CHAPTER EIGHT

He should have left by now.

If he could not bring himself to claim Chris Larabee's bounty then he ought to start giving serious thought about disappearing. He did not doubt that the Imperial agents who had given him this assignment would make good on their threat. Vin Tanner sat in the bar at the spaceport, imbibing in one two many drinks because he had no idea what to do. For a man who had prided himself in always having a plan, this state of affairs was wholly unacceptable to him. The flux of uncertainty left his thoughts disjointed and confused even though the contributing factor had most of all to do with the truth he had recently learned about himself.

He had spent time following his meeting with Chris Larabee trying to decide what to do and finding no answer throughout his ruminations. Vin had buried himself in his sleeping quarters on board the Tracker with a good bottle of Gungan whiskey and permitted himself to get blind stinking drunk in the hopes that the intoxication would help him to reach some type of epiphany. It did not and when the bottle was empty, Vin could only force himself out of his ship and into the bar where JD Dunne and Buck Wilmington had made their first meeting. It was in the small hours of dawn and the bar that apparently did not close, was similarly numbered for customers. A few barflies remained at the counter while some sat around tables, muttering with slurred speech to one another while drinking in the atmosphere of hopelessness that seemed to emerge after a party had ended.

Vin paid no attention to the other patrons, drinking steadily in order to make this feeling inside of him go away. After his mother had died, Vin had become accustomed to being alone. Oh, there were people around him as a child but they were all prisoners in the same cage and though they ensured he was nourished and protected to serve his place as one of them, they did not really consider him as such. In truth, neither did he. Even he befriended the nomadic Sand People who roamed the deserts of Tatooine; he was taught their secrets but still regarded as different. Vin's adult life saw him embark on a similar pattern of isolation, only this time it was of his own making.

He had never realised how much he had wanted to belong, not until he had met Chris Larabee who told him things about himself he had never imagined could be true. His instincts were his ally. He relied upon them and assumed other people were similarly gifted but never chose to trust it as completely as he did. He saw things in his head that he had always considered to be flashes of insight or intuition, the way an enemy was going to turn or what path a bounty might have taken in order to elude him. Vin did know one thing which disturbed him greatly and which he revealed to no one; once he got the scent of the prey, not even space or time could make him lose it. Vin was considered the best because he was relentless in his pursuit even if the trail was cold like the dead ashes of a fire. Somehow he had always brought in his quarry.

Now he knew that it was not because he was attuned to his instincts. It was nothing like that at all. He was and had always been a part of something greater than he knew. He knew the religion that surrounded the Force, the energy field generated by all living creatures, interconnecting them in some way and fostering cosmic harmony if only those same beings could see past their differences. The Jedi Knights and Masters were the priesthood of this religion and until he stood face to face with Chris, had never imagined that the Force could burn so strongly in him.

But it was the Force.

No matter how much he hated to admit it, he could not deny that fact. Chris Larabee had opened up a door inside his mind and suddenly, Vin knew with utter certainty what he should have been. He should have been Jedi. Of course that could never happen now. Due to events beyond his control, the Emperor and Lord Vader were systematically exterminating the entire order down to the genetic level. Vin sat at the bar lamenting the fact that he finally found his place in the galaxy only to discover that it no longer existed.

"It doesn't help you know," a voice said next to him.

Vin almost jumped out of his seat. Normally he could sense when someone was approaching him even though they might have stepped into a crowded room and had not even started walking towards him. He glanced sideways and saw Chris Larabee standing before him. The Jedi was dressed in his dark robes, sheathed in black and imposing as ever. Those who saw the Jedi, could feel the presence of him and seemed to shrink further into the background as if sensing the danger even if they could not understand why.

Vin looked back at his glass and downed its contents in one gulp. "It helps me."

"I thought it helped me too," Chris sat down next to the younger man. "All it did was made me disappear altogether."

"That's what I'm aiming for," Vin remarked and ordered another.

Chris sat down on the stool next to him. In truth, the Jedi did not know why he was here. Perhaps it was because he felt a sense of kinship with Vin Tanner despite the fact the man had been sent here to hunt him down. Chris could sense that Vin felt lost and adrift at the realization that he was Force adept. He could not blame the bounty hunter of course. Most Jedis had years to accustom themselves to being what they were, not to mention the training and apprenticeship that went into preparation before actually being Jedi. Vin had been dropped into this cold and Chris could hardly expect his reaction to be any different than what it was.

"I need your help," Chris said finally, deciding that there would be no easy way to ask this and it was pointless trying to bandy about words so that the point could be arrived at smoothly. There was no way to do this except with sincerity and while his instincts were not as sharp as they should be considering that his senses had been dulled the past year with drink, the Force gave him reason to hope nonetheless.

