From the cockpit of the Wingsong, Ezra Standish watched in horror as the Purgatory languished within the kill zone formed by Thrawn's attack fleet. The Nubian warship was being besieged on all sides by streaks of powerful energy, impacting against its hull. Life pods had started to eject from the main body of the vessel and these tiny capsules of life surged away from their doomed mothership into the dangerous field of battle with no ability to defend themselves. Ezra continued to study the readings from the beleaguered craft, watching its destruction shift from a possibility to inevitability. Unfortunately, the X-wings offering aerial support did not know that the battle was doomed. Their fierce protection was likely to get them killed if they continued to remain close to the Nubian warship when she exploded. A warship of that size would have a sufficient blast radius to take any small ship in proximity to a fiery death.
Why had not the order for withdrawal been given to those ships?
"They must pull away," Ezra responded as the Wingsong attempted to skim the edges of the battle to join the departing exodus of rebel ships that would be journeying to the rendezvous point. "The Purgatory is about to reach critical. The order to retreat must be given now."
"Mary must not be on board," Inez replied next to him. She knew Mary Travis long enough to know that the commander of the rebel base would never allow her pilots to be endangered necessarily. However, she had seen the evacuation of the Purgatory and supposed that it was possible that Mary was in no position to give the order for withdrawal. "I think she is in one of those life pods."
Ezra knew he had no authority to act but someone had to do something before these pilots were killed either by the shockwave when the Purgatory was destroyed or by being trapped in a kill zone with four Imperial destroyers. However, the order for withdrawal had to come now. The hope of defeating the enemy was dwindling, if there was every any at all. The most sensible thing for the rebels to do was to leave while they could. There was no shame from leaving a battle they could not win and foolishness in staying to fight it when death was inevitable. He thought quickly of what was to be done and hoped he did not overstep his bounds by acting but the order had to be given or the consequences would be devastating indeed.
"Inez, can you patch me into the X-wing communications channel?" Ezra asked.
Inez and Claire stared at him in surprise before Inez hurried to comply with his request. They had attempted to warn the Purgatory earlier but the ship had been too busy fighting of the Chimaera and its companions to respond. Meanwhile Claire was following an earlier instruction by Ezra to monitor the ships leaving the system in order for them to join the departing convoy. The situation overall, did not appear good. The bombardment of the rebel base by the Shadowstar had almost destroyed the landing bay and most of the ships that managed to escape were now under heavy fire from the TIE fighters' left to secure the planet.
"I've got a line patched through!" Inez announced and gestured Ezra to begin speaking.
Ezra nodded anxiously, meeting her gaze and drawings strength from her encouraging smile before he spoke into the com unit. "Attention all rebels ships, break off from the Purgatory. She is about to reach critical mass. Repeat, attention all rebels ships, break off now. You are in a kill zone."
There were burst of responding static as the fighters in the air tried to discern who it was that had made the announcement. It was not Commander Travis and yet the advice given was sound and they wished to believe it, however, they did not know him and thus were unable to decide whether the order was legitimate or an enemy trick. Finally, a familiar voice filled the cockpit of the Wingsong to make that determination for himself.
"Ezra, is that you?" Buck Wilmington's voice demanded.
"Naturally," Ezra responded in his cool, deliberate tones belying the urgency of the moment. "Do you think you can convince your compatriots that I am not some Imperial spy and carry out my request? If you remain where you are you will be destroyed, if not by the Purgatory's blast radius or by those Imperial guns. You need to withdraw and offer aerial support to what few ships have managed to escape the destruction of your base. Also, a number of life pods have ejected from the Purgatory, it would be a good idea if we intercepted them before Imperial TIE fighters lock on a tractor beam and take them captive. Mary Travis may be on one of these."
"Right," Buck agreed. "What are you doing here anyway?"
"It appears that my tenure as military commander of the Cordoba base is over," Ezra released a long sigh. "Grand Admiral Thrawn has given me little option to do anything else. I think that was his intention all along."
"Thrawn?" Buck exclaimed. "Its Thrawn that's leading this attack?"
"Yes," Ezra exchanged glances with Inez and Claire. "Did you not know?"
"No," the pilot responded. "If we had...."
"It would most likely change nothing," Ezra cut him off abruptly. "Buck, issue the order to the rest of your fleet. Get yourself and the others out of the line of fire while you still can. We cannot win this one but we will lessen their victory if we deny them prisoners. At the moment, your immediate priority is to ensure as many of your people leave the system as possible. The base on Siraj 3 has been heavily bombarded so the transport departure is slow, especially with TIE fighters picking them off one by one. You and your companions would be best served aiding those ships to leave."
There was a slight pause and Ezra imagined he could see the smirk on Buck's face at his attempt to offer guidance. Almost on cue, Buck's response indicated that Ezra was right to think that.
"You giving orders now Ezra?" Buck asked and Ezra knew he was wearing a smile inside the cockpit of his ship.
"No just friendly advice," Ezra frowned, wondering how he had found himself in this position. This was Mary's task to do not his and he felt uncomfortable issuing orders in her stead but the situation warranted it by its urgency.
There was another pause before Buck answered. "Thanks Ezra," The big man responded seriously. "We needed it."
"Buck," Inez broke in to the conversation, seeing both men were becoming uncomfortable by the emotional content of it. "Take care."
"Inez?" Buck exclaimed. "You here too?"
"I'm afraid I led them straight to me when I tried to send the base a warning," she confessed. Inwardly, Inez was glad to hear that Buck was still among the living. When the Windsong had arrived in the scene of the battle, she had thought the worst. There were so many casualties already and she had feared that he might be one of them. Even though her heart lay with Ezra now, Inez still cared deeply for Buck and supposed she always would. She did not wish to see him harmed.
"Thank you for keeping her safe Ezra," Buck said gratefully.
"It was my pleasure," Ezra offered Inez a smile and then returned his attention to the situation at hand. "Buck, we can talk later. Right now, you need to get your ships out of the way before it was too late."
"Yeah right," Buck agreed with that statement and then added, "Ezra, I'm sending you the rendezvous coordinates through a coded frequency. You've given us good lead to act, now its time for you to get out of here. I'll pass on these orders to the rest of the fleet. You need to be there at the rendezvous point when they get there. Until we find Mary, we're going to need all the command help we can get."
Ezra stiffened, having no wish to assume any sort of leadership role in place of Mary Travis but Buck was right; they needed him.
"I will endeavor to do what I can," Ezra answered. "In the meantime, you take care my friend."
"Yeah the same to you," Buck grinned. "And you keep our girl safe."
Ezra smiled slightly at the way he put that and nodded with his eyes fixed on Inez; "I had never intended anything else."
Chris continued towards the Purgatory even though the order had come through the com system a moment ago for all ships to withdraw. He could not do so until he knew whether or not Mary was alive or dead. It terrified him beyond belief that the link between them had been severed no doubt a side effect of the yslamiri that Grand Admiral Thrawn must have had on his ship. Not only were his powers depleted because of the creatures but in this maelstrom of chaos presently before him, he was also required to find Mary without it. With so many ships in the air and the destruction of the Purgatory reaching apogee, Chris knew his chances of finding her were remote unless he resorted to conventional means and with so much confusion taking place around him, that would be difficult to do.
Even as he continued towards the Purgatory, X wings were whizzing past him, putting as much distance between themselves and the doomed Nubian warship. TIE fighters were also starting to withdraw in the face of the relentless bombardment of energy from the surrounding destroyers. Enormous bolts of power from the main guns of the destroyers assaulted the Purgatory without mercy until Chris could see the hull becoming so hot from the burst of energy that tendrils of blue were spreading across the surface like spidery webs. From his approach, he could see armored plates buckling and then breaking free of its superstructure. The space around it was already littered with debris and now new flotsam was added to the mix with steel plating breaking free of the ship and hurtling into the darkness.
"Oh no!" Someone gasped over his com set and Chris could not tell who it was except to know that something terrible was about to happen.
As he moved his gaze upwards, Chris saw the body of the Purgatory beginning to crumble under the relentless assault. The destruction reached climax with a shattering explosion that, though could not be heard, was felt by every sensor and instrument on board the small fighter. The sky turned brilliant as the much beloved ship of the rebel fleet breathed her last, sending columns of fire and smoke in all directions in her final swan song. Chris' felt his heart break and was certain that emotion was felt by every rebel who bore witness as they watched the explosion tearing the Purgatory apart. Debris flew in all directions as the craft was consumed by a ball of fire with glittering embers taking their place among the canvas of stars for a brief moment. The tremendous conflagration lasted only a minute before the cold vacuum of space suffocated the Purgatory's last gasp of breath with its airless void.
There was silence over the air waves following the dissolving evidence of the Purgatory's destruction and it demoralizing effects rippled throughout the remaining rebel forces as surely as it had seeped into Chris' own psyche. For so many, fighting the rebel cause had been something good and noble but until today, no one had ever suspected the cost could be so great or the sacrifices as much as it had been. Chris' thoughts were mostly focussed on whether or not Mary was on board that ship. Without his Jedi senses, there was no way for him to know and not knowing was driving him to distraction. The possibility that she could be dead was so awful he could not even begin to imagine coping with it if it turned out to be true.
Suddenly, a shrill burst of static made him flinch and he almost tore the headset from his ears to escape the irritating sound when through the crackling, he heard a voice speaking.
"This is Commander Travis!" Mary Travis spoke frantically, unaware that it was he listening, only aware that she was in danger and in need of help. Chris quickly searched the source of the transmission even as she was trying to reach him and realized that she was transmitting from the last pod that had escaped the Purgatory before its destruction. This made sense since Mary would have been the last to leave her ship. She would have ensured everyone else had gone before departing herself. He was also the closest ship to the Purgatory prior to its destruction and was best able to receive her distress call.
"Mary!" Chris responded, wasting no time in allowing her to know that she had been heard.
"Oh Chris!" Mary exclaimed, undoubtedly relieved to hear his voice. "We need immediate pick up! Chano is badly hurt! He needs a med tech!"
"I'm homing in on your signal," Chris replied.
"Chris, the transmitter was damaged when we left the ship," Mary explained, her voice taut with anxiety. "I think this message may have come across on an open frequency."
Chris felt his stomach hollow at the thought as he studied the readings on his console which confirmed her suspicions. "Mary, cut transmission," Chris ordered sharply, aware that if he could hear her so could the Empire. "I've pin pointed your location and I'm coming to get you. Maintain radio silence until then."
There was no response to his demand that indicated that she had understood his message and was doing just as he asked by remaining silent. Chris hoped he could reach her before the Imperials were aware that she was in a life pod with no way to escape if they decided to retrieve her.
"Sir, we have her!" Pallaeon announced over the bridge of the Chimaera.
Thrawn sat up in his seat and aimed his crimson colored gaze at his adjutant. "Where is she?"
"As you suspected, she was in one of the last pods to depart the ship," Pallaeon explained even though he was certain it was a redundant gesture but nevertheless Thrawn liked the protocol that went with it. "We targeted emitted a low level energy charge which damaged their scrambler transmitter coils forcing them to use conventional bandwidths. We detected Commander Travis sending a distress call to an X wing on approach to the Purgatory at the time of its destruction. The X wing will be in interception range in 30 seconds."
"I want that ship," Thrawn said sharply. "Allow the X wing to pick up the life pod. I do not wish to risk damaging the Emperor's prize before we get our hands on her. Have four of our TIE fighters intercept the X wing once it has retrieved the pod. Express to our pilots that they are to drive the ship towards Siraj. The object is not its destruction but the damage of the ship's starboard engine. Without it, the rebel ship will not be able to make the jump into hyperspace. It will be forced to land o the surface to affect repairs or find some alternate means of leaving the system at which point we can move in at our leisure."
It did not take long for Chris' X wing to close in on Mary's life pod. The rebel fleet was following the trajectory of the departing transporters and the TIE fighters were in pursuit trying to prevent that from happening. The four destroyers were also moving into flanking positions before taking up the chase to finish off the remaining rebel forces now that the Purgatory was destroyed. Chris knew that he would have to retrieve the life pod and slip past those four ships and it would be no easy task since an Imperial victory would prove all the more glorious if they were to capture Mary Travis as well.
Upon reaching the life pod, Chris activated the tractor beam in order to capture the craft and led it safely to the planet. There was a narrow margin of time in which to accomplish this since the rebel ships were leaving the system in large numbers and his X wing was incapable of carrying any more than one passenger. Even if he did strand one of the life pod's passengers on the planet, there was no guarantee that Chano could survive the trip to the rendezvous point if he was badly injured. Mary's voice had been frantic when she had communicated with him and Chris could imagine that Chano was in a bad way for Mary to be so concerned.
