Things were not going well for the rebels in this battle and they knew it.
The numbers assailing them from all side was more than overwhelming even though they were doing their level best to hold their ground. Buck Wilmington saw another ship exploding in his corner of his eye and did not even bother to look at the console before him to identify which of his comrades had just met their fiery end. There were so many that Buck could hardly count and he was long past the point where he was capable of mourning just one loss at the time. His heart ached for all the lives that were lost, until the mourning he was enduring felt like a passenger with the cabin of his ship. He thanked the Force that JD had been assigned to playing escort to the transport ships that were fleeing the system because the young man was too inexperienced to be engaged in a badly as vicious as this one.
Buck was barely managing to keep his own ship out of range from some hotshot TIE fighter's targeting scanner as he remained close to the body of the Purgatory surging through space towards the star destroyer that all the pilots in the air now knew to be the Chimaera. With their advance towards the lead ship in the quartet of destroyers that had come for them, the air had suddenly been filled with so many TIE fighters, Buck could not even begin to guess how outnumbered they were. Ships were exploding across the dark sky one after the other, some were TIE fighters, others were X-wings. Buck found his fingers moving so fast across the controls that he had hardly dared to waste time drawing breath. He tried almost single handedly to win this battle on sheer will alone and relied heavily upon his exceptional skills to make that a reality.
"Get closer to the destroyers!" Buck shouted into his headset, offering direction to those under his command and anyone else whom had listening. He knew that a number of squadron commanders had been killed and their members were desperately seeking direction.
"Close!" Audrey cried out. "Are you sure?"
"Yeah," Buck nodded inside the cockpit of his ship. "We stay close to those destroyers and we'll make those TIE fighters think twice before they shoot at us!"
"Watch your tail, Blue leader!" Buck heard some shout into his headset. Buck glanced in his scanner and saw a trio of TIE fighters closing in on him. The three ships moved parallel to each other, the outer two being wingmen for certain. No doubt these were the three that had been systematically targeting squadron leaders to thrown the X wing squadrons into disarray. Buck banked hard just as he felt a volley of shots escape the lead fighter and singed his starboard engine but not enough to disable it fortunately. The X wing rolled in mid air as it escaped the discharge of energy, forcing two TIE fighters in his path to alter course drastically and slam into each other from the force.
"Buck are you alright?" Audrey asked as she flew her ship behind the trio that were still in pursuit of Buck.
"So far so good," Buck said veering hard as he tried to shake his attackers. His computer console was screaming warnings as he moved into what it considered optimum targeting position to be fired upon. "Could use a little hand though."
"I'll do what I can," the colonel answered confidently and Buck could see the digital blip of her ship, opening fire on his pursuers. She struck the right wingman first, detaching the wing of the TIE fighter from the main body of the craft. Losing its balance, the TIE began spinning out of control, blue energy cackling throughout its hull before slamming into the hull of the Nimbus. The explosion on the surface of the great ship was barely negligible but every little bit that they could do to harm the destroyer was welcomed.
Buck managed to take advantage of the confusion and turn on his attacker in a sharp turn that should never be employed by any pilot with good sense. Fortunately Buck did not come into that category and he found himself face to face with the pilots who would kill him and began surging towards them, firing all guns in their face. Behind them, Audrey was also continuing her advance, locking the two TIE fighters into a pincer movement that gave them no place to run.
"Audrey," Buck spoke into the headset seeing her approach in his forward scanner. "I'll take the one the right."
"I got him on the left," she answered and although Buck could not see her face, he knew that she was smiling inside the cockpit of her ship.
The two TIE fighters tried to escape the trap that they had fallen into but neither Buck or Audrey was about to let that happen. Buck held his breath as his saw the one ship falling into position of his targeting scope and hoped that Audrey was similarly prepared. As soon as the TIE fighter entered the range of his guns, the targeting screen began to flash, signaling in thin green letters that it was in optimum firing position. Buck needed to pull the trigger on the throttle only once and series of energy bolts escaped his main guns, streaking ahead from the bow and impacting the TIE fighter in the dead center. The circular sphere that made up its cockpit, shattered with a resounding explosion, sending the rest of its assemblage into the air in a pile of quickly extinguished fiery debris. It disintegrated in the vacuum of space in less than a second but its demise did not spare its sister ship as Audrey's guns did their worst and caused similar destruction. Buck said nothing as he saw their remains flickered into darkness and was grateful for his near escape but this battle was far from done yet.
