STAR WARS: FREEDOM'S Price Episode Twelf
DESCRIPTION: It's the beginning of the end for our heroes, as the Alliance launches a couple of small missions right before gathering at Sullust.
NOTICE: Star Wars belongs to Lucasfilm. This story is non-profit fan fiction, for entertainment uses only. (Everyone who is glad to have gotten out of that without some corny joke, raise your hand...)
"Anyone miss me?"
The assembled sentients in the FREEDOM's officer's mess let out a collective cheer as everyone rushed to greet and congratulate Taryn Clancee at once.
The officers had all returned from their various missions, and for once the entire senior staff had assembled as they sat half a light-year distant from Corellia. The ship's captain, an olive-skinned woman named Kerri Lynden-Evverd, sat at the head of the table. Next came her husband, Rik, the ship's XO Sedra Covell, the Wookiee engineer Gaaraanzii, the Mon Cal chief of the boat, Okel, Harkin, the bridge "floater" who had sat in at just about all the stations in her time, Avers, the leader of FREEDOM's attendant X-Wing squadron, Lieutenant Lasco from Supply and Procurement, and the Twi'lek navigator, Korb Weeilka. Finally, at the other end of the table, sat Admiral Mykel Garreth. A short man with piercing dark eyes and long, graying hair, Garreth had no official place on his old ship anymore, but he usually ran his task force from there (though it was not, technically, his flagship; the Mon Calamari cruiser VALIENT held that honor.)
"I'm surprised you can still eat," said Evverd, "After an audience with the Hutt."
"Let me tell you," said Taryn, pulling up the chair next to Garreth's, "I really outdid myself this time. Jabba doesn't suspect a thing. I don't know what Skywalker's plan for rescuing Han Solo is, but Calrissian is all set."
"It's crazy, if you ask me," Covell said, "A kid, a princess, and a gambler waltzing into..."
Gaar roared an addition.
"Right. Sorry. A kid, a princess, a gambler, and a Wookiee waltzing into the stronghold of the galaxy's top crime lord. Jabba will eat them alive."
"I've heard he does that," said Lasco with a grin.
Taryn laughed. "He's certainly fat enough..."
"Well, I for one think this deserves a reward," said Evverd, standing up to raise his glass in a toast. "What'll you have, Clancee? Pick anything on the menu, on me."
Taryn frowned. "What's the menu?"
"Ration packs, ration packs, or swill, brewed from ration packs." Kerri's tone was dry. "We used up all our consumables during that month of transit time, and we still haven't resupplied."
"It's not my fault!" said Lasco, "Bel Iblis' people are jittery. I'll work out a trade for some real food. It'll just take time."
"While you work," said Evverd, "We starve."
"I'm working on it," Lasco insisted. "In the meantime... I do have a few kegs of Corellian ale in the hold."
Kerri frowned. "Lasco, I told you to dump that stuff."
"And I did," said the procurement officer.
"I pulled it back in with a tractor beam," said Taryn, "Lighten up, Captain."
"Technically, I don't have to." Kerri's brown eyes held hers with just the slightest bit of challenge. "It's my ship."
Taryn groaned, and appealed to a higher power. "Admiral?"
The short man laughed out loud. "Not my problem. Settle up amongst yourselves." He pushed his chair back. "I have duties to attend to."
Evverd said, "Hey, Admiral - you got a minute? We should talk."
"Sorry, Mister Evverd. I've got to address Mon Mothma. The matter is urgent. I can't--"
"This is really important," said the Corellian.
"All right. One minute."
Kerri stood, as well. "I should get back to my bridge. And Clancee - If I find empty kegs of Corellian ale lying around..."
"What?" said Taryn, becoming annoyed.
The captain rolled her eyes. "Then I'll have to assume you jettisoned the contents, won't I?"
Lasco grinned. "Aye, Captain."
The three senior officers left the room.
"That's right," said Evverd, "Talon Karrde wants a hundred thousand for the complete directory of Imperial slave transfers for the next three months."
Garreth sat down behind his desk, hands pressed together in thought. "That could be very useful. Is the data reliable?"
