STAR WARS: FREEDOM'S Price Episode Three
DESCRIPTION: As my tie-tin with EMPIRE STRIKES BACK continues, Evverd finds himself at Cloud City just ahead of the MILLENIUM FALCON.
NOTICE: Star Wars and all related material belongs to Lucasfilm (especially the ESB stuff, written by Brackett & Kasdan from a story by George Lucas). This story is for entertainment only. It may not be sold in any way (As if someone would buy it...).
"For the tenth time, I'm trying to reach Lando Calrissian..."
The pilot of the Twin-Pod Cloud Car escorting Rik Evverd's X-Wing on the outskirts of Bespin's Cloud City mining colony did not seem receptive. "What business would a Rebel snubfighter have with Baron Calrissian?"
The Corellian groaned. He'd been cooped up in the X-Wing for only the very short hyperspace transit time from Hoth, but it seemed longer. "Why don't you contact Lando, and ask him?"
The X-Wing pilot seemed to consider, and Evverd massaged the tension lines from his forehead. Why me? he thought. First that damn Star Destroyer gets off a lucky shot and half-fries my systems, and now the only place I can reach before my hyperdrive blows is guarded by a team of idiots. I should retire to Tattooine, become a moisture farmer...
At length, the Cloud Car jockey said, "I'm not inclined to bother the Baron-Administrator without even knowing your name. I'd much rather chase you out of the system."
"Yeah, try it, pal," Evverd mumbled under his breath. Muting the comm, he said, "Bo, what d'you think it'd take to nail these jerks with proton torps before they could slag us?"
His purple-and gray astromech, R2-B0, scolded him in binary tones.
"I didn't say I'd do it. Just fantasizing." He turned the comm back up. "Look, tell Calrissian that I'm a friend of Mykel Garreth's... he met me once. Rik Evverd."
"Oh," the Cloud Car pilot's tone was dry, "ANOTHER one."
Evverd frowned. "Another what?"
"Nothing...it's just that Baron Calrissian has had long lost friends and acquaintances coming out of the paneling ever since he bought the richest Tibanna mine in the sector. Which are you - looking for a job or a loan?"
The Corellian pilot fell his hands bunch into fists, but forced himself to stay calm. "Just tell him."
"Sure," said the pilot at length, "THEN I'll kick you out of the system."
The connection broke, and Rik Evverd groaned. "Pleasant day to you, too..."
Bo bleeped a few questions.
Evverd rubbed at bleary brown eyes, set against skin a shade darker. "No, I don't know if Calrissian will help us. But Garreth always liked him, even if the man occasionally annoyed him."
The astromech's reply was more than a little sullen: He would have preferred to rendezvous with the Fleet.
"Yeah, well, I would have preferred not playing tag with a Star Destroyer. At least Taryn got out..."
Bo was not impressed. True, they had saved Taryn Clancee, an old comrade from the Rebel NEBULON-class frigate FREEDOM, but he pointed out that with Taryn's resourcefulness, she'd probably have gotten out anyway.
"Great," said Evverd, "Way to devalue my accomplishments."
The computer screen scrolled upwards again. In Bo's considered opinion, Evverd could use to be taken down a few notches.
"You're bucking for a memory wipe..."
The comm crackled on again. A none-too-happy voice said, "Rebel X-Wing, Baron-Administrator Calrissian welcomes you and invites you to land on Platform 108."
With great self-control, Evverd resisted an 'I-told-you-so.' "See? No problems."
Bo's pessimism continued.
He set his X-Wing down on the landing pad, popped the hatch, and leapt to the deck. As he did so, he took a moment to note the beautiful oranges and red and blues of the floating city's sunset. The trace elements of tibanna gas in the atmosphere made the place a light show when the sun hit it right.
The air was pleasantly cool, and the gentle, modern architecture of the floating city contrasted nicely with its natural beauty.
"Good place for a vacation," Evverd noted to his astromech. "Stay here. I'll check it out."
The droid didn't like staying behind, but couldn't have gotten to the ground from his droid slot unassisted.
As he turned back to face the ramp, he saw that the welcome had already arrived - a man and woman in blue Security-type uniforms flanking a woman perhaps ten years older than Evverd, with short blonde hair touched by gray and a face that might have once been pleasant, but had hardened due to time and troubles, and become creased with lines.
