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

Web Of The Dark Side

STAR WARS: The FREEDOM Adventures Episode Eight

DESRIPTION: Mara Jade's plan to trap Kerri begins, while Garreth tries to break Admiral Thrawn's blockade of the Corellian system. About 8 or 9 months before "A New Hope."

NOTICE: I don't own the rights to these characters and situations (Not the Star Wars characters, anyway; I did create Garreth & crew.) Anyway, this story is not, never has been, and never will be for profit. No infringement is intended.

"Nothing yet?" Garreth asked for the tenth time in an hour.

"Nothing, sir," said the crewer whose name he'd already forgotten. That crewer was sitting in for Marta Janzen at the Nav/Comm station, which was the whole problem.

Janzen and another officer on Captain Mykel Garreth's ship, Weapons Officer Sedra Covell, had not checked in since that new Imperial Super Star Destroyer had blocked the planet Corellia two days ago.

"It could still be nothing," said the Chief of the Boat, a Calamarian named Okel, "They're likely having trouble finding a secure method of contacting us."

Garreth shook his head. "Marta Janzen would find a way. She's not the type to miss her check-in unless something is seriously wrong."

"Seriously wrong?" Commander Rik Evverd, the leader of their X-Wing squadron, said from his perch on the upper-level railing. "There's a four-kilometer-long Star Destroyer in orbit! Of course something is seriously wrong!"

Garreth shot him a sour look. "Don't you have something to do?"

Evverd shrugged. "Not really. This is kind of my fault..."

The star pilot was referring to the fact that Garreth had originally ordered him to Corellia. Janzen and Covell had been sent when he refused. Garreth had promised the other man that he'd be held responsible if anything happened to them, but now that the crisis had come to pass, he really didn't feel much like gloating.

"Not your fault," Garreth said, against his better judgement, "If you'd gone, then what? Then you'd be down their instead of one of them. No, the fundamental problem here is Thrawn."

Alone among the inhabitants of the Corellian system, Mykel Garreth - and by extension, his senior crew - knew the true face of their oppressor. The EXECUTOR had been transmitting orders in the name of a human named Captain Niriz, but Garreth had recognized the distinctive tactical style of an old friend.

He hadn't seen Captain Thrawn (probably he's an admiral by now, Garreth thought, if he hasn't fallen prey to the Emperor's prejudices...) in years, but Garreth knew him to be as dangerous an opponent as any in the galaxy.

And he had chosen to make an example of Corellia.

"We've got to move him out of there," Garreth said.

"If he's as smart as you say," Commander Kerri Lynden, the FREEDOM's first officer noted, "He won't be goaded easily."

"No," Garreth said, "No. It will take a special kind of bait."

"What about our mission to Eskaar?" Okel asked. FREEDOM was expected at the nearby planet Eskaar in three day's time, to negotiate a treaty with that powerful world that would hopefully bring the Kaars into the Rebel Alliance. Now, though, that mission was on hold, and they were keeping uneasy watch from the empty space just off the outer planets of Talus and Tralus.

"It will keep," Garreth said, "Nothing useful will be accomplished in this system until that Star Destroyer is gone."

"Great," said Evverd, "We'll just ask them nicely, and maybe they'll leave."

"What about this competition you two used to have?" Kerri said, "Maybe you can use that to draw him out."

"You mean, work on his ego?" Garreth said, "Not a bad idea, except that Thrawn is not the egotist that most Imperial commanders are. We can count on him to do the tactically smart thing."

"Then let's make leaving Corellia the smart thing to do." Rik Evverd hopped over the railing into the crewer pit and tapped the young Alderaanian helmsman Jev Parrak on the shoulder. "Come on, kid."

Jev stared, wide-eyed, the mop of dark hair hanging over his eyes making him look even younger than he was. "Me?"

"You're a pilot, aren't you?" Evverd said, "I still don't have flyers for those replacement X-Wings Drayson sent over, and I'll need a full squadron to make this work."

Garreth frowned down at the thin, dark-skinned man in the brown jacket. "Do you mind telling me what you're doing, Commander?"

Evverd grinned. "Trust me." He left the room with Jev in tow.

Garreth stared after him for half a minute after the lift car had already left. He frowned at Kerri Lynden in puzzlement. "Do you know what he's planning?"