"If it comes from Karrde, it's reliable," said the Corellian. "He's a scoundrel, but he sells quality merchandise."
"I see." The flag officer frowned. "But a hundred thousand..."
"It would have been more, but Karrde has no love for slavers."
Garreth sighed. "It's a great opportunity. But the Alliance's cash flow is only starting to recover from your last payment to Karrde. I don't know that Command will authorize it."
Evverd grinned tightly. "Then with respect, sir, we won't tell them."
Garreth sighed. "It's not that easy. There are channels..."
"Look," said the dark-skinned man across the desk, "Let me give you a little crash course in Corellian thinking. You're an Admiral. You're authorized to make certain... expenditures...to keep your task force running smoothly. So you do this through channels, but you chalk up the hundred thousand as a... a... recruiting expense."
"A hundred thousand?" said Garreth. "Do you think they'll just write that off?"
"No," said Evverd. "But by the time some datapad jockey brings it to Mon Mothma's attention, it'll be done, and the Alliance will have a few thousand extra troops because of the slaves we free, and nobody'll care how you got the data."
The admiral groaned. "That's Corellian thinking, is it? My head hurts."
"You'll get used to it," said Evverd. "You just have to learn to disregard the odds and your common sense."
And at length, Garreth leaned forward. "I'm going to use your wife's line. I'm not authorizing this, but if I find a hundred thousand missing from our accounts, I'll assume the bank was robbed."
Evverd's face lit up in a grin. "Thank you, sir."
"How soon can you have the information?"
Evverd held out his hand and placed a tiny datadot on the desktop. "There you go."
Garreth looked from the information file to Evverd and back. "You already paid him."
Evverd tapped his forehead. "Corellian thinking. By the time you said no, it would've been done. And you never would've had the heart to send all those poor slaves to their deaths by sending it back..."
The shorter man sighed. It wasn't worth getting frustrated over. Evverd was going to do whatever he pleased, and you couldn't prevent that. But you could get even. "Very well, Colonel. Since this is your project, it's your responsibility."
Evverd frowned. "What?"
"I want you poring over this data until you've figured out... oh, at least twelve possible operation scenarios to make use of it."
"Hey, no..." said the Corellian, "That's a job for a droid, or a technician..."
Mykel Garreth smiled. Evverd hated desk work with a passion. "Or a colonel who has sliced protected Alliance bank accounts, and doesn't wish me to inform the MP's."
Rik Evverd, like his admiral, knew when he was beaten. "I'll get you for this."
"Go. I've got a comm to make."
"I hope you get a bad connection," the colonel muttered as he left the room with his datadot.
Garreth leaned forward, his head propped up on his hands. Now for his own particular task... he had an idea that it would take more than a little of that "Corellian thinking" to get Mon Mothma to buy into this one.
Several millions of light-years away, on a dustball planet called Tattooine, a Rebel smuggler hung frozen in carbonite, to be leered at by the galaxy's thugs. A guard, supposedly a "Torollian hunter" by the name of Tamtel Skreej, kept careful watch over the proceedings, ready to change the situation at the appropriate time.
Across the desert, in a sandstone hut once owned by an old desert rat named Ben, a young Jedi Knight was building a lightsaber...
In the depths of the Imperial palace on Coruscant, another young human, a woman with long, red-gold hair, was addressing her master.
"I'm in position," she said, "No sign of Skywalker yet. There was a Rebel operative here the other day - Taryn Clancee, who replaced me on the FREEDOM."
The Emperor nodded, yellow eyes peering from under his hood in the dreamlike vision through which they communicated. "I am aware of this woman."
"She brought a friend with her - supposedly a Torollian warrior. I don't think there is such a thing. It's a guess, but he might be Calrissian. Jabba's hired him as a bodyguard."
"Which suggests that the young Jedi will arrive shortly," the Emperor concluded. "Excellent work, Mara. As always. Will it be necessary to eliminate this Calrissian?"
Mara frowned, considering. "I don't think so. It might jeopardize my cover. I think it's better just to wait for Skywalker."
"As you wish," the Emperor said. "So long as you do eliminate Skywalker."
"Don't worry," said the young woman with a smile. "As far as I'm concerned, he's already dead."
