The Empire had entered the Siraj system.
The four great ships entered normal space silently, like a school of dark predators under shallow water. They sailed forward through a surge of light and stars, a good distance away from the planet that was home to the rebel base, remaining undetected by any long range scanners as they closed in on the enemy. In truth, it made very little difference if they were seen or not. Moving gracefully through the dark, their silent journey ahead belied the frantic activity that was taking place in each of the vessel's hollowed insides. Behind every sparkle of light on the armored surface, preparations were being made for the coming engagement. From space, the leviathans appeared somewhat benign, like sleeping giants that had not prodded into awakening.
On the bridge of the Chimaera, Thrawn was busy.
There was a great deal to do before the rebels became aware of their presence. Surface troops needed to be prepared for the ground assault. Walkers and armored carried were being moved into smaller ships in order to make the journey to the Siraj 3. TIE fighter pilots were hurrying to their crafts, preparing for launch once they entered the range of the planet. With far more speed than would normally be credited to a force of similar size, the Imperial troops under Thrawn's command took their places with surprising efficiency. Under Thrawn's command, they could be nothing else. The four ships remaining closely together as they continued towards the planet, waiting until the optimum moment before they split their forces and closed the net over their prey.
Sitting in his command chair, Thrawn regarded the holographic projections before him. Within the next few minutes, the small fleet would be entering scanner range of Siraj 3 and the rebels would know that they were coming. It was vital that their troops were in position for their response. Thrawn had planned his attack strategy long before he had entered the system and it was now time to see that plan realised with each commander under his authorization following their instructions precisely. Pallaeon stood by his side as Thrawn debriefed his subordinates.
"Commander Daris, I want the Shadowstar scan for the Purgatory once we are in sensor range. The first few minutes are critical. I estimate no more than thirty minutes from the time we are detected on the scanners to Commander Travis issuing a response. The Purgatory will no doubt hold back to determine which of our ships will be involved in the surface assault. You will distract her while the Chimaera and the Nimbus move to intercept," Thrawn ordered, studying the figures closely for their reaction.
"Yes Sir," Daris' voice responded. "What about the surface batteries?"
"I believe the base has an ion cannon," Thrawn answered coolly, anticipating the question. "The rebels are ill equipped to have more than one. While you are engaging the Purgatory, attack fighters from the Chimaera and the Nimbus will launch. They will disable the ion cannon."
"Travis will launch all her fighters into the air," Commander Hutsen of the Nimbus commented. That's the only way she can evacuate her people in time."
Thrawn concurred with the commander's observation. "That is why I have taken the liberty of bringing a large force with me. We'll launch all fighters from the Nimbus, the Chimaera and the Shadowstar."
"That's a lot of ships," Daris said with a smile. "The rebels will have no idea what hit them."
"I am hoping that as well," Thrawn returned. "In the meantime Commander Trayne, you will deploy your surface through and armored walkers to the surface. You and the Phoenix will take the base on the ground and our forces will finish them in the air. Your fighter squadrons will be deployed to the planet to give your ground force aerial support and also to disable their shield generator."
"Yes Admiral," Trayne nodded in response. "Are we to take prisoners?"
"As many as you can," Thrawn said automatically without having to think twice about the question. "I doubt that Travis will be on the ground. As soon as we are detected, I wager she'll moving to take command of the Purgatory. Her tactic once she takes charge of her warship is usually unpredictable, give her plenty of room to maneuver, you do not wish to get captured in one of her traps. The best thing to do is to avoid it entirely. In fighting the three of us, I am gambling that she will identify the lead ship and then charge. You are to let her come to me. At an appropriate time, I will give you the signal and the Nimbus and the Shadowstar will move in. We'll cut her off."
"An excellent plan Admiral," Hutsen commended.
"Save the premature congratulations commanders," Thrawn retorted icily, his red eyes gleaming under the dim light of the bridge. "At least until after we capture Travis."
When Mary Travis was summoned to the operation center of the Siraj base, she anticipated trouble but until she saw what was on the scanners before her, she had not realized on what scale that trouble had come. For a few seconds after she had heard the taut request from Nathan Jackson to come to the central hub of the rebel base, she had hoped again hope that it was not as bad as she thought it might be. However, the tension in Nathan's voice did not escape her. The tendrils of fear running through her spine soon found her running, not walking but running towards the operations center. When she reached Nathan and saw the grim faces gathered around the long-range scanner as if it were the oracle of some dark truth, she knew that the worst was not even close to describing their present situation.
