CHAPTER ELEVEN

"What are they doing?" Mary heard Chano telling her that the deflector shield had been deactivated.

"It appears as if they are preparing to launch fighters at us," the Lieutenant Commander informed Mary as he stood by her side while she studied the holographic image that depicted the Imperial base and the energy field surrounding it, before her.

Mary's brow knotted in confusion, a state of mind that matched his own. "Why?" She asked out loud, not expecting an answer. "We can't penetrate the deflector shield. There's no reason for them to engage us directly."

"Well their deflector shield is lowering nonetheless," he reminded her. The opportunity that had presented itself with this strange and somewhat foolish occurrence more than spoke for itself. Any commander worth their salt knew that. It was a once in a life time chance that had to be exploited, if for no other reason than to teach the Empire to never let down their guard.

From the onset of their engagement with the Imperial base, they had been watching the proceedings through the viewer on the bridge. The battle, such as it was, had progressed just as they had expected, without any clear results. The purpose of the entire skirmish was to keep the station's personnel oblivious to the covert infiltration being attempted by Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner, who at last report had landed safely on the surface without being discovered. Mary had maintained the bombardment of the deflector shield, anticipating that eventually, the Purgatory and her fighters would have to withdraw without doing any really significant damage whatsoever but satisfied that their primary objective had been fulfilled, especially if Chris and Vin were able to rescue Nathan and the others. A military victory was simply out of the question.

Until now.

The shield continued its slow deactivation, slow in that it would take 14.5 seconds to lower comply and allow TIE fighters exit their launch hangar bays and confront the X-wings that were bombarding the shield so pointlessly. Once lowered, it would only take a further minute for the TIE fighters to escape the perimeter of the shield and then it would take another 14.5 minutes for the shield to be reactivated to full strength. It was a minute and a half that could change everything Mary decided and though this was not what she had planned, the opportunity to act was one she could not resist. Without even pausing to consider what she was doing, Mary turned to the gunnery officer on deck.

"Lieutenant J'yd." Mary swung around in her chair and faced the Bothan gunner, who was on the other side of the bridge but who was well aware of the situation like every other officer present. "Fire our ion cannon at their primary shield generator."

"Yes Sir," the young man grinned widely, baring his canine teeth though lightly furred lips.

"You have one minute and thirty seconds to destroy it," she added.

It would not take that long and they both knew it. The amount of energy it took to maintain a shield of that size was easily detected by scanners of the Purgatory and the time it took for the targeting computer of the ion cannon to find that power source was infinitesimal. The Purgatory heaved slightly as the main guns were fired. A beam of energy powerful enough to slice through space escaped the massive gun ports and began its speedy descent towards the base. The explosion when it finally reached its target could be seen from space.

"Direct hit!" Chano exclaimed.

"Again!" Mary ordered, leaving nothing to chance but Lieutenant J'yd was already taking his second shot and then his third. Mary did not know how long he maintained the relentless assault but very soon, their time was up and the shield remained deactivated.

"We got it!" Her executive officer cried out and a small ripple of cheering moved through the deck as other rebel officers shared in his euphoria.

Mary however, was by no means complacent. This had been luck. She had no idea what fool sat in command at that base but his stupidity had allowed them this added boon. It did nothing to change the fact that Chris and the others were still down there although now, she was able to make the task of freeing the prisoners a little less daunting. "Get all our pilots in the air!" Mary barked at Chano and then flicked the controls on her chair that would allow her to speak to the other pilots already in space. "All fighters, disengage from bombardment and proceed to the Imperial station. The deflector shield is down. Repeat the deflector shield is down!"

As the words faded from her lips, she stood up in her chair and thought silently to herself.

Now this is what I call a distraction.

"What was that?" Josiah Sanchez inquired from inside the confines of the cell he was presently sharing with Buck Wilmington and JD Dunne.

