The Rogue's stay on Cordoba after its arrival on the planet was brief. The Corsair's tenure on the most populous world in the Territory better known as Wild Space lasted as long as it took for Buck Wilmington to land the ship in berth and pick up the last of the Rogue's passengers, Ezra Standish. As anticipated, the Alliance had charged Josiah Sanchez to retrieve Mary Travis at any costs, preferably before she fell into Imperial hands, which was their greatest fear at present. Although the main ranks of the rebels were shocked to find out that their leader had departed on a personal crusade, most were confident that she would succeed in her mission, which would only add more fire to her legend. The Alliance hierarchy was not as enamoured by her mythological status amongst her staff and Josiah could see that disciplinary action would be pending if they ever brought Mary back in one piece
Once Ezra was on board, the Rogue wasted no time departing from Cordoba. Being an active part of the Rebel Alliance made Buck doubly conscious of anyone who might recognise him or his ship. It would only take one word from an informant and the Empire would start combing the planet and the system in search of them. With the nature of their mission ahead, it was wise to remain anonymous for the time being. The situation was difficult enough without the added complication of Imperials seeking them out as well.
Ezra boarded the Rogue in civilian clothing, having left word to his minions at the Cordoba outpost that he was taking leave in order to deal with some personal business that had arisen with his mother in the Corporate Sector. If there were spies, they would be hard pressed to trace his departure from the world since he had not taken any of the normal transports but that was how he desired it. Ironically, he had meant to lose himself on some pleasure planet for the duration of his time away but somehow, fate had decided that he would be making the trip to the Corporate Sector after all.
"So am I to understand that Mary has opted to go AWOL?" Ezra inquired once the Rogue was in the safety of hyperspace. She had left Cordoba with a minimum of incident and had jumped into hyperspace shortly after, on course for the Corporate Sector which was on the other side of the galaxy.
"Something like that," Nathan responded after he had been appraised of the situation since they needed his help navigating through the uncertain waters of the Corporate Sector worlds.
"Is there actual confirmation that Stephen Travis is alive?" he asked as they were all gathered inside the main passenger cabin of the Rogue, discussing the situation.
"We received the information when one of our agents intercepted a message that was transmitted from the Imperial listening post in the Corporate Sector," Josiah answered.
Mention of Alexandra Styles brought another snort of derision from Vin Tanner who was once again, seated before his still unassembled cache of lightsabre components trying to make another attempt at putting the weapon together.
"Will you knock it off already?" Nathan looked over his shoulder. "What is it with you every time that woman's name is mentioned?"
"Yeah Vin," even JD had to add his own observation. "What is it with you and her?"
"Judging by the way he's behaving," Buck said with a little smirk. "I'd say a troubled love life."
"There's nothing of the kind going on!" Vin snapped in annoyance, mostly because Buck was always so damn accurate about these things. "I'm just pissed off because she took my ship!"
"Sure you are," Buck said with a completely straight face.
"Can we please get to back to the subject," Josiah frowned. Like Chris, he was too worried about Mary to be able to indulge in this harmless ribbing.
"Sorry," Buck apologized. "The fact is Ezra, all we know is that Black Sun made an offer to the Empire to deliver Stephen Travis for ten million credits."
"Pray tell it is not Black Sun who has him." Ezra looked around the grim faces and realised it was true.
"Chase," Vin confirmed.
"Chase." Ezra nodded in realisation.
"You know much about her?" Buck asked.
"Rumors mostly but there had been a number of bodies to substantiate them," Ezra answered, learning back into his seat. "According to my mother, Chase was a mistress of one of the initial gang lords who moved into the Corporate Sector. Naurev Sig was one of the pioneers so to speak. When that area of space was first charted and found to be devoid of any intelligent species despite containing some of the richest worlds in the galaxy, the scramble for profit was naturally made. Those first surveyors formed the Corporate Sector Authority. Criminals gangs wanting to escape the stranglehold of the Hutt ganglords were also forced to retreat to the Corporate Sector and were able to strike some kind of alliance with the Authority. The business of the Corporate Sector is profit, nothing else."
"If it's so rich, why doesn't the Empire take it?" JD inquired, knowing almost nothing about the Corporate Sector, having been bound to Odete for most of his life until recently.