"They just came up on our sensors," Nathan announced, his voice nothing more but a hushed whisper.
Mary came forward and studied the readings on the long-range scanners, to see what it was that frightened him so badly. It took her no more than a second to translate the digital data before her and note the power levels emanating from the approaching crafts following the scans they had made to know immediately what it was they were facing. Unfortunately the rest of the command staff had come to the same conclusion as her and when she raised her eyes to meet theirs, she could see the fear was visible in their faces. Mary felt the same trepidation but she did her best to hide it from the others. Above everyone else, a commander could not show fear. A commander had to remain resolute or else none of her people would be able to do the same.
"How long ago?" Mary inquired, discarding immediately the woman she was and becoming the commander they needed.
"We alerted you almost immediately after the scanners pick them up. Three are still holding course; one has broken off from the main group. Judging from the trajectory, I'd say its heading straight for the Purgatory," Nathan estimated grimly.
"Make sense," Mary nodded, absorbing the information. "They need to take out our main defense first before the rest of them move in for the kill."
"We can't fight those ships," Nathan exclaimed, feeling the urgency of the situation rise up and strangle his senses for a brief instance. "We don't have the fire power."
"I don't need to hear that right now Captain!" Mary snapped sharply, unimpressed by him for showing weakness in front of junior officers, especially at a time like this. "We start talking defeat before we even start to fight we are all going to die here today and I won't have it, do you understand me?" She glared at him. "I won't have it. We've been in tougher scrapes before, we'll survive this," she concluded that statement by making eye contact with everyone in the room, so that they would see that she believed it.
"Yes Sir," Nathan nodded, feeling a little admonished for faltering under pressure. She was right of course, as a command officer, he had to present a confident front to their junior officers. "What are you orders?" He said in a more professional tone.
Mary threw him a little smile indicating all was forgiven before she took a deep breath to consider the question. There were vital first steps that must be taken even if they did not have a plan as of yet and they had to be issued immediately. Time was an extreme factor now. Whomever was in command of those destroyers had made their stealthy approach in order to give the rebels very little time to react. Unfortunately, it was a plan that worked well. As it was, Mary was amazed by the fact that those ships had entered the system without the Alliance having any clue that a small attack fleet had departed for Coruscant bound for the Siraj system under the notice of all their spies and contacts throughout the galaxy. Nevertheless, however the Empire had managed to sneak up on them it did not change the fact that they were still here and she needed to act.
"First; sound battle stations and initiate emergency evacuation," Mary began, running off orders from the top of the head. There was so much to be done so many preliminary preparations to take care of if they were to get out of Siraj alive. "Transmit the same to the Purgatory and have her move behind the planet's moon. That will make it a little harder for that Star Destroyer to find her. Prepare a shuttle for me, I'll be heading towards the Purgatory within twenty minutes and get all department heads here right now, I can't waste time trying to hand out orders to half a dozen sections."
"Shall I accompany you to the Purgatory?" Nathan asked.
"No," Mary shook her head and met his eyes. "Nathan, one of the command staff needs to make it. If I don't I'm counting on you to take command. Get everyone away from here no matter what the cost. Cut and run if you have to but take as many of our transports and our forces with you. There is only one reason for an attack fleet of this size, they intend to hit us with everything they got and take a hell of a lot of prisoners. If they capture as many of us as I think they are going to try, the Rebellion may never recover."
"I understand." Nathan spared her the trouble of saying it because he understood clearly what was about to happen. This was going to be a devastating defeat if they did not move quickly. Casualties would be high but if the cost of saving the whole was to sacrifice some then that was what would have to be done. Each member of the Rebel Alliance knew what they faced when fighting for a greater ideal. "I think we all do." He glanced at the others around him and saw that it was the truth.
Mary swallowed hard and faced them proudly; raising her chin and taking on the dignified persona that made so many follow her into battle no matter what the cost. "If they come for us, they come for us," Mary responded, making eye contact with each person in the room because that was what they deserved it. "If they try to destroy us, we will fight back and if they try to capture us," she paused a moment to catch her breath. "If they try to capture us then we will die fighting and we will take a hell of a lot of them with us!"
