STAR WARS: FREEDOM'S Price Episode Ten
DESCRIPTION: At this late date, I'd just as soon give away no secrets. But stay tuned. It'll get worse before it gets better.
NOTICE: STAR WARS and accompanying stuff is a copyright of Lucasfilm, Limited. Did you ever wonder why they're limited? Maybe they don't believe in themselves. Sorry. Anyway, I haven't sold this story, so don't you.
I feel like scum, Jev thought. Am I no better than Boba Fett, collecting bounties and killing Jedi at the whim of the Emperor? I'm working for the man who killed everyone I once loved, and now he wants me to kill my...
He paused. What exactly was she?
The woman in question was Kerri Lynden, captain of the Rebel Alliance frigate FREEDOM. Kerri was strong in the Force. She had used an alien crystal given to her by her mother to evade the Jedi hunters. Somehow it blocked her influence on the Force from detection. She'd given Jev a piece of the crystal, and so far it had been similarly useful to him, allowing him to switch his loyalties from Darth Vader to the Emperor without deadly repercussions. The Emperor had ordered him to confront and kill Kerri, and Jev was confused.
The word he'd been automatically going for to describe her was 'friend,' but that wasn't really accurate. It might have been, at one time, but it was very clear that he and Kerri no longer trusted each other, let alone liked one another.
Kerri could have been that, if she had agreed to train him. Instead she'd backed off, using his fury at the Empire as an excuse not to train him. She'd left him to learn the Force for himself, and fall to the Dark Side. He owed her nothing.
Enemy? Was Kerri his enemy?
She was not, at least not intentionally. She truly believed she had done the right thing, clinging hopelessly to that light side/dark side propaganda espoused by the Jedi for generations. Jev was fairly sure she bared no one any ill will, except perhaps for Vader and his Emperor.
Obstacle. That was the word. Kerri was in his way. Until he had met and defeated another Jedi, he would never move from Apprentice to Knight. And it would take a full Jedi Knight to destroy the Emperor.
That was Jev's secret vision, his goal. He would use the Emperor's own power against him. He'd destroy Darth Vader, too, and pay back all those who had destroyed his homeworld of Alderaan. At that time, he would decide whether he wanted to retire to more peaceful pursuits, and let the Rebel fools have their way, or use his power. Take the Emperor's place.
There were many possibilities, for a full Jedi Knight. But first he had to complete his final test.
And maybe he'd show Kerri that he wasn't the pathetic failure she thought he was.
Kerri Lynden-Evverd blew out a deep breath. She'd used the last few minutes in silent meditation, attempting to touch the Force, in preparation for her probing of Jev Parrak.
Since returning from the Empire, the gangly, blue-eyed young Apprentice had done everything he could to convince his former friends that he was once again on their side. He claimed he'd had no choice but to ally with Vader, and he'd changed his mind about the Dark Side.
But Kerri had a bad feeling about the whole thing.
There was only one way to know for certain whose side Jev was on. That was to discard her crystal and touch him in the Force. Feel for herself whether the young man intended some deception. It was dangerous, but necessary.
The room was darkened, soft lighting being more conducive to concentrating on the Force. Kerri sat on the couch at the far end, with the only sound being sonic pulses from the shipboard 'fresher. They came in rhythmic bursts, like waves lapping against a shore. Everything was relaxed, except for Kerri herself. She couldn't rid herself of all the tension, even by using the Force. This was a crucial time.
The door buzzer sounded. "Captain? It's me."
Kerri took another deep breath, her hand tightening around her crystal. "Come in, Jev."
He entered, a tall figure in a Crewman's uniform, his angular face framed by a dark goatee. Kerri nodded to him. "You know why I called you here."
"I do," said Jev, returning her nod. "There's one more test, isn't there?"
"Yes," said Kerri. "There is. I have to probe you."
Jev stepped forward. "All right, then. Let's get to it."
"Put down your lightsaber," she said, indicating the weapon on his belt. "You will not need it."
Jev nodded tightly and reached for the saber's hilt. His gaze drifted around the cabin. "Where's Rik?"
"In the shower," she told him. "He won't be out for a little while. There's time."
Jev frowned. "If you're gonna sift through my mind, I'd prefer a more private setting."
