In Defense Of Freedom series Episode Two
DESCRIPTION: The Noghri try to capture Garreth, while the FREEDOM faces off against Thrawn.
NOTICE: All Star Wars related material is copyright Lucasfilm, and I'm also borrowing from the Zahn books. No infringement meant. No money involved. Just fanfic.
Garreth couldn't sleep.
He sat in his dining room, dressed in a robe, drinking warm milk from one of the local animals. The animal in question was one of several kinds on his farm, and tasted like pretty standard herbivore stock.
He couldn't fathom why he'd come to Ukio, now. It had seemed like a beautiful little planet upon which to retire, but after less than two years, he'd had it with the life of a farmer.
Perhaps I should visit Trina on Bothawui, he thought. Get another look at my grandchildren.
But of course he'd visited Bothawui just a few months ago, and before that he'd joined his son Lorne on a survey to Dantooine. Just because they like you now is no reason to wear out your welcome, he decided.
Five years ago, after the battle of Endor, Admiral Mykel Garreth had retired from service to the Rebel Alliance. He'd served the Rebels for five years, and before that had spent thirty years in the Imperial fleet. After Endor, Garreth had been convinced that he'd seen enough fighting for a lifetime.
He was still convinced of that. But fighting and action were two different things.
After three years of vacation and two more as a farmer, Garreth had discovered something about himself.
He secretly hated peace and quiet.
Okel warned me, he thought. He said I was too young to retire. I'd never be happy without the routine of shipboard life, the responsibilities of command.
He was right.
Garreth had recently turned sixty standard years old. His hair, still worn long, had gone completely gray, and his dark eyes now had even more lines around them. His compact frame was beginning to show signs of inaction.
He'd gone soft.
It wasn't the farming itself, he decided. I won't mind being old when I AM old. Then I'll retire with no regrets. But right now I've got some good years left in me.
He sipped at his milk. Or maybe this is just one of those late-night doubt fests. Perhaps when I wake up in the morning, I'll want nothing more than to sit on the porch swing and rock five more years away.
But I doubt it.
He could return to service in a moment - in less than a moment. One call to Ackbar or Mon Mothma, and he'd be back in uniform faster than you could say "Senior Commanding Admiral of Whatever Sector Needs a Change." Though Mon Mothma was probably still peeved at him for retiring in the first place, she'd get over it the moment he announced his return. No officer in the Fleet would deny him any command he wanted. He could keep the farm, hire someone to take care of it. He could even give it away if he chose. Money was not a problem for Garreth, who'd had his considerable bank accounts restored when the Republic had liberated Coruscant. He could be on a transport tomorrow.
Or perhaps I'll just finish my milk, he thought with a weak smile, and go to bed.
He toyed lazily with the datapad he'd been reading, shifting it between index and middle finger. The news from Obroa-Skai was not good. That lost Elomin task force was trouble. How does a whole task force just get shredded into nothing?
Part of Garreth was afraid he already knew the answer. The incident had one set of fingerprints all over it. The prints belonged to an old friend, a man Garreth had faced a hundred times in simulations and real battle.
A man whom Garreth alone knew about.
He's dead, the admiral told himself. He must be, or he'd have come back from the Unknown Regions immediately.
No matter how many times Garreth told himself that, he still had a bad feeling about the incident. He was about to get up and toss the rest of his drink down the recycler...
A hint of movement reflected off the window was Garreth's only warning. Combat reflexes he'd feared were lost kicked in, sending him hurling under the table. His mug crashed onto the floor, and broke.
A thin, sticky band of something shot by overhead, right through where Garreth's back should have been. The former officer caught a whiff of something, and frowned.
Stokhli mist? Stunguns? That wasn't the sort of weapon anyone on Ukio would have, nor was it standard Imperial armament.
That left bounty hunters, which was possible since Garreth still had quite a few enemies... or something even worse.
The glimpse he caught of steel-gray skin and black eyes peeking around a corner convinced him of the second option.
He had no weapons on hand. None anywhere in the house.
Then the grip of a stokhli stick jammed into his neck, and a gravely voice ordered, "Do not move."
