Anogen navigated the armored vehicle back to the compound. He, Sona, and Paxson had sat in relative silence for the first minute after they left Sara and Sila with the General and the other soldier. The darkness had begun to wane just enough to make out silhouettes of some passing trees. The lights from the control panel in the vehicle cast a dim glow over the passengers' profiles.
It was Anogen who broke the silence.
"So, any suggestions on how we manage whatever it is we will need to manage when we return?"
Sona shook her head, even though no one could see her from her seat in the back.
"He knows," Paxson said. "I know we've all been less than forthcoming with our abilities, but I can't be the only one who sensed that when we were back there."
Anogen nodded. "Yes, I think we can be certain Nash is aware his daughter and Mrs. Kyrell are out of his grasp… for the moment."
Paxson turned to face Anogen and his unhappiness with Anogen's suggestion was evident.
"It does you no good to get angry, Paxson. It is simply a fact. Right now, Nash is mobilizing and dispatching our considerable resources to find and intercept their vessel. They have a very slim chance of making it out of our atmosphere into space. I give them about a 20% chance of making it based on the situation as it was when we left them. However, should Sila remain awake and communication between her and Nash occur…" Anogen's voice trailed off.
Sona was struck by Anogen's tone. He almost sounded regretful at that thought, as if he wished they could do more.
"Maybe I should have stayed with them," Sona said softly.
Paxson turned to face her. "Maybe we both should have." They locked eyes for a moment, then both shook their heads slowly in resignation.
"I see where both of you are coming from," Anogen stated. "But you are wrong. Whether they make it away or not, neither of you could make a difference by going with them. Not after the child awoke in the annex." He took a moment to glance back at Sona, then Paxson.
"Are you speculating, or can you see this?" Sona asked.
Anogen chuckled. "Are you asking if I am gifted with foresight?" he asked. Before Sona could reply, he said, "No. Not in the least. At least, not in the way I think you mean. I think we all have a certain sense of things to come in certain circumstances – when things are less complex and we have a finite number of outcomes."
"I'm not sure I follow," said Paxson.
"Consider us, right now, heading back to the compound. When we get to the gate, will they allow us to enter? This is a simple question with only two options: yes or no. If I want to employ the Force to predict an outcome, I don't allow myself to factor in all of the things that might happen before or after. I don't think of the number of troops or the likelihood that Nash is micromanaging all movement on and around the compound. Anyone can deduce that they are searching vehicles and the entire compound is on lockdown. Instead, I leave all of my cognitive and reasoning skills out of it, quiet my mind, and focus on the one question at hand with the only two options for an answer: Will we be allowed to pass through the gate when we arrive? Yes or no?"
"Isn't that foresight?" Paxson asked.
"I believe Vader would have scoffed at my claiming I have foresight were I to have done so. I think, given the right instruction, most force sensitives will discover they are atypically accurate when presented with questions like I described."
"Well," Sona asked. "Will we be allowed to pass through the gate?"
Anogen smiled. "If I had time to quiet my mind and consider it, I might have an answer for you. As it stands, we have a great many things to consider in the few minutes remaining on our trip back. I'd suggest we prepare ourselves for problems upon arrival."
Things grew quiet for a moment. "We don't need to go to the gate," Paxson stated.
"What?" Sona asked. Anogen simply glanced his way.
"There's another way on and off the grounds just East of the main hangar. I've used it more than once. You have to scale typically unscalable structures and survive a jump from a pretty high-"
"How high?" Sona interjected, one side of her mouth slowly rising into what might be construed as a smile.
"Eight, maybe ten meters," Paxson answered.
There was another brief pause, then Anogen spoke up. "Tell me the way."
Remy had spent the previous twenty minutes in the deepest, most inaccessible annex of the Mirage. Before ascending to the heavily guarded and rarely visited space, he had exhausted every option of reaching Nash without success.
With two crew members relieved of their stations and waiting nervously to the side, Remy completed a series of communications he hoped would be received. Remy turned to face the male and female officers and smiled.
"You don't get much company down here, do you?" he quipped.
Immediately, both people smiled and laughed. "No sir, we sure don't," the young man said. The woman simply nodded her head. Though they were still visibly apprehensive, Remy was pleased to see they were beginning to relax.