"Good shooting colonel," Buck responded. "You saved my butt."
"Thank you Captain," Audrey answered. "It was my...."
She never had the chance to finish the sentence because her ship lit up like a Roman candle in front of his eyes. Buck watched in horror as the main guns of an approaching star destroyer struck her. The Phoenix having lagged behind the Purgatory in order to allow the rebel ship into place had been ordered to move in to create the net around Mary Travis. Unfortunately, its unexpected arrival had seen Audrey's ship placed right in its path. The Y wing cracked apart like an egg and she erupted in a spectacular ball of fire, which diminished a second later.
"AUDREY!" Buck shouted anguished, wishing that what he had seen was not the end of her but he knew that it was. Within second of the explosion, she and her ship had scattered to the solar winds.
"Was that Colonel King?" Lieutenant Jammer Nabbierian asked, his voice as filled with sorrow as Buck's one had been.
"Yes," Buck swallowed, feeling the moisture in his eyes. He blinked them away because he could not mourn her now. He could not mourn until this was over or he would be seeing more friends die just as abruptly, not to mention his own end. She had just saved his life and he had been helpless to return the favor. In a split second, his mind was filled with images of their bantering and casual flirtation. She was a friend and good officer. He could not believe that she was gone. "That was her."
"Bastards!" Another pilot swore angrily. Buck recognized her as Captain Maggie Darkstar.
"Put it away for now," Buck cleared his throat once he trusted himself enough to speak. "We're going after the Phoenix! Blue squadron and Gold squadron, what's left of you follow me. That ship killed Colonel King and we're going to take it out of its hide."
The Phoenix had taken Audrey King from them and for that it was going to pay. Of that, Buck Wilmington would stop at nothing.
The explosion caught the attention of every rebel defending the base against the ground assault of the approaching Imperial forces. The sound roared through the air, forcing everyone to turn and stare in a symphonic of instinctive reaction. Vin Tanner found himself counted among these; his attention had been so fixated on the enemy ahead that he had hardly paid attention to the danger he sensed in the sky. In the few seconds leading, Vin had felt it pressing up against his spine but had discarded the sensation as being attributed to the fierce battle that was taking place above the skies of Siraj. He did not understand until this instant that it was an altogether different threat.
By the time they turned to look, rotating balls of smoke was already exuding towards the sky, tinged with fiery amber that indicate the strength of blast. While they could not see the actual destruction, they could very well imagine it. The columns of smoke rising into the air were a good indication of the level of damaged sustained by the building and its ordeal was far from over. Less than handful seconds passed before they saw the orbital bombardment for themselves as a powerful beam of energy descended from the sky to strike building again. The initial blast was already causing great chunks of rock to crumble inward, creating new explosions from its impact. Vin did not have to see the terror of those still inside the building to know of its existence, he could feel it in every fiber of his being. It required concentration to block those frightened emotions from him, lest they overwhelmed him.
"We have to help them!" Someone shouted and Vin wholeheartedly agreed with that statement although what how they were going to manage that was beyond him.
"I'm already contacting the fleet!" Nathan Jackson responded.
Vin left the line where the rebels had been laying down a wall of suppressing fire trying to kill as many Imperial troops as they could but it was a losing battle. The AT-AT's merely shrugged off the blasts while managing to return fire and creating significant losses on the rebel fortification. What the AT-AT's could not reach, the armored walkers were taking care of quite effectively and even though they were capable of being disabled by portable blast cannons, the rebels were simply not causing enough damage to be effective. They all knew they were fighting a losing battle but the goal had been to delay the enemy long enough to allow their transports to flee the planet. With the bombardment of the rebel base itself, the chances of their transport escaping the planet was remote.
"What the hell happened to the shield generator?" Vin asked as he reached Nathan and Josiah.
"I don't know!" Nathan barked back. "Somehow they disabled it. We're wide open."
Josiah suddenly turned towards the structure being blasted to kingdom come by the firepower from the unseen destroyer that was quickly reducing it to a pile of rubble. Vin sensed a swell of fear rising from the senator as a terrible realization dawned upon him .The sensation was almost alien coming from Josiah but its intensity could not be doubted as the big man's eyes stared at the building before him.
"Casey!" He shouted and started running.
"Josiah!" Nathan called out. "Come back here!"
"I'll go after him!" Vin said quickly to his friend, trying to hold things together even though it seemed everything was falling apart at the seams, despite his best effort. "You try and get someone to run interference for us or else we can forget about getting any transports off the planet or anyone else in that place!"
"Be careful!" Nathan nodded, never having doubt in regards to that because he was a soldier and as much as Josiah was his friend, he had others to think about.
Vin lost sight of Josiah as the senator ran through the jungle towards the beleaguered base. However, Vin did not need to see him. Josiah's emotions were a beacon of turmoil that kept the two of them tethered together. Josiah's concern was mostly centered on Casey and the notion that with the explosions that were tearing the base apart, she might not have made it out yet. As the only family Josiah had left, Vin could understand his concerns and knew that his reasons for following the man had more to do with stopping him from doing something foolish as well as helping him find the plucky young woman.
"Josiah wait up!" Vin shouted hoping the big man would stop and let him catch up.
However, Josiah was not listening and Vin continued closing the distance between himself and the rebel base alone. From up above, the bombardment had not stopped and each blast made Vin winced inwardly as the intensity of suffering began to grow tenfold. Panic and fear were running rife through his mind and he had difficulty discerning it from any of his own emotions. From the distance, it had not been possible to see the level of destruction wrought by the assault from the sky, However as Vin cleared the trees and emerged in the immediate surrounds of the base, he saw what had caused Josiah's anxiety and felt the same fear coursing through him.
The destruction was vast. The base, once the bastion of an ancient race moved on, was hardly the most hospital of places for habitation but for the months he had been a member of the Rebel Alliance, it had been his home. It pained him to see the great rips in the brickwork, the gapping holes of wall that had crumbled inward from the bombardment. Tongues of fire rimmed the edges of the fissures that had been created from the powerful blasts and voices of wounded and those still trapped inside added their noise to the eruption of chaos that had already gripped the area. Vin took a deep breath to steady himself, tracking Josiah solely through the Force and knowing that the senator had entered the structure through the launch bay which still remained intact, though it was unknown for how long.
Ships were departing in erratic pauses. Vin hurried to the opening to see transports making hasty departures while they still could. The hulls of some ships were pitted and scorched as they tried to gain altitude despite the obvious damage to their systems. Most made it but a few did not. Vin watched in horror as those too badly damaged crashed into the jungle, their demised marked by a fireball and the screams of doom that Vin had to shut off or else. Upon entering the hangar bay, Vin was faced with the full extent of the damage. Conduits and wires were sending live sparks across the floor, emergency crews were trying to put out fires that would impede the progress of the evacuation. Technicians were running across the deck, shouting at pilots to take off while they still could while some were themselves bundling into ships in order to escape.
Amidst all this chaos, Vin saw Josiah. The senator was staring at the Rogue, beyond horror that the ship had not taken off. Vin understood the implication as well as he. If the Rogue was still here, then Casey and Louisa were still in the base somewhere. However, Vin was not ready to believe the worst. He could not. A Jedi needed to have faith in the Force and Vin had ever hope that Casey was not dead. His senses did not admit any foreboding when he thought about the girl and Vin was certain that if she had died, he would on some level be able to sense it.
"Josiah its not what you think!" Vin declared as he reached the man.
"They never made it to the ship," Josiah retorted. "I should not have left her. I should have taken her away from here myself."
"Josiah we don't have time for this!" Vin grabbed his shoulder with enough force to force the man into moving. "She's still here and we have to find her, while we can."
Almost as if fate was attempting to support his cause, another blast was heard and the impact of the detonation shuddered throughout the structure. A section of wall came toppling down at the far end of the hangar, along with streams of dust and mortar shaken loose. The base would not be able to withstand this kind of abuse much longer. The blast placed further urgency into the actions present and shouting and orders flying about the place grew more fevered and determined. Vin looked at Josiah and tried to reach the senator.
"Think Josiah!" Vin ordered. "Where would Louisa and Casey go? What had they been planning to do when they were about to leave?" He shook Josiah and made his words have impact. "Josiah, we can't find them if you don't help."
Josiah sucked in his breath at that and nodded quickly. "Casey would not have gone anywhere," Josiah said quickly running through the possibilities in his mind. "I told her to follow Louisa and stay close to her. Louisa was going to take the Rogue out of here."
"Okay," Vin agreed with that assessment, refusing to let Josiah sink into despair now that he had gained some kind of momentum. "Where would Louisa go then. She was transporting anything because the Rogue was too well known. Just Casey."
"Yes," Josiah nodded and then stared at Vin. "She might have gone to the operations center before leaving, just to check in and account her departure. With all the traffic that was going on, it would be simpler than waiting for flight clearance. That's it Vin! The operations center!"
Josiah had started to run even before the words left his lips but instead of dismay at what he would find urging him on, he was running with purpose. Vin matched him stride for stride as they hurried into the corridor that led away from the hangar. It was slow progress as they were moving against the tide of body, hurrying away from the main concentration of bombardment, attempting to reach the hangar and launch deck while it was still standing. Josiah was barely conscious of this and Vin made sure he kept his friend in sight so that Josiah did not get away from him and get himself killed. He knew perfectly well what foolish risks emotions could lead a man to do.
Another blast was heard and this one flicked what remaining lights that were in the passageway to almost nothingness. Sections of the corridor begin to collapse with both Vin and Josiah barely avoiding being hit by a large piece of rock as it broke free from the ceiling. They took the turn to the operations center when suddenly, they were met by a large slab of rock that kept them from going any further. It effectively sealed the operations center and anyone who was in it behind a wall of rock. Josiah stared at it in shock before he threw himself at it, determined to remove the obstruction through will alone.
"CASEY!" He shouted pounding his fists against it. The block of stone was wedged in tight and did not even budge as Josiah became more panic stricken. "CASEY!"
"Josiah!" Vin pulled his away from the wall because his hands were leaving bloody stains from his relentless pounding. "Stop it!"
Suddenly a voice slice through the pause as Vin and Josiah stared at each other. "Uncle Josiah?"
"Casey!" Josiah almost flung himself against the wall again. "Casey, are you alright?"
There was a pause and what sounded like tears. "I'm okay Uncle Josiah but Louisa's hurt bad."
"We're gonna get you out!" Josiah shouted, every trace of his polished manner having given away for the fears of the terrified parent. "I promise you Casey, we will get you out!"
He turned back to Vin. "We have got to do something! We can't leave them in there!"
As he made that statement, another blast rocked through the air and he heard Casey screaming behind her prison of stone.
"Please Uncle Josiah get us out of here!" Casey cried out. "Everything is falling apart!"
Josiah stared at Vin in anguish and helplessness, not knowing what to do. He could not just leave her in there and in a short time, it would not matter anyway. Casey and everyone else behind that wall of rock would be buried alive. Josiah had never thought he could feel as useless as he did as this moment. What had he been thinking keeping her so close to him! He should have sent her far away from all this not condemning to die in a tomb of rock! "Vin, what do we do?" He asked the apprentice. "There's no time to dig her out!"
Vin took a deep breath and braced himself inwardly. He had to do something and in the final analysis, he was the only one who could. He had never attempted anything so ambitious before and if he failed, it would be a failure that would condemn innocent people to death. He should not have to do anything so ambitious, he was only an apprentice. Stop it! He heard his inner voice shout at him and it had a strange ability to sound like Master Yoda when he was being doubtful of himself. However, thinking about Yoda did remind him of a few things, particularly the Jedi Master's lesson about doubt.
Not to try but do. Or not at all.
He had to do. Closing his eyes, Vin took a deep breath and forced himself to forget that the rock was huge, that its size was daunting or the fact that if he could not move it, people would die. He did not think about how it would destroy Josiah if Casey were to die or the hurt in Buck Wilmington's heart if Louisa were lost to him. He emptied his mind of such thoughts because they were nothing more than a distraction he could not afford. He thought of moving the rock and only of that. He paid no heed to its size or its circumstance, just the fact that it needed to be moved. He closed his mind to all the other pressures and allowed the Force to flow through him. Only the Jedi could do that and Vin knew in recent times that he was destined to be a Jedi.
The rock started to move, slowly at first. Loose pieces of grit started to drift down its surface as it began to force itself from the passageway in which it was trapped. Vin closed his eyes and concentrated even harder, feeling his strength bursting at the seams as he forced it forward much to Josiah's astonishment. It was hard, even though he had told himself that the size of the obstruction did not matter. He closed his eyes tight, beads of sweat forming on his brow and his teeth were grinding together, his jaw tight with concentration. Vin was not aware of it but his fists were knuckled until they were white and he was almost trembling slightly but he refused to let go of the object he could see in his mind's eye. The Force was flowing through him and he was going to do this because failure was not an option.
