STAR WARS: FREEDOM'S Price Episode Four
DESCRIPTION: The whole Cloud City thing continues, with my people in the middle of it.
NOTICE: I should mention that Star Wars belongs to Lucasfilm, and that this story is entertainment-only-not-for-sale-in-any- way, and that the ESB elements were written by Brackett & Kasdan based on George Lucas' story. But really, isn't everything Star Wars based on George Lucas' stories?
Rik Evverd was so jittery, and so completely surprised by the ambush, that he literally hit the deck. That one factor saved his life, as a pair of lethal darts shot over his head and into the nearby wall.
Years of fighting experience kicked in, causing him to react without thought. His legs swept around in an arc, knocking his assailant's own legs from under him. The man fell to the floor in a clatter of weapons and armor, and Evverd pounced on him in a moment, hands closing automatically for the throat.
It was only then that he took a moment to drink in his attacker's identity, and was surprised.
Boba Fett's T-shaped visor stared back at him, a vision out of most people's worst nightmares.
Evverd didn't do much dreaming, and if he had, all his dreams would have turned out positively, because he simply could not imagine, right down to the subconscious level, that he would ever lose.
Now, in as desperate a situation as he'd ever faced, he felt no differently, and his chocolate features split in a grin.
"Why am I always meeting you in run-down corridors?"
Fett grunted at the reference to their previous meeting at Balmorra. They had been allies then, Fett having contracted with Prince Xizor to kill Lord Vader. Though he had failed at that, he had helped Evverd and his friends escape from Vader's clutches. This time, Evverd doubted the bounty hunter would be so merciful.
Fett shifted his weight in some sort of self-defense technique, and suddenly Evverd was on the floor, the bounty hunter's wrist launcher jammed into his throat.
"One move and I'll separate your head from your body."
Evverd jerked his elbow up, knocking Fett's wrist aside and causing the rocket's aim to go wide. It exploded against the base of a far wall. Strong and agile despite not being particularly big, the Corellian swung around over Fett and smashed his right fist into the bounty hunter's stomach. Fett's air hissed from his lungs, his other gauntleted hand coming up to smash Evverd across the face. The Corellian went sprawling, and Fett dove for his blaster rifle. He found it and swung it towards Evverd, who was still climbing to his feet.
Evverd groaned. "Should have quit when I'd have been a head..."
"I detest puns," Fett said, his finger tensing on the trigger.
Both heads swung up to see Lando Calrissian's cyborg aide, Lobot, and a pair of Cloud City Security guards racing into the side corridor, weapons drawn.
"Lower your weapon." Lobot demanded. When Fett was slow to comply, the cyborg clicked his weapon off stun, to full power. Fett stood and backed away.
"He is a rebel spy. There is a bounty on him. I am within my rights."
Lobot frowned, his computer interface blinking. "Your deal with Administrator Calrissian expressly forbids you from harming the city's inhabitants."
"I don't care." Fett tensed, and Evverd did so as well as he climbed to his feet. Even outgunned, Fett could likely take them all without breaking a sweat, if he so chose.
"I care," said Lobot, gesturing with the weapon. "This man is Lareth Kahn, a citizen of Cloud City for over three years now, and a trusted member of our security force.
Boba Fett laughed aloud, a rare occurrence if ever there was one. "He is Rik Evverd, a Rebel and a traitor. I have dealt with him before."
"At the moment," said Lobot evenly, "You are not dealing with him. You are dealing with me."
"Perhaps we should take the matter to Lord Vader for arbitration. I doubt he'll be any happier to see this scum."
"Sure," said Evverd, "And then we could tell him how you tried to kill him at Balmorra."
Fett hissed softly. "You have no proof of that."
"No. But Vader knows you had a contract on him, and he knows SOMETHING went wrong at Balmorra. At the very least, he'll stop trusting you, and you'll lose Imperial business."
The bounty hunter cocked his head to an angle, considering. "Solo's worth a lot to me. This Rebel will try to free him."
"Are you afraid, Fett?" said Evverd with a chuckle. "Do you think I could beat you?" Evverd laughed. "Even if I die, that's quite an epitaph: Boba Fett shot me down when I was unarmed, out of fear."
"This is not personal. This is business," Fett's weapon still pointed at the Corellian.
