STAR WARS: FREEDOM'S Price Episode One
DESCRIPTION: The conclusion of what I am calling my "First Trilogy" takes place two years after "BY FREEDOM'S LIGHT," starting with the Battle of Hoth.
NOTICE: Star Wars belongs to Lucasfilm and its creator George Lucas. This story is pure fan fiction, not for sale, and no infringement intended. (PS: portions of the "Empire Strikes Back" script included here were written by Leigh Brackett & Lawrence Kasdan, based on a story by Mr. Lucas)
An objective analysis would have said that a small Imperial fleet gathered at Hoth. That analysis would have taken into account planetary, or even galactic concepts of size, and determined that the assembly of wedge-shaped cruisers assembling around an icy white orb on the Galactic Rim was really quite insignificant.
That's an objective viewpoint. Those facing the Imperial Starfleet rarely had the ability to remain objective.
On the human scale, where a myrmin represents "small" and a rancor "big," the Starfleet was massive, an accumulation of vast warships extraordinary power, far too much for an average mind to comprehend. The fleet could have melted a planetary surface into slag.
But first they had to get past its Shield Generator.
In the midst of the Fleet, trailing behind sentry ships and TIE wings and advance cruisers and the front line of Star Destroyers, was the EXECUTOR.
Eight kilometers in length, painted black, and dwarfing the white-painted Star Destroyers that preceded and trailed it, the EXECUTOR was the standard in Naval might. Only the long-destroyed Death Star could rival it for size and firepower.
For all its splendor, those coming face-to-face with the EXECUTOR were likely to be less concerned with the ship itself than with the power inside it.
For the EXECUTOR sailed into the outskirts of the Hoth system as the personal flagship of Lord Darth Vader.
"What is it, General?"
Though Maximillian Veers, commander of the EXECUTOR's ground assault force, considered himself the hardiest of a superb of soldiers, he still felt a knot in his throat as he stepped to the door of Lord Vader's meditation chamber.
Vader's bio-support helmet had just been reattached, and Veers had caught the slightest glimpse of pasty white flesh streaked with scars. Veers could not help but wonder what power could be so great that it had maimed the Dark Lord in such a way.
But duty soon took over, washing away such concerns. "My lord, the fleet has moved out of lightspeed. Com-scan has detected an energy field protecting an area of the sixth planet of the Hoth system. The field is strong enough to deflect any bombardment."
Though the mask showed nothing, Vader's anger boiled forth. "The Rebels are alerted to our presence. Admiral Ozzel came out of lightspeed too close to the system."
Veers felt compelled to say something in his colleague's defense. "He felt surprise was wiser..."
"He is as clumsy as he is stupid. General, prepare your troops for a surface attack."
"Yes, my lord." Veers saluted smartly and left at speed. Though he did not consider himself afraid of Vader - not terrified, at least, as many officers were - the snippets of angry, filtered tones he heard as he departed made him very glad that he had joined the Army instead of the Navy.
He expected that he'd have a new Commanding Admiral by the time he returned from Hoth.
"Solo! Hey, Solo!"
Han Solo turned to see a dark-skinned figure in military-issue field jacket rushing up to him on the floor below as he worked atop the MILLENIUM FALCON. He had just said goodbye to Luke Skywalker, as the kid rushed off to lead a snowspeeder flight against the inevitable Imperial Walkers. That had delayed Solo some, and this meeting would delay him further, and he really didn't have time to waste.
Still, he couldn't resist a grin. "Well, look at you! A Colonel!"
Rik Evverd, a fellow Corellian and pilot whose wiry frame was made thicker by multiple layers of clothing, sneered at him. "I HATE being a Colonel. I hate training cadets. Most of all, I hate the man who recommended me for promotion."
Solo grinned. "Don't look at me. I just said you were a fair pilot. I didn't know they were lookin' for someone to train greenies." Under his breath, he muttered, "Better you than me..."
Evverd scowled, but it must mostly bluster. Once you'd gone up against a Death Star with a guy, it was hard to stay mad at him. "I knew you had a plan... I understand you're leaving."
"That's right," said Han Solo, and smiled as a stray memory struck him: He and Evverd, having basically this same conversation, on the moon of Yavin before the Death Star battle. The other Corellian just come in right on Luke's afterburners then, too.
