"We know where he is," Josiah Sanchez informed them after his return to the Rogue where Buck was presently giving Mary and his new young companion, shelter from storm troopers patrols and unscrupulous operators alike. Buck who spent enough time ferrying people as he did cargo, had equipped the ship to be amply comfortable for his passengers and was more than happy to provide a safe haven for the lovely rebel leader. While JD Dunne was in no such danger from the Empire, Buck was certain that the youth was no safer than Mary should he fall prey to the likes of beings like Nardo.
Josiah had withdrawn for the evening once he had been certain that Mary was in safe hands in order to make contact with the rebel underground, in the hopes of garnering some information regarding the whereabouts of Nathan Jackson. Judging by the determination of the Imperial storm troopers who were still scouring the city, they were certain that Nathan had indeed been captured and the Empire was maintaining the search in order to apprehend the person he had been seen with prior to his capture. An Imperial patrol had come on board the Rogue and found nothing out of the ordinary, mostly because Buck had hidden his guests in secret compartments that he had installed in his ship since becoming a rebel collaborator.
For the reasons of security, Mary had chosen not to accompany Josiah when he went into town to contact his operatives. There was no reason to compromise their security by exposing them to her. Josiah's network of contacts and informants was a valuable resource and not one to squander if she were captured and coerced into talking. She also felt that at this time there was no reason for her to know the location of the rebel base either although she did know the scrambler frequency should any further misfortune occurs. Until the present crisis had passed, Mary intended to limit the level of damage she could do to the rebellion in the event of capture by remaining in the dark about sensitive information.
However, this did not mean that Josiah was not in any kind of danger himself. Although Josiah was a wanted man, having resigned his senatorial position instead of fleeing like some of his comrades had been forced to do, there was no doubt that he was no supporter of Palpatine. Mary did not put it past the Emperor to have his lackeys keeping close surveillance on Josiah. Further more, there was also Nathan to consider. Even though it had been hours since he had been captured, Mary could not be certain that the rebel captain might not have been forced to talk. She was more than aware of the insidious devices the Empire employed to break their prisoners and though she knew Nathan would die before revealing any of their secrets, she understood that he might not have a choice in the matter.
"Where?" Buck Wilmington asked as they converged in what was the main passenger compartment of his ship. The compartment was furnished with comfortable seats that were bolted to the floor surrounding a circular table that acted not only as a dining surface but also as a gaming table for a small selection of holo-vids.
"They're keeping him in the Imperial stronghold on Cordoba," Josiah answered as he removed his cloak and sat down in one of the vacant seats. The group had just sat down to dine when Josiah had arrived and Mary poured him a drink from the bottle of spice wine that Buck had produced from ship's stores among his other rations.
"There's not much of an Imperial presence there," Mary remarked, knowing something of the station on Cordoba. Its purpose on the world was mostly to act as the local constabulary with a handful of ships whose duty was to protect the ships using the main space lanes from the threat of smugglers and pirates. This far from the core worlds, the danger of such renegades were very real but by the same token, the majority of commercial enterprises that took place this far out was not exactly sanctioned by the Empire either. "They are equipped with enough men to police the city and man the ships needed to guard the space lanes. They're not a facility equipped to deal with a prisoner of Nathan's importance. Most of the officers and personnel on the Cordoba station do not get posted here voluntarily. Chances are they're orders would be to hold him until someone with more expertise can interrogate him."
"You're right," Josiah nodded and unbidden in his admiration at her acumen in already realising what he was about to reveal. "The fortune of having Imperial personnel who aren't exactly Grand Moff material is that they're easily bought. My contact, one such example, informs me that at the moment they've been given strict orders that no one be allowed to speak to him because he is to be moved in five hours. They're taking him off world on an Imperial shuttle.
"That means they'll have to rendezvous with a warship of some kind," Mary declared after processing that information. "They'll take him to a fully secured Imperial installation where they will begin the interrogation, most likely by an expert in the art. They'll break him by any means necessary or they'll kill him in the process," she said grimly because it was made from similar experience. She did not want to add how many friends, loyal followers of the Alliance who had succumbed to torture even though they were the stoutest believers of the movements and its principles.