Upon connecting with the life pod, the X wing shuddered a little as the tractor beam secured its hold on the smaller craft. Chris wanted badly to inquire after Mary, to see if she was alright before he took them away from this battlefield but the danger in breaking radio silence was great and he dared not endanger her that way. The sooner he pulled away from the Chimaera, the more distance he would put between himself and the yslamiri, which nullified his powers. Chris hated how disorientating it felt to be without the Force flowing through him but he could not afford to allow himself to become to disabled because Mary needed for him to be in control of his faculties. Once he was certain that the life pod was secure, Chris powered up his engines and a burst of acceleration sent him surging towards the planet once more.
However, no sooner than he had secured the life pod and put some distance between the ship and the place where he had made the retrieval, he noticed the presence of four TIE fighters moving towards him on attack vector. There was no doubt of their intentions as they opened fire with blasts of energy detonated around his ship. Chris poured more speed into his engines, increasing his acceleration until he was able to put a margin of safety between the X wing and the enemies. Hardly an easy feat when he was still locked onto the small life pod and the acceleration could endanger both ships, particularly when they attempted to enter the atmosphere of Siraj. Unfortunately, he had little choice in the matter because it appeared as if the enemy ships were not about to let them escape for any reason.
In an effort to shake off his pursuers, Chris performed a series of evasive maneuvers. However his maneuverability was limited with the life pod still held in a tractor beam and the controls felt heavy and unresponsive in his hands. Swerving and banking hard to the point when Chris feared that the life pod might detach itself from the grip of the tractor beam, he narrowly avoided the energy discharge from the four TIE fighters that were determined to keep them from making the jump to light speed. It was a futile gesture anyway; Chris could not possibly accomplish such a thing without landing on Siraj first. The life pod was not equipped to travel in hyperspace over long distances. The more distance they put between themselves and the Chimaera, the more he felt the return of his powers. However, the infusion of the Force came to late and as the planet Siraj started to loom larger in the distance, Chris' ability to evade the enemy came to an abrupt end.
The blast was loud enough to jolt him forward in the seat. If he had not been fastened within his seat with a safety belt his helmet would have slammed into the cockpit controls doing untold damage. Before him, the sensors started flashing the crimson colors of danger. One half of the craft dipped dangerously to one side and without even confirming it on the console before him, Chris knew that one of his engines were gone. Fuel and life support energy was bleeding out of the wounded X wing as she plunged into the atmosphere of Siraj. Tractor beam control was being maintained at the barest minimum and as the X wing broke the surface of the planet, Chris noted his attackers breaking off their pursuit, refusing to follow them any further.
Not that it mattered much anyway. The X wing surged through the skies of Siraj like a projectile and Chris had extreme difficulty controlling its descent. He was unable to plot a course to the rebel base because the destruction to the engine made it impossible for him to attain that level of control. The safety of the life pod became a burden the small fighter was struggling to maintain. With the return of his Jedi abilities, he could sense the terror inside Mary's mind as she was forced to remain inside the pod, helpless and completely dependent on him to see her safely through the landing. He wanted to reassure her that everything would be all right but he could not take his mind off what he was doing to offer her that comfort.
With massive systems failure throughout the ship, the X wing burst into flames as it dove through the atmosphere, encompassing the life pod as he penetrated the planetary ozone layer. Once past it, the flames died down and Chris was able to gauge where their landing site would be. They were hundreds if not thousands of miles away from the rebel base possibly on the other side of the planet itself. With a damaged ship, that was a long way to be from the others. Unfortunately as the ground rushed up to greet them, Chris realised they did not have much choice. The X wing had almost exhausted itself. A hundred feet from the ground, the tractor beam power finally cut out, releasing the life pod. The cylindrical shape disappeared into the trees, creating a large groove through the woods as it came to a gradual stop, crushing trees, bushes and anything else in it its path as it continued on its juggernaut pace.
The X wing's landing was not so smooth. Once it had relinquish hold of the life pod, the X wing began to spiral downward and Chris knew that when the ground swallowed up the ship, he could not be on board. Making sure he was secured to his seat, he removed the canopy overhead and heard the wind sweep it away in a loud swoosh. Overhead, he could see the sky spinning above his eyes as he activated the ejection system. The tremendous hydraulic forces beneath the pilot's seat released with a loud bang and suddenly, Chris was propelled in the air.