Some things never change, he thought. "You ain't conning me this time, Rik."
"I never conned you, Solo. You did what you wanted to do. You always will." The other man flashed him a grin. "I think you want to stay."
"Here?" Solo did his best to deflect the question. "The walkers'll be here in two minutes!"
"Not here. With the Alliance."
Solo grunted. He'd already stayed with the Alliance for three years, almost gotten his beloved FALCON shot out from under him a few times, and now Leia was being stubborn, as usual...
The whole thing just wasn't worth it. "Don't even start, okay?"
Evverd shrugged. "Your call. Oh, incidentally, I think that port thruster is out of alignment..."
"Will you get outta here?" Solo waved one greasy, hydrospanner-weilding hand towards the snowspeeders. "I can handle this!"
"Sure. Solo, whatever you do, good luck."
Solo favored the other Rebel with a lopsided grin. "I'm countin' on you to keep the kid alive out there."
Evverd glanced over at the speeders, where Luke Skywalker was giving some last-minute instructions to his XO, Wedge Antilles. "Who, Skywalker? He's good."
"He's cocky," the smuggler said. "Bring him back in good shape."
Evverd's grin split his dark features with a wedge of brilliant teeth. "Not a scratch. I promise."
The other Corellian nodded and set off for the speeders. Solo returned to his work, surveying the thrust module with a critical eye.
I hate it when he's right, Solo thought. "Chewie? I think we're gonna have to re-align the port thruster..."
Admiral Ozzel fell to the ground with one last gasp, and on Vader's screen, his exec Captain Piett looked on with some terror.
"...You are in command now, ADMIRAL Piett."
"Yes, my lord." The newly promoted officer could not cut the comm off soon enough.
Behind Vader is his meditation chamber, air molecules seemed to swirl, and a figure cloaked in black appeared where the naked eye would have seen only a blank wall moments before.
"They fear you, my lord." The cloak's hood was down, and the figure looked at Vader with watery blue eyes peering from above a dark goatee that hid the angular nature of his face.
The Dark Lord nodded at his apprentice. Vader himself could have pierced the illusion only with some effort. The youth had grown strong in two years. "As they should."
"Do you think Piett is any better than the rest?"
Vader considered. "He is not so great a fool as Ozzel, but he is still a fool. In the end, all those who cannot touch the Force are much the same."
"Then why bother with a change of command?"
"Fear." Vader stared at the empty place on the viewer where Admiral Ozzel's image had collapsed. "Fools work best when under its influence."
The youth nodded. "I'll have to remember that."
"Soon..." Vader said, voice trailing off so that only his breathing reverberated in the chamber. "Soon, we will have Skywalker in our grasp. When we do, our time of waiting will be complete."
The young man smiled. "We'll go after the Emperor?"
"Patience. First we must crush the Rebellion."
"Of course," said the youth, inclining his head. "You realize, my lord, that Skywalker will not be so easily turned. I faced him once before, and he was dead against the Dark Side."
Vader turned his mask to evaluate the cloaked figure. "You were but an untrained youth yourself, then. You have grown strong. With our combined strength, we shall turn him."
"Your presence might make it worse," said the other. "You did kill Skywalker's father."
Vader's gaze became distant again. "There are many things that young Skywalker does not yet understand... It is for the best that Anakin Skywalker no longer exists."
The young man was silent for a long time, and after a time Vader glanced at him, and saw that his blue eyes had closed. His face was lined with concentration.
"What is it?"
After a moment, the eyes opened. A smile split his thin growth of beard. "They're here. All of them."
"Garreth is here?"
"All of them," the young man repeated. "In the outer system. They're keeping their distance. They know that a NEBULON frigate would be a primary target, and they can't win against our Fleet. They'll soon jump for the Rebel rendezvous point."
"Then they are of no consequence," said Vader, "Focus on Skywalker. He is our objective."
"Kerri Lynden could also a be powerful ally, if she could be persuaded to join us."
But the young man's face was not optimistic, and Vader did not have to state to obvious: Kerri Lynden, the hidden Jedi Knight whom Vader had faced two years ago on Balmorra, had completed her training long ago. She was set in the ways of the light side, not impressionable like young Luke Skywalker.