Kerri shrugged. "Trust him."

Garreth sat back in his command chair, feeling the effects of an approaching migraine. "We're all going to die..."

"What do you think you're doing?" Mara Jade demanded over the secure Imperial comm she'd accessed. "You're fouling up my assignment something fierce!"

Grand Admiral Thrawn was the picture of complacency. "I was not aware you were even in this sector, Emperor's Hand."

"Yes, well, maybe the Emperor doesn't feel the need to tell you everything."

"No," Thrawn said, a touch of bitterness creeping into his usually controlled voice. His red eyes glowed as he said, "I think sometimes he enjoys leaving out such details. To make my path more difficult."

It was true that the Emperor didn't much care for non-humans like Thrawn. His human males-only policy was something Mara had never understood or agreed with, but it was not her place to argue with the Emperor.

And by extension, it was not Thrawn's place to argue with HER, the Emperor's Hand. "In any case, you'd better find a good reason to leave, and quickly."

"No," Thrawn said firmly. "I have my orders from Moff Tarkin himself. I am to test this new SUPER-class Star Destroyer on the Corellian rebels. I have full discretion to use it however I see fit. By blockading Corellia, I force the Rebels to assault this vessel, if not immediately, then at some point. They will mount an attack they cannot win. I will not surrender that advantage until I am certain that it is the Emperor's will." He paused thoughtfully, "And perhaps not even then. I have successfully changed his mind about a number of things in the past."

"I represent the Emperor," Mara Jade said, putting all the authority of her position into her voice, "You will obey him, Admiral."

"I do not mean disloyalty. I only wish to know the facts. What are you doing in the Corellian sector, Emperor's Hand? What is your mission? Why does my blockade interfere with your plans?" Thrawn narrowed those glowing eyes to slits. "Until I know these things, I cannot abort a major operation on your authority alone. I remind you that the majority of the Imperial command structure does not even know there IS an Emperor's Hand."

"They don't know about a non-human Grand Admiral, either," Mara said, "That doesn't stop your people from obeying orders."

"An excellent point," Thrawn said, "Why don't you come to the EXECUTOR, and we shall discuss it in-depth?"

"Time is short," Mara Jade said, glancing reflexively around the vermin-infested warehouse on the outskirts of Treasure Ship Row. She'd have advance warning through the Force, of course, should Sedra Covell return to their hiding place early, but it never hurt to be cautious.

"In that case, I cannot..."

"Wait," said Mara. All right, if Thrawn wanted to be stubborn, she could work around him. "If it meant you could keep your blockade, would you give me a little help?"

Thrawn nodded fractionally. "Most likely that can be arranged."

"Good," said Mara, and smiled. Actually, this might work even better than her original plan...

"Mavs Two and Twelve," Rik Evverd said to the two greenest pilots in his squadron, "Form up with me. Rysso, you take the main group."

"We're going in with the kid, Rik?" said the voice of Mav Two, Lieutenant Brynn Avers, "That's risky, don't you think?"

"It'll be fine," Evverd said. In truth, he knew he was rushing Jev Parrak - Mav Twelve - into service, and he didn't really trust anyone but himself to watch the kid's back.

"I won't fail you, Mav Leader," said the nervous but game voice of Jev Parrak.

"I know you won't fail me, kid," Evverd said, "Just be sure you don't SHOOT me."

Avens laughed, added, "Awful easy to lose track of your target in the middle of a dogfight. You sure you don't want to go in with somebody safe, Mav Leader?"

Jev's annoyed voice said, "I'm not gonna shoot the wrong target." He paused, then said so deadpan that Evverd had no idea if he was kidding, "Uh, Mav Leader, which one's the trigger again?"

Evverd thought Mav Two was going to rupture something, she laughed so hard. To Jev, he said, "I thought you said you'd flown similar designs."

"I have," Jev said, "I flew a planet-hopper shuttle for a whole summer back home. The piloting controls are pretty close... but it didn't have weapons."

Evverd tried again, but still wasn't sure whether Jev was putting him on. For his own peace of mind as much as anything else, he said, "Trigger's the red button on the control stick, kid."

"Oh. Got it." Jev paused for a long moment. "I thought that was the accelerator."

"You'd better be joking."

"I am," said Jev, "Mostly..."