Evverd's hand swung down casually to be near his blaster as he stepped forward. "Hey, there. Name's Evverd. I'm looking for Lando Calrissian."
"I know," said the woman, her own hand resting not-so-subtly on her own weapon. "I'm Ariel Simms, the Production Manager here. Lando sent me to greet you."
Evverd jerked a thumb over his shoulder. "Can you have somebody help him down?"
Simms glanced at Bo, where he sat beeping to himself in his droid slot. "Are you planning to stay long?"
"As long as it takes to replace a hyperdrive and realign my S-foils."
She frowned. "What makes you think we're going to fix your ship? Lando barely knows you..."
"But he likes my boss."
"As for Mykel Garreth," Simms went on, "There was that incident on Nar Shaddaa two years ago..."
"Hey, c'mon," said Evverd, spreading his hands while keeping one still quite close to his blaster, "I'm sure he's forgotten about that."
"You don't know Lando that well, do you?" Simms gave him half a smile. "He doesn't forget."
"Just let me talk to him."
"Fine," she said, and gestured towards the door. One of the guards slipped in behind Evverd so that he was surrounded. "Come with us."
On the Star Destroyer RUTHLESS, a tall young man in a dark cloak had sliced his way into his master's meditation chamber. Vader had already left, to catch the MILLENIUM FALCON, and good riddance. The young man had seen enough of his master for the next lifetime.
The man's name had once been Jev Parrak, and he had been off-planet when his homeworld of Alderaan had been destroyed. His intense anger had summoned his latent skill in the Force to the surface. A year later, after being captured by the Empire at Balmorra, he'd ended up with Lord Vader. What had begun as a temporary measure, necessary to find a means of escape, had become a true apprenticeship. Over the last two years, Jev had secretly grown strong in the Force, hiding with the aide of his Force-blind crystal. Vader kept him as a sort of emergency blanket, to use against the Emperor should he fail to recruit Luke Skywalker.
But Vader's obsession with Skywalker had slowly cost his young apprentice favor. The incident at Hoth, when Vader had taken Jev's hand as punishment for minor disobedience, had been the end. Jev was convinced his own plans would never come to fruition as long as Vader remained in his way.
It was time to find a new ally.
He engaged the holographic comm system, keeping a careful Force lock on the RUTHLESS' comm officer, to keep the anomaly from being reported.
In a moment, the face of an Imperial officer appeared. "What is... My Lord!"
Jev had allowed the Force to change his appearance, gathering his best illusion around him so that, to the weak minded, he would appear as Lord Darth Vader himself. He could also copy Vader's distinctive, booming voice. Jev grinned beneath his disguise, for once looking as young as he truly was. I can even do the breathing, he thought...
"I will speak to the Emperor."
The officer glanced around nervously. "Er... yes, my lord. At his earliest convenience." The officer leaned forward conspiratorially. "I must tell you, it could be some time. He's asked not to be disturbed."
"The matter is most urgent, Lieutenant." Jev had studied Lord Vader long enough to be able to copy the Dark Lord at his most menacing.
"Yes, my lord," said the officer, "I'm sure it is. But it is not within my authority to disturb the Emperor."
Jev allowed his voice to grow irritated. "Not even at my command?"
"My lord, please...I could be killed for bothering him during his..."
Jev raised his hand, clenched to a fist. On the screen, the lieutenant began to choke. "And is that any more unpleasant than the pain I could inflict?"
As the officer gasped, Jev felt sweat building on his forehead. He'd better break soon, Jev thought. Three Force uses at once is a beyond anything I've attempted before... something has to give soon...
The officer finally choked, "I will summon him, my lord... please..."
Jev released his grip, and resisted the urge to take a deep breath of his own as the lieutenant gasped. "At once, lieutenant."
"Yes, my lord."
Jev waited, hoping he hadn't doomed himself with this action. Until now, the Emperor of the galaxy hadn't even known he existed. This could turn out to be a very bad idea indeed.
Several long moments passed, and Jev began to wonder if the Emperor had executed his aide on the spot, without taking a message first.
