STAR WARS: FREEDOM'S Price Episode Seven
DESCRIPTION: Kerri & Rik look for Han Solo with Leia, whilst Garreth has a little showdown with Prince Xizor.
NOTICE: Herein dwells materiel that doth belong to Ye Olde Lucasfilme Shoppe and Company. He who selleth this story in any form shall be suffered upon by many plagues and misfortunes.
"I am intrigued, Lord Parrak." Prince Xizor of Black Sun cast his appraising glance on a tall young man with a dark goatee. "Do you truly believe that Mykel Garreth will dare invade my citadel again? After barely escaping with his life the first time?"
"First of all," said the young man, frustration evident in his tone, "I'm not a Sith Lord. I'm a Dark Apprentice."
"Ah, but I detect the gleam of greatness in your eye. One day, you will replace Vader. It is... how would the Emperor put it?... It is your destiny."
Jev frowned. This man, this Falleen Prince, seemed to be giving him the respect he'd been denied, first by Kerri and then by Vader. He should have been pleased.
And yet he didn't buy it for a second. Despite his reptilian appearance, Xizor did not appear slimy.
On the outside. He made up for that with his dark and disgusting soul.
"Don't suck up to a man who doesn't even outrank you yet," he warned the Falleen.
"I meant only to convey my great respect for the Emperor's newest Hand."
Jev snorted. "Whatever."
"Had I known of your potential, I never would have treated you so harshly upon our first meeting."
So that's what this is about, Jev thought. He still remembers imprisoning me here when we came to save Kerri a few years back. He wants to make sure I don't hold a grudge.
"My past with the Rebellion is forgotten," he said, and he thought he detected just a hint of relief in the Prince's cold eyes. "Officially, Jev Parrak died at Balmorra. In fact, I'm not even here."
"I quite understand," said Prince Xizor, lifting a glass of something in toast. "I am often called upon to maintain a low profile myself. So... what is this about Garreth?"
"Our last data shows him making a hyperspace jump on a vector that could lead to Coruscant. We believe he is looking for information on the missing Rebel, Captain Solo."
Xizor frowned. "Even if he comes to Coruscant, what makes you think he'll come to me?"
"Because..." Jev's blue eyes narrowed, "I have forseen it."
Xizor made a little sound, quickly muted, reminiscent of a reptilian groan.
"You doubt the power of the Force?"
"Not at all," said the prince smoothly. "If you believe will come, then certainly he will come. It remains for us to arrange a proper greeting."
Jev smiled. "Exactly what I had in mind..."
A proximity indicator bleeped, and huge, furry hands pulled back on the hyperdrive levers. The MILLENIUM FALCON shifted back from hyperspace in front of an blue-and-green orb, an industrialized planet called Abregado. Its destination was the spaceport of Abregado-Rae, known as the "Mos Eisley of the Core Worlds."
The pilot of the MILLENIUM FALCON, as tradition dictated, was Corellian. Unfortunately, he was not Han Solo. Instead, the pilot was a medium-sized, wiry man with skin a shade darker than Lando Calrissian's. He wore a brown, krayt-skin jacket with a patch insignia that identified him as a Colonel in the Rebel Alliance.
The Wookiee beside him in the copilot's seat, a tall, chestnut-furred male, needed no introduction.
Behind the Wookiee in the cramped cabin were two women, one short and regal-looking, with her hair in elaborate braids, the other somewhat taller, with olive skin and her own, dark hair hanging loosely about her shoulders.
Behind the ship's crew, a gleaming, golden protocol droid poked his head into the cockpit, trying to see over the heads of the sentients. His little astromech counterpart fared even worse, even tilting upwards on his three legs, with his sensor scope extended.
The pilot spoke first. "Where was Calrissian meeting us?"
"He didn't mention a name," said the woman with the braids, who was more properly addressed as Her Highness, Princess Leia Organa, of the Royal House of Alderaan. Not that there was a Royal House of Alderaan anymore.
Not that there was an Alderaan.
"He said you'd know the place," Leia continued.
"Oh." The pilot grunted. "THAT old dive."
