Added on May 01, 1999
Category: Science Fiction/Star Wars
Author: R. John Burke

Beware The Emperor's Hand...

STAR WARS: The FREEDOM Adventures Episode Seven

DESRIPTION: The prelude to another adventure has Mara and Sedra Covell visiting Treasure Ship row on Corellia, a big ol' space battle, and a guest appearance by Grand Admiral Thrawn.

NOTICE: LucasFim owns all things Star Wars. I don't own the situations presented here, so no profit has been made on this story. By now its probably apparent that I like Timothy Zahn's characters a lot, and no infringement is meant there either. Just writing for fun, guys. Don't sick the lawyers on me.

"Carrack cruiser, starboard bow!" announced Sedra Covell from her station at Weapons.

"Fire all turbolasers and ion cannon!" Captain Mykel Garreth gripped the sides of his command chair, knuckles white with tension. ANOTHER one? What was the Empire doing, building starships out of space dust?

Fortunately it was only a CARRACK-class light cruiser, and not another in the endless series of Star Destroyers. Still, his own NEBULON-class frigate was built to take on fighters, not capital warships.

Of course, thought Garreth, I was built for a life of reason and order. We Rebels take what we can get...

Something exploded below the command deck, and Garreth hoped fervently it wasn't their hyperdrive. The time to cut and run was fast approaching, and without a hyperdrive, they'd be left behind.

FREEDOM's Wookiee engineer, Gaaraanzi, had gone to the lower decks to be nearer the trouble spots. Now the processed tones of his translater echoed through the comm.

"Dishonored piece of ..." the translator buzzed out. Probably some untranslatable Wookiee obscenity. "The starboard shields have buckled!"

"Fifty degree down angle now!" Garreth said, "Get us out of here!"

At the helm, young Jev Parrak's face was streaked with sweat. "Captain, I'm trying, but she's real sluggish!"

Beside him, redheaded Marta Janzen leaned over to check his displays. The navigator was only a year or two older than the young man from Alderaan, but in terms of maturity and cool under fire, was a galaxy apart.

Just loudly enough to be heard over the battle, she said, "Lock in the auxiliary power."

"I'm tried that! Don't you think I've tried that?"

"Here, transfer some juice away from life support," Janzen continued, seemingly unconcerned.

"We'll suffocate!"

"We only need it for a minute. We'll sort it out later." Janzen said, then made the transfer herself.

Garreth shot an approving smile at his navigator, since he'd been about to give that very order himself. Though she was occasionally abrasive and cold-blooded, Janzen had real officer potential. She would go far.

If they survived the next ten minutes. Another hit made the FREEDOM shudder.

He glanced at his first officer. "Ideas?"

"No," said Kerri Lynden automatically, brown eyes fixed on the tactical display. Then they widened slightly. "Yes. Set course 1-1-9 mark 2-0-2."

Garreth nodded to the helm. "119 mark 202. Punch it."

FREEDOM's engines thrummed, and through the viewport Garreth could see them moving through the swirl of battle, starships and fighters and debris pressing in from all sides.

They shuddered, and Covell said, "That CARRACK is following!"

The captain cursed, eyes watching the Star Destroyer that hovered several klicks away, thoroughly smashing the bigger Rebel ships.

And that, he thought, sums up our stay in Corellian sector perfectly. The FREEDOM had been in this sector for three weeks now, trying to hold off the recent Imperial crackdowns on the Corellian resistance cells.

They had been, to slightly rephrase Rik Evverd's very blunt assessment of the situation, getting the snot kicked out of them.

Looking around him on his bridge, Garreth saw that fully half the stations had burnt-off plating, jury-rigged internals, or some other mark of extensive damage control.

Garreth sighed. I got this ship in mint condition just three months ago, and now look at it. Wish I'd kept the receipt...

Rik Evverd's voice crackled through the comm. "FREEDOM, this is Mav Leader. Lost Bando, lost Quaid... we're taking a real pounding out here. I hope the good-bye party is sometime soon."

"We'll let you know, Commander," Garreth said. He pointed at the spot on the viewport that marked their designated co-ordinates, noted that it was the site of a raging starfighter battle. To Kerri, he said, "Why there?"

She shrugged. "It's as good a place as any."

