In Defense Of Freedom series Episode Seven
DESCRIPTION: The war on Tragis continues, while Admiral Bronn searches for the OUTRIDER..
NOTICE: This non-profit, not-for-sale story is based upon STAR WARS, created and copyrighted by George Lucas. Just so you don't forget that...
Dawn on the planet Tragis. Orange-red sunrise providing background for the silhouettes of flying birds. His uniform, wet from the morning dew. Those same birds calling, their cries splitting the morning silence.
Those were the first things Rik Evverd noticed as he woke. Next came the whine of repulsorlifts.
He blinked sleep-clouded eyes, and focused on the image of Darros, the capitol city. He immediately wished he hadn't; the city was a nightmare. Buildings were ruined, fires burning out of control. Smoke floated up to obscure the brilliant colors of the dawn.
And, closer to home, an Imperial skyhopper was closing fast. The small ship, modified to carry extra passengers, was triangular, with a long fin/wing at each point. Painted black, it stood out against the sunrise. The black was marred only by a green strip that traced the lines of the vehicle, culminating in a giant, green-painted Imperial symbol on the top wing.
The Corellian cursed to himself. He knew very well what that meant. Tragis had fallen. The Empire had won, at least at the capitol. Friends had died.
Evverd was likely to join them, if the skyhopper found him. He rolled towards the hull of his X-Wing, coming up in a crouch against its hard metal. He slapped at the dome of a nearby R2 droid.
The droid, a battered old unit painted purple and gray, squealed and squawked as its lights initialized.
"Wake up!" Evverd scolded it. "What're you doing, sleeping now? I asked you to keep an eye on him!"
A few meters away, a young brown-haired man in the uniform of a TIE pilot was dozing fitfully.
The R2 unit started to beep out an excuse: The kid was sound asleep, and he'd desperately needed just a quick recharge...
"I don't want to hear it!" Evverd glanced up. The skyhopper was looking for survivors among the wreckage of yesterday's sky battle. It would be here in moments. He darted around the fuselage of his wrecked fighter, gauging the distance to a nearby ion cannon turret, which would provide some measure of cover until the skyhopper left.
He could probably make it. He didn't know if he could do it in time. Evverd grabbed his blaster from his belt, flicked it to stun, and shot the young TIE pilot. The skyhopper's medics could probably tell the difference between unconsciousness and a recent stun, of course, but it was better than having the kid yell his head off about the Rebel operative he'd crashed next to the moment he got on board.
He nodded to the droid. "Think you can make it?"
R2-B0 pointed out the obvious: He had little choice. He'd hold together.
Evverd tensed, counted silently to three, and ran, keeping his head down as he moved. Though he wasn't a kid anymore, he was in excellent shape, and made the dash in even less time than he'd allotted.
He reached the cover of the ion cannon, and turned. Bo was still trundling along, well behind his master's pace. Though the field was relatively even, it was still murder on a droid's treads. He wasn't making very good time.
The skyhopper was almost directly overhead now, and it changed course to follow the droid. In the Empire, it seemed, capturing prisoners took precedence over saving comrades. It would catch up with Bo in a moment.
Evverd considered his options. The ion turret was dark, and standard procedure would have been to gut the thing before leaving, to prevent it from falling into Imperial hands. No help there.
He stood there a moment. Rik Evverd was no fool. He knew very well that the wisest course was to run in the other direction, taking advantage of Bo's distraction to save himself. For all the astromech's loyal service, he was only a droid, and not carrying any particularly sensitive information.
Evverd could not bring himself to do that. In his mind, at least, Bo was not his property but his friend. Every bit as "real" to him as Avers, or even his family was.
Rik Evverd had many negative points, but he would not abandon a friend.
He ran out onto the field, a medium-sized Corellian with dark skin tone, wearing a pilot's flightsuit. His blaster fired off several useless shots at the skyhopper's nose. The small, light vehicle was not well-armed, but it did have a repeat laser cannon under its nose, which it brought to bear on the Rebel officer. Evverd was already rolling, trying to buy time for Bo to get to shelter. The laser fire streaked out towards him...
