Buck Wilmington's voice filled his mind like a light flooding into a dark cavern. For a few seconds, he was almost blinded by its intensity and his mind recoiled further into the darkness in a mad attempt to evade the effect of the noise on his sensitive consciousness. However, with the coming of wakefulness, Chris snagged onto Buck's voice and rode the torrent of sound back to the land of the living. With the awakening of his senses, sensation began flooding back into heavy limbs and a mind dulled by the edge of a throbbing headache, not to mention the effects of the blast upon him began to claw its way back into full alertness. However, nothing had more effect on his resurrection then the return of his short-term memories.
"Mary!" Chris groaned as he realised what had happened. What she had done.
"Its too late," Buck said placing a hand on his shoulder to keep him from getting up too quickly. "She's gone."
"Gone?" He looked up at his friend and was about to demand more answers when he realised that there was no need. Chris knew exactly where she was going, just as he knew why. Everything that he wanted to ask was redundant because he already knew the answers.
"Yeah," Buck nodded grimly. "She and that friend of hers took Vin's ship and blasted out of here."
"We've got to go after her," Chris declared trying to stand up.
"Take it easy," Buck instructed, placing a supportive hand under his arm as he made the effort. "You've been hit pretty hard by one of those remote practice drones."
"Is that how she got the drop on you Chris?" JD's voice entered the fray and Chris looked up to see the younger man had been there all along. At that moment Chris had to concede with Buck's evaluation of his condition if he had not noted JD's presence in the room. His body ached and while he sensed that there was no permanent injury, it would still take some time to dispel the effects of the discharge upon his system.
"Yeah," Chris nodded, capable of standing up on his own and rubbing the back of his neck. He had sensed nothing about the remote practice drone when he had confronted her but sensed Mary was smart enough to get around a Jedi if she put her mind to it. A simpler solution to her problem of eliminating him as an obstacle would have been to have someone else plan the attack without telling her so that she could not inadvertently give it away when he came into contact with her. He had to commend Mary for her intelligence but then supposed that she would always be two steps ahead of him because of who she was. It was time he stopped thinking of her as the woman he cared about and started remembering that she was one of the sharpest military minds in the galaxy if he had any chance of catching up with her.
"How long has she been gone?" he asked Buck.
"Not that long," Buck replied. "An hour maybe more."
"If she's jumped into hyperspace, she could be anywhere by now," Chris pointed out.
"I think we both know where she went," Buck said grimly.
"The Corporate Sector," Chris sighed heavily "She's going to get him."
"Can't we go after her? Help her?" JD asked, having been content to keep his own counsel until now, however, since this had all began he had been questioning whether or not this was entirely wise. JD assumed that the others knew better than him but he was starting to learn that perhaps it was not always true because the question of what they ought to do had always been clear to him. "I mean we should be helping her anyway. He's her husband, we couldn't possibly expect her to sit by and do nothing."
Buck and Chris met each other's eyes feeling equally admonished by JD's words. It was ironic that it was left to the youngest of to finally come out and say what they should have obviously done in the first place, before Mary Travis had came to the conclusion she could not rely on them to help her.
"He's right." Buck shook his head, unable to keep from feeling a little ashamed about not being more supportive of Mary's desire to find Stephen.
"And a lot smarter than all of us." Chris patted JD on the shoulder. The youth tried not to show how affected he was by the gesture. However, no amount of restraint could his proud smile from sneaking across his lips especially when Chris added further. "We should have helped her to begin with. Now she's gone off on her own."
"And she'll run straight into the Black Sun," Buck declared familiar with the organisation enough to know that no good would come from crossing swords with it.
"At the very least," Chris retorted as he started towards the door. "At the worst, the Empire."
When they arrived at the command centre of the rebel base, a place usually presided over with supreme authority by Mary Travis, it felt strange to see Nathan running things in her absence. At the moment, the rebels were still reeling from the shock news that their commander had gone off on a personal crusade that was liable to get herself killed. Chris entered the small annex within the command center where Mary carried out more direct discussions with her personnel and which she had dubbed the war room. He caught sight of Vin Tanner standing next to Nathan and Josiah holding a Re-Gen pack over the back of his skull. The apprentice did not at all look happy and Chris could tell from his dark emotions that something had angered him even more than his usual unflappable ability to contain.
"What happened to you?" Buck asked as they approached the others.
"Styles blindsided me," Vin barked a response and Chris immediately knew there was more to it than that.
"Did she use one of those practice drones on you as well?" JD asked innocently.