The Emperor waited a moment. When Mara did not break the contact, he said, "Was there something more?"
"Yes. You implied that when my mission here was over, I'd be working with the young man Lord Vader captured."
"Yes,' said the Emperor with a nod. "Young Lord Parrak, our newest Dark Jedi."
"I was wondering if you could fill me in on the assignment."
The aged wizard's already wrinkled brow creased further in contemplation. "In time. For now, you need only concentrate on Skywalker. When you have defeated him, return to Coruscant, to my skyhook, and await further instruction."
Mara was curious. "Why your skyhook? Why not the Palace?"
The Emperor released his familiar, cackling laugh.
"Mara, my dear young apprentice, have you not learned yet not to question my will?"
"I'm sorry," said Mara, eyes downcast.
"No apology is necessary," said the Emperor, "Merely trust that all is in readiness. Within a very short time now, all our enemies will be destroyed."
"My sisters?" Korb Weeilka, the young Twi'lek who served as the Nav/Comm officer on the NEBULON-B class frigate FREEDOM, was so excited that his head-tails were twitching. "You've found them?"
"Now, calm down, hotshot." Rik Evverd grinned from behind his desk in the FREEDOM's lower deck. Privately, he hated the desk. He'd had an office as a squadron commander, but more often than not, he'd used it to store his gear so that he'd have more room in his personal quarters. Until being bumped to Flight Instructor, he'd never actually USED his desk. "All we know is they're scheduled for transfer, along with about a hundred other slaves, to Coruscant."
"Coruscant? Not to Black Sun?" Though Prince Xizor had been executed aboard his skyhook by Darth Vader, the remnants of the crime organization were quite powerful, and almost universally hated.
"No - apparently it's an Imperial operation." Evverd grimaced. "Most of the slaves are Wookiees and Mon Cal, being used for muscles or tech stuff..."
Weeilka's head-tails twitched again. While the Wookiees had strength and technical aptitude, and the Calamarians were smart and durable in their own right, the less powerful but more graceful Twi'lek generally had a very limited field of options as slaves. Especially the females.
The Twi'lek hissed. "If they're lucky, they'll end up as part of some Senator or Moff's court."
"That's right," said the Corellian, not liking the idea much better than he did.
"Colonel, we've got to do something! Now, a hundred slaves - including Wookiees - that's got to be worth going in to get."
"Anywhere else, yeah." Evverd agreed. "But this is Coruscant, kid. Derlin and his commandos couldn't get in there."
"I want to try," said Weeilka.
The Corellian bit his lip. "I thought you would. We gotta keep this quiet. And you'll need someone crazy to pull it off."
The Twi'lek grinned, baring his needle-sharp teeth. "You?"
"If they'd only let me..." Evverd said with an expression that said he meant it. "Unfortunately, I've got a ton of data to sort. But I do have an idea who might go..."
"Yes, Admiral, I am well aware of the problem with the Bothan information. Fey'lya briefed me this morning."
Garreth frowned. If Fey'lya thought he could go right to Mon Mothma, why hadn't he done so? "You know all about it?"
"Yes," confirmed the leader of the Rebel Alliance. A regal former Senator from Chandrila, Mon Mothma had joined with Bail Organa and Garm Bel Iblis to ratify the original Corellian Treaty that formed the Rebel Alliance. She had also vouched for Garreth when he had defected to the Rebel Alliance. Though the war had worn her down, she still possessed that spark that had unified half the galaxy against the Empire. "The important thing, Mykel, is to keep this quiet."
Garreth frowned. "Almost exactly the words Fey'lya used. Why is secrecy so important?"
Mon Mothma sighed. "Mykel... this assault on the second Death Star is our chance. If we can destroy it, and do so during the Emperor's scheduled inspection, we can cripple the Empire."
"I understand that. But if it's an Imperial trap..."
"We don't know that," said Mon Mothma. "All we have is a Bothan suspicion that their handiwork might have been traced. In all likelihood, the information is fine."
Garreth's temper flared. "What if it's not?"