"You do not get to choose." Kerri's tone was forceful and not without anger. "You lost that right when you abandoned the light side."
"Everyone deserves another chance, Kerri." Jev's expression was as intense as hers.
"And this is yours," said Kerri, "But it will be on my terms. Put the saber down and come over here."
Jev's hand reached for the saber, unlatched it.
"I suppose we can do this the hard way," he said. His silver blade hummed, giving counterpoint to the sound waves from the 'fresher. "Defend yourself."
Kerri frowned. Somehow, she could not bring herself to feel surprise. "Why are you doing this?"
Jev's hand stretched out, and the fresher's lock sizzled, fusing into a solid lump. "No one to interfere."
Kerri lit her own saber. Its orange blade teamed with Jev's to light the room fully. "You haven't answered my question."
"Do your really want to hear it?" Jev laughed bitterly, "You never seemed interested in anything I had to say before."
"If you don't turn from the dark side now," Kerri said, "It will dominate your destiny forever."
The young Apprentice moved forward, and Kerri kept her blade in defensive posture. "The dark side! You were always so worried about the dark side! In me, in yourself, in Vader! You let your fear of the dark side blind you!"
"With good reason," Kerri said. "The dark side has led to the deaths of my family and friends. It led Vader to destroy your planet."
"I'm not naive, Kerri. I know what Vader is. I know what the Emperor is. But I am going to beat them. I need the power they've tapped to do it."
The Jedi Knight sighed. "If you only knew how many Jedi have fallen prey to that trap... and died because of it."
"If I die, I die," said Jev. "But I'm taking them with me."
And with that, he strode forward and swung from the heels, a slice hard enough to take Kerri head off. She ducked beneath it, and swept her saber upwards, nearly batting Jev's out of his grasp. The younger Jedi backed off.
"Impressive," he said. "But your tricks can't save you now. In straight combat, the Dark Side is more powerful."
"Don't do this," said Kerri. "No one has to die here."
"You're wrong. It's not up to you. Or me. It's destiny."
Jev came in again, two consecutive strikes, one from right and the other from left. Kerri deflected both, her saber sizzling with power. Her eyes flicked away from the duel.
"You're stupid to take your eyes off me!" said Jev, saber driving down for a killing blow...
Until a vase from a nearby table smashed into the back of his head, shattering and leaving a trail of blood down his neck. Jev dropped his saber.
Kerri stretched out her hand, but the saber ignited in midair and sliced up at her, a millimeter away from taking the hand off at the wrist. She swiped at the saber, and it slapped back into Jev's palm.
"Don't underestimate me," he said.
"You're very powerful," she confirmed, "But you're not a Jedi yet."
He roared and stuck again, driving her back to the wall with vicious, angry strikes. Their sabers locked and sizzled.
With a flick of her wrists, Kerri freed herself from the snare and brought her saber down and around in a circle. The blade's tip caught Jev's thigh, burning off a chunk of flesh and sending him crashing to the floor.
Kerri stood over him, and deactivated her saber. Breathing hard, she said, "Jev, you're not ready for this. If we continue any longer, you're only going to get hurt."
But Jev Parrak wasn't listening. Pain and embarrassment mixed in his eyes, and came out as rage. His hands clenched into fists, and he growled softly.
Look out, Kerri thought, just before his hands opened and blue-white streaks of energy shot out of his palms. Kerri's saber snapped to life - too late. The bolts caught her, drove her back, and then to her knees.
With an inhuman roar, Jev stood, advancing on her. His attack doubled and redoubled, and he laughed as Kerri's saber was thrown from her grip. The older Knight cried out as wave after wave of dark energy hit her, scalding her, denying her any chance to get her own defenses in place.
Jev halted his assault for a moment. "I should really thank you. If you hadn't made me angry, I never could have connected with the Dark Side like this."
Kerri moaned. "You don't understand the powers you're unleashing."
"Maybe not. But I know why the Dark Side is stronger. It flows quickly in a fight. It comes to you when you need it. Your own pain denies you access to your pitiful energies."
He smile faltered for a moment. "Part of me... really is sorry, Kerri."
He raised his hands for another volley, a killing volley.
Jev cried out in surprise as something slammed into him from behind. Jev went down, a tangle of arms and legs...
Some of which were not his own.