A pity. But not important, really. Once he had Skywalker, he would need no further help to defeat the Rebels... and accomplish any other goals he chose to set for himself.
"Forget about your former colleagues," Vader told his apprentice.
"For now," the younger man agreed, "But I haven't forgotten our deal, my lord. When you have Luke, and are in a position to challenge the Emperor, his head is mine. I still want revenge for Alderaan."
Vader looked at the young man, whose eyes burned with ferocity. Ironic, the Dark Lord thought, the same quality that draws him to the Dark Side makes him hate us. I wonder if the Emperor realizes how many enemies he made when he destroyed that pathetic little world?
Vader's actual words to this young survivor of Alderaan had been: IF I challenge the Emperor, and you feel ready to confront him, you will have that chance. The young man had heard what he wanted to hear, as young men will.
When I have my son, Vader mused, there may come a time when this young adept is no longer useful to me.
"I forget nothing," he told his apprentice, and proceeded to the bridge, to observe the battle.
"Rik, this is your wingman, Captain Tycho Celchu." Luke Skywalker indicated a brown-haired man with blue eyes. His features were familiar, as though Evverd had seen them before.
"You're from Alderaan!" Evverd said, suddenly realizing.
"That's right," said Tycho as they shook hands. "Is that important?"
"No," said Evverd, realizing that he was staring, "It's just... I knew someone from Alderaan once."
Tycho was plainly curious, but clamped down on it. Luke said his goodbyes, and hopped into the cockpit of his speeder.
"I'm looking forward to flying your wing," said Tycho, "I've heard a lot about you, Colonel. Maverick Squadron is something of a legend."
Evverd snorted, and led the way to their own speeders. "You certainly have nothing to be ashamed of. You're a Rogue."
"True," said Tycho, "The word among pilots is that we're better than the Mavs, but they're crazier."
Evverd chuckled as he hopped into his speeder. "You talk about crazy... who gave Dash Rendar a speeder?" Evverd had been shocked to see the red-haired smuggler climbing into one of their 'hot rods.' There hadn't been time for much of a greeting, though the two were old friends.
Tycho shrugged. "Same reason they've given a broken down flight instructor a ship... Rogue Squadron is doubled-up with these two-seat jobs. Some of our best pilots, like Wes Janson, are busy playing gunner."
Evverd hopped into the speeder, keenly missing his purple-and-gray Artoo unit, R2-B0, Bo for short. He'd flown with that little droid forever. Instead, he'd have top deal with a gunner.
He shook his fist menacingly at Tycho, across the hangar. "I'll show you broken down, buddy. I've been up against walkers before."
"In a speeder?"
"No," said Evverd, remembering a mission from a long time ago, "In an X-Wing."
"How'd you ever..."
"Cut the chatter, Rogues," said Luke Skywalker's voice. "I want all units in the air. We don't have much time."
"Copy," said Evverd, and flicked on him repulsors. He glanced back to greet his gunner...
And crashed against his restraints as he instinctively recoiled.
The Barabel in the gunner's seat grinned. "You were expecting a human, perhaps?"
Evverd surveyed the huge alien's gunnery chair. "I just didn't think a Barabel would fit in one of these..."
"It is cramped," said the fierce alien, only slightly smaller than a Wookiee and a lot uglier, "But these are desperate times."
Evverd guided them out of the hangar, resisting the urge to stare backwards. "Not to be rude, but may I ask if you're male or female?"
"Female. Like you, I am not a Rogue. I was a bounty hunter, and arrived here only last week, seeking to join the Alliance."
"You're off to a hell of a start," said Evverd with a grin, "This is gonna be the battle of the war to date. As a bounty hunter, I guess you're a good shot?"
"Excellent," she said.
As they shot forward over the snow, Evverd picked out the distant shapes of Imperial walkers. "Any motion sickness?"
"I do not understand."
"Let me try to clarify," said Evverd, and he flipped the speeder into a sudden triple roll as they shot over a hill. "Did that make you nauseous?"
"It makes me wish to injure you..."
Luke's voice cut through the comm. "Stop showing off, Rogue Seven. We have a job to do."
"Nobody has a sense of humor anymore," Evverd muttered. He was still unused to the "Rogue" callsign, but it only made sense to use it since he was leading half of Luke's squadron. He revved his engines higher, and led his Rogues towards the walkers.