The explosion that roared in their ears could be felt as profoundly as the eruption of sound. The walls quaked in reaction to the source of it and the shudder moved from the ground into their bones with startling efficiency. When the bombardment had first started, the trio of prisoners had thought that this might be their opportunity to escape. However, the efficiency of an Imperial detention cell was not a reputation given lightly and as of yet, the means still eluded them. In truth, Josiah was not in any shape for a complex plan. The Senator had managed to keep his secrets even though he was tortured with the use of a mind probe, a particularly insidious device that caused pain each time it detected a lie in the victim's brainwave patterns. Josiah had not broken but his mind had felt every lie and every omission as if it were set alight on fire, each time Josiah refused to submit to Nabb's question.

"Another blast," JD retorted, wondering why Josiah was asking when it was like all the others before it.

"No its not," Buck shook his head in response, detecting the same thing in the resonance of that last explosion that was different from the ones that proceeded it. Another roar of sound filled the room and this time the effects of it on the structure were starting to show, fragments of ceiling filler began to shake loose from cracks and drift to the floor. Unlike the maximum security cells that Nathan Jackson was presently being incarcerated in at the moment, their cell had been more of a holding area while Nabb pick and chose which one he would subject to torture. It was nowhere as impregnable as the cell Nathan was being held.

They could see the other Imperial prisoners in other cages not unlike their own, further down the corridor. Buck's stomach hollowed when he realised that a large percentage of the captives did not appear to be smugglers or pirates, in fact none of them looked like criminals. Most appeared frightened and huddled together, terrified of what their end might be. He could not blame them because most were non-human and if even half of what the Rebellion believed about Palpatine's segregation policy was true, then they were all headed for very uncertain fates.

"Their deflector shield is down," Buck estimated.

"How?" Josiah asked. "The bombardment earlier was not enough to do that." The senator sat up in his bunk, his head still aching from that one gesture.

"I don't know," Buck admitted. "But their shield is down. We're starting to see structural damage. Before, it was mostly concussion shockwaves but this is different. This is impact."

"You think the Alliance is attacking them?" JD inquired, trying not to hope that there could be a rescue on the way, lest he be disappointed.

Buck exchanged glances with Josiah who was more equipped to answer that question than he. "Its possible," the man volunteered after a moment's thought. "But unlikely. You and I both know that unless the shield can be deactivated, there was not a chance of any attack succeeding."

"I know," Buck agreed but his confusion did not clear with more and more eruptions, each more violent than the last, thundered through the air. The energy field keeping them sealed inside the cells flickered for an instant, which indicated the ferocity of the bombardment the base was being subjected to, for there were usually all kinds of backup system to ensure this type of failure did not happen. "But their deflector shield is down and it only takes a minute or two to get it back up. If they haven't yet, its because they can't."

Chris and Vin were making good time.

When they had first landed on the surface of the moon, they had been hindered by the thick environmental suits they were forced to wear in order to traverse the hostile terrain before finally penetrating the deflector shield as planned. The alarms and signals that they had assumed would be sounded, did activate but the duo were able to get past the sensors in time for it to right itself a short time later. They entered the perimeter of the base and quickly found their way to the sewerage hatch in question, glad to remain in their environment suits for this particular leg of the journey. The sewerage hatch which was mostly for the purpose of maintenance had very little security attached to it, mostly because the Empire believed that interlopers inside the complex would have been detected, long before they reached this point.

Lowering themselves into the stygian darkness, the suits protected them from the wafting scent of refuse and dank water. They dropped into the depth, feeling murky fluid swirl around their legs among other materials that neither chose to pay very close attention to. The sewerage compartment was a two metre high corridor that ran throughout the length of the base. Filled with almost waist deep water, it was here that the recycling systems and filtration processes took place. Most of the time it was unmanned, requiring a technician to occasionally monitor and maintain the system. As they waded through the water towards the exit hatch that would bring them as close to the detention block as possible, they saw vermin scampering along the narrow ledges that paused long enough to wonder what Chris and Vin were before continuing on their way. Fortunately, that was all the attention they so far garnered from the base's occupants until the bombing captured their attention.


At first, it did not bother either Chris or Vin about the erupting noises above their heads. It was all apart of Mary's plan to provide a distraction. It was loud but not very threatening. It warranted little more that a few extra ripples in the water to their surroundings and was allowing them to continue onward unimpeded. However when the blast increased in intensity, becoming so loud that the vermin were actually scattering and suddenly the ripples stopped being far and few. The pieces of garbage on the surface of the water started to toss and turn on bursts of choppy water and pipes began to burst while elsewhere, other signs of weakening began to show.

"I thought they couldn't get through the deflector shield." Vin looked at Chris as they hastened their pace. The exit hatch was not far now and they were making good time with the added motivation that the ceiling might come down on them if they did not escape this place soon.

"They shouldn't be able to," Chris answered automatically but there was no doubt that the base itself was being assaulted, not the space above it. "Somehow the deflector shield has been lowered."

"Hope Mary remembers we're down here," Vin remarked. "It's going to be hard taking off if the hangar gets blown up."

"True," Chris agreed and was about to add something further when he noted rungs leading to the exit hatch on the nearby wall. "There it is." He pointed at the series of runs that led upward to a hatch on the ceiling. A lever under glass was fixed next to the ladder, most likely the door panel Chris decided. They were upon it in mere seconds and Chris could not deny that he was glad to leave these grimy surroundings behind him and shed himself of the environmental suit that was so cumbersome despite its usefulness in the earlier leg of their rescue mission.

As Vin quickly climbed up the ladder, eager to escape the sewerage conduit, Chris sensed something that gave him pause. There was a tremor in things that was more than just the heavy shelling the base was being subjected to. It came from the mirrored reflection of reality where the Force was it its strongest and for a moment, Chris searched through the mists to see what his mind was trying to tell him. Above head, Vin had already forced down the lever of the maintenance hatch. Hydraulic systems kicked into being as the hiss of gases preceded the hatch lifting open.

"Vin, wait," Chris opened his mouth to warn but it was too late, the bounty hunter was already moving.

Vin heard Chris' call to stop and then his own senses kicked in and the first thing he did when he emerged from the newly opened well was to go for his gun. He swung into firing position in one swift movement, capturing the person waiting there by surprise despite the fact that he was expected. For a second, neither man said a word as Vin found himself facing an Imperial captain. Both were locked in a stalemate and they knew it for neither could fire without killing each other.

"We've got trouble," Vin remarked redundantly as Chris emerged from the hatchway himself.

"No kidding," Chris said dourly as he took stock of their surroundings.

They had emerged into a maintenance room and were surrounded by machinery that owed its existence to the sewerage system they had just used to penetrate the base. The room was in a shambles, with tools scattering the floor and the evidence of structural ruptures throughout the walls and ceiling. Support beams and open conduits wires were dangling precariously in the air, having broken free under the barrage of fire from the enemy warship.

The captain was alone which struck Vin as somewhat odd when he finally took time to notice. He would have expected that an entire complement of storm troopers would be the wisest course of action to deal with two rebel infiltrators.

"You're not going to shoot us," Chris said casually as the Jedi began to remove his environmental suit.

"You gonna help me?" Vin asked, somewhat surprised by the nonchalance of the Chris' behaviour. He was not at all acting like someone who had a gun pointed at him by an enemy.

"You don't need it," Chris replied turning to the captain. "Does he?"

Ezra stared at this man with the dark clothes, feeling somewhat taken back because he could usually judge a person from a glance and this stranger with the sombre expression unlike his excitable companion was damn near unreadable. He stared into those penetrating eyes and could not for the life of him, understand this feeling of caution that overcame him. It was alien and yet strangely familiar and reassuring because when he looked back at Ezra, he knew exactly what Ezra was thinking.

"No." Ezra shook his head and lowered his gun. "He does not."

"You knew we were coming," Vin stated sliding his gun back into its holster and began gingerly removing his suit, prepared at a second's notice to fire if this détente between themselves and the captain should suddenly crumble.

