The battle was over with the rebels departing the system in droves, their numbers severely depleted, the space around the planet where their base was situated, littered with corpses and debris of comrades who had fought and died in the devastating Imperial assault. Less than half the transports had managed to escape the base before the aerial bombardment from the Shadowstar had leveled the landing bay, trapping many ships and killing more pilots. Those who could be saved from the wreckage were loaded onto the ships that had escaped, broken bodies that had been found after shifting through the mangled mess of metal and alloys. Others had been removed from the collapsed sections of the base itself but too many were left because they were unreachable by the rescuers.
Vin Tanner had deep reservations about leaving the system at least until after he knew for certain that Chris Larabee was one of the survivors but had little choice when his craft was filled with wounded who needed to reach a medical ship once they were safely aware. His senses told him that Chris was not in danger, at least none that his abilities could detect. The new that the Purgatory had been destroyed reached Vin as he had departed Siraj, preparing to make the jump into hyperspace. He had been ferrying a number of rebel personnel who had been unable to find any other transport when the base had been attacked with the failure of the shield generator. A swell of shock had moved through the Tracker and he felt inside his own heart as surely as he sensed if from those around him.
For so long, the Purgatory had been allied with all their victories against the Empire. Mary Travis' ship was almost as loved as she was and with her fate still unknown, the idea that they might lose her as well as the Nubian warship, was something that frightened everyone on board, including Vin. It was at that instant that Vin had known that wherever Mary was, Chris was not far behind. If the Jedi was not here then he was out there somewhere searching for the woman he loved. Vin also understood that just as Chris had been powerless to keep him from going after Charlotte so was he in helping the Jedi in this endeavor. Right now, he had to think of the people on the Tracker with him. They were wounded and they needed to escape the war zone.
Despite wishing otherwise, Vin knew that Chris would want him to deliver the rebels to safety before Vin made any attempt to seek him out. Sometimes sacrifices needed to be made for the cause, Chris had often said, even if the sacrifice was one of their own. Vin hoped Chris would remember that while he was aiding in the reconstruction of the devastated rebel fleet of the Territory. Vin could not even begin to imagine how many were left behind for the lack of transport or the equipment to reach those who were buried in the rubble following the destruction of the base. Vin had remembered what it was like when he helped Josiah and Casey remove the injured from the destroyed rebel operations center, loading them into the Rogue because it was one of the few large ships that had been left unscathed during the bombardment.
Louisa Perkins had been one of these and though she lived, she had been gravely injured. Vin took some comfort in the fact that Alexandra Styles was far away from here when the Empire had rained destruction upon them. Josiah had been relieved that Casey was unhurt but Vin could see that he felt ashamed for his selfishness when so many others had lost their lives around him. Although the young woman did not ask, Casey's thoughts had been filled with JD. Fortunately, Vin would be able to give her some good news when they met at the rendezvous point having met up with the young pilot when he had departed Siraj. JD had provided escort to the Tracker since it had become a hospital ship of sort with Vin ferrying the wounded. JD had asked about Buck but Vin had no idea how the hotshot star pilot was doing. As far as Vin knew, Buck had been apart of the aerial support defending the Purgatory against the
The rendezvous point was in a remote part of the Elrood Sector, a corner of space devoid of habitable planets or system. It was mostly a void filled with gaseous anomalies and relatively uninteresting stars at random intervals. Far away from the main space lanes, there was not a trace of civilisation to be found within 10 parsecs of the sector, which assured anyone selecting the venue as a meeting place, complete privacy. The effect of their defeat at Siraj was evident when Vin approached the gathering of rebel ships following the Tracker's emergence from hyperspace. Only a number of large cruisers had managed to escape Siraj and no more than two dozen or more transports had actually left the base to join the exodus. X wings were starting to make their appearances, a large number were damaged and limping towards the transport ships, all carrying the scars of the battle from which they had been forced to flee.
"By the Force," Nathan whispered as he saw the flotilla of ships, different in their models and origin but all carrying the same mark of defeat as if it had been branded into each of their hulls. Nathan tried not to be shaken by what he was seeing but it was not possible to do so when confronted by just how many of their number had been lost.
"I wonder what the casualty rate is," Vin asked softly, just as mesmerized as he flew towards the medical cruiser, Angel of Mercy. After a moment of silence, he decided he did not need to know. He glanced at Nathan briefly as he brought the Tracker towards the cruiser which was now one of the few that remained following the battle they had just left behind. If there were any command officers left after the fighting, they would be gather on board the ship to take a full account of their situation. Unfortunately, Vin did not think that any amount of consolidation would help if they had lost Mary with the Purgatory. Even now, Vin could sense the futility in Nathan. The captain was the most focussed person he knew in terms of his beliefs in the cause.
