JD Dunne watched the tumbling formations of iron and rock floating before the cockpit window and could not deny that for a common astronomical phenomenon, the asteroid field before him had a beauty of its own. His eyes glimmered at the elegance of the soundless dance, watching the large pieces of spacial flotsam, some as small as a rock that would fit into his palm while others the sizes of small moons, swirled around the Rogue as if it were the epicentre of a giant vortex. Despite his desire not to appear like the awe struck farm boy that he was, JD could not hide the effect of seeing the vastness of space in such a breathtaking vista. When he had come to Cordoba on the passenger cruiser, the observation deck had been crowded with travellers and the mystery of what lay beyond was lost in a chatter of commenting voices and snapping holo-vids. To see it like this, to actually be able to appreciate it in all its fullness was something to behold and JD knew that the moment would be with him forever.
It was also when one was out here in all this vastness that he was fully able to comprehend what he had embarked upon and weigh the decision made as more than some obligation he felt he needed to fulfil to Buck Wilmington for saving him from the Rodian. It put things in perspective somewhat, to know that the universe was much large than himself and that it, most of all needed to be protected and though he was small, he was a part of its cycle. And every part no matter, how small had to show its worth for something that was greater than itself. JD had very little contact with the Empire while he had been on Odete but its injustices did not escape even that small backwater. He had always thought it was something for someone else to worry about but when he listened to Mary, he knew that it was not the case.
He had never met anyone like her. When she spoke of freedom, it left her as more than high minded words of grandiose idealism, it was something that could be felt, like a tangible shape or an elixir once taken, could not be done without. When she had been forced to remain behind on Cordoba, he could see the pain in her eyes was real, the sorrow from wounds he could not even begin to imagine and the weight of terrible responsibility that bore down on her slender shoulders. She was not very old and yet her eyes felt ancient and JD wondered what it was that had put her on this course and made her so very sad. For at the heart of knowing her importance in the scheme of things, there was also this acceptance that it had her trapped in amber. JD could not imagine what it was like to have that kind of burden upon ones self.
"How you doing kid?" Buck Wilmington asked as he stepped into the cockpit.
"Pretty good," JD answered, his gaze not moving from the cockpit window.
Buck felt a small smile steal across his lips remembering what it had been like the first time he took a ship into the air on his own. The feeling was indescribable and to a certain extent, had never really left him entirely. There was still apart of him that remained that same wild youth who climbed into the seat of that Corellian T25 and blasted off for a round trip to Selonia. He looked at JD and felt slightly envious of the boy's youth as well as protective at the same time. It was a strange feeling.
"I've been watching the scanner," JD replied, feeling the need to let Buck know that he was doing something other than occupying space. He knew that Buck had deep reservations for his being here and though JD could not blame him for that, he did not want to further prove Buck's point by seeming inept as well. "I remember what you told me and it doesn't look like there's any one else around."
"There won't be," Buck replied handing JD a cup of hot cider as he sat down in the captain's chair. "You'll see the shuttle but not the Destroyer. She'll come out of hyperspace right on top of the rendezvous coordinates to surprise anyone whose stupid enough to still be around when she gets here."
"Did you ever serve on a Destroyer?" JD inquired, realising that though he liked Buck very much, he really did not know much about him. However, his ability to trust Buck was beyond the purview of mere data, there was something inside of him, an instinct perhaps that knew Buck was someone he could rely on and so far, the man had not failed to disappoint.
"Yeah," Buck nodded. "I actually served on one with Nathan. That's how we met. He was a bridge officer and I was a fighter pilot. Of course back then, it wasn't the Empire we were serving, it was the Republic."
"Was it much different?" JD asked. On his home world, governments really did not make much difference to what was mostly a rural population. They had been very insular on his world and JD did not realise how much until he stepped into the space port on Cordoba.
"Oh yeah," the captain of the Rogue smiled warmly. "It was very different." He eased back into his chair and remembered the days of the Republic when wearing the uniform of Republic officer meant something. "What we did meant something back then and there was never any confusion about why we were doing it. It was worth something to believe in what you're doing, to know that in our your way, you're helping someone."
