THE VELM SYSTEM
Han and Anakin stood near the Javian Hawk's boarding ramp, while they observed Mako converse with the Dreadnought's captain. Both the Hawk and Mako's ship, the Alastian Star, stood inside the Imperial cruiser's shuttle bay, surrounded by stormtroopers. Han glanced at his partner's face. Despite Anakin's stoic expression, the young Corellian could sense the older man's unease.
"Don't worry," Han whispered. "Mako seems to know what he's doing. He probably knows this guy from the Imperial Academy or something. They seem a little friendly."
Anakin muttered back, "I hope so, for our own sake. Because if this Captain Skafte insists upon inspecting our cargo, be prepared to run for it." A sharp sigh escaped from his mouth. "I should have stayed aboard the Hawk. We both should."
Han could not help but privately agree. It worried him that an Imperial ship had finally been able to catch them after ten years of smuggling. Perhaps Anakin had a right to complain about Mako's route to Maldore. He stole another glance at the older man. Anakin's expression now looked intense. The former Jedi seemed to be concentrating on Mako and Captain Skafte. "I wonder what they're talking about," Anakin commented in a dark tone. "Do you really think Spince will be able to convince the captain to let us go?"
With a shrug, Han replied, "I don't know. Like I said, they seem to be a little friendly with each other.
"Right now, I don't sense anything amiss," Anakin continued. "But the moment I give the signal that something's wrong, get aboard the Hawk as soon as possible. And start shooting at anyone who moves."
Han saw a flaw in Anakin's desperate plan. "Shouldn't I at least wait for Mako to board his ship?"
Anakin shot a dark glance at Han. "Why bother? You honestly think he would make it in time?"
Slowly, Han turned to stare at his partner. Was Anakin actually willing to sacrifice Mako in order to escape from the Imperials? Before he could comment, his eyes fell upon a handcuffed Wookie entering the shuttle bay with flanking stormtroopers. "What's he doing here?" Han whispered.
"The Wookie!" Han indicated the newcomer with a nod of his head. "Looks like he's a prisoner."
Anakin mumbled, "I'm not surprised. After Kashyyyk, the Imperials have been using captured Wookies as slaves."
"Slaves!" Han felt a stab to his stomach. The idea of any Wookie being a prisoner sickened him. And this particular prisoner reminded him of Dewlanna. He wondered if she would have faced a similar fate if she had returned to Kashyyyk following her husband's death. One glance at Anakin told Han that the former felt equally disgusted. After all, the two partners had endured some form of slavery during their respective childhoods. "I wish we could free him," Han added. "The Wookie, I mean."
"Right now, we should be worried about us," Anakin muttered.
At that moment, Mako and Captain Skafte approached the partners. "So," the latter commented, "you're friends of Mako?"
"That's right," Han replied with fake cheerfulness.
Mako added, "I had just informed Captain Skafte that we're shipping power converters to Maldore."
Anakin asked, "Are you two familiar with each other?"
"Captain Skafte used to be one of my instructors at the Imperial Academy," Mako explained. He added sheepishly, "Before I was expelled."
The captain added, "Now that Mako has explained everything, you're free . . ."
A loud roar filled the shuttle bay. The four men diverted their attention to the stormtroopers struggling with the Wookie captor. A frown darkened Skafte's countenance. "Now what?" he muttered. "Treece! What is going on?"
A blond-haired junior officer replied, "I'm sorry sir. The Wookie is being difficult. Being an animal, I guess he can't help himself."
"You have a Wookie as a slave?" Anakin asked, surprising Han, Mako and Skafte.
The captain regarded Anakin warily. "Do you have a problem with this . . . uh, Captain . . .?"
"Horus. Set Horus." Anakin shook his head. "No sir, I don't. In fact, slavery is very common where I come from. I'm merely surprised that you would use Wookie labor. I've heard rumors that they can be difficult as slaves. Not that I actually believe such rumors." Han noticed that Anakin had refrained from mentioning his homeworld by name.
A cool smile touched Skafte's lips. "They've made pretty good slaves since the fall of Kashyyyk, ten years ago. And this slave," he nodded at the Wookie, "happens to be a talented technician and pilot. The Trandoshans had captured him some three months ago. This Wookie tried to escape before he could be sold, but he failed and served under another Imperial commander before he was transferred to me."
Anakin's face expressed interest. "Really? A pilot and a technician? How long have you had him aboard this starship?"
With a shrug, Skafte replied, "Oh, about a week. I'm transporting this . . . creature to the Maw, where he is to work on one of the Empire's new projects."
"How much are you willing to sell for this . . . creature?" Anakin's question surprised Han.