If Nathan started to doubt then they all had good reason to worry.
"Too many," Nathan answered tautly. "I can't do this Vin," he turned and stared at the apprentice. "I can't lead them."
"Of course you can," Vin retorted automatically. "Come on Nathan, you hold things together. We need you, especially now."
"I hold things together but I can't make it work without Mary," Nathan confessed. "I'm not cut out for that. I don't have what it takes, I never did."
"Nathan," Vin sucked in his breath, wishing he knew what to say to the man and decided to trust the words that came from the heart to do what was necessary because they simply did not have the time for this. "Maybe you don't have what it takes to be lead but no is asking you too. You just need to hold it together long enough for us to figure out what we're going to do. You got that, we." Vin placed a hand on Nathan's shoulder. "We're all in this together and we'll get through this the same way."
Nathan nodded slowly and offered the apprentice a little smile. "You're a good friend and you're right, I'll do what I always do, I'll keep this mess in one piece until Mary gets back. I work better as the rudder not the steer."
"Rudders are still important though," Vin pointed out, as the landing bay of the Angel of Mercy grew larger in the cockpit window. "Besides, try and interchange the two and then see some trouble brewing."
"Sure," Nathan retorted. "Try and make me feel better."
Ezra Standish had boarded the Angel of Mercy a short time after arriving at the rendezvous coordinates provided by Buck Wilmington. As he left his ship, he felt conspicuous in his Imperial uniform and could not help feeling as if he should have removed it before disembarking his ship. Eyes followed him all of the way from the landing bay as he strode towards the innards of the ship. Upon notifying the bridge of whom he was, Ezra was somewhat surprised to learn that the commander of the vessel, a willowy Jungan female name Gia Dano was rather pleased to see him. He was familiar to most of the rebel fleet who knew of the Imperial commander of Cordoba who was one of them. Despite the fact that he wore an Imperial uniform when he arrived on the bridge with Inez and Claire, it was clear to him that those present were just as grateful of his presence. He recognized one or two of the officers on the bridge and realized that he had met them during the period where he was briefly in command of the Purgatory when he had been sent to rescue Buck Wilmington from the Maw while Mary was indisposed on Tatooine.
"Commander Standish," Dano spoke in that peculiar Jungan accent that made standard galactic very hard to understand when coming from their lips. "I must say that I am glad to see you."
"Why would that be?" Ezra asked genuinely surprised by the reception he was receiving from the woman and the rest of the bridge officers who seemed almost relieved by his arrival.
"I am a doctor in charge of a medical ship," Dano confessed readily not afraid to reveal that she was out of her depth. "I do not have much experience in military matters. Usually I am the chief medical officer of the Territory's rebel outpost and while I am able to guide my crew under those parameters, I am not entirely comfortable with being the only ranking officer left in this rag tag fleet."
"Oh my God!" Inez gasped, struck by the enormity of the claim and seeing in the Jungan's eyes that she was not exaggerating. "What do you mean?"
Eyes dropped across the bridge and the sorrow could be seen in all the faces present before Dano spoke again, her large circular eyes glistening with moisture and sadness. "We have lost the Purgatory and perhaps Commander Travis as well. Almost all our squadron commanders were killed in the battle of Siraj and many more were killed during the aerial bombardment of the base. Those who survived are presently being treated by medical droids within the walls of this ship and others like it. Our losses have been devastating."
"The Purgatory was destroyed?" Claire swallowed hard, knowing that was the ship on which her husband served. "Lieutenant Commander Chano? Did he escape?"
"We don't know," Dano answered truthfully and Inez immediately wrapped a comforting arm around the young woman's shoulders as it stated to sag from fears of the worst.
"Claire it is too soon for leaping to conclusions," Ezra said gently. "There was a great deal of confusion taking place when we passed through the system. The X wings were collecting as many life pods as they could when we departed Siraj. Chano could already be in the medical center here and we would not know it."
It was not much in the way of assurance but it was the best he could do under the circumstances and there was every chance that his assertions were true. Claire needed to believe Chano was still alive and he had no intention of seeing her any more afraid that she already was. Claire had risked much in joining his escape from Cordoba and he was not about to let her think that it was for nothing. Unfortunately, there was also every chance that he was dead just as it was likely that Mary might have perished on board the Purgatory as well. However, Ezra would not voice that possibility just yet. Those under Mary's command needed to believe she was safe and on her way to them.