"It was not difficult to ascertain that the effort of bombarding our deflector shield could only be a divisionary tactic," Ezra responded. "If not for the fact that my commanding officer is a moron who chose to send our fighters to engage yours, necessitating the need to lower our deflector shield and give your warship license to disable it permanently, I would not be standing here alone."

"So what do you want?" Vin asked, wondering how the man had managed to talk so much without drawing breath.

"He wants to help his friend," Chris answered before he could. "He want to help Nathan get out."

Ezra tried not to show that he was shaken by the stranger's revelation of his intention but he was. "Pray tell Sir, how you knew that before I had a chance to verbalise it?" Ezra asked in a soft voice that was somehow heard over the sound of enemy fire.

"He's a Jedi," Vin retorted. "You want to help us get to Nathan? Then we'd better get moving," the bounty hunter said abruptly. "We don't have much time."

"A Jedi Knight?" Ezra's eyes widened and then realised that the man named Chris could be nothing else. The dark robes, the faint outline of what he had thought to be a torch or something hanging from his belt had now evolved into a light sabre and his ability to see into Ezra's mind and know what his heart was intending, confirmed that fact. "I did not think that there were any of you left."

"There are a few," Chris said quietly. "You care for Nathan a great deal." It was not a question but rather a statement.

Ezra swallowed. "I do not have many friends and even less that I trust my life with. When Nathan lost his wife, I thought his hatred of the Empire would pass and in truth I supposed I was deluding myself. I knew that Palpatine had ordered the killings but I could not admit to myself or to him which only drove him further away. Perhaps if I had understood then, he would not be in this position now."

Chris was surprised. He never knew that about Nathan even though he had met the soldier once or twice during his time on Cordoba. The man seemed at peace and Chris felt immediately ashamed that Nathan had chosen to salve his wounded soul by taking up a cause worth fighting for instead of disintegrating into a bottle as Chris had allowed his to do. "We can trust him," Chris stated.

"Chris, I don't know….," Vin started to say in protest.

"I trusted you Vin," Chris met his gaze. "And I trust him."

Ezra did not know what to say which was rather surprising for him because he could not recollect a time when he had found himself in a situation where he had no glib remarks to make. He chose instead to get moving and immediately gestured for the duo to follow him. The Jedi was content to remain in his own clothes but the other had opened his pack and revealed what appeared to be the armour of a storm trooper. It was a good precaution, Ezra had decided and assumed as he began to slip the armour plating over his body that it was also how they had planned to infiltrate the detention block.

"You got a name Captain?" Vin asked when he finally slipped the helmet over his face.

"Ezra Standish," he replied as they stepped out of the maintenance room into the rest of the base.

Outside it was every bit as chaotic as one would expect from a military installation being heavily bombarded by artillery fire, even if the source of it was orbittal. The debris on the smooth black floor and more and more of the structure was starting to break free from the pummelling it was enduring. Personnel were running about frantically, carrying out their individual orders to fight off the threat they were facing while at the same time avoid being hit by the structure that was breaking apart under the heavy barrage.

"Vin Tanner," Vin introduced himself. "That's Chris Larabee," he added, knowing Chris would not. Although Vin still felt a little unsure about this captain and his desire to help them, he did know that Chris trusted him and Chris was almost certainly right about such things. Chris had been correct about trusting him so who was Vin to say that he might be wrong about Ezra? Besides, the fact that Ezra had not allowed the rest of his Imperial cohorts to know that they were here was an act of sedition that could land the captain in front of a firing squad.

"Please to meet you," Ezra remarked as they made their way through the corridor. With Ezra walking ahead and Vin taking position behind Chris with his rifle drawn, it appeared as if the two Imperial soldiers were taking charge of a prisoner and hardly raised a brow of suspicion as they made their advance towards the detention block. "Are you both members of the Alliance as well?" He asked quietly. He could believe that of the Jedi but the younger man did not appear the type. In fact, he looked a lot like a mercenary.

