STAR WARS: FREEDOM'S Price Episode Nine
DESCRIPTION: If you've been eagerly awaiting the final showdown between Kerri and Jev... wait some more. We're just getting started.
NOTICE: George Lucas created Star Wars. His company holds the patent on it. George Lucas had nothing to do with this story. It goes without saying, then, that this story is not-for-sale fan fiction. Remember, look for the Lucas Seal of Approval on all official Star Wars products...
"Kerri, what are you DOING?"
"Stay out of this, Rik!" Captain Kerri Lynden-Evverd slashed low with her orange saber, and the young Jedi adept Jev Parrak knocked it aside, trying to use his greater strength to hammer his way inside Kerri's defenses.
The older Jedi Knight danced backwards, dark hair flying as she brought her saber around in a slash that knocked Jev off-balance. He recovered quickly, and leapt over her low cut to bring his silver blade down in an arc that would have separated Kerri into two pieces, if she had been there.
If. She dove low under his jump, knocking his legs out from under him. Jev cried out as he tripped, smashing the deck with his face. Kerri rolled, stood, and came around with her own saber again.
As she swept out towards him, Jev performed a Force-enhanced backward somersault, calling his lost blade back to his hands. Their lightsabers crossed, sizzling and popping with released energy.
"That's enough!" Garreth called from his vantage point at the side.
Kerri ignored him, slipping out of the saber-lock and stabbing at the young man. Her blade slashed across the top of his shoulder, burning away his tunic and leaving a long, thin burn.
Jev cried out in anger, and swept around with strike after strike from his saber, long, roundhouse blows that Kerri just managed to bat aside. After a moment, he'd backed her against the wall. Slowly, he pressed her saber down until it was locked under her throat.
"Strike me down," said Kerri, unperturbed.
"No," said Jev. He disengaged his lightsaber and stepped away.
"Excellent," said Kerri with a smile. Her own saber turned off, and she saluted him with its hilt. "You've learned patience. You no longer lash out at the first provocation. Very impressive."
Jev glowered down at her, cradling his injured shoulder. "And I've grown in strength. I did beat you."
Kerri smiled, and disappeared.
"I wouldn't get too cocky, if I were you." Jev swiveled, blinking in surprise. Kerri stood behind him, her saber secured to her belt. He moved his hand from the shoulder, and saw only the untouched material of his cloak where a moment ago, there had been an ugly burn scar.
He scowled. "That was a nasty little trick."
Mykel Garreth stepped forwards. "I take responsibility for that. I sent Kerri a compressed comm during the flight from Coruscant, and advised her to have a reception of this sort waiting. That's your second test, Mister Parrak. You're two for two so far." Jev grunted, and replaced his saber. "It's nice to know you all have such faith in me."
"It was necessary," said Kerri. "If your only plan was to work your way onto this ship so that you could kill me at Vader's command, well, we had to know that."
Jev grinned, a bit nastily. "You're not that important, I'm afraid. Vader's forgotten all about you, in favor of Skywalker."
"So we understand," said Kerri, and extended a hand in greeting. "No hard feelings?"
Jev shook the hand, but still looked unhappy. "Don't mess with my mind again."
Rik Evverd groaned. "Nobody ever tells me ANYTHING. If you need me, I'll be with my ship..." he started back down the corridor towards the hangar bay, and the old Corellian YT-1700 freighter Garreth had brought back from Coruscant.
"It's not your ship!" Garreth called to him, but it was plainly useless. Love at first sight. Evverd's only obstacle now was Taryn Clancee, who had fallen for the ship as hard as he had.
"I... um," Jev cleared his throat as they continued in the other direction, "I understand you're a captain now. And that you and Rik are married."
"That's right," said Kerri. "Almost a year."
"Congratulations on both counts."
Kerri looked back the way Evverd had gone. "I think it's going to be our second year before I see him again. You brought him a new toy, Admiral."
"Xizor picked the ship," said Garreth by way of apology. "Which reminds me, have it thoroughly scanned for bugs and traps."
"Hardly necessary," said Kerri, "At this moment, Rik and Clancee are going over its hull with a microblade. They'll find any problems."
"Doesn't that bother you?" Jev asked, "The thought of those two spending hours alone in the hangar on that ship?"
Kerri looked at him sideways. "FREEDOM's got a fine relief helm officer, Jev."
"No, I just meant..."
Garreth cleared his throat. "She knew what you meant, son. It was a stupid question."
Jev frowned. "You know, people have done nothing but insult me and attack me since I arrived. I DID save your life, Admiral!"
"For which the Alliance extends all due thanks. But things have changed, Jev." Garreth frowned. "This is a dangerous time for the Alliance. We cannot afford a security risk."
"Security risk? Oh, thanks a LOT! I should just turn around right now!"
Garreth grabbed his arm. "You assaulted Luke Skywalker and took his property. You brainwashed my navigator and stole an X-Wing..."
"That was years ago!" Jev protested, "And I only did it to fight Vader!"
"...You return stronger in the Force than you've ever been, having admittedly trained under Vader himself. And when I first found you, you lied to me!" The admiral sighed. "Look me in the eye and say you blame me."
Jev scratched at his goatee. "I understand your concerns, Admiral. What can I do to prove my loyalty?"
"I don't know, son," said Garreth as they resumed walking. "I don't know yet..."
"All right, so we're agreed. We definitely need to replace the hyperdrive with something better. Maybe something in the SoroSuub Griffyn class."
"Yeah, but I don't think it's a priority. She'll make point-eight already." Evverd dropped the hydrospanner and stretched for a moment. "That's competitive with military ships. I think it's more important to improve the sublight speed."
Taryn Clancee was still examining the hyperdrive. "Maybe, but I want something that'll challenge the FALCON. That means pushing point-five."
"The FALCON?" Evverd looked up with a gruff chuckle. "You planning on beating the twelve-parsec Kessel run?"
"It's a thought," said Taryn, patting the ship with pleasure. "There's a run of runs left in this baby."
"My ship is not gonna be a smuggler," Evverd argued.
Taryn put hands on hips, glowering down at him where he sat on the deck. "There you go again - YOUR ship. She's mine."
"How do you figure that?"
"Simple." Taryn grinned. "This is a smuggling design. I'm a smuggler. The Alliance needs people who can run Imperial blockades."
"True," Evverd admitted. "On the other hand, I outrank you, I'm a better pilot - and you owe me for Hoth."
The Corellian could see he'd scored points with that one. Smugglers tended to take their debts seriously, and Evverd had nearly been killed helping the blonde woman's transport escape from the Hoth blockade. She sighed.
"Besides, this is a Corellian ship. I'm Corellian. I understand her."
"I thought you were a fighter pilot," Taryn grumbled.
Evverd frowned. Technically, he was a training pilot - a fact which annoyed him no end. "How many X-Wings you seen me flying lately?"
"Except Hoth? None." Taryn patted his shoulder. "Rough break."
"It's your own fault," she said, "Why'd you ever let them promote you?"
Evverd chuckled, and pointed to the Colonel's insignia on his grease-covered jacket - the only sign of rank he wore. "I think it was the uniform."
The smuggler laughed. "I'll tell you what - we'll cut cards for her. I can't be more fair than that."
"All right. That's a deal."
Taryn left the ship and returned a moment later with a set of sabacc card-chips. She spread them out on the gaming table. "High card wins."
Evverd frowned. He'd played sabacc with Taryn before. "Those are your cards?"
"That's right." She smiled. "Don't you trust me?"
"Oh, implicitly..." Evverd muttered. I trust you to cheat, he thought. "I'll go first."
He reached down and selected a card-chip, turned it over. "The Commander of sabers. Good card."
"Not bad," said Taryn. Holding his eyes, she reached down to pick. Her hand came up with a card-chip. After a moment's hesitation, she held it up and smiled.
A smile which changed to horror. "The eleven of coins?"
"Ooooh... so close. Better luck next time. The ship is mine."
Taryn was looking from the card-chips to Evverd in total puzzlement. "But... I don't get it... I marked these cards!"