"What about Captain Jackson?" Ezra asked, changing the subject so that Claire would not be given any more reason to fret but also because he was concerned regarding the well being of his best friend. Where had Nathan been throughout this? Once again, Ezra cursed himself for not being able to warn the Rebellion about Thrawn's fleet. Now it felt as if it was too late for anything.
"His ship is preparing to land," Dano answered much to his relief. "He is on board the Tracker, Vin Tanner's ship."
Ezra nodded with a swell of gratitude filling up his insides now that he knew Nathan as well as Vin was safe, but what of the others? "What about Chris Larabee, Josiah Sanchez, JD Dunne and Buck Wilmington?" He questioned, hoping that no tragedy had befallen his other close friends. The last Ezra had seen of Buck was when the pilot had transmitted the coordinates of the rendezvous point for the Wing Song to jump into hyperspace. He hoped Buck had the opportunity to do so as well. Ezra did not possess many friends in his life thus he cared deeply for the ones he did have.
"Captain Wilmington and Lieutenant Dunne has just entered the Elrood system," Dano responded, glad to be able to deliver that positive news to the humans before her. "Senator Sanchez is already on board but I have no news on the whereabouts of Chris Larabee. As far we aware, he is counted among the missing."
"I see," Ezra nodded in understanding. "What are your orders about remaining in this area?" He asked.
"Commander Travis told us we should remain in this system for another ten hours and then depart," Dano answered automatically.
"That may be unwise," Ezra remarked, glancing at the three women consecutively. "Grand Admiral Thrawn has been well prepared for this assault. There is reason to believe he may have had contingency plans in the likely attempt the rebel fleet was force to run. Elrood is close enough the Siraj system to be suspect as a place you might choose as a rendezvous point. Undoubtedly, the Grand Admiral would assume that you would select a venue that is as isolated as this and may have scouts ships watching all possible areas matching the same description. "
"We cannot leave," Dano declared anxiously. "The are still many of our forces unaccounted for. If we leave they will be stranded here. Most of these are fighters were unable to refuel when the Purgatory was destroyed."
"I appreciate that," Ezra countered. "I suggest two or three fuel carriers remain so that the rest of the fleet can leave immediately."
"Ezra!" Nathan Jackson called out as he and Vin appeared at the end of the corridor.
The lean black man wore a wide grin on his face, not merely of happiness at seeing his old friend but something deeper Ezra noticed. Both men met in a warm embrace, glad to see that that each was safe despite the calamity of Thrawns attack upon them. Without even hearing Nathan speak, Ezra knew that his friend had suffered a difficult time even if he appeared unscathed physically. Once he had pulled away from Nathan, he offered a more subdued greeting towards Vin Tanner and introduced Claire Moseley to them. While they were familiar with her husband Chano, most did not know Claire other than the fact that she was also a spy on the Cordoba base. Once the introductions were made, Captain Dano agreed to show Claire where the survivors of the Purgatory were emerging from the life pods, with Inez accompanying her for morale support.
"I am sorry I was unable to contact you in time for Thrawns attack. He appeared at the Cordoba base with obvious designs in provoking me into making the attempt to do so. He did not say as much but I am certain he was suspicious of my loyalties," Ezra explained.
"Thrawn," Nathan mused. "No wonder we were hit so hard. Hes destroyed the Purgatory and we still have no idea where Mary is."
"Or Chris for that matter," Vin added. "Look Nathan, I have to go back to Siraj now that the wounded are off my ship."
"What?" Nathan exclaimed, staring at him in horror. "Vin thats crazy! Its crawling with Imperial ships!"
Ezra could see Nathan was becoming panicked. He recognized the expression all too well after years of friendship. Nathan was a good command officer but he would always be best utilized taking care of the details that commanders often took for granted. As an executive officer there was none better preferred to work in the background. Ezra could tell that he was fighting to keep the present crisis from overwhelming him and knew he had to help his friend out of this situation. Nevertheless, Ezra still felt unhappy about being forced into such a position because he was not one who was accustomed to being in charge when it came to people who meant something to him. Inwardly, he had always known his time as commander of the Cordoba base was a limited tenure mostly because he was a member of the Rebel Alliance in everything but name.
