STAR WARS: FREEDOM'S Price Episode Thirteen
DESCRIPTION: Our heroes have already lost one comrade, and the dark times are only beginning as we hit ROTJ...
NOTICE: The Jedi have returned, and they will carve violators of the Lucasfilm copyright on Star Wars into lightsaber-kabob. Therefore, this is just non-profit fan fiction. Incidentally, the actual events of their Return included here are from the script by Lawrence Kasdan & George Lucas.
Talon Karrde touched a button, and the airlock of his personal vessel, the freighter UWANA BUYER, hissed open. He stepped inside.
A fist deflected him back out and into the ground rather violently. He struggled to hands and knees, and looked up to see a slender but wiry Corellian with dark skin and eyes standing over him.
He groaned. "Hello, Evverd."
"Karrde, you Sithspawn, you set us up!"
Talon Karrde was genuinely surprised - and surprise was not a word that generally applied the galaxy's foremost information broker. "What are you talking about?"
"That Imperial data you sold me!" Evverd picked him bodily off the ground, and it was all Karrde could do to throw off the grip. "Weeilka's dead because of you! I ought to..."
"Now wait a moment!" Karrde held up his hands to prevent another punch. He rarely resorted to violence - Karrde had little doubt that Evverd was twice the brawler he was. "Would you mind telling me, very slowly, what you're talking about?"
Evverd sneered. "You want to play dumb? Fine. That data on Imperial slaver movements you sold us was planted."
"That's impossible," said Karrde slowly, "It comes from a very reliable source. I checked it myself."
"Really? Did you check all of it?"
"No," Karrde admitted. When the Corellian scowled, he amended quickly, "There was three months worth of data on there! I checked enough to make sure it was good!"
"Oh, it was good, all right. Good for the Empire."
Talon Karrde sighed. "What happened?"
Evverd peered at him. "Let's talk in the ship."
A moment later, with the airlock safely closed and the anti-surveillance devices enabled, Evverd told his story. It seemed that a Rebel assault force had been sent to free a hundred slaves at Coruscant - including the sisters of Evverd's ship's navigator, a Twi'lek named Korb Weeilka. When they arrived, they'd found the transport full of Imperial troops. The whole team had been imprisoned and slated for execution. The sentence had already been carried out on Weeilka and two Rebel commandos, with more executions to follow.
"Evverd, I didn't know," he said. "Do you understand that? I did not know." When the Corellian looked doubtful, Karrde said, "Figure it out for yourself. They must have planted that bad information in a crop of reliable data, knowing that the presence of Weeilka's sisters would bring it to your attention. It's not my fault!"
"I want a refund," said Evverd.
Karrde frowned. "This is about money?"
"Not to me. But it is to you. You're not gonna profit by this. If Clancee dies..."
"Clancee?" Karrde's already cold blood turned frigid. Taryn Clancee was an old friend, a fellow smuggler. "What about her?"
"She's leading the team, Karrde. She's scheduled to die. I didn't mention that?"
"No," said Karrde slowly, "Must have slipped your mind..."
Evverd sighed. "Look, I'm sorry I jumped down your throat. This is just... a really bad time."
The smuggler chief looked up abruptly. "No refund."
"I knew it! I knew this was just money to you!"
"No refund because a hundred thousand seems like a fair price to mount a rescue mission." Karrde favored him with a thin smile. "Clancee is my friend."
"I didn't think you had friends," said Evverd.
"Associate, then. I owe her a few. Besides, the thought of some Imperial slicer making a fool of me..." Karrde broke off. He was not a man to take things personally, but he made his living off selling reliable data. If the Empire thought they could tarnish his reputation... well, some things were a matter of professional pride.
"Great," said Evverd, and Karrde wondered if he hadn't been after that all along. "How fast is your ship?"
"She'll make .65 past lightspeed," said the smuggler, "Will that be fast enough?"
Evverd hissed. "It better be."
"Captain, I have to protest this. We have orders to proceed to Sullust..."
Kerri Lynden-Evverd flashed a tight grin to her XO. "Then proceed there, Commander. Don't let me stop you."
Commander Sedra Covell frowned up at Kerri. A short woman with tied-back black hair and skin only a shade lighter, she could look quite intense when she wanted to. "This is serious, Kerri. Garreth's already gone missing, along with our chief engineer. Our navigator is dead. Our helm officer is a POW. And now I'm losing my captain during the most critical time..."