"Well it is almost impossible to police," Ezra explained. "It is situated on the outer spiral arm of the galaxy. The locals and smugglers call it Star's End. The nearest Imperial installation is at Ithor and that is mostly to guard the Hydian Way from smugglers who attempt to slice through the core worlds to bypass customs and Imperial checkpoints. The listening post the Senator mentioned a moment ago is a token presence on Etti IV, the main center of commerce and industry in the Corporate Sector."
"I thought it was Duroon," Buck declared.
"No, Duroon is a port for show. It has all the earmarks of legitimate business for visitors, so that the Imperial Governor does not decide to recommend to Palpatine that it annex the Corporate Sector. It has some semblance of law and order but the real power is in Etti IV."
"Is that where Black Sun is?" Chris Larabee spoke for the first time. The Jedi had been sitting quietly for most of the trip, his gaze fixed on the small portal that gave him a glimpse of hyperspace beyond the ship.
"No." Ezra shook his head. "For that, we will have to make some discreet inquiries. As I said, Laurel Chase emerged from nowhere as Nuarev Sig's mistress. I have not seen the lady myself but from all accounts she is said to be beautiful."
"Beautiful?" Buck's interest immediately sparked.
"Attaboy Buck," Nathan rolled his eyes. "Always keeping things in perspective."
"It might do well for you gentlemen to prepare yourself," Ezra retorted in a serious tone. "She is not only meant to be beautiful but extraordinarily so. When she stepped into Sig's life, he was completely smitten. Rumor had it she had designs on taking over Black Sun from the minute of her arrival but Sig was too enamoured by her to see the danger. By the time he died, supposedly of old age, she had more or less replaced most of his trusted lieutenants with her own people."
"Women," Vin stated, looking up from the components he was trying to solder together. "She only hires women and really pretty ones too."
"Pretty ones?" Buck stated.
"Is he normally like this?" Ezra asked no one in particular.
"Oh every second or so," JD remarked with a grin.
"I see Inez was not exaggerating when she commented on your prowess with the ladies," Ezra said with a little smile.
"How would she know?" Buck returned sourly, reminded now that Ezra was dating his ex-wife and not liking it one damn bit. "I never cheated on her! You know it's just like Inez to make things up about when we were married."
"She made no such statement," Ezra retorted, coming quickly to her defense. "She merely claimed that lately, you had been quite the paramour of the stars."
"What about Chase herself?" Chris asked, brushing aside all incidental conversation and getting back on track. "What do we know about her?"
"Aside from the fact that she is extremely handsome, she is meant to be highly intelligent. The narcotic Venom, which is selling like wildfire across the galaxy, was a concoction of her own making. In fact much of Black Sun's narcotic inventory are designer drugs she has created. The Hutts have been attempting to learn the process for years but Chase allows no one to manufacture it other than herself personally."
"And Mary's headed straight for her," Josiah whispered unhappily.
"I would not be too worried about Commander Travis," Ezra remarked, "the Hero of Jofa has proven numerous times that she is quite capable of acquitting herself."
"What do you keep calling her that?" JD asked. "I've heard people mentioning it but no one wants to talk much about it."
"There's good reason for that," Josiah sighed. "Mary wouldn't be impressed if they called her that to her face."
"Why not?" JD looked at the others puzzled and saw that Ezra, Josiah, Nathan and Chris knew what the story behind that auspicious title.
"When Palpatine took over, he began consolidating his forces into a single cohesive military war machine. Before that, the Republic's armed forces were basically composed of all member races and while they operated as one unit, their loyalties were always in danger of splintering. Palpatine decided to eliminate that problem when the Empire came into being," Josiah explained, since he was an eyewitness to most of what he was telling the youth. "With the creation of the Imperial fleet, there were no more planetary affiliations, Coruscant and the Emperor were to be the focus of their loyalties. In the past, participation in military defense of the Republic was a voluntary issue, Palpatine made it a mandatory one."
"Yes," Ezra sighed as he and Nathan met each other's gaze, remembering the changing of the guard, having to shed their Republic uniforms to wear Imperial black. "It was only the beginning."