All at once, the hologram tripled in size to reveal a hood like Jev's own, under which were a pair of yellow eyes that seemed almost to glow. Jev bowed deeply.
"This intrusion had best be justified, Vader. You know I am not be disturbed while meditating."
When's Jev's head came back up, the illusion of Vader was gone, replaced by his own features: blue eyes, bony, angular face, and a dark goatee. "Greetings, Your Highness. I regret the deception, but I knew of no other way to contact you."
The Emperor's eyes grew wide, his aged voice a shrill cry of anger. "Who are you? How dare you impersonate my..."
"Your Highness, I can explain."
The eyes on the hologram close-up narrowed. "You had best be quick about it."
"My name is Jev Parrak. I am from Alderaan, and served the Alliance for a time. Two years ago, I was captured by Lord Vader, who seemed to feel I had some talent in the Force. He has been training me since that time."
The Emperor's tone grew angrier. "Lord Vader is not so bold as to take an apprentice without my knowledge."
Jev laughed. "You underestimate him. He hopes to join with Luke Skywalker to overthrow you."
The Emperor peered at him. "Your trickery was impressive, but you are no Jedi. I sense nothing from you."
Jev reached into the neck of his cloak to pull out a chain, upon which hung a small fragment of clear crystal. "Do you recognize this? It is identical to the one held by the female Jedi you failed to turn during the Battle of Yavin." Some part of Jev's mind kept him from revealing that Kerri, the Jedi in question, still lived. Vader knew, but he had not told his Emperor, and Jev wasn't sure he wanted the Sith Master to have that information, either.
The Emperor inspected the crystal from his end of the holo-receiver, then sat back in his throne, yellow eyes narrowed to slits. "So I see. What is it you desire from me?"
"I've learned all I can from Vader," Jev said. It was the truth, and a lie. He had not learned all of Vader's Force skills, but he HAD learned all Vader was willing to teach him. "I seek to ally myself with the true power in the galaxy."
The aged voice was as thoroughly evil as any sound Jev had heard. "And what would I gain from such a partnership?"
"A watchdog for Vader, to start with. And perhaps something more..."
"Commander. This is an unexpected honor." Lando Calrissian approached Evverd across the control room of Cloud City, breaking off from a discussion with a bald cyborg. As usual, Calrissian was dressed in his finest, a white tunic of some kind of silk, adorned with a gray cape. The ensemble clashed with Calrissian's skin, a shade lighter than Evverd's but still darker than the majority of humanoids. He wore a trim mustache of the kind Evverd had worn for a time but abandoned. As he approached, Evverd could see that the gambler was not far from his own height, perhaps a little taller.
They had met once, but it had been brief.
"I'm a colonel now," he said, "Got a dress uniform and everything."
"Really? Congratulations." Lando reached him and shook his hand. "What brings you to Bespin?"
"A piece of junk," said Evverd. "Hyperdrive's blown, S-foils fused. I'm sure the Alliance can repay you if you help me out."
"Think nothing of it," said Lando, leading the way to the viewport windows. "No charge, as a matter of fact. I feel like I owe Garreth. I wasn't very pleasant after Nar Shaddaa."
"I heard," said Evverd. "Feeling generous, are you? I would too, if I'd lucked into this place. Quite a setup."
"I've been impressed," Lando said with a nod, "Though skill had something to do with my windfall, as well."
Evverd dismissed the comment. "Card playing isn't a skill. It's luck."
Lando looked him over like a squawwk getting ready to skin a carcass. "Really? Perhaps you'll join me in a hand of sabacc later, and we'll put that theory to the test."
"Maybe," said Evverd. In fact, he knew very well just how much skill Lando had at that game; his comment was designed to hide his own ability. Just in case he did get a chance to play against the great Calrissian, he'd need the element of surprise. "Thanks for the save."
"Not at all."
Evverd watched the sunset for another moment. "Beautiful place you've got here. I'll have to bring my wife sometime."
"Do that," said Lando. "Unfortunately, I've had to cut back on our tourism industry. A lot of my clients don't want any official notice."
"Put me on that list," said the Corellian. "I've been on the Empire's shoot-to-kill board for years."
"Lando!" the cyborg announced, "We may have a problem."
