STAR WARS: By FREEDOM'S Light Episode Five
DESRIPTION: While Garreth's team is searching for their lost officer, Jev begins to feel the pull of the Dark Side.
NOTICE: Star Wars and all things connected to it are the sole property of George Lucas. This means he can sue your butt off for selling this kind of work. Since I like my butt where it is, this story is not for sale of any kind.
Flight Lieutenant Jev Parrak, once a proud citizen of the planet Alderaan, turned watery blue eyes back and forth across his scopes.
He's got to be out there somewhere, Jev thought. Doesn't he?
Actually, technically he didn't. His opponent, Lieutenant Davin Serlin, designated Maverick Five in their X-Wing squadron, might have just left the simulator and gone on to other things.
They'd done that to Jev a few times as a rookie. The older pilots liked to see exactly how long a green pilot would search the simulated heavens before realizing that his opponent was not, in fact, there.
Blast it, he thought, I'm NOT a rookie anymore! I flew through the Death Star and back - I had more kills at Yavin than Serlin did! I've been in Maverick Squadron for a year now. If he's playing games, I'm going to...
What? his mind asked. Serlin's almost two meters tall, kid, and in a whole different weight class. He'll eat you for breakfast. Not even breakfast - more like a light snack.
But he doesn't have the Force, Jev thought immediately. I do.
No, something in his mind said. The Force isn't to be used that way - even if you could.
Jev's lip twisted as he realized that he probably couldn't. His talents in the Force were extremely limited. He hadn't even known he HAD them until he'd used them to rescue his friend Kerri Lynden from Coruscant last month. Kerri was a Jedi herself, having somehow hidden from the Emperor for years.
Kerri had told him he was strong in the Force, had even given him a piece of the crystal whose strange aura kept her from detection by other Jedi.
Then she'd refused to train him.
You are full of anger right now, Kerri had said. A heart full of hatred is a terrible thing to mix with the Force.
Well, space it, of course he was angry! Tarkin and Vader had destroyed his entire world! Family, friends, enemies, all gone in one brilliant flash of laserlight. There would have been something wrong with him if he wasn't angry about that. That didn't mean he couldn't be trained.
I can control my anger, he'd promised. He could, couldn't he? Yes, he hated the Empire. So did everybody on the FREEDOM, their NEBULON-class frigate. He didn't have to be consumed by it.
After all, he thought, Kerri herself hates the Empire. Doesn't seem to affect her.
She's scared, he thought suddenly. Scared that she won't know HOW to train me. Scared that I'm too powerful, that I'll turn out to be better than her. That I won't treat the Force with the same superstitious awe that she does.
Why should I listen to anything she says?
In his heart, Jev knew that was probably the Dark Side Talking (if such a thing as the Dark Side did, in fact, exist). At the moment, he didn't really care. He just wanted to be angry for a while. Angry at Kerri, at the Empire, at the whole of known space.
So he had come here. To the simulator. Though he had disliked the simulator at first - it wasn't anything like really flying - Jev had come to appreciate it as a way to hone his skills in the cockpit. He'd taken to coming here when he had something to think about, and just letting whatever it was - anger, frustration, worry - bleed off while he concentrated on the simpler, more precise world of flying. A world he understood better than the real one.
The night after he'd learned about Alderaan, he'd spent hours in here, just trying not to think. Reflexes were more important in combat, and in the simulator. If you got it right, you were rewarded. Nothing could hurt you, if you were good enough.
So today, when he'd found that hulking braggart, Serlin, taking up HIS simulator time, Jev had challenged him on the only fair ground he knew - the simulator itself.
The other pilots had cleared the simulators, an now a knot of them stood or sat, watching the display screen at one end of the pilot's lounge. There, the commands issued by Jev and Serlin would be translated into images. It was possible to watch the developing dogfight from a spectator's point-of-view.
