STAR WARS: FREEDOM'S Price Episode Two
DESCRIPTION: While the events of the EMPIRE STRIKES BACK continue, Taryn and Gaar are stuck in the middle of an Imperial cleanup of the Hoth system.
NOTICE: Star Wars and all things like it are the property of Lucasfilm, Ltd. and it's semi-immortal founder. This work is not for sale, and is for entertainment only. ESB excerpts were written by Lawrence Kasdan and Leigh Brackett, from a story by George Lucas.
"You ARE planning on lifting off sometime soon, right?"
The transport's Commander, a brown-haired woman named Kaia Andrimetrum, glanced back at Lieutenant Commander Taryn Clancee with some annoyance. "Are you still here?"
"I'm not going anywhere until I get some answers."
Taryn had forced her way onto the cramped and darkened bridge of a rebel transport ship. Dozens of rebels, including her friend Gaaraanzii, a sandy-furred Wookiee, were crammed into the hold like nerfs at a slaughterhouse. They'd been waiting for quite a while, but they hadn't actually gone anywhere yet. Finally Taryn had decided to find out what the holdup was.
Andrimetrum stopped short in the middle of the bridge, fists clenched in frustration. "What, specifically, are your questions?"
Taryn fought to keep her voice down. "Lets' start with something simple, like WHY THE HELL AREN'T WE MOVING?"
"Everyone isn't aboard yet, for one thing. For another, the Imperial blockade has tightened up. We may not be ABLE to break it."
"All the more reason to leave now!" Taryn said, "Maybe I should take the helm..."
"Step back," said the commander. "Lieutenant Dreay has everything under control. Why don't you just give us some room?"
A harried looking crewer stormed into the bridge. "Everyone is aboard, Commander."
Andrimetrum turned to the helmsman. "Punch it!"
A balding man in a Lieutenant's uniform engaged the engines, which sputtered and whined. Andrimetrum cursed. "Lock in auxiliary power!"
"Done," said Dreay, "Nothing's working!"
Outside, a controller's voice announced, "Imperial troops have entered the base. Imperial troops have entered the..." his voice dissolved into static.
Dreay pounded the console in frustration. The engines continued to stutter.
"This is bad," said Taryn, "Even the Solo Method didn't work. I'll fix it."
"I'll fix it," she repeated more forcefully, and left the cockpit at a run. A tall woman with blonde hair in a ponytail, Taryn had been a smuggler for many years before joining the Alliance. She'd lifted a hydrospanner to most of the ship designs in the galaxy in her time, including this design.
She stopped next to another tall form. "Come on, and bring your tools. We're in trouble."
A two-and-a-half-meter Wookiee with fur a shade darker than Taryn's hair grumbled. One of the gadgets on his metallic bandolier blinked, and filtered tones said, "What is the nature of the problem?"
"Engines are out. Imps are on the move."
Gaaraanzii rumbled. "Have they tried pounding?"
"The controls or the Imperials?"
A thoughtful hoot came out as, "Either one."
Taryn led the way aft, to the engine platform. As a Medium transport from Gallofree Yards, the ship possessed three primary and six secondary drive engines. The trick was to find the one in the sequence that wasn't lighting - and to find it quickly.
Taryn keyed her comlink. "Try it now."
The engines surged with energy - primary one, secondary one and two. Primary two, secondary three and four. Primary three, secondary five and six. All hummed with energy in the proper sequence - yet the ship wouldn't lift.
Taryn moaned to herself. "What a piece of junk!"
Gaar growled a somewhat harsher appraisal.
"This had better work," Taryn muttered, sliding on her back under the first primary engine. Her glowrod showed all the connections to be good. The Wookiee reported similar findings on primary two.
"It's got to be one of them!" Taryn protested.
The Wookiee growled an observation - it did not have to be one of them. In fact, it could be the connectors, the control circuitry, the power relays, or a dozen other things.
"It's got to be one of them," Taryn repeated, "Or this is going to be a real short evacuation."