A roar of agreement erupted throughout the room as those present voiced their solidarity to resist the forces that were coming for them, no matter how insurmountable the odds might have been. Mary had never been prouder of being their leader then at that instant and her heart swelled with emotion for a few moments as she allowed herself to enjoy the feeling of pride inside her.
She had a premonition that before this day was done, that feeling of pride would turn into the ashes of defeat.
"ATTENTION ALL PERSONNEL - IMPERIAL TROOPS HAVE ENTERED THE SYSTEM, PROCEED TO YOUR STATIONS AND BEGIN IMMEDIATE EMERGENCY EVACUATION. REPEAT IMPERIAL TROOPS HAVE ENTERED THE SYSTEM."
Chris knew that there was trouble even before the klaxons began screaming throughout the rebel base. He could feel it radiating from Mary like the heat of a thousand suns. It forced him to leave his quarters where he had been meditating and sent him hurrying towards the operations center. He had barely made it out the door when that electronic alert boomed through the air and was heard by all. Chris watched the faces absorbing the information relayed to them by the mechanical voice and saw the fear that surfaced as understanding seeped into their consciousness regarding the level of danger that was facing them. For a few seconds, Chris was almost as shocked as they were by the abrupt arrival of such grim news, wondering why the Force had not forewarned him that such danger was coming. While he might not be able to sense what exactly the trouble was, his Jedi abilities should have normally given him some indication that there was something on the horizon, even if it was vague.
Unfortunately, now was not the time to debate how it had sneaked up on him as it had the other members of the Rebel Alliance since the threat was here and he had to deal with it in just the same manner. By the time he entered the main juncture of the corridor, he saw the rest of the rebels reacting to the news they had been given and were moving quickly to their posts in order to begin the evacuation. Still, the scant information provided did not alleviate their increasing anxiety and without the ability to fully understand what was going on, gave some of them reason for greater panic. Like a room filling with water, Chris was soon in danger of being drowned in a tidal wave of emotions thick with fear. The surge was so powerful that Chris had trouble keeping it all out of his mind at first and had to reinforce his internal shields so that he could crushed it ruthlessly beneath the weight of iron control. If he could not, he was no good to anyone and he had a feeling that everyone was needed if they were to survive this.
Chris rounded the corner, all the while trying to avoid bodies that were running up and own the corridors, trying to get to their respective posts in order to help with the evacuation and caught sight of Vin Tanner was standing in the middle of the corridor. Judging by where he was standing, Vin had just come from the mess hall before he had frozen in this tracks, staying in one place as he allowed the others to sweep past almost as if he was stalled for some reason. When Chris neared him, the Jedi saw that his younger apprentice was silently meditating in the midst of the chaos swirling around him. It took no more than a second for Chris to discern what he was trying to do. Vin, who did not have the experience and the depth of training he had, was attempting to shut out the increased level of heated emotions invading his mind from all around him. Upon sensing Chris' approach, he raised his eyes to his Master and was clearly relieved to see him.
With Chris in his sights, Vin felt a little more confidence and closed his eyes once more, focusing his concentration on hearing Chris' thoughts and no one else. He forced the invasive noises to some place in his mind that seemed very far away, clearing the path so that Chris could send directly into his mind and Vin could hear it without distraction. Once he connected with Chris' thoughts, it was easy to push the voices even further into the dark until all that remained of them were lingering whispers on the edge of his consciousness. He started breathing a little easier once he felt his mind his own once more and tried to shake that uneasy aftertaste of so many frightened emotions.
"Are you okay?" Chris asked concerned once he reached Vin, needing a verbal confirmation of the settling discord he sensed in the younger man a few seconds ago. When he had sensed Vin's difficulty, he had reinforced Vin's efforts with his own abilities, allowing the young man to create the connection between them both that had allowed him to restrain all the other voices.
"Yeah," Vin nodded taking a deep breath to steady himself. "Just got to me a minute there. All that fear from the Empire finding us just got a little overwhelming. I'm fine now. Do you know any more than what's been announced?" Vin asked him, aware that his connection to Mary sometimes gave him access to more information than readily available.
"No," Chris answered automatically as he saw the evacuation procedures gain momentum around them. "But I can tell it's bad. It's got Mary plenty worried."