Leia cast a glance at the other woman, whose name was Kerri. "I think it's a male thing. They enjoy playing little games, like talking in smuggler code."
"Not just a male thing," Kerri corrected her, "We have an ex-smuggler on our ship, a woman named Taryn Clancee. She talks just like that."
Leia's gaze turned sympathetic. "You have to deal with TWO of them? And I used to think Han was difficult..."
The pilot looked up from his controls. "Let's get two things straight, Your Worshipfulness. First, I was never a smuggler. Second, if you're gonna insult me, address your comments to me. Don't make snippy little asides to my wife, like I'm not in the room."
Kerri Lynden-Evverd chuckled. "Don't mind Rik. He's just grumpy because he had to leave his X-Wing behind."
Rik Evverd waved off her comment. "I left it behind on purpose. I always wanted a shot at flying the FALCON."
"You may not be a smuggler," said Leia, "But you really do remind me of Han."
"I'll try not to take that as an insult..."
Privately, Evverd had to admit that he was flattered by the comment. Han Solo had been the hottest young swoop racer in the Corellian sector when Evverd was a teenager. While he would never willingly confess to having modeled his style after anyone... well, there were worse men to be compared to than Han Solo.
Besides, anything that kept Leia's spirits up had to be good. She'd been pretty low ever since losing Han Solo at Bespin last month, and even worse since the first reconnaissance mission aimed at retrieving Solo had failed.
Well, it hadn't actually failed. The Wookiee, Chewbacca, had come back alone. He'd left Calrissian on Abregado, trying to dig up Boba Fett, the bounty hunter who had captured Solo.
No luck so far.
When Calrissian had signaled them about a possible lead, Leia had requested backup. Evverd had automatically volunteered for the mission, for two reasons. First, he liked the thought of being the one who saved Han Solo's tail. Secondly, he'd had his own problems with Boba Fett - and he figured, the sooner he got them solved, the better.
Solved in this case meant that either he or the bounty hunter would be dead. Evverd liked the latter possibility better, so he had to find a way to make Fett fight on his terms.
That sounded like as good an explanation as any. Of course, Kerri's opinion - and Evverd figured she had about a 50/50 shot at being right - was that he was just crazy.
She'd come along, either in spite of his mental condition or because of it.
He cut in the thrusters, and the MILLENIUM FALCON drifted easily into an approach vector.
"She handles real nice," he noted to Chewbacca, "Almost like a starfighter. I could get used to this..."
The Wookiee's menacing rumble said not to get TOO used to it.
Evverd brought the ship closer, after receiving docking clearance from Control (under a false ID, of course). On the way, they got a very nice view of the underside of a VICTORY-class Star Destroyer.
Evverd whistled. "Don't usually get this close without being fired on. Maybe this was a bad idea - the FALCON is hot, after all."
"They won't recognize us," said Kerri, and the intense look on her face told Evverd that she was using her secret Jedi skills to make certain they were not noticed.
"Pardon me, Captain, but the odds of our remaining undetected at this distance are very low." The protocol droid stopped, listening to the tootles and beeps of his counterpart. "Artoo places them on the order of forty to one."
Evverd grinned. "If Kerri says we're safe, we're safe."
"Pardon me, Colonel Evverd, but your position does not seem to conform to any reasonable standard of logic. There is simply no way that Captain Lynden-Evverd could have objective knowledge concerning the..."
"Does he have an 'off' switch?" the Corellian wondered.
Leia smiled. "We try only to use it in emergencies."
They were past the VSD now, moving in towards the smug-covered industrial areas of Abregado. "See?"
"Oh. My word." The 3P0 droid cocked its head sideways. "Artoo, might you have transposed a variable?"
The astromech whistled a soft negative.
"Oh, dear. In that case, there is a high likelihood that Imperial forces are lying in wait for us on the planet."
Evverd turned from the controls. "Is it an emergency yet?"
"Well, don't blame me. I'm only trying to warn you. It's you who are in danger, not me. I'm certain the Empire can find many uses for a late model protocol droid in such prime condition."
The R2 unit bleeped an addition.
"Well, good condition, at any rate..."
Evverd turned the FALCON over in a roll, just to startle the droid into shutting up, and brought them down to the planet.
The LoBue was every bit the dive he remembered. A band played in the corner, but it wasn't exactly Figrin D'an, or even the Max Rebo band. It could more accurately be described as Two Off-Key Chadra Fan and a Rodian Singer With a Lisp.
Lando Calrissian sat at a corner booth, drinking some kind of wine and wincing at the bad notes. Evverd and Kerri slid into the booth across from him.
"Where's Leia?" asked the gambler.
"We left her and Chewie with the FALCON. What've you got?"
Kerri frowned as the band hit a particularly bad note. "How do you put up with that noise?"
"It helps that this is my third glass," said Lando, and downed his beverage. "Besides, I bet that Twi'lek at the bar that I could listen to it longer than he could."
"You're stalling, Lando." Evverd rubbed his temples, which had begun throbbing in time to the music. "Have you learned anything?"
"Nothing," the gambler admitted. "I'm supposed to meet Gryss here in a few minutes. Maybe she'll know something."
"Who's Gryss?" Kerri asked.
Evverd was making a face. "She's a... freight captain. Gunrunner. Scoundrel. You'd like her."
"I thought I knew everyone you knew."
The Corellian shrugged. "This was before your time."
"You said you'd only been on that one ship before we met."
"It was..." Evverd coughed a bit. "A fun ship..."
Evverd ordered something from the holo-server, and Lando switched to some sweet-smelling non-alcoholic beverage. Kerri, who had found that alcohol didn't really mix with Jedi discipline, ordered one of the same.
She sipped, and made a face. "What IS this?"
"Hot chocolate. It's really quite good."
Kerri pushed it aside. "Too sweet for me. Maybe in a coffeine mocha or something...
"They make it that way, too. I'll order you ano--"
Evverd turned around, to see a hulking Whiphid female at the LuBue's door, her oversized camo fatigues overstocked with weapons of every conceivable type. Her ivory-shaded tusks were brightly painted in a variety of colors. Evverd understood that Gryss painted a new colored band on them for every sentient she killed.
Considering the rainbow of colors that had been added since he'd last seen her, Evverd decided she'd been busy...
The Whiphid stampeded across the room, nearly running over a pair of Yuzzum that remained in her path too long. She plopped her immense bulk down on one of the chairs, and its feet immediately sunk two centimeters into the floor.
She pounded the table in glee, hard enough that it's legs cracked. "Lando Calrissian, you old son of a space slug! I haven't seen you since that messy business at Tanaab!"
"How you been, Gryss?"
"Oh, keeping busy. Keeping busy." She indicated the tusks proudly. "I've racked up eighty-seven new kills since Tanaab."
"Is that all?" a quiet voice put in from the side. "I had to buy a calc-droid to keep track of mine."
Kerri glanced at her husband in surprise, and a moment later Gryss turned her ponderous head in his direction. "Do I know..." She trailed off, floppy ears twitching.
After a moment, she brightened. "It's the runt! You used to swab my decks, didn't you!"
"Aye, Captain," said Evverd dryly. "Until you lost the ship in a sabacc game."
"Aah..." She waved a paw aimlessly. "I let Plesc win. The ship was a vermin-trap."
"Well, she took after her captain..."
The Whiphid growled. "How dare you talk to me like that? You're nothing but a scrawny runt!"
Evverd remained perfectly calm. "Hey, at least I've filled out a little. You look like you've lost some weight. Getting mighty thin there, Captain..."
The Whiphid growl turned into a snarl of rage.
"What's the matter, Gryss? Not quite the hunter you used to be? Too old and slow to catch your dinner?"
The snarl exploded into a howl, and one mighty arm swept out towards Evverd. Kerri stood, grasping for the lightsaber she'd left behind...
Then the howl turned into a laugh, and the arm thumped Evverd solidly on the back. "Not bad! Not bad at all for a scared little Corellian rodent!"
Evverd shrugged, for Kerri's benefit. "You gotta know how to talk to Whiphids..."
Gryss' laughter died down, and she bought a round of drinks for the table. Unfortunately, she bought Whiphid drinks, which the humans dared not refuse, but were wise enough only to sip.
"If we might return to business," said Lando, "What about Boba Fett, Gryss?"
"Boba Fett..." she rumbled the word like a curse, "A coward who steals bounties from honorable Whiphids."
Evverd smiled. "Not that she'd call him that if he was in the room..."
"Hah!" Gryss drew herself up to her full, imposing height. "I only wish he were in the room! I'd show him a thing or two about hunting!"
Her voice was now loud enough to be heard over the bad music, and Evverd noticed several forms in the corner stirring.
"That plains-jackal! He is even too frightened to reveal his true face!"
Something moved in the corner, and Evverd had the sudden urge to reach for his blaster.
"Says he's out for justice - hah! He's a space slug in a fancy suit!"
Evverd cleared his throat. "Oh, Gryss..."
"If he had the courage to show his face, I'd..."
Four shots sizzled out, each one shattering a glass at their table. Two more shots destroyed the instruments of the Chadra Fan musicians, plunging the room into silence.
"They were out of tune," a calm, filtered voice explained. "Clear the room."
A rough-looking Barabel bouncer charged into the room. "We're not running a shooting gallery, pal! You're not..." he trailed off as he saw the cause of disturbance.
"Our management is flexible," he declared, and left the room along with the patrons, the bartender, and even those serving droids without restraining bolts.
Leaving Evverd's party alone with a figure in gray-and-blue armor. "I understand you've been looking for me."
Lando Calrissian stood. "We're looking for Han Solo. We've got a team of Rebel commandos waiting for our signal, Fett, so if I were you, I'd..."
"You're here with the Princess Organa, a Wookiee, and two bumbling droids." Boba Fett kept his blaster rifle locked on the table, though it was only a fraction of his total armament. "I am not a foolish man, Calrissian. I thought the rumors of my presence on Abregado would draw you in, so I trailed your most likely contact."
After a moment's pause, he said, "You are all my prisoners."
Beside Evverd, Kerri smiled to herself and nodded. Suddenly Boba Fett swiveled around to his left.
"How did you get over there?" His blaster rifle opened fire, chewing up several empty tables.
Evverd was up in a flash. His blaster fired three times, catching Boba Fett in the rocket pack, the side, and the helmet. The bounty hunter's armor protected him, but he was stunned, and knocked to the side.
"Gryss, hold him down!" Evverd vaulted the table and ran to one of the restrained droids. Using a utensil from one of tables, he popped off its bolt. It ran out of the room.
Boba Fett was struggling under Gryss' hold. "Hurry! If he recovers while I'm holding him, you'll be picking my hide off the walls!"
"But we're not afraid of him or anything..." Evverd returned with the restraining bolt, and affixed it to Boba Fett's helmet. After a second's programming, it sent electricity shooting across his armor like an ion blast. Fett remained still.
"I thought so," said Evverd, "That suit of his has more droid parts in it than a Jawa sandcrawler."
"Now, Fett, you festering mynock..." Lando pulled his blaster. "Where's Han?"
"Speak," said Gryss, "Or I shall impale you with my bare tusks!"
To Evverd's shock, a terrified voice spoke from within the suit. "Wait! Wait! It's a mistake!"
Lando frowned. "That's not Fett's voice..."
"That's not Fett's suit," said Evverd with a sigh. It was a good replica, but now that he got a chance to look closely, he saw that this was not the fabled Mandalorian armor, but a replica cobbled together from stormtrooper and commando armor, painted to resemble the galaxy's most famous bounty hunter.
"He's a copycat," said Kerri.
"No. Not... not just a copycat. I have a message that explains everything. In the utility belt."
Evverd examined the man's utility belt and slid out a datatape. "How do we know it's not rigged?"
"The tape is all right," said Kerri, who had taken it from Evverd.
Lando frowned. "We should still..."