Garreth knew better than to argue. After all, Kerri Lynden was a Jedi Knight. She'd used the power of the clear alien crystal she wore around her neck to hide from Vader and the Emperor for years.

So Garreth was willing to do pretty much whatever she said. When the situation is this bad, he reflected, you don't spit in the Force's eye...

The bridge shook around them, and Marta Janzen cursed. "Doesn't Drayson know enough to run when he's beaten?"

"Admiral Drayson knows what he's doing," Garreth said, adding mentally, I hope...

"CARRACK's still following!" Covell said.

Evverd's voice rang out again, "We're on him, FREEDOM."

"Be careful, Mav Leader," Garreth said, "That thing will make short work of fighters."

Evverd snorted. "Oh, yeah, and we're doing so well as it is..."

The ten remaining X-Wing starfighters of Maverick Squadron streamed in towards the CARRACK in three waves. They were quicky strafed by turbolaser blasts, and one of their number exploded into yellow and red flames.

But the CARRACK had been delayed.

"Almost to co-ordinates," Jev announced. The FREEDOM shuddered.

Garreth winced. Come on, baby, he thought. Hold together.

A wing of TIE fighters broke off from their main group and soared in, green laser bursts raking the FREEDOM's forward hull. FREEDOM's answering red blasts took out one of the starfighters. The others regrouped for another pass.

"We're there!" Jev crowed.

At almost the same moment, Sedra Covell announced, "New contact! Right behind us!" she hesitated, "Force help us... the SIZE of it..."

"Aft view," Garreth said, and the viewport was changed to a holographic overlay of the aft sensor data...

The most enormous Star Destroyer Garreth had ever seen was right behind them. "What in the HELL...?"

The giant wedge-shape was painted black. It dwarfed the already massive white dagger-shapes of the Imperial Star Destroyers around it. On the viewport, the pursuing CARRAK slammed into it at full speed. The CARRACK exploded in a spectacular burst of white light. The new ship hardly seemed to feel it.

"That's a new class of Star Destroyer," Marta Janzen said, "Get a closeup on the hull."

Covell magnified the view, and Garreth read the Imperial script emblazoned on the hull:


"It's been some time since we've been this close to the Core, hasn't it, Admiral?"

The near-human in the sparkling white uniform nodded at the Imperial officer who had spoken. "It has indeed, Captain Niriz." He sighed. "A fine ship, this one. Most excellent."

"Too bad its designated as Lord Vader's flagship," the captain agreed. "Still, at least we get the trial run."

"Then let us make use of it. Is the flagship ready?"

The captain stiffened to military posture. "The EXECUTER is fully at your command, Admiral."

"Excellent. Then let us begin."

"Yes, I said CLOSER!" Garreth said, "If we move in close to the big one, the little ones will have to hold off!"

On the comm, Admiral Drayson snorted. "And that new ship will cut us to pieces."

The FREEDOM shook violently as the huge Imperial flagship cut loose with its turbolasers. "It's this on nothing, Admiral!"

Drayson considered, and sighed. "All ships, move in on that... that... super Star Destroyer!"

The FREEDOM's engines - what was left of them - hummed back to life, and Garreth wondered if he'd made his last mistake.

The blue-skinned admiral watched his tactical display with eerily glowing eyes. "How very interesting. Observe, Captain. They move in towards the EXECUTOR, giving our fleet the choice between ignoring them or firing on their own flagship."

"Yes, sir," Niriz agreed. "A bold strategy."

"Which could not have come from Drayson," the admiral said, "A man whose entire nature is caution. There is a another commander out there, somewhere, and he is very good indeed..."

"Look at that!" said Garreth, motioning towards the tactical display, where the EXECUTOR had been strangely hesitant to open fire with its full armament. "She's rolling! Rolling vertically, very slowly, hoping we won't notice."

Kerri nodded. "They're up to something."

Garreth nodded. "Look. They're turned their structure away from the battle. You could hide a lot behind a hull that size..."

Rik Evverd's voice crackled over the comm. "FREEDOM, this is Mav Leader. What's up over there? Every since that momma bird showed up, the babies aren't attacking."

"I'll tell you what's going on," said Garreth, "It's a trap!"