For a few seconds he was ascending through the sky and then the safety chute billowed free from the back of his seat and he was lowering at a more sensible speed. Looking over the terrain as he descended, Chris could see the destruction created by the unceremonious landing of the life pod. It left a clear trail for him to follow and he could feel Mary inside his mind. She was frightened and worried but she was alive. Chris let out a sigh of relief before he was alerted to the sound of an explosion in the distance. Snapping his head towards the direction it had come from, Chris saw the billowing clouds of black smoke that had followed in the wake of his X wing slamming into the jungle. He felt a pang of remorse for the ship that had served him nobly these past few months before realizing that he ought to be grateful to be alive, even if they were nowhere out of trouble at this point.
Because Thrawn was coming for them.
After discarding the safety chute, Chris followed the trail made by the life pod as it made its rough landing. Their landing site was almost a continent and ocean away from the rebel base and as Chris moved through the thick jungle, he could hear the gentle lapping of the surf in the distance. When they had been making their rough descent, he had sighted the powerful aquamarine colors of the sea, though at the time he had taken little notice. Siraj 3 was a pleasant enough world but other than its natural fauna there was no other sentient life on the planet. Its remote location and lack of occupation was part of the reason it had been selected as a base. As he followed the path of crushed leaves and trees snapped in half, he realised that he was sad to leave this world. It did not take him long to reach the life pod but when he did, he noted that it was still sealed. Its outer hull was dented and charred with gases exuding from the damaged engines. Chris hoped the damage was not as bad as it looked. The life pod was capable of limited flight and they needed to reach the base if they were ever to leave Siraj.
Upon sighting it, Chris broke into a run and was at the craft in a matter of minutes. He could feel Mary's fear and her life force within the damaged shell but worried at her reason for not emerging from the vessel. Was she hurt and unable to do so?
"Mary!" Chris called out as he reached the hatchway.
"Chris!" Mary responded almost immediately. "The hatch is jammed."
Chris stepped back and examined the hatchway and could well understand why that was. The hatch controls had been damaged in the crash landing and had fused in certain areas. Chris took a deep breath and concentrated hard, focussing his mind on the task ahead and confident that he could accomplish it now that the Force was with him again. The hatch started to shudder first with low vibrations as Chris strengthened his hold and then with a loud rip of metal, it tore free of the hull and landed in the grass some distance away.
Mary wasted no time in emerging and when she did, her first act was to wrap her arms around him and hold him tight in an embrace of relief and happiness that he was the one who had come to save her. Chris held her tightly in his grip, taking deep breaths of her hair and enjoying the sensation of her body against his, her heart pounding against him. Once again, he was revisited by the electrifying experience of kissing her earlier and lowered his mouth to capture her lips in a kiss of passion. Mary did not resist and for a few seconds, time and space seemed to dissolve and all there was that wonderful moment of being together. This time it was he who took the initiative and he explored the warm cavern of her mouth like a wondrous discovery. When they parted, she was breathless and he never thought she looked more beautiful then at that instant.
"Thank you for finding me," she whispered softly, his arms still holding her waist while hers were wrapped languidly around his neck.
"I promised you I was going to be with you," Chris smiled. "I never break my promises."
"I made such a terrible mistake," she blinked, trying to hide her tears. He was the one person to whom she could show how much the defeat at Thrawn's hands really effected her. When she was with him, there was no need to be Commander Travis, just Mary and Chris Larabee always knew what Mary felt and what she needed. "I let everyone down. I couldn't stop him."
"You had no idea who you were up against," Chris said raising her chin so that she would meet his eyes and understand that she was not to blame. "You did the best you could and I know that there is no one under your command who would believe any differently."
"He knew exactly how to catch me Chris," Mary answered bitterly as he wiped the tears from her eye with his finger. "He knew everything I would do in a battle and he used it against me. I've never been up against an opponent who could do that."
"He did exactly what you do Mary," Chris pointed. "Now you know that when dealing with him, you need to be especially careful."
"Yes," she nodded, having learnt that much out of this entire affair. "And in being careful, I can tell you with have to get moving right now. Somehow we have to reach the others because it's not the rebel base he was after Chris."
"What do you mean?" Chris looked at her and knew the answer before she could say it.
Mary swallowed and met his gaze fearfully before she answered softly, "its me. Thrawn wants me."
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