"No," Chris said coolly, unaffected by the disarray taking place around him. "A friend of mine was captured trying to get to Nathan."

"It was a trap," Ezra informed them. "We were trying to capture Mary Travis."

"She guessed," Vin admitted, remembering what Mary had said about the failed rescue attempt in retrospect. Part of the reason she had sanctioned this latest rescue was mostly because she felt responsible for placing the men in custody at present in danger in the first place. If not for her, none of them would be in the circumstances that they now found themselves.

"She is a smarter commander than the one I am presently under the misfortune of serving," Ezra retorted. He had told Nabb that if he could not deter the Colonel from his foolish actions in lowering the deflector shield then he would prefer to join the TIE fighter squadrons instead. Ezra had logged enough flight time to be proficient enough for that ruse to work. Nabb who did not want Ezra to be present when it became clear that he had made a grievous error about the deflector shield and had been more than happy to see him go. Considering what Ezra had planned to do, he had decided than an alibi was required.

However, how this would affect him when it was all said and done was another thing entirely. Ezra had chosen sides for better or for worse, he had rolled the dice on his future. Even though he was sacrificing his career and possibly his life to save Nathan Jackson, Ezra Standish did not know yet that he had what it took to be a rebel.

The battle was going well. With the lowering of the deflector shield, the worst case scenario that Ezra Standish had envisioned when he attempted to convince Nabb of otherwise, unfolded with shocking accuracy. Once the shield generator was located and destroyed, the deflector shield disappeared and gave the X-wings in the air a new target to focus their firepower. The Purgatory also took advantage of the situation as Mary ordered the warship closer towards the lunar companion of Doldur 3. The Imperials had made a valiant effort to retaliate, having launched as many of their TIE fighters as possible. However Mary had expected that as well and caused those ships to be met with a phalanx of X-wing fighters.

\However as she remained on the bridge of her ship, directing her fighters to what could possibly be the first military victory gained by the Rebel Alliance against the Empire, it was not of the battle that preoccupied her most. She found herself instinctively drifting towards the base where the rescue mission that had precipitated this entire attack in the first place, was currently being undertaken. Despite herself, Mary knew what it was that seemed to draw her to that operation involuntarily and knew without doubt, though she may detest admitting it, that it was Chris Larabee. The man touched something inside of her, something that perhaps recognised the sadness she saw in his eyes all too well.

They both lost their loved ones at almost the same time. Her beloved Stephen had died the not long before his family had been marked for destruction by Palpatine in his war against the Jedi. She still grieved for Stephen and everything that had brought her to this place at this moment, had been guided by it. It was worse for him though, she empathised, for not only had he lost a wife but also a child and the only thing that kept hope alive for Mary was the belief that what she was doing would some day provide Billy with a better future. Chris Larabee did not even have that to comfort him. Even though she had no reason to feel it, Mary felt guilty for forcing him to take up her cause especially if it got him killed but there was also a part of her that was certain that he could begin healing if he had something to believe in. She did not know if freedom was a good enough reason but she was determined not to let him give up on himself.

"Commander," Chano suddenly called out; there was a measure of anxiety in his voice that did not match the victory they were gleaning slowly throughout the course of this battle. It immediately forced away her personal predilections and returned her mind swiftly to the moment.

"What is it?" Mary swung around in her chair and found him staring over the shoulder of the Ithorian sensor officer, their faces a glow from the reflection of the screen they were observing closely.

"We're detecting a massive power surge, localised off our starboard bow," he answered.

Mary's eyes immediately shifted to the viewer to see what it was they were talking about when suddenly, the stars seemed to contract around that area of space and the all too familiar form began taking shape around it. The Star Destroyer that soon occupied that space was almost twice as large as the warship Purgatory. Its ability to block out the stars was almost prophetic and when it soared into motion again after its unexpected arrival, Mary guessed it course immediately. It was coming straight at them.

"I think we're in trouble," Mary whispered.

Comments to: gsuter@ans.com.au