He's as good as dead. Fett'll take the job; he has to take the job. Further summary will follow upon completion of objectives.
In the comfort of his mask, Boba Fett allowed himself a grimace. He should have predicted fate would act this way, elusive and ultimately untimely. He had tested it far too many times before, but in this specific case it had only been twice. And now, it seemed, he was being given one more chance, be the conclusion good or ill.
"You know this man." It was not a question. Fett certainly knew him. "Then I trust you'll take the job?"
Fett remained silent, using his posture and reputation in an attempt to unnerve the small man seated before him, giving himself time to consider. He had told himself years ago he would get out of the business soon, and each of his hunts from the past three years had been his last. Recent months of little to no work coupled with the purchase of a discreet farmstead on a backwater world had brought him to the brink of retirement. Jaster Mereel, Journeyman Protector of Concord Dawn, Boba Fett Â moisture farmer? It did not seem to fit at all, but it was that very idea that made it so appealing. A chance to disappear without hope of his past following and finding him.
The diminutive Imperial agent fidgeted in his side of the booth. "Right. The standard terms will apply. Half now, half when you bring him inâ"
"I never said yes," said Fett sharply.
"What?" The man's face contorted, apparently unable to settle on a particular emotion, at last coming to rest with a look of wide-eyed surprise. It was the brief flash of something close to anger, though, that unsettled Fett, but he let it pass.
Fett repeated himself.
"The bounty is twenty million credits," he replied incredulously. "For a single man. One you've hunted before, what's more. Perhaps the Trandoshan will take the job. We already offered it to him. He was interested at ten million."
"Then why not take him?"
"Because we want success."
Fett responded with as much sarcasm as he could muster. "I'm flattered."
"So you won't take the job?"
Keeping his visor fixated on the Imperial agent, Fett turned his attention elsewhere through the monitoring features inside his helmet. This little man was being, perhaps, too bold with his words and manner. It was very seldom that Fett dealt with insolent bounty agents, and those that he did meet tended not to be alone.
He scanned the surrounding throng that had gathered in the drinking establishment. The Starry Sky Cantina had not changed much over the years, nor had the planet of Averam met with much advancement or affluence. New viewing monitors had been installed, which became the center of the raucous crowd's attention as a local shock-ball game was televised. Fett looked among that crowd, and also those seated away from it, for anyone who appeared to be acting too sober, too drunk, too oblivious, too attentive, or too much of anything. No one seemed to fit the profile: the Imperials were either getting better or this particular agent was not all that intelligent. Orâ¦
Fett did not like to think about that third possibility, but it continually crept out from the remote recesses of his mind to plague his thoughts. With each passing year, Fett could feel his strength seeping away, his reflexes dulling, his wits slowing. All the more reason to get out while he still could.
"I asked you whether or not you're taking the job," the man said acidly.
"It's not about the money," Fett said, his patience wearing thin. There was something about this little man that screamed danger, that set off the silent alarms in Fett's head that had grown there out of necessity through years of serving the dark side of Justice.
The man chuckled, a sort of grotesque sound that resembled a gurgle more than a laugh. "This man, this Azgrath Kratnal, you know everything about him. You know his thoughts, what drives him. Vengeance. You know his Force abilities, and you know his past as the Emperor's Hand. You know how these traits have combined to create one of the deadliest assassins known to the galaxy. His name is mentioned in the same dark circles as Organa's Noghri, Mara Jade, and even you, Boba Fett.
"But you ask yourself: are Boba Fett and Azgrath Kratnal the same? Are they equals, or has one grown inferior, outdated? He's younger, in his prime. And he's driven by an unquenchable flame of revenge. What are you driven by? Anything anymore? And so it comes to it, the reason for your reluctance. There is a chance that this may indeed be the last hunt for Boba Fett, one that you may not walk away from. Face it, Fett: you are afraidâ"
Even before the man could finish the sentence, the end of Fett's hold-out blaster was just centimeters from his face, trained on a small birthmark centered in his forehead. A younger Fett, perhaps a better Fett, would have pulled the trigger to avenge the insult. This Fett wanted to do that very thing, only something stopped him. Hesitation. He could not simply kill this man. To Fett it felt as if he wore no mask, and his sudden shame and self-loathing would be readily apparent to everyone gathered there.
But no one seemed to notice the stand off. A small altercation broke out among the shock-ball crowd, but it was soon quelled as the bartender brandished a battered blaster rifle.
The small man cracked a smile.
Fett's hand twitched, the closest to a tremble he would ever come. He did not fear this man. For the longest time he feared nothing. Now, however, he feared himself. Silently, without any wasted movements, Fett withdrew his blaster from the man's face and returned it to its holster.
"I rest my case," he said, still smiling.
A smouldering hatred grew for this man inside of Fett, out-burned only by his growing embarrassment and shame. He had no choice now; he had to take the job. "I'll do it."
"Ten million credits will be transferred to your account within the hour," the man said, completely unsurprised by Fett's response, as if he knew it was inevitable from the very start of the conversation. And Fett wondered if it was in fact inevitable. "Kratnal was last sighted near Zahr. I'd start the search there."
Fett said nothing as he watched the man get up, flip a few credits onto the table for his drink, and leave. He watched and watched, but could not spot the man's back-up. Where were they?
The second clash between Fett and Kratnal had been an improbable, and previously thought to be impossible, encounter. Kratnal had been trapped in an escape pod by Fett, which he subsequently jettisoned into hyperspace. It was believed that such an action would instantly kill a being, and whatever object it was would be lost to the folds of space and time.
Over four years passed since that first incident before Fett was once again contacted by secretive Imperial agents. During that time many changes had come to pass in the galaxy. The Emperor of one of the largest and most powerful governments ever to exist had been slain above Endor, his dark pupil beside him and his latest technological dream destroyed quickly thereafter. The Imperial fleet was constantly on the retreat, stunned by both the loss of their prized Executor command ship and the sudden ferocious and precise attacks from the Rebel Alliance. The galactic balance of power was shifting, and a dark period of anarchy was swiftly descending like a funeral pall upon the Core Worlds.
It came as a surprise to Fett that he was asked to meet with Imperial officials on Coruscant, especially since the city-world was widely rumored Â and expected Â to be the ultimate target of the Alliance's campaign. Much of the world was in a state of panic, and the Imperial forces were having a difficult time attempting to maintain order and peace. Each passing week saw the departure of more freighters and transport ships carrying fleeing citizens, but each week also saw the arrival of more starfighters, picket ships, and cruisers. The stage was being set for a massive confrontation, but just when that time would come was still a mystery.
The Imperials had requested that Fett meet them in a certain nondescript Lower City cantina with little other information. As the bounty hunter watched the two agents approach him, it seemed to him just another repeat of the beginning of any one of dozens of previous hunts.
The two agents did not bother to sit. "Bounty hunter," said one, perhaps the warmest greeting Fett had received in years.
Fett's visor dipped noticeably, a nod.
The two men were unaffected. "There's an unfinished bounty on your account."
"I noticed my account had been hacked," Fett observed dryly. "Why would an Imperial naval intelligence center have sudden need of my money?"
The first man was about to speak again, but Fett cut him off.
"More importantly, are both of your heads worth the three million credits that were taken from me?"
Both men blanched. The second one cleared his throat. "We didn't have anything to do with that. Our superiorsâ"
The charge on Fett's blaster clicked on. The quiet, high-pitched whine did not carry far, but it reached the ears of both the men standing in front of him.
"Azgrath Kratnal," the first man said quickly.
Fett silently changed the settings on his blaster to stun. "Go on."
"You didn't kill him," said the other.
"Yes," Fett said, "I did."
"Well, that doesn't seem to be the case, Mr. Fett," said the first, suddenly regaining both his voice and his courtesy. "One of our ambush squadrons found him and the escape pod he was in."
So he was alive. Fett had reported that he disintegrated Kratnal; they could not have known about the escape pod ordeal.
"Yes, apparently your report was inaccurate," said the second man.
The first man quickly moved on, afraid of what an insulted Fett might do. "An interdictor cruiser dragged his pod out of hyperspace while it was waiting to ambush an expected Rebel raiding party. When the pod was brought onboard and opened, Kratnal played the part of a lost Imperial officer. He knew everything about the Navy, so they figured his lies to be truths. Eventually a proper background check was made, and to the horror of the interdictor's captain the identity of the derranged Emperor's Hand was discovered. Unfortunately, it was too late. Kratnal stole a shuttle, slaughtering dozens of stormtroopers in his path, and made a run for hyperspace. He would have been stopped had it not been for the untimely arrival of the Rebel task force."
Derranged was hardly the word to describe Kratnal's insanity. Combine that with his fledgling Force abilities, and one had a dangerous opponent indeed.
"Where is he?"
"We're not sure," the first man answered hesitantly. "But we have Admiral Bremton under close guard."
"Yes. After the Endor debacle, good officers were in short supply. Needless to say, Bremton was a good officer and has since moved through the ranks rather quickly."
Fett put his blaster away. "How do I get my money back?"
"Guard the admiral. Kratnal will come for him sooner or later, and when he does, kill him."
Fett filled in the final "and this time get it right" for himself. The man did not need to say it, but it was undoubtedly implied.
"Admiral Bremton is currently headquartered on Telinnus to oversee a project of his. Priority level clearance will be given to the Slave I. And your money will be returned upon confirmation of Azgrath Kratnal's death."
"Very well. I'll leave immediately."
It was the soft hyperspace signal that brought Fett out of his reverie. In five minutes he would be approaching the Zahr system, most notable for the moon named Gall, which had once served as an Imperial fleet's headquarters. Since the Galactic Civil War, Gall had been largely forgotten by both the Empire and the Rebel Alliance, content to take a back seat to galactic events. It had not, however, been forgotten by several mining companies, who sought several rare minerals that had only recently been discovered in Gall's many deep canyons. And so with the industrial corporations had come the rougher sort of inhabitants, and Gall had developed into yet another dangerous backwater locale.
Boba Fett had been to Gall once before. He had stopped there to repair after an attack by IG-88 over Tatooine, all the while with Han Solo's carbonite-frozen body in his hold. The governor owed him a favor, and he was allowed safe docking and supplies. But fellow bounty hunters Zuckuss and 4-LOM were not far behind. Fett dealt with them cleanly, only to later be tracked down by members of the Alliance. Once more he escaped, and he was able to cleanly deliver Solo's body to Jabba the Hutt. The rest was ancient history, some parts painful, other parts best not recollected.
Fett pushed the hyperdrive lever forward and the starlines around him gradually slowed to small pinpoints of light, disrupted only by the large gas giant Zahr. Orbitting around it, and currently framed in the center of the swirling mass of gas particles, was the moon of Gall. Far off beyond the horizon of Zahr, its second moon by the name of Kile was just coming into view. The system's sun was behind and to the left of the Slave I, casting Gall's shadow across the tumultuous "surface" of the planet below.
Within moments Fett was hailed by Gall's port authorities. The response time surprised even Fett, who had not been keeping himself up-to-date with certain statistics regarding the various Outer Rim worlds that were considered "scum-friendly."
Using a false identity for his ship, Fett quickly cleared a landing bay for the Slave I, along with a minor bribe to skip the traditional customs sweep. At least, Fett thought, Gall remained an average backwater post in most areas.
As Fett approached the moon, he began to notice how far Gall had actually advanced. Even from this distance, he could see a growing metropolis taking shape on the surface of the planet. Numerous picket ships, freighters, and even a couple old, small, battered cruisers moved about the navigation lanes. The scene evoked memories of the last time he was on the trail of Kratnal. Telinnus had been a world very similar to Gall: dusty, covered in canyons, and just in its infant stage of development under Imperial rule.
It was Fett's arrival at that world, though, that differed. It was not nearly as serene, nor was it nearly as warm, however cold the Gall authorities had been.
When the Slave I had exitted hyperspace at the small world of Telinnus, Boba Fett had immediately seen the signs of Imperial domination. The sprawling, mammoth metropolises that were visible from space were neat and orderly, obviously engineered from their very beginnings by Imperial technicians. There were also numerous defense stations arrayed in orbit of the planet, along with a decent defense fleet.
This fleet, however, was not positioned in a standard defensive formation, but rather they were engaged in combat. Not far from the planet, though just far enough to be out of reach of the defense stations' guns, a battle was raging between the Imperial defense fleet and what appeared to be a Rebel strike force. The Imperial fleet was being led by an Imperator Star Destroyer and a pair of Victories, with many support craft surrounding them. Two Mon Calamari cruisers provided the command ships for the Alliance, with several carriers spewing starfighters into the Imperial formation.
"Incoming ship, identify yourself immediately," a strained voice said over the Slave I's com system.
Instead of replying directly, Fett sent his ship's identification information coupled with the clearance codes he had received from the Imperial bounty agents. The response was a long time coming, and until then Fett held his position a couple minutes out from the planet. In the distance, the bridge tower of one of the Victory Star Destroyers detonated. It carreened out of control, and one of the Rebel command cruisers was barely able to avoid it. A carrier was not as fortunate, and it collided with the dying destroyer. Seconds later, the reactors of both the destroyer and the carrier exploded almost simultaneously. Even from where the Slave I was positioned, the combined explosion looked like a small nova. Fett could only wonder how many starfighters had been near those two ships when they blew, how many lives had been lost. But Fett shrugged off the thought; he was glad he had never enlisted and did not have to worry about wars. Let the empires and the alliances of the galaxy fight it out amongst themselves. Boba Fett could make a comfortable profit on the side.
When the response came at last, it was also in the form of a data transmission. The operator was undoubtedly preoccupied with more important tasks at the moment and allowed the automated response system to clear the Slave I. He was given landing directions and told that when he arrived he would be transported to Admiral Bremton's compound immediately.
The fact that the Rebels were throwing a sizeable amount of force against Telinnus left Fett guessing as to the true importance of Bremton's "project," but one could infer that it was serious indeed. Still, it was not Fett's job to worry about the politics of the situation. He only had to worry about Bremton's safety and getting his money back.
As the Slave I was descending through the atmosphere, Fett could see that the space battle was moving closer. On the surface below him, stormtrooper legions were moving through city streets. Massive repulsor battle stations were hovering above the roof tops of the city, spotlights searching through the night that was only just beginning to fall on this side of Telinnus.
By the time Fett had landed his ship, darkness had nearly completely covered the city. A small escort of stormtroopers on a skiff was waiting for Fett as he emerged from the ship, their blasters at the ready but none of them trained on Fett. Without any words spoken, Fett stepped into the skiff and they sped away.
Bremton's compound was a large, citadel-like building, reminding Fett of pictures he had seen of old stone castles from some backwater worlds. Atop its half dozen towers were anti-starfighter guns, and Fett's helmet detected the presence of a particle shield in place around the fortress to protect against most missiles, though it would not hold up under a sustained bombardment. So, he thought, the compound has its own shield generator. Which meant it also has its own reactor, which in turn means that whatever project Bremton is working on must be of extreme consequence.
Fett was brought into the compound through passageways that wound deep into the heart of it. Stormtroopers rushed here and there, and lots of com chatter could be heard as they passed certain rooms that served as command centers for various military units. At last they reached a large interior chamber, the sole occupant of which was Admiral Meke Bremton.
"Boba Fett," Bremton said, legitimately relieved. He strode up to the bounty hunter with a grim smile on his face and extended his hand.
Fett shook the man's hand with reluctance. "Admiral."
Beneath his mask, Fett blinked. He had not realized he was drifting off until it was almost too late. He surveyed the crowd gathered in the dusty saloon and noticed a few side-long glances, but for the most part the locals kept to their own business. This particular bar was probably the worst he had ever been in, much of the building made of wood and the floor thoroughly dirtied. For a door the building had two small boards on swinging hinges that did little to actually hinder entrance at all, offering little security, a testament to the extremely localized atmosphere. Most likely outsiders did not visit this establishment often.
There was the sound of shattered glass. Fett twisted his head sharply and reached for his blaster. But laughter soon followed and the bounty hunter saw that a few patrons had drunk too much and knocked over their glasses. The bartender scowled at the group but did nothing more than add the reparations to their respective tabs via an aging computer console, the only bit of somewhat modern technology in the place.
A creaking came from the entrance to the bar, and Fett looked to see an older man in patched, dusty clothing standing just inside, the doors swinging and quietly voicing their complaint behind him. He wore a flopped-over, brimmed hat, also caked in dust, and his nearly knee-high boots clumped on the floor boards as he approached Fett. The others in the building paid no attention to the new arrival; he was one of them.
This particular man was an old mining prospector that had arrived on Gall just a few years prior after leaving his home on a cramped world someplace. The temptation of striking it rich in the newly discovered mineral deposits had led him to Gall, only to find once he got there that the minerals were not being found in such a large quantity as the rumors had reported. The prospector had nevertheless sought out whatever wealth he could find and managed to get by as best he could. But when the offer came from a strange offworlder to help on a job for a sizeable amount of credits, he jumped at the opportunity.
"Howdy," the man said blandly, though Fett knew the term was undoubtedly used more festively when it was originally coined.
"Hear yer lookin' fer someone," the man said. He crammed a handful of a black and brown substance into his mouth and began chewing. Fett thought the action to be detestable. "I know most doin's âround these here parts."
"I'm looking for a man named Azgrath Kratnal," Fett said.
A light seemed to kindle in the older man's eyes. The grey stubble on his face glistened in the light with sweat as his mouth twisted into a smile. "I reckon I know a feller by that there name."
Once again, Fett felt unsettled. The mannerisms of the Imperial bounty agent on Averam had triggered something in the back of his mind, just in the same way as this man was doing now.
"Secretive type, lanky youngster?" the man continued. Fett saw he had a full set of white teeth, which surprised him for some reason.
Fett nodded again.
"Could be I know who yer lookin' fer," the man answered as he stroked his chin. He looked expectantly at Fett.
Suppressing a grumble, Fett produced a few credits and tossed them onto the table. They quickly disappeared in a surprisingly fluid motion by the prospector.
"I see âim when I'm out in the canyons somedays," the man said in a hushed voice. "Not a very nice lookin' feller, mind you. Always movin' stuff in and out, always armed what's more."
"Moving in and out of where?" Fett asked as he put more credits on the table.
"Feller's got a right ol' cave up in them canyons yonder," the man said as he pocketed the money. "Pretty high up, though. Narrow pass, too. Not easy to get to, mind you."
"Where is it?"
The man smiled. "I might be able to answer that, but it'll cost yer."
Fett tapped the underside of the table they sat at with his blaster. "I think it's already cost me enough."
The man's eyes widened, but his voice remained oddly calm. "Please, mister, I'm just an old prospecter who's never had much luck. Couldn't yer spare a little? I'm gettin' pretty fergetful in my days. Might've misplaced that map I made."
"You made a map?"
The man's eyes darted to the side then returned to Fett. "I made a lot a' digs in those there canyons, came in handy. When I saw that youngin' I knew he were trouble, mind you. What's it gonna be?"
Reluctantly, Fett pushed a hundred credits across the table.
The old man chuckled gleefully and produced a paper map from his tattered leather jacket, seemingly relieved. It was clearly detailed and surprisingly clean.
"Pleasant doin' business with yer, sir." The man got up and left.
Fett watched the man go. There was a man who had spent his life honestly, working for every bit of money he could get. He had never seen the things Fett had seen, never done the things he had done.
He thought of the purchase he had made several months ago, a piece of desert on the planet Tatooine. The irony had almost been too much for him: the planet that had nearly killed him would still see the end of his days, however long those days might turn out to be. Fett thought the planet suited him better than any other he could find. The dry, harsh climate was filled with creatures that knew how to survive. Fett felt the planet suited him, and he suited the planet.
He returned his attention to the map laid before him. It was detailed and in good order. Getting it out of the man, not to mention finding the man, had been somewhat difficult, certainly costly, but not too difficult. Fett was unsettled once more. It was not that events were transpiring perfectly; they were not. But they were happening smoothly, not too easy but not too difficult. Smooth, as if to a plan.
"Everything is running smoothly," Admiral Bremton stated with relief in his voice. He handed the datapad that he had been studying back to the aid, who quickly rushed off with it. Elsewhere in the huge stone hall, workers hastened to remove various computer consoles and cases of machinery that were apparently central to the Imperial project.
Fett stood off to one side, his blaster rifle in his arms. His visor surveyed the activity impassively. "This room should be sealed off," he said. "Or you need to leave."
"Nonsense," Bremton said quickly. "I need to oversee this. It is very important and cannot be entrusted to anyone else."
"I'm being paid to keep you alive," Fett growled.
"But not to give me orders," replied Bremton. "Trust me, Fett. This hall is defensible as it is. Besides, where could I be safer than in my own compound?"
Fett glanced at the arched doorway as another dozen laborers entered the hall. He looked over each of them carefully, looking for that familiar face, the face he had last seen through the window of an escape pod.
"You underestimate your own skills, Fett," the admiral said.
Fett turned his attention back to Bremton. "You underestimate Kratnal, admiral."
The admiral looked vacantly at Fett for a few seconds, before walking slowly over to a crate that had not yet been moved. "That may be so. But I cannot neglect my duty to the Empire, nor can you. Unfortunately we both need to make certain sacrifices, concessions, in order to do what is required. Personal requests, personal issuesâ¦these have no place in war. That is the difference between Kratnal and I, or Kratnal and you. He is motivated by revenge, while we are more professional in our actions and do not stoop to such emotions."
Fett shifted his weight and returned to his monitoring of every person who entered or left the room. He only half listened to Bremton as the man continued to speak.
"In no other instance in my life could I see my duty as more important than it is now to fulfill. You do not understand the gravity of this project; but then, how could you? You do not care for the Empire or for the Alliance. This war does not matter to you, as long as it does not put you out of work. And why should it matter to you? I do not place any blame upon you. This project is far more important to the Empire than you or I, and for that reason it is more important to me than my own life.
"We have finally developed the ultimate weapon to use against the Alliance. For so long we have sought to operate under the Tarkin Doctrine of rule with fear. Two Death Stars and a Super Star Destroyer later, what have we accomplished? Nothing except to boost the morale of the Rebels. But now we have a weapon of fear. With it we can strike the Rebels anywhere and anytime. It can be guarded against but it cannot be stopped, simply because the weapon can be anyone.
"Yes, anyone. Any person. It is not a ship or a gun. It is just a small implant, virtually undetectable, that when activated releases an enzyme into the body to trigger a chemical reaction of such terrifying magnitude that the release of energy could leave entire city blocks in ruins."
This caught Fett's attention. "You've turned a person into a bomb."
"In the simplest of terms, yes," Bremton said, and the pride was evident in his voice. "A single person who can blow himself up and strike a huge blow to Rebel morale. All in just a single attack. Now imagine thousands of these throughout the galaxy. We can bring the Rebels to their knees through sheer terror."
The bounty hunter felt uneasy, but ultimately he let the feeling pass. It did not surprise him that the Empire had developed something along these lines. He had more pressing matters at hand, and he returned his attention to the workers.
Making his way through the twisting, narrow pathways in Gall's canyons was hard work and slow going. Many times Fett had no choice but to squeeze through a jagged crevasse or stoop beneath an overhang. The wear and tear in his body made itself recognizable throughout the trek into the wild of Gall, and Fett noticed grimly that he stopped to recover more often than he used to.
The map that the prospector had given Fett did not show him how to get to the area that it depicted, so that had been left up to Fett himself to figure out. It really became a matter of simply travelling in a generally straight line, turning aside here and there as the terrain permitted. About five hours into his hike, however, Fett stumbled across a meandering path that seemed to have been used recently and had been in use for some time. Silently cursing the prospector for not mentioning this path to him, Fett continued on his way.
The attack came suddenly and ferociously. The high canyon walls guarding the path had parted to the side a few meters on the left and right for several meters, rising up no longer flatly but stepped, each ledge roughly a meter wide. The area of the path looked much like a amphitheater, and Fett was standing directly in the center of it when the assassin struck.
The sensors in Fett's helmet barely detected the first onslaught in time. From one of the top ledges behind him a man clad all in black leaped down, slashing at Fett with a pike. It hummed just past where Fett's head would have been had the systems in his helmet not warned him in time. He ducked and rolled out of the way of another slash. The pike cut into the ground at his feet, slicing cleaning into the solid rock.
Fett whirled on his attacker and fired a few shots from his blaster, but the phantom was already gone, jumping acrobatically from ledge to ledge around and above the bounty hunter. Every attempt by Fett to bring the assassin down with a blaster shot was foiled by the other's agility and speed. Indeed, Fett was hardly able to get a good look at this blindingly fast man.
The man descended upon Fett again like a bird of prey, lunging with the force pike. Fett managed to dodge the attack once again, but realized that his reactions had slowed over the years immensely. Another swing from the pike caught a piece his shoulder armor, though Fett would have sworn that the swing from the pike had been slower than the others. But each swing after that, following in rapid succession, was just the same speed.
Fett was hardly able to evade the attacks, but he did so, and only thirty seconds into the fight he was able to hit the attacker with a shot. It was only a glancing blow, but it was enough to throw him off the assault. The man knocked Fett in the head with the butt of the pike, causing Fett to stumble backwards and trip over a scattered stone. When Fett looked again, the assassin was gone.
He stood up slowly and winced in pain, rubbing his knees and his lower back, and trying to catch his breath. His helmet seemed to be malfunctioning minorly after the blow it took. The only look he could get at his attacker was that he was clad all in black, masked as well. And he wielded a pike. It reminded Fett of the last time he ran into Kratnal, though something tugged at Fett's mind. He was not sure if the attacker was indeed Kratnal because, he feared, had it truly been Kratnal he would have been dead.
"It's time to leave," Fett said calmly, though his posture left no room for negotiation. The last crate had just been removed from the stone hall via repulsor sled, and the sounds of battle penetrated even into the heart of the compound where they stood. The noise was still muffled, but with each passing minute it had become increasingly audible.
Bremton looked around the room one last time, then gestured to a group of six stormtroopers who remained. He shouldered an odd pack, considerably bulky for what an officer would normally be asked to carry. Fett would have recommended against the added hindrance, but there was no time for argument. "I believe you're right, Fett. Let's go. My transport is in a private docking bay within the compound. The walk will only be a few minutes."
Fett nodded, realizing that the walk may turn into a run before too long. With the stormtroopers in the lead and Fett flanking Bremton, the party left the hall and entered the winding passageways of the compound.
The compound was largely deserted at this point, and anyone that remained was either manning turrets atop the compound or working in the various coordinating rooms scattered throughout the citadel. The party was able to move through the various hallways unhindered, and they reached the doors to the docking bay with relative ease.
"The transport's just through here," Bremton said.
But as the doors slid apart, there was a figure revealed inside, the only thing between the party and the ship. It was a man of seemingly average height and build, only he was clad in a form of black armor similar to that which a stormtrooper would wear. His face was masked also in black, but a glowing white mist seemed to seep from the eye holes. In his hand he held a long pike almost lazily, a certain level of uncaring eminating from him.
The stormtroopers wasted no time in sacrificing themselves, though that was surely not their intention. They immediately rushed forward, attempting to fan out and flank their target, but the man was far too fast for them. He moved as if caught up in a whirlwind, the pike he wielded making short work of two of the stormtroopers. As it swung through the air it hummed unnaturally, and it was quickly evident that the man wielded a deadly Force pike. Few could control such a weapon, and it had once been strictly used by Imperial Royal Guards.
The first of the stormtroopers collapsed to the ground, his legs rendered to cleanly severed stumps. His scream echoed throughout the docking bay. The second stormtrooper to die did not scream, for the dark man decapitated him before he could react. The remaining stormtroopers hastily began firing, but not a single shot seemed to find its target. Some ricochetted wildly off the walls of the docking bay, while others seemed to simply be absorbed by their target without any damage. One of the stormtroopers suddenly vaulted backwards in the air, crashing head first into a wall and breaking his neck. Another was run through by a portion of piping that had suddenly broken off from a wall and launched itself into the trooper's torso. The last two stormtroopers were rapidly bisected by the Force pike in a single sweeping arc.
When the carnage was completed, the black-clad man stood still and faced Bremton and Fett, the pike once again held idly at his side. The white glow still misted from where his eyes should be.
"Kratnal," Fett said coldly.
The man seemed to straighten, as if finally noticing him. "Boba Fett," he said. "What a pleasure to find you here. Though it isn't really all that surprising. You always were the Emperor's lapdog; now I suppose you just service his successors."
Fett said nothing, but readied himself for what was surely to come.
"And Meke Bremton," he said, turning his masked countenance on the man at Fett's side. "Why so pale, admiral? You've had years to prepare for this moment. Justice awaits."
"Vengeance is not justice, Azgrath," Fett said icily.
"Oh, the expert on the subject," Kratnal responded sarcastically. "Who better to speak of justice than the mighty Boba Fett? If you stood for justice you would not take the soiled credits of these disgusting bastards. Credits earned through the murders of millions, the economic and physical rapes of even more millionsâ¦. How can you call yourself a defender of justice?"
"Don't turn this into my problem," Fett said. He raised his blaster rifle and brought it to bare on Kratnal's chest.
"Oh, I don't know how effective that will be, Fett," Kratnal said as he slowly walked forward, closing the gap between himself and the pair. He casually stepped over the maimed bodies of the stormtroopers as if they did not exist.
He stopped abruptly, roughly fifteen paces away, and frowned. The glowing white eye sockets of the mