STAR WARS: FREEDOM'S Price Episode Eight
DESCRIPTION: Jev reunited with his old friends, while Kerri makes an interesting discovery about Leia Organa.
NOTICE: A long time ago in a theater far, far away there came a really good sci-fi movie. It was so good that it inspired all kinds of entertainment-only takeoffs like this. Thus, by the power of the Force, all things STAR WARS are bound together through the Lucasfilm copyright. If you strike down that copyright, Lucasfilm will return with more lawyers than you can possibly imagine...
"Jev Parrak? It can't be you!"
The young man on the bunk was emaciated, beaten, and miserable. And very much alive, which was clearly impossible.
Mykel Garreth, a short man with small, dark eyes and graying hair, stared at the youth, awestruck. "We looked for you, after Balmorra. There were no traces..."
"Vader captured me," said the young man, voice wavering, "He tried to turn me to the Dark Side. When I refused, he sent me to the mines of Kessel. I've worked there for two years.
That would certainly explain Jev's unhealthy look, but... "How did you come to be here?"
"Xizor... kidnapped me from the mines. I was almost dead. I think... I think he wants to use my skills against Vader somehow."
Garreth hissed. Plan A of getting out of this place had been reasoning with Xizor, showing him the business benefits of staying on the Rebel Alliance's good side. But no matter what, Xizor wouldn't let one of his schemes against Vader be interfered with.
That left Plan B, escape. But Jev certainly didn't look strong enough for that...
And then, of course, there was another concern. Kerri Lynden (well, Lynden-Evverd now), their resident Jedi Knight, had claimed that Jev had been slipping further and further towards the Dark Side before his death. Could this be a trick of some sort?
If so, what did Jev stand to gain? Certainly, he couldn't wish to trap Garreth, since Xizor (and by extension, the Emperor) already had Garreth locked up. He could be hoping Garreth would lead him to the Rebel Fleet, but the Fleet had dispersed after their rendezvous at Hoth. Such a trick would gain the Empire only a single task force - hardly worth all this trouble.
And a man already under suspicion makes a poor double agent. Garreth decided to bring the youth to safety, and ask questions later.
"Don't worry, son. We'll get you out of here."
The youth looked up from his bunk, fear and hope mixing in his eyes. "Don't underestimate Xizor, Captain. Getting out of here was never easy... In my condition, its probably impossible."
"It's Admiral now, Jev."
The youth sighed, and some of his life energy appeared to dissipate with the breath. "Congratulations."
"Thank you." Garreth stepped forward, putting a hand on the young man's shoulder. He was amazed at how thin and bony it felt. "As for getting out of here... I do have a few ideas. And one sabacc card in the hole."
Space in the Athega system shifted, and the MILLENIUM FALCON returned to realspace. It soared easily into formation with the other ships present - a Mon Cal star cruiser, three NEBULON frigates, two Dreadnoughts, half a dozen blockade runners and gunships, and scattered support vessels and fighters. Together they made up the Alliance's Third Task Force, usually under the command of Admiral Mykel Garreth.
"I'm gonna miss this ship," said its current pilot, a wiry Corellian named Rik Evverd. "I see why Solo's done so well with it."
The Wookiee copilot hooted and growled with pride.
"Yeah, I know she's the 'fastest hunk of junk in the galaxy.' You're talkin' lightspeed, though, not sublight, right? 'Cause I know A-Wing's that'd eat this thing's sublight engines for breakfast."
Chewbacca growled something along the lines of "I'd like to see them try."
Evverd continued, "You could still outmaneuver 'em, with an expert pilot like you or Solo, or me."
The Wookiee pouted, shaking shaggy chestnut fur that was only a tad lighter than Evverd's skin tone.
"Look, I know she's a great ship. But flat-out against an A-Wing? Come on..."
"Are you two arguing that same ground again?" asked Evverd's wife, Kerri, as she came up from the forward hold. "I'd have thought you'd covered that on the first hyperspace leg."
"No, on the first leg they only discussed taking on Imperial designs, like TIE's and Interceptors." Lando Calrissian, the dashing gambler who had gotten the FALCON clear of Cloud City, yawned with exhaustion. "And they've yet to cover capitol ship designs."
"Trouble is, no matter what ship we're talkin' about, this hairball thinks the FALCON could beat 'em all. Maybe all at once!"
"He gets that from Han," said Leia Organa, following the other humans, "It's a philosophy that's kept them alive a few times... and I must admit that I've never actually seen it proven wrong."
Chewbacca growled something that Evverd didn't quite understand: Something about how Leia had been hoping to see Han Solo proven wrong about such things.
"I took that back," Leia protested, sounding a bit tired herself. "Anyway, right now I'd settle for finding him."
And that was the key issue, more than physical exhaustion the reason for their fatigue. They'd had one goal in mind, finding and rescuing Han Solo. They hadn't even come close to succeeding, and they were not people who took well to failure. Especially not when a friend's life was at stake.
"We could try Nar Shaddaa," Lando suggested.
Chewie argued that if Boba Fett were only going to take Han to some smuggler stronghold, he'd go to Mos Eisley, where he could turn Solo in to Jabba the Hutt and get paid. Payment WAS any bounty hunter's top priority, especially Fett's.
"Trouble is, I'm in touch with some people at Mos Eisley. Fett still hasn't shown up there."
Leia said, "Have you really checked with all your contacts, Lando? Someone must know something!"
The gambler frowned. As he went aft to stand by the airlock, he muttered, "I could try Dash Rendar..."
"Tell him 'hi' for me," Evverd called as the brought the FALCON in to dock with the NEBULON-B flagship, FREEDOM. The redheaded smuggler, Dash Rendar, was an old buddy.
"What about Black Sun?" Leia suggested.
They all frowned at her. It was Kerri who spoke. "What do you know about Black Sun?"
"Very little," said Leia with a shrug, "Except that they're supposed to have a spynet second only to the Bothans. Better, for this kind of thing."
Evverd grunted. "My advice to you, Your Worship, is: ask the Bothans. You don't fool around with Black Sun."
Leia sounded frustrated, though Evverd was too busy securing the docking clamps to check. "Look, I know you people have had some bad experiences with them..."
"They tried to kill us," said Kerri.
"But all indications are that they are basically neutral in the war. They might be our best option."
Evverd looked up. "Where'd you get the idea they were neutral? Didn't you read Garreth's report?"
The Princess' face was a blank. "What report?"
"Three years ago," Kerri told her, "Admiral Garreth found Prince Xizor using high-level Imperial codes, indicating that he was an agent of the Empire."
"Oh, that," said Leia, "Our information since then indicates that Xizor is nothing more than the head of a shipping company."
"That's crazy!" said Evverd. "I know what I saw!"
"Or think you saw. Intelligence believes you actually met some Black Sun lieutenant posing as the head of the organization. In their opinion, the true head of Black Sun - whether Xizor or someone else - is still unknown."
"I want to see those reports," said Evverd, "Something's wrong someplace."
"Don't feel too badly, Colonel. Black Sun is a very secretive organization. Many people have been fooled."
"I want to see it," said Evverd stubbornly.
"I'll get you the data as soon as we arrive."
A clanking noise signaled the end of the docking procedure. "We've arrived."
"Come in, Admiral Garreth. Please, have a seat." the Falleen Prince of Black Sun reclined on a luxurious conformer couch in a room large enough for most people's houses. "To what do I owe the honor of this visit?"
"You're a snake." Garreth sat down, not bothering to struggle with his guards or his cuffs. "I did some checking during my spare time on Latria. You've been altering the Alliance datafiles. Somehow, you've erased my reports on you, and planted evidence convincing Rebel Intelligence that you never led Black Sun at all."
Xizor shrugged. "Don't take it personally, Admiral. It is business. Your information might have scared Leia Organa away. I can't have that."
Garreth scowled, aware that knowing more about Xizor's scheme would only increase the Falleen's need to kill him.
But Garreth assumed that was the plan anyway. "You've even managed to keep those reports away from me so I wouldn't know was going on."
"Easier than you might think," the Prince confirmed. "The Alliance has a bureaucracy like any other organization. Information gets lost in a bureaucracy."
For the first time, Garreth did struggle with the cuffs, feeling his wrists tingle with energy. "Why do you want Leia?"
"Why would I discuss my plans with you, Admiral?"
Garreth allowed his gaze to wander over Xizor's green-tinged, reptilian features, topknot, and elaborate cloak. He remained expressionless.
"What are you looking at?"
"Oh..." Garreth flashed him a nasty smile. "I was just thinking what a lovely pair of shoes your hide would make."
Xizor clenched his hands together tightly, concealing his annoyance. "I'm going to have you killed, Admiral."
"If you hurt Leia, or any of her friends..."
The Falleen prince allowed his own, nasty smile to show. "You are hardly in a position to threaten."
"I'm in position to do whatever I damn well want."
Xizor was so surprised by the confidence in the tone of such an obviously beaten prisoner that he took a step back. "Tell me why I should not kill you myself."
"I rather enjoy watching you squirm. Perhaps I should let you figure it out for yourself."
The Falleen made a fist, his green color shifting over into the pink range. "Tell me!"
Garreth glanced up at his watchdog. "Dismiss your guards and let me out of these cuffs. Perhaps we can talk."
Xizor watched him for a moment, eyes burning but face expressionless.
"Unless you believe an old human is a threat to you..."
The Dark Prince gestured angrily at his bodyguard, who undid Garreth's force cuffs and left the room.
When he spoke again, Xizor had regained his composure. "You're perfectly right, Admiral. That was poor treatment for a man of your stature. Now, what is it that I should know?"
The captain smiled. "I seem to have forgotten what we were talking about."
Xizor advanced on him. "It would be nothing to me, to snap your neck with my bare hands."
"I'm sure it wouldn't be. It's not the ideal situation from my point of view, of course..."
The Falleen's arms lashed out, snatching a lock of Garreth's longish hair. "Speak now."
Garreth held his eyes. He only had to stall for a short time longer...
In the Computer Control Room of Xizor's palace, the droid Guri was running her standard check of the palace's subsystems. She located an anomalous protocol, and investigated...
Her eyes blinked once, in an expression of android surprise.
Her hand reached out for the controls.
Power throughout Xizor's fortress complex went dead. As the lights went out in Xizor's anteroom, Garreth brought his fist up into a blow at Xizor's wrist, knocking away the Prince's grip. He rolled off the conformer couch just as a deadly kick would have snapped his ribcage into organic kindling.
Moving quickly in the temporary darkness, Garreth overturned a nearby table on the Dark Prince. Xizor broke the strong, antique wood in half with a gesture, then ripped off a leg to use as a club.
At the outside door, Xizor's guard was pounding on the door and cursing. Even the servos wouldn't work without power.
Xizor smiled thinly as he heard the noise. "You and I, Admiral. As it should be."
He swung the club twice. Garreth avoided the first blow, but was forced to fend off the second with a forearm. The bone snapped, and Garreth cried out.
Xizor's grin grew wider. "You foolish, old man. Did you think you could challenge the Dark Prince of Black Sun in his own castle? Did you think your pathetic trick of turning out the lights would make you a match for me? Did you think you could defeat Xizor?"
Garreth winced through the pain of his broken arm as the physically imposing prince advanced. "Err, yes to all of the above?"
Xizor laughed. "I'm afraid not. To challenge Xizor is to die."
The club swept backwards for a lethal blow at Garreth's head.
The chamber's door blew inwards. In the last second of his life, Garreth turned, expecting to see the guard standing there.
He saw Jev Parrak, dressed in black robes, still with his new goatee, but no longer at all frail or weak. "It's time we had a little talk, My Prince."
Jev held up his hand, and the club went flying from Xizor's grip. The Falleen took a step forward.
Arcs of blue lightning shot forward from Jev's open hand. They played about the reptilian prince, causing him to fall to his knees.
He did not cry out, but as he fell, he choked, "Lord Parrak, what is this? We had a deal!"
Jev took a step forward, another gout of lightning skewering the Falleen. "I'm altering the deal. Perhaps I should alter it further. I could end your problems with Lord Vader right here and now."
The alien prince gasped for breath. "No... please..."
"Then grant us safe passage away from here, and off this planet. The Calamarian, too."
"It is done."
Jev stepped forward again, so that his lean form towered over the Falleen. "If you disappoint me, you won't even be a peasant, let alone a prince."
Garreth looked from one to the other, feeling the familiar bout of vertigo he got when he looked at stars in flight. What had happened? Could this new and improved Jev be trusted? How powerful was he, anyway, to subdue Xizor so easily?
"Come on, Admiral," said Jev, "It's time to leave."
"Have you looked through those files?" Kerri asked.
"Yeah - it's pretty convincing." Evverd frowned over the data. "Someone has gone to a lot of trouble to make us think our previous contacts with Black Sun were some kind of giant misunderstanding."
"But you don't believe it." She began reading the terminal display over his shoulder.
"Hey, I'm Corellian. I'm a pessimist." He shook his head. "I just don't get it. Why would anyone - even Xizor - go to this much trouble just so that Leia wouldn't be afraid to contact him?"
"The same reason the Empire went to so much trouble at Cloud City." Kerri mumbled to herself in-between statements, reading the scrolling text on the screen. "Leia's a very prominent member of the Alliance."
"It ain't just that. This is nice work. It'd take a whole team of slicers to screw up our data this bad." He looked up. "This is a trap. Somebody's gotta talk to Leia."
Kerri was thoughtful a moment. "Leia's a willful person. If she thinks it will get her Solo back, she'll believe whatever she wants to believe."
Evverd was about to object, when Kerri continued, "But I'll talk to her."
She caught up with Leia Organa just outside the airlock. "What's all this?"
"The MILLENIUM FALCON is leaving for Mos Eisley. Lando has some contacts to check, and Luke wants to see if Ben Kenobi left anything behind there that he can use to train himself."
If General Kenobi is anything like his reputation, Kerri thought, that's a longshot. She said, "Jedi travel light."
"If you're about to warn me about Black Sun again, Captain, don't worry." Leia continued walking as she spoke. "I have no intention of contacting Black Sun, unless we get desperate."
"And if you do?"
Leia didn't even pause. "Then I'll have to contact Black Sun, whether it's safe or not."
"Do you think Han would want you to take that kind of risk?"
Leia turned on her, and Kerri immediately regretted her challenging tone. The hurt on the other woman's face was immediately swallowed, though, by diplomatic cool. "He certainly wouldn't. But he would do the same for me."
"At least let Rik or me come."
"You have a duty to your ship. Colonel Evverd has recruits to train." Leia smiled. "I'll have Chewie and Lando, and I have some experience at this kind of thing myself. I'll be fine."
And Kerri knew when she had lost. "Leia, be careful. You are about to descend into the shadows of the Empire. You can't trust anyone or anything down there. I know."
Leia cocked her head, quizzically. "What is your story, Kerri? How did you come to be with the Alliance?"
"A tale for another time," said Kerri, and patted the younger woman's shoulder. "May the Force be..."
After Kerri had trailed off for a moment, Leia prompted, "What is it?"
"Nothing." Kerri was tempted to take off her Force-blind crystal, which would allow her to confirm the hunch. But she decided it was too much of a risk. "Safe flight, Leia. Remember what I said about Black Sun."
"I'll be careful," said Leia, and left through the airlock.
Kerri Lynden-Evverd stood there a moment after she'd left. That electric feeling - the touch of the Force - could not be imagined. Yet Leia could not be too strong in the Force, or Vader would have dealt with her when he captured her.
Where would another Force-sensitive person come from, anyway? With the exception of herself, Kerri was fairly sure that the Empire had hunted down all of those with blood ties to a Jedi Knight.
Except Luke Skywalker. And Leia's about the same age.
SHE's the sister? Kerri thought. But from the way Luke had been acting towards her after the Battle of Yavin, he clearly had no idea. And neither did she.
And who would have believed it anyway? Princess Leia of Alderaan was actually a Skywalker?
I have a headache, Kerri decided, and returned to her quarters.
"I apologize for the deception, Admiral." In the hold of their borrowed YT-1700 freighter, Jed Parrak reclined with his feet up ion the hologaming table. He was a completely different man from the wretched prisoner Garreth had met in the cell.
He was even more different from the Jev whom Garreth had known.
"Perhaps you'd care to explain," Garreth said. Okel was piloting the ship, a job Jev had wanted. Garreth had thought it more urgent that the two humans have a little talk.
Jev smiled thinly. "I thought you might thank me first."
"Thank you. Why did you trick me, Jev?"
The younger man shrugged. "If you'd seen what I was really like, would you have trusted me at all?"
Garreth looked the younger, taller human up and down. With his black cloak and aura of power, he was all too reminiscent of Darth Vader. Garreth would have instinctively distrusted him.
The admiral frowned. "Vader did train you, didn't he?"
"That's right. But we had a... disagreement... at Hoth. I came to realize exactly how dark his ambitions were. So I arranged a little scheme to defect."
"Defect?" Garreth sighed. "How can we trust you?"
"Bring me to Kerri. Let her probe me."
The admiral rejected that argument with a shake of the head. "Far too dangerous. I don't think you should get anywhere near Kerri..."
"I did save your life, Admiral."
"For which I am grateful." Garreth favored him with a little smirk. "But that doesn't make me stupid."
"You're not being fair! Give me a chance!"
Garreth shrugged. "Perhaps you should use another mind trick to... convince me."
Jev sighed, losing a bit of his bluster. "I wouldn't do that."
"You mean you couldn't." Garreth stood and advanced on the younger man. "I think I'm too strong-willed. I think your power is not all you make it out to be. I think you're a treasonous little bug, who should not be trusted further than I could throw a Hutt."
Instead of the predictable outburst of anger, Jev seemed to shrink down further. "I can see why you'd think that."
"Well..." Garreth cleared his throat, "You've just passed your first test, son."
Jev stood up in shock, towering over him. "You challenged a powerful Jedi..."
"Just to see if you'd splatter me across the walls." The admiral smiled. "And I wouldn't be too impressed by my own power if I were you, son. Darth Vader has killed Jedi Masters. You were fortunate to escape with your life."
"Yes," Jev said, and returned to his seat, "I was."
Prince Xizor of Black Sun was none the worse for his rather shocking experience. In fact, as he addressed Guri, he was remarkably calm. "Garreth reprogrammed you?"
"Not reprogrammed, my Prince. Merely planted a compulsion that made me turn off the power."
Xizor idly peeled a fruit and popped a slice in his mouth. "How is that possible?"
"Most likely his friends on Latria tracked our slicing back to its source, then used that as a window into our own system. I picked up the virus when I interfaced with the main computer for a diagnostic."
"I see." Xizor chewed slowly, then swallowed. "Could it happen again?"
"There is a possibility, Prince." Guri cast her gaze downwards. "A slight modification to my main processor could prevent future occurrences... It might also be preferable that I avoid linking with the main computer in future. If... I am to remain your servant."
Xizor laughed. "Guri, do you think I am displeased with you? Garreth was quite innovative - but then, I expected him to be."
Guri frowned. "But the Dark Apprentice betrayed you. The plan was foiled."
"The plan," said Xizor with a sly grin, "Has only begun. As for my betrayal... the young Apprentice was quite convincing, wasn't he?"
The droid had the quickest microprocessors money could buy, and still she needed a moment to compute that. "You wished him to betray you?"
"He betrayed nothing. He was, if anything, a little too successful. Those lightning bolts were unnecessary."
Guri brightened a bit. "I could kill him for you."
"In time. Guri, destroy the surveillance tapes from this chamber. Though I am quite proud of my performance, it wouldn't do for certain elements to see the great Xizor groveling in front of a minor Jedi."
Guri nodded. "Yes, My Prince."
"And then make ready. While this plan begins, my traps for Vader... and for Leia Organa... are ready to blossom."
The YT-1700 freighter pulled into the FREEDOM's docking bay, and Colonel Rik Evverd stepped forward to greet the ship's personnel. With him were a tall, blonde woman named Taryn Clancee, and a sandy-furred Wookiee named Gaaraanzii.
The freighter's ramp hissed open, and Admiral Mykel Garreth was first down it. "What's all this?"
Taryn was already stepping forward to examine the ship. As a transitional phase between YT-1300s like the MILLENIUM FALCON and newer YT-2400 designs like Dash Rendar's OUTRIDER, the freighter had the same flat hull of those two ship, but it appeared to have been cut in half. FALCON's disk-shaped hull had been cut to a semicircle, with the curved part facing aft. The cockpit module was lung low, actually under the main hull on the starboard side. On the port side of the semicircle, a quad gunnery emplacement defended the ship's belly. The main cargo hold was also slung under the disk, giving the freighter the impression, from the front, of a sort of hunchbacked, potbellied MILLENIUM FALCON. The straight edge of the disk held concussion missile launchers and shield generators, and the freighter's topside boasted a sensor dish and ion cannon turret.
"Where'd you get this?" Taryn asked, running a hand over the pitted, white hull.
"A gift from Prince Xizor," said Garreth.
The Wookiee growled his appraisal: He hoped Garreth had kept the receipt. Taryn seemed to agree, surveying the various aspects with a critical eye.
But when she looked up, her eyes gleamed with enthusiasm. "She's already been refit for smuggling. I'd move the quads back, though, so you're not shooting at your own cockpit."
Evverd still stared, getting the full effect of the cruiser for a distance. "And lose the ion cannon. Replace it with a repeat blaster or quad - or maybe even a disguised turbolaser turret."
"Right," said Taryn with professional appreciation. "I'll have to take a look at the engines on this thing..."
"She'll make point-eight past lightspeed." An oddly familiar male voice said.
For a moment, Taryn couldn't place it. "Who's that?"
"It's not Okel," said Evverd, jogging over to the ramp, where a tall figure in a black cloak was descending.
"Hello, Rik. Everyone."
"Jev!" As if the freighter wasn't enough of a surprise for one day. He stared, openmouthed. He wanted to run and embrace his former protegee, but something in Jev's cold, blue eyes made him hold back.
Evverd swallowed hard. "What's with the beard, Junior?"
Jev idly scratched his goatee. "I thought it made me look older."
"It does," said the Corellian with a nod, "What happened to you? We looked everywhere at Balmorra..."
"It's a long story," said Jev, "And I'd prefer that Kerri was present when I told it."
"You go look for her," said Taryn with a grunt, as she ran a hand along the underside hull. "Me and the Wookiee are gonna run a check on our new ship."
Evverd blinked, returning to the subject at hand. "YOUR ship?"
"I saw it first," said Taryn. "I'm the smuggler here; what're you gonna do, train bush pilots in it?"
"But I'm a senior officer,"" said Evverd, "I need a command ship."
"Generals get command ships, Mister Evverd, not Colonels." Garreth smiled. "Besides, it's my ship."
"You don't fly!"
"That's right," said Garreth with a nod. "So the ship belongs to the Alliance. I will determine who gets to fly it at a more appropriate time. For now, I'd like to take our guest to Kerri."
"Right," said Evverd, falling into step. Drawn as he was to the freighter, he wasn't going to let this little possible-Dark Side snot anywhere near Kerri without somebody to keep an eye on him.
To Taryn, he called, "Keep your hands off my ship, Clancee!"
They ran into Kerri in the corridor. To Garreth's very great surprise, she didn't seem at all startled. "There you are. I was looking for you."
"But how...?" the admiral started.
"Our crystals," said Kerri, indicating the nugget of alien gemstone worn around her neck. "They're drawn to each other."
Jev stepped forward, smiling warmly. "Kerri, I want to apologize..."
To Evverd's shock, Kerri had no patience for him. "Stow it. You turned to the Dark Side, you fought against us and almost got us killed. You still haven't renounced the Dark Side, and now you've returned because your alliance with Vader was inconvenient." She turned on her heel. "You shouldn't have come back."
"But I've changed! I've grown in the Force!"
The olive-skinned woman turned on him, the orange blade of her lightsaber springing to life right there in the corridor. "Let's see if you have."
She struck. Jev's own, silver-tinged blade sizzled into existence, and he parried.
The duel commenced.
Continued in Episode 9
R. John Burke