"Troop shuttles have landed," Commander Sedra Covell announced. "Imperial walkers approaching the base."
"Here goes nothing..." Kerri muttered from the captain's seat. "What about those Star Destroyers?"
"Still holding position," said Covell, "I don't think they want us; they're concentrating on the planet."
Kerri blew out a nervous breath, rubbing the crystal she wore for luck. "What are General Rieekan's orders?"
"He wants us to withdraw," said Lieutenant Korb Weeilka, the Twi'lek at Nav/Comm. "With all speed, and I do suggest we honor his wishes. Not that anyone listens to me..."
"I'm listening, Mister Weeilka. Prepare for the jump to..."
From his post by the captain's side, Senior Chief Okel, a scarred Calamarian, snapped to attention. "Admiral on the bridge!"
"At ease, everyone," Mykel Garreth said, looking distinctly uncomfortable in his new uniform, especially the crimson cape, which appeared to be choking him a bit at its collar. The FREEDOM had been his ship until very recently, and Kerri couldn't help but notice how badly he seemed to want the captain's chair.
She stood. "If you like, sir..."
"Nonsense, captain. It's your boat. Just get me Rieekan."
Kerri nodded to Weeilka. "Do it."
In a moment, FREEDOM's viewport had been covered by a comm-screen overlay, upon which General Carlist Rieekan's face appeared. "Admiral Garreth. We're rather busy."
"I understand that, sir. What I don't understand is why we're out here when we have transports being escorted by snubfighters."
The rest of Garreth's task force, the bulk of it, had been patrolling the surrounding sectors, and there'd been no time to get it back for the battle. No one had thought the Empire would find them so soon.
"What do you think you could do, Captain? They caught us with spice in our hold. You'd never get within a thousand kilometers of our transports. EXECUTOR would eat you alive."
All of which Kerri could tell the Admiral already knew. Didn't make it any easier for any of them, especially those with friends and loved ones on Hoth.
Garreth said, "I've bested Vader before."
"With the element of surprise, Mykel. This time, Vader has that advantage. Get clear; that's an order."
Garreth turned away from the comm, muttered, "I thought I accepted a promotion so that generals and admirals couldn't order me around."
"He is right, though," Okel reminded his old friend.
"I especially hate it when they're right," Garreth said, then turned back to Rieekan. "With respect, I'd like to wait a while. We can go to lightspeed at a moment's notice. There may be something we can do later."
Rieekan frowned. "If you..."
"Captain!" Sedra Covell, a short woman with hair the color of space and skin about two shades lighter, was tense. "A wing of TIE fighters has broken off from the main group. Heading this direction."
"Maverick Squadron is escorting the transports," Kerri reminded the admiral. Garreth in turn looked to Rieekan.
"Captain's discretion," said the busy general, and flicked off the comm.
"Well, you heard him," said Garreth, "It IS your ship."
"Keep your distance," Kerri ordered the helm, "But engage the TIE fighters. The more we can keep out here, the less there'll be for Avers and Mav Squadron."
"Cross your head-tails," said Weeilka, "Or whatever appendages you use. Here they come..."
The TIE's roared in, and even FREEDOM's backpedaling could not keep them from swarming all over the hull. Fortunately, the blaster-shaped NEBULON class design was sturdy, and built to tackle fighters. Multiple turbolasers and ion cannon erupted, swallowing three TIE's on the first pass, while the FREEDOM took only minor damage.
Unfortunately, it was likely to go downhill from there.
"Is that an asteroid field on the edge of the system?" Kerri asked.
"Yes, Captain," said Covell. "It's a treacherous one, too."
Kerri smiled. "Rik has said that a TIE fighter is at a disadvantage in an asteroid field, because it has no shields. The smallest rock can blast through its armor."
"That's very true," said Garreth, "But a ship our size wouldn't fare much better. We're big enough to be a target, but small enough not to be able to take a serious pounding."
Kerri frowned up at him. "It IS my ship."
"By all means..."
Kerri nodded to the helm as the TIE's came around for another pass. "Take us in."
The AT-AT Walker fired, catching one of the Rogues and sending it spiraling to a fiery demise over the frozen plains.
A moment later, Luke Skywalker said, "That armor's too strong for blasters!"