"I changed the markings after our last game," said Evverd with a triumphant grin. "Cheaters never prosper, Clancee."
"You tricked me!"
"And you tried to trick me." Evverd sank back down to the floor, and picked up a hydrospanner. "Don't get all ethical on me now. The ship is mine."
Taryn Clancee fumed for a moment, then groaned. "You'll need a copilot."
"I will. I wonder if Gaar wants to..."
Taryn kicked him, rather hard, in the leg. "All right! All right! If Garreth lets you out to play, you got the second chair."
"Thanks a lot," she muttered. then her eyes turned to the floor near him. "Hey - look at that."
Evverd followed her finger to the small, blinking outline of a Black Sun-issue surveillance device. "Yeah. I figure there's at least six more."
"Great. It'll take days to get 'em all. I'm glad it's not my ship."
"True," said Evverd, "But I think removing the bugs is a job for the copilot." He whacked the one they'd found with the hydrospanner, and it shorted out.
"We're clear of lightspeed and good to go," Lieutenant Korb Weeilka reported from his Nav/Comm station. "X-Wings from Maverick and Rascal flights are launching."
On her tactical display, Kerri Lynden-Evverd watched as the Gunship HAMMER and the Corellian Corvette KENOBI fanned out to either side of her NEBULON-class frigate. Before them, the Imperial outpost was a blur of hurried activity, with half a dozen TIE fighters launching.
"That's IT?" Commander Sedra Covell asked from weapons. "Six TIE fighters? For an outpost this close to the core?"
"It's the reorganization," Jev Parrak said from his old chair at Helm. He'd abandoned his robes for the temporary uniform of a Crewman First Class. "Krellsi got caught in-between assignments. They're expecting a couple of CARRACK cruisers next week."
His tone of voice was just the slightest bit smug, and Kerri could hear the "Told-you-so" he was holding back. Garreth had been against letting the youth take the helm, but Kerri had argued in his favor. If Jev were going to betray them, she argued, he wouldn't have needed the helm to do it. And even if he did turn against them, the sooner they found out, the better.
FREEDOM moved in towards the base, her turbolasers and Ion cannons stripping the outpost of defenses. On Tactical, Kerri saw their twenty-four X-Wings make very short work of the TIE's.
In almost no time, Covell reported the base secured.
"Too easy," Kerri said aloud, "That was much too easy."
"It only proved that my intelligence was accurate."
"Your information was accurate," Kerri corrected him, "Your intelligence is something else again."
Jev scowled, and truthfully Kerri felt bad for the jibe. But she needed to know how far they could push the young Apprentice before he broke. If he resorted to the Dark Side, even after fair provocation, then he hadn't changed enough.
Jev seemed to understand that she was testing him, and turned rather sullenly to his helm controls.
Kerri touched a comm button. "Freighter, you are released for your run. Good luck."
"No problem," said Evverd's voice, "This'll be the perfect first mission - a milk run."
"By the way," Kerri asked, "what should we call you?"
She heard a female groan, and Taryn Clancee said, "Don't even get us started on the name, okay?"
"Copy. You'll answer to Red Leader for now."
"Yeah, sure. Whatever. 'Bye."
Taryn cut off the link, leaving Kerri to grit her teeth. Why was it, she wondered, that she had married Rik, and yet had such trouble with Taryn, who was much like him?
Maybe Rik was right. Maybe if he hadn't saved her life the first time they'd met, they never would have liked each other at all. His act of sacrifice had caused Kerri to give him the benefit of the doubt. But every time she tried to give Taryn that same benefit, the other woman seemed to go out of her way to be annoying.
Kerri reached into the Force, allowing that tension to bleed away. She had many other things to worry about, besides Taryn Clancee.
On the tactical formation, HAMMER and KENOBI set up in a triangle formation with the FREEDOM, each ship taking a point, and a third of the local area to patrol.
Covell relayed orders to the fighters. "Maverick squadron, prepare for strafing runs. Keep those Imps pinned down."
"We're on it, FREEDOM," said Commander Brynn Avers, and the fighters streaked towards the base. Another shape, a Corellian-designed YT-1700 freighter, appeared on the screen as it left the FREEDOM's hangar.
"Send this message on all channels: Imperial base, this is the Rebel Alliance. Do not resist our operation, or you will be fired upon. We have no desire to hurt you, and will leave peacefully once our business is concluded."
Weeilka tapped a few buttons on his comm console, then looked up. "You didn't expect a response, did you?"
"Captain, new contacts! Pair of CARRACK-class cruisers, just out of lightspeed! They are assuming offensive posture!"
Kerri cursed to herself as Covell's words were proved correct: Two Imperial CARRACK-class light cruisers had appeared and were driving towards the Rebel task force. CARRACKs and NEBULONs were about as evenly matched as ships on the two sides got; CARRACKs were better armed, but NEBULONs were tougher and had more fighters. With help from Mav squadron, they could take on one CARRACK and win. The catch was whether the HAMMER and KENOBI could hold off the other one.
After a moment's thought, Kerri decided that they could, at least long enough to complete the mission. It was a fair fight, and her crew was good.
"Helm, bring us toward the leader. Have HAMMER and KENOBI flank the other one. Tell Rik to hurry."
The Twi'lek lieutenant, Korb Weeilka, glanced at Jev, across from him in the forward crewpit. "Great job you've done here, pal."
Jev hissed to himself. "They must have gotten here early! It's not my fault!"
"You couldn't have arranged for them to come early, I guess?" Weeilka seemed to be holding a grudge; the last time they'd met, Jev had used the Force to alter the Twi'lek's mind, and nobody enjoyed that.
Kerri took pity on her helmsman. "Make sure to target the middle of those ships - one hit near the generators can disable a CARRACK."
"IF we're lucky," Weeilka put in, "Our luck is running bad today..."
In the pilot's chair of their freighter, Rik Evverd guided them down towards the Imperial outpost, a simple Kuat Yards Mark II Supply Platform. He located the cargo area on sensors and dove in towards it.
He heard an exclamation from the port quad bay. "GOT one!"
"Great," he said, "How many TIE's can a CARRACK hold?"
"Five each," Taryn said, "I'd say the two forces are pretty well matched. Shouldn't affect us."
"Swell," Evverd muttered. Still, this was not the easy job he'd wanted. They hadn't worked the bugs out of this ship yet.
Practically on cue, he heard something short out, and Taryn cursed. "The fire control circuits are shot!"
"Then eyeball it!" Evverd hissed.
"'Eyeball it,' he says. Big talk from a man who doesn't actually have to try it..."
They reached the cargo area, a bulge on the Platform's port wall. "Can you eyeball THAT, Clancee?"
"That I can do," she said. A moment later, their quads had ripped a hole in the wall. Evverd guided them in, then sealed up his flight suit.
"Cover me," he said.
He popped the airlock, and entered the cargo bay. Open to space and with the lights out, the bay was almost perfectly dark. Evverd stumbled to the wall, and found a switch. The lights came up, revealing stacks of magnetically sealed and held cargo crates. The crates would be full of Tibanna gas, useful as a fuel source for blasters and other energy devices. He wondered how much of this had been mined at the new Imperial Cloud City garrison.
He found a grav-lifter, and began switching crates. He'd made two runs, for a total of six crates, when the inner doors hissed open, revealing stormtroopers in zero-gee armor.
The spacetroopers, as they were called, were prevented from firing their mini-torpedoes for fear of lighting up the tibanna gas, but they did focus on Evverd with stun bolts.
Fortunately, his ship's low-slung quad laser port was perfectly positioned to double as a belly gun, and Taryn sprayed the doorway with lethal fire, nailing one trooper and forcing the others back.
Evverd had loaded three more crates into their cargo bay before the troopers came back. They exchanged fire with Taryn, but remained hesitant to fire towards the crates.
Evverd produced his hand blaster, and nailed the life support system of one spacetrooper's suit, forcing him to retreat before he suffocated or froze.
He loaded five crates on, for an unwieldy but extra-large load, and soon their total store of tibanna gas totaled fourteen crates.
"Evverd, are you done back there? It's getting kind of hot!"
Evverd tapped his wrist-mounted comlink. "Give me a few minutes, Clancee. I want to get two more loads."
One of the spacetroopers, apparently tired of playing games, wheeled away from his hiding place and shot a mini-proton torp that went wide, soaring through the atmospheric field blocking the hole in the ceiling.
Evverd scrambled back into the cargo hold. "On the other hand, fourteen crates is a nice haul."
He scrambled to the cockpit to find that Taryn had beaten him there. "Punch it, already!"
"Here we go..."
The freighter wheeled up on its repulsorlifts and swung around towards the opening. The spacetrooper fired again, and this time connected with a crate of Tibanna gas. It erupted, and took the next crate in line with it. It took the next one, and soon the entire hangar was a fireball.
Out of which soared a battered and singed YT-1700 freighter, moving at top speed for its carrier ship.
Evverd hissed in relief. "Nice work."
"WHO's the better pilot?" Taryn said.
Kerri's voice came through the comm. "Red Leader, nice to see you alive and well. Report."
"Fourteen crates captured, the others torched. Not a bad day's work."
Kerri hesitated. "Excellent. Return to the FREEDOM."
"On our way," said Taryn. "What happened to those assault shuttles, Captain? You promised us an assault team! Those spacetroopers almost had us!"
"Ease up, Clancee," said Evverd. "An assault shuttle never would have made it past the CARRACKs."
Taryn Clancee was still fuming. "I don't like counting on backup that never shows!"
Kerri's voice was totally calm. "I'll take it under advisement, Commander. Get back here."
Taryn slammed on the accelerator, and soared into the hangar at inadvisable speed. Just when it seemed they'd crash into a wall, Taryn stopped on a coin and settled to the deck.
"You're not a bad fighter pilot," she said to the Corellian, "You've got a lot to learn about freighters."
Evverd grinned. "I've got a chance to learn from a real expert, at least." He thumbed the comm. "We're in, Kerri. Don't wait around."
"Copy. We are history."
On the bridge of the FREEDOM, Captain Kerri Lynden-Evverd glanced down into the forward crewpit. "Advise all ships to break off and prepare for the jump to lightspeed."
"Already done," said Weeilka, "Course is set."
Kerri checked the tactical, which showed one CARRACK disabled and foundering, the other breaking off its attack. Not a bad day's work.
"Hit it," she said to Jev, and they made the jump.
"Excellent work, Captain," said Garreth over Kerri's personal comm. He had remained with their task force's flagship, the Mon Calamari cruiser VALIANT , during the hit-and-fade. "Those supplies will be appreciated. What about our new crewman?"
"He seems to have done well," said Kerri. "It's true we were jumped, but if it were a trap, we would have been hit by a lot more than two CARRACKs. In my opinion, Jev told the truth as he knew it."
Garreth peered at her. "That's a very reserved bit of praise."
"That's because I'm reserving judgment, sir."
The admiral frowned. "At what point do we drop our reservations, and decide that Jev is trustworthy?"
"I don't know, sir." Kerri sighed, feeling all at once very tired. "Maybe never. That's the cost of the Dark Side. It's a very deceptive power that runs counter to trust."
"There must be a way for him to redeem himself," said Garreth.
"Short of getting inside his mind, I don't know..."
"Can you do that?" Garreth asked. "Jev suggested that you probe him."
Kerri took a deep breath. "I... don't believe I wish to do that, sir."
"I see. Would you do it if I ordered you?"
She hesitated. "Yes, sir. Is that your order?"
"Not yet," said Garreth with a sigh, "Proceed as you think best, Captain. See you in Corellian sector. Garreth out."
Kerri looked out the viewport to watch the stars. A moment later they turned into starlines, as the Third Task Force jumped to Corellian sector. The Alliance was planning something big, and this mission would be their last, best shot to coordinate with Garm Bel Iblis and his band of independent Corellian Rebels.
And despite that, Kerri found her thoughts consumed by one young man from Alderaan. Why shouldn't she probe Jev, after all? Her power, she was fairly sure, still exceeded his. Though her skill at Force telepathy had never been great, except for persuasion and Alter Mind, Jev had never shown particular skill in that area either. There was no reason not to see what she could learn.
And yet... she did not want to, for reasons that might or might not be linked to the Force.
The simple truth was, she was afraid.
If Jev proved trustworthy, his power had progressed to the point where she'd have to teach him light-side techniques, if only for safety reasons. In effect, she would have to train him - train a young man already tinged by the Dark Side.
Kerri had already lost her mother to the power of the Dark Side, and nearly her own life as well. She did not want to take that risk. She didn't need to get involved.
But of course, the demands of the Force were rarely easy. She touched a button. "Crewman Parrak to the Captain's quarters."
The door hissed open almost immediately, startling Kerri. It was only Rik, however, returned from filing his report and tinkering with his new starship.
"I see we're en route to Corellian sector," he said. "I suppose it's too much to hope my dad's been transferred across the galaxy or something..."
"You'll live," said Kerri.
"I'm sure I will. But I don't have to like it. Why'd you call Jev?"
"I'm going to probe him," she said with a soft hiss.
"About time. Maybe we'll get some answers around here."
Kerri winced. No matter what anyone said, she really didn't like this...
Yellow eyes peered out from a darkened cloak. "What report have you for me, my servant?"
"I've reached the FREEDOM," said Jev. The conversation was taking place in his mind, through the power of the Force. Jev envisioned himself standing before the Emperor, in his palace on Coruscant, as he had once before. "I think I'm gaining their trust."
"Is that all?" the Emperor asked, eyes narrowed in anger.
"That's all. It's going smoothly."
The Emperor looked disappointed. "And what of your other mission?"
"I told you, there's nothing to discuss. Lynden is just as dead now as she's been the last three years."
"Indeed?" The Emperor frowned, his sickly gray skin crinkling into a nightmare expression. A stab of pain went right through Jev's head. "As my loyal servant, you would never lie to me, would you?"
"Of course not, my master." Jev forced himself to chuckle. "I don't even know why you sent me here. They're just a bunch of weak fools."
"Those fools have foiled me plans in the past, and shall never do so again." Palpatine, first Emperor of the Galaxy, fixed him with an iron gaze. "Your report is totally accurate?"
"Yes, of course," said Jev, somewhat frustrated. This shouldn't be hard! A ripple of worry washed through him...
"Your feelings betray you. You are concerned for your friends."
Jev scowled. "I have no friends. I have had no friends since Alderaan." Anger blasted through him at the mention of his dead homeworld. "You killed all my friends."
"The example of Alderaan was necessary." Another jolt fired Jev's synapses with agony. "Do not force me to make another example."
"I..." Jev hissed through gritted teeth, "I don't know what you're talking about."
Agony consumed him, and the young man saw himself falling to hands and knees.
The Emperor was most displeased. "I find your dishonesty most unsettling. Do not force me to destroy you."
Jev's anger flared fully. "Go ahead and try, you old..."
In his mind, Jev saw blue lightning flash out from the Emperor's fingertips. Pain like none he had ever known seemed to physically burn him.
"I shall ask one more tome, and the answer had best please me. Does Kerri Lynden live?"
Jev closed his eyes. "No."
Twin bolts of blue struck him, and in Jev's mind, even his knees went out from under him, leaving him flat on his face.
"Most disappointing," said the Emperor, and prepared for a fatal strike.
"Wait!" said Jev, gasping for air, "Wait! She is alive, and she has grown stronger. She could be an asset to you."
The Emperor considered. "The time for that is past. Matters are already in preparation for Luke Skywalker to join me. I do not need her."
Jev struggled to his feet in his vision. "Then what shall I do about her?"
The yellow eyes blazed. "Go forth, my servant. If you wish to regain my favor, and complete your knowledge of the Dark Side, you must confront Lynden, and kill her."
Jev sighed deeply. "It shall be as you command, my master."
"Of course it shall," the aged voice bit out. "Everything is proceeding as I have foreseen..."
Continued in Episode 10
R. John Burke