"Is that where you met Chris?" The boy had been curious to ask about the Jedi and how Buck had come to know him but was perceptive enough to know that it was a delicate subject. Buck obviously cared very much for the former Jedi but he was also fearful for the man.
"Nah," Buck shook his head. "Chris and I met when we were on Corellia. He was a Jedi apprentice what they call Padwan learners and I was fresh at the Corellian Space Academy. We just seem to run into each other a lot and got to be friends. He wasn't like he is now, back then he was fun to be around, even for a Jedi. He always seemed to have a handle on things, even when he was still learning how to be one. Drove his Master nuts I can tell you but then the Jedi are a strange bunch."
"The Jedi have been around for thousands of years," Josiah insinuated himself into the conversation with that opening remark after entering the dimly lit confines of the cockpit. "Their traditions are steeped in such age, we have no idea really when the first one emerged although some believe that they have always been. Josiah sat down in one of the passenger seats behind JD's co-pilot chair and continued speaking. "I remember as a boy, my father used to tell me the stories of the Jedi. Always loved the stories, just didn't have the stuff to be one."
"The stuff?" JD looked at them both blankly.
"Well, Josiah sat forward and said in a low voice. "In the blood stream of almost every life form we have encountered in ten thousand years of star charting, no matter how different, it appears that there is only one thing that binds us together. It is a life form in the blood called midiclorions. The Jedi believed they were created when the universe was born which is why the distributions of these things are so wide spread and indiscriminate. Whatever the truth, midiclorions appear to amplify the Force in the host bodies they occupy and the strongest concentrations of midiclorions are almost always found in the bloodstream's of Jedi Knights."
"So why can't you just inject yourself with midiclorions to become a Jedi?" JD asked.
"Doesn't work that way," Buck retorted automatically, remembering discussing the subject with Chris once. "The midiclorions adapt themselves to the host body so transferring them from one to another simply makes them inert."
"I like to think of it as keeping a balance on things. The cosmic way of making sure your destiny is remains as it should be," Josiah grinned.
JD was about to ask another question when suddenly the cockpit filled with sound. The gentle beeping immediately drew Buck's attention to the cockpit controls and the captain's easy expression hardened as he noted the reason for the electronic alert. "The shuttle's coming into range now," he announced.
What they were proposing was indeed risky because they had no idea of the time the shuttle would rendezvous with the Destroyer. It was the reason why they had come here and waited all these hours to ensure that they could act as soon as the vessel arrived. The margin of time could be as lengthy as hours or it could be a matter of minutes, whatever the case, they had to act now. Buck immediately took the ship off autopilot and assumed command of his ship once more.
"Strap yourselves in," he ordered as the decks of the Rogue began rumbling when the main thrusters of the ship ignited.
"Here we go," Josiah muttered as he complied with Buck's order and watched through the cockpit as the ship disengaged itself from the large asteroid it had attached itself and began soaring into open air. As they sped out of the asteroid field that had given them shelter as they waited for their quarry, Josiah had to marvel at the skill with which Buck Wilmington used to fly his ship. He glanced sideways and noted the same awed expression on JD's face as the youth watched the season star pilot at his best.
Buck's hands seemed to fly over the controls and while navigating through an asteroid field ought to give anyone reason to fear there was not the slightest bit of concern on the man's face. The Rogue sailed past the hurtling blocks of rock and iron, often missing them by the narrowest margins. The ship titled and swayed in the effort to evade the large denizens of this area, always skimming the periphery of disaster it seemed but never managing to get caught by it. Buck seemed capable of anticipating all of it. Even though he had an on board computer that gave him a detailed view of the field he was traversing, Josiah noted that he preferred to use his cockpit window. The visual data seen through his eyes worked in tandem with his reflexes and Josiah saw his fingers simply fly over the controls with no need for anticipation or second thought.
"How do you do that?" JD asked.
"What?" Buck responded offhandedly, his attention still focussed on the cockpit window as he navigated through the asteroid field.