"Sir, look at that!" said Captain Niriz, "That NEBULON class frigate! She's trying to get up over our hull!"

"Open fire," said the admiral, "Warning shots."

Green turbolaser blasts arced out. They singed the frigate, but it kept coming.

On the tactical display, the giant wedge of the EXECUTER now cut the Rebel fleet off from the Imperial fleet. The fleet was gathering bahind the giant ship. At the appropriate time, they would storm in from both sides, from on top, and from below. Then the EXECUTOR would open up from the middle, and the Rebel fleet would be cut to pieces.

But the plan hinged on the Rebels ignoring the rest of the fleet to concentrate on the EXECUTOR. If they refused that option, then the plan would not work.

"Shall we destroy it?" Niriz asked.

The admiral narrowed his glowing eyes. "And admit we are hiding something? Hardly, Captain. I've a better idea. Highlight X-Wing squadron A-2, at fifteen degrees to port."

The appropriate image came up on tactical. "Yes," said the admiral, "That X-Wing squadron came from that frigate."

Niriz was about to ask how the admiral had come to that conclusion, but his superior continued, "Have all TIE fighters concentrate on that squadron."

"Aye, sir. All TIE fighters, turn to point-15. Engage the X-Wing squadron at that location."

They were almost over the rise of the Star Destroyer's superstructure when Rik Evverd's voice cut through the comm chatter again.

"Freedom, this is Mav Squadron! The baby birds are awake and hungry! We need some help down here!"

Kerri frowned at the tactical. "They're all converging on Rik's squadron. Why do you suppose...?"

"Because he's good," said Garreth, "He is very, very good. Turn us to 2-1-9 mark 0-1-5, and engage the TIE's. Then advise Admiral Drayson that I recommend a full retreat."

"About time!" Marta Janzen said from the Navigation pit.

"Who is 'he?'?" Kerri asked.

Garreth smiled thinly. "An old friend..."

"Mykel Garreth," the near-human admiral announced. "He is commanding that frigate. I have not seen him in some years, though I heard news of his defection."

"That's the traitor?" asked the Imperial captain, "Why is he commanding some unimportant frigate?"

"I don't know," said the admiral, "Either they do not trust him yet, or he has some hidden purpose for being here. In either case, he is now a priority target."

"Ah." Niriz said, his eyes narrowing cagily, "Some personal animosity between the two of you?"

"Not at all," the admiral said, lips narrowed to a frown, "In fact, there was I time when I considered him my best friend."

Those glowing eyes dimmed for a moment, but soon returned to full intensity. "I only regret that he never learned of my promotion to Grand Admiral. But it is far too late now."

The red eyes stared at the tactical holos for a moment. "Destroy him."

Turbolasers thudded into the FREEDOM with renewed vigor, and several jury-rigged terminals shorted out.

"Thrawn, you murderous Sithspawn, just let us go," hissed Garreth.

"'Thrawn?'" Kerri asked.

"Later. Marta, signal to Drayson: We are out of the fight."

"So's everybody else," Janzen said, "The retreat signal just came through."

"Then get us out of here!" Garreth said, casting one more glance at the giant black Star Destroyer behind them, "Before we lose hyperdrive!"

Something sparked, and Jev said, "Too late!"

"One minute," said Garreth. Leaving his command chair for the now-abandoned Engineering crewpit, Garreth found the hyperdrive console, aglow with red warning lights, and pounded it with his fist.

The lights flickered, then changed to green. Garreth nodded up at the command station.

"Punch it!" said Kerri, and the FREEDOM dissolved into hyperspace.

The last of the Rebel ships was gone, and Grand Admiral Thrawn stared out at the stars for a long moment without speaking.

"At least we halted their advance," said Captain Niriz hopefully, "And forced a withdrawal. That's something."

"It is not enough," Thrawn said, "The Emperor under-estimates these Rebels. It will be his undoing."

"If secondhand Imperial traitors like Garreth are their command material," the captain said, "Then it would hard to underestimate them."

Thrawn fixed his subordinate with a glare. "I don't think you understand, Captain. I engaged Garreth in almost a thousand tactical simulations during the time that I knew him. We honed our skills against each other."

Niriz frowned. "How often did he win?"