"If he talks..." Buck shuddered to think of the far reaching implications that could have. Nathan not only knew much about the Rebel Alliance's secrets but he also had a good knowledge of most of its undercover operatives, Buck included. Although he felt ashamed to think it, Buck knew that if Nathan was forced to reveal that information, he would be just as marked. He was mortified by his selfishness even if the fear was perfectly justified.
"Well he hasn't yet," Mary stated firmly, refusing to allow such dark thoughts to creep into their minds when there was still a chance that they might be able to save the man. Such an atmosphere of gloom was more crippling to Nathan's plight then even the formidable defences awaiting them if they attempted to retrieve him. Easing back into her seat, she nursed the glass in her hand and considered their options, or rather option since there seemed to be only one real solution to the problem.
"Once he gets where he's going, we'll never reach him. We can be assured of that if nothing else." This was a statement of fact that none of them could refute but Mary's manner indicated that she was already attempting to circumvent this obstacle as her eyes began sparkled with the glimmer of the plan taking shape in her mind.
"They'll have to rendezvous with another ship. They can't intend to take him wherever he has to go on a shuttle. One X-wing is enough to knock that bird out of the sky, I can't believe they won't be sending something with a little bit more teeth. I'm guessing it's a Star Destroyer that will make the rendezvous with them," Buck extrapolated.
"Yes," Mary nodded. "That's what I thought too. We have the same problem there. If he is taken on board a Star Destroyer, we'll never get him back. The Emperor has perceived just how much of a threat the Alliance is to him and he'll stop at nothing to get to us."
"Nice to be wanted," Josiah joked with a smile, even though there was no humour in his expression. In truth, he was trying to be brave, to be the paragon of control and serenity everyone always expected of him. Sometimes, Josiah could be just as unsettled and afraid as the next person. He was just more practised at hiding it because there was still something left of the politician he once was.
"Excuse me Miss Travis," JD spoke up, having listened all this time and finally feeling bold enough to make a suggestion. He felt himself to be in heady company and though he knew that consorting with them was enough to get him thrown into a prison cell forever as a rebel conspirator, JD could not help admire their devotion to their comrade. JD could not believe that people who cared so much about their own could be the disruptive elements the Empire claimed them to be. Besides, Buck had helped him and continued to do so, even though there was no reason for the pilot to do so. "Can we get to him before the shuttle reaches the Destroyer?"
Mary gave the young man a radiant smile and answered. "I was thinking the same thing."
"Really?" JD asked, feeling a little relieved that he had not made a fool of himself and inordinately proud that he had made the same guess as a seasoned military officer.
"Yes," she gave him a little wink and turned back to Buck. "A shuttle can carry a decent regiment of Imperial troops but they're not much of a threat in close quarters. Certainly they can surround Nathan and make boarding a very complicated process but in actual truth, when it is in space, that will be when the shuttle is at its most vulnerable. " She continued speaking now that JD had given her an opening to lay out her plan. "If we can intercept the ship on route to meet the Destroyer and then detonate a low level dispersion field against the hull, it could create enough electrostatic shock to render everyone board unconscious for a short time."
"Enough for us to get on board and grab Nathan without any fuss." Buck grinned, liking the idea of snatching Nathan from right under the Empire's noses. There seemed something oddly satisfying about it. "He'll have a little headache but he won't be any worse for wear."
"Sound like a plan," Josiah nodded his approval. "We don't have much time though," he reminded, injecting some minor points of reality that they had to remember into the conversation. "We can't get our people here in time to make the interception." He glanced at Buck hoping the pilot understood what he meant by that. Until this moment, they had been operating on the assumption that it would the rebel cell that would be undertaking the rescue, however the reality of the situation made that impossible. Five hours was not enough to time to throw together an operation with this level of sensitivity.
"I'll go," Buck replied, letting out a heavy sigh. "My neck is just as much on the block as Nathan's." The pilot raised his eyes to meet Josiah's. "If they make him talk, then my involvement is going to come out and I'll be just as marked. If I'm going to be an outlaw, it might as well be by doing this instead of anything else."
"Thank you Buck," Mary offered him a warm smile. "Well that's you and me."
"I'll come with you," JD spoke up.