"That's not good," Vin commented and fell into stride with Chris when the Jedi started moving. "What scares Mary is usually pretty bad. I wonder how they found us?"
"I doubt it matters any more," Chris replied as they arrived at the hangar bay and saw that Mary was already there.
She was standing in the middle of the flight deck surrounded by fighter pilots and squadron commanders to whom she was giving out instructions on what to do. Despite the fact that hangar bay was alive with activity with technicians and maintenance people working hard to prepare ships as well as continuing with the evacuation, they were still focussed on what she was saying. Chris and Vin immediately melted into the crowd, noticing Buck and JD amongst the pilots who were all clad in their flight suits. Around them, flight technicians were working at frantic pace in order to prepare all the fighters for launch. Both Buck and JD were also wearing the orange flight suits, which indicated that Buck had probably handed over the Rogue to Louisa to pilot in order to aid the evacuation. The lady was not fighter pilot but she did know how to fly a ship and at this time, all their resources, no matter how unlikely would have to be utilized.
As he joined Buck and JD, Mary glanced briefly at Chris before she resumed talking again. Even though he could sense that she was glad to see him, she was now very much in the persona of the responsible rebel leader about to lead her troops into battle. That other side of her saw him as nothing more than one more person under her command she had to save. Sometimes, Chris wondered how the weight of that kind of responsibility did not snap her in half. It made him grateful that he was just a Jedi Knight.
"The first destroyer had been identified as the Shadowstar, she's Commander Daris ship." Mary continued to speak once he and Vin were settled into the group. "Our current monitoring of the ship has her placed on a direct interception course with the Purgatory. My belief is that she will attempt to keep the Purgatory from the main body of the fleet."
"Why?" Josiah inquired. "We don't have any other heavy warship capable of taking the other three."
"There's four of them?" Vin hissed in horror.
"Yes," Mary nodded upon hearing Vin's exclamation. "There are four Star Destroyers and they are all heavy battle cruisers. We've identified them as the Shadowstar, the Phoenix and the Nimbus. We have not been able to identify the lead ship. However, it appears that the Phoenix is moving into position to launch several smaller ships to the surface. These most likely contain surface troops for a ground assault as well as walkers and armored carriers. Walkers and armored carriers need something of a level terrain to proceed so I'm assuming that when they get here; they'll be coming at us from the northwest quadrant. Captain Jackson will be in charge of mobilizing the our ground pounders to hold them back while we continue the evacuation procedure."
"Commander what about the other two ships?" Audrey asked.
Mary took a deep breath and responded. "I assume as soon as they are in range, they will attempt to disable the ion cannon and begin aerial bombardment of the base in order to disable our shield generator."
A low hush moved throughout the room as everyone came to terms with how critical the situation had become. Mary waited until the sound had dissipated before she resumed speaking. "I will be boarding the Purgatory shortly so squadron commanders these are your orders. Major Kelis; I want you and Red squadron to prevent as many carriers from landing on the surface. Give Captain Jackson as much aerial support as possible because I am almost certain that when those ships land, they will do so with aerial support of their own. Once the transports touched down, I almost guarantee they'll come after our shield generator to create a two pronged attack on it. One from the ships in space and the other through their fighters. Until they lower our shield generator, they know we can keep them at bay indefinitely. I don't underestimate them enough to think they won't try and strike there first."
"Yes Sir," Kelis answered from the crowd.
"Captain Wilmington, thank you for assuming command of Blue squadron," Mary spoke in Buck's direction, offering a little smile of gratitude. "I will need you and Colonel King of Gold squadron to boost the fighter ranks on the Purgatory. We have to disable the Shadowstar quickly and decisively if we are to prevent the other two ships from destroying our transports as soon as we try to leave the surface. You'll have some latitude in firing protocols because I think the Empire is more interested in prisoners, so they will be attempting to board as many ships as possible, not outright destroy them."
"What about our transports?" Louisa Perkins asked. "Will they able to get past the Imperial blockade?"
"Lieutenant Dunne and Green squadron will provide fighter escort to all transport leaving the system. They will also have additional support from the ion cannon to clear the way as much as possible. Alright, you have your orders," Mary said concluding the debriefing because she needed to get to the Purgatory as soon as possible. "Those of you needing more information can report to your squadron leaders. You're dismissed," she ordered and then added before they had a chance to break up. "May the Force be with you."
