When the first of the TIE fighter's left the belly of the Star Destroyers, Ezra and Chris decided that it was finally time to move. Despite his worries about Mary, Chris found himself gaining a new admiration for the Imperial officer that was choosing to risk everything by helping them get her back. He wondered how well Ezra and Mary would work together and quickly came to the conclusion that they could be a formidable team. For the moment however, Chris found that Ezra's strategy regarding how they would deal with slipping past the Star Destroyer to be sound and agreed that the Imperials would be more interested in who was departing the planet rather than who was attempting to land on it. When the phalanx of TIE fighters started towards the planet, Chris saw the perfect opportunity to not only land but also slip past the formidable sensor net that surrounded the planet.
"Okay everybody strap yourselves in," Buck instructed as his fingers began moving deftly across the cockpit controls. "I'm going to try and keep some distance away from them but still stay close enough to confuse those sensors down there."
"Will it matter much?" Josiah inquired from his place behind the pilot and co-pilots seat.
"Not really I suppose," Buck had to confess. "But we're playing it safe. If she's got sensors that sophisticated, I'm betting there will be some air defense batteries too."
"You mean, we could get shot down?" JD exclaimed beside him.
"No while I'm flying," Buck grinned with confidence. "Air batteries are good but not that good and with almost a full squadron coming at them, we'll get past them easy."
"Can you pin point where exactly Black Sun is?" Chris asked.
"Absolutely," Ezra responded. "All it requires is a little recalibration of our sensor equipment, finding of course the strongest concentration of shielding and logic dictates that we ought to find ourselves Black Sun's enclave."
"In a word 'yes'," Nathan retorted.
"I believe that's what I said." Ezra gave him a look.
"How close do you want to get?" Buck asked.
"I'm hoping that the aerial attack creates enough confusion that we can slip in and find Mary," Chris replied.
"It will undoubtedly be a large structure," Ezra pointed out. "Can we be assured of finding her?"
"I'll find her," Chris said enigmatically. Even now, he could feel her. Although the sensation was distant, like trying to find someone in a fog, it was nevertheless there. She was alive and for the moment, Chris was grateful enough for that.
"What about Travis?" Vin asked and it was a question directed more at Chris than anyone else.
"If he's alive, he comes with us." Chris did not hesitate in his answer, even though he wish he could be callous or selfish enough to do otherwise.
"I wonder if she's found him yet," Josiah asked no one in particular.
"She won't stop until she does," Chris responded. Inwardly, he dreaded what would happen when Mary returned to the Alliance with Stephen Travis. He knew for certain that he would be unable to stay with the rebel cell in the Territory. Just seeing him with her, knowing that Mary would never be his was more than Chris' battered heart could take. Losing Sarah had almost killed him but at least she went with some finality, Mary would be taken from him piece at a time. He could not endure it. Not even a Jedi was strong enough for that.
The Rogue pulled away from its low orbit around Orron 3's moon, causing all its occupants to feel the sudden movement tugging at their innards as it escaped the gravitation field of the small satellite. The squadron of TIE fighters was already speeding towards the planet and the Rogue caught up to them easily. The Corellian freighter stayed close enough to become lost in the signals of approaching ships that Black Sun's sensor surely must have detected by now and hoped the same went for the Star Destroyer, though this seemed unlikely. Still, Buck ensure that his ship maintained enough distance to convey to the fighters that he was not closing in on them at an attack vector.
Fortunately, the Imperial pilots were more interested in their mission than the freighter and so the Rogue was regarded with general disinterest as it approached the planet. It took a matter of minutes for them to enter Orron 3 airspace and the darkness of the cockpit was soon illuminated by light from the blue morning sky. Orron 3 was a forest world and as the Rogue surged towards its destination, it swept past large tracks of lush green vegetation, intermittently interrupted by bodies of water either as lakes or seas. Unfortunately, none of this panoramic vista had any effect on the TIE fighters or the occupants of the Rogue. The readings pinpointing the exact location of Black Sun's base were easier to read now that they were skimming across the planet surface.