"That is a decision we'll face when we have to," the Senator told him, "But for the moment, our troops are rallying around the idea of a grand strike against the Empire. We cannot lose their faith over mere speculation."
The admiral groaned. This was one of the reasons why he'd declined to run for the Senate, despite the Emperor's assurances that he'd "win easily." Mon Mothma and Fey'lya were making a military decision based on politics.
A small smile touched his lips. Ackbar must love this, he thought. If he knows...
"We've got to send that team in," said Garreth, "We've got to verify this data, or it's useless."
"My thought exactly," said Mon Mothma. "When do you leave?"
The short admiral sputtered. "ME? I'm not a field operative!"
"No. But you're a very competent commander. A Bothan insertion team led by your own daughter is prepared, and besides... I can't risk anyone else knowing about this."
"I'm not qualified!" said Garreth, "I won't do it!"
"You also know the layout of Carida, having taught at the Academy," Mon Mothma pointed out, "And as you once said, if there is information to be had about the Empire, Carida is the place to get it."
Garreth felt like he was shouting into the desert winds of Tattooine. "That may be true, but..."
"Unless you think this operation is not important?"
He groaned. Now he understood. "Fey'lya told me first so I'd have to go to you, and press for the operation. So I couldn't refuse to lead it personally."
"Perhaps," the Senator told him, "The Bothan mind is a complex and frightening thing."
That Bothan is smarter than I gave him credit for, Garreth thought. And slimier. "If you ask me, I think Fey'lya should have to clean up his own mess."
Mon Mothma's smile grew broader. "Now that is a frightening thought. Can you imagine a military strike force led by Fey'lya?"
Garreth shuddered. "Perish the thought, Mon Mothma. When does the strike force arrive?"
"They'll dock with the FREEDOM within the hour. Good luck, Mykel."
"Wait," he said, "I already asked Fey'lya this, but - what if the team doesn't return in time?"
Mon Mothma held his dark eyes with her blue ones. "Then we go anyway. This is our most desperate hour. Command, out."
Garreth massaged his temples. I never used to get headaches this frequently in the Imperial fleet, he thought. I'll go, all right. But on my terms. I want someone on that mission, besides my daughter, that I trust...
"I am honored to accompany you into battle, Admiral." The muscular, sandy furred Wookiee named Gaaraanzii spoke through a translator-device attached to his bandolier. "But how will I infiltrate an Imperial world?"
"You can always pose as a slave," Garreth said, "As you did that time on Coruscant."
The Wookiee glowered down at him. "I do not enjoy posing as a slave."
"And I don't enjoy embarking on last-minute commando missions with a bunch of whining Bothans."
Gaar bared his fangs. "On that we agree."
Garreth said. "Look, the bottom line is this: I need your help. I'm getting too old for this sort of thing."
The Wookiee stepped forward and clasped his shoulder with a massive paw. "I will fight with you, Admiral. Perhaps we shall die together in combat."
"Let's hope not," Garreth said, "If this team goes down, the entire Alliance may well follow..."
"I mean it. I want you to take her."
Taryn Clancee looked from Evverd to their YT-1700 freighter as though she didn't quite believe him.
"I mean it," he repeated, though it obviously pained him. "Take her. You need something inconspicuous, something that'll slip past Imperial patrols. Now, if we just file down the port quad gunwell so it looks like, I dunno, an extra cargo pod, she's perfect for the job."
Taryn still hedged. She had quickly agreed to lead the assault on the Imperial slave ship. Taryn hated slavers, especially after her own stint as an Imperial conscript. She also loved the idea of getting to fly HER ship solo. But she didn't want Evverd to offer because he felt obligated. "We can always borrow a freighter from Supply..."
"Forget it. Look, my generosity is gonna run out in about twelve seconds, so if I were you..."
"I'll take her," said Taryn. "Thanks."
"Yeah, you just bring her back in mint condition, all right?" The Corellian grinned, just about halfway between honest good humor and physical distress.
"I'm a better pilot than you," said Taryn, "She won't get a scratch."
"And... uh..." Evverd looked away, "And you, too."
Taryn frowned for a moment, Evverd's serious tone dampening her own spirits. She'd been on a thousand runs and operations like this. There was no cause for concern.