With that the large crowd started to disperse with pilots hurrying to their ships or gathering around their squadron commanders in order to get further instructions on what they would be facing. Mary stood alone in the crowd for a moment as she caught her breath and despite her optimistic face in front of her troops, only Chris knew just how worried she was that they would survive this day. Her expression softened upon seeing him because it was a relief to be able to be herself with just one person even if she had to portray an iron front to everyone else. The others held back from approaching her for the time being, allowing their leader a brief interlude with the Jedi to make their own farewells.
"I have to go soon," she said softly as they came together.
"I know," he nodded. "I should come with you."
"No," she shook her head. "I won't be able to think straight if you're up there with me. I need to be focused about this if we're going to get out with our skins intact."
"Mary it will be okay," Chris assured her, taking her hands in his and allowing himself to soak in the texture of her lovely blue gray eyes. There was so much he wanted to say to her at this moment, so much he wished he could convey to her, even if it was to make her feel a little better rather than his own selfish reasons. Unfortunately now was not the time. Her mind needed to be clear. For what she had to do for all of them to survive, there was no choice on the matter. He just wished he could.....
No, Chris thought to himself. Not now. Not like this.
However, Mary had other ideas because it was very likely that she might not survive this day. Throwing caution to the winds and knowing this has to be done once before the courage left her, Mary pressed her lips against his in a soft kiss. She saw Chris' eyes widen in surprise and there was the natural impulse to pull away but her hand slid around his neck and she held on, trapping him in the power of her kiss. She did not care that the others had started to stare in surprise by this intimate gesture between their commander and their resident Jedi Knight, or that they were thinking that it was about time that Chris and Mary displayed their emotions. All she cared was whether or not he felt the same and how dreamy his lips tasted against her own.
Part of him was astonished that she had dared to take this step, even when he felt the silken luxury of her lips against his mouth. He had wanted this moment for so long but had been hesitant to do so because he feared so many things. It amazed him that she had dared to take the initiative when he had not. However, when he felt her scent heavy in his lungs, her tongue probing gently past his teeth and pulling him closer with each breath she took of him into her body, Chris knew that nothing had ever felt so right in his entire life. He wanted nothing more than to ravage that sweet mouth, to explore it forever as he arms slid around her waist and he pulled her close to him, until he could feel her heart pounding against his. For an instant, it almost felt as if they were beating together as one.
However, the moment as powerful as it was could not last and far too soon than either of them would have liked, Mary started to pull away because as much as he meant to her, those under her command needed her more. Meeting his gaze, Mary saw just how much the kiss had meant to him and it drew a little smile across her face. "Please take care of yourself. If anything were to happen to you, I don't think I could stand it," she whispered softly, still in his arms.
"I'll be fine," he responded, feeling his heart aching inside his chest because of the two of them, it was most likely Mary who was more vulnerable than him. She was going to face the enemy head on against overwhelming odds. "And I'll be with you, one way or another. You know that."
"Yes," she smiled. She did. She could feel him inside her soul, even when he was light years away. It gave her a great deal of comfort and certainly would on this day. "I do."
"Commander," Nathan interrupted, hating to intrude but there was no choice. She was needed on the Purgatory and she had to leave soon if she was to reach the ship at all. "You need to leave."
"Yes," she pulled away from Chris completely, the tender features of the woman Chris was almost certain he loved disappearing and replaced by the hardened warrior ready for battle. "You take care," she said finally and then turned to the others who standing by closely. "All of you, stay alive no matter what."
They all responded in a chorus of affirmations to that fact but the truth was, all of them were far more concerned about how she would fare rather than their own lives.
With that, Mary turned on her heels and walked away, without giving Chris a second look. He watched her make her way to the transport and felt a hand on his shoulder. Looking sideways, he saw Vin standing by him, looking onward sympathetically. "She'll be back Chris, she's the best commander in the fleet."
"Yeah," Buck agreed. "You know Mary, she'll run rings around those Imperials bastards."
Chris did not respond for a few seconds because the Force had given him a flash of insight in the last few seconds and though he did not know anything for certain, what he felt in his heart was clear enough allow him one accurate comment. "Then why do I get the feeling that I'm about to lose her?"
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