On his scanner, Buck noted the TIE fighters forming into attack formation and guessed that they were very close to their target because the small ships would soon begin their aerial bombardment. Buck had no intention of being anywhere in the vicinity when that happened because it was too easy for some over eager flyboy to take shots at them. He changed course as the fortress where Black Sun resided came into view.
"That's it," Buck stated as the passengers got their first glimpse of the place.
Even in the light of day, it looked just as impressive. The sunlight gleamed off the surface of the dark rock and there was no doubt in their minds that while aerial bombardment would eventually breach the fortress, it would not be any easy feat. The place had been erected to fend off attacks from air and land. It was a fitting residence for an organization that was so feared.
"It feels cold," Vin pointed out, reminded of the chill he had felt when Darth Vader was in close proximity but there was something more, something he could not pinpoint. It made him uneasy.
Chris could sense it too but he was more adept to defining what it was that was wrong. It felt as if there were something inside that fortress that was beyond the force. Like stepping into a vacuum chamber while outside, a millions voices screamed in unison. Chris shook off the disorientation and tried to shrink away from that emptiness but found himself inevitably drawn to it out of sheer curiosity.
"What's wrong?" Josiah asked concerned, seeing the unsettled expression on Vin's normally unflappable features. He saw the corresponding look on Chris' face and immediately knew something beyond their immediate concerns was transpiring.
"I feel cold inside," Vin stammered. "I don't know why."
"I do," Chris responded, staring straight ahead. "There's something in that place that deflects the Force."
"That's impossible," Josiah declared. "The Force is everywhere." Jedi spirituality always interested the former senator and he knew that the Force was an energy field binding all living things together. Midiclorions had been created at the formation of the universe and it was that through, which the Force flowed. The tiny organisms existed in the fabric of every thing that lived and breathed in the universe, for there to be an exception to the rule was almost unheard of.
"We can't worry about this now," Chris said abruptly, forcing himself away from that place because they had more immediate concerns. "Buck set us down out of the firing range."
"You got that right," the pilot retorted as he saw the fighters spreading out and beginning their strafing runs. "I just hope we don't get blasted to kingdom come trying to get there on foot."
Ezra winced at the imagery and let out a deep breath. "That is what I like about you Mr Wilmington, your unswerving optimism."
Mary had a plan that until a few moments ago was working quite well.
Prior to the commencement of the aerial bombardment, Mary had been aiding Laurel Chase with her evacuation of Black Sun, while Alex took care of arrangements in secret. The plan was a risky one and hinged entirely on the Star Destroyer sending out a squadron of TIE fighters. Mary has expected they would be coming because there was no way Laurel would submit and simply hand over Stephen when it was more profitable for her to do otherwise. Mary had no illusions as to how ruthless Laurel would be in acquiring what she wanted after seeing the poor souls incarcerated in the dungeons below. Mary had done what was necessary, ensuring that Black Sun made all the correct decisions and giving counsel to Laurel much to Glorith's dislike, keeping the woman busy while Alex carried out her instructions.
When the bombardment had started, Mary felt a swell of relief moving through her because she could see the fragmented pieces of her plan falling into place. Although she had loathed to do it, Mary remained close to Laurel, ensuring that she did not cause undue complication to the preparations that Alex was undertaking at present. Most of the period had been spent in the lady's company as she sat in her throne room, pretending that nothing was going on and that she was in complete control of the situation even though the Imperial Star Destroyer in orbit around the world would seem to indicate otherwise. Mary offered her advice willingly, all the while growing more and more certain that there was every chance that Laurel knew exactly who she was and was merely playing along in order to use Mary's expertise until the crisis had passed.
As the detonations above became more fierce and the disarray continued to run rife throughout the Domicile, Mary tried to find someway to leave Laurel's presence in order to join Alex. The time was drawing short and by now Alex would have events into motion that could not be altered. However, each opportunity to do so was circumvented by Laurel who found some reason for her to stay at her side.