Vin turned to him slowly and with astonishment. "You want my help?" The bounty hunter regarded him with incredulity. "The man sent to deliver you to the Empire?"

"Yes," Chris nodded; meeting those cobalt colored eyes directly. "I need you to help me rescue some friends of mine at an Imperial installation."

Vin's jaw almost dropped open from disbelief but somehow he managed to keep himself from doing that and resorted instead to uttering a short burst of laughter. "Either you're insane or I'm a hell of a lot drunker than what I think I am," the bounty hunter retorted as he picked up the fresh glass of liquor placed in front of him.

"You're all I've got," Chris said without hesitation. "I need someone I can trust."

"And you picked me?" Vin balked, still unable to believe that of all the people the Jedi could have come to for this, he had chosen Vin Tanner, the very person who only hours ago had threatened to deliver his head to the Emperor. The logic of it was too much for Vin to wrap his mind around.

"I picked you," Chris nodded.

"Why?" Vin demanded. "What makes you think that I won't still turn you over to the Empire?"

Chris let a smile cross his lips, a faint smile that indicated he knew something that Vin did not know. "Because I know you won't. You've searched all your life to belong somewhere, to not feel so outcast. I chose you because the Jedi are fast becoming extinct; soon there will be only a handful of us, if there aren't already. This is your only chance to ever know what you could have been, to know from tradition you come from. I did not know your father but I suspect he might have been one of us. Do you have any memory of him?"

"No." Vin shook his head; unable to meet Chris' eyes when he answered. "I never knew him. I barely remember my mother as it is."

"I need your help Vin," Chris reiterated, aware that he had no reason to trust this bounty hunter however, every fiber of his being and every thing that made him a Jedi told Chris that he could. Vin Tanner was looking for something and Chris was not certain what game fate was playing with both of them, but he sensed he was that something for which the younger man had been searching perhaps all his life. "I can't do this alone."

Vin stared into the bottom of his glass and wondered if he was going insane. He wondered because he was actually considering going with this crazy Jedi on this suicidal mission and there was no mistaking it, it was suicidal, to rescue his friends. However, what did he have to lose? He was not going to bring Chris Larabee in; he had decided that much prior to the man's arrival at the bar. The Empire was most likely going to put a price on his head so his chances of coming near a civilized star system for a while would be negligible. If he was going to be a marked man, wasn't it better for him to choose the manner in which he became one?

"I must be insane," Vin mused as he swirled the contents of his glass and decided that he had done enough drinking. If he was going to die on some foolish quest, he might as well do it sober. "I must be absolutely insane."

"The insane go to the after life absolved," Chris pointed out.

"Don't start that cryptic Jedi stuff with me," Vin retorted as he started to stand up. "I'm way confused as it is."

Chris could only smile as he lifted himself from his stool. "I know the feeling."

After copious amounts of hot cider and more self-debate as to how he had gone from respected bounty hunter to possible rebel collaborator in a matter of hours, Vin Tanner accompanied Chris Larabee back to the Four Corners Tavern. A part of him still did not know why he was willing to risk everything on such a foolish venture but the bounty hunter could not deny that there was something inordinately pleasing about having someone willing to trust you on faith alone. There was also something else that Vin did not want to admit because he was too jaded and felt sentimentally foolish about feeling and it was the fact that not only did he have this secret yearning to belong; but he also wished to belong to something worth fighting for. An Empire that was willing to condemn him for not carrying out their desires was not worth his loyalty and since they would turn him into a fugitive for his disobedience anyway, Vin felt that it might have been for something worthwhile.

"Are you sure about this?" Mary asked eyeing Vin critically when Chris had presented him to the rebel leader. They were inside Inez's room above the Four Corners tavern, about to map out their plan for rescuing Nathan and the others.

"I'm sure," Chris replied, refusing to give her doubts any more attention then that. Chris trusted Vin Tanner. It had been a long time since he could be so certain about anyone but Chris had been that about Vin ever since they had met, even when he had not pulled himself out of the self pitying phase he had been wallowing of late.

"Alright," Mary nodded and got down to the business at hand. "I've contacted the Alliance and it is confirmed. They have been taken to Doldur all of them. At this time, we know that they're still alive, the Empire will want to conduct a proper interrogation to squeeze every iota of information about the Alliance that they can manage."

"Doldur's maximum security," Vin remarked, knowing something about the installation they were meant to penetrate. "If we're talking about breaking in there, I can tell you now, it's impossible."

"There are problems," Chris said easily, seeming unconcerned. "But it's not impossible."