"Yours is not an easy assignment. In my years of service, I've never been tasked with a job that separated me from the general population on my vessel. I doubt I'd fare quite as well as you have," Remy said, revealing a level of familiarity he knew they'd never experienced with a superior officer – let alone the Captain of their ship.
The two looked at one another and back at Remy, both with hesitant grins.
"It's not so bad, sir," the female offered. "We… I mean, the ones of us who choose this work, seem to like solitary things in our personal lives, too." She shrugged. The male nodded in agreement.
"Well, I'm sorry I haven't had more of an opportunity to interact with you since arriving on the Mirage. I'm also sorry that we are meeting at a time when things will be getting rather chaotic." Remy stood and gestured toward their stations. The two awe-struck crew returned to their seats and stared at their Captain in anticipation of whatever came next.
"I'll need you at your best in the coming hours. The Fleet will need you at your best," Remy said. "I'm glad I have the opportunity to thank you in advance for the vital role you will play in our mission. If I have been remiss in conveying my appreciation for your service in the past, I will endeavor to do better in the future."
Their wide eyes, large smiles, and enthusiastic nods conveyed that Remy had struck the desired chord. Remy nodded as the two stood and saluted him on his way out of the small space.
Now he had to hope his next actions would keep the two dedicated intelligence specialists so busy they wouldn't have time to satisfy the curiosity they have about their Captain's visit to secret operations.
Remy navigated the dark corridor, passing through the two checkpoints, and made the lengthy trek back into the populated areas of the ship toward the Bridge. He found comfort in the nervous energy, endless considerations, mind numbing strategizing and complexities of his command. This was where he knew he belonged, and where he could shut out anything and everything that did not pertain to his objective.
As he approached the entrance to the Bridge, he slid his hand into his pocket and brushed his fingertips lightly across the surface of the pendant. For the briefest of moments, he allowed a gentle wave of sadness to spread throughout his chest, then he released the object and removed his hand. He took a deep breath and the wave receded.
When Remy entered the Bridge, he was ready for the fight that he knew - with absolute certainty - was headed his way.
The lift doors opened revealing Sona, Anogen, and Paxson inside. Sona was having what looked to be a casual conversation with Anogen, while Paxson leaned casually against the back wall, his arms folded across his chest and legs crossed.
Sona stopped talking and looked out at the scene. "Uh – are we interrupting?"
Anogen turned and took a step forward, looking out and around, pausing only when coming to Mara Jade. He offered her a crooked smile, then looked at Nash. "New friends?" he asked.
Paxson stood and walked forward to see for himself. His face didn't register any reaction. He just stood behind Sona and Anogen, arms still crossed, and waited for whatever came next.
Nash broke away from the Troopers and marched up to the lift.
"Where have you been?!" he demanded, looking from Sona, to Anogen, and finally settling on Paxson. "I tried to reach you and none of you answered. A vehicle left the compound over an hour ago. Were you in it?"
Paxson started to move forward and Sona turned and held up her hand. She then turned back to Nash.
"Nash," Sona said calmly, "what are you talking about? We just came from upstairs – I met these two outside of the lift and we came straight here."
"A vehicle left the premises?" Anogen asked. "Vehicles leave the premises all day and night. I'm certain a dozen have left and returned in the last hour alone. It's very busy out there," Anogen said, not bothering to mask his patronizing tone.
"My daughter and her mother are missing!" Nash exclaimed. He briefly shifted his glare to Anogen, then redirected his ire back at Paxson. "What did you do, Paxson? Where are they?"
Paxson dropped his arms and stepped forward between Anogen and Sona to stand face-to-face with Nash. "Well, at least you are finally admitting to everyone what you have done – what you are capable of doing!" Paxson shot back. "I don't know where they are. But if they somehow found a way to get back home, I won't pretend to be anything but glad to hear it."
Nash stood his ground for several seconds, then turned away and put his fingers to his temples while squeezing his eyes shut. It looked to those who could see him that he was on the verge of exploding.
"Nash," Sona said. "Are you certain they left in a vehicle? Are you sure they aren't here somewhere? It's a very, very big place."