"Half the time," Thrawn said, "He fought me to a draw. He never got the upper hand, of course, but then, neither did I. He is every bit the commander I am."

The captain's eyes were wide, and Thrawn smiled at that awed expression. "I trust I need say no more?"

Niriz gulped audibly. "No, sir. I think that says it all..."

"His name was Thrawn. I never knew his race. We commanded ships in the same fleet for a time. I used to face him in tactical simulators, and he was frighteningly good." Garreth blew out a long breath, looked around the confines of his cramped and cluttered office. "We became friends. I was the only captain willing to associate with a non-human. Then he was assigned to the Unknown Regions, and I never saw nor heard of him again."

Kerri Lynden frowned. "Then how did you know it was him out there?"

"Because of that strategy. Using the largest ship to draw your enemy's fire while setting him up to be gutted by the smaller ships. It was Thrawn's favorite."

His first officer shrugged. "That doesn't mean anything. Any good commander could have thought of that."

Garreth looked up at her, smiled without humor. "You'll just have to trust me, I'm afraid. I know Thrawn. If he's back, then the Empire is serious about winning this war."

"So what do we do?"

Mykel Garreth massaged throbbing temples with his thumbs. "We may have to abandon this entire sector."

"I think that's premature," Kerri said, "The Corellian resistance is one of the founders of the Rebel Alliance. We can't abandon them."

"Between Thrawn and that great ship," Garreth said, "What choice do we have?"

"We need to petition the Corellian resistance for a stronger overt presence in this system," Kerri told him, "If Corellians won't stand up for their own system, who will? It's time they started helping with their own defense."

Garreth leaned forward, considering. "I don't know. General Bel Iblis is brilliant, but he's very much his own man. I'm not sure he'll wish to follow our strategy."

"Then someone will have to convince him," said Kerri Lynden, and smiled. "And who better to talk to one hard headed Corellian warrior than another one?"

"No way!" said Rik Evverd, "No way! I am not going to Corellia. No way, no how. No."

Garreth frowned. "Would you care to explain your reasoning?"

"Not really," said Evverd, "Except that I gotta get busy training replacements for the four pilots I lost."

"Avers can handle that," said Garreth, "What if I made this assignment an order?"

Evverd took a seat in front of his desk, as resolute as Garreth had seen him - and he had seen Evverd be STUBBORN.

The pilot said, "Then I'd disobey an order."

Garreth sighed. "When are you going to learn that the Rebel Alliance does not exist to fulfill your wishes? Someday, Commander, you will have to take an assignment that you don't like."

"Not today," said Evverd, and shook his head.

Knowing that it would be more trouble than it was worth to argue with Evverd - and doubting the other man's diplomatic skills anyway - Garreth hit a switch. "Get me Marta Janzen and Sedra Covell."

He stared at Evverd. "They will go in your place, Mister Evverd. If this mission goes wrong in some way, and they fall prey to a fate that should have been yours..."

"Then I'm a dead man," Evverd finished.

"Oh, I wouldn't say dead," Garreth told him, "Just very unhappy for the forseeable future."

Evverd nodded and stood to go. Garreth raised a hand to stop him. "And the next order I give you, Commander, you will follow. Or you will leave my ship. Clear?"

"Yes, sir," said Evverd, and left.

"I'm going to Corellia," said a red-haired lieutenant whose given name was Mara Jade, "Can you arrange to have Ferrier meet me there?"

"I can," said the cloaked figure on the stealh holosender, "It shall be as you desire, my Hand."

"All right," said Mara, "Once I meet with Ferrier, the operation should proceed quickly. I should be able to start turning the Jedi very shortly."

"Perhaps you should bring her directly to me," said the aged figure, "You are still quite inexperienced in this area."

Mara smiled. "I learned from the best. I can turn her. And if I fail in that, she will be brought to you."

"That is acceptable," said the other with a nod.

"Good," she said, then, "What's the deal with Thrawn?"

"He is simply testing our new design, in preparation for its delivery to Lord Vader."

"If you ask me," said the young Emperor's Hand, "Thrawn should keep it. Vader's not the tactician he is."