Abruptly, the morning air was rocked by an explosion, and Evverd looked up to see the skyhopper expanding into a fireball, only debris remaining of its durasteel hull.
With a swell of ion engines, another ship settled to the ground in its place. A Corellian ship, sleek and streamlined but with a pitted hull that had seen a lot of action.
For a moment, Evverd was certain it was some kind of trick. Even HIS luck wasn't that good...
Then the ramp opened, and it got even better.
Evverd's wife Kerri stood at its top, beckoning him forward. "Come on! And hurry - it won't take them long to figure out what happened!"
Rasir Evverd swept angrily at the mass of cobwebs blocking his path. He coughed as his action raised a cloud of dust. "Doesn't anybody ever clean this dump?"
Beside him, a stocky young man named Del Jorrs sneezed repeatedly. "No, sir. These tunnels are from ages ago, when the original colonists on Tragis were worried about nuclear war with one of the neighboring systems. We knew about them, but they were only a last resort."
The older man peered down at his lieutenant. "Not exactly a luxury resort..."
Jorrs chuckled. "I see where your son gets his sense of humor, sir."
Rasir winced. His son, the planet's Commanding General, Rik Evverd, had been downed yesterday during the fighter battle. He was listed as MIA. "Did I ask you to make small talk, boy?"
The younger man looked stricken. "Um... no, sir. I didn't mean to..."
Rasir pounded the wall switch, but the lights around them remained dark, the corridor lit only by their glowrods. "Somebody get a light here! Where's my grandson?"
A young sergeant by the name of Proal spoke up from the back of their little caravan. "I have him here, sir! He's finally asleep..."
Rasir sighed deeply. Mat had cried almost continually since the attack had begun... and who could blame him? First he was separated from his parents, then everything started blowing up around him. Now they'd been forced into this dank slaghole of a place. "Take care you don't wake him."
An older woman, a technician named Hardie, crouched at the side of what the map said was a conference room. "I think I've got..." Sparks cut off the rest of her sentence, and she cursed. "Lights are going to be awhile."
"How bad is it?"
Hardie hissed. "Bad."
"All right, let's move on to the next one." Rasir was already on his way, ignoring the scuttling noises that preceded him in the tunnel. "We've got to get set up as quickly as possible. We need to plan our next move."
"He'll be all right," said Evverd to his wife. They were soaring at frightfully low altitude over the plains of Tragis, trying to hook up with the planet's resistance. "My father is not an easy man to get along with, but he's a good fighter, and he loves Mat. He'll keep him safe."
"I know," Kerri said quietly.
Evverd grinned weakly. "I thought you'd kill me for leaving him."
"No... I know you had a duty. I'm angrier with myself... perhaps if I'd been here..."
"You'd what?" Evverd asked, "You'd have fought off the whole Empire with your lightsaber? We all did what we could."
"Well put," said Garreth, from his place on the other side of the OUTRIDER's hold. "General..."
Rik Evverd groaned. "I wasn't much of a general, was I?"
"Take a bit of your own advice, Rik. Nothing could have prevented this."
The door to the cockpit hissed open, to reveal the lanky, redheaded smuggler Dash Rendar, with Jev and his new friend Amber trailing after. Dash grinned. "Not bad for a corpse, huh?"
Evverd grinned. He'd never really thought Dash was dead; the sensor data from Xizor's skyhook had revealed little that looked like it had come off a Corellian freighter. Still, it was nice to know that his old friend was well. "You're pretty good, hotshot. I'd say your place as the third best pilot in the galaxy is secure."
Dash frowned. "Anytime you want to race, buddy..."
But Evverd rose and thumped the other man on the back. "It's good to see you, Dash."
"Yeah. Y'know, I was worried about you, too. I wasn't the only one who almost bought it at a skyhook..."
Mention of Evverd's trials at the Emperor's skyhook brought Evverd around to another face, one that had changed quite a bit since he'd seen it last, and not just because its goatee was now a full beard.
He swallowed hard. "You all right, kid?"
Jev Parrak smiled self-consciously, then looked away. "Of course."