"Yeah, all right, we're going!"
Rik Evverd sighed to himself as he engaged the repulsorlifts and brought his X-Wing fighter around. Some things in the galaxy were constants: Death, taxes, and R2 droids worrying too much.
In truth, Evverd could hardly blame his astromech. He himself couldn't want to get off this ice cube, and not just because of the lousy weather. He'd come a little too close to buying it on that tundra out there for his tastes. The fact that no Imperial Walker had crisped him or his Barabel gunner during their mad run for the base was blind luck.
Not that Evverd had anything against relying on luck. His own was usually pretty good. But there were limits on everything, including luck.
"You there, Colonel?" asked a female voice on the comm.
Evverd, a thin Corellian with chocolate skin, grinned at the familiar voice. "Nice of you to wait for me..."
"Wait, nothing," said the voice of Commander Brynn Avers, a medium-sized woman with unruly brown hair who had inherited command of Maverick Squadron from her former CO. "I was planning on escorting the last transport anyway."
"How many more before us?" asked Evverd.
"Two. There's the RELIANT, with Commander Andrimetrum, and the SAFE PASSAGE. That's got the command crew, and that one's mine. We're down to one fighter per transport."
"Rieekan on that one?" he asked.
"And the princess, supposedly." Avers paused, then added, "Unless she gets out with Solo. How are our defenses?"
Evverd grunted. "WHAT defenses? Imps are swarming the base... anybody who's not gone in the next ten minutes is gonna be dead."
The comm was silent a moment. "I'd say that's a real good argument for leaving quickly."
A roar sounded overhead, cutting through Evverd's cockpit. He looked up to see a transport cutting a line through the sky, its blue ion engines firing.
"Something's wrong," said Avers over the comm unit, "That's the SAFE PASSAGE. She was slated for last."
"Well, go get her," said Evverd, "I'll wait for the other one."
Avers groaned. "If she comes. You always did get the fun part, boss. Good luck."
Avers' green-painted X-Wing rose up on its repulsors, circled, and shot off after its transport, quickly overtaking it.
Evverd hit a switch. "RELIANT, This is your escort. What's wrong?"
"No time to chat," said Andrimetrum's voice. "If we're not gone in two minutes, leave without us."
"Copy." Evverd said, and cut off the comm. "Yeah, right."
Bo bleeped up and down the scale, very concerned by the tone of his master's voice.
"Try it now!" said Taryn, after reconnecting a switch.
She slid back from secondary engine four as the bridge once again tried to engage their ion drive. The cycle started, reached secondary four, which lit perfectly.
Then it reached secondary six, which Gaar was working on. Every circuit in the engine blew in a shower of sparks. Gaar charged out from his perch, howling, fur smelling burnt.
"How was I to know you were working on an exposed circuit?" she demanded, and raised the comlink to her lips. "That's it. Shut down all the secondary engines. We'll have to go on primaries."
Andrimetrum said, "We'll never break that blockade with just primary engines!"
"We will if you let me steer," said Taryn, grinning tightly. She slapped her hydrospanner into Gaar's hands, and charged back for the bridge. "Keep working. I'll be back."
After sending off his message to Kerri and watching with satisfaction as the FREEDOM made hyperspace, Evverd had nothing to brake the tension but to monitor communications.
"...fensive Squad C2. We've got snowtroopers pinning us down..."
"Squad C4 reporting. We're in a crossfire..."
"All troops, retreat. Retreat now!"
Evverd heard a familiar voice among the cacophony, and tuned up the volume. "...this is Solo. Better take off - I can't get to you. I'll get her out on the FALCON."
The Corellian settled back in his chair, drumming his fingers nervously. The 'she' was presumably Princess Leia. Blast it all, thought Evverd, SOLO's got something to do...
"No," the pilot said dryly, "I don't appreciate this last chance to collect my thoughts. I want to get outta here."
Bo, as noted, agreed whole-heartedly.
Andrimetrum's voice broke through again. "Escort, this is RELIANT. We're going to go for it."