Apparently, Skafte also seemed surprised by Anakin's request. He frowned at the former Jedi and asked, "You're interested in buying this Wookie? Why? Didn't you say that they don't make good slaves?"
"I said that most people don't consider them to be good slaves," Anakin corrected. "I also said that I didn't believe such nonsense. According to you, he's a good mechanic and I can certainly use one."
Han struggled to contain his excitement. Did Anakin actually plan to help free the Wookie? He noticed that Skafte had become pensive for a few minutes. Then the officer stared at Anakin. Han wondered if his partner had gone too far.
"How do you plan to keep him in line?" the Imperial officer finally asked.
A cruel smile curved Anakin's lips. For the first time in years, Han could imagine him as a Sith Lord. "Let's just say that I plan to use a more effective method other than a blaster or taser," he coldly replied.
As the two men walked away to discuss the enslaved Wookie, Mako leaned forward to whisper in Han's ear. "What's going on?"
Han tried to play dumb. "Huh?"
"The Wookie!" Mako hissed. "Why is Horus suddenly interested in the Wookie?"
Han murmured back, "We need an extra mechanic for the Hawk."
"Who are you kidding?" Mako retorted. "Horus could probably fix that ship of his, blind-folded. Or else he could simply buy a droid." Realization gleamed in his eyes. "Oh no! Horus is trying to . . ." He broke off momentarily, as an officer passed by. Then he added in a lower voice, "He plans to free that Wookie, doesn't he?"
Keeping his gaze fixed upon Anakin and Skafte, Han merely replied, "Why would any of us be interested in freeing some slave? Let alone a Wookie?"
At that moment, Anakin and Skafte returned to the younger men. The smiling Imperial commander was saying, ". . . to be of service, Captain Horus. I only hope that you realize what you're going to be dealing with." He turned to the blond-haired lieutenant. "Treece! Bring the Wookie over here! He will be leaving with our new friends."
Lieutenant Treece and two stormtroopers forced the Wookie to join Han and Anakin. As Treece began to remove the Wookie's shackles, Anakin barked, "What are you doing?"
Treece blinked several times. "Uh . . ."
"Treece, you idiot!" Skafte retorted angrily. "The Wookie is now Captain Horus' property! Not some member of his crew! Keep the shackles on! And hand him over to the Captain's co-pilot, so they can be on their way."
The red-faced Treece handed the chains to the Wookie's shackles over to Han. Who led the Wookie aboard the Hawk. The moment the pair were safely out of sight, Han unfastened the shackles. "Welcome aboard the Javian Hawk," he greeted. "I'm Han Solo. And the captain . . ."
Anakin quickly boarded the ship. "Let's go, Han!" he barked. "We're out of here! Now!"
Han flashed an apologetic smile at the Wookie and followed Anakin to the cockpit. Less than five minutes later, the Javian Hawk finally left the Dreadnought, with the Alastian Star closely behind.
Chewbacca stood in the middle of the starship’s narrow passageway and stared at the shackles near his feet. Why had the boy removed them? Why . . .?
The ship jolted before Chewbacca felt it move forward. He realized that the Corellian ship had just left the Dreadnought. At first, the Wookie felt a sense of exultation. After three months he had finally escaped his Imperial masters. Then he recalled the hard eyes of the ship’s captain. A nagging fear began to worm in the back of his mind that he had exchanged several masters for a new one. Once more, his eyes fell upon the shackles. If he was still a slave, why did the boy remove his shackles?
Slowly, Chewbacca began to move around. If he could find a weapon, perhaps he might force his new . . . companions to deliver him to the nearest inhabited system. And hopefully, he would find a way to reunite with the Drunken Dancer crew.
Ten years ago, Chewbacca and a group of fellow Wookies had been charged to aid a small band of renegade Jedi, led by Olee Sandstone, to find other Jedi being hunted by the Empire. Unfortunately, the mission led to disaster as Chewbacca, Sandstone and their band fled to Kashyyyk with the Empire and a Sith Lord named Darth Rasche, close behind. Following the fall of his homeworld, Chewbacca and the Drunken Dancer’s crew spent the next decade harassing Imperial ships and freeing any Wookie slaves they came across. Just three months ago, Chewbecca came across a fellow Wookie named Tvrrdko. Unfortunately, Tvrrdko’s son had been killed while fighting alongside Chewbacca during the Clone Wars . . . and blamed the latter for his son’s death. Seeking revenge, Tvrrdko betrayed Chewbacca to a Trandoshan slaver named Ssoh. A failed attempt to escape from Ssoh led the enslaved Wookie into the hands of an Imperial officer named Nyklas. The latter, a brutal and cruel taskmaster, set out to make Chewbacca’s life as miserable as possible. Once more, Chewbacca made another attempt to escape slavery. With the help of the Dreadnought’s crew, Nyklas managed to prevent Chewbacca’s escape. Captain Skafte, the Dreadnought’s commander had suggested he transport Chewbacca to one of the galaxy’s hell spots - the Maw – for work on one of the Empire's new projects. One week later, the Dreadnought came across two Corellian freighters and Chewbacca no longer found himself in the hands of the Empire.