Rik Evverd came up out of the tangle, kneeling now on Jev's chest, pinning the younger man.
He grinned. "Hi, kid."
Then he smashed Jev's head into the metal deck hard enough to incapacitate most people.
A Dark Jedi is not "most people."
Rage returned to the youth's eyes as an invisible hand picked Evverd up and flung him against the wall. Evverd's wind went out as something snapped, and he sunk to the floor.
Jev stood. "I told you once, Rik, that you were stupid. You've just committed suicide."
Something on the floor behind him rattled, and Jev turned to see Kerri's lightsaber flying back to her hand. She climbed to her feet, a bit unsteady but determined, now. She advanced on him, the orange blade snapping into place again.
"First you," he said to her, sweat pouring from his brow, "Then him."
"I don't think so." Rik Evverd was also standing now, though he was bracing himself against the wall. "Even if you can beat Kerri - and that's a BIG if - You'd have to kill us both."
"That's not a problem anymore," Jev said, dark light shining in his eyes.
"I think it is," Evverd hissed. "Come on, kid - you can't have changed that much. I saved your green butt over Yavin! I spent hours listening to you moan about Alderaan! I don't think you can kill me."
"I can," said Jev, his silver blade igniting, "And I will."
Evverd smiled. He motioned Kerri back. "Then do it. Right now. C'mon, I'm only in the way. It'll take two seconds. Do it."
Jev hesitated, remaining focused on the Jedi Knight. "Later."
But Kerri was just standing there, two meters away, Her saber was defensively postured, but she did not move.
"C'mon, kid," Evverd goaded. He stood against the wall, clothed in just his jeans, his dark frame marred by blood. Fire in his brown eyes. "If you can kill me, DO IT!"
Jev swung around, keeping his senses extended for any movement from Kerri, and turned his saber on his former friend. "I advise you to run. Right now."
"She's my wife. I'm not gonna leave her." Evverd winced. "Besides, I don't think I could run just now. Come on."
Jev took a step closer, bringing his saber back for a cut. He gathered his anger.
Evverd grinned at him. It was that infuriating smirk the pilot used when he knew he was a step ahead of you. He didn't think Jev could do it.
And the hell of it was, he was RIGHT.
Jev's saber dropped and went out.
He sighed. "I hate you."
"Sorry." The pilot sighed, and sunk back down to the floor. To Kerri, he said, "What now?"
"I..." The Jedi paused. "Something's wrong."
Jev Parrak stood in the middle of the room, eyes closed in concentration. And laughed.
A brilliant light flared in the viewports and the room flipped eighty degrees, toppling Kerri and most of their belongings to the floor. Evverd slid along the wall, hands seeking purchase. From the corridor, shouts and screams could be heard alongside the crunches of falling objects and the hisses of shorted machinery.
The room righted itself, things crashing back to the floor with a thud.
One Dark Jedi stood in the middle of the floor, unmoved. "I won't be bothering you anymore. The hangar is that way, right?" As Rik and Kerri struggled to right themselves, Jev laughed. "I'll find it myself. 'Bye."
He paused at the door. "Oh, and Rik - that's the last reprieve you get on the basis of friendship. The next time I see you - either one of you - I'll kill you."
He saluted with the hilt of his lightsaber, and left the room at a jog.
Kerri crawled over to her husband, where he lay with his head propped up against the wall. "Are you all right?"
He groaned. "I'll be fine. Get after him!"
"It's too late," she said. "I don't think I'd want to prevent his escape, even if I was sure I could."
Evverd frowned at her. "Why not?"
"You've seen what he can do." Kerri shrugged. "Even if we caught him, how would we hold him?" When Evverd shrugged, conceding the point, she continued, "How'd you get in here?"
Evverd pointed at the ceiling. "Air duct. That's another one you owe me. Maybe two."
Kerri's reply was cut off by the bleep of a comm. The captain struggled to her feet. "Yes?"
Commander Sedra Covell's voice was a bit shell-shocked. "Captain, somehow we've - been pulled out of lightspeed."
"Tell me something I don't know, Commander. How long for repairs?"
Sedra's voice was dark. "A long time. We're in the middle of nowhere here, the motivator is bad - and we've got damage and casualty reports coming out the..."