"Absolutely not," Buck said automatically without even having to think about it. "Don't even think about it."
"I agree JD," Mary responded. "This is very dangerous. You have no reason to put your whole life in danger. I thank you for the thought but we won't let you throw your future away."
"Future?" JD looked at her with derision. "What future?" He retorted. "If the Empire is going to do half of what you said it will, I don't have much of a future. I almost became a slave today because the Empire lets that sort of thing happen right under its noses. I don't want to see that happen to anyone else and if fighting them is what it takes then I'm all for it. Buck," JD turned to the older man. "I don't know you that long but I know I trust you and I also know that you wouldn't be willing to risk your life for something that wasn't important. I want to come with you because I want to risk my life for something that's worth fighting for too."
Buck was not easily convinced but JD appeared determined. "Kid, do you know what could happen to you if we're caught?"
"Yeah," JD nodded. "I do and I also think that I'm old enough to make the choice. You need my help anyway. If you run into any Imperial ships, you can't fly the Rogue and fight them off at the same time. I'm not a great pilot but I know my way around a gunnery turret. I use to do a lot of target shooting when I was pod racing to clear the obstacles in the circuit. I know I can help you."
"Are you sure son?" Josiah questioned the boy once more, impressed by his words and having the strange feeling that JD was going to surprise them all. "Once you come with us, there's no turning back."
JD offered the older man a wan smile. "I don't think there was any turning back the moment I hopped a transport to leave home. Yeah, I'm sure."
Josiah nodded and turned to Buck. "Kid sounds like he knows his mind."
Buck frowned, not at all happy about the decision he was about to make but realising that he had no choice. JD was right, he did need help and it was also his choice to fight the battles he wanted. The fight for a better tomorrow was a good a reason as any to die, Buck supposed, he had no right to stand in JD's way.
"Alright," Buck retorted finally. "You can come with us but you listen to every thing I tell you, you hear me?"
"I hear you," JD replied grinning, too pleased that he was being allowed to go to argue with any of Buck's conditions.
"We should get going soon," Mary announced once the issue of JD had been settled.
"Mary," Josiah took a deep breath as he prepared to say what he was about to, fully aware that she would not like what he had to say at all. However, for what they were about to do, he could not remain silent either. "I think you should stay."
Mary blinked and stared at the former senator as if he had gone utterly insane. "Stay? What do you mean stay?"
"I mean that between the two of us, you have had more recent contact with the Alliance headquarters. If this rescue attempt goes wrong, then you will be more danger to the Alliance with what you know than I would be. What I know can only hurt the local cell but what you know can damage the entire organisation."
"I am not going to stay behind and let you do the fighting for me Josiah," Mary said imperiously, her eyes blazing at the mere suggestion. "The three of you can't take on that ship!"
"We're not taking the ship," Buck added his voice to Josiah's argument, infuriating the rebel leader even more. "We're going to board a shuttle full of unconscious people, take the one we want and get the hell out before anyone comes too. In actual truth, it's really a minimal personnel operation."
"Oh really?" Mary folded her arms and looked at him dubiously. "This would not be some archaic masculine attempt to try and protect me?"
"Would I be so base?" Buck stared at her dubiously, his face full of mock hurt. "I only get archaic when I treat women like sex objects."
Mary rolled her eyes and retorted. "I admire your ability to be so distinct."
"Mary," Josiah spoke once more, his voice taking on a note of seriousness, she knew she could not stand up to because he seldom used it unless he was right. It was the voice that had made him such an able orator in the Senate and why the body was sorely missed without such presence making debates. "You always said that we have to make sacrifices for the cause. You can't place yourself at risk. We need you too much. The rest of us," he glanced at Buck and JD. "Are expendable but you're not."
"Thanks," Buck muttered but could not refute Josiah's words.
Mary felt the sudden rise of bile in her throat and she forced it away to put on a brave face. Inwardly, she knew he was right. She had to stay behind. Risking one of them was acceptable but two was foolhardy. He was also correct in that she knew too much about the Alliance's hierarchy to risk capture by accompanying them on this mission.
And she had said that sacrifices needed to be made by all of them.
Even if that sacrifice was her pride.