Just when Rik Evverd was beginning to get a real bad feeling about the whole thing, something popped up on sensors to capture his attention. "Coming up on Centerpoint Station. You know what to do, Mav Three."

"Gotcha," said the Rodian pilot, Rysso Nyb, "Give us two minutes, boss. We'll make the place go dark."

"Just so they don't see you coming. Clean and fast. And make sure you get the comm relays, too. If anybody in the outer system gets off a message, this party's through."

"Understood," said Rysso, "Good luck, Mav Leader."

From Evverd's cockpit, he could see nine X-Wings peel off towards the giant orb of Centerpoint Station, the ancient facility that sat on the balance point between the twin planets Talus and Tralus, at the edge of the Corellian system. It was vital that Centerpoint be blind and deaf if this stunt they were attempting was going to work.

"I don't understand," Jev said, "I thought you were going to hit Centerpoint. I thought that was the point of this whole thing."

Evverd smiled inside his flight helmet. "Now, that would be totally predictable and without flair. Give me a little bit of credit, huh?"

"So where are we going?" asked Avers.

Evverd stared through his viewport, where the almost diamond shaped main coninent of Tralus was growing in his viewer. "We are going there."

"To the planet?" asked Jev, "That's crazy! Being in an atmosphere will weaken our shields and minimize our greatest advantage over TIE fighters!"

The squadron leader adjusted his flight helemt, took a deep breath. "And you tried to convince me you didn't understand the designs."

"But what can we accomplish on Tralus?" Avers said.

"Simple. To draw out the EXECUTOR, we need to make them think the Rebel fleet is attacking out here. We're going to hit the Tralus Planetary Defense Yards."

He could almost hear Jev's blank expression. "How will that help us convince the Imps of an attack?"

Evverd laughed. "Think you can fly a TIE fighter, kid?"

"I'm going to be sick," said Jev, and their ships drove towards the planet surface.

The countryside streaked past Evverd's viewport at a rate sufficient to make just about anyone echo Jev Parrak's feelings. To top it all off, they were flying in close to the planet's surface to avoid sensor detection. Too close.

"Keep S-foils locked down 'till the last second," said Evverd. "These crates are jumpy enough in an atmosphere without the extra surface area."

He risked a glance to the sides. Avers was clearly uncomfortable in her fighter, but coping admirably like the expert pilot she was. As for Jev Parrak...

He wasn't doing bad at all, actually. The kid had a nice touch, and exceptional instincts that let him anticipate obstacles before they appeared. Evverd had used the kid as a desperation fill-in, because as a capital ship helmsman, he was average at best.

But he was actually pretty good in an X-Wing. Evverd had seen it before, people who were hopeless in a skittish starfighter doing better with more mass behind them, or the reverse. This kid was a fighter pilot.

Have to tell Garreth, he thought, assuming I don't get blown out of the sky. Not that he was really worried; Evverd tended to think that if a job wasn't tough enough that it might blow him to cinders, then it was too easy for him. He loved a challenge.

"Target on scopes, Mav Leader."

"I see it, Two. You take out the control tower. Jev, we're gonna strafe the runway, keep them from scrambling anything. Remember - use proton torps if you have to, but be sure you leave a few TIE's intact. We'll need to borrow them."

"Copy that," said Jev, "And the torp launcher would be where?"

Evverd grimaced. "You got a sick sense of humor, Junior."

"Cut the chatter, boys," said Avers, "Turbolasers are powering up. I think we've been noticed."

"Lock S-foils to attack position," said the Corellian as he flipped a switch, "Keep shields full front, for all the good it will do. Here goes nothing..."

And then they were inside the base defenses, turbolaser turrets chattering away as the three Rebels wound their way between the blasts and kept coming. On the ground, Imperial TIE pilots squirmed into their cockpits, only to be consumed by flames as Evverd and Jev strafed the runway. Avers went after the control tower, and took it down quickly, then doubled back for a run at the defensive turrets.

It happened pretty quickly, and the element of surprise seemed to be carrying the day.

"Hey, Mav Leader?" said Jev as they slowly eliminated the last of the defenses, "How do you think one of these babies would handle against an Imperial walker?"

Evverd laughed. "Wouldn't know, and wouldn't care to try it."

"Oh," said Jev. Then after a pause, "Not even once?"