The eyes within the hood glowed yellow. "But he is still an alien. Besides, Lord Vader is in a position to show off our new technology. The EXECUTOR would not be nearly as effective in the Unknown Regions as it will be here, in the center of the galaxy, where all can tremble before its power."

Mara shrugged. "As you wish. But Thrawn is wasted in the Unknown Regions."

"Thrawn is following my will," the Emperor said, "As you do."

"I meant no disrespect."

The Emperor smiled. "I know that, Mara Jade. See that you never do..."

"Kerri. Kerri..."

Kerri Lynden woke from her sound sleep with a start, eyes snapping open. The figure before her bed glowed with blue energy.

Kerri stared. "Mother?"

Kaelin Joth, one of the greatest Jedi Knights of the Old Republic, stood before her daughter bathed in the light of the Force. She wore her Jedi robes, and she was every bit as beautiful as she'd been on the day she'd been killed by Lord Vader.

"Time is short, my daughter," she said, and indeed the blue form seemed to be flickering, as though hard pressed to maintain its cohesion. "I bring a message for you, of great importance."

"Message? What message?" Kerri hoped from the bed and stood up so fast that she became tangled in her sheets.

"You will face great danger, Kerri," said her mother, "And very soon now. Your strength in the Force will be tested, and you must take care not to fall to the Dark Side."

"I never would!" said Kerri, trying hard to free herself but unable to concentrate, "You know I never would!"

"Many have said that before facing the challenge, only to lose their resolve to great temptation." The image of her mother smiled. "But you are strong, Kerri. You will not fall, even if the cost is great..."

"What cost?" Kerri asked, frustrated, "Mother, you must tell me something besides hints and riddles!"

Her mother's image looked down. "It is not within my power. I cannot aid you in the coming test." She looked her daughter in the eyes. "I can only say that I love you, and the Force will be with you."

"I love you too, Mother," Kerri said. The image began to flicker. "No! Don't leave me!"

"I must," said the image as it faded, "Be strong, Kerri. Your friends have been a great help to you, and will be again, but you must face this journey alone. Whatever heppens, know that I am proud of you."

Finally free of her blankets, Kerri lunged forward in an attempt to touch the image. But it was already gone. It left behind only a message, one last warning that rang in Kerri's ears long aften it had departed.

"Beware the Emperor's Hand," the image had said...

"I don't know if Garm Bel Iblis will aid you or not," Mon Mothma told Garreth over the holo-emitter. "The man is curious. He helped to found the Rebel Alliance, but has been steadily withdrawing from it ever since."

"We need his help, Mon Mothma." The Alliance's leader had to be made to see that simple fact. The Corellian faction of the Alliance had been sitting on the sidelines, with the smuggler raid on Ylesia that Bria Tharen was planning its only true involvement in the action. Now, with their home system at stake, Bel Iblis and his people had to take an sctive role, and soon. It might be their only hope.

"Perhaps we need them," said Mon Mothma, "Perhaps not. Are you familiar with the plannet Eskaar?"

Garreth nodded. Eskaar was a rather powerful and influential world located in the Corellian sector, near Duros. They had so far been neutral in the conflict between Alliance and Empire, but there had lately been rumblings of their signing the Corellian treaty and joining the Alliance.

"They're prepared to lend their support?" Garreth guessed.

"Perhaps," said Mon Mothma, "The Imperial buildup so close to their home has given them pause. They have agreed to meet with a special envoy from the Rebel Alliance. I want you to be that envoy."

"Me?" said Garreth, surprised. "After the Black Sun debacle, I'm surprised you'd trust me with this sort of thing again."

Mon Mothma frowned. "Don't sell yourself short, Mykel. Your discovery of Black Sun's Imperial leanings will be useful in the future. And this is simple diplomacy. Much more your style."

Garreth shrugged. "I'll do my best. When do we leave?"

The Alliance leader said, "As soon as you've dropped your people off on Corellia," and cut off the comm.

Garreth leaned back in his chair. Between Bel Iblis and the Kaars, the Alliance should be getting some aid from somewhere. And not a moment too soon...

"Look at this," Sedra Covell said to her comrade as they arrived at Treasure Ship Row on the planet Corellia, "It's like a giant carnival."

"As long as you don't step into the shadows," Marta Janzen said, "In which case the Fringe scum will eat you alive."