They were playing some kind of game with him.
That was the only thing that Nathan could fathom as he continued this endless waiting game trapped inside his cell. Ever since his meeting with Ezra, Nathan had been waiting for the interrogation to begin, certain that they would make him endure all kinds of torture in order to extract the information he would never give them alive. Nathan had steeled himself for the agony and was resolved to die in the effort to resist. When he had joined the movement, he knew that he could be called upon to make such a sacrifice and he had no fear of dying, though like any rational person he would like to avoid death if he could. However, he had lived by a soldier's code all his life and did not find dying for what he believed to be a distasteful way to end his life.
However, as the seconds ticked by and the minutes stretched into hours, Nathan could feel a little of that resolve shaking as the waiting game began. With nothing to do but wait in silence for the inevitable, he realised that he was falling prey to the psychological effects of the mind game they were playing with him. He refused to get caught in their cruel attempts to erode his patience and knew that if this was a waiting game then he was only in the initial stages of it. Perhaps they were attempting a different tact beyond torture, aware that Nathan would never give them what they needed, no matter how much pain he was subjected to and the disadvantages of such interrogation would only lose them their victim.
As the time continued to stretch forward in long, tedious blocks, Nathan found himself pacing the floor of his cell, talking to himself and doing everything required to occupy his mind and not allow it to become sluggish and more susceptible to coercion. He wondered if Ezra had any part of this plan and was overcome with that sensation of sadness over the loss of his friendship with the man. Despite his attempts to hide it earlier, the exchange with Ezra had been just as emotionally draining for him as he was sure it would have been to his oldest friend in the world. Nathan knew that it was not Ezra's fault that they now found themselves on opposite sides. Circumstances had changed the world they knew and had drawn a line of battle straight through their friendship. Inwardly, Nathan had known this day would come. Ever since he had chosen to join the Alliance, he knew that it would be inevitable.
He wondered whether Ezra had known it too.
Ezra had been the first person that Nathan had met when he had joined the Academy. Their friendship had seen them through much including Ezra's presence at his matrimonial ceremony to Ana. Thinking of Ana made the pain doubly worse and in the confines of his lonely cell, Nathan forced the images of her away from his mind. If she were still alive, they would have been celebrating their eight wedding anniversary. It was Ana's death that had been the impetus for him to leave the Empire behind even though the current political changes had been gnawing at his conscience prior to that.
It was odd how love could alter the course of a man's life even when the object of that affection no longer breathed in this world. He had not been there when she died but when the news of the purges reached him, he had raced home praying that the executioners would not have been so ruthless in the undertaking of their orders. Ana had never shown any interest in becoming a Jedi even though her father sat on the Jedi Council and was a Jedi Master. She had been a schoolteacher on Coruscant, a very good one because the Force gave her the ability to empathise with her students on a very personal level.
Although no one dared point a finger at the Empire over the deaths, everyone knew who had been responsible for the slaughter. The Emperor's dislike of the Jedi was almost a fanatical crusade and to the select few that suspected he was Sith Lord, it made even more sense. However, by then Palpatine was firmly in power and those who would keep him there, were just as secure. Ana's death went unanswered for and Nathan walked away from the last remnants of his old life, including Ezra. Nathan felt no real animosity towards his old friend for becoming an Imperial officer. Ezra's background was chequered to say the least and his world had always been one of shadows, where injustices occurred more often than they should. If there had been an idealist inside Ezra Standish once, the years had surely driven him away.
Ezra's background was far removed from Nathan's own privileged upbringing. Nathan's father was an ambassador while Ezra barely even knew his own father and was mostly raised by a mother who kept company with the likes of Jabba the Hutt and Xizor of the Black Sun criminal organisation. The lady mostly resided in Nal Hutta these days, where she was known to be an associate of the Hutt gangsters and often represented them in negotiations.
It was into this world that Ezra had become a man and from this he was desperate to escape. He had gained admission into the Academy but was never truly regarded as anything more than the offspring of an unsavoury parent. The action made him determined to show his peers that he was better than they and Nathan recalled how voraciously Ezra had strove to excel. However, though he succeeded at the Academy, his military career had been lack lustre. Nathan knew that it was not for the lack of ability for he always thought that Ezra had the shrewdest mind but there was something about his old friend that told Nathan that Ezra did not like to try because he was afraid to fail.