"Will you excuse me?" Lando asked, clearly bothered by the man's tone, but covering it quickly.
"I'd rather tag along."
"Be my guest."
They descended tot he operations center's second level, where the cyborg was waiting for them. "Report, Lobot."
Lobot's computer inputs blinked for a moment. "There's a new contact in this system. Very large. ID is confirmed as the Super Star Destroyer EXECUTOR."
"EXECUTOR?" said Evverd, "That's Vader's command ship."
Lando hissed. "I've got a bad feeling about this..."
A comm-tech said, "Baron Calrissian? The EXECUTOR is signaling."
Lando nodded to Lobot. "Have the X-Wing moved to one of our secure hangars, and scratch it from the logs." To Evverd, he said, "Stay out of sight."
The administrator proceeded to the holo-sender, and nodded for the transmission to be patched through. The image of an Imperial Admiral appeared as a blue-tinted hologram.
"I am Admiral Piett of the Star Destroyer EXECUTOR. Are you Baron-Administrator Calrissian?"
"I am," said Lando, "What can we do for you, Admiral?"
"Lord Vader will discuss the matter with you in person. For now, prepare two landing pads."
Piett nodded, a sort of evil glint in his eyes. "One for Lord Vader's shuttle, the other for his guest."
"We will be honored to receive Lord Vader," said Lando, though his eyes didn't show that emotion at all. "But I'd prefer to know who's landing here before I make any preparations. Who's in the other ship?"
Piett smiled tightly. "Let's just say you don't want to keep him waiting. EXECUTOR out."
Lando turned away from where the hologram had been and hissed. "Why me? Why is it never easy for me?"
Lobot caught his attention. "Lando, we've detected another ship. It got in close due to a superior stealth package, but we believe it to be a modified FIRESPRAY-class attack ship."
"A merc," said Evverd, "Or a bounty hunter."
The administrator of Cloud City looked out at the sky, as though he could will the ship into view. "I wish you hadn't said that. You know which bounty hunter uses a modified FIRESPRAY."
"Let's not jump to conclusions."
"He's also Lord Vader's pet bounty hunter," Lando said.
Not as tame a pet as you might think, Evverd said to himself, remembering the Balmorran incident of two years ago. "Even if it is Boba Fett, that's no reason to panic. I've beaten him before."
"Me, too," said the administrator, "But never in tandem with Vader."
"True. But I'm always looking for ways to beat my old records..."
A couple of guards led Evverd to his quarters, with instructions to lay low and wait. While that was probably sound advice, Evverd was climbing the walls by the time they returned with his astromech.
As the door closed behind him, Bo tootled his appraisal of Lando, Cloud City, and Evverd's unique brand of luck.
"No kidding," said the Corellian, settling back into a bunk that was really too soft after years of sleeping on military models. He frowned as a thought hit him. "They didn't fit you with a restraining bolt or anything, did they?"
Evverd had come to understand a bit of the droid's binary language, and Bo's meaning this time was clear: They were not prisoners... yet.
"Great. So you should be able to plug into the network?"
The droid was pessimistic as usual, but willing to give it a shot. He extended his third leg, wheeling forward until his information jack could interface with the City Computer. Whirring noises followed as he made contact. Then schematics and text scrolled across the screen too quickly to follow or read. Bo hooted proudly.
"Good job. Can you find Vader?"
Bo could not, but replied that Lando Calrissian was in one of the lounge rooms.
"Is there an intercom or a security camera you could steal the input from?"
Bo thought about that. His reply, on the screen, said that he might be able to set up the room's holocomm to send without receiving.
"Sounds good. Make it happen."
After tweedling quietly to himself for a moment, Bo swiveled his domed head and projected a holographic image into the middle of the floor. It was a wide-field view, showing Lando seated while Lobot, Fett, and Darth Vader stood around the room, along with a few stormtroopers. Various movements sent people into and out of the picture.
Vader was speaking. "...a shame if I was forced to level this city."
Lando looked a little stunned, like a gundark caught in a net. "Lord Vader, there are thousands of innocent people here!"
"Innocent?" Boba Fett snorted. "Most of them are fugitives and thieves."
Lando whirled on him, angry now. "When I want your input, bounty hunter, I'll give you a terminal and an access code."
