor's henchman the rest of the way. "But I am not going to. I do not have much in the way of scruples Lord Vader, but leaving a man to die is not one of them."
"Then you are a fool," Vader declared ungratefully. "An idealistic fool."
"Perhaps," Ezra answered a moment later, when he had successfully pulled half of Vader's body over the edge. While the Sith Lord's other hand was non-functioning, his legs seemed well enough and he was able to push himself the rest of the way to reach safety. With the lower half of his black boots dangling off the side of the platform edge, both men took a few seconds to catch their breath following their exertions. Vader's was the most audible of the two.
Vader raised his helmeted head and glared at Ezra's direction. "This changes nothing. I know what I sensed in you was duplicity."
Ezra turned to Vader and replied with equal intensity. "And I sensed in you a lack of gratitude for saving your life."
To that Vader had no response.
The X-Wing as expected even before it sailed into the Purgatory's hangar. Medical teams were on stand by as well as the latest passengers of the Rogue who were waiting with equal anticipation. The temperatures inside the Purgatory was sweltering but despite the advice from the bridge that everyone should remain inside their quarters for the duration of their stay in Zharian space, there were some willing to risk a little heat. Nathan Jackson, Josiah Sanchez and JD Dunne were those few in question. Casey Wells was presently keeping a vigil at her aunt's side who was at the moment was being treated for her injuries in the Purgatory's Sick Bay while Rayne had taken the infant Leia to get some food and rest for the child had been taxed enough for today.
The sleek fighter sailed into the hangar and nestled in its appropriate berth only to be converged upon by all interested parties waiting for its arrival. However, when Mary slid the canopy back, their presence was the last thing on her mind. Chris lay in the passenger seat unmoving and she could not even be sure that he was alive. He had been lucid when she had placed him inside the seat behind the pilot's cockpit but during their journey here, he had lapsed into unconsciousness and had not woken up again.
"I need help here!" she shouted, prompting the medical crews into a speedier advance. Turning to face Chris once more, she tried to reach him in the dark, hoping the contact would bring him out of his black sleep. However, the medical technicians were soon hoisting him from the X-wing to the stretchers waiting to take him to the Sick Bay. Mary scrambled down the ladder that led from the pilot's seat of the fighter and tried to reach Chris, when she felt a hand wrap around her arm.
"Mary," Josiah Sanchez said gently. "Let them do what they have to. You're only going to get in their way."
"But he needs me," Mary retorted with more than a hint of emotion when she noticed the technicians crowding around Chris, going through the motions of stabilising his condition by slapping breathers across his face and ensuring he was ready to make the journey from the hangar. The Jedi was oblivious through all this and seeing him so helpless when she knew him as nothing of the kind did more to shatter her composure than anything else.
"We all need you," Nathan responded, understanding all to clearly the affection he saw in her eyes but was trying to reach the commander inside of her because none of them would survive if the Purgatory did not leave Zharian orbit. Eventually, the super star destroyer would find them and the Nubian warship was no match to take a vessel of that size. "Mary, you did good rescuing him but now you need to let the medtechs do their jobs to save his life."
"There was so much blood....." she stuttered, wiping the fearful tears from her eyes. She was soaked to the bone and much of his blood covered her clothes but now that she was back on the Purgatory, the persona of the woman was starting to give way for the ruthless master of this ship. She paused a moment, her gaze meeting all of them as she wiped the tears and raised her chin in proud dignity.
"You will stay with him?" she asked quietly.
"You know we will," Josiah assured her, admiring her strength and wondered where she found her courage because he could surely use a good dose of it himself.
"He needs to hear someone speak," Mary replied as she brushed a damp strand of hair from her face. "He needs to hear a voice and be told that we're waiting. Don't let him slip away," she ordered and it was like she was on the bridge of her ship because no one could refuse her when she was there.
"We will Sir," JD added his youthful voice to the mix, remembering what his ma had been like before she died. When the sickness had taken its toll on her, all he had been able to do was sit by her side and talk. JD knew that his voice had kept her alive a lot longer than she should have lived and if Chris needed the same treatment, he was more than willing to do the same for the Jedi who had saved his life once before. "We'll keep telling him that we're here. We won't let him go."
Mary looked at JD sharply, her blue gray welling with emotion and she touched the young man's face warmly and whispered. "Thank you, JD. Thank you from the bottom of my heart."
With that Mary turned away from them and as she strode towards the passageway leading to the bridge, Nathan, Josiah and JD saw the transformation almost as if it was a physical change. Mary started to disappear and by the time she walked out of the hangar, she had become Commander Travis again.
"Their sensors have detected us!" One of the bridge officers declared about the same time the doors to the deck slid open. "They're moving into interception range."
"Well then," Mary said briskly. "We had better get the hell out of here, shan't we?"