"Understood," said Kerri, "Get to work on the motivator. If we're going to be stuck here, you'd better inventory the ration packs. I'll be on the bridge in a few minutes."
"You got it. Bridge out."
Kerri stooped to the ground and put an arm around her husband, helping him to his feet. She continued to help him out into the corridor, where several other crewers were helping wounded, in better and worse shape than Rik, along a similar route.
"Why do you always have to be a hero?" she asked.
"Hey, good. Criticize me. Wouldn't want to say 'thank you' or anything..."
ONE STANDARD MONTH LATER
The maroon capes of the Imperial Guard swirled in the wind disturbances created by Jev Parrak's shuttle. He brought the shuttle in slowly, steeling himself for the possibility that this would be the last vehicle he ever flew.
Just as well. There'd been a time when he had loved to fly, but more and more lately, it had become an obligation. A duty like any other, except perhaps that he possessed some native talent at it.
His ramp hissed downwards, clanking against the landing pad. Two guardsmen ascended it, unbidden. The crescent slits in their high-domed masks stared at Jev.
"Follow," said one, without emotion. Jev nodded, and with a deep breath, he strode after the two sentinels down to the landing strip.
Two more red-robed guards fell into step behind him, leading him to the rooftop lift. Jev watched the blinking lights of Coruscant as he treaded across the roof, all too aware that they were likely the last beautiful thing his eyes would ever see, the cool breeze the last pleasant thing he'd ever feel.
Jev grunted, not without humor. Lots of "lasts," today.
He stepped onto the lift, flanked on four sides by the guardsmen, and it descended down into the Emperor's Palace. Jev kept his own expression as unreadable as the masks. He was a Jedi. He would not show fear.
The trip to the Emperor's throne room, in the very heart of the Palace, took several minutes. The Imperial Palace was easily the largest manmade structure in the known galaxy, and Jev did what he could to savor every second of remaining life.
He hadn't contacted the Emperor after the battle, for fear of being struck dead from across the galaxy, as his master had almost done once before. With his crystal, Palpatine could not locate him, and Jev had decided that he would face the Emperor in person, where he would at least have a chance to fight back.
In the intervening month, he had stopped off at a deserted planet - or what he'd thought was one - to hone his skills. He was fairly sure that bringing the FREEDOM out of hyperspace with only his thoughts was the final step to becoming a full Jedi, but he wanted to be ready, or as ready as he could be, for the challenge.
He'd stopped at a swamp planet that wasn't even on the charts, one that seemed to - call to him, somehow. He'd landed by a cave thick with dark energy, and spent, by his best guess, about an hour trying to hone his anger and deepen his contact with the Force.
A high, cackling voice had interrupted his thoughts. "New here, are you not?"
The voice had startled Jev so badly that he'd fallen off the massive tree trunk he'd been sitting on. He'd spun to his feet, lightsaber igniting.
He had nearly died of embarrassment when he'd seen that his "attacker" was a little green man, about as tall as Jev's waist.
"Oooh! Ooohhh..." The creature had stared at him, a strange look on its face. "That weapon you carry! The blade of a Jedi, that is."
"That's right," Jev had said with a grunt. "Get outta here, little guy. I'm busy."
"Busy are you? Nothing, were you doing, when I came."
"I was concentrating," said Jev. "You know, thinking."
"Thinking, were you? Oooh..." The little creature WAS kind of cute, but Jev had lacked patience at the time. "Dangerous thoughts, do you think."
"What do you know about it?" Jev growled, slashing the sword in a little arc to make the thing back off. "Scoot!"
"No... No. Stay and help you, I will."
"There's nothing you can do," Jev had told it, plopping back down on the tree branch. The wizened little creature hopped up on the branch, clinging to it with taloned feet. At his full height, he was the same size as Jev sitting down. "I'm preparing for a terrible battle."
"Oohh... terrible battle. All battles are terrible, yes?"
"Whatever," said Jev. "Just leave me alone."
"What is it you wear?" The little creature poked some thing - some little stick like a tree branch - at the crystal worn around Jev's neck. "Pretty, it is."
"Yeah, I like it."
The little green man plopped down next to him. "And precious to you, yes? A friend gave it to you, perhaps?"
"No," said Jev with a grunt, "More like an enemy."
"The same are they, many times. Young you are, to have such enemies."