However, to take charge here meant assuming responsibility for people he considered to be his friends and in Nathans case, family. It frightened him to place the burden upon himself because he did not wish to fail them and if there was one thing he had managed to do quite spectacularly all his life, it was to prove that he was incapable of doing anything right for very long. Unfortunately, it did not appear as if he had a choice at this time. With Mary being gone, he could tell that Nathan was looking to him to fill the void left by her notable presence and as much as he wanted to turn away from role, he could not for one simple reason - they needed him.
They needed him and he did not have the heart to abandon Nathan to this alone.
"Nathan, it is necessary that Vin go," Ezra spoke after a long pause, coming to the decision that if they required him to make the hard decisions for them, he would for the time being and only until such time that Mary was returned to them. "He alone can find Chris Larabee."
"Which means what?" Nathan demanded. He had no wish to leave Chris to languish in danger but he had to be realistic with so many dead already. How could they be certain that Chris was still alive? "I dont want you risking yourself when there could be every chance that hes beyond finding."
"Hes not dead," Vin returned firmly. "If he was, I would know it."
"Im sorry Vin," Nathan apologized almost immediately, realizing how he sounded. Of course Vin would know if Chris were alive or dead. The connection between Master and Apprentice was strong and they were capable of sensing each other over great distances even if that thread was sometimes vague. "You're right but its pretty risky Vin."
"I know," Vin nodded, able to sense how anxious Nathan was about doing the right thing for everyone concerned. "But I have to go."
"Nathan," Ezra stared at his friend, wishing to remind Nathan that aside from the obvious, there was another reason to encourage Vin's return to Siraj. Like every other member of the seven, Ezra was aware of how close the relationship between Chris and Mary was. As he was attuned to Vin, Chris was also the same way with Mary but on a far more personal level. If she was alive, then there was every reason that Chris would know how to find her. "Vin has to find Chris because only Chris can find Mary if she's alive."
With as much vehemence that Vin had made the declaration that Chris was alive, Nathan returned with just as much confidence regarding Mary's present state. "She's alive. I refuse to believe she's anything else."
"Well then we know what has to be done," Ezra met Vin's gaze with a nod that he was good to depart. "However, I do not believe you should be going alone. As invincible as you Jedi may believe yourselves to be, there is still a sizeable contingent of Imperial troops in Siraj who beg to differ with that view. You should take someone with you."
Vin tended to agree even though he wished he did not have to risk anyone else in this endeavor. "I'll ask JD, I heard from flight control that he was on an approach vector when we landed in the docking bay. The kid is mean as catfish when he's behind a fighter, I think he'll handle himself all right."
Although the rest of the seven tended to see JD as that young kid who had stumbled into the Rebellion almost by a freak set of circumstances, Vin remembered JD as the young man who had defied the Avenger in the skies above Ithor. After Vin's ill-fated attempt to save Charlotte Richmond and the battle that had almost seen his death at the hands of Darth Vader, JD had valiantly managed to elude Vader's super star destroyer as well as saving his life. Following that debacle, Vin had developed a great sense of respect for the young man and had no qualms about having JD accompany him into any dangerous situation.
"JD has earned quite the reputation as a gunner," Ezra nodded in approval. "You will need that advantage."
"What about you?" Vin glanced at Nathan wondering what the rebel fleet would do now.
Nathan met his gaze uncertainly, not sure of what was to be done. He was still in shock as the rest of the rebel fleet who had not anticipated their defeat costing as much as it had. "I'm open to suggestions," he raised his eyes and met Ezra's hoping his old friend would have answers he did not.
"Ezra?" Nathan stared at him almost pleading with him to take this weight from him and Ezra knew he could not deny that request.
The commander sucked in his breath because he was at a crossroads and he knew it. There was no going back to the life before, not after what had happened on Cordoba. By being here, he had well and truly rolled the dice on his future and that future lay with the Rebellion, no matter how dangerous that path might be. Now that he had chosen, he had to make the best of it and serve where his talents were most needed and at this moment, he was needed to lead because after Mary, no one else in the tattered remains of this fleet could. He saw Vin staring at him and the apprentice seemed to understand what was going through his mind and a small smile pulled at the corner of Vin's lips as if telling him without words that Vin had every confidence in him. Surprisingly enough, that helped.
When Mary came back, Ezra would be happy to stand aside for her because this was and always would be her command. She had been the impetus that had brought the seven together and for that Ezra would always be grateful because she had given him a family in the circle of friends he never dreamed he could have and with that family, the love of a woman like Inez. Only he knew how precious was the gift the rebel commander had bestowed upon his life and he would show her his gratitude by keeping those under her command safe from harm until she was ready to return and assume its protection herself. Exhaling outward, he let all reservations escape him and plunged in headfirst because that was the only way to begin such things.