"Commander," Chano declared with a grin on his face. Even though he had been aware that she had returned on board, he could not deny what a tonic it was to actually see her on the bridge again. The return of their commander immediately lifted everyone's spirits and the mood that swept through the bridge, though tense was nonetheless laced with a great deal of hope. Mary's effect on her officers was like that, Chano thought. She was the Hero of Jofa and one of the greatest field commanders in the galaxy and her victories at previous battles proved that she was someone who did not believe in defeat and kept her crew alive.
"Lieutenant." Mary returned his nod of welcome with one of her own when she nestled back into her command chair. "How long until they reach us?" Mary asked. She had known just how much time she had when she embarked upon her mission to save Chris and was glad that she had not been wrong. Though she would take account with herself later for playing such a sentimental game of leaving her bridge for the Jedi, at the moment, she needed to get her people out of here.
"Approximately ten minutes," someone answered.
"I want to fly just beyond the gravitational field of the star and trace an orbital path at maximum speed," Mary ordered promptly.
"I beg your pardon?" Chano asked. "Shouldn't we attempt to accelerate out of its orbit to make the jump to light speed?"
"We don't have the time, they'll catch before we can make jump if we do it that way," Mary retorted firmly. "Carry out the order," she repeated herself and immediately the officer at the helm moved to comply.
The Purgatory began climbing out of the Zharian sun's radiating heat. As the temperatures cooled and the viewer showed the star's glow diminishing from the stars ahead, they saw the super star destroyer in the distance, appearing like an ominous black star against the real one behind them.
"Take orbital path now," Mary insisted once more.
The Purgatory turned from its upward descent and once again fell into an orbital path around the huge, burning sun. The heat tinged their skins even through the hull and somewhere in the background; someone was informing her that the temperature on the outer shell of the Purgatory was almost a thousand degrees. She ignored them. The Purgatory began circumnavigating the sun as ordered and the viewer showed a scene that was partly formed of the sun's brilliant glow and the teasing cool of the space.
"Maximum acceleration," she ordered once more.
The Purgatory heaved a bit as all engines fired at full speed and she felt herself being pulled into her chair slightly. Gravity control ensured that she would suffer no more effects of their increased speed other than that. The stars began to blur as the ship swung around the circumference of the star and as the ship began to shudder, being pulled by the intense gravity field of the yellow sun, Mary remained poised, waiting for the perfect moment to issue her final order. Faces became apprehensive around her, beads of sweat ran down foreheads and Mary was perceptive enough to know that it was not from their close proximity to the star.
"Angle at 32 degrees and fire all boosters! NOW!"
The ship surged forward as if a great forced had swatted it aside. It was exactly what Mary expected when she had given her orders. Using the sun's immense gravitational field, she had used it to sling shot her ship out of its orbit, with more speed than the Purgatory was ever capable of producing. While it would not produce nearly enough power to launch them out of the system, it would put enough distance between the Purgatory and the Avenger to ensure the rebel ship was capable of reaching hyperspace with the minimum of interference. Everyone on the bridge was holding onto anything available to keep themselves from falling over as the Purgatory was treated to the incredible burst of propulsion. Stars blurred as the ship flew past them and a general sigh of relief followed even though the Purgatory shimmied a little from the intense journey away from the Zharian sun.
Mary let out a little sigh as she eased back into her chair again before turning to Chano. "Make the jump to hyperspace, Commander," she said with a little smile. "Take us home."
"How is he?" Mary asked when she finally reached the SickBay on board the Purgatory. The Nubian warship had successfully made the jump into hyperspace and would be back at Siraj 2 in a number of hours. For Mary, it could not be soon enough. This had been a long day. When she arrived in the med bay, Nathan, Josiah and JD, who had kept their promise to remain at Chris' side while the doctors were tending to him, immediately greeted her. Through the glass wall that separated the waiting area and the treatment center, Mary could see Chris being lowered into a bacta tank. The cylindrical tube of fluid would keep his grievous wounds from infection while the doctors continued their treatment. Chris was unconscious throughout the procedure although she knew he was alive form the bubbles rising from his nose as he breathed through the apparatus attached to his face.
"Apparently he went into some kind of Jedi healing state," Nathan explained it as best as he could. "They have the ability to slow their metabolism down when they're badly hurt. Sometimes, if the injury isn't that severe, this healing state of theirs can repair the damage on its own or in Chris' case, slow the deterioration until he could get some help."
"That's why he was so unresponsive on the way back," she nodded in understanding. At the time, she was certain she had lost him but she was not about to make that admission to Nathan. "I wondered why."
"He'll be alright though," Josiah added, certain that was what Mary wanted to know the most. "You got to him in time. If you hadn't, he would have died. Healing state or not."
"Did he kill Vader?" JD asked suddenly, curious to know what had been the outcome of that confrontation and almost wished he had been able to see it.
"No," she shook her head. "I don't know what happened to him. He'll probably turn up sooner or later." Her gaze shifted to Chris' sleeping face and Mary marveled at how beautiful it was, when he was at peace. "If there's one thing I have learned about the Jedi, they are notoriously difficult to kill."
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