It was during all these ruminations that the door to this cell slid open and his friend made his sudden appearance. Ezra entered the room alone this time and Nathan was further confused by what the Imperials were intending for him. Did they think his association with Ezra would make him betray the Rebellion? If so, they were in for a disappointment, Nathan snorted. As much as he valued his friendship with Ezra or what smoky ruins remained of it, he would never betray the Alliance.
"What do you want?" Nathan asked, fired by that thought when he asked his question.
"I came to see how you were faring in this Spartan environment," Ezra remarked, casting his gaze over the cell with obvious dislike.
"I'm doing fine," Nathan replied coolly. "Are you here to soften me up?"
"No," Ezra shook his head. "They are not particularly interested in you Nathan."
"I'm sure they aren't," he said dubiously, knowing better. He had a great deal of information in his head that he was certain they would love to get their hands on. Ezra may have be here out of some memory to their past friendship but he could not be foolish enough to think that the Empire would not torture him to get what they wanted.
"You do not understand my commanding officer," Ezra sighed giving Nathan a long look. "He does not wish to capture minions that reside at the bottom of the food chain. He is after someone with a little more information. You do have tasty morsels inside your head Nathan, that is without doubt but I believe he may be interested in a feast."
Nathan began to develop a very bad feeling about what Ezra was inferring. It was always so damned hard to read the man, even though they were best friends. Aside from being an Imperial officer, Ezra was also the best damned card player, this side of the galaxy and his ability to wear a poker face like no other was a testament to this fact. However, through the cracks of his indifferent façade, Nathan began to see what Ezra was trying to tell him without actually coming out and saying it.
"They're not after me are they?" He whispered when the awful truth dawned upon him.
"Nabb was aware that someone of importance was arriving on Cordoba but did not have any of the details. When an informant served you to him and he was unsuccessful in locating your companion, he altered his plan somewhat and decided to exploit your capture." Ezra could not look him in the eyes as he explained everything.
Nathan's breath caught in his throat as the full implications of what Ezra was trying to tell him seep into his mind. "I'm bait?"
Ezra nodded sombrerly. "I am afraid you are. I do know that once the real target is acquired, they will execute you."
That did not surprise Nathan. He had more or less expected such an outcome but gave it no more thought than that because he was too fearful for the person that they intend to catch because of him. It did not take him long to realise whom it was they really wanted and knowing that filled the captain with no small amount of despair.
"Mary." He raised his eyes and caught Ezra's. "You're after Mary."
"She was one of the most brilliant commanders in the fleet, did you think the Empire was simply going to allow all that potential to be used for the service of its enemies?" Ezra asked softly. "They will do anything to retrieve her Nathan and they will use anyone. You are nothing to them, a pawn that had served its purpose briefly. Nabb wanted me to be the one to tell you that you have been scheduled for termination as soon as Commander Travis is in custody."
"She isn't in custody yet," Nathan said defiantly, unable to look at Ezra even though he could tell that it gave his old friend no pleasure to be the one who revealed the truth to him. "She's not stupid enough to take the bait. If she has to sacrifice me for the cause, I'm sure she will."
"Nathan," Ezra shook his head sadly because Nathan did not see. "Why did you think Nabb wanted you captured so badly? If it were anyone else, he would not have bothered but you are too important to the Rebellion to be left to languish in our hands. They used you because they knew you would bring her out."
"You keep saying 'them'," The prisoner glared at him and pointed out. "You're one of them Ezra."
"Maybe so," Ezra returned not about to let that minor detail obscure everything else. "But I am still your friend."
"Then be a friend," the dark man said angrily. "Get out. You've done your bit, you've told me I'm the worm twisting on the hook. I release you from any obligation you think you have towards me because all you've become is that uniform."
"I am not the one who destroyed our friendship!" Ezra shouted angrily, feeling the sting of those words more than he would like. "You did that when you turn your back on your life!"
"My life was over when Ana died!" Nathan barked back.
"No it was not," Ezra hissed as he started towards the door. "But when they capture Mary Travis, it will be."
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