"Perhaps we can compromise," Lobot said, no hint of emotion in his tone. "Evverd will be taken to a security cell, and left there under guard until you leave."
"Why should I trust you?"
"Because," said the cyborg, "I have no reason to protect him. I am a terrible liar. And you may check on him at any time during your stay."
"If you kill him, you will have to kill us all," Lobot reminded him, "And that would surely anger Baron-Administrator Calrissian. Possibly enough to jeopardize his deal with Lord Vader."
"Vader wouldn't like that," Evverd added, "You costing him Skywalker, just because you couldn't wait to fry me?"
Fett lowered his weapon, and stared at Evverd. "I do enjoy the thought of taking Skywalker and Solo from under your nose, while you sit helpless."
"You admit that Vader's not going to stick to his side of the deal?"
Fett ignored the change of subject. "Know that I could have killed you today. Know that I will kill you in the future."
Evverd did not blink. "As long as City Security doesn't show up."
"If I did not respect you," Fett said, "None of your arguments would have swayed me."
Evverd grunted. "You always kill the people you respect?"
The guards stepped forward and bound Evverd's hands behind his back. Under Lobot's guidance, they brought him away, towards the city's detention area. Evverd felt Boba Fett's cold stare impaling him the whole time.
"...I've just made a deal that will keep the Empire out of here forever."
The door slid open to reveal a banquet table set for lunch... with Darth Vader at its head. "We would be honored if you would join us."
Han tried firing his blaster, but Lando knew it wouldn't work. If dealing with Vader were that easy, Lando would have done it days ago. The weapon flew from Han's hand into Vader's, and behind the Dark Lord, Boba Fett stepped out from his concealment.
Lando felt sick.
"I had no choice," he explained, "They arrived right before you did. I'm sorry."
Solo stared at him, disbelieving. They'd had their quarrels, but Han truly could not believe that Lando would do this, that one of his friends wouldn't come through for him.
"I'm sorry, too."
Lando's eyes closed for a second, visions of what Han would do to him when they got out of this running through his head. He held onto that image. Unpleasant though it was, it was the only thing Lando had to indicate that they WOULD get out of this.
Four years ago, during a party, Lando had told his friend Mykel Garreth that the next time he saw Han Solo, he'd turn him over to the Empire himself. Just to see the look on his face, he'd said.
Lando had now seen the look on Solo's face, and it made him want to shrivel up and die.
Rik Evverd was about to climb the walls. He heard the sounds of high-pitched wailing dimly, from the next cell over. They were followed up by a Wookiee scream, and Evverd knew that Chewbacca was in the next cell over. If I could just get a message to him, he thought...but he knew it was useless.
The door hissed open, and Lobot entered with a tray of food.
Evverd declined with a shrug. "I'm not real hungry."
"Eat. It is almost time to move."
"You're letting me out?" The Corellian was on his feet in a moment, but Lobot held him back.
"Soon Fett will be busy with Han Solo. That will be the time to free you."
"Busy? How busy?"
Lobot paused. "It... is my understanding that the bounty hunter now has permission to take Captain Solo to Jabba the Hutt."
Evverd remembered the last time he'd seen the space pirate, at Hoth, when he was working on that vermin-trap of a starship. "Jabba will kill him."
"That is a high probability. Lord Vader has... altered the deal."
The Corellian snorted. "I hope this doesn't make me sound ungrateful, but I told you so."
Lobot frowned. "I also have urged Lando to aid the Rebels. We have discussed it, and we believe it may be time to put the contingency plan into effect."
The contingency plan, discussed by Lando, Lobot, Evverd, and Production Manager Ariel Simms, entailed rescuing the Rebels and evacuating Cloud City. "Fine by me. That was my favorite plan anyway. When are we going?"
"Lando will signal me when the time is right. I will send someone for you."
"Great," said Evverd, "So will I be able to get out on my X-Wing, or will I have to take the MILLENIUM FALCON?"
Lobot hedged. "Actually... We had another possibility in mind."
He waited a moment, but Lobot did not continue. "WHAT?"
"You'll see," the cyborg told him, and left.
"Well, Calrissian, is he alive?"
Lando checked the gears and knobs, using them to distract himself from the specter of Han Solo being lowered into the carbon-freezing pit. "Yes, he's alive. And in perfect hibernation."