He was not even aware when a rivulet of blood started running down his nose as the rock wrenched itself free from its confinement with a large heave, bringing down a support beam onto the floor and raining the floor with more debris and plaster but no so much that it was blocked still. The large slab shattered when it hit the floor, breaking into hundreds of pieces as Vin finally released his grip with an exhausted gasp as he toppled backwards, damn near spent entirely by that mammoth effort.
"Vin!" Josiah came to the young man and helped him to stand as Vin braced himself against the wall, feeling a white-hot pain in the center of his skull from pushing himself so hard. However, the pain was inconsequential because it was flavored by the sweet taste of success. He had done it.
"Are you alright brother?" Josiah asked, looking at him as if he was ready to embrace the apprentice for what he had done.
"Just a little winded," Vin confessed. "I haven't tried anything that ambitious before. Go on, see to Casey. I just need to catch my breath."
"Thank you Vin," Josiah said softly, his eyes glittering with emotion. "Thank you so much."
"She's my family too." Vin managed a weak smile.
"Uncle Josiah!" Casey emerged from the rubble, her face covered in plaster and dirt.
Josiah fairly picked her up in his arms and lifted her into the air like he had done when she was a child when she came into her embrace. "Oh Casey!" He laughed never more happy at anything than seeing her alive and well. "You had me so scared, little girl."
"You weren't the only one Uncle Josiah," she smiled but remembered the situation. "Uncle Josiah! Louisa's hurt and not just her!"
"Don't worry," Josiah said as he followed her into the wreckage of what was left of the operations center. "We're gonna get her help and anyone else in here who's alive to use it."
Thanks to Vin, Josiah had been delivered a miracle in being able to reach his niece and he was not about to falter for anyone else who needed it after that.
"We're too late!" Inez Recillos exclaimed when the Windsong entered Siraj space.
Before the cockpit of the small starship was a battle of mythic proportions taking place. Although they were still some distance away from the main arena of fighting, there was no doubt that the Rebel Alliance cell of Wild Space was fighting for its very life. The space before the Windsong was filled with what seemed like almost a hundred fighters, composing of both TIE's and X -wings. They were so numerous they looked like a swarm of glow beetles engaged in a frenzied nocturnal dance. Eruptions appeared sporadically over this rich tapestry of color, though there was nothing beautiful about it. Each burst or flare of light was another life being extinguished in the cold vacuum of space.
"By the Force!" Claire Moseley gasped, her eyes glimmering with the specks of lights that were ships battling each other with savage intensity.
The Windsong had left Cordoba, barely keeping one step ahead of the troops that were once under Ezra's command but were now directed to bring him in at all costs under Julia's command. Ezra had used every security code he knew to take them through the blockade and for most part had been successful but it had taken time and now they learnt what that delay had cost them. All throughout their journey to Siraj, they had been sending repeated signals to the base on Siraj, not even caring if those signals could be trace to them in their desperate effort to warn their friends of the coming danger. However, it was painfully evident that none of those frantic messages had reached their destination.
Ezra's attention was not however on the number of ships involved in the battle or what those flares of light in the dark meant but rather what the Purgatory was doing at present. He watched in horror as the Nubian warship sailed through the swam of TIE fighters, shoving past the Nimbus as it sailed towards the Chimaera at top speed. He watched the Phoenix joining in the fight, moving in the opposite direction towards the Nimbus. At first, he could not understand what the two ships were doing. The Purgatory's trajectory was going to take her straight to the Chimaera.
Then he saw the Shadowstar pull away from orbit of Siraj where it had been assaulting the surface, no doubt decimating the rebel base with aerial bombardment. The former commander of the Cordoba based watched as the Shadowstar joined the battle, also entering the arena from a completely different angle until the formation placed the Purgatory right in the middle of all four ships.
"Oh hell!" Ezra fairly swore. "Patch me in through to the Purgatory!" He shouted at Inez. She had the correct codes to reach the warship, he did not.
"What? Why?" She stared at him, terrified by the intensity of his voice.
"Because she's cut off," Ezra turned to her. "Trapped."
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