Sedra Covell, a dark-skinned woman with intense eyes and tied-back hair, laughed as she paid the driver of their speeder taxi. "A little danger adds to the fun."

"What about nausea?" Marta asked, wrinkling her nose at the smell of spicy, greasy Corellian food.

"I like Corellian cooking," Covell told her, and they started down the boardwalk.

"No accounting for taste." Janzen paused, then jerked a thumb in one direction. "This way."

"I think the Spacer's Cove on the west side," said Covell, naming the cantina where they were to meet with Bel Iblis' agent.

"Sure it is," said Janzen, "And if we want to be real obvious and spend the day in an Imperial brig, we'll go right there. I want some time to make sure we don't have a tail."

Covell shrugged, eyes still on the glittering lights of the sideshow attractions. "I guess you have a point."

"Sure I do," said Janzen, "Stick with me. You'll live longer."

They walked in silence for a time, and Sedra Covell found herself checking out the sights. Everything you could want was for sale on Treasure Ship Row, with shops ranging from classy to fun to blatantly illegal. But order was not too far away. Sedra caught a glimpse of the occasional military type that just HAD to be CorSec, but neither of them took any particular interest in the two Rebels.

After a time, Marta Janzen held up a hand. "Stay here."

"Why?" Covell asked, seeing that they were in front of a fairly seedy Ithorian restaurant.

"I'm hungry," Janzen said, "I'm going to get something in here. You stay outside, see if you can spot anybody loitering around."

"Like me?" Covell asked.

"Cute," said Janzen, "If anybody asks, we have a very legitimate explanation - you prefer Corellian food, remember?"

Covell shrugged. "I hope you know what you're doing..."

The swarthy man in the corner booth stank from the cigarra he smoked, and Mara's nose dreaded the prospect of being in close quarters with him. But time was precious, and her task vital.

She was halfway to him when rough hands grabbed her by the arms. "Greetings."

Mara broke the grip with an old self-defense technique she'd learned from the Imperial Guard, and turned to see a scruffy fur-covered alien who seemed to blend in with the restaurant's subdued lighting. Almost like a shadow.

"You're Ferrier's muscle? Nice job. Not many people can sneak up on me."

The shadow inclined his head respectfully. "And not many can escape from me. You respresent the Empire?"

"That's right."

"Follow me," said the shadow, and led the way to the booth.

"About stinkin' time," Ferrier muttered after the shadow introduced her. "Stuck at this festerin' Ithorian place eatin' grass like some kinda caged nerf..."

"Stow it," Mara said, "The Empire has hired you, Ferrier, because you have a reputation for being able to get into places other thieves can't." She glanced at the shadow, who seemed able to blend into the dark corners of the room, "And now I see why."

"Yeah, the wraith comes in real handy," Ferrier said, beaming with pride as though the shadow's abilities were his doing, "So what does the Empire need? I can get you some of them new Corellian Blockade Runners the Alliance has been comin' out with..."

"Actually," Mara said, "I don't want you to steal a ship for us." She smiled as she sat down at the booth. "I want you to do a favor for the Alliance..."

"There you are!" Sedra Covell said as her fellow Rebel came out of the Ithorian restaurant with a to-go order of Korthlis leaves, "I was just about to go in after you. Look."

There was a jumbo video screen hookup in the middle of the plaze, usually turned to whatever sporting event or concert or special happening would draw the most crowds. Now, though, the emblem of the Empire was displayed at the bottom of the screen, below the image of an Imperial captain.

"...Furthermore, due to the increased Rebel terrorism in this sector, the Corellian system is hereby under blockade, and its inhabitants subject to martial law. Any ship attempting to leave this system will be thoroughly searched, and those found to have Rebel sympathies will be subject to the most severe of punishments."

The view switched to an exterior view of the incredibly huge black-painted Star Destroyer from the battle. "I assure you, you do wish to face the wrath of our new Super Star Destroyer. The Corellian resistance to the New Order has ended."

Sedra Covell looked from the image of the EXECUTOR to Mara Janzen and back. "Upon due consideration," she said, "I think we're in big trouble..."

Continued in Episode 8

R. John Burke

© 1998-1999 Dragon's Library & Ulrike Großmann