Vader addressed his pet. "He is all yours, bounty hunter. Reset the chamber for Skywalker."
In the cockpit of her personal assault shuttle, Captain Kerri Lynden-Evverd shook her head suddenly, dark hair swirling around her.
Her pilot, a petite, dark-skinned woman named Sedra Covell, glanced over at her. "What is it?"
Kerri was holding her Force-blind crystal, which protected her from being felt by her fellow Jedi, tightly in one hand. "The place we're going feels strange. As though the Force flows through it. I believe there's going to be some kind of battle there, possibly something that will ultimately decide this war."
Covell watched her with concern. "Is it safe to jump out Of lightspeed there?"
"The battle does not involve us," Kerri replied after a moment. "Not at its core. This will be a battle between Jedi."
"I thought you were the last Light Jedi."
Kerri said, "The last of the old. This battle concerns the new."
Okel, a scarred Calamarian who was an old friend but had learned of Kerri's Jedi nature only recently, gurgled softly. "Can your insight tell us whether we will arrive in time to save Colonel Evverd?"
Kerri sighed deeply. Even for the Jedi, it seemed, there were no easy answers. "The future is always in motion."
After a pause, she added, "But we will save him. With or without the aid of the Force."
The door hissed open, and the fortyish blonde woman who had introduced herself as Lando's Production manager, Ariel Simms, stood at the doorway, brandishing two blasters. She tossed him one. "What are you waiting for?"
Not much, Evverd had to admit. "Lobot didn't tell me where I was going."
"You're with me," Simms said, leading the way down a corridor. A corridor which held several dead stormtroopers, armor covered by blaster burns.
Evverd hurried after her. "Where are YOU going?"
"To the transports," Simms told him, "In a few minutes, Lando is going to announce a general evacuation of Cloud City, at which time all hell is going to break loose."
"Another evacuation. Great. Why me?"
"Lando says you're some kind of hotshot pilot." Simms just him, "We still have the EXECUTOR to outrun."
Evverd caught up with her, and grabbed her arm to make her slow down. "Speaking of hotshot pilots, where's Solo?"
"In carbonite. Fett is taking him to Jabba the Hutt."
Evverd glanced off down a cross-corridor. No action yet. "Which way to Fett's ship?"
Simms was impatient. "It's too late for him! You'll never get him off the SLAVE I!"
Evverd hated it, but she was right. Fett's ship would be a fortress - and that was assuming he could get there before the bounty hunter lifted. It was not the time to save Solo. "What about Leia and the Wookiee?"
"Lando's handling it."
"I've had enough of Lando handling it!" he hissed, "Which way?"
Simms pointed off in one direction. "You won't help us evacuate?"
"Oh, I'll help you," he said as he started off, "but first I'm going to save a princess..."
Evverd ran into the security squad before he ran into the Rebels. Lobot was there, with a dozen other City Security personnel.
"Why aren't you with the ships?" Lobot asked.
Evverd grinned. "And miss all the fun? What's the plan?"
"The plan..." and Lobot's cyborg implants blinked as they processed data, "Will begin in 7.4 seconds. Stay alert."
"Stay alert? Alert to what?"
Lobot looked him up and down. "Fortunately, you are still wearing your Security uniform."
"Is somebody going to tell me what..." Evverd broke off as he saw Lando leading Leia, Chewbacca, and a squad of stormtroopers down a corridor. "Oh."
They let the stormies round the corner, then moved to surround them, weapons drawn. Evverd gave Lando a little nod, and proceeded collecting stormtrooper rifles.
"Well done," said Lando. "Hold them in the security tower - and keep it quiet."
As they marched off towards the security tower, Evverd caught Leia Organa's eye. He gave her a jaunty little Corellian salute, of the kind she'd probably seen from Solo a few times. Her eyes widened in recognition...
And then snapped over to Lando, more important things on her mind. "What do you think you're DOING?"
Halfway to the security tower, Evverd stopped short. He patted Lobot on the shoulder. "This is as far as I go."
Lobot nodded. "The transports are waiting at the south platform."
"Got it. Good luck, brother."
Lobot's cyborg components blinked double-time. "'Luck' is an irrational concept based on misunderstanding of the laws of probability."
"What is this, your protocol droid impression?"
Lobot smiled, just for a second. "Good luck, Rik."
He ran into the stormtroopers about four corridors away from his meeting with Lobot.