"Jofa is a planet of water breathers," Josiah resumed his narration. "They were one of the most gentle races in the galaxy. Since Jofa is covered entirely in water, the Jofans exist on the ocean floor. They built great coral cities and they thrived as most civilizations untouched by outside forces usually do. When the first explorers came to Jofa a thousand years ago, they were greeted with open arms and found the Jofans to be very curious about the planets beyond their own. Because they evolved in an entirely oceanic environment, space travel was not possible for them, so they built the Pavillions. Huge cities encased in glass domes, where they could emerge briefly with the aid of aquatic breathers and get to know visitors from other worlds."
"I went there when I was a cadet," Nathan remarked with a sad smile. "It was entrancing."
"So what happened?" Vin found himself asking.
"The Empire," Chris said coldly. "The Empire happened."
"Palpatine decided to conscript Jofans into military service, to fight on other worlds with similar environments. They were pacifists, so they refused. In retaliation for their disobedience, Palpatine destroyed the Pavilions. The Jofans had existed for the past 1000 years with air breathers. In a strange symbiosis, they considered air breathers a part of their race and culture. They considered native-born air breathers were their ambassadors to the stars. When the Pavillions were destroyed, all the Breathers were wiped out. The Jofans who were left felt the massacre were outraged, even more so when Palpatine placed an Imperial force to take charge and rebuild their Central Pavilion."
"Hell," Buck whispered in open horror.
"When the Imperial presence in Jofa was reaching its inauguration ceremony, extremists decided that they would rather destroy the Pavilion than allow Palpatine to rule them after what he had done. The city was filled with Imperial civilians, most of that were workers who had been rebuilding the dome. When the water started filling the dome, a lot of people died, including Imperial troops. Mary and Alex were stationed on board the Heart of Gold, she was first officer. Their captain was killed and she found herself the only command officer left. It was Mary who held the line against the Jofans while the survivors were being evacuated to the surface. The Swimmers were preparing to attack in numbers in order to kill everyone. Mary and hundred soldiers defended what was later called the Jofan Insurrection. I think she was one of fifteen that survived."
"Fifteen?" JD exclaimed.
"She managed to see the safe evacuation of all the civilians to the surface but she was almost killed herself. If it were not for Alex, Mary would have been one of the casualties," Josiah replied.
It suddenly made sense to the men in the room why Alex had stood steadfastly by Mary, no matter how dangerous her idea of rescuing Stephen might be. None of them could say for certain that if called upon to follow the same path along each other sides, they themselves might not do the same thing.
"And that's why they call her the Hero of Jofa," Josiah concluded.
"So why is she so strange about talking about it?" JD questioned, seeing nothing in Mary's actions that was cause for her to be ashamed of her part in the events on Jofa. She had saved lives, she had fought a battle against great numbers. Why was it such a point of contention?
"Because," Chris said quietly, "after the insurrection, Palpatine send the Empire in and wiped out the rest of the Jofans. There is no such thing as a Jofan race any more. Breather or Swimmer."
The warning lights on the cockpit controls of the Tracker lit up in front of Alexandra Styles indicating that they were about to jump out of light speed. She glanced over her shoulder to check up on Mary's progress and could not see the rebel leader behind her.
"Mary," Alex sang out as she went through the motions of bringing the ship back into normal space. "We're about to enter the Corporate Sector Authority," she announced. "You ready?"
"As I'll ever be," Mary responded stepping into the cockpit and presented herself. Her blond hair had been cropped into a neat bob over her shoulders and its flaxen color had been disguised by jet-black dye. She had completed the process by applying the same procedure to her eyebrows and darkening her skin with some pigment. She had discarded her rebel uniform and was wearing one of Alex's body suits, a skintight outfit in dark burgundy. Although she still looked very much human and Caucasian, she did not look at all like Mary Travis.
"Wow," Alex let out a low whistle. "You look fantastic, not to mention seriously wicked."
"I feel like I ought to be charging by the hour," Mary frowned, touching her hair uncertainly and feeling little discontented that her long hair had to be sacrificed.
"You look great," Alex chuckled facing front again. "I almost didn't recognise you."
"What about you?" Mary asked sliding into the co-pilot's seat. "Are you going to wear a disguise?"
"No need," Alex shrugged. "I got more identity papers than I know what to do with and after I became an agent, the slicers at the Alliance planted a nice little worm program in Coruscant's systems, erasing any record of my existence from all its data banks. They may know my name but they have no visual record of me."