"Do you want to tell me what happened at the skyhook, or should we talk about it later?"
Amber Stormcaller frowned. "What's all this about a skyhook?"
In the back of the chamber, the Calamarian Chief Okel cleared his throat with a thick, gurgling sound. "Amber, why don't you show me the relay you were having trouble with? I'm told we Mon Calamari can be quite handy..."
Amber said, "But I'd rather..."
"Go," Jev told her. "I'll explain later."
Amber shrugged and led the Mon Cal aft, to check her patched-together repairs on the ship.
Dash seemed to catch on, as well. "Well, uh... I'm gonna go help Leebo fly the ship. You need me, you holler, right?"
The door hissed shut behind him, leaving only veterans of the NEBULON class frigate FREEDOM in the room. Even the astromech droid R2-B0 had spent the war years on that vessel. More importantly, everyone left in the room knew each other's secrets.
"Uhhh..." Jev leaned back against the wall. "Where would you like me to start?"
"Anywhere," said Evverd, holding the other man's eyes.
"How about Taryn Clancee?" Jev cast his gaze towards the ceiling, avoiding the Corellian's stare. "It was my fault. I didn't want it to happen, but I could done a lot to prevent it, and I failed."
"That's pretty good," said Evverd. "Go on."
Jev looked at him again. "And as for hurting you... I would have done whatever I could to change that."
"Really. Last time we met, you said you'd kill me, and you almost did. I guess that's a coincidence?"
"No," said Jev. He ran a hand through his bristly, dark hair and looked at the floor.
A hand patted his shoulder, and Jev looked up. Evverd stood, holding his other hand out in a gesture of friendship. "Don't let it happen again."
Jev took the hand gratefully, and was shocked when Evverd then used his twin handholds to pull the young Jedi into a hug. After a moment, they stepped apart.
Kerri Lynden-Evverd stood. "I think that goes for both of us, Jev. Too much has happened to hold old grudges." She leaned forward and awkwardly hugged the younger man, as well.
At length, Mykel Garreth cleared his throat. "Perhaps I should have gone with Okel..."
"No," said Jev. He stepped past the other two to face his former captain. "I want you here. I... well, your approval means something to me, Admiral. I really have changed."
Garreth's mind flashed on the scene not long ago on New Alderaan, when Jev had practically begged for forgiveness, and Garreth had turned away. Like a self-righteous, stubborn old man.
"I'm not hugging you," he said. But he did offer his hand. "Perhaps we ex-Imperials should stick together, eh?"
"All right, let's break this up," said Evverd. "We're all squared away, everything's good, and now it's time for a battle plan."
"Yes," Garreth agreed. "I've been thinking... Tragis has received no support. Why?"
"The Fleet's spread thin," said Kerri. "Between the Sluis Van attack and Thrawn's advances everywhere else, its considered a blessing that the Empire is wasting two Star Destroyers to pound a minor planet."
"They'll get help here," Evverd said, "But not 'till its too late."
"Exactly. We're on our own."
"With respect, Admiral, sir, WE are on our own," said Kerri. "You should get back to Coruscant. You have a confession of your own to make."
The short admiral sighed. Kerri hinted at his failure to bring Thrawn to the attention of the Rebel brass before he could make all this trouble. It was important to get that information to Mon Mothma, and quickly.
"We can't split our resources," said Garreth. "We have only this one ship..."
"Not if Dash is following the course I gave him," said Rik Evverd. "In case of emergency, Brynn Avers was under orders to find my son and my ship and take them to the mountain regions to hide. Assuming she wasn't aced in the battle - and that's a good bet - we'll meet them in less than a half-hour. My father, too."
"At that time, I suggest we split up," said Kerri. "Rik and I will deal with this, while Dash takes you and the others back to Coruscant."
"Done," said Garreth. "My point, though, was this. The New Republic needs time to get here... so anything that stalls those Star Destroyers is a sound plan."
"Yeah," said Evverd, "You got something specific in mind?"
"I might." Garreth's eyes were half closed as he concentrated. "Refresh my memory. There's an emergency comm post in the wilderness regions somewhere in this area."