"First of all, we should leave the system," Ezra repeated what he had told Dano earlier, a new resolve in his voice as he spoke. It sounded alien coming from him but somehow he managed to hold himself steady. "Do not assume that the Grand Admiral has not considered the possible locations you may choose as a rendezvous point. If there is one thing Thrawn has shown every one of us, it is his ability to out think us. Elrood is known as a remote system and logic would dictate that it would be one of the systems he would keep under surveillance. If the Empire is not here yet, it soon will be. We do not have much time."
"But we have people still coming here.," Nathan started to say.
"Leave two or three fuel carriers here to ensure that any stragglers will be able to join us at the new rendezvous point," Ezra offered, finding the answers inside him in a place where he had barely scratched the surface during his time as military commander of Cordoba. "The rest of the fleet should be prepared to jump into hyperspace within the hour."
"That makes sense," Nathan answered, feeling better because he could coordinate a thing that was within his power. All he needed was the direction to focus his skills. "Where would we go?"
"We should stay clear of the Territory for awhile," Vin suggested. "They'll be combing every part of it now."
"I agree," Ezra nodded. "I say we head somewhere they would never think to look for us."
"That's easier said than done," Nathan retorted before he spotted the glimmer in Ezra's eyes and realized that his friend would not have made the suggestion if he had not already considered the question already. "You got an idea don't you?"
"Not much of an idea," Ezra confessed. "More of a gamble really but if it holds, it could be very useful to us."
"Where?" Nathan urged.
"Jofa!" Vin exclaimed, even his ability to sense what Ezra had in mind had not been able to prepare him for that. "Are you out of your mind? That's the place where Mary became famous for being the Hero of Jofa? It's dangerous and it's ....."
"No longer inhabited," Ezra pointed out. "The Empire wiped the Jofans out after the uprising Mr. Tanner. If there are any left, they would be more inclined to accommodate rebels who might be able to give them the way to strike back at the Empire."
"That's a big if." Nathan looked at him uncertainly. "We need a negotiator for that."
"I thought we had one, "Ezra responded smoothly, having considered that too. "We have a former Republic senator in our party that would be more then adequate to the task."
"Josiah," Vin guessed and then agreed it was a good choice. "Josiah could talk anybody into anything." The apprentice was now seeing what Chris had talked about so passionately when discussing Ezra and the role he could play in the Alliance once he chose to join them fully.
"As far as I know, the undersea cities were destroyed," Nathan remarked. "Even if there are any left do standing, it will take time to repair them."
"True," Ezra agreed but it was a redundant concern. When the inspiration for using Jofa as a rebel base had come to Ezra, he considered the logistical problems it would pose and had come up with a few solutions. "However, all the cities were connected to the surface by oceanic platforms that were a transfer point for off world cargo, passengers and such. These platforms are large, some were even the size of small cities. Even one would take care of our needs until we can restore more permanent facility beneath the waves."
"But if there are Jofans left, they're not going to be happy to know that Mary is our leader," Nathan pointed out. "I mean to the Empire she was the Hero of the Jofa because she led them against the natives during the uprising. To the Jofans, she'll be a criminal."
"Which is why the Empire will never think to look for any rebel command led by Mary Travis on Jofa," Ezra concluded. "They would think precisely what you are thinking right now."
"And you think Josiah is going to be able to convince them to let us land when they hear Mary is our commander?" He looked at Ezra skeptically.
"They have no choice Nathan," Ezra explained. "Jofans were not just native amphibians when the Empire destroyed their cities, they were also composed of an air breathing population that took care of all extra terrestrial interests. Almost all the Breathers, as the Jofans called them, were killed with the destruction of their pavilions and the Swimmers who were not annihilated by vengeful Imperial forces were left cut off from the rest of the galaxy. It was a symbiotic relationship forged from a thousand years of coexistence. With the Breathers, they were a space faring race and without them, the Swimmers if they still live are cut off and forgotten, with no way to avenge the dead half of their race. They need us as much as we need them. All we have to do is to ensure that Josiah is able to convince them of that."
"I hope you're right about this," Nathan sighed.
"He is," Vin smiled at Ezra, sensing the man's confidence and being able to take comfort in the fact that even though Mary was not here, it still appeared that the rebel cell of Territory was in good hands.
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