Evverd frowned. "You don't sound too sure it'll work."
"She's not," said another familiar voice, "I am."
The ex-smuggler's tone was light, despite their serious situation. "I'll have to be good, if we've only got a flight instructor for an escort..."
Evverd risked a glance backwards, where snowtroopers were steadily working their way towards the takeoff pad. He saw Luke Skywalker struggling over snowy banks to reach his X-Wing, and a moment later the MILLENIUM FALCON burst into the morning sky.
"Will you hit the accelerator already? I'm gonna be bantha fodder out here in a minute..."
"Hit it!" Taryn said to someone, and the last Rebel transport accelerated away from Hoth. Evverd punched in his own repulsors, lifting off just as the stormtroopers started to storm the landing pad. He got clear at about the same time as Skywalker, though he was closer to the advance, so he had the pleasure of hearing Imperial blaster shots ricochet off his landing gear.
"Well, at least the hard part's behind us, right?"
"She's reading HOW many engines? Oh, that's just great! There's got to be a better line of work somewhere, for a smart guy like me..."
Heedless of the chaos around it, an Imperial LAMBDA-class shuttle departed the EXECUTOR and soared into the hangar bay of the RUTHLESS, one of the Imperial-class Star Destroyers of the blockade. It's occupant was escorted directly to the bridge.
The captain turned to see a man in an Imperial Ubiqtorate colonel's uniform, totally nondescript, entering his bridge.
"May I help you?"
"I bring special orders from Lord Vader," said the colonel, "The last Rebel transport is departing the planet. It is imperative that the ship be detained and two of its passengers - a blonde woman and a Wookiee--be charged to my custody for interrogation."
"I'll need authorization for such--"
The colonel cut him off. "Why bother with authorization?"
"I...don't quite know..."
"That's such a bother, all that red tape."
The captain said thoughtfully, "I do hate...red tape..."
"Why not just trust me?"
"Er..." the captain shook his head slightly, as if dizzy, and said, "Of course. No authorization needed for the Ubiqtorate. You can be trusted, I'm sure."
"Very good," said the colonel with a smile. "Get me that transport."
Evverd had been expecting about a dozen TIE fighter to hit them as they made orbit, but in fact most of them - and most of the Imperial fleet - seemed to be chasing the MILLENIUM FALCON.
Evverd watched his scopes, confused. "I'm not sure even Solo can get out of that... why d'you suppose they're so hot to catch him? Look - all that's left in orbit is the cleanup crew for already-disabled transports, and..."
Bo squealed as a Star Destroyer broke off from the main Fleet, it and its attendant TIE's barely down solidly on the RELIANT.
"So much for luck..." said Evverd. Without an ion cannon blast to disable the TIE's, it would all come down to whether the limping transport could make lightspeed before the ISD killed it. Right now, that seemed like even-odds.
Evverd charged into the TIE fighters, knowing his best chance of saving the RELIANT was if he could prevent the smaller ships, especially bombers, from making any strafing runs.
His first two laser bursts each killed a bomber. The third one missed, but clipped the wing of a nearby TIE, sending it careening away. Evverd checked his scopes, expecting to see the RELIANT breaking for open space.
He saw exactly the opposite. The Gallofree Transport was skirting the edge of Hoth, just at the outside of its gravity well, charging directly towards the Star Destroyer as it held in a tight orbit.
Immediately, Evverd saw the logic. Taryn's plan was to help their wounded engines gather speed for the hyperspace jump by letting Hoth's gravity speed them along. It might work, if they survived the first pass under the approaching Star Destroyer.
Evverd looped up and around, changing direction and dodging repeated blasts from the encircling TIE fighters, as he soared off towards the threatening wedge-shape of the Star Destroyer. The TIE's, caught off guard by his sudden change of direction, swarmed back to follow, so that about two dozen starfighters were stuck to his tail.
The Corellian grinned. "Oh, this is too easy..."