"Jomark!" Evverd said immediately. "Yeah. Yeah, we hid it in the woods, far away from the population centers. It was only a temporary thing, 'till we got the satellite built."
"If we could get to that comm post," Kerri said, "We could rig it to send something - a distress call, a sensor ghost - something to tempt at least one of those Star Destroyers away from Tragis."
"It should buy you some time, at least," said Garreth.
"All right, then..."
Evverd's words were interrupted by Dash Rendar, who stepped back in from the cockpit. "I got a ship on sensors. It's a real junkheap, so I know it must be yours. Some woman is signaling."
"I got it," said Evverd, and he went to the cockpit.
After appropriate clearance codes were exchanged, and Evverd confirmed that it was indeed the SKYHOOK on their scopes, he contacted Brynn Avers, who filled him in on the situation.
"He did WHAT?" Evverd exploded.
"Your father took Mat with him to the command center," she explained, "They'd already gone underground by the time I got there."
A new figure stepped into the cockpit. "Brynn, this is Kerri. Do you mean they've gone to the tunnels?"
"Apparently," said Avers. "I wish I could..."
"It's all right," she said. "Prepare to link with the OUTRIDER. We're coming aboard."
"Understood," Avers said. "I know they're all right..."
"So do I," said Kerri, and Evverd sighed with relief as he saw the look on her face, the one that said she spoke not from hope or desperation, but from the Force. The comm turned off.
"New plan," said Evverd. "Avers and me'll go back to the capital, find Matt and my dad. Dash, how much would it cost to get you to make a side trip to Jomark?"
"Don't worry about it," Kerri said.
"I don't think you should go alone."
Kerri smiled. "I don't intend to. I know a young man who's very eager to prove his loyalty."
The Corellian frowned. Despite their peace, he didn't really like the idea of Kerri going off alone with Jev, either. "You think that's wise?"
"Not really," she said, "But it's the right thing to do. I can feel it."
Evverd groaned. "Here we go again..."
The second conference room was in better condition than the first, though still dank and smelly. The lights worked, however, and the metal conference table was only half-covered with rust. It was a start, Rasir Evverd decided.
"Any report from those squads on the southern perimeter?" he asked Jorrs.
Jorrs looked up from where he and Hardie were attempting to install a portable tactical scanner and holo-sender on the desktop. "Not yet, sir. None of the missing battalions have reported in."
"I see," said Rasir. "What about..." he cleared his throat. "What about missing personnel?"
Jorrs smiled sympathetically. "No word about General Evverd, sir."
Rasir's bushy, gray eyebrows knitted together. He hadn't meant his concern to be so obvious. This was not the place for personal concerns. "Just give the report I asked for."
"No word on any of our missing people, Captain."
The Corellian was about to pursue the matter further, when the door slid open and a chocolate-skinned little boy with large, brown eyes ran in, practically jumping into his grandfather's lap.
Rasir's eyes rolled. Again, this just was not the time. "Mat, why don't you go..."
Then he realized that the boy was crying again, and kept repeating the words "I'm scared" over and over.
Rasir sighed, and tilted the boy's chin up to look at his grandfather. "Listen to me, Mat. It's going to be all right. We're going to chase the Empire off this planet so fast..."
Mat shook his head. "Not here," he said with a sniffle. "I'm not scared about here."
Rasir frowned. "Then what..."
"I dreamed about the other place... the planet with the lake..."
The old Corellian groaned. "Will someone please..."
But Mat tugged on his grandfather's sleeve. "Stop him, Grandpa. You've gotta stop him."
"Stop who?" Rasir asked irritably.
"The man at the lake." Mat's four-year-old eyes were totally serious. "He's gonna hurt Momma."
Admiral Bronn stood watch on the bridge of his Star Destroyer, the RETRIBUTION. A slender, crimson Mon Calamari, Bronn had been granted his command by Thrawn himself. And Thrawn himself would take the command if there was another failure.