And yet, her bad feeling wouldn't go away.
Taryn bluffed her way through it. "Knock it off! You're just trying to make me forget I'm taking on YOUR mission in the ship you stole from me!"
Evverd chuckled, then said, "Tell you what. You're doing the hard part. You can pick the name."
"We'll both name her," said Taryn, and she shook his hand, "When I get back."
The Corellian, feeling a bit uncomfortable, shifted his gaze to the ship. "Um... so like I said, I was thinking we could disguise the quad mount. Might be a nice little surprise for some Imp bandit..."
"Maybe," said Taryn, surveying the prominent, low-slung quad laser turret across the ship's underbelly for its cockpit. "But I don't think a cargo pod's gonna cut it...Give me a little time. I got an idea."
"Admiral Garreth? I'm Commander Tran'lya, your mission leader."
The Bothan, taller than Fey'lya with fur a shade darker, nevertheless had the -lya suffix, meaning he was part of Borsk Fey'lya's clan. Great, thought Garreth with a grunt. We've got a relative on the team. Guess who he's loyal to?
He smiled pleasantly. "Commander. This is Lieutenant Commander Gaaraanzii, my chief engineer. He'll be accompanying us."
The Wookiee greeted the lead Bothan with a howl that bordered on the sinister, and Tran'lya stepped back.
"The, um..." the Bothan said, "The mission profile said nothing of another operative..."
"I'm altering the profile," said Garreth with his best Stare of Authority. "Do you have a problem, mister?"
The Bothan stood at reasonably respectful attention. "No, sir."
"Excellent." He surveyed a LAMBA-class shuttle in the FREEDOM's hangar bay. "Good ship you've acquired. This should suffice very well."
"Thank you, sir," said Tran'lya. Garreth couldn't help but notice that he wasn't as oily or obsequious as the average Bothan, and he raised his appraisal of the commander a notch. "We think she'll do the job."
Garreth's daughter Trina appeared at the shuttle's ramp. "Is everyone... What's with the Wookiee?"
"He's my personal bodyguard," said Garreth with a thin smile. Though, he's guarding more against the Bothans than the Empire, thought the admiral.
Trina, whose trust in the Bothans ran somewhat deeper, frowned a bit. "Is that necessary?"
"That remains to be seen, my dear." He headed for the shuttle, glancing back at Tran'lya and Gaar. "Coming?"
Starlines folded back into stars, and Taryn Clancee nodded, checking the various ship's systems. No problems so far, she thought. This baby just needed some love and attention to be a first-class ship.
Weeilka checked his own readouts. The Twi'lek had proven to be a first-class copilot. Of course, their rapport was helped by the fact that he and Taryn had been the helm/nav team on the FREEDOM for some time, ever since she'd shifted over to helm last year.
"All systems green," said Weeilka. "You see the target?"
Taryn surveyed her scopes, which were practically overloaded from the multitude of ships, all shapes and sizes, which crowded Coruscant's approach vectors. Finally, she resorted to visual scan. In other words, she looked out the viewport, and saw the old, beaten-down hauler approaching from about point-45.
"There she is," Taryn said, "This is gonna be easy." She touched the comm. "Sergeant Zellar, prepare your team."
The comm crackled open, and a voice said, "Unidentified freighter, this is Imperial Center Control. Please state your cargo and destination."
"Um..." Taryn punched a few buttons, to transmit a pirated clearance code. The code was no longer valid, but it would take them a few minutes to figure that out. "Freighter SELONIAN STAR, out of the Corellian shipyards. Cargo is parts and hull plating for TIE Interceptors." That little lie would be borne out by the quad gunwell, which Taryn had converted, using recovered battle debris, to look like a complete TIE fighter shell. The idea was supposed to be that part of their "cargo" hadn't fit in the hold.
The controller said, "SELONIAN STAR, hold position. The planetary shield will be deactivated upon confirmation of your code transmission."
"Copy," said Taryn, and shut off the comm. She handled the helm careful, sidling towards the hauler so casually that it would appear to be course drift.
After several, tense moments, they were nearly in position when the comm sputtered again. "SELONIAN STAR, your code does not appear to be valid."