Fett stepped forward. "Watch yourself, Calrissian..."
"Enough!" said Vader. "This city is under Imperial control now, Calrissian. If you wish to survive, you will learn your place."
Lando's eyes flashed, and for a second Evverd though he'd deck Vader, Sith Lord or none. But he blew out a deep breath and said pleasantly, "Lord Vader, I am pleased to help the Empire any way I can. But Solo is a minor operative - he's Not worth your trouble."
Solo? Evverd thought, why would they want the MILLENIUM FALCON?
"My reasons for wanting Solo are not your concern," Vader boomed.
"It is my concern, in my city." Lando said, "I do wish to accommodate you, but you can't just..."
"I can do what I will," Vader said with a threatening gesture. "Do not test my patience."
Lando took a deep breath, making his tone conciliatory. "I apologize, Lord Vader. But you're asking me to choose between my friend and a lot of people who are counting on me."
On the other end of the holocomm, Evverd winced in sympathy. He didn't want to think what he'd do if some Imperial laser-brain forced him to choose between an entire city worth of people and the safety of, say, Garreth or Clancee. Or worse yet, his wife...
"There is no choice to make, Calrissian. Some time tomorrow, the MILLENIUM FALCON will land here seeking asylum. You will turn them over to me, or I will crush this city and everyone within it."
Evverd guessed that would probably be enough to break down the gambler's resistance. He was right.
Calrissian gulped, audible even over the comm. "I'll need certain assurances."
"You are in no position to demand anything," Fett hissed.
"I was speaking to Lord Vader." Calrissian turned to the Dark Lord. "You use them to get this - this Skywalker. That's fine. But you don't kill any of them. You don't even touch any of my people at Cloud City. And when you're done, you get in your Star Destroyer and leave. The crew of the MILLENIUM FALCON stay here, unharmed."
Vader hissed. "It may be necessary to injure them, to draw Skywalker."
"But not critically. You leave them alive and reasonably well, or the deal's off."
The Dark Lord paused for a moment. "That is acceptable."
In his room, Evverd sat back and gestured at his droid. "Turn it off."
Bo bleeped and did so, then warbled louder, causing Evverd to get up and read the computer screen.
It said, Calrissian is being naive. I calculate a 78.4 percent chance that Lord Vader will alter the deal at least once, 44.5 percent that he will renege on it entirely.
"Tell me about it," Evverd agreed, "But Lando negotiated as best he could, under the circumstances. That's an SSD in orbit. Vader could slag this place on a whim."
Still, it is preferable not to make a deal under duress. It is unwise to trust Vader at this juncture.
"It's unwise to trust Vader at all!"
The astromech bleeped to itself. True. There is a 14.7 percent chance that Calrissian will offer us to Vader, to appease him.
"Not gonna happen, for two reasons." Evverd blew out a long breath. "One, that cyborg is directly linked to the main computer. He had to know we were listening in. He must have approved of our eavesdropping."
And the second reason?
Evverd hoped the logic was as good as it sounded - he shouldn't have cut the connection so early, but now he didn't want to risk slicing in again, just in case. "The second reason is simple: Lando's a gambler. Right now, we're his only wild card."
Bo monitored the outer hallway, just in case. An hour later, he tweedled that someone was coming. Not stormtroopers, which was Evverd's first clue that his reasoning had been right.
Ariel Simms appeared at the doorway. "Lando wants to see you. Follow me."
Evverd followed her through cross-corridors and back alleys, seemingly on a tour of the few unattractive parts of Cloud City. At length, they entered Lando's private office through a back room. The cyborg, Lobot, was already there.
"I have you logged in under an alias," said Lando. "Your best bet is to stay low until they leave."
"What about Solo?"
Lando glanced from the Corellian to the cyborg. "Lobot mentioned you were listening in. I've made a deal with Vader that I think is the best thing for all parties."
Evverd's temper flared. "You can't trust Vader!"
"I don't trust Vader. If he tries to cheat me, I have a few surprises I'm working on. But for the moment, there's very little I can do."
"You could evacuate this city," Evverd suggested, "Get out before the FALCON arrives."
"How many transports do you think would get past the EXECUTOR?" Lando asked rhetorically. "Besides - Han would be flying into a trap either way."