But Kerri had already moved behind the bar, to play the comm on the LoBue's terminal. A hologram shot out from it, assembling itself into a life-size Boba Fett on the middle of the floor. "Hello, Calrissian. And, unless I miss my guess, Evverd as well. I thought you'd be looking for me, but I didn't have time to chat. This young hunter was only too glad to pose as me, in exchange for a share of the bounty. If you're hearing this tape, my scheme did not work as planned."
Fett paused. "But no matter. I should be halfway to Jabba by now. I think he'll pay extra. In his present form, Captain Solo is a work of art as well as a bounty. Ah, well... I doubt we've seen the last of each other. I know you'll try again. Perhaps I'll see you on Tattooine. Fett out."
But the hologram remained. After another pause, Fett said, "Oh, and by removing this tape from its place, you've trigged a micro-explosive in my fellow hunter's helmet. You're all about to die."
The hologram faded, and the Fett-decoy moaned. "That was NOT part of the deal!"
"This is very dangerous for us, my friend." Beneath the folds of a trader's cloak, Okel's domed head swiveled. "To be on Coruscant..."
Garreth led the way through the crowd on the Imperial Center's Upper Observation Level. "We got in here safely, didn't we?"
"Thanks to your command codes, yes. I would be very interested on hearing how you plan to get back out."
"If we succeed in our conference with Xizor," said Garreth, "Getting out won't be a problem. If we fail... it will be the least of our problems."
"You don't have a plan, do you?" Okel demanded, keeping his gurgling voice down as they moved through the crowd. "This idea is both ill-conceived and reckless."
"Thank you," said Garreth. "I don't believe I've done anything truly reckless in years."
"That is a matter of opinion."
The crowds thinned out as they began taking back alleys. They were totally alone by the time they reached Garreth's intended destination. The back door of the Menarai, the most exclusive restaurant on Coruscant.
"I understand your trouble with Vader," said the Mon Calamari. "I also understand why the Emperor wants you dead, and the tenuous relationship between you and Thrawn. How did it become personal with Xizor?"
"Perhaps when he put a bounty on my head," said Garreth with a smile, "Perhaps because he endangered my friends to get at me, and even now - bet on it - his is planning to draw Leia in. Or perhaps I just enjoy challenging the best."
"In your own way," said Okel with a strange look on his face even for a Mon Calamari, "You are as difficult as Evverd."
"There was a time I'd have fired you for that, Chief." the short man with the long, graying hair told him, "But I've come to see it as a compliment."
Garreth entered an access code to the plate near the back door, and it opened. "Impressive," said Okel, "How..."
"There were few things unknown to the Emperor, Chief. A smart man who had his backing could learn a number of useful things... including the Emperor's personal codes to all the most important establishments in the galaxy. Right down to favorite restaurants."
He led the way into what proved to be a storage locker. "Loose the cloak."
"I feel like a Bothan, sneaking around in such a manner."
"My daughter works for the Bothans," said Garreth, mock-offended.
"Is that where you got this idea?"
"No," he said, and he started to work on the locker door. "This one is on me."
"Good. I shall know who to blame when it fails."
The Kashyyyk land shrimp was excellent, but privately Xizor wondered if he shouldn't have ordered the Rodian behemoth steak. He briefly considered sending it back - the chef would never dare argue - but rejected the idea. Xizor was not one to regret decisions once they were made.
Besides, this was - so to speak - a business meal.
Guri sat beside him, looking perfect as always, pretending to eat while in truth she was watching every direction at once. Xizor's replica droid servant was always vigilant.
She would see anyone who approached long before they arrived. And she knew exactly who to watch for.
A server, Mon Calamari like many of the menial workers on Imperial Center, approached with bottle of purplish wine.
"Prince Xizor, sir. Compliments of the house."
"Indeed? That is most appreciated." Xizor did not allow his smile to show. These people had no idea how far out of their league they were. It crossed the Dark Prince's mind to wish he were allowed to deal with them. But their fate was sealed by the Emperor himself. Xizor could only play his role. And he would play it well.
"Pour it, if you will." He said.
The Calamarian nodded, popped the cork on the bottle, and leaned down to pour.