"Sedra, they killed Korb Weeilka!" As a Jedi Knight, Kerri prided herself on her control. She raised her voice perhaps once every few months, but now she was shouting, and it felt good. "Do you want the same thing to happen to Taryn?"
Covell stopped. Though she could be stubborn, she was also dedicated to her friends. "No. But why you?"
Kerri said, "This is happening because of me. The Emperor wants my abilities - or if he doesn't, he wants me dead. That's why my friends are made to suffer."
Covell said, "Not that we have an ego or anything..."
"That's why I have to go. Take care of this ship," said Kerri. She patted a dedication plaque near the lift, minted when the NEBULON frigate had been pirated from the Empire at Bpfassh several years ago.
NEBULON-B CLASS FRIGATE
BEGAN SERVICE AT BPFASSH, 12-35-84
"THE CRY OF FREEDOM MUST NEVER BE
EXTINGUISHED"-- Bail Organa
"She's a good ship," said Kerri, "She'll make it through."
Kerri turned and left without looking back.
The blast door hissed open, and a figure in black robes woke Taryn Clancee from her fitful rest. She craned her neck to look at him.
"Aren't you a little young for a Sith Lord?"
"I'm just a Jedi," he said, flashing sad, blue eyes at her.
"A Dark Jedi, maybe." Taryn turned in the other direction. "Go away."
Jev Parrak, a gangly young man whose blue eyes hung over a dark brown goatee, sat on the bunk next to her. "Taryn, I never wanted Weeilka to die. Screed disobeyed my order."
Taryn shot him a glare. "And what was that order?"
"To start with the commandos. To leave you and Weeilka unharmed."
"And you don't think those commandos deserved to live? You don't think they have husbands and wives and families? You think it makes a difference who dies first?" She snorted. "You're only fooling yourself."
"I don't want this, Taryn!" he stood, pacing the cage as though he were the prisoner instead of the warden. Taryn rolled over to watch him. "I just don't know how to stop it anymore!"
"Help us escape," said Taryn. "You can do that. I've seen your power. You can get us out of here."
"It's..." Jev shook his head, looking totally lost. "It's too late for that. This thing between Kerri and me has to be settled!"
"Why? Because the Emperor says it has to be?" Taryn's hands clenched into fists. "Jev, you can still stop this! You were a good kid once! There has to still be good in you! The Emperor can't have buried it so quickly!"
The young Jedi suddenly looked like a mere child - which he wasn't far from being. He was about the same age as Luke Skywalker, hardly even old enough to graduate from college. "The Emperor has me, Taryn. Once, I dreamed of defeating him - and I still want to. Some day. But right now, I'm just - tired. I'm very tired. I don't have the strength to break his grip right now. Too much has happened already."
Taryn's eyes narrowed. "You want to face Kerri so she can kill you."
Jev scowled. "I want it to be over. One way or another. I'm sorry."
He left the cell, and Taryn closed her eyes. Everybody's tired, kid, she thought. Why do I get the feeling that one of us in for a good, long rest - maybe forever?
On the planet Tattooine, a pair of droids trundled up a sandy path.
"Of course I'm worried," the golden 3P0 unit was saying, "And you should be, too. Lando Calrissian and poor Chewbacca never returned from this awful place."
The R2 unit whistled.
"Don't be so sure." The 3P0 was characteristically timid. "If I told you half the things I've heard about this Jabba the Hutt, you'd probably short-circuit."
The R2 droid expressed his opinion of that statement. But truthfully, he wasn't looking forward to this mission any more than his counterpart was.
Garreth struggled to get comfortable in the rear seat of the stolen Imperial LAMBDA-class shuttle, a task made more difficult by the presence of several silent and semi-hostile Bothans, not to mention his own daughter, who hardly counted as being on his side.
His one ally was the Wookiee Gaaraanzii, who for reasons of overcrowding and space allotment was trying to arrange himself suitably on the floor.
Through his small, metal translator, Gaar spoke. "The Empire did not consider Wookiees when building this ship."
"We're almost there," said Garreth.
"Combat will be a relief after being stuffed in here like..." Gaar's Wookiee euphemism had no Basic counterpart, and the translator fizzled.
Garreth grunted. "This is still a reconnaissance mission. Combat is a last resort."
"Quite right, Admiral," said Tran'lya, the mission's Bothan commander. He was tall for a Bothan, with fur darker than the norm, but his large, expressive violet eyes were standard-issue. "If you can show us the path to the Imperial Main Computer on Carida, there should be little need for bloodshed."
"I put little faith in plans made by Bothans," Gaar rumbled.
Garreth's daughter Trina, who had been sitting in silence across from her father, spoke up. "That's a bit racist, isn't it?"
Gaar flashed his impressive teeth and bared his claws. "Wookiees do not have to be politically correct."
Silence reigned for a moment. Garreth cleared his throat. "Why are you here, Trina?"
She frowned, expression guarded. "I'm Fey'lya's aide, dad. I go where I'm told."
"No," said Garreth, "It's not standard procedure to put next-of-kin on the same mission. Too many conflicts. You must have asked to come."
"I can fight, Dad," she said, "I fought for the resistance on Bothawui for..."
"Oh, I've no doubt you're capable," he said. Garreth stared at her, so much a reflection of her mother that he felt unable to continue for a moment. Finally, he said, "But why this mission?"
Trina shrugged. "I... guess I've resented you for so long that I thought it would be nice to be on the same team. And I admit, I've heard so much about the great Admiral Garreth that I wanted to see you in action, at least one time"
"Once," said Garreth with a frown. "Let's just hope it's not the last time."
"...I love you." Evverd said, and flicked off the holo-recorder.
Kerri came into the cabin as he finished, and frowned. "Is that message for me?"
"For my dad," he said. "I'm gonna send it as soon as we clear hyperspace. If anything happens... I don't want him to think I really hated him."
Kerri nodded, and stepped forward to hug her husband. "It's not like you to be sentimental... or to worry about failure."
"I know," said Rik, and he tightened the embrace for a moment before stepping back. "I just got a funny feeling... like I'm not gonna see him again."
Kerri allowed herself to worry about that for precisely one second before lightening the mood. "I'm the Jedi in the family, remember?"
"I know," he said, "It's just a gut feeling."
"In psionic research," she teased, "An upset stomach has no connection to one's mortality."
"Stop it!" he said, surprisingly forceful. "This is Palpatine's skyhook. This is as bad as it gets. If these guys caught Taryn, they can catch anyone."
"I know," said Kerri. She looked away.
"Have you given any more thought to how we're gonna get in?"
"It's not going to be a problem," she promised him. "If I know the Empire, they'll roll out the red carpet for us."
FREEDOM exited hyperspace alongside the other ships of her task force: VALIANT, HAMMER, KENOBI, a Corellian blockade runner called the OVERDRIVE, and a few others. They fell into an approach pattern, joining the other Rebel ships gathering near Sullust. In the distance, Covell could make out Admiral Ackbar's own flagship cruiser, the HOME ONE.
"Report in," she said to Lieutenant Lasco. A big Chandrilan with light brown hair and a full beard, Brevin "Doc" Lasco was usually a supply officer, but he was also nav/comm certified, and they were extremely short-handed.
After a moment, Lasco said, "HOME ONE acknowledges. We have clearance to assume formation. Captain and XO respectfully invited to join a preliminary briefing at 0800."
"Acknowledged," said Covell. "Anything else?"
"Yes," said the big man after a moment. "General Madine's shuttle is requesting clearance to dock."
The Rebel shuttle docked with less pomp and circumstance than a similar occurrence would have drawn on an Imperial ship, but the security detail that snapped to attention was no less impressed by the man who strode through their midst.
In appearance, he resembled an older, smaller version of Brevin Lasco, though he was not Chandrilan. His eyes were an icy blue, and he surveyed all around him with an aura of professional detachment.
Like Garreth, Crix Madine had defected from the Imperial forces, but in a relatively brief time he'd made himself one of Mon Mothma's top advisors through bold and often brilliant strategy.
The Senior Chief of the security detail, and older, scarred Calamarian named Okel, stepped forward. "Officer on deck!"
Madine favored him with a slight smile. "At ease, Chief." Another man stepped to Madine's side, and the general nodded at him. "This is Major Bren Derlin, one of my Elite Commandos."
"Yes, sir," said Okel. "I've worked with the major before. Greetings, Bren."
Madine strode forward. "I'd like to speak with Captain Lynden-Evverd about..."
"General, sir... the captain is not on board at this time."
The officer frowned at him. "Not on board? During the most crucial gathering of Alliance personnel since..."
"It is a long story, sir," said Okel. "I'm sure Commander Covell can explain everything to your satisfaction."
Madine nodded and left the hangar. Derlin hung back.
"Good luck with that," he said wryly, and Okel was inclined to agree.
The Ubese bounty hunter stood his/her/it's ground, apparently unperturbed though it was in grave danger.
A 3P0 droid, only shiny but now speckled with green slime and sand, scrambled to its feet with as much dignity as it could muster. "The, er... the mighty Jabba asks why he must pay fifty thousand."
The Ubese hunter held up a small, spherical object that shone even in the dim light, and pressed a button.
"Because he's holding a thermal detonator!" the horrified 3P0 announced.
The standoff began.
The Bothans, it seemed, never stole a vehicle without the proper codes to operate it, and they got past Carida's planetary shield and onto the landing grid with no problem at all.
Tran'lya addressed his team, pacing back and forth before them very much like a human would have. "There will be two operating teams on this mission. Team One will be under my command, and charged with infiltrating the Imperial Computer Center here. Team Two will be led by Trina, and will be creating a disturbance at the Naval Academy to cover our actions."
Mykel Garreth frowned. "What sort of disturbance?"
Trina smiled. "A loud one."
"I'm not sure I like that idea," said Garreth, "You're talking about assaulting young cadets and old teachers. That's rather like terrorism."
"These are desperate times, Admiral," said Tran'lya. "Would you prefer we failed?"
"I'd prefer a bit of reason and honor," said the human.
"Dad," Trina cut in, "It'll be a low-cost disturbance. Lots of noise, probably no loss of life."
"Can you pull that off?" he asked.
"Of course," she said. "I take after my father. I'm good at what I do."
"Good," said Garreth, "If you take after me, I'm sure you'll understand this next, overprotective-father gesture. Gaar, you're with her."
"WHAT?" said Trina, "No, dad, I don't need the Wookiee..."
Garreth's friend rumbled as well. "You are my commanding officer. It is my responsibility to..."
"She's my daughter," said Garreth, "I'm sure you understand."
"This is not necessary," Trina said.
"Probably not. On the other hand, the more time you spend arguing about it, the more time we waste."
The young woman groaned. "Now I remember why I left home."
Garreth nodded to Tran'lya. "Let's do it."
The Emperor's skyhook was curiously deserted as the UWANA BUYER made its approach. It reminded Evverd all too much of the deserted Imperial base on Balmorra a few years back. That incident had nearly ended in disaster, but for the most part, they'd pulled it out.
If this thing worked out half as well, Evverd would be pleased.
Karrde frowned. "I'd counted on bluffing my way through. I prepared false ID for the occasion."
"The Imps can be very hospitable, if you have something they want."
The smuggler looked up at his passengers. "What do we have?"
"Me," said Kerri, gripping her protective crystal tightly. Her expression was haunted. "This was a mistake. I'm endangering everyone."
"That's silly," said Evverd, "Your lightsaber's gonna come in real handy."
Talon Karrde looked up. "Lightsaber?"
"Anyone hears that from you," the Corellian growled, "You're gonna get a lot worse that a belt in the nose."
"Jaw," said Karrde, rubbing the still-sore area. "And no one will hear it from me. My word of honor."
"You don't understand," said Kerri. "He is here."
Evverd frowned. "The Emperor's supposed to be on his Death Star tour."
"Not the Emperor," said Kerri with a shiver, "Jev."
Evverd's eyes shifted to the metallic beast before them, as UWANA BUYER slid into a docking slip. "Could be worse."
The clamps engaged around them, effectively locking their freighter in until the Empire chose to release it. Karrde sighed.
With a hum and a crackle, the long-frozen sheath of carbonite buckled. Limp, exhausted, and disoriented, a tall Corellian in a white shirt fell to the ground in front of the carbon slab.
Han Solo had returned.
"Just relax for a moment," said a metallic voice, "You're free of the carbonite."
Solo was shivering in the desert night, his body unused to regulating its own temperature. "I - I can't see."
"Your eyesight will return in time," said the unfamiliar voice.
Now the big question. "Where am I?"
The Bothans immediately fanned out upon leaving the shuttle, disappearing into the background effortlessly. All except Tran'lya, who remained at Garreth's side as he walked past the curious onlookers of Carida's capitol city. He hadn't been to this world since his stint as an Academy instructor ten years ago. It was built up, though not so much as Garreth's homeworld of Coruscant. There were still a few trees visible as the glidewalk slid along.
Garreth wore the uniform of an Imperial admiral - his counterpart, he supposed - with a fairly convincing false beard and his hair was dyed to brown from its graying black. It wasn't much of a disguise, but it would suffice for a few moments.
Rather than approach the Computer Center by stealth, Garreth and Tran'lya decided to knock on the proverbial front door.
The entrance to the Imperial Computer Center was guarded by two stormtroopers and two little buzzing scout droids. The troopers came to attention as Garreth approached.
"Admiral! Sir... we weren't informed of an inspection."
Fortunately, the roll wasn't much of a stretch for Garreth. He'd BEEN a senior Imperial officer, and he had the look of bored superiority down pat. "Yes, of course, that's why it's called a surprise inspection, sergeant."
One trooper gestured at the furry Bothan. "What about this... thing?"
"This 'thing' is Pel Drosk'arn, an expert Bothan field operative. He's here to brief me on the location of certain Rebel enclaves - we'll be borrowing your star charts."
"Certainly, Admiral," said the first trooper. He held out his hand. "Clearance?"
Garreth did his best to looked annoyed - also not hard - while he dug in his pocket for clearance that wasn't there. Fortunately, in the next moment, two Bothan laser bolts struck out to destroy the fluttering "spy eyes," while Tran'lya dove in and flipped one stormtrooper to the ground with some sort of martial arts maneuver. The other trooper raised his weapon for Garreth. Lacking the time to draw his blaster, the short man resorted to an old-fashioned punch. It hurt like blazes, and only barely staggered the trooper, but it slowed him long enough for another sniper bolt to take him out.
The other two Bothans of their team materialized from nowhere as Tran'lya silenced his trooper. They began slicing the nearby security cameras. Since the Imperials here relied on the spy droids for data, the cameras themselves were downloaded every ten minutes for review. The Bothans had that long to replace the incriminating images with pre-fabricated scenes indicating that all was well.
They succeeded in half that time.
Garreth looked around himself. "Not bad, Commander. Not bad at all."
Tran'lya shot him an annoyed look. "Bothans are expert diplomats, but that is not all we can do."
"Right," said Garreth. Humans tended to forget that sort of thing too much - a race's stereotype was nothing more than a generalization. Clearly these Bothans were more competent than he'd imagined.
We might have a chance of success after all, he decided.
"Come on," said the Bothan leader, and Garreth followed.
The corridors of the Emperor's skyhook were as deserted as the base's outer defenses had been. Evverd led the way around one darkened corner after another - but never spied so much as the scrawniest Fleet officer.
"I really don't like this," he declared, about halfway in.
"It's a trap," Kerri declared.
"What a wonderful time to tell me," said Karrde.
Something moved in one corner.
Kerri took a deep breath. "Go. Find Taryn. I'll handle this."
"I ain't leaving you..."
"Rik, this is my destiny," she said. "Once again, it is mine to face. Alone. I'll be all right."
Evverd kissed her on the forehead. "You be careful."
He nodded to Karrde. "Detention area should be this way."
The smuggler gripped his blaster a bit tighter and followed.
"How we doin'?"
"Same as always."
"That bad, huh?" Han Solo struggled uselessly as Jabba's piglike guards brought him into the audience chamber. Next to him was the kid, Luke - who claimed to be a Jedi Knight, of all things!
Han had a really bad feeling about this.
Garreth led Tran'lya through an access corridor which should have taken them to the control room. Of course, he hadn't been here in years. It was possible that the hallway led to a garbage masher. Any stormtroopers or other hostiles they met were immediately stunned, then dragged to the first place where their bodies wouldn't be immediately noticed.
Garreth paused outside one door and nodded. He mouthed the words, 'Computer core.'