Mary suppressed a smile finding the Jedi very different from the drunken man whom she had confronted some hours ago. There was something akin to peace about him and though she suspected that his sorrow had not disappeared entirely, nor would his brooding manner, she was pleased that he had pulled himself together enough to realise that life did go on. "I'm afraid your friend is correct," Mary agreed with Vin's assessment of the situation. "The station is located on the small moon orbiting Doldur 3, a gas giant. Aside from the tremendous gravitational forces that have turned the moon into one large violent vortex of high winds, an energy shield protects the installation. No ship may pass through it without the shield being dropped from inside the complex."

"What if we landed a small ship right next to the field perimeter?" Chris asked after a moment's consideration. "These things are made to keep out larger objects like a fighter but a person could just walk through the shield."

"Still impossible," Vin added automatically. "That's why they have a tight monitoring system throughout that entire area. We so much as breathe next to that thing and there'll be enough alarms screaming to wake the dead."

"We cannot disable the sensors," Mary mused starting to think away out of their present solution. "Neither can we avoid them, perhaps what we need to do is make them less important." She blinked suddenly and sat up.

Chris could feel the inspiration coming from her and could not deny that it was infections indeed when she felt this way. Despite himself, he could not help admiring her as she continued to speak, unaware of his observation. She was the strongest spirited woman he had ever met and yet he suspected at the core of her was someone soft and very unlike the military persona she wore around herself like a shield. He just wished she did not look so sad.

"You have an idea?" Vin asked, seeing the same spark in Mary's eyes as Chris did, even though the bounty hunter felt none of the affection the Jedi did towards the lovely blond woman who seemed clearly to be in charge of things.

"What you need gentlemen," Mary eased back into her seat and remarked thoughtfully. "Is a distraction."

"There is no distraction big enough to make their ignore a perimeter alert," Vin pointed out. He was well aware of the efficiency of Imperial security, especially around their military bases.

"How about a rebel attack from space?" Mary asked with a hint of a smile.

"You'll never get past their deflector shield," Chris pointed out.

"No," she agreed. "But the capture of two important Alliance members is reason enough us to try in their opinion. It has just enough desperation about it to be real."

It was a good gamble but still a risky one. Chris could feel her own reservations, none of which translated on her face because a good commander never showed weakness to the enemy or to those under their command. "You know that you won't be able to do them any damage," he reminded.

"Yes I do," Mary nodded, having thought it through before she even suggested it to them. "However, the purpose here is not to engage or destroy the enemy, mainly keep their attention away from the two of you while you penetrate the perimeter. Perimeter sensors have a tendency to trip when the deflector shield is under bombardment. Once activated, the sensors will transmit an alert for approximately three minutes, you have that long to get through the shield and get out of range. Any longer than that and the alarm will repeat itself, at which point the Imperials will know that it is not a glitch but a genuine breach in security."

"Understood," Chris nodded, absorbing all that information.

"Once we get in there, how do we find these friends of yours? I know they will be in a cell block but do we have any idea about the layout of the place?" Vin asked no one in particular.

Chris could tell that the bounty hunter was still dubious about their chances of success since his scepticism reflected in his speech. However, Chris was not offended or perturbed by Vin's behaviour mostly because he knew the man was set in his mind to follow Chris whatever his reservations might be. Vin had reached a crossroads in his life and was understandably somewhat resentful of that path that he had been forced to take. Still Chris did not doubt him or believe that Vin would go back on his word to help him in this mission. For a bounty hunter, Vin Tanner had a strange sense of honour and his word was not given lightly nor broken for the sake of convenience.

"He has a point," Chris pointed out. "I can have someone take us there but it will complicate things."

"Agreed," Mary nodded, trying to think a way out of this particular problem. "I suppose the only thing you can do is plug into a computer terminal and produce a layout of the installation."

"It will have to do," Chris sighed wishing there was an alternative but then this entire rescue effort was never meant to be easy. "Let's hope your distraction is enough to keep them busy while we go roaming about the place."

"Unfortunately, we have little else choice in the matter but do exactly that," Mary sighed wishing she could be of more assistance to them considering the nature of what they were attempting to do. "In the meantime, I'll contact our field agents and see if we have anyone placed in that facility that could be in a position to help you when you arrive at the Doldur installation."

"A prayer would be more help than field agents," Vin muttered under his breath. It was hard to get terribly encouraged by a plan that hinged on so many probabilities and all of which had a thousand to one chance of failing at every turn.

As much as Chris might hate to admit it, he had a feeling that Vin was probably right.

"So this is what the Alliance sent to rescue Captain Jackson?" Colonel Nabb circled his prisoners like a carrion hawk about to pick at a particularly tasty morsel from a dead carcass.