Fortunately, Bronn's plans did not include failure. Through careful sensor watches, and a bit of Bronn's own intuition, they'd located the OUTRIDER, on a course from the northern mountains. Their best guess was that the ship would choose an exit vector and leave Tragis, quite soon.
Bronn knew which exit vector they would choose.
"Have the DEATH'S HEAD take up position on the other side of the magnetic pole," said Bronn. "We have them."
"Sir," said Captain Orwell. He acknowledged and passed on the order.
After a moment of anxious waiting, Bronn's patience was rewarded.
"Sir!" said the sensor chief, "Corellian freighter, incoming from 251 mark 003!"
"Fire at will, Lieutenant," Bronn said to the gunner. "Ion cannon only."
Bolts of blue struck out for the ascending freighter, which dodged and swerved like madness itself. Bronn smiled tightly, in the human manner. No escape, he thought.
"Admiral!" the sensor officer sounded astonished, "We have ANOTHER Corellian freighter escaping the planet! Same course and speed!"
Bronn waved a flipper. "Sensor ghost, most likely."
"No, sir. I calibrated the system myself! She checks out!"
The Mon Calamari hissed. "Very well. Scan them, and lock onto the OUTRIDER."
The sensor chief looked up, eyes afraid. "They're both transmitting the same ID!"
Bronn frowned, and checked the tactical readout. "Are they both YT-2400's?"
"Hard to tell, sir. Their engines are producing high-intensity interference. Both transmit as older Corellian models, but we have no other information!"
Bronn was about to order their gunners to make a visual scan, but he paused. As he watched the tactical display, he gurgled softly. He pointed to one blip. "THAT one."
"That's the OUTRIDER?"
Bronn didn't fully understand his occasional flashes of insight, but he'd learned to trust them. "I do not know. But that one is carrying what Thrawn wants."
You are clever, he thought, aren't you, Thrawn? The old lunatic on Jomark, the Skywalker family, and now this. The Grand Admiral was stockpiling Jedi.
Even he could not have anticipated Bronn's secret, however. The Mon Calamari traitor was himself open to, if not strong in, the energy field known as the Force.
In the OUTRIDER's cockpit, Dash Rendar cursed. "They've zoomed in on Kerri!"
Beside him, Amber Stormcaller's hands flew over the controls. "We've got to do something. They'll have a tractor beam on her in another minute."
Dash growled softly. Besides taking Kerri and her ship, the Imps would also capture his own droid, Leebo, whom Dash had loaned to the other ship to round out her crew.
"I'm not getting paid enough for this," he muttered, and throttled towards the nearest Star Destroyer.
"Star Destroyer on approach, Vector 1-7-7!"
"I see it," Kerri said, and touched the comlink. "Leebo, are you ready in the quad well?"
"Point me at them," said the quirky droid, "I'll turn those fighters into a year's supply of spare parts."
Kerri glanced through her side viewport, and caught a glimpse of the prominent gunnery mount that ran parallel to the SKYHOOK's cockpit. The droid looked comfortable enough in there, at least. She wondered how Dash had gotten around his non-violence programming.
"Ignore the TIE fighters," she said. "Target the tractor beam ports. If we can light them up well enough, they might not find a lock."
"Got it," the droid said, and he began firing at the nearest ISD.
At the pilot's station, Jev Parrak frowned. "Why are they both chasing US?"
"They should have split up by now," Kerri agreed. "Any ideas?"
"Not really. I... wait. Did you feel that?"
"I did," said Kerri with a nod. "That's why any good Jedi needs to know a scoundrel. They come in handy at the most surprising moments..."
"YEAH!" Dash pumped his fist enthusiastically, then returned to his controls as the OUTRIDER buzzed within a meter of the Star Destroyer hull. He was doing his best to keep the SKYHOOK clear of tractor beams, and his own ship clear of TIE fighters. To that end, he had just cruised past half the starboard projectors at full speed, hoping to scramble their readings.
A TIE slipped onto his tail, and the freighter shook. At the nav station, Amber Stormcaller tensed.
"No," she said, "I just have a very bad feeling about this..."