"There's one! Blast him!"
Evverd ducked behind a corridor just as the Imperials opened up with their blaster rifles. He snuck two shots around the corner, hitting one target, then ran at full peed back the way he'd come. He was staring over his shoulder, waiting for the stormtroopers to charge around the corner. Suddenly, his legs tangled up with something hard and metal. The impact launched Evverd through the air, flinging him several meters down the corridor, onto his face.
He rolled, knowing he was dead, trying to bring his weapon around to face the troopers. Laser bolts shot through the corridor, tracking for him.
An R2 unit sang in triumph, and a blast door snapped shut halfway down the corridor, blocking him off from the stormtroopers.
Evverd aimed and blasted the lock, fusing the door shut. Gulping for air, he turned to face his savior.
"What took you so long?"
R2-B0's reply was something about how he'd already been on the transport, and had to come back to save the tail of his lunatic master.
"Hey, I had everything under control until you tripped me up!"
Bo's electronic snort gave his opinion of that, then he tootled something else.
"Yes, I'm very lucky to have a versatile droid like you. Which way?"
Bo swung around on his three legs. As thuds and clangs signified the Imperial attempt to open the blast door, Evverd got to his feet and followed the R2 unit down a corridor.
"Run into some friends?" asked Simms from the pilot's seat of the old Rendili StarDrive Liner. She scooted over to copilot as Evverd threw himself into the driver's seat. Calrissian had given the evacuation signal a few moment ago. All around them, ships of every size were lifting off.
"It's that irresistible Corellian charm," he said, checking out the controls. The transport was old, a civilian model that would have been the height of luxury about thirty years ago. People like Lando had probably whiled away many transit hours with sabacc tournaments in its spacious holds. Now those holds were crammed with refugees, as Imperial stormtroopers rushed to secure the city. It was like Hoth on a larger scale, and Evverd had already seen this part, so there was no need to stick around.
"Hit it," he said, and the transport's ion engines surged. The pink and orange sky of Cloud City rushed forward at his viewport, then gave way to the black-and-white color scheme of space.
Proximity sirens bawled. "TIE fighters incoming."
Simms hit a control. "Gunnery crews stand by." He looked at her. "This thing has guns?"
"Of course. Lando knows what he's doing, and so do I." She touched the intercom again. "Fire."
Quad laser ports spat red fire at the swarming TIE fighters, but the starfighters were quick, and the gunners seemed inexperienced.
Evverd hissed. "Who've you got down there? Ugnaughts?"
"Give them a chance," Simms said. One TIE fighter strayed too close to the forward cannons, which she herself was controlling, and she sent it spinning off into space. It detonated a moment later.
"Yeah, I still haven't seen your pals hit anything."
The gunnery light on their port side blinked, and another TIE faded from their sensors. Evverd heard a whoop of joy from aft somewhere.
"You should tell them not to get cocky," he said.
Four more TIE's still swarmed the transport. One got in a strafing run that stripped the liner of her topside shields.
The bridge shook around them, lights blinking out.
"One more hit up there and we're out of it!" Simms' hands scrambled to lock down the damage.
"Then we won't get hit up there!" Evverd swung the controls viciously, and flipped the liner onto its back. He swung in close to Bespin's upper atmosphere. The TIE's, not designed to operate well inside even a slim atmosphere, concentrated on the areas still facing open space.
Though the compensators wouldn't let them feel it, it was all too plain to the liner's crew that they were, in fact, upside down.
"How long can you keep this up?" Simms asked?
"How long 'till you repair that shield?"
Her fingers flew over the board for another minute. "Done!"
Evverd flipped them back, pulling away from Bespin in a steep climb. One of the fighters couldn't follow, at smacked into the atmosphere at full speed. Its stored oxygen turned it into a fireball, which quickly burned itself out.
Evverd pumped his fist, letting out a Corellian war cry. It felt good to be back in action.
"You're certainly enthusiastic," Simms muttered.
They took a jarring blow on the rear quarter, but Simms reallocated shield power to cover it. A moment later, the aft quads made the offending TIE fighter pay.
"Two more of them," Evverd noted.
The other two TIE's looped around, each coming in from starboard at full throttle. The first one's blast took out the shields. As it rolled down and under the liner's hull, the other one came in with a shot at the bare armor. Evverd wrenched the liner sideways, hoping to cover the weak point, but the TIE pilot was good, and kept on target.