"I ought to check on my ship," Mary spoke over the sound of blasts detonating above them. The structure rocked precariously, streams of dust and loosened mortar were drifting through the cracks of walls and the few guards that were in the room looked about apprehensively. Laurel for her part seemed calm as she sat on her throne like chair, dressed impeccably in a sheath of green that molded against her body like a glove. She seemed completely unperturbed with no signs of fear. Mary wondered if she was truly that arrogant or did she have something planned that none of her associates were privy to.
"I'm sure the Knife will be able to handle that task adequately," Laurel said breezily with a little smile. "I require you here at my side."
"Should not that be a job for Glorith?" Mary asked. "I don't want to be stepping on any toes here. Your second in command is already out for my blood for garnering all your attention."
"Glorith has her own amusement to occupy her attention," Laurel shrugged. "I find that you are better company."
"I would find that also, if we were on our way out of here," Mary retorted. "This structure cannot take much more. Its held up admirably but sooner or later, its going to start raining debris in here."
"We need not worry on our Imperial friends bringing down the Domicile on our heads, they are not foolish enough to risk what I have," Laurel said confidently.
"And what exactly do you have?" Mary asked as she counted how many guards there were in the room. There were five at the two exits, six if one counted Laurel. She did not know if she could take them all but if the timing was right, it was possible. In any case, she was not going to remain here and let her window of opportunity dissolve.
"I was hoping you would ask that," she remarked, her green eyes blazing with sinister light. Laurel glanced at the armrest and pressed a button on the small control panel there. She lowered her head slightly and then spoke.
"Yes, you can bring him in."
Mary felt her stomach clench as Laurel narrowed her eyes and glared at her. "You did not seriously think you were going to fool me for very long did you?"
Mary considered her next move and decided for the moment at least, she would continue her charade. "I beg your pardon?" Mary returned indifferently. However, she was observing everything, including the guards that were tightening their grips around their weapons.
"Do not play me for the fool!" Laurel bellowed. "How dare you come in here and think that your pathetic charade would fool me? I am Laurel Chase, nobody fools me, especially not some rebel whore!"
"Rebel?" Mary exclaimed, feigning incredulity at Laurel's accusation. "You think I'm a rebel?"
"You're Mary Travis!" Laurel spat, rising out of her chair and striding towards her in full fury. "You're a member of the Rebel Alliance and the Hero of Jofa! Did you simply believe that I would accept that all that wonderful advice you have been dispensing was a product of observing some Imperial? You are no Mystral. Admit it."
"Why should I?" Mary baited her, knowing that nothing gave this creature more satisfaction then to be proven right. For as long as Mary could deny her that pleasure, she would continue to feign ignorance to Laurel's accusation. "You seem to have made up your mind. If you are no fool, you should not need my confirmation. Should you?"
"Answer me!" Laurel screamed, lashing out and attempting to strike Mary's face. However, the rebel leader caught her wrist with one hand before Laurel could make contact and snapped it back hard. Laurel let out a cry as the guards raised their guns to shoot.
"Go ahead!" Mary challenged them all. "Shoot me if you dare! Mary Travis is one of the most wanted rebels in the galaxy. If I am she and you kill me, the Empire will have your heads! What Mary knows is enough to finish the rebellion once and for all. Do you think the Emperor is going to forgive you destroying all that valuable information to save the likes of her?"
The guards looked uncertain. It was one thing to be outlaws these days, the Empire did not really pay that much attention to criminals but rebels were another thing entirely. The Empire made no secret of the fact they were absolutely ruthless when it came to apprehending members of the Rebel Alliance. Anyone harboring rebels of impeding the progress of capturing them were dealt with the same manner and if there was even a chance that this Mystral might be the person Laurel believed her to be, then shooting her could be a mistake of fatal proportions. The wrath of Black Sun's leader might be terrible but it was nowhere in comparison to that of Emperor Palpatine.
Not giving them time to debate the issue to deeply, Mary locked her arm around Laurel's throat and dug the barrel of her unholstered gun into Laurel's side. "Drop your weapons or your master dies!"
"Shoot her!" Laurel squealed in fury.
Mary let of a warning shot that ended any further protest that Laurel had to make. "I'll kill you for this!" Laurel hissed in outrage as Mary held firm.
"Now listen to me all of you!" Mary regarded the guards once again. "Imperial troops will be entering this place in a matter of hours. Your only chance of getting out of this alive is to leave now. Drop your weapons and go!"
Slowly but reluctantly they began to comply, prompted to their final decision, not only by the weapon she was holding to Laurel's side but also the growing intensity of the TIE fighter bombardment on the fortress. The streams of dust were coming more frequently and there was a loud groaning noise moving throughout the structure echoing ominous threats of destruction. They hurried out of the room finally, leaving Mary and Laurel alone.
"You are her!" Laurel insisted.
"Maybe," Mary returned, trying to decide what to do. She glanced at her chronometer and saw the time was fast approaching when Alex would carry out her part of the plan.
Suddenly the far door opened and both Mary and Laurel looked up at the same time. Being dragged through the door by two guards was a figure both painfully thin and familiar. His skin was almost pasty white and as he was dragged towards them both, Mary could see the hollowness in his eyes and the gauntness that held his skin close to his bones. His features were partially covered in stubble and his clothes were filthy and torn. As he was being carried towards Laurel, he raised his head weakly and barely registered Mary in his dull, weary eyes.
"I believe you two have met," Laurel sneered.
Mary could only stare in horror.
It was Stephen.
Alex was pacing along the corridor, watching it anxiously for anyone who might stumble upon what she was attempting to do here. So far, there were far too many people running to transports and attempting to flee the Domicile to pay too much attention to two humans standing before a computer terminal. However, it would only take one to sound the alarm. Alex did not even mind being discovered, painfully aware that it was always a possibility in operations like this, it would just be upsetting if it happened before she was finished completing this vital part of Mary's plan. Unfortunately, if it were her doing the work, Alex would not feel as apprehensive as she did now but her expertise did not extend to slicing into the mainframe of the Operations Center of Black Sun.
"Are you almost done?" Alex hissed at Casey as she stood guard in the lone corridor.
"It would go faster if you didn't ask me every few seconds," Casey retorted, sounding nothing like a teenager at the moment. Her ability to slice through heavily encrypted computer systems was the one thing the girl had complete confidence in her ability and when she set down to perform that expertise, she was as professional as any adult that Alex had ever met.
"Look, this whole place looks like it might come down soon," Alex returned tautly. "We have little time as it is to find Stephen and get those Wookies out of their cells."
"I know," Casey answered as if she were dealing with an impatient child as she let her tools and her fingers to the work on the computer terminal. She was moving through backdoors; finding obstacles and shattering their locks with specially designed programs that left the entire world of cyberspace her exclusive domain to wander freely. "But she's got some pretty sophisticated software to protect her mainframe. I can't get in there by just knocking."
"I know," Alex responded, deciding to relax and let Casey to what she knew better than any one how to accomplish. As it was, Alex was none to happy to expose the girl to danger. The intention had always been to keep Casey inside the Tracker, not reveal her existence to Laurel Chase and her organization. Casey was a conduit to Josiah Sanchez and if they captured her, the Senator would stop at nothing to see her safe return, even to the point of sacrificing himself. "I'm just kind of worried about Mary."
"You've known each other a long time huh?" Casey asked as she continued to work.