Losing patience now, but unable to bring himself to harm the little guy, Jev had sighed. "I'm a quick learner."
"Yes. Powerful Jedi, have you become. Powerful Jedi."
Jev wanted to be angry, but it had felt so good to speak to someone who wasn't threatening or lecturing him for once that he had just frowned. "How could you know that?"
"When nine hundred years old you reach," said the being with a poke of its stick, "Many things you will know, as well, yes?"
Jev had laughed. "I guess that's true. Nine hundred, huh? I imagine you've seen it all."
"Ooohhh... many things, many things have I seen." The green, wrinkled creature looked up at him. "Troubles, have I seen. You carry many with you, I think."
"I've got my share," said Jev. "My master is going to kill me."
"Ooohh... master. An evil master he must be, to do such a thing."
"Yeah," said Jev, "He's a fun guy."
The thing's large eyes were surprisingly serious, and at the time Jev had no trouble believing he was nine hundred years old. "Why must you return to him?"
"I don't know... It's my destiny, I think." Jev sighed. "Besides, I want to kill him."
The creature pointed his stick at Jev's still-sizzling lightsaber. Surprisingly, though it touched the saber's blade, its wooden tip was not even blackened. "Only a tool, is this. It cannot solve your troubles."
Jev had smiled. "Once again, what do you know about it?"
"I know." The creature's voice was soft and serious. "Seen it, have I. Young men and women, rushing off to battle. Always they think they know best. Wise, are they, in their own eyes. Never do their weapons save them."
"It's all I have," Jev said, casting a critical glance at the alien. "Besides - YOU can't have done any fighting. You don't understand."
The little alien looked offended. "So certain, are you? Judge me by size alone, you do?"
"No..." said Jev, "I didn't mean that. I'm just confused."
"Friends, you have," said the creature, "Who would help you find the answers."
"Maybe. But they'd never trust me again. Besides, I can't forgive them. I can't forgive anyone."
"Ooohh..." the little creature sounded glum, "Much anger in you. Much darkness." he poked the lightsaber again. "Especially dangerous it is, to use this at such a time."
The words echoed something Kerri had once said: A heart filled with hatred is a terrible thing to mix with the Force. Thought of Kerri made Jev's anger flare, and he hopped off the log. "Go away. I've got to prepare."
"For your destiny, yes? To face your master? The answers you seek, you will not find in such a fight."
"Then where are they? Huh?" Jev swiveled on the little guy, holding his saber aloft. "You seem to know everything! WHERE ARE MY ANSWERS?"
The little creature did not speak, merely raised the stick and pointed at the mouth of the Dark Cave. "In there? I'm not going in there!"
The creature's eyes held his. "Then already lost, are you."
Jev set his jaw. Unsure even of why he was doing it, he stepped towards the cave.
"If search you do with that weapon," said the creature, "Then that is what you will find."
"I'm ready for anything," said Jev. Hefting the saber, he stalked into the cave. As he did so, he thought - just for a moment - that he heard another voice, solemn and dignified, conversing with the creature.
"That boy is in grave danger," said the voice, "Perhaps he can be trained."
The little creature hesitated a moment before answering. "His fate is his own. Interfere, I cannot."
Jev pulled himself out of his reverie as they approached the throne room. When he'd returned from the cave, the little creature, and the voice, were gone. He'd continued his exercises, until he was sure he was as centered in the Force as he could be.
And done his best to forget everything he'd seen in the cave.
The cave had revealed images to him, dark images from the Force. Images of battle and failure. And death.
Jev knew he would not survive this meeting. But he was going to wipe the evil smile off that old wizard's face before he went.
The Imperial Guard marched him through the door. At the appropriate moment, just as they came within view of the raised and darkened throne, Jev twitched his hand, and the two guardsmen in front of him fell to the ground, grasping for their throats.
Jev strode through their midst, ignoring the weapons aimed at him by the rear guardsmen. He strode before the hooded figure on the throne.
The Emperor of the galaxy motioned with his hand, and the guardsmen stood down. "Was that necessary, my young apprentice?"
"I thought I might at least make an entrance," said Jev, face impassive.
Yellowed eyes stared at him. "Why have you been so long in returning?"
Jev was surprised by the question. "I failed you. Kerri lives. You hadn't figured out that part?"