He shunted all power but forward shields to his engines, allowing him to outrun the TIE, albeit by a slim margin. As he approached the Destroyer, which was trying to turn to copy Taryn's maneuver, its starboard turbolaser batteries opened up on him. All along the exposed profile of the wedge-shaped cruiser, laser-targeting systems locked on.
Evverd dipped into his bag of tricks, using every swerve, jig, and roll he knew to prevent a targeting lock. As he approached the Destroyer, he slowed somewhat to let the TIEs catch up. He paused his maneuvers, allowing both sides to get a lock on him.
As the TIE's were almost open him and the Star Destroyer began firing, Evverd dove straight down, into the RELIANT's ion wake.
The Imperial forces converging on both sides, which had been zeroing in on Evverd, zeroed in on each other.
Their lasers lanced out. Caught in their own crossfire, both sides of the Imperial fleet were damaged. The TIE's lost quite a few of their number. The Destroyer lost most of its starboard shield power.
Taking a hint, Taryn had her gunner light up the shield, opening miniature holes all along it's length...
Into the first three of which soared a precisely aimed proton torpedo from Evverd's X-Wing. The Destroyer was hit in three places, not seriously at all, but enough to disrupt activity on the starboard side.
The opening was enough, and Taryn shot past it at reduced but adequate speed. Evverd followed behind...
His ship shuddered as the Destroyer's starboard weaponry came back on line, sprinkling him with close hits. Then he got past, and they were clear...
Bo hooted and warbled. His report came up on the screen, and Evverd cursed.
"You gotta be kidding me! Hyperdrive a mess, port S-foils both fused, ejection system compromised... what kind of list is this? I thought we were clear!"
Bo replied that an X-Wing pilot who had survived a skirmish with a Star Destroyer had no right to complain.
"Evverd, what's the problem?" asked Taryn Clancee, "Can we assist?"
"Nah... get your tail out of here, Clancee."
"Copy that," said Taryn, "Can you go to lightspeed?"
"Just barely," said Evverd, "Bo thinks there's about a quarter of a lightyear left in the motivator."
"All right, then," said Taryn. "Good luck. See you at the Fleet."
"Right," Evverd said, and closed off the comm. As he watched the RELIANT disappear into hyperspace, he added a silent "If we make it..."
On the bridge of the RUTHLESS, the Ubiqtorate colonel was having a fit. "We LOST it! How do you lose an ancient transport and a snubfighter with a Star Destroyer, Captain?"
The RUTHLESS' captain squirmed. "I don't know, sir. The pilot's skill was extraordinary."
"I don't care! You should have--" the colonel broke off, an odd look crossing his face. "It was extraordinary, wasn't it?" He closed his eyes for a moment, lips moving silently. When he opened the eyes, they were bright with anticipation.
"Perhaps we didn't lose ALL of them," he announced with a smile. He turned to the captain. "If you value your life, bring me that X-Wing."
The captain saluted and moved off, while the Ubiqtorate colonel stared out the viewport. As he did so, with no one around to observe, his bland features shifted. Become younger, more angular. A beard became apparent on his face.
He smiled. "It's been a long time, Rik. Too long..."
Evverd uttered the most unrepeatable Corellian vulgarity he could think of. "Whaddaya MEAN they're coming back?"
Bo's reply was simple: The remaining TIE fighters, and the Star Destroyer, were zeroing in on him.
"I'm beginning to understand how Solo feels," Evverd muttered, "All right, use that last quarter lightyear. Can you get us ANYWHERE before my rations run out?"
Bo calculated while Evverd powered up the engines. He said that they could likely get to the Anoat system with their last drop of hyperspace power.
"Ugh," said the Corellian, "There's nothing there. What about... hey, didn't Garreth mention the Anoat system once or twice?"
The R2's reply was something snippy about how the mighty Admiral Garreth rarely made time to talk to droids.
"Yeah, but he said something about a gambling tournament held near there - at Bespin!"
Bo's reply was a little, electronic "So what?"