Tran'lya nodded. He held up a hand, fingers ticking down from five. Then his commandos raided the place, securing the room in a flash of smoke and laserlight. After a moment, Tran'lya looked in, surveying their work.
"So that's it?" said Garreth, "That's all there is to it?"
"Not all," said Tran'lya grimly.
The Bothan shot him a sour look. "This appears to be the coffeine breakroom."
Garreth blushed fiercely. "Oops."
The Wookiee surveyed Trina's work critically. "That appears to be a very large charge to use for no loss of life."
"Yes, well, there are some things my father wouldn't understand," said Trina, and she keyed the explosive. "This is one."
"Freeze!" said a voice.
Gaar turned and bellowed as a pair of stormtroopers entered the room. He grabbed the first before he could fire, smashing him into the wall. The second got off a stun blast, though, that crumpled the huge Rebel. Trina fumbled for her blaster, left on the floor while she set the timers. A blue stun bolt caught her as well, and she collapsed.
Kerri saw the silver blade ignite before she actually made out the advancing shape. The room was almost totally dark. She brought her own, orange blade into existence.
Jev Parrak stepped forward, saber raised to an en garde position. "It's time to end this, Kerri."
He stepped forward. "No more delays."
He swung, and Kerri parried, and their sabers crackled with light. Kerri was backed up, towards the wall, towards the lift she'd just used.
She struck, going on the offensive this time, but Jev had honed his skills since they'd met last - combined with his natural hand - eye coordination as a pilot, it left him as probably her equal in lightsaber combat.
They slashed several times, neither gaining a real advantage, feeling each other out.
"I don't wish to fight you," she said again, knowing it was useless.
"I think you do," said Jev. "I think this is what you've wanted since the day you found out I was Force strong. No competition. No one to train, or contend with. One Jedi left standing."
He slashed, and their sabers met. Kerri was about to reply, when a stab of urgency hit her through the Force. Rik was in trouble.
Reaching out with the Force, she keyed open the lift door and triggered it for "down." With two strikes, she backed Jev off, then stepped into the lift.
"I'm afraid you'll have to wait a bit longer," she said, and then the doors closed between them.
Blast doors hissed open again.
"Well, look who's taking a little vacation."
Taryn's eyes snapped open to find Rik Evverd standing at the cell doors, and behind her, the figure of Talon Karrde working the controls. Two Rebel commandos, Zellar and Hodje, stood with them, holding commandeered stormtrooper rifles.
"About time," she said, and ran out into the detention area. She caught just a flicker of dead guards, and then she caught the blaster rifle Karrde tossed to her.
The smuggler grinned his sardonic little smile. "Is that everyone? Good. Can we leave?"
"That's everyone who's left," Taryn amended. The other nine members of their team were already dead. "And yeah, let's get out of here."
A voice crackled over the intercom. "So soon? But we were enjoying your company."
"What?" They all glanced around, searching for a target.
Didn't take them long to find one. Literally dozens of stormtroopers poured into the detention area, weapons ready.
Through their midst strode Grand Admiral Screed.
"Don't look so surprised," he said, "I couldn't let you cancel tonight's little show. The ratings have been excellent."
On her shuttle, en route from her failure on Tattooine, Mara Jade sulked. She had no idea how Skywalker had gotten away, or what the Emperor's ultimate penalty for her failure would be. She'd been tasked to kill Luke Skywalker - and she'd failed. He'd escaped from Jabba, with Solo and Organa in tow. And somehow he'd just... slipped through her fingers.
Already the Emperor was losing faith in her. For reasons that were totally unclear, he'd changed Mara's next assignment from his skyhook on Coruscant to some stupid, nameless mission on Svivren.
Working almost of their own accord, Mara's fingers flew over the helm, bringing her out of hyperspace. She had no idea why she was doing this - certainly she had no desire to aid disobedience on top of failure - but ever since she had first been told of working with Jev Parrak on her master's skyhook, Mara had felt that it was her destiny. Something important was happening on that skyhook, and she - Mara Jade - had to be there.
The Emperor might be a Dark Master, but Mara had some sense of the Force, too. And she knew that this was important.
Besides, she'd already failed her Emperor. He could only kill her once.
Nodding to herself, Mara set course for Coruscant, and engaged the hyperdrive.
Continued in Episode 14
R. John Burke