There were even a few bets made by the pilots. Half of them wanted to see the egomaniac Serlin put in his place. Half of them wanted to see Serlin whip the brash young kid.
And Serlin, despite his unpleasant personality, was good. Jev would need every edge.
As if to accentuate the point, Serlin's fighter - he'd chosen to fly a simulation of the Alliance's new high-speed assault fighter, the A-Wing - came diving out of the stars, dual laser cannon chewing up Jev's shields.
Jev cursed and went evasive, wishing he had his R2 unit to help out. Dimly, he heard the cheers from Serlin's backers outside the simulator.
His X-Wing sim was tougher than the A-Wing, and better armed. Two or three shots from Jev would put the dagger-shaped fighter out of commission. Unfortunately, the A-Wing was so much faster and more maneuverable that Jev couldn't line up even one clear shot.
He spun onto Serlin's tail, but the more advanced starfighter danced in his sights like a skittering myrmin. Jev's repeated volleys didn't even scratch its simulated paint job.
"Problem, kid?" asked Serlin's taunting voice, "Come on, I thought you said you could FLY!"
Awright, you stuck-up nerf herder, Jev thought, let's see how you like this! He threw his X-Wing into a spiral, blasting away continuously with all four wing-mounted cannons. Serlin dove and evaded every shot.
Jev pulled back on his tail. He thought, one more trick to try. Always wondered if it'd work. He switched to his proton torpedoes.
Serlin must have seen his "ENEMY LOCKED ON" light blinking. "You think you can hit this hot rod with a proton torp? You're really desperate!"
Jev ignored him and fired. The torpedo streaked out, sniffing for the A-Wing's drive trails. It reached out for Serlin...
Who evaded it easily, turning to starboard on a coin and driving away at a ninety-degree angle.
"See what I mean?"
Jev smiled. He switched back to lasers, brought them down to low power, and shot at the torpedo.
His blasts clipped the torpedo's port side. Like a smashball deflected by a center-guard, it caromed off in the opposite direction. Right back onto Serlin's trail, and closer this time.
The other pilot cursed and threw his ship into a tight evasive loop, but he couldn't avoid the torpedo.
I've got him, thought Jev.
Suddenly, Serlin threw his fighter into reverse - right towards the onrushing torpedo. It collided with his fighter, expanding into a ball of flame...
Out of which shot Davin Serlin's A-Wing, cooked but okay.
"How'd you do that?" Jev demanded.
Serlin laughed, a sort of rough hacking. "Nice, huh? I just decided to get it over with. Triggered my shields for full-aft, and hit the torp myself."
Jev checked his display, and saw that Serlin's shields were down and his hull damaged - but he was still in one piece, and his cursed maneuverability was undamaged.
"Heavy shields were never the A-Wing's strength anyway," said the older pilot, "See you at Star's End, Junior."
And with that, he flipped his fighter around, screaming in towards Jev's cockpit at full throttle, unleashing his full armament. Jev tried to return fire, but the other fighter was too quick, quicker even than a TIE fighter...
And then Serlin was past him, turning around for a shot at Jev's unprotected aft section (he'd thrown the shields full forward to protect himself), and Jev's console was sparking and hissing and his shields were down and his controls were sluggish...
Curse you, Jev thought at the fighter on his screens, angry now. Will you just forget about me already? Just LEAVE ME ALONE!
On his screen, Serlin's fighter suddenly veered off. Jev watched for a second, wondering what kind the older man was trying to pull. Serlin's A-Wing just sat there, as though dead in space.
Not willing to look a gift-nerf in the mouth, Jev arced around, triggered his laser cannons to fire-linked, and lit the A-Wing up.
Outside the simulator, there came a mixed volley of groans and cheers. Jev smiled as his screens showed him the small, fast little snubfighter blowing apart into billions of simulated shards.
Jev exhaled a long, exhausted breath, pulled off his flight helmet, and popped the simulator hatch.
Across from him, he saw Serlin doing the same as their fellow pilots gathered around.