"Are you kidding?" said Evverd, "Those walking tanks are just bad news. If I never see one up close, it'll be too soon."

Jev made a small "Hmmm" sound. He said, "Then don't get too close to that one..."

At that moment, Evverd's senors, slightly scrambled due to the presence of an atmosphere, registered a new contact. From the west, a pair of Imperial AT-AT walkers were returning from patrol. Shaped like giant beasts, they raised their "heads" and fired. Eveverd's control panel sparked as a spattering of blaster bursts scored on his fighter's nose.

"I really hate my job," he said, and dove in towards the closest walker.

"Use proton torpedoes!" said Avers, "That armor's too strong for blasters!"

"Got it," said Jev, "So c'mon, where's the launcher?"

Evverd grimaced. "That joke is old, kid."

"No," Jev hissed over the comm, "I'm not kidding! WHERE IS THE DAMN LAUNCHER?"

"Red button!" Evverd said, and turned his fighter into a tricky-in-an-atmosphere roll. "Red button, on the console! That'll switch you over! Why didn't you tell me you were serious?"

"I thought you'd lose faith in me," Jev said. Beside Evverd, the younger man's X-Wing was slightly charred by another burst from the walker.

"Way to build my trust, kid!" said Evverd. Wincing, he flipped his X-Wing on its side and brought it in between the legs of one walker and over the top of the other.

He let out a giant sigh. "I really didn't think that'd work..."

He brought the X-Wing back around, and saw Avers making a run at one walkers. She launched a proton torpedo at it's front legs. It took a hit on the knee joints, and its right-front leg shattered. The thing tumbled forward, and Evverd joined with his fellow pilot in launching a barrage of torpedoes that blew the walker into shards.

Evverd let out with a war cry. "There you go! You guys can act tough against wimpy ground speeders, but you're up against real ships now!"

A volley of laser blasts hit Evverd from behind. Without deflectors, two of his engines blazed into flame. In the astromech slot, R2-B0 let an electronic scream.

"No, just hang on, Bo! Try to patch up the damage!"

Bo's reply, on the X-Wing's computer screen, said that a team of Wookiee mechanics working around the clock in the best shipyard on Corellia would not have been able to patch up the damage.

"In that case, I'm gonna bring her in. Hang on back there!"

Bo twittered, and the computer screen read: Where am I going to go?

Evverd struggled with the X-Wing as it shuddered down over rocky terrain. Somehow he'd ended up flipped back around facing the last walker, which craned its neck downwards for a finishing shot. Evverd's finger tensed on the "Eject" button.

From the side, twin proton torpedoes drove into the walker's neck, "decapitating" the beast. Both the head and the entire front portion of the body shattered in a dazzling explosion, leaving only a smoking hulk supported by the walker's two rear legs. Evverd tried desperately to pull up as his fighter streaked in towards the twisted mass. The thing teetered forward.

Evverd launched a torpedo at it, and the rear quarter of the walker exploded just as he plowed into where it had been. For a moment, his cockpit view was obscured by flames...

And then his X-Wing shot out of the flames, cooked but okay, and Evverd brought it to a rough landing on the grassy plains beyond.

The hatch release had bent, and it took all of Evverd's muscle to get his cockpit open. He began to push his way out of the just barely man-sized opening.

Hands grabbed him and hauled him out the rest of the way. Evverd saw Jev Parrak's X-Wing, landed and locked down, a few meters away.

"Got there as fast as I could, Mav Leader."

The younger man tried to support Evverd, but the squadron leader refused, instead leaning on the bent nose of his X-Wing until he had his legs back.

Evverd tossed the other man a salute. "Thanks, kid. That your torpedo that smoked the walker?"

Jev nodded, grinning from ear to ear. "Uh-huh."

"Oh," said Evverd, breathing heavily, "I see you found the right button..."

"Just barely," said Jev Parrak, "After I spent a few minutes trying to attack the walker with my landing lights."

Both men laughed as they watched Brynn Avers' X-Wing shoot by overhead, cleaning up the last little pockets of Imperial resistance.

"I'm sorry, Captain," said the TIE pilot, face and voice obscured by his black life-support gear, "The rebel fighters hit Tralus Defense, hundreds of 'em. And there's at last a couple dozen capital ships massing in the outer system. We just barely got out. Figured the least we could do is give you a little warning since Centerpoint is dark."