"I know many things," said the Emperor, like some kind of dark parody of the little creature he'd met on the swamp world. "But you did not fail me."
"What?" said Jev. He'd been sure the Emperor would kill him, especially after the cave.
"You have learned to harness your anger. You have learned to hate those who stand against you. You completed your knowledge of the Dark Side. I am most impressed."
"But you said Kerri had to die." Jev was totally confused.
"And she will. In time." The sickly face within the Emperor's darkened hood peered at him. "But for the moment, you have made yourself my servant. That will suffice."
"I have given you a reprieve, Lord Parrak." The Emperor's tone was dark, "It would be wise of you not to question your good fortune."
Jev sighed with utter relief, and bowed low. "Yes, my master."
"And now that you have proven yourself, there is someone I wish you to meet. She is about to leave on a mission of some importance, but I think the two of you will spend a great deal of time working together when she returns."
Jev nodded. "As you wish."
The Emperor beckoned with his hand, and a figure stepped out of the shadows. A lithe woman with long, red hair.
A woman Jev knew. "Marta?"
"That was my code name," she said, voice cool. "Hello, Jev."
The Emperor nodded at them. "Dark Jedi, meet my personal envoy. The Emperor's Hand, Mara Jade."
Jev frowned, and as he did so, a stray memory clicked. "That's right! I saw you dueling with Kerri on the FREEDOM's bridge a few years ago! How could I have forgotten a thing like that?"
"The Jedi made you forget," said the Emperor, his shrill voice grating over each word, "She did not think you ready to handle such knowledge. She distrusted you, as always. But you have beaten her. You have grown more powerful than she imagines. And you will destroy her."
Jev smiled, still a bit confused but willing to go with it. "As you command, of course."
"I see that are still confused," said the Emperor, and glanced at Mara. "Both of you. Do not be concerned. In time, all will become clear."
Jev nodded to Mara Jade. "I look forward to working with you."
Mara just grunted, looking at Jev with an odd expression. Not distaste or welcome... more like regret.
"Excellent," said the Emperor. "Excellent."
But Jev was still confused: The Emperor hadn't even come close to killing him. So what could his vision from the cave mean?
Captain Kerri Lynden-Evverd stood at the ramp of a still-unnamed YT-1700 freighter. She kissed her husband, then stood back.
"Be careful," she said, "All of you."
"Relax," said Evverd. "This'll be easy."
After sending a fighter to the nearest Rebel base for help, FREEDOM had received the necessary parts to repair their hyperdrive - only to find that the unit was still finicky. It had been a tense series of stop-and-go lightspeed flights to Corellia, with long pauses after every mini-jump to calibrate the hyperdrive. It had taken a month to reach Corellia, where the techs could pull the hyperdrive and really go over it right.
It was no surprise to Kerri that Rik Evverd had volunteered for this mission. After a month cooped up aboard ship, he was even willing to visit his father, just to get some flight time.
"Sure you won't come?" said Evverd, "Dad is probably gonna want to talk to you."
"I'd like to come," said Kerri. She jumped as she heard a couple of techs it the hangar drop something heavy with a clunk. "But I should supervise this repair job."
Admiral Mykel Garreth, who had boarded their ship via shuttle a few hours ago, from the task force, sighed. "It's just as well you showed up late. It's taken us this long to locate Bel Iblis. The man is paranoid."
"I'm telling you," said Evverd, "After what we've been through this last month, this'll be easy."
"Oh, yes, and speaking of annoying Corellians," said Garreth as he ascended the ramp, "Let me do the talking. Your diplomatic skills leave something to be desired."
"I can negotiate!" Evverd hollered up at him.
Sedra Covell appeared at the airlock. "Are you coming, Colonel?"
"I'm coming," said Evverd. He looked at Kerri once more.
"Good luck," she said.
"If any more Dark Jedi show up while I'm gone," he said, "Tell 'em we don't want any."
He blew her a kiss, and jogged up the ramp. A moment later, the nameless freighter was gone.
If any more Dark Jedi show up, Kerri decided, I'm taking a vacation. Let someone else deal with it...
But in truth, she knew this was not the end. And she knew even better whose responsibility it was to deal with Jev Parrak.
Continued in Episode 11
R. John Burke