Red lightning burst out from somewhere below them. The TIE exploded into dust before it could get off a shot. "What happened?" Evverd wondered.
"Us evacuees gotta stick together," said a male voice on the comm. A modified Corellian freighter shot out from below them, running for open space.
Its pilot chuckled. "Oh, and Talon Karrde says thanks for the loan."
Evverd smiled to himself. That freighter must have been one of the ships Karrde had bought for his fledgling organization with the Alliance funds Evverd had arranged for him.
The last TIE fighter circled around for another run at the exposed starboard side, but the quads got him before he reached it.
Evverd blew out a long breath. "And that, Lady Simms, is the short version of my life."
"You'll forgive me if I don't buy the expanded version." Simms worked a moment longer to restore the starboard deflector, then nodded at him. "Ready for lightspeed."
"Good." Evverd stood up. "You can engage as soon as I'm clear. My X-Wing is in the hold?" Bo had warbled something about that when they'd boarded, and had rolled off towards the cargo areas. He assumed the astromech was aboard by now.
"Er...yes," said Simms, "But we only replaced the hyperdrive - there wasn't time to repair the lasers."
"I still have three proton torps," said Evverd. "Good luck wherever you meet up."
Simms glanced at the sensors, where a variety of Imperial support ships were pouncing on the evacuees. "IF we meet up. Clear skies, Colonel."
The X-Wing launched, and the liner went to lightspeed almost the moment she was clear. Evverd gazed around at the starfield, where the evacuation was going hot and heavy by now. Luckily for many of the evacuees, the EXECUTOR and many of her attendant starfighters were chasing the disk-shape of the MILLENIUM FALCON, as she shot away from Bespin at maximum sublight.
At least Lando and the princess got clear, Evverd thought. The TIE's trailing them were no match for the "fastest hunk of junk in the galaxy" and the EXECUTOR was almost out of range. She'd go to lightspeed in a moment...
Just as Evverd was beginning to wonder what the holdup was, another contact pinged on his scopes. Just faintly - for it was expertly sensor stealthed.
And Evverd knew who it had to be even without an ID.
Bo squawked a nervous question.
"Yes," he said, gunning the accelerator. "We'll head for the rendezvous as soon as I explain things to the bounty hunter..."
In Bo's opinion, any explanation Evverd could make at this point would be long-winded, unnecessary, and possibly suicidal. He recommended lightspeed.
Evverd's only reply was, "See what you can do about restoring the S-foils to operation."
The astromech said it wasn't going to happen without completely new components on the port side.
"Then get me starboard lasers!" He could see the oval shape of the SLAVE I on the viewer now, as it moved silently towards the FALCON. It crossed his mind to wonder why Fett hadn't gone immediately to lightspeed.
Did you know that Lando would escape? he wondered. Or were you just waiting for me?
His sensors bleeped. "Fett'll be in range in... damn. Too soon." Evverd switched over to proton torpedoes, waited a moment for the targeting box to flash red.
"Don't insult my jokes," Evverd hissed at the bounty hunter, and fired two proton torpedoes at the FIRESPRAY-class attack ship.
The torpedoes hit home, not damaging the bounty hunter but knocking him off-course. Fett swiveled around, distracted by this new threat. His ship came around on a head-to-head course.
"You continue to annoy me," Fett said over the comm, "But this ends here."
"If you can catch me," Evverd replied, and flipped the X-Wing back the other way.
Fett was on his tail. The X-Wing's sensor package reported a targeting lock. A pair of concussion missiles lanced out. Evverd kept his course perfectly steady until the last instant, when he rolled out left. The missiles shot by, and spun back to retrieve their lock.
Evverd didn't give them that chance, diving sharply to get out of range. The SLAVE I continued after him, the ENEMY LOCK light once again shining on Evverd's console.
On his sensors, the MILLENIUM FALCON jumped to lightspeed.
"Mission accomplished," said the Corellian, "Get us out of here!"
Bo tootled happily as the missiles reached for them. Then his happiness turned to dread.
Evverd read the display. "Define 'little problem.'"
The droid explained, and Evverd banked sharply to avoid the incoming missiles.
"How can a hyperdrive package be incompatible? What is it, the test version?"