"Convenient," Mary noted as she eased into her chair and glanced at her friend. "So, you want to tell me now how you manage to get past Vin Tanner?"
Alex glanced at her sharply. "I just knocked him out."
"So why do you look so guilty when you say that?" Mary leaned forward, narrowing her eyes as she gave her friend a long stare.
"Guilty!" Alex scoffed. "I am not guilty. I have nothing to be guilty about."
"Then answer the question without twitching," Mary challenged, needing to feel some amusement despite what they were about to face when they arrived at Etti IV. She needed to talk about something else other than Stephen and Chris.
"Alright!" Alex grumbled. "He kissed me, okay?"
"Vin kissed you?" A voice that was not Mary's squealed in surprise.
Both women turned to look and found themselves staring at Casey Well, standing at the doorway to the cockpit.
"Casey!" Mary exclaimed aghast. "What are you doing here?"
"I'm sorry Mary," Casey quickly came forward to explain. "I saw her trying to steal Vin's ship so I followed her." She turned her eyes on Alex, giving the operative an accusatory look.
"Who is this kid?" Alex asked Mary.
"Alex," Mary sighed, unable to believe that Casey was here or what she was going to do about it. "This is Casey Wells, one of our newer recruits. Casey, this is Commander Alexandra Styles of covert intelligence."
"You mean like a secret agent!" Casey gushed in eagerly.
"Not a very good one to be zeroed by a kid," Alex muttered, mortified that she had been followed by a child with no knowledge of it.
"Oh no, you were very good," Casey quickly returned. "I wouldn't have noticed if you didn't go near Vin's ship. He doesn't like anyone messing around with it. Did he really kiss you?" she said all this in one breath.
"This humiliation knows no end," Alex groaned and looked at Mary. "We have a serious security problem."
"Casey, you cannot stay." Mary faced the young woman. "We're about to embark upon something very dangerous."
"Oh Mary I know," Casey responded. "I didn't mean to stow away but when I saw her breaking into Vin's ship, I waited until after she left and went into the cargo hold to wait and see what she was doing. I must have fallen asleep because when I woke up I heard you both talking about your husband and I didn't know what to do so I just stayed put."
"But found compelled to speak when you heard Vin kissed me," Alex responded. "What is he your boyfriend or something?"
"Vin?" Casey exclaimed as if that was the most ludicrous thing she had ever heard. "No, I means he's older than me but he's sweet and so polite and he's always nice to me, not like that stupid JD Dunne...."
"Please say we were nothing like this when we were 17." Alex glanced at Mary as Casey began to grumble openly about what a pain JD was.
"I tried not to think too much about it," Mary responded, rubbing her brow as she tried to think her way out of this sudden new development. "Besides, I would have come out for that remark about Vin too, I mean you have to admit it was pretty interesting."
"I'm glad you find this so amusing," Alex declared. "What are we going to do with her? We can't take her into Etti IV."
"I know," Mary nodded. "But we can't send her back either."
"I can help!" Casey cried out. "If there's a system you need to get into or anything that needs hardwiring, I'm your girl!"
"Mary," Alex ignored her. "This is dangerous."
"I know," Mary answered. "But we don't have a choice. The best thing we can do is keep her with us or on the ship."
"Can she pilot?" Alex asked.
"I can learn!"
"Oh hell," the operative began to groan.
"Alex, we'll manage," Mary said firmly. "I'll think of something."
Alex and Mary held each other's eyes for a long while and Alex knew that if Mary made that promise, then it would happen. They had not come this far on Mary not being able to deliver her promises and as before, Alex's faith in Mary Travis would always win the day. Looking at Casey, Alex let out a deep sigh.
"Strap yourself into a chair. We're about to come out of hyper space," Alex met Mary's eyes with a smile.
"Oh thank you so much!" Casey cried out again. "I promise I won't get in the way!"
"I hope you know what you're doing." Alex shook her head before facing front as Casey placed herself in one of the passenger seats behind them.
"So," Casey asked after settling in again. "What happened when Vin kissed you?"
Alex gave Mary a dark look and said in a low voice. "I'm going to get you for this."
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