Quietly, the Wookie began his search for weapons. It did not take him long to find them in a storage cabinet near the ship’s port side. Not only did it possess blaster pistols and rifles, but also a Jedi lightsaber. Chewbacca frowned at the weapon. The sight of it reminded him of Olee Sandstone and the other former Jedi on the Drunken Dancer. The weapon also reminded him of the late Roan Shryne and the little green Jedi Master he had met during those last days of the Clone Wars. How did two smugglers managed to get their hands on a lightsaber? He reached for the weapon.
“I wouldn’t touch that if I were you,” a deep voice murmured. Chewbacca snatched a blaster pistol from the weapons cabinet and aimed it at the voice’s owner. Who happened to be the tall, blond pilot who had just purchased him from the Dreadnought’s captain. “Well, this is a new development.”
Chewbacca growled, “I want you to drop me off at the nearest inhabited system. Now!”
The pilot shook his head. “Sorry, but I don’t speak Shyriiwook or any other Wookie language.” Then he roared, “Han! Get in here! Now!”
Nearly a minute passed before the younger man – Solo – appeared. “What’s the problem?” The words barely came out of his mouth, when his eyes fell upon the blaster in Chewbacca’s grip. “Whoa! I mean . . . what the hell is going on?”
“This Wookie wants something . . .” the older pilot began.
Chewbacca interrupted, “I want passage to the nearest habitable system. Or else.”
“Or else what?” Solo shot back. “Why are you pointing that blaster at my friend?”
“Your friend had just bought me,” Chewbacca growled. “I don’t intend to hang around and make it worth his while.”
Solo contemptuously rolled his eyes. “My friend had bought you so that you can be free! Why else would I remove your shackles?”
Feeling slightly foolish, Chewbacca lowered the blaster. “Oh. I . . . Sorry.”
“What did he say?” the older pilot asked.
Solo replied, “He said that he was sorry.” He turned to Chewbacca. “Listen, we’re on our way to Maldore. We can drop you off there, if you like. Or perhaps take you somewhere else.”
Chewbacca had intended to search for the Drunken Dancer if he ever found himself free. Unfortunately, three months had passed since his capture. Since Sandstone and her crew were wanted by the Empire, he felt certain that the Drunken Dancer would remain on the move. Quite frankly, he had no place to go. Her wondered if the humans would allow him to join their crew.
The older pilot gave the Wookie a knowing look. “All alone in the world?” Chewbacca nodded. The two pilots exchanged a glance before the older one added, “I realize that this might be a spur-of-the-moment thing, but . . . you’re more than welcome to join our crew.”
The pilot’s offer took Chewbacca by surprise. The former seemed to have read his thoughts. Then he recalled the weapon in the locker. He wondered if the blond man was a former Jedi . . . or that these two were involved in activities against the Empire, like the Drunken Dancer’s crew. “Well?” Solo added.
Chewbacca nodded and growled, “I would be happy to.”
Solo translated his answer to the older pilot. Who broke into a grin. “Great! You’ve already met Han Solo and I’m . . . Set Horus.” He offered his hand. “Welcome to the Javian Hawk!”
A loud buzz from the door announced a visitor. Darth Rasche switched off his lightsaber and ordered, “Come in!”
A stocky man of medium height entered the Sith Lord’s personal gymnasium. He wore the uniform of an inquisitor. “I have a report regarding Senator Dahlma,” the Inquisitor announced. “Yesterday, she and her aide boarded a transport for Maldore.”
Rasche sighed. “It looks as if she had been telling the truth, after all.”
The Inquisitor continued, “There’s more. The senator remained at her private home in Malag. She did not bother to travel to her family’s estate in the Dalgar region.”
“Interesting.” It looked as if the Emperor’s suspicions about a non-existent funeral might be well founded. "Tell your agent to keep an eye on the senator. See who goes in and out of her home.”
The agent bowed. “Yes, my Lord.” He immediately left the gymnasium.
Rasche took a deep breath and picked up his comlink. “Commander Abbas, summon the crew and prepare the Exactor for departure. I will be leaving for Maldore.”
END OF CHAPTER FOUR