"So, his buddy Lando Calrissian bought the place a little while back! We'll be safe there!"
The droid said that he'd met Lando Calrissian just briefly, but that "safe" and that gambler did not seem to go together.
The Star Destroyer, however, was getting very close to firing range, and that made up Evverd's mind. "Just do it! Set course for Bespin!"
Bo did so, reluctantly.
An awful chugging sound came from aft somewhere, and for a moment the stars in Evverd's viewport only shuddered. Then they became starlines, and the X-Wing was in hyperspace.
The EXECUTOR had pulled out of the asteroid field on the edge of the Hoth system, which was the first opportunity for its missing shuttle to return.
Its occupant cloaked himself again, more carefully than Ever, and proceeded to Lord Vader's quarters. Vader did not even seem to notice him; the Dark Lord had more pressing business.
The man who had posed as a colonel waited while the Sith Lord prepared himself, and listened with interest as Vader conversed with his master.
A pair of yellow eyes peered out from a darkened cowl at Vader. An aged voice said, "There is a great disturbance in the Force."
Vader bowed before the giant hologram. "I have felt it."
"We have a new enemy - Luke Skywalker."
"Yes, my master."
Skywalker? The watcher did not understand. Vader had known about Skywalker for some time. Had he kept that information from his Emperor? Or...
Wait. As the watcher concentrated, he felt it, too. Luke Skywalker was out there, yes, strong in the Force as always. But that strength was being tempered, molded as the watcher's own strength had been by Lord Vader. As they spoke, Skywalker grew in the Force.
Somewhere, he had found a Jedi Master. He was learning the skills that Vader had hoped to teach him, the ones that would make him a formidable enemy if left unchecked.
Skywalker was becoming a Jedi.
The Emperor said, "He could destroy us."
Vader's tone seemed - wrong, somehow. Almost defensive. "He's just a boy. Obi-Wan can no longer help him.
The glowing eyes narrowed. "The Force is strong in him. The son of Skywalker must not become a Jedi."
Vader was almost hesitant. "If he could be turned, he would be a powerful ally."
"Yes. Yes..." the Emperor's tone became thoughtful. "Can it be done?"
"He will join us or die, my master."
Satisfied with that response, the Emperor dismissed his servant, and the hologram faded off as the watcher faded back into sight. The Emperor was indeed powerful. He had no fear, however. He could train and hone his skills without the old man's knowledge, for he possessed a crystal - given to him by a light-side Jedi, also in hiding - that shielded his effect on the Force.
Vader meditated for another moment, then spoke. "You disobeyed me."
"You never told me not to go after the transport."
"I told you to forget your former colleagues." The Dark Lord's voice was ominous. He still hadn't turned. "I told you to concentrate on Skywalker. You stole a ship from my fleet for your own quest."
Vader rose, and his hand fell to his lightsaber. "You have defied me, and there is a cost."
The watcher tried to step backwards, but could not. He found himself rooted to the spot. As Vader's saber lit, the watcher's right arm rose slowly, shaking as he tried to fight the action. It was worse than useless - he was trapped in Vader's grip.
"When I failed him at Yavin, the Emperor took my hand as a punishment. A reminder of who was the student and who was the master. I believe you require that same reminder."
"No," the watcher pleaded, "No, please..."
"You have grown strong," said the Dark Lord, advancing on him as the younger man struggled vainly. "But never forget that your loyalty, and your life, are mine."
As cold and emotionless as space itself, Vader's saber slashed downwards...
In her chair on the bridge of her NEBULON-B frigate, the FREEDOM, Captain Kerri Lynden-Evverd sat bolt upright.
"Is something wrong?" In the chair usually reserved for the ship's first officer sat an old friend, Admiral Mykel Garreth. Garreth, a short man with graying hair worn long in back, and piercing, dark eyes, had been Kerri's captain for several years.
Kerri shuddered. Her own eyes were also brown, but a few shades lighter than Garreth. Her skin was a few shades lighter than that, and her entire face was framed by long, dark hair.