And produced a mini-blaster, digging into the green skin of Xizor's throat.
"This is also compliments of the House, Prince."
Another presence behind him, its hold-out blaster aimed at his ridged back. "This place is stuffy this time of night. I think you should get some air."
"As you wish," said Xizor, "Guri? Shall we go?"
As they stood, the Prince of Black Sun felt very pleased with himself. He could scarcely comprehend his opponent's stupidity, believing that their scheme might have succeeded if it were not intended to.
But then, they had to be stupid. They were challenging him. To contend with Xizor, he often told himself, was to lose.
To contend was one whose power exceeded Xizor's... that was suicide.
An extra second passed, and Lando Calrissian let out a long sigh. "The restraining bolt must have shorted out Fett's explosive."
The assembled denizens of the LoBue all relaxed visibly. Especially the young decoy, who had been foolish enough to trust a fellow bounty hunter, and would never make that mistake again.
"For a minute I thought you'd failed me," Evverd told his wife. "You said the tape was safe."
"The tape WAS safe," Kerri said with a scowl. "The armor was rigged."
"Fett never intended to kill you this way," Gryss said, "Or he would have succeeded. He did say he'd see you on Tattooine. This was only intended to frighten."
"Are you saying that was Fett's idea of a JOKE?" Lando plainly didn't like that idea at all.
"His sense of humor is... unique."
Evverd groaned and stretched, just pleased to be alive. "So, do you have any info on where he really is?"
Gryss shrugged, a human mannerism she'd adopted. "I thought he was on Abregado. My advice is to do as he says. Go to Tattooine and wait for him."
"No, thank you," said Lando, "I'd just as soon not have to sneak Han out of Jabba's palace."
"In that case, goodbye." Gryss headed for the door. "I have had enough of chasing Fett. I'll stalk safer game in the future."
"Giving up?" said Evverd to her back, "You really ARE afraid of him!"
Gryss lowered her voice. "If you're not afraid of Boba Fett," she said, "You're a fool."
And she left.
"Well, whether I AM a fool or not," said Evverd, "That scumsucking nerf-herder just made me look like one. I now intend to kill him."
Kerri frowned at him. "Could you be any more childish?"
"I don't think so, but I'm always willing to try..."
"The patrons will be back soon," said Lando, "Let's get out of here. The FALCON is waiting?"
"Unless Fett planned for that, too."
Lando took a last, long look around the LoBue, with its battered paneling, laser-burned furniture, broken glass, and a Boba Fett wannabe restrained on the floor. "This place is a dive," he concluded, "But it's usually fun..."
"Now you see, Admiral Garreth," said Prince Xizor, his hands spread in an all-encompassing gesture, "There is no attack you can plan that I cannot parry."
With those words, a dozen Black Sun guards had appeared literally from nowhere in the alley, and Guri had darted forward to disarm the two Rebels.
It was nothing Garreth had not expected. He had known how slim the odds were that such a simple abduction would succeed. Escaping now would require intelligence instead of firepower... but that was how Garreth liked it.
Xizor had brought Garreth and Okel back to his palace, separating them into security cells and promising to return later to speak to them and reveal their fate.
Garreth's cell was darkened, its previous occupant asleep on the lower bunk. The Rebel admiral sighed. He supposed he might as well sleep himself. It was not yet time to put his escape plan - such as it was - into effect.
He had to step onto the lower bunk to lever himself into the upper.
A startled outcry from the bunk cost Garreth his concentration. He plopped to the floor with a thud. The figure on the lower bunk reached out for the glowpanel. He touched it, and it engaged, bathing the room in light.
A young man lay in the bunk, lanky and blue-eyed. He'd gone from lean to sickeningly thin since Garreth had seen him last and grown a scruffy goatee. His eyes shone with pain and terror, like a whipped nerf puppy, and he recoiled from his unexpected visitor.
Garreth stared at him in wonder. This man was supposed to be dead.
At length, the man spoke. "C--Captain Garreth? Is it really you?"
Garreth's jaw had dropped, and he stared in puzzlement. "Jev?"
Continued in Episode 8
R. John Burke