"Yes, well," said Captain Niriz of the Imperial fleet, "You have done well, Commander. Return to the EXECUTOR imme..." The captain paused, listened to a voice from offscreen, then returned his attention to the pilot. "Belay that, Commander. EXECUTOR will be moving to the outer system. We will rendezvous with you there."

"Understood," said the TIE pilot, "Beta One, out."

Captain Niriz cut off the comm, then peered over at the white-uniformed figure in the command chair.

"You realize, sir, that it may well be a Rebel faint to draw us away from Corellia."

Grand Admiral Thrawn was thoughtful, blue eyelids almost shut over glowing red eyes. "Oh, I've no doubt that it is, Captain. In fact, that man is no TIE fighter pilot."

"He's not? Then what...?"

"A Rebel agent, of course," said Thrawn as though it were obvious, "Meaning to draw us into a trap."

"Then, sir, why are we falling for it?"

"Because, captain, it is what Garreth expects." The blue-skinned figure folded his hands in front of himself as though perfectly relaxed. "The GRYPHON and the NEW ORDER will be sufficient to maintain the blockade of Corellia for now. And I want to see what my old friend is planning..."

Sedra Covell slipped quietly inside the warehouse on Treasure Ship Row and closed the door behind her. "Well, that's it. That battleship up there has driven the Corellian resistance so deep they may never come back. The woman I met with, Irenez, she said that no meeting is possible at this time. In fact, she can't even help us get off-planet."

"Don't need her," said Marta Janzen, "I made a friend while you were gone today."

"That's nice." Covell harrumphed and sat down on a shipping crate, trying not to wonder what that sticky substance she felt was.

"I'd like you to meet him. Lieutenant Sedra Covell..."

Janzen spread her hands, and a swarthy man with a beard and cigarra stepped out from behind a stack of crates. "...Niles Ferrier. Ship thief, smuggler, and all-around scoundrel."

Covell sat up straight. "Janzen, are you nuts? I've heard about this guy! He's stolen three of our patrol ships this year alone!"

Ferrier grunted. "Let's let bygones be bygones, honey. I got a ship, your friend has cash, and I'm your ticket through that blockade and off this planet."

Covell looked from Janzen to Ferrier. "Can I talk to you for a second, Marta?"

Janzen joined her on one side of the room. As they walked, Sedra thought she saw the shadows on the wall shift to follow them. Crazy, she thought. That's your nerves talking.

When they were out of earshot, Sedra whispered, "Are you sure we can trust this guy?"

"No," said Janzen, "But he's got no love for the Empire."

"That may be so, but... where'd you get the money to hire him, anyway?"

Marta Janzen smiled like a predator. "I come prepared. Told you to stick with me."

"I have a bad feeling about this."

"Me, too," said Janzen reasonably, "But you said yourself Bel Iblis isn't going to help us. I know you like Corellian cooking, but do you want to be eating it every day for the rest of your life?"

Sedra hesitated, and Janzen went on, "Until they find us and shoot us, of course..."

"All right!" Sedra Covell walked back over to Ferrier, trying not to get too close to the stench of that cigarra. "You're hired. But if you sell us out, you won't live to collect. Got it?"

Sedra thought she saw the shadows move again, but put it down to the ever-present vermin.

Ferrier said, "Sure. Whatever, honey. Let's go."

"Call me 'honey' again," Sedra told him, voice low, "And I'll wedge that cigarra down your throat."

The ship thief didn't look too concerned, but he did keep his distance on the way to his ship.

"We've done it, Captain," said Rik Evverd over the comm, still looking strange in his appropriated TIE pilot's uniform. "Thrawn'll be heading for the outer system."

"We've already confirmed that, Rik," said Kerri Lynden from her place next to the captain.

"What happens when it gets there?" said Garreth.

Evverd gave him one of those I-have-everything-under-control expressions, but suddenly his face blanked. "Um... I hadn't really worked that out yet."

Garreth sighed. "This is why I wish you'd discuss your plans with me beforehand, Commander."

"Look, it's not a problem. We don't need to destroy that ship right now, just draw it away long enough to get Sedra and Janzen off the planet. We'll worry about everything else later."