"You're not even looking at the controls," the young man pointed out.
Buck chuckled slightly and answered. "I don't have to kid, I just feel them. It's my ship, I know where everything is."
"No kidding," JD responded, unable to hide the admiration in his voice.
Silence felt over the cabin as the Rogue escaped the maelstrom of rock and debris and entered the serenity of open space. The view ahead changed into the immense canopy of stars that seemed to swallow the ship as it entered its expansive maw. A low whine filled the cockpit briefly as Buck flicked another switch on the console. "I'm jamming them," he explained for the benefit of those with him. "Standard procedure would have them send out a scrambled code to the Destroyer who's probably waiting to come out in hyperspace."
"How much time do we have?" Josiah asked.
"Unknown." Buck shook his head after glancing at the readings on the console screen at one corner of the cockpit control panel. "But they started transmitting almost as soon as they could which means the Destroyer is not that far away. I think I manage to jam them before they got a full cycle out but I can't be sure. We're going to have to do this quickly."
"I kind of prefer it that way myself," Josiah remarked while JD's fingers subconsciously sank deeper into the armrests of his seat.
"Alright," Buck spoke up. "We're going in full throttle."
As he made that statement, the Rogue exploded forward and suddenly, the stars rushed past them at frightening speed. The shuttle in the distance, evolved from a tiny speck to something more substantial with shapes and lines as the Rogue closed in on it. During this swift approach, Buck's fingers flew deftly over the controls; with a flurry of movement that made it impossible to tell when he had carried out one operation and ended another.
The shuttle had been holding position and still did not move when it saw the approaching ship. Buck wondered about this momentarily because the Rogue was coming at them on what was definitely an attack vector. Any pilot worth his salt would know that. Ugly thoughts began to surface in his mind as he continued the process of arming the beam of energy he would send at the small ship in order to polarize the hull. As he configured the pattern of energy to be delivered by his forward energy banks, the Rogue continued to narrow the space between ships. The shuttle still did not make any effort to move out of the way.
The disturbance he felt inwardly began to take shape. He had to confirm this. Reaching over to the ship's sensors, Buck made a perfunctory scan of the shuttle. It should have been fully loaded with a complement of storm troopers; a prisoner of Nathan's importance deserved nothing less. However, when the information returned to him after the brief investigation by the ship, Buck's worse fears were realised. There was only two life forms on board the shuttle and Buck had clairvoyance enough in the matter to guess immediately that neither of them was Nathan.
"I'm turning the ship around," Buck stated and hastily disengaged his rear thrusters to make a course change.
"What?" Josiah asked sitting up in his seat. "What's wrong?"
"There's only two people on that ship," he replied as the view in front of the Rogue revealed and abrupt change in the direction the vessel was headed. The shuttle swept out of you and the trail stars left sparkles in their eyes when Buck swung the ship around.
"That's impossible," Josiah exclaimed. "My informants told me that Nathan was being escorted to another ship to be transported to an Imperial installation."
"Well either they changed their minds or their security leaves a lot to be desired. In any case, we're getting out of here," Buck retorted. He did not voice what he actually suspected and knew that it was probably too late but he refused to give up so easily and certainly without a fight. His only regret at this point was the fact that JD was with them and would have his life ended before it even began. That really bothered Buck more than the fact that the Empire would probably execute him and Josiah for treason.
Emergency klaxon sounded suddenly and unlike a proximity alert, the electronic whine that jarred him out of his thoughts was not a gentle reminder but a screaming alert. The space around the ship rumbled slightly and the external lights around the Rogue suddenly dimmed as a great shape appeared directly above it. Buck saw the shadow that had engulfed the ship and knew immediately what it was without having to look at the computer readout or take a better view through the cockpit window.
The Star Destroyer appeared out of hyperspace in less than a split second, no doubt probably waiting for their arrival all along. As Buck forced his ship into evasive maneuvers, he noted the hangar doors of the large destroyer slide open and a dozen TIE fighters made their emergence. He dipped the Rogue into what was almost 180-degree angle and tried to move his ship from under the behemoth as the smaller ships headed directly towards him. Behind the Rogue, the shuttle had come predictably to live and was converging upon them.
"Oh god," JD exclaimed as he saw the ships coming towards them and the large destroyer waiting above them. He had never seen one in his life and considering what it meant to the rest of his life, savagely curtailed by his choices of late, he could not get his eyes of the massive leviathan in space. The Star Destroyers were created not only as the ultimate symbol of Imperial power but as the terrible arm of its war machine. Staring at them now in wide eyed fear, there was good reason for that awesome reputation.
"I'm sorry," Josiah whispered as he realised how cleverly he had been duped. He did not doubt that his contact had believed the information he had been passing and in realistic terms was probably dead now, since the Empire kept close scrutiny on whomever it chose to leak information through. "I got you all into this."
"It's not your fault Josiah," Buck responded automatically. "It was a trap."
"A trap?" JD stammered, becoming afraid of what would happen once they were in Imperial custody. He had no idea how the Empire treated members of the Rebel Alliance and their co-conspirators but he assumed it was with extreme prejudice.
"Yes," Josiah nodded grimly, formulating how this thing had happened to them now that the net had dropped. Strange how things become clear when events no longer had any chance of being altered. It angered him that he was the lure that brought his companions to disaster, that he had been foolish enough to believe that the information coming to him so fortuitously did not stink of a trap. "They leaked the information knowing that we would jump at the jump of rescuing Nathan because he was so important to the Alliance. They fed it to me and I bought it, hook line and sinker."
Buck did not respond. He was too busy trying to escape the Star Destroyer that had predictably fallen into pursuit. The fighters had spread out around the Rogue, ensuring that she did not make an attempt to run for the asteroid field. In retrospect, Buck cursed his own foolishness. Anyone expecting the shuttle to be attacked would have guessed that the asteroid was the only place to launch such an action. He would not be surprised if there was not another ship similarly hidden as they were, watching and waiting their arrival and alerting the Star Destroyer as soon as they made their emergence from their hiding place.
The TIE fighters, at least a dozen of them were already blocking the path to the approaching asteroid field, anticipating that the Rogue would try to hide there. They came at the freighter at full speed, firing all guns as they did so. The blasts impacted against the deflector shield and caused the Rogue to shudder dangerously as it was absorbed by the protective field around the ship. However, its occupants nonetheless felt the brunt of those assaults, as the Rogue heaved in protest against the bombardment. The freighter attempted to veer around to escape the bursts of energy only to be confronted with the Star Destroyer bearing down on them.
Buck refused to give up, thinking fast and furiously, he forced the Rogue through the narrow gap of space between Destroyer and the TIE, his ship skimming along the surface of the larger vessel as it did so. One could not appreciate the vastness of such the ship until one was flying up close to it. The Star Destroyers were almost the size of a small city and as the Rogue flew along the hull, he knew that should he collide with the armored behemoth, his small ship would not survive the impact. The Destroyer would suffer its wounds no doubt but there would be nothing left of the Rogue.
"Hang on!" He shouted as the Rogue glided over the surface of the Destroyer and quickly found itself running out of cover. While he remained close to the vessel, he could be ensured of a slight delay from the TIE's as they decided what to do. They would be reluctant to fire upon their own ship and that brief delay was a few more seconds they were not being captured.
Josiah and JD hung onto the seats, aware that the only reason they were not tumbling around the cockpit was due to the fact that they were strapped into their chairs. Despite Buck's efforts to keep the TIE fighters from firing, they were still being hit and each blast rocked through the ship and made it harder and harder for them to remain calm. An outburst would only distract their pilot and he had enough trouble on their hands.
"I can't shake them!" Buck swore angrily as he found himself in open space again as the Star Destroyer maneuvered away form the Rogue giving its TIE fighters a clear shot at the escaping vessel. The effect of that freedom was pointedly clear as the ship began to shake and shudder dangerously from the unleashed bombardment of energy being hurled at it. Everything that was not bolted down was flying about in all directions. Buck's hands were moving at lighting speed but he could not get away from the barrage and he needed some distance if he was to make the jump to light speed. Unfortunately, the commander of the Star Destroyer was also aware of this and had given orders to his pilot to prevent him from doing just that.