Ezra Standish found himself leaning with his back to the wall, feeling the need to put some distance between himself and his superior officer as the man began assessing the prisoners who had been taken into custody hours ago. The collection was hardly impressive indeed and it added to the Colonel's venom when Mary Travis was not to be found in their number. The rebels had wisely kept her from embarking on this rescue mission and though they had taken the bait, it was no victory for the Empire either.

In truth, Ezra wondered how Nabb had thought things could go any other way. Commander Mary Travis was no fool and she certainly was aware of the risks should the Empire capture her. Not only would her life be forfeit but also the wealth of information she could provide regarding the Rebel Alliance indicated that risking her on such a mission was completely unacceptable. If the tables were turned, Ezra knew that no Imperial officer would compromise the Empire by taking foolish risk.

The trio being interrogated had yet to speak even though it would not be long before that happened. The failure to lure Mary Travis here had more or less ensured abandoning of any further attempts to retrieve her but to salvage the situation, Nabb would have to get something valuable from the prisoners before him. Nathan had no doubt much to provide them with as well as the captain of the captured ship, the older man who was obviously a rebel and the stripling who should have been in school or anywhere else except the unfortunate place he was at now.

Ezra wished he could get back to Coruscant instead of languishing here on Doldur ever since Nabb had discovered his relationship to Nathan Jackson and had transferred him here in the hopes of using him against the rebel Captain. As it was, Nabb took some delight in watching his discomfiture as the Colonel openly discussed the benefits of putting his oldest friend under torture, wanting to see if Ezra would react. It did not take any feat of genius to discern what Nabb's intentions were in this regard of course. It would be coup enough to secure the secrets of the Rebel Alliance but to finish off that splendid achievement by uncovering another traitor in their midst would mean promotions and all sorts of accolades for the ambitious Colonel who was lusting after a governorship or better.

"Look," the one named Buck Wilmington spoke up. "The boy is just a passenger. He didn't know anything about what we were intending to do."

Big mistake, Ezra thought silently.

Nabb immediately focussed on the youth, a boy no more than eighteen Ezra estimated. The Colonel's eyes narrowed and just as surely as he had broadcasted the thought, Ezra knew exactly what the man was about to do.

"We'll start the interrogation with this one," Nabb paused in front of the young man and declared with an almost triumphant smile.

The young man's eyes widened in fear and the reaction that Nabb wanted from his older companions came easily after that. Ezra swore inwardly because it was obvious the boy knew nothing about the Rebellion. Ezra could read people better than anyone alive; save a Jedi and he knew that unless the Rebellion had been reduced to recruiting its members straight from the farm, he doubted this child was a member. The torture he would suffer at the hands of Nabb's interrogation was pointless but then, it was not the purpose of the exercise for the young man to produce information, just a reaction from his older companions.

"You bastard!" The pilot shouted with unbridled venom. "He doesn't know anything!"

"We'll find that out soon enough," Nabb said icily and gestured the storm troopers forward. "Take him."

"No!" The pilot started to rise out of his seat when guns raised hastily in his direction.

Ezra could not take much more of this and he was not about to let this child suffer for no reason. He may be an Imperial officer but the uniform had not burned away his conscience too. "Calm yourself," Ezra ordered the Captain of the ship called the Rogue. "Your friend will be taken unless you cooperate." Ezra stared directly at the man and hoped he was right about how intuitive star pilots could be. "We want answers and if we cannot get any from you, we will get them from him. Our purpose here is not to brutalise but to acquire information, any information. Do you understand?"

Buck Wilmington stared at the Imperial captain's eyes and paused for a moment in his bluster to consider the man's words. There was something in the way he had said that which seemed to have more meaning than it ought and Buck had a feeling that unless he wanted to watch JD being dragged out of here to suffer Force only knew what, then he had better comprehend what it was. The only way to save JD was to provide the Empire with information, any information. Suddenly, it flared in his mind and he understood quickly that it was not much of a solution as it was a staging measure but at least it would take this Colonel's attention away from JD.

"Okay," Buck acquiesced and sat down. "I'll tell you whatever I know. Just don't hurt him."

"Buck!" JD exclaimed in protest. "I can handle it! You can't talk!"

"Sit down!" Nabb shoved him back into his seat and then turned to Buck. "You are prepared to cooperate."

Buck turned towards Josiah and JD and swallowed thickly. He hoped they understood and guessed from Josiah's expression that the Senator did. "Yeah," he said reluctantly. "I'll cooperate," the words escaped him with a soft and hollow whisper.

"Good," Nabb said with a smile and turned to Ezra. "It appears you have quite the knack for this, Captain."

Ezra kept a neutral expression on his face and answered. "I am learning the rules of the game."

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