"He is right," said the Barabel, "I will prepare the..." She broke off with an angry hiss. "What?"
"The firing system has malfunctioned. I have no tow cable to fire, and no other weapons are effective."
Evverd cursed, then settled into his pilot's chair to think. He studied his scopes for a minute. Two smaller contacts pinged, at the edge of the Imperial advance.
"Luke, I have no tow cable. I'm gonna try something..."
Luke double-clicked his receiver, giving permission, but did not respond. Evverd switched his own comm over. "Rogue Eight, get my wing. Got a couple of chicken walkers on advance."
"They can't get past the shield generators," said Tycho, "They don't have the firepower."
"No," Evverd agreed, "But they can make life lousy for our ground troops. I got some old buddies down there..."
"Copy. Forming up."
Evverd arced around, bringing his repulsor-driven craft around to face a pair of Imperial AT-ST scout walkers as they pounded towards the Rebel trenches.
He came in for one pass, firing repeat blasts at the unprotected back of the scout walkers' heads. Unfortunately, their armor was good. It would take forever to nail them at this rate - and they'd be on top of the infantry in seconds.
Tycho had noticed as much. "No effect, Rogue Seven. Please advise."
Evverd grunted to himself. "You want advice? Here's advice. You got that tow cable?"
"Shoot it at me," said the colonel.
"Shoot it at my port wing!" Evverd said, "Don't worry, I can compensate."
Tycho seemed to understand, at least partially. "I copy, Seven. You want to form a tripwire."
"That's crazy! We'll end up destroying ourselves!"
"Not necessarily," Evverd muttered, "If we do this right, it'll just take me out of the fight... and I'm not much good to you guys without a working harpoon anyway."
"I hope your plan is sound," said Tycho.
"Trust me. Just get ready to detach your harpoon and climb on my mark."
The Barabel growled. "I should have joined the Empire..."
"Oh, just calm down. Tycho: Fire!"
Tycho did so, and Evverd heard the thud, accompanied by a loss of stability and air pressure, as the harpoon buried itself in the armor of his port wing. He directed Tycho to spread out, and soon he and the Alderaanian were skimming along the ice with Tycho's tow cable stretched between them.
"Come in at point-27," said Evverd, "Bring up your altitude."
They drove in straight at the scout walkers, moving up to about the level where the walker's head met its unsteady legs. Thuds began to pound into them from the scouts' cannons, but if they couldn't take out a scout walker with one pass, neither could the scouts do it to them.
And then they were on the scouts, their tow cables catching the walkers around their unsteady legs. The impact swung both Evverd and Tycho around, and brought them towards each other on the other side of the walkers, so that the two cable made a square with each of the walkers and each of the speeders at its points.
"NOW!" Evverd called. Tycho released his tow cable and shot off high. Evverd, inextricably connected to the cable, shot around low, making another loop in front of the now-tottering scouts. As he got around to the side again, he cut all repulsors. His speeder dropped, burying itself halfway in a snow bank with a crash that threw Evverd hard against his restraints, his teeth snapping together.
The two scout walkers fell forward, and exploded. The fireball filled Evverd's cockpit window for a moment, but then it passed by, leaving the wreckage of his speeder singed but in one piece.
Evverd sighed. "You all right?"
The Barabel was offended. "What a human can survive, I can survive."
"Then let's get out of here," he said, and popped the hatch. The frigid winds of Hoth immediately bit into him through his insulated flight suit. The Barabel, too big for standard issue clothes, didn't even have that.
From the barely functioning comm, Evverd heard Tycho's voice. "Great work, Rogue Seven. Still, I hope you understand that I never want to fly with you again..."
Evverd groaned. "I have that effect on people. Go kill one for me."
"That's a copy..."
Evverd snapped off his harness, levered himself around and helped the Barabel wedge her bulk out of the seat.
"I agree with the Alderaanian."
"Don't everybody thank me at once," said Evverd as they plopped out of the cockpit, into the snow bank. One walker was coming uncomfortably close. Two others had already been dealt with, and lay smoking like the scouts.
Evverd hissed softly. Not bad, he thought, but we're still getting disassembled out here.
He picked a direction across the snow bank. "Let's move..."
A chunk of ice fell from the wall, and Taryn Clancee just got out of its way. Exhaling a cloud of steam, she checked the X-Wing's systems. A Wookiee roared at her.
"No," she said to Gaaraanzii, like herself a member of the FREEDOM's crew doubling as a starfighter tech. "I think this one's good to go. Let's move 'em out, then get to the transport..."
A purple-and-gray Artoo tweedled from the droid socket.
"Yes," Taryn said, engaging the repulsors to bring the snubfighter out of the hangar and out to the snow field where the pilots were meeting up, "I checked the lateral controls. And the hyperdrive. You'll get to the rendezvous."
The Artoo bleeped his assessment of human repair work, but Taryn had no time to be offended. "Listen, you tell your master to be careful, all right?"
The droid said that would be a first for Evverd, but that he'd do his best.
The starfighter dropped to the ground, and Taryn popped the hatch.
"Good luck," she said, and climbed down, dropping the last meter and falling at least that far down into the snow. She dug herself out and raced back to the hangar, hoping she'd get to her transport before it launched.
"Got one!" said Covell, and on their screen another TIE fell apart, consumed by fire. "But we're losing starboard shields!"
Kerri nodded. Between their guns and the asteroids, they had taken out twenty-three of the thirty-six TIE fighters. That should help our fighters, she thought.
"Move of out of the field," she said, "Jump to lightspeed when clear."
"Understood," said Harkin, the helm officer.
"Nicely done," said Garreth.
"Thank you, sir. Let's just hope it's enough."
Garreth saw the worry in her eyes, and smiled gently. "He'll be all right."
"He'd better be..."
Two more TIE's were lost trying to follow them out of the asteroid field, and Kerri risked one last glance at the frozen plains of Hoth. He will be okay...
"Hyperdrive in ten," she said.
Weeilka's hand reached for the lever, but he paused. "Captain, we have a text-only comm. It's from Colonel Evverd."
"Understood," she said, breathing a sigh of relief, "Get us out of here."
The FREEDOM jolted slightly as hyperspace swallowed them, and Kerri picked up a datapad, linking it with the main computer to read the message. It read:
MADE IT TO MY FIGHTER, ABOUT TO PULL ESCORT FOR A
TRANSPORT. ASK ME ABOUT HOTH SOMETIME--ALMOST
BOUGHT IT OUT THERE. SORRY I COULDN'T JUMP OUT
WITH YOU--BUT THEN, YOU KNEW IT WOULDN'T BE EASY
WHEN YOU MARRIED ME. SEE YOU AT THE RENDEZVOUS.
"Good news, I trust?" said Garreth, polite enough not to read over her shoulder, but still curious.
"About usual," said Kerri, blanking the pad. "I would have liked to win the battle, too - but these days, I'll take my victories as they come."
On the EXECUTOR, a nondescript-looking officer wandered over to the sensor station.
"Have you detected a NEBULON-class frigate?"
The sensor chief nodded. "Yes, sir. She just jumped to lightspeed."
"We didn't stop here?"
"She was too far distant, sir," said the sensor chief, "Lord Vader's orders were to maintain the blockade."
The officer nodded curtly. "Understood. Carry on."
He left the bridge. As soon the door closed, the totally average-looking man's form rippled, and morphed into a tall young Alderaanian with a goatee, cloaked in black. He hissed to himself. He had wanted that ship - but it wasn't in Lord Vader's plans.
He wondered if Lord Vader knew how very little he cared for the Dark Lord's plans. In time, his own plans would come to pass - plans of justice for Alderaan.
The door opened again, and a black-armored figure strode out, mechanized breath hissing rhythmically. "I am proceeding to the planet. It may be possible to catch the MILLENIUM FALCON before she lifts."
"Why do you want Leia and Solo?" he asked, "What good are they?"
"They will lead us to Skywalker," said Lord Vader. "Everything proceeds according to plan. Remain on the command ship until I summon you."
"Yes, my lord."
The last Lord of the Sith stalked away, accompanied now by a contingent of stormtroopers. The man who had once been known as Jev Parrak glared at his back.
Everything does proceed, Lord Vader, he thought. It proceeds very nicely.
He would not have to hide much longer. Very soon now, he would be making his return to the larger galaxy after two years in seclusion, learning the ways of the Force.
And a triumphant return it would be...
Continued in Episode 2
R. John Burke