"Can't we jump to hyperspace?" JD asked, his voice full of fear.
"I'm sorry kid," Buck apologized for more than just being unable to make the jump. "They've got us penned in. They're not letting us get enough speed or distance to make the jump."
As he made that statement, two TIE fighters came at the Rogue head on. The forward guns kicked into action, firing a few shots of its own in retaliation but it required someone at the gunnery port and Buck swore once again for not getting himself a co-pilot. The TIE fighter's shrugged off the blasts and then returned fire. The blasts detonated against the forward hull of the Rogue and the ship's internal lights flickered for a second before returning.
"Damn," Buck swore.
"What is it?" JD responded, almost afraid to ask.
Buck did not answer, to busy forcing the Rogue through the two ships and vaporized one as he broke through their line. The sky illuminated briefly as the TIE fighter disintegrated into nothingness. However its destruction only brought more frenzied firing from the others and the Rogue was jolted violently from side to side as the blasts seemed more potent somehow.
"Our deflector shield power is down," Josiah answered as he studied the readings on the console while Buck struggled to keep them alive. "Any more direct hits and they're going to split us apart."
"They're already doing that!" Buck swore angrily, knowing just how much punishment his ship could take and realizing with a sinking feeling that the point was fast approaching when he would have to give serious thought to how far they were going to go with this fight and how his passengers would fare. Thinking deeply, he spoke suddenly. "Alright you two," he looked over his shoulder briefly. "I've got escape pods. I want you two to get in them right now."
"No!" JD exclaimed out. "We're not going to run and leave you!"
"Its pointless any way Buck," Josiah quickly added his support to JD's words. "Even if we do get out on the life pods, we're too far away to make it back to Cordoba or get past that Destroyer."
Buck never had the chance to respond because once again, that shadow fell over his ship and he knew that the Destroyer had caught up to them again. He could see the outline of the vessel moving over the Rogue and see the TIE fighters through every corner of the cockpit. The bombardment suddenly stopped because the Rogue suddenly stopped moving. The ship began to shudder rhythmically and the jolts rattled them inside the cockpit. The engines began to groan and more klaxons began screaming again.
"What's happening?" JD shouted through all this commotion.
Buck and Josiah exchanged heavy glances before the former Senator answered since Buck was too busy dealing with this latest threat. "Tractor beam. They've got us."
JD slumped into his chair and looked at Buck, hoping that the star pilot had something to add that might give them some hope that the situation was not as futile as it appeared. However, in the cockpit window, the evidence of the tractor beam was clear. The Rogue was being slowly pulled forward towards the enormous ship and the TIE's had stopped firing.
"I have to shut the engines down," Buck said softly. "We're not going anywhere and if we keep fighting the beam, the engines are going to superheat and burn out."
"Thank the Force Mary isn't with us," Josiah found himself saying, comforted by that fact only.
"You think this whole thing was to get her?" Buck asked as he began shutting down all systems on his ship. He did not relish what was going to happen to them but he was not going to look death in the face and beg for his life. He knew the risks perfectly well when he agreed to embark upon this mission and if there were any regrets, it was the fact that JD was sharing the dying with him.
"I can't imagine anything else," Josiah replied grimly. "Buck we need to get some kind of story straight. I'd like not to implicate JD if I can. They'll never let you and I go but there is a chance for JD."
"You don't have to do that...." JD spoke up. He was not willing to die but he was not willing to let someone else lie to protect him either.
"JD," Buck spoke up. "We have to do this. You don't know what the Empire is like. You've never seen them at their worst. We have. If we can save you, we will. I'm just asking you to play along with us if we can get you out of this."
JD nodded in compliance but he did not like it. The cockpit felt silent as the trio eased back into their seats and watched the Star Destroyer above swallow them whole.
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