"Something like that," Alex allowed herself a little smile. A long time seemed an inadequate way to describe her friendship with Mary. Sometimes, forever seemed a more appropriate word. Mary had stepped into her life when she had needed her most. Orin Travis and her mother, Yasmine, Orin's second after his first Evie, had been only married for a year when she died during a shuttle accident. Alex had been devastated by the loss, unable to cope with having a new stepfather and brother she hardly knew. If it was not for Mary, Alex could not have imagined enduring that first year where she had felt completely and utterly alone. They had met as young teens in the Preparatory prior to Academy attendance and had been billeted together. While Alex was wild and rebellious, Mary was serious and practical. Their relationship had been night and day and somehow, they had found the common ground to be life long friends. It had carried them through the Academy, through service as Imperial officers and as members of the Rebel Alliance.
"I'm into the system!" Casey announced.
Alex quickly went to her side and found the young girl keying in sequences through a portable terminal she had used to interface with the Domicile's computer system. Casey's fingers were moving furiously as she keyed in new instructions to what was previously a near unbreakable security system. "Can you patch into the security systems on the prison level?"
"I've just accessed that sector now," Casey replied, as the small screen on the Domicile's terminal flashed with digitized data.
"Alright, disable all primary systems in the prison level," Alex instructed. "I want locking mechanisms opened and any kind of security grids or force fields shut down."
"The minute I lower those defenses, the main monitoring systems will sound the alerts," Casey informed her.
"Can't you disable those?" she asked.
"Not unless you want me to take another twenty minutes. Those protocols are in a different sector and more encrypted than security," Casey pointed out. "Although I can give you ten minutes to delay the alert."
Ten minutes. It was not a great deal of time. Alex had already unloaded every weapon she could scrounge on the Tracker and left it in the dungeon. Fortunately, with an evacuation process taking place where equipment was being loaded onto ships and displaced, no one had noticed her bringing the cache of weapons to the prison level. Nor was anyone terribly interested in the prisoners when they were more worried about leaving the Domicile with their skin intact. Mary had already told the Wookie female, Tula, what to expect. While Tula had been skeptical about Mary's words being sincere, Alex had a feeling that the Wookie would act accordingly once the doors to her cell were open.
"That will have to be enough," Alex decided. "Do it."
Casey took a deep breath and nodded, carrying out the task of giving the escapees a ten minute margin of time to escape their cells and make it out of the prison area. When that was done, she finally turned her attention to releasing the doors in the dungeon and glanced at Alex just as she was about to initialize the system.
The minute she disabled the locking mechanisms, bright red words began to pour into the screen warning of the breach in security. Casey immediately moved to ignore the message and the angry words disappeared.
"I knew you were not the Knife," A low voice with a decidedly reptilian hiss said behind them. Alex looked over her shoulder and found herself staring at Glorith Dal.
Thanks to the TIE fighters, their crossing from the Rogue to the Domicile did not draw any attention. As Chris approached the base of the fortress, it was apparent that the inhabitants had much larger issues to deal with. From the outside, the damage to the structure was apparent with smoldering marks on the stone walls and large sections starting to crumble from the constant bombardment. It would not be long before severe breaches in the structure would cause it to collapse. The TIE fighters were still raining down bolts of energy on the hapless building and Chris knew it was only the prelude to a ground assault. He would not be surprised if troop carriers were already on their way.
"There's the pressure door," Buck pointed out.
The small metal door was situated near the larger version where ships made their entry and exit out of the fortress. There was no chance of penetrating those for they were composed of inches thick beryllium but the pressure door was nowhere as secure and was probably used for maintenance purposes. With all the activity that had to be taking place inside, he doubted that it was well guarded.
Upon reaching it, Vin took note of the control panel at the side of the wall. "I've seen one of these before," he announced and went to work on it immediately. "This won't take long."
"Look." Ezra pointed to the sky.
They all looked up at the same time to see an Imperial troop carrier in the distance. Its arrival prompted the withdrawal of the TIE fighters. The carrier hovered over the ground some distance from them and prepared to land.
"Vin," Chris said as he watched the vehicles descent into the tree line. "Work faster."
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