But Mykel Garreth was already planning, watching the EXECUTOR's steady advance on the long-range sensors. "It's not that simple, Mister Evverd. Thrawn will fall for this stunt exactly once. It's now or never."

Evverd shrugged. "We've got a couple of TIE's. I could meet up with the EXECUTOR as ordered, try in sabotage it from inside."

"Too risky," Garreth said, "Even for you, though I know how pleased you must be with yourself at this moment. Just get back here, Commander. I'll think of something."

"Understood," said Evverd, "We'll be coming in, two X-Wings and two TIE's. Leave a light on."

"Four ships?" Kerri asked.

"Yeah," Evverd said, "Lost my X-Wing. There was no room in the TIE for R2-B0, so I hooked him into his own TIE fighter." He frowned. "You wouldn't believe how hard that is..."

"Just hurry," said Garreth. Evverd's face disappeared, and the captain winced under the weight of another headache.

"Rik means well," said Kerri helpfully.

"What good will it do us if he gets himself killed?"

Kerri Lynden stroked the crystal around her neck thoughtfully. "How well do you know this Thrawn?"

"Well enough. I faced him enough times."

His first officer looked at the tactical display. "Well enough to push his buttons?"

"Why do you ask?"

Kerri shook her head. "I might have half an idea. But there's no way it will work without the other half... Could you draw him close to the gravity well or Talus and Tralus?"

"Possibly," said Garreth, "But maybe not. As I mentioned, Thrawn's not easily goaded."

Kerri laughed. "Maybe you should take some lessons from Rik. He's made an art form out of annoying people."

An idea exploded in Garreth's mind. He snapped his fingers. "Art form! That's it!" He turned to Kerri. "I can get him in, all right. What's your plan?"

Kerri Lynden gave him a lopsided smile. "It's better if you trust me."

"What is it on this ship," Garreth wondered, "That nobody wants to tell the captain what's going on?"

"Captain, sir!" said Lt. Harkin, the relief weapons officer, "New contact! Small freighter, incoming from Corellia. TIE fighters are pursuing! She's coming this way!"

"We can't leave this area," Garreth said, "Not if we plan to draw Thrawn in."

"That's okay, sir," said Harkin, "She's killing the TIE fighters anyway. Down to three pursuing... two... at this rate, she'll be clear in no time."

"We could move a little closer," said Kerri, "It's better if we draw Thrawn to the planet anyway."

Garreth nodded. "Meet them halfway and offer them asylum." Suddenly his mind flashed on their recent encounter with the bounty hunter Dengar. He nodded to Okel. "Chief, get down there with a reception committee. Remember the last freighter we brought onboard."

Less than half an hour passed before they brought the frieghter and its crew onboard. Garreth and Commander Lynden were busy on the bridge, so the Calamarian Okel was left to greet their guests alone.

Well, alone except for the two dozen armed Rebel soldiers who stood or knelt with weapons drawn at the freighter's slowly opening ramp.

Calamarians were generally a peaceful people, but Okel had spent most of his life as an Imperial slave, and had the scars to prove it. He had no intention of submitting to the Empire, or anyone else, without a fight.

But the urge to fight soon left him when Okel saw the humans who disembarked from the freighter. Even granting that he was not great at telloing one human from another, he knew Weapons Officer Sedra Covell and Navigator Marta Janzen when he saw them.

Okel gestured for his troops to lower their weapons. He rushed up to greet his comrades.

"We feared for you," he said, gurgling Calamarian voice overjoyed, "Both of you. It is wonderful that you have returned!"

"Not too wonderful," said the heavyset man who was swaggering down the ramp behind them. He eyed the Mon Calamari with distaste.

"This is Niles Ferrier," said Covell, "He helped us escape."

Okel would have offered a flipper to shake, but something in the big human's eyes told him not to. "The Alliance is in your debt, Captain Ferrier."

"And it's gonna be even more," said Ferrier. "I'd advise your people to keep their weapons up, fish-head. Levelled on her."

To his shock, Okel saw that Ferrier was pointing at Marta Janzen. With his free hand, the human pulled a small Stealth Transmitter off his utility belt.

"This thing lets her talk to her buddies," he said, "I caught her talkin' to Captain Niriz on the EXECUTOR. The lady's a spy."

Continued in Episode 9

R. John Burke

© 1998-1999 Dragon's Library & Ulrike Großmann