Taryn tried to sound surprised. "No kidding. Must have sent the wrong comm. Stand by."
For a hell of a long time, she added silently. "Punch it!"
Weeilka hit the release switch that dropped their patched-together TIE hull to reveal the main quads. The hidden gunner turned their full strength on the hauler, stripping its rear shield, while the topside ion cannons shorted out the larger ship's engines.
In a minute, they were set to board. "Let's go! Go!"
Their freighter shot towards the hauler, settling in with its clamps right over the airlock. Taryn left Weeilka in the cockpit, and went aft to join the commando team.
One of the Rebel operatives was already slicing through the hull. After a moment, it gave way.
Laser blasts crossed both ways as the prison guards attempted to stem the rebel advance, but the boarding party was confident and skilled. With Zellar in the lead and Taryn right behind him, they charged through into the dank and rusty corridors of the slaver ship. Taryn brought down two stormtroopers personally, then tossed a smoke bomb that delayed a few more.
Dodging criss-crossing laser fire, they ducked into the main hold. Taryn breathed a sigh of relief as she saw two Twi'lek slaves who bore a definite resemblance to Korb Weeilka.
Then her eyes widened as she took in the rest of the "slaves."
They were all humans.
In Imperial fleet uniforms.
Holding blaster rifles.
Their leader stepped forward, and gestured with his weapon. "Freeze, Rebel scum!"
Taryn slammed her weapon down with a curse.
Somebody was going to pay for this.
"What's the problem?" Kerri Lynden-Evverd asked automatically as she stepped off the lift onto the bridge of her frigate. Before the sentence was complete, however, she saw the problem.
The viewscreen displayed a cargo hold of Imperial design, filled with stormtroopers surrounding a group of hostages. Rebel hostages. Clancee and Weeilka among them.
A human with a droid eye, wearing the gleaming white uniform of an Imperial Grand Admiral (but with a blood-red patch on the shoulder that Kerri could not identify), stood in the center. A total of a dozen Rebels were in the room, three of which were led up to stand on a raised platform. Two of them were commandos. The third was Korb Weeilka.
"Citizens of the Empire," said the admiral, "It is my pleasure to bring you, direct from the Emperor's skyhook, proof of our great leader's power. These dozen Rebel soldiers were caught during an ill-advised raid against Coruscant itself. This terrorism cannot and will not be tolerated."
The admiral raised his arm. "Behold the Emperor's might!"
The arm dropped, and the stormtroopers opened fire, incinerating the Rebel operatives. Kerri stared in disbelief as her friend Weeilka died before her eyes, butchered by half a dozen blaster rifles firing in unison.
The Admiral smiled, droid eye whirring from one focus to the next. "This is the fate of those who oppose the Empire. To make a proper example, the next three Rebels will die tomorrow. Three more the day after that. The final group - including their leaders - will die in three days."
The transmission tightened to a focus on the Admiral's sneering face. "We invite you all to watch. Don't be like these poor souls. Don't allow yourself to be tempted into disobeying your Emperor. The cost is too great."
The comm flicked off, and the bridge crew of the FREEDOM sat around for a moment, stunned.
Covell spoke first. "What are we gonna do?"
Kerri fumbled for her captain's chair, and sat down in it heavily. "Something, Commander. We have to do something."
Grand Admiral Screed of the Imperial Fleet turned to address his master. "Yes, Lord Parrak?"
"What was that? I ordered that Weeilka be kept alive for questioning!"
"Yes, you did," said the admiral with distaste. "Almost as though you had some... sentiment for him."
Jev Parrak's eyes were bright with fury. "You had best have a very good reason for defying me!"
"I do," said Screed, unperturbed. "I reasoned that if you liked him, the other members of the FREEDOM's crew probably liked him, as well."
Jev still trembled with anger. "Then why kill him? I wanted him as bait!"
"We still have Clancee as bait," said Screed, and his droid eye shifted to focus closely on the young Dark Jedi. "But now we've made it personal with your friends."
He smiled, then turned his back on Jev. "You wanted them to come. I assure you, they're coming."
Continued in Episode 13
R. John Burke