Nash spun on her. "It was the middle of the night, Sona! Where do you think they might have gone? For a walk? Sila is a child for kriff's sake!"
Sona took a deep breath and stepped around Paxson. She placed a hand gently on Nash's forearm. "Before this goes any further, you need to tell us what is happening here. Who is this?" Sona gestured toward the stranger with the red lightsaber, then nodded at the troopers, "and why are they ready to shoot her?"
Nash stared at Sona. She looked and sounded so sincere. Now that they were all standing there together – all five of the others with him – Nash's certainty began to crumble. Was it even possible that any of them would do something like this? As he looked from one apprentice to the next, his confusion deepened. Nash began to cycle through the questions he needed to ask to get the truth out of these traitors – if they were traitors. He simply didn't know what to think.
Paxson spoke up. "If they have left, they had help. This means there are people here – they could be New Republic forces. If that is the case, we need to call this off and deal with it before they arrive in force."
"He's right," Paxson said.
Nash began to pace in front of the group. The Troopers – lacking any redirection - remained focused on Mara.
Nash turned to face Eevou. "You said you knew who took them. Tell me."
Eevou didn't flinch. "There are forces here from the New Republic. They've been here for days. I don't know where their forces are located, but I know they came to get Sara and Sila."
Nash turned to Mara Jade. "And you! Did you come with them?"
Mara stared at Nash and said nothing. He turned back to Eevou.
"Why didn't you tell me?" Nash demanded.
Eevou didn't bother to hide her contempt for Nash. "You have no one to blame but yourself for everything falling apart. You force all of us to sacrifice everything while you aren't willing to sacrifice anything. You are the one who jeopardized all of us by bringing the mother and child here. Had you not done this the New Republic wouldn't be here!"
Nash was stunned – stunned that Eevou was saying these things, stunned that things were falling apart around him, and stunned that he felt nothing - not even the slightest tingle. Awareness fell upon him like a collapsing building. Eevou obviously meant every word she said. If he continued down this path, he'd probably lose all of the apprentices. Nash's head began to swim as he tried to consider all of the variables.
Once again, Anogen broke the silence. "I think we all should contemplate why we are here and what we have to lose."
The words so closely emulated Nash's thoughts that Nash immediately grew suspicious, but they also spoke to his true concerns, so he allowed Anogen to continue without interruption.
"We all have sacrificed to get here – too much to allow these distractions to derail our efforts at the very moment we've been working toward. I, for one, refuse to accept that I lost Flynn only to have it be for nothing! Whatever this… this… chaos is," he gestured to the troopers, Mara and then toward the sky, "I will be damned if I'm going to allow it to distract me from our purpose. Nothing else matters," he declared. "Right here, right now, the six of us have a mission to complete. We will never – never – have this opportunity again. There are no second chances. Whatever we might be feeling about the living people who are not in this place with us must be set aside."
Anogen fixed his eyes on Nash. Nash could not hold his gaze, and Anogen knew his carefully chosen words struck their target.
Mara observed Nash's reaction as well, and then the others as they silently deliberated. After Nash, she watched Sona, Korus and Eevou come to the same place of resignation. It wasn't easy to surprise Mara, but she was a little perplexed when the big, surly one – Paxson – appeared to concede.
Nash walked over to Mara and extended his arm, holding out his open palm to her. "Please make this easy for all of us."
Mara looked toward the lift. If needed, this had been her planned route of escape prior to arrival of the three additional apprentices. Now there were too many bodies between her and the lift.
She sighed, then deactivated her lightsaber and attached the hilt to her hip. She reached back to unfasten the pouch holding the artifact from her belt.
With a rapid motion, she swung her hand back, palm forward, and thrust it toward Nash in the empty air between them. Nash flew up and backwards, his feet several meters off the ground, flying straight into the middle of the troopers.
By the time he landed, Mara was already at least 5 meters away and closing on the entry to the stairwell. She was successful in causing the troopers to momentarily divert their blasters and lose focus.
And then she felt the unmistakable, burning jolt that told her someone had more discipline than she had hoped. She wouldn't know who stunned her until she came to, but in that millisecond between painful consciousness and darkness she vowed they'd be sorry.