"No," Vin snapped and was about to add something further when he felt silent again. "Never mind," he said after a moment. "It ain't important."
However by the sour expression on his face, it was obvious that more had taken place then the former bounty hunter was revealing at the present time. However, no one pressed him on the issue because Vin would have told them already if it had any relevance to their mounting crisis. Chris made a mental note to talk to Vin about it when this was all over. For the moment however, he would respect his friend's privacy because there were things of greater importance that required his attention. He had no doubt that Vin had a story almost as interesting as he himself, did on how Alex had managed to get past him. Certainly Chris had omitted some of the details regarding Mary's method of blocking him.
"You alright?" Chris asked concerned as he saw the blood stained Re-Gen pack that Vin was holding against the wound on his head.
"I'll survive," Vin muttered and immediately told Chris with his expression that it was his pride that had the worse injury, not his skull.
"We have to go after her." Nathan captured their attention by stating firmly now that they were more or less here. The six men in the room were Mary's closest friends and if there was any question of her retrieval, it would be they who would ultimately carry it out.
"That's easier said then done," Josiah rumbled, having feared this exact situation the moment he had learned that Stephen was alive. "She's gone to the Corporate Sector and she is with Alexandra Styles."
No one commented when Vin produced an audible snort of derision.
Josiah gave the apprentice a quick look before he shook his head and resumed speaking. "Not much is known about the Corporate Sector. Technically, it's under Imperial control but mostly its run by corrupt officials from Old Republic days. They call themselves the Authority and for the rich dividends, they basically let the Smuggling Guild and criminal organizations have their run of the place. Black Sun is one of these. What we know of Laurel Chase is scant but if Mary wants to rescue Stephen, she's going to have to do it from the inside. With Alex at her side, that's possible. Alex is a covert intelligence operative. She knows how to disappear and she knows how to blend in. It is possible for Mary to get very close to Stephen."
"Or stuck so deep we'll never find her," Vin retorted. "Listen Chase is no fool," he spoke up. "I don't doubt that Alex" he could not help but seethe when he spoke her name, "is pretty good at what she does but Chase will expect some kind of action from the Rebellion, I can tell you this now. Mary may be walking into a trap and if you think what Chase was asking for Stephen is a lot of credits, its nothing compared to what she'll demand for Mary."
"We need to go after her," Chris stated. "While we still can. Vin, how well do you know the Corporate Sector?" the Jedi asked his younger apprentice.
"Not enough to get inside with Black Sun," Vin confessed unhappily. In truth, he always tried to stay out of the Corporate Sector because alliances there shifted at a moment's notice. It was never wise to be in a place where just about everyone could be bought. Those who fled Imperial dominance often found that they had traded it for something worse in the Corporate Sector. The Empire was governed by some measure of law and order where else the Corporate Sector was a random free for all that changed as regularly as the next highest bidder.
"Buck?" Chris looked at his old friend hopefully.
"Sorry Chris," Buck shook his head sadly. "I always thought the place was bad news, I stayed out of there. I mean I've been there once or twice but nothing more than that."
"Chris," Nathan spoke up and Chris sensed something in the man's voice that told the Jedi without having to use any of his abilities, that Nathan had the answer he needed. "Ezra. Ezra knows the Corporate Sector."
"Ezra knows the Corporate Sector?" Buck exclaimed with surprise. "How?"
"He grew up there," Nathan replied, feeling as if he had betrayed a confidence by making that revelation when Ezra was not here to give him permission. Unfortunately, the situation with Mary was so crucial they had no choice. Chris needed answers immediately and Nathan could not waste time wrestling with his conscience, besides he was confident that under the circumstances, Ezra would understand. "His mother runs a place in the Corporate Sector."
"Well isn't that a coincidence," Josiah mused after a rebel lieutenant had come discreetly to him during their discussion and handed him a data pad.
"What is it Josiah?" Buck asked.
"It's a transmission from Inez," Josiah announced raising his eyes to meet the others once he was done reading the contents of the data pad. "Apparently Ezra needs to make himself scarce for a few days. It seems he has been assigned a new first officer appointed by Vader and he wants to avoid her for a few days," Josiah responded. "He wanted to know if we could get him off Cordoba because he did not want to be followed."
Josiah put down the pad on the table before him and met Chris' gaze with a suggestive arch of his brow. "I think we can accommodate him"
"Ezra knows the Corporate Sector and every weasel in it. If anyone has the connections to find Mary, its Ezra," Nathan stated firmly, confident that their chances of retrieving Mary were significantly increased with Ezra's active participation.
Despite the urgency of the situation, Nathan could not deny that it would be good to see his old friend again. He missed the days when the freedom to see each other was something to be taken for granted. Nowadays, meetings had to be made following careful preparations and who knew how Ezra's dance on the razor's edge would end. There was only so long he could keep aiding them before the Empire was wise to what he was doing. The arrival of a new first officer by the appointment of Darth Vader did not bode well for the captain and Nathan suspected it was just a matter of time before he was finally uncovered as an rebel spy.
"Alright then," Chris Larabee replied firmly, eager to make their departure as soon as possible. "Let's get after her before she gains any more ground then she already has."
Mary stared at the blur of hyperspace through the window of the Tracker's cockpit and tried not to think too deeply on what had happened back at the rebel base. A part of her was still somewhat shell shocked by what she had done and hoped those left behind would not be too worried. Stupid, she rebuked herself immediately as soon as the thought left her head, of course they would be worried about her! They were her friends and in a reversal of roles, Mary would feel exactly the same. The departure from the base had gone as smoothly as anticipated. Thanks to Josiah's determination to keep their earlier confrontation private from the rank and file, no one had found anything suspicious by her departure, not that they would have dared to stop her. She was after all their commanding officer and had the authority to go where she pleased.
Alex, who was at the controls of the ship next to her, was just as quiet and the cool air of the cockpit felt more like a tomb then the nerve center of a space ship. Her oldest friend went about the business of activating the autopilot system so that the vessel could guide itself through the eddies and currents of the hyperspatial void. Alex would cast furtive glances in her direction occasionally, waiting for her to break the silence but Mary did not wish to talk just yet. She was trying not to let herself be overwhelmed with guilt over how she had tricked and incapacitated Chris Larabee. Oh she knew that it was Alex who had actually carried out the deed but it was in no small way instigated by her.
"So," Alex said finally, deciding that Mary was not going to speak without proper incentive. "You want to tell me what that was between you and the Jedi?"
Mary stiffened in her chair and retorted shortly. "Not particularly."
"Come on Mary," Alex gave her a long look, one Mary knew well because Alex used it so effectively through the years whenever she was about to goad Mary into discussing something she had no wish to. "I was your friend before you became my sister-in-law, you know you can talk to me about anything. Wasn't I the one who held your head down the first time you got drunk and then got sick after that furlough party? Did I not rescue you from that Rodian with the bad breadth and the even worse come on line. What was it again?"
"You haven't had a man until you've had one of us..," Mary responded, a faint smile crossing her face as she recalled the incident. Alex had come right up to her and kissed her on the mouth in front of the Rodian before explaining, in the way only Alex could, that Mary's predilections did not involve men at all. The Rodian had vanished faster than an atom down a singularity. "I remember."
"Good," Alex smiled warmly reaching for the hand resting on an armrest. "Now I'm not stupid. I saw how he looked at you."
"We're just friends Lex," Mary answered but knew even as she said the words that it was a lie. Mary had no idea what they were. She knew that she looked at Chris and saw more than a friend but less than a lover. There was something between them that was made from the same fabric as the bonds forged between those who would live and breathe for each other and yet she knew that at the moment, it existed by the filmiest threads. "He lost his wife and son about the same time I lost..." she paused a moment and rephrased her words. "At the same I thought I lost Stephen and since then, we've been each other's support when the stiff upper lip we try to show everyone starts to quiver."
"I see," Alex nodded understanding a great deal more than Mary gave her credit. "How do you feel about him?"
"He's my friend," she responded just a little too quickly. "He always seems to know what to say when I need to hear it the most. I guess that's the whole Jedi thing."
"Probably," Alex shrugged. "I get the impression its more than that for him though. I think he cares about you a great deal."
"I don't feel anything for him," Mary said sharply.
"Come on Mare," Alex looked at her in disbelief. She only called Mary that when she knew the latter was lying to her. "You wouldn't be sitting here as if someone shot your heart to pieces if you didn't care."
"What are you trying to do?" Mary barked when Alex hit too close too home. "We're going to find out if my husband is alive and you want to discuss my non-existent feelings for a Jedi Knight? A Jedi Knight of all things!" she cried out in exasperation.
"Mary," Alex returned just as firmly because there was too much between them for Alex to ever be afraid of Commander Travis. "Stephen was considered dead for a year! He's my brother and even I moved on because I believed he was dead. You have no reason to feel ashamed for anything you might feel for this Jedi."
"Stop calling him that!" she snapped. "His name is CHRIS!"
Alex fell silent after the outburst and for a few minutes Mary did not know what to say because her declaration had only proved Alex's point. She did care about him a great deal, enough to shout down the oldest friend she had because he was being spoken about as just another Jedi. He was not just another Jedi, he was Chris Larabee, her friend! She felt ashamed and angry. "This isn't fair!" Mary cried out, revealing herself to the only person who knew her before she was Commander Travis. "I was just starting to put it all behind me, to get through the day not wanting to tell Stephen about some stupid thing that happened in my day. I should be happy to know that Stephen is alive but I'm not! I'm so twisted inside, I can't even think straight! I don't know what to do because of....."
"Because of Chris," Alex finished off for her. She paused a moment as she gathered her thoughts, trying to think of the best way to advise her friend. After a second, Alex felt she had some of the words to give Mary some kind of comfort. "Mary I can't imagine what you're going through at this moment and I'm not even going to try. All I'm going to tell you is that there comes a time when you have to make a choice and if we find Stephen, it will come down to that, you having to make a choice. The life we've chosen for ourselves leaves very little for anything else so what little there is, which isn't for the cause, should not be wasted. You're the most responsible person I know, you'd sacrifice just about anything if the reason demand it but I also know that at some point, what you want inside here," she pointed to her heart, "has to take preference. You can only give up so much of yourself before you start losing you completely and if you allow that to happen, you're no good to yourse lf or anyone else."
Mary blinked and a tear rolled down her cheek. "I feel him you know," she whispered softly
Alex did not have to ask whether or not Mary meant Stephen because she did not.
"I feel him even when he's not around. A few weeks ago, he went face to face with Darth Vader and even though I was on a ship light years away, I felt him slip away and I never though I could feel so afraid in my life at just the thought of him being gone. Ever since then, he's been in here somewhere, I think he does it because he can keep me safe." Her voice was almost like a child trying to find absolution with a god she did not understand.
"Look," Alex swallowed. "We have no real idea whether or not Stephen is alive. We have information but information from this kind of a source is not entirely reliable, so we could be wrong. Maybe the best thing for you right now, is not to think about this until after we know for certain."
Mary dried her tears and took a deep breath. "You're right. Let's concentrate on what we're going to do once we get to the Corporate Sector. Any ideas?"
Mary had not considered her plans beyond getting out of the rebel base and making their way to the Corporate Sector. She had never anticipated having to do this on her own, expecting to be on the bridge of the Purgatory when she finally went to confront Black Sun. In truth, she knew she was deluding herself because the Alliance was only being sensible by refusing her permission to go after her husband. She was a valuable asset to their organization and a very big liability if she were to fall into Imperial hands. Aside from all the information she knew that they would have to damn near kill her to extract, Mary knew her demise would be a severe blow on morale. For the first time, she began to see exactly what were the consequences of her departure.
"I have a few contacts on Duroon," Alex explained as she outlined the brief plan she had concocted since the decision had by Mary for them to rescue Stephen alone. "We'll have to pay the usual bribes to the Secret Police and Authority personnel to look the other way of course but I think we can get us some fake identity papers. I'm going to claim that we're criminals trying to hide out, anything but rebels. Once we're set with identities, we'll have to approach Black Sun from the inside. There is no way we can reach Stephen unless we infiltrate them."
"How do we do that?" Mary asked, starting to appreciate what a monumental task she had set for herself and Alex in this rescue attempt.
"Oh that's easy." Alex looked at her with a little smile. "We go ask them for jobs."
"Jobs?" Mary exclaimed. "Doing what?"
"Well if I recall correctly," Alex stared at her old friend. "You're pretty good with a blaster and you have been known to kick some ass in your time."
"Yes I've heard that," Mary smiled faintly. "You want us to go in as hired guns?"
"No other way," Alex retorted. "She only hires women."
"She?" Mary noted the way Alex spoke about the woman and there was a thin line of something that Mary could almost fear running through her words. However, Alex was rarely afraid of anything. The woman had more nerve then sense.
"Yes," Alex nodded wondering if any words could prepared Mary for their eventual meeting with the leader of Black Sun. "Lauren Chase," Alex finally answered. "When you meet her, be afraid and don't underestimate her. If we're caught, what the Empire would do to us will be nothing in comparison to what this woman is capable of."
"That bad?" Mary shuddered.
Alex met her gaze. "No," she shook her head. "Worse."
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