"That's exactly the sort of order you should never give," he said, and threw himself to the ground as a stokhli spray shot by over him head. Strong arms moved to subdue him...
Garreth had no choice. He grabbed a particularly sharp shard that had splintered off his mug, spun, and drove it into his attacker's throat.
The small, gray being staggered back, choking sounds coming from somewhere behind its impressive array of teeth. Garreth took the things stokhli stick and blasted it at close range. The heavy stun was probably enough to kill the alien, but it was better than letting it die slowly, of its wound.
Another strand of stokhli fluid shot past Garreth's arm, hitting him a glancing blow that made the limb go dead from the elbow down. Garreth grabbed the stungun in his left hand and rolled, coming up firing to pin the sniper against the doorframe.
He groaned. I'm out of shape, and I never was much of a brawler. Besides, they don't call them Death Commandos for nothing... all I can do is extend the fight.
Then the window shattered, glass joining with the shards already on the floor, and a small, metallic orb hit the floor by Garreth's leg. He peered at it.
"Oh, dear," he said, and dropped his stick to fling the device away from him, towards the doorframe, and his attackers. He overturned the dining room table to use it as a shield.
A second later, the device exploded, taking most of Garreth's living room, front porch, and den with it. Garreth lay there, behind his improvised shelter, breathing heavily and cradling his arm, waiting for another attack.
None came, and he stood up.
Walking through into the living room, he surveyed the wreckage. Most everything, from the holosender to his fireplace to the pictures on the wall, had been incinerated. Among the carnage lay three bodies, wiry and gray where they weren't burnt, monstrous faces contorted into grimaces.
Garreth sighed. Lovely.
After a moment, another figure, larger than the dead ones, charged through what was left of the doorframe. It took Garreth a moment to total everything.
Then his concern transformed into sheer delight. "Okel!"
The familiar scarred, salmon-toned head of the Mon Calamari Okel bobbed up and down. "Greetings, Admiral. There were two others outside. I see I got the ones in here. I do not know if there are more."
"Probably a few," said Garreth, already halfway out the door. "Which is as good a reason as I can think of to leave quickly... you nearly killed me with that thermal detonator."
"There was no time to confront them directly," the alien explained as he led the way outside. "I set the timer for a few extra seconds, and trusted to your quick reactions."
"Next time," Garreth deadpanned, "I'd appreciate it if you had a little less faith in me..."
"Let's get them."
Captain Sedra Covell of the NEBULON-B frigate FREEDOM watched her tactical display with growing apprehension. The loss of the Elomin task force had put everybody on edge - they hadn't been so completely and thoroughly routed by the Empire since the days of Vader.
A petite woman of thirty-seven with coffeine-colored skin and even darker hair that she'd recently cut short, Covell had learned tactics from her father, General Covell of the Imperial Army, and later from Mykel Garreth himself. That experience told her there was no reason to fear. She had a sizable task force at her disposal. Besides the FREEDOM, there were two other NEBULON frigates, a trio of gunships, and a Mon Calamari star cruiser. All that against one Imperial Star Destroyer and its attendant vessels. By rights, this battle should be a route.
It occurred to Covell that the Elomin had probably thought the same thing.
In the chair beside her, Gaaraanzii, her Wookiee first officer, rumbled. A stocky male with sandy-tan fur, Gaar was a former engineer who still wore a metallic bandolier stocked with gadgets. One of those was a translator device which filtered his Wookiee speech into Basic. He had improved it over the years, so that it hardly ever missed a word anymore. "I have a bad feeling about this."
Covell smiled. "It's just nerves, Gaar. Helm, take us in. Signal the task force: Let's make it quick and clean."
From the helm, a tall, powerfully-built young redhead said, "No too quick, I hope. Odds are running 5-1 against the Imps, and I couldn't resist..."
"Mister Narr," she said, "I don't mind your off-duty activities too much, but I do wish you'd refrain from betting against us."
Lieutenant Kristoff Narr chuckled. "At 5-1? I don't have that much faith in the war effort..."
Covell had to admit to holding a double standard: Kris Narr got away with more than the other crewmembers because he just reminded her so much of their fallen comrade Taryn Clancee, who had rescued him from Imperial service and watched over him for a couple of years after his mother's death. If anyone else were openly running a gambling ring aboard ship, they'd be court-martialed. When Kris did it, it was endearing.
From the Nav/Comm crewpit, another young lieutenant, a violently pink-colored Bith named Dainon Mo'Ret, looked up. "Are you two joking? I can never tell."
Covell smiled. Like many of her species, Mo'Ret had a flawlessly reasonable mind that expected everything in the galaxy to total out right, as though the secret to life could be expressed in a mathematical formula.
"We're joking, Dainon," she said.
"Oh. You should know, Captain, that I placed one hundred and eighty credits on us."
Narr shot her a look. "Kiss-up. It's a sucker's bet."
"Not at all," said the Bith. "At an investment of 180, calculating the relative strengths of IMPERIAL class Star Destroyers against the combined strength of our task force, allowing a reasonable margin for the varying tactical abilities and skills of the crews, my expected profit is..."
"Enough!" Covell said. On her tactical display, TIE Interceptors were already closing in. "Release Commander Serlin to deal with the enemy fighters. Harkin, fire at will."
At the Weapons station, Lieutenant Commander Jessi Harkin nodded, and Covell felt a slight shudder as power from the FREEDOM's reactor was shunted to her turbolaser cannons. Streaks of red appeared on the viewport, and at least one TIE fighter was consumed.
Serlin's voice crackled over the comm. "Captain, please advise. The TIE's won't engage."
Covell frowned. "Say again, Commander. They won't engage?"
"Affirmative. They're just swarming all over the place. You shoot at them, they dodge, but they don't shoot back."
The captain hissed. On her tactical screen, dozens of TIE fighters had just been released, fluttering and dodging all over the hulls of the big Rebel ships in seemingly patterns, drawing turbolaser fire without doing any damage.
Covell watched the patterns... and froze. An unrepeatable obscenity - Corellian in origin, she thought - escaped from her lips. Gaar frowned. "Captain?"
"Advise the task force to withdraw."
The Wookiee cocked his massive head. "What?"
"Withdraw now! Damn! I can't believe we fell for it!"
"FREEDOM, this is Serlin. Got one TIE here that's kinda sluggish. She's on a direct course for your bridge."
Covell fingers flew over the buttons at the side of her command chair, changing the view on her tactical display. "I've got him, Serlin. Helm, full reverse!"
The Bith helm officer was clearly confused, but was also far too well-trained to refuse an order. FREEDOM began backing away at full speed.
The TIE Interceptor kicked ahead at twice a TIE/In's approved speed, no longer sluggish at all. In moments, it would collide against FREEDOM's forward shields...
"Sithspawn!" Serlin cried, "She's got jets!"
"Shields full front!" Covell ordered.
The TIE streaked in. Any ordinary TIE fighter, impacting against a frigate's shields, would do moderate but not critical damage. This particular Interceptor, however, had already shown itself to be no ordinary fighter.
One second before it would have hit the shields, the TIE detonated with an explosion that, at close range, seemed to rival the Death Star blast. FREEDOM was knocked off-course, foundering and spinning nearly out of the field of battle.
When the ship finally righted itself, Covell was on the deck in front of her command chair. All around her, FREEDOM was in chaos. Lights blinked on and off. Everywhere crewers struggled to return to their seats.
"Report!" Covell growled.
"It detonated a second early, Captain," said Harkin with relief, "Serlin must have nailed it with a proton torp..."
"It still almost aced us," said Kris. "They must have packed that thing so full of explosives..."
"There was probably no pilot," Covell said, "Just a drone on remote course for our bridge, with that little fighter dance number to draw away our fire..." She cursed again and pounded on her darkened tactical display. The hologram reappeared, albeit fuzzily.
Covell stared at the display in shock, but it was Gaar who spoke first. "They have destroyed the KRAKANA."
The giant Mon Calamari star cruiser, named after the most dangerous predator in that planet's vast oceans, looked more like a minnow at the moment - foundering, in flames, with the Star Destroyer's turbolasers pounding away at what little life still remained to it. Also gone was one of their other NEBULONs.
Though the other ships in the task force were relatively unharmed, Covell knew the odds had just swung irrevocably.
She hissed. "Signal Captain Rillsak."
After a moment, Mo'Ret said, "No response from the flagship on any channel."
"Then signal all ships to jump to lightspeed." Covell addressed her helmsman. "Mister Narr, your winning streak is intact."
"I know," he said, his hands working the control board. "If it's any consolation, I hate being right all the time..."
Covell wasn't really listening. All she could think was, whoever's commanding that Star Destroyer must be some kind of genius...
"For a thousand generations, the Jedi stood for peace and order in the galaxy. Until the Empire came. Under the command of Darth Vader, he slaughtered all the Knights except for Obi-Wan Kenobi. Kenobi trained Luke Skywalker, who eventually killed Vader and the Emperor."
"That's right," said Jev Parrak to his new student. He'd simply asked if she knew anything about the Jedi. He hadn't expected a history lesson. "You seem... er, enthusiastic."
Amber Stormcaller brushed back a strand of her brown hair, trying to use the motion to hide her fierce blush. "It's my hobby. I know all about the Clone Wars and the Sith and Yoda and Nomi Sunrider and all the great battles..."
"There's no such thing as a great battle," Jev said. "Yoda would be the first one to point that out."
"Was he..." Amber's tone was reverent, "Was he your master?"
"No," Jev admitted. "But he did start me on the right path."
"I don't understand."
Jev sighed. How did one explain to a Jedi fanatic that one had been trained by Darth Vader himself, the murderer of Jedi? He felt a sudden rush of guilt, an urge to explain, but pushed it aside. If she knew the whole truth, Amber would never trust him. And he needed her trust, at least for the moment.
The truth was, Jev Parrak was in exile. It was more or less self-imposed, but it was no less real for that. A tall man with a neat fringe of dark beard and somewhat wild blue eyes, he was originally from Alderaan, like all the other settlers here on the New Alderaan colony. When the Empire had destroyed it, Jev had gone a little nuts.
His anger had turned him to the Dark Side, and eventually he'd found himself serving the very people who had destroyed his home.
He'd made a mistake. Good friends had died because of his actions. He was not worthy to call himself Jedi.
And yet... he had known Yoda. Had met him twice, both before and after his death. At the time, he hadn't known quite who the Jedi Master was, but he'd gone to the little creature for forgiveness after his return to the light had come too late. Yoda had promised that he was not beyond redemption.
He'd returned to New Alderaan and modeled himself after every Jedi who ever hid from the Empire. He'd shunned material possessions, lived as a hermit, been laughed at by practically everyone, and used his powers as little as possible.
Still he felt unworthy.
But when this young woman, strong in the Force, had arrived on New Alderaan, carrying with her a mysterious crystal that could be the key Jev had been looking for... he'd known it was time to act.
But still he worried. This young woman could be his redemption... or his worst mistake. What business did he, touched by the Dark Side himself, have training anyone in the Light?
But this is urgent, he reasoned. I won't repeat my old mistakes. I've learned so much since then. Besides, I don't need to train her fully. Just get her started in the right direction. When that's done, she can go to Kerri or Luke Skywalker or someone for instruction.
It sounded good. Jev only hoped he wasn't fooling himself.
"So why are we here?" Amber asked, looking around his sparse hut.
"I want a chance to examine your crystal more closely, if I may..."
"Of course," she said, and handed him the chunk of yellow gemstone. Jev took it, once again feeling its strength in the Force. He still could not determine its use.
He had a computer terminal set into one wall, and Jev brought up a star chart on its screen. Several red circles indicated a cluster of stars about half a sector wide.
"What is that?" Amber asked.
"Five years' work," he said, "Five years attempting to track down the impossible... where did you get this crystal?"
"From a Gand merchant, but I don't know where he got it."
"Gand..." Jev frowned, "They rarely stray far from their home system. Just for the sake of argument..."
Jev narrowed the red circles further, to the small group of stars nearest to the Gand homeworld. About a dozen systems worth, plus a large area of empty space. All out, somewhere in the thick of the Unknown Regions. His fingers poised on the computer screen...
And highlighted an area instinctively. He frowned at it, closing his eyes to verify his instinct through the Force...
Yes. That was it. Jev made a note of the coordinates, placing a large, blue square around the target area.
He gave Amber back the crystal, and the flash of insight faded. "This is it."
"What?" she asked.
"The key." Jev's grin split his beard with a flash of teeth, and for a moment, he actually looked as young as he was. "Some time ago, and old Jedi, a failed apprentice, held a crystal like this. He recognized that I also held a similar one, and he told me a story... about a planet that hummed with the energy of the Force. Several pieces of crystal originating on this planet were found on other worlds, but no one ever knew where they came from. It is a secret as old as the Jedi themselves. The crystals have different colors, different powers... and they're all drawn to each other." He sat down heavily, feeling tired. "I've spent five years in meditation, concentrating on the Force, sifting every rumor and lead... I'd narrowed the planet's location to somewhere in this part of the Unknown Regions. But I could never get closer than that. Now, with your crystal, I know... I know where to look. I believe that is its power. It's a key, or a homing device if you will... it will take us to its planet of origin."
"And when we find it?"
Jev sighed, eyes partially closed. He felt drained from the sudden burst of Force energy. "I don't quite know. The Jedi who holds that planet will possess ultimate power in the galaxy..."
Amber was immediately suspicious. "Jedi aren't suppose to want power."
"I know," he said, voice a whisper. "The place must be protected. It is the sort of power that should never fall into the wrong hands."
"Wow," said Amber, unabashedly awed, "A quest to protect the galaxy from Dark Jedi...a planet of ultimate power...this is what I've been waiting for. When do we leave?"
"You will come, then?" Jev was relieved, and also guilty. What he didn't tell Amber was that he believed the planet was his final test. He did want to preserve and protect it. He also wanted to prove to himself that he did not want that power. If he could do that - if he could be offered such a thing and turn it down - then the Dark Side's grip would be truly broken. He would be a real Jedi, albeit a bit tarnished. He could live again. But first things first. He still needed Amber's reply.
"I'll come on one condition," she said.
"I showed you my most valuable possession. You should return the favor."
Jev frowned. He gestured around the room, empty save his terminal, a small table, and two chairs. "I have almost nothing."
"You have a lightsaber." Her eyes shone as she said the word, as though it were the most important thing in the world. Jev remembered when he'd had that sort of enthusiasm.
"It's not a toy," he said.
"Please. I just want to hold it. Just once. I don't have to cut anything with it..."
"You'd likely take your arm off if you tried," Jev told her, deadpan. "All right."
He got up and walked into the only other room in his small dwelling, the bedroom. He dug into a drawer, and found the metal hilt of a saber exactly where he'd left it. Though Jev had not lit the blade since his brief duel with Kerri five years ago, he did polish it regularly. It was his one prized possession, and Jev suddenly found a knot in his throat.
He'd promised himself he wouldn't use the blade again until he was worthy of it.
He walked out and handed Amber the saber. "Be careful. Press the red button."
Amber did so eagerly... and for the first time in years, Jev's silver blade popped into existence. Its delicate hum brought back a lot of memories, most of them unpleasant.
Amber waved it around experimentally. "It moves so easily...it's not a sword. It's... like it's part of my arm..."
"Most people say that," said Jev. He still remembered building the weapon, under Vader's watchful eye. He remembered that monotonous, filtered breathing, telling him he'd done well.
Jev exhaled sharply, the memory too much for him. "That's enough. Turn it off."
"But I was just..."
"Turn it off!" He took a deep breath. "Please."
Amber did so, then reverently handed the blade back to him. "How long since you've used it in battle?"
Jev took the blade, attached it to his belt. He did not want to use it until he'd faced his self-made challenge, but it might be necessary. Their trip would be a risky one.
He sighed. "A long time."
"Have you been in many battles?"
"Why don't we talk about this on the way to the spaceport?" Jev said, "We'll need a ship..."
Garreth watched the stars as he and Okel took a shuttle up into orbit. Over his three years of traveling, he'd made a point of watching them during flight. They no longer gave him vertigo, as they had for years. Progress of a sort, though he was still a terrible pilot.
"I still don't see why it was so important to get off-planet immediately," he said. "There were several places on Ukio that might have been..."
Abruptly, Okel cut the throttle, his flipper-hands guiding them into a steady orbit. He faced his old friend. "I have been dishonest with you."
The Mon Calamari made his familiar gurgling sound. "When I arrived, I was not merely about to visit you, but to ask you a favor."
The ex-admiral arched an eyebrow. "You know how much I owe you. Name it."
"You will not agree so easily when you hear the favor." Okel got up, crossed to the aft compartment, and returned with a long, thin box. He handed it to Garreth.
The human shot his Mon Cal friend a look of puzzlement, then opened the box. It contained him admiral's dress uniform, neatly folded. The cream-colored tunic, dress pants, and crimson cape all pressed and ready. Even his medals were neatly arranged in a row.
"I need you to wear this again," Okel said.
Garreth laughed. "I doubt it will fit."
"I had it altered," Okel said, resuming his chair, "To accommodate your years of civilian life."
Garreth patted his stomach, which jiggled a bit more than he would have liked. "I haven't done too badly. I held off Noghri commandos in there."
Okel's eyes swiveled. "With a great deal of luck."
Garreth replaced the uniform. "What is this about?"
Okel pointed to his shoulder, indicating a rank patch Garreth had not seen before. "I am the official representative of Admiral Ackbar on this mission."
"Mission? What mission?"
"Let me first explain," said the Calamari. "Our Intelligence reports indicate that Imperial fleets in the Unknown Regions have become much more active. It seems they have a new commander."
Garreth frowned. He didn't like that idea. If there had been a change of command in the Unknown Regions, perhaps his worst fears were valid after all. But he said only, "Oh?"
"The new commander is less reclusive than the last one. He is calling himself an Admiral. And he is one of my people."
"YOUR people?" Garreth couldn't have been more shocked if Okel had said the commander was a Hutt. "Imperial forces are being led by a Calamarian?"
Okel made a Mon Cal gesture of disgust. "His name is Bronn. He was one of our governors in the old days, when the Empire came. When they attempted to enslave us, he sold out to them - in effect handing over his city and his countrymen in exchange for the right to remain free and powerful during the Imperial regime. He sold thousands of our people... myself included... to the Empire as slaves."
"I see." Garreth saw a great deal, in fact. There was a level of hatred in Okel's large, round eyes that Garreth had never seen for anyone - not even the Mon Cal's abusive former master.
"In short," said Okel, "We want his head. Ackbar asked me to assemble the task force to capture him. I knew of only one man with the necessary skill to lead us."
The honest admiration in Okel's gravely voice was enough to make Garreth blush. "I do thank you, but..."
"Please, Admiral. The Mon Calamari deserve justice. We... I... need your help."
And Garreth sighed. He'd meant it when he'd said how much he owed Okel. He could hardly refuse something that obviously meant so much to his friend. The fact that it fit in nicely with his current boredom, the assassination attempt, and his suddenly open-air dwelling didn't hurt, either. "When do we leave?"
"As soon as you're aboard," said Okel, and he operated the controls again. Garreth saw that what had looked like a simple orbit was in fact designed the bring them around the curve of Ukio's green orb. A metallic shape became visible, light from the Ukian star bouncing off it...
Garreth inhaled sharply. "Is that..."
"One of the new DAUNTLESS-class cruisers," Okel confirmed. "Powerful enough to face a Mark II Imperial Star Destroyer and live to tell the tale. I took the liberty of naming her. I hope you do not mind..."
As they rounded the planet, the Basic lettering on her hull became apparent: N.R.S. GUARDIAN. Named after the VICTORY-class Star Destroyer that had been Garreth's first command.
The admiral grinned. "I think, Chief, that it's going to be a successful voyage."
Continued in Episode 3