"My crystal," she said, "It just stabbed with pain."
Garreth stared, and said politely, "Pain? From a gemstone?"
"The crystal is powerful in the Force," she said, "And it is connected to others of its kind in a way I can't explain... but I don't know why I'd feel pain through it."
"Perhaps you're just tired," Garreth suggested, "Like all of us."
They'd been at the Rebel rendezvous coordinates just outside the galactic rim for only a few days, but it had been an exhausting few days. There was nothing to DO there except wait, and worry about friends who might or might not return. Kerri's own husband was among those late to return.
"It's possible," she conceded. "Still, I would have sworn..."
"Captain!" her first officer, Sedra Covell, spoke up from the Weapons post. "We have a new contact - another transport has checked in. It's the RELIANT."
Kerri straightened. "That's the one Rik was escorting."
Korb Weeilka looked up from navigation. "Taryn Clancee is signaling."
"Put it on."
The comm overlay replaced their viewport window, and showed the smiling face of a blonde woman at a helm console.
"Admiral! I've got to dock this bantha of a ship, but is it too early to ask for permission to come home?"
"Not at all, Commander," said Garreth, whose task force had mostly checked in now, except for Evverd and the MILLENIUM FALCON. "Is Colonel Evverd with you?"
"No," said Taryn after a brief pause, "We got separated at Hoth. But listen, it's not a problem. He was past the Imps and he had hyperdrive - as good as he is, he'd have made it out. It'll just take him a little longer, because his motivator was about to breathe its last.
Kerri relaxed a little, but not totally. "Hey, why the long faces? Looks to me like most of the Rebellion survived."
"The keyword, I believe, is 'most,'" said Garreth, "We weren't crushed at Hoth, but we took more of a pounding than we could really afford. By all means, come aboard, Commander. We could use an optimist in our midst."
"Gotcha. Be there shortly. Clancee out."
The comm screen switched off, and Garreth shrugged. "There, you see? Rik should be fine."
Kerri frowned. In truth, while the question of Rik's fate had been wearing on her, it had not been her prime concern. Rik Evverd was one of those people who could face any odds without ever being in serious danger. He was a survivor, and Kerri had no real doubt that he would return.
She was more concerned at the moment with whatever mysterious message her crystal was sending. Despite Garreth's words, she was not convinced its surge of feeling had been merely imagined.
Someone out there had felt great pain, and somehow Kerri had picked it up.
She didn't know the cause, but she had a very bad feeling about it.
The medical droid jabbed the finger of a man who once gone by the name of Jev Parrak. He responded with a wince, and the droid proceeded to his next finger. Jev responded to that, and on it went, testing the cybernetic replacement.
He wished he could dismiss the droid, for he had many things to think about. Being up against Vader like that, powerless while the power of the Dark Side treated him as it would...it was an experience unlike any other. In the two years he'd been training with Vader, the Dark Lord had never treated him so harshly, not even in the beginning when Jev had been violent at every opportunity.
It was a sign, he knew, that Vader was tightening his leash. The Dark Lord was not grooming Jev as an equal, but as a servant, and he'd demonstrated that rather graphically for the Alderaanian's benefit.
Jev had originally joined Vader, when he'd realized he had no choice anyway, to learn the man's Dark Side secrets. He'd hoped to turn Vader's own skills against him.
Eventually, the power had become more important than the purpose, and Jev had begun to consider a host of other schemes, each more grandiose than the last, right down to killing Vader and his Emperor, and taking the galaxy for himself.
But today was a rude awakening. Jev knew that he had a long way to go before he could really challenge Vader, and the Dark Lord would never let him reach that level. All of Vader's promises had been lies. He'd even left Jev behind with the fleet while he followed some bounty hunter's trail to Bespin, looking for the MILLENIUM FALCON.
Vader wanted Luke Skywalker. Jev was just a stopgap. He was starting down a path that could not end well for him.
It was time, Jev decided, for things to change...
Continued in Episode 3
R. John Burke