"What happened, Dav?" asked a pilot even younger than Jev, "You lose thrusters suddenly?"
The cocky glint was gone from the man's eyes. In fact, he looked as though he had a severe headache.
Serlin shook his head slightly and winced. "I dunno. I just sort of... spaced out for a second."
Jev walked over to his opponent, offered to shake his hand. "Well, maybe my torp hit you harder than you thought."
Serlin snorted. "I know what happened! I pulled a double-shift yesterday. Must've fallen asleep for a minute. You just got lucky. We'll scuffle again tomorrow, when I'm wide awake, and I'll..."
Jev's anger welled up again. Just admit when you're beaten, huh, laser-brain?
"...I'll probably get slagged again," said Serlin, voice distant. "I wouldn't have beaten you this time, except I fiddled with the sim program to give the A-Wing extra shields."
As the pilots stared, Serlin continued, "I could've rammed that thing into a star cruiser, and it would've only dented a bit."
That made Jev really angry. "You tried to cheat me?"
"Oh, um..." Serlin's eyes seemed to clear up, and he shook his head again. "No, I mean, uh... c'mon, I was kidding."
"I don't think you were," said Jev, voice dangerous. He had to put up with Kerri's condescending mysticism. He didn't have to put up with this clown. "I think you're a cheater, and I think you should make it up to me."
Serlin's eyes flashed. He looked as though he was going to kill Jev, who was only a few centimeters shorter but about half as wide. His hands collapsed into fists.
But when he opened his mouth, he said, "Sure... I'll buy you a drink."
"You'll buy everyone a drink," said Jev, and smiled nastily, "And you'll crawl to the bar like a Hutt."
To the astonishment of everyone present (except Jev, who knew exactly what was going on by now), Davin Serlin lowered himself to the floor and started sliding towards the bar, on his stomach, like a Hutt.
The other pilots were so busy roaring with laughter that they didn't even hear the door slide open.
"That's enough!" said Rik Evverd as he strode into the middle of the room. Evverd was a thin Corellian with chocolate skin, a new mustache, and currently a broken wrist, dressed in a brown krayt-skin jacket.
He was also Jev's best friend and a tough squadron leader. The assembled pilots immediately quieted down.
Evverd peered down at the man on the floor. "Serlin, what are you doing?"
The big pilot jumped to his feet, brushing himself off. His cheeks had turned bright red by the time he said, "I... really don't know, sir."
"'I don't know, sir?'" The Corellian squadron leader surveyed his pilot with some amusement, "What kind of answer is that?"
"Sir," Davin Serlin spoke very slowly, aware of how ridiculous it sounded, "I really do not know why I was on the floor. Er... when I do, I will get back to you with that information."
Evverd leaned in close. "Well, you're off-duty, so I can't bust you for being drunk. But it's a little early, isn't it?"
"Sir, I was not drunk. I was just on the floor."
"For reasons unknown," Evverd said dryly. "All right, you're dismissed. All of you. Avers, you place my bet?"
Brynn Avers looked up from where a surly Calamarian pilot was counting out money. "Two hundred, on the kid. I'll have it for you in a minute."
"Leave it with Bo," Evverd said of his own R2 unit. He looked at Jev. "What happened here?"
"Nothing," said Jev with a shrug, "Serlin was showing us... a new dance."
"Since when do my pilots dance?"
"We're just starting," said Jev, "That's why he wasn't very good at it."
Evverd still looked at him sideways. He said, "Uh-huh. Why don't you dance on up to the bridge? We need another hand up there."
"Sure," said Jev.
He could feel the other's eyes on him as he left, and forced himself to suppress a smile.
Who needs Kerri? he thought. I'm doing just fine with the Force on my own...
"What do you mean, impounded?"
The hulking Whiphid technician glowered down at Garreth, and the Rebel captain suddenly realized how easily this alien could tear him to bits, should it chose to do so. He took a bit of comfort when Gaaraanzii, his Wookiee engineer, stepped closer, putting himself between Garreth and the tech.
The Whiphid said, "Impounded. By Imperial troops. Two nights ago."
"Has its owner returned to look for it?"
"No," said the Whiphid with a shake of its enormous, shaggy head, "You are the first to ask about the shuttle."
"What do you make of that?" asked Sedra Covell, his weapons officer. The daughter of an Imperial army officer, Covell was an intense young woman with dark skin and eyes and tied-back jet-black hair.
"I think it's too early to start worrying," said Garreth. A short man whose own dark hair was beginning to gray, he looked over the landing pad for a moment. "Rather empty, isn't it?"
The Whiphid said, "Most visitors left, morning after the Imperial raid. The kind of people we get this close to the Unknown Regions aren't thrilled with Imperial attention."
"Did you see the ship's owner when she landed?" Garreth asked. He offered the alien a medium-denomination credit slip.
"Human," grunted the tech as he pocketed the money, "Female. Tall, for your kind. Yellow hair. Can't tell you more than that. Humans all look much the same."
"Have you seen her at all?" asked Covell, "Any idea what might have happened to her?"
"None," said the Whiphid, and shuffled away. "I have work to do."
"There's another of those for you," said Garreth, "If you keep your eyes open."
The Whiphid nodded, but deep down Garreth doubted there was much to see. They were here searching for their missing navigator, Lieutenant Taryn Clancee, who had taken leave on this world. But if her ship was gone, and Clancee hadn't come after it...
"You think she's been captured?" asked Covell.
"Let's see if we can find out." Garreth led the way off the landing pad, and towards what the Pollis system humorously referred to as "civilization."
Less than five Standard minutes after the rebel agents were out of sight of the landing pad, another ship put down. The Whiphid technician, who had little cause to fear anything with as large and fierce as his people were, dove under the hull of a Z-95 Headhunter he was servicing.
It was ridiculous, he knew, a Whiphid afraid to be seen by a human.
Or maybe not so ridiculous. You had to consider the identity of the human.
The ancient, modified FIRESPRAY attack ship turned its belly towards the landing pad and settled downwards. Its ramp hissed open, and a figure in battered gray-and-blue armor scanned the landing area. He zeroed in on the Headhunter, locked up his ship, and moved towards the fighter. His short, green cape fluttered behind him, its movement impeded by the specialized rocket pack he wore on his back.
By the time the man reached the Headhunter, the Whiphid was shaking visibly, covering its eyes with massive paws. The Whiphid knew he'd probably have to commit ritual suicide for his cowardice, but he didn't care. Dying at his own hand was far preferable to dying at the hand of the figure before him.
A filtered voice, tinted with only the tiniest hint of disgust, said, "I'm not going to hurt you. Get up."
The Whiphid peered out between two thick fingers.
"Get up now," the man repeated. He held a blaster rifle, but it wasn't pointed at anyone. Yet.
The Whiphid got up and brushed himself off. Ritual suicide might be a bit harsh, he decided. My reaction was perfectly understandable. It's not every day we get the most infamous bounty hunter in the galaxy on this stinking rock.
"What can I do for you?" asked the Whiphid in its most gratingly pleasant tones.
"There's a transport here with Rebel markings. What happened to its occupants?"
"They went off toward the town," said the Whiphid, relieved that at least he was not this man's target.
"Why were they going there?" The disgust was gone from the Hunter's voice, and it spoke now in a brusque but businesslike monotone.
"They were looking for someone," said the Whiphid, "A friend of theirs."
The bounty hunter pointed off to the left. "The town is that way?"
"Yes!" said the Whiphid, hardly breathing at all, "I can get you a guide, if you--"
"Unnecessary." The man turned and followed the rebels, off towards Pollis' largest settlement.
The Whiphid watched him go. Actually, he thought, I was rather brave, all things considered. Suicide is definitely out.
Then he shuddered. He wouldn't want to be that human, though.
As a rule, the life expectancy for Boba Fett's targets was very low indeed.
"The first thing you should know is that escape will be impossible." The Imperial officer had a scruffy red beard under his shaved head, which meant that he was important enough to flout the grooming regulations. He walked back and forth on a raised podium in a huge room with no other distinguishing features. Taryn guessed it to be a converted docking bay. Hundreds, maybe thousands of people were crowded around her, under the watchful eyes of the stormtroopers. Most of them were men, in accordance with the Empire's unenlightened stupidity, though there were more females than Taryn would have expected. She hoped that meant whoever was in charge of this conscription run wasn't as much of an idiot as the typical Imperial.
She didn't want to think about what else it might mean.
The bearded officer continued to address them. "You are here for one purpose. To serve your Emperor. Learn to serve him well, and you will be pleased with the outcome. Fail to serve him... I think you can guess what will happen."
Taryn groaned, along with quite a few of the others. She could indeed guess. Wherever they were - it looked like a ship or space station, though it could be an advanced planetary complex - the Empire was clearly making the rules.
Beside her, sixteen-year-old Kristoff Narr, the son of her friend Leila Narr, whom she'd been visiting on Pollis, was almost paralyzed with fear.
"It'll be okay," she whispered. Knowing the young man's enthusiasm for the Alliance, Taryn said, "Just think of yourself as a Rebel spy. Watch everything, remember everything, and stay out of trouble."
Kris nodded, looking perhaps a little better, but not much.
"The first thing we must do," said the Imperial officer, "Is separate you into combat and non-combat material. You will all be assigned to a squadron. Your squadron leaders will be holding combat trials for the next three days. If you wish to avoid more unpleasant duties, I suggest you all do your utmost to impress them."
He leered at the crowd with thoroughly unpleasant eyes, and Taryn decided she did not want to find out firsthand what duties were more unpleasant than joining the Imperial army.
Taryn wasn't worried for herself. She was a Fringe operator from way back. She'd gone up against everything from stormtroopers to Corporate Authority Espos to CorSec operatives. She'd impress at the combat trials.
She was more worried about Kris. He was about average height and build, and she had no idea how tough he was. She wondered if there'd be time to give him a few pointers.
She had to do everything possible to keep them together. Taryn planned to escape from this dump soon (She'd gotten out of worse places), and she knew Leila would kill her if she left her friend's son behind.
The bearded officer glared forward. "Now, I'm not going to tell you about the security on this base because I don't wish to ruin the surprise for those of you who are planning escape." He grinned. "Take my advice: Don't try it."
He folded his hands in front of him, smirking. I'm starting to hate this man real fast, Taryn thought.
He said, "I'm sure that a few of you won't listen to me, and that is for the best. Your example will inspire great obedience in your fellow conscripts."
The bearded officer looked around the room. seemingly trying to hold every eye in the place, at least briefly. His glance swept past Taryn, and she reflected it back on him, refusing to show either fear or defiance.
He held her eyes for a moment, then finished his sweep of the room. He said, "You will serve the Empire. One way or another."
"They were taken two days ago," said Leila Narr, looking for all the word like she'd had the life force sucked out of her, "I contacted a few old friends in the smuggling game - seems they were brought to the Imperial Internment Center on Rorsh, along with about two thousand others from all the nearby systems. I've been trying to find a way to break them out."
"Any luck?" asked Covell. They had gone to the local cantina looking for information about Taryn, and someone had directed them to Leila Narr.
Garreth remembered this woman from the old days, when her short, graying hair had been red, and her face had not had so many lines. She'd been part of a smuggling team with her husband Jaref. Mykel Garreth had been an Imperial officer in those times, and he'd spent many an unsuccessful afternoon trying to catch these two.
Narr looked up at Sedra Covell. "You don't know what Rorsh is like, do you?"
"I remember my father saying it was some big-deal prison camp, but that's all."
"It's THE prison camp," said Leila Narr, "Short of the mines of Kessel, you won't find a worse place. It's a swamp planet, first of all - most escape attempts fail just from being sucked into the bogs. It's also ringed with asteroids."
Covell said, "Wouldn't that make it easy for smugglers and commandos to sneak in?"
"You'd think so, wouldn't you?" Garreth picked up the narrative, "Unfortunately, the Imperials have set up power generators on most of the asteroids - even the small ones. It creates a deflector grid known as the Fence, which is nearly impossible to beat because it surrounds the whole planet, and the thousands of small generators provide multiple redundant backups."
Gaar rumbled. "Many Wookiees have been sent to this place, never to return."
"What about fighters?" Covell asked, "A grid based on thousands of asteroids can't be too tight. You could get fighters in."
"Yes, but what the treacherous atmospheric storms don't get, the state-of-the-art anti-aircraft defenses do." Leila Narr sighed heavily. "I'm aware of three people escaping in thirty years of operation."
"That doesn't sound like good odds," Covell agreed.
"Not at the volume they do," said Garreth. "I'll have to speak to Mon Mothma about--"
All the power went in Narr's house, the lights around them flickering into darkness.
"Relay must be off-line again," said Narr, "It'll be back in a moment."
Two rooms away, an old-style wooden door creaked open.
"Is that connected to the relay, too?" asked Sedra.
Gaar got up from his chair. "I will investigate."
"I'll go," said Garreth, but the Wookiee gestured for him to sit back down. And, truthfully, the massive creature didn't seem like he'd need any help.
Gaar opened the door, and was blown backwards by a stun bolt.
"What the--" All three of the room's occupants reached instinctively for their weapons. Narr soon began digging in a draw, cursing, as she realized she wasn't wearing one.
A filtered monotone said, "I'll make this simple, Captain Garreth. Come quietly or I will destroy this house and kill your friends."
Garreth froze. He leaned forward in his chair so he could see the door.
Boba Fett stood there, wearing his fabled Mandalorian battle armor, brandishing a blaster rifle. Though he wore a helmet with blast shield-visor, Garreth could feel the bounty hunter's cold eyes staring through them.
His breath froze in his throat, but he forced it to continue moving through his lungs. I've stood up to Darth Vader, he thought, how bad can this man be?
Another look at that battered helmet, and Garreth answered his own question. Very bad, he thought...
Leila Narr spoke. "I know something about you, Fett. You're a professional. Would you really kill innocents?"
"You are not innocent," said Fett, "You are a smuggler. They are terrorists. I feel no guilt at causing your deaths."
The blaster rifle moved upwards by a centimeter. "I do not negotiate. Come now, Captain Garreth. Or I will start shooting."
"Don't suppose there's any chance you're a bad shot?" Garreth muttered.
"What do you think?"
Garreth chuckled softly, and dropped his weapon.
Covell said, "Captain!"
"Get back to the ship, tell Commander Lynden where Taryn is. It is my last order, for the moment at least, that you attempt some sort of rescue, if at all possible."
He nodded to Fett, and walked past his fellow rebels into the other room. "Shall we go?"
"You showed no fear," said Fett through the bars of on of his ship's force-cages, "I can respect that."
"Well, I don't expect there's much point shooting it out with you. I'll either escape from my captors, or I won't. Either way, it's been a good long run."
Fett nodded, and returned to his controls.
Garreth called, "May I know who put out the contract, at least? The Emperor? Vader?"
"Xizor," came the processed reply.
"Xizor," Garreth repeated to himself, "Well, at least he hired the best. A bit of advice, Mister Fett. Never anger a giant lizard."
To his surprise, Boba Fett answered. "I'll keep it in mind."
Garreth heard their ion engines swell, and the SLAVE I blasted off Pollis with a new bounty in its hold.
Continued in Episode 6
R. John Burke