Bo was apologetic.
"Calculation error? How long to fix?"
The droid was almost panicked.
"HOW many seconds?" Evverd groaned. The missiles were already after them again.
They soared straight at his cockpit. Evverd prepared for a desperate climb...
The missiles detonated early, under fire from a new contact. An assault shuttle streaked by overhead, then launched a full torpedo spread at Boba Fett, momentarily blinding the bounty hunter.
"X-Wing," Commander Sedra Covell's voice announced, "We read you with a working hyperdrive but no course. Get set to jump, we'll feed you the coordinates."
"Understood," he said.
The SLAVE I was already breaking off. Evverd's comm crackled. "Once again, my congratulations."
"I'm just always one step ahead of you, it seems."
Fett was silent a moment. "One day, you will stumble, and I will be there to catch you."
The SLAVE I shifted, and disappeared to lightspeed.
"Here's your course, X-Wing." Covell's voice was thick with relief. "I advise you to punch it."
"You heard the lady," said Evverd.
Bo cheered, and engaged the hyperdrive.
"I know you were at Cloud City." Leia Organa's eyes were ringed by dark circles, her regal manner dampened by obvious fatigue and concern. "Thank you, Colonel."
"Did everyone get out all right?" Evverd asked, facing the comm unit of his quarters on the FREEDOM. He felt as tired as she looked.
"All but Han," she said. "Lando Calrissian is... a resourceful man."
"Tell me about it." Evverd hesitated. "Leia, I want you to know... if I could have saved Solo, I would have."
"I know," she said quietly, "We all would have."
"We're gonna get him back."
Leia stared at him, and despite her exhaustion, her eyes were hardened with determination. "Count on it."
And maybe when we do, Evverd thought, I can settle my score with Boba Fett. That's not the kind of thing you leave hanging over your head, if you can help it... "Get some rest, Your Highness. You look like you need it."
"You, too," said Leia, and reached for the comm. "May the Force be with you."
The comm turned off, and Evverd grunted. He thought, you need it more than me...
A arm went around his shoulders. "Are you okay?"
Evverd returned the hug, then chuckled. "Why wouldn't I be?"
"I understand you scuffled with Boba Fett."
"Yeah. I lived through it. He's not as tough as he looks."
Kerri stared at him, understanding all too well that it had been harder than he was showing, and that he could easily be dead instead of home safely. "Is there some Corellian bylaw that says you have to make life hard for everyone, especially yourself?"
"It's not the LAW," he said, "But it is tradition. Shouldn't you be on your bridge?"
Kerri watched the stars with him. "Sedra's got things under control."
"Sedra? What happened to Garreth?"
Kerri frowned. "He's visiting a friend..."
Mykel Garreth, a short man with graying black hair, had been many things in his career. Imperial captain, diplomat, rebel leader, father...he'd never played lawyer before. "The tribunal is assembling. Can you tell me anything else to help your case?"
Lando Calrissian glanced up at him, his brown eyes more subdued than Garreth had seen them. "I've told you everything."
"Well..." Garreth frowned down at this man. They had been friends for years, and Garreth had always sensed Lando was heading for something like this. He'd never expected it to happen the way it had. "If it helps, you've got Leia's vote. Rieekan and Ackbar will be tougher."
"I've told you everything," Lando said sullenly.
"You way you see it," Garreth said. "But the fact is, you've had it in for Solo for a while. Many in the Alliance believe you were only too glad to sell him out."
"I'm not lying," Lando told him. "I'm not a traitor, either, even if that is what it looks like. I had no choice."
"You had a choice, Lando. And now you have another one."
The gambler looked up at him, expression wary. "Oh?"
Garreth smiled. "You could be of great help to us. And I know you want to find Solo. You... told me once that if you joined the Alliance, they'd either shoot you or make you a general. I tell you now, one of those things IS going to happen."
Lando frowned. "I'd be allowed to join you? After what I did to Han?"
"With Leia's support, its possible. The Alliance is about starting over." Garreth smiled. "That's what happened to me. The only question now is, what do you want to do?"
"I want to find Han," Lando said with as close to perfect honesty as Garreth had ever heard from him, "And then I want to pay the Empire back."
Garreth allowed his relief to show on his face, and said, "I think that can be arranged..."
Continued in Episode 5
R. John Burke