"That's nothing," Dash advised, "I get 'em all the time." He jerked his controls sideways, and the TIE smashed into its mothership's shields. Two more slid in to take its place.
The redhead groaned. "Usually right before I'm about to do something stupid..."
With that, he angled his deflector shields and smacked them into the Destroyer's shields. The collision bounced the OUTRIDER off onto an unpredictable vector, and the two TIE's roared forward in pursuit.
Red lightning stabbed out, and one of them disappeared into flame. The SKYHOOK dropped low, onto the tail of the other one. A moment later, it had joined its comrade.
Dash sighed with relief. "Thanks, Kerri."
"Don't mention it. We're about ready for hyperspace. You?"
Amber nodded as the nav computer spit out the appropriate data.
"Yeah. I think we've crashed this party pretty good. Tell your buddy I'll meet him on Coruscant."
"Wouldn't miss it," Jev said. A moment later, the SKYHOOK flickered and was gone.
"See?" Dash reached for the hyperdrive levers. "Easy as..."
One TIE got off a long strafing run that pummeled the OUTRIDER, taking her rear shielding clean off. Something hissed in back, and Dash had to pound the "READY FOR HYPERDRIVE" light three times before it came back on.
"I gotta stop sayin' things are easy..." he groaned, and they jumped.
The tractor beam operator and gunner were both shaking in their boots, but Bronn himself was unconcerned. They'd lost the OUTRIDER... but they had the Jedi's course. It was on a line for Jomark, and while that could have been only a stopover to change vectors, Bronn doubted it.
Likely they'd heard the same rumors that were meant to draw in Luke Skywalker.
Bronn chuckled softly, another human affectation. He couldn't WAIT for them to meet C'Baoth...
But then, of course, he planned to be there when it happened. "Set course for the planet Jomark, maximum lightspeed."
The navigator nodded, already calling up the data, and Bronn felt very pleased with himself. Between his Star Destroyer and the Dark Jedi, the Jedi's chances of escape were practically nil.
Things were looking up.
Evverd led the way into the darkened corridor, blaster pistol drawn. He plunged around the corner.
A dozen blaster rifles clicked into place, and Evverd smirked, remembering a similar situation not long ago. "Hey, dad. Returning the favor?"
Rasir Evverd sighed, and motioned his troops to stand down. He took a step forward, seeming about one second away from embracing his son. Then he backed away, both physically and emotionally.
He coughed. "What the hell do you think you're doing? You've set off so many 'unauthorized entry' alarms..."
The younger Evverd stepped into one of the central gathering areas of the tunnels, followed by Avers and Bo. "Yeah, hey, it's great that you're alive, too."
Rasir frowned. "I'm very glad to see you, Rik."
"Where's my son?" Evverd started to wince, afraid he didn't want to hear the answer.
But his father indicated one of the dark, moldy passageways. "Asleep, finally. Jorrs is watching him. The boy's not much of a babysitter."
Evverd laughed out loud at the thought of the hyper-tense, stocky young man with the prominent nose dealing with a whining four-year-old. "Yeah. He's almost as bad as you."
"We've done quite well here..."
"I asked you to stay out of it, Dad," he hissed, "I asked you to watch over Mat, and wait for Brynn or me to get there. Just once, couldn't you have listened to me?"
"If I had," his father pointed out, "That lieutenant of yours would have been in charge of the battle... and the city might not have held nearly as long as it did."
"I don't care about the city!" Evverd advanced on his father. "We're talking about my son here! You are not gonna screw up his life, too!"
"Stop!" Avers said, and both men turned to look at her. "We're all tense, but there are bigger problems at the moment."
"She's right," Rasir noted with a grunt. "We have to knock the Empire off Tragis. Any ideas?"
"You're actually asking me?" Evverd was a little surprised, but then he turned it into his trademark smug grin. "I have a few thoughts. And it's been a while since I dipped into my stock of Corellian overdrive..."
"You're certainly confident," said his father.
"Of course. You and me, on the same side for once? the Imps'd have a better chance against the whole KATANA fleet."
For once, Evverd really felt like smiling. "We'll think of something..."
Continued in Episode 8