"There's got to be a way," Evverd pointed out. "I don't give up without a fight, and neither will Solo. He'll get himself killed."
"What do you want me to do?" Lando asked. "These people here are counting on me. We're all down to our last chance. We don't have anyplace else."
Evverd frowned at him. He did understand, but... "If Solo dies, you won't outlive him by long."
Lando Calrissian stood. "That sounds like a threat. Nobody threatens me in my place. Not even Vader can get away with that."
"He IS getting away with it."
Lando's scowl showed exactly how well he knew that, and Evverd felt a little guilty for pushing him. "For now."
"You've got a plan?"
"Let's start by hoping Vader keeps his word," said Lando, returning heavily to his seat as though he were an old man. "If he doesn't...well, that's why we're here. To discuss options."
The vision still clung to the edges of her vision, even as Kerri pulled herself fully awake. She'd had a similar vision once before, emanating from the same city: That one had Rik laying beaten while his enemy, a thief named Niles Ferrier, laughed about it.
This one was different. Rik's death was cleaner, less personal - but he was just as dead. She had the feeling of an explosion in space, a ship detonating into a billion fragments... and at the end of the vision, the iron mask of Darth Vader superimposing itself.
Her lip twisted in the darkness. And Rik says HE's always bailing ME out of trouble...
She grabbed her lightsaber from under her pillow, and began to get dressed.
"You're sure about this?" Mykel Garreth's dark eyes were full of concern. "You are, after all, the captain of this ship..."
"I'm not going to let him die," Kerri said. "Besides, the ship has a fine commanding officer on board."
"I'll admit the thought of my old chair is appealing," Garreth said as he looked around the FREEDOM's hangar bay, "But why must you go? A commando team would be better suited..."
"I have a commando team," she said with a grin, and indicated Sedra Covell and Chief Okel, who were stowing gear in Kerri's personal shuttle. "We'll be all right."
"Good luck," said Garreth, and extended a hand.
Kerri drew him into a warm hug instead. "What is it you always used to tell me - 'take care of my ship?'"
"She'll be here when you return," Garreth quoted. "May the Force be with you."
Kerri ducked into the shuttle. A moment later, it was gone.
On the landing platform of Cloud City, Rik Evverd wore the blue uniform of City Security, along with what felt like a ton of makeup and synthskin alterations, and tried to blend. He stood back with a few other, genuine Security troops and Lobot, watching Lando Calrissian stalk forward into the Bespin sunset.
"Why, you slimy, double-crossing, no-good swindler! You got a lot of guts coming here after what you pulled."
On the landing pad next to his ship, Han Solo gave his best innocent shrug, mouthing the word, "Me?"
Lando continued forward, then suddenly shifted his weight and took a swing at Han. Solo started to duck, but the swing turned into an embrace as Lando threw his arms around the Corellian smuggler, laughing.
Evverd thought for a moment that Lando would use that opportunity to whisper a warning, but Calrissian pulled away. "How you doing, you old pirate? So good to see you! I never thought I'd catch up with you again. Where you been?"
As Solo's friends whispered amongst themselves, Lobot motioned the security force back.
Evverd frowned. Lando carried off the charade well, though Evverd had secretly hoped he'd blow it. Solo was a sitting mynock, just waiting to be sliced off a hull.
That sickened Evverd enough that he decided to just warn Solo and Leia, as soon as he could get to them. He took a step forward...
And caught Boba Fett out of the corner of his eye, watching the proceedings from concealment. Evverd had to turn away and scoot down a side corridor. True, he was disguised, which was the only way Lando had agreed to let him watch, but he wasn't taking chances. He had promised to be a true wild card, watching for trouble from a distance, stepping in only if things got desperate. Lando was convinced that anything else was asking for trouble.
So Evverd had to keep his distance. Otherwise, Solo might see through his disguise. Boba Fett, who was trained to identify disguised quarry, would likely spot him even more easily.
From his perch, Evverd watched as the bounty hunter slowly nodded to himself and turned off in the opposite direction, long before Solo would have a chance to see him.
Evverd groaned to himself. He had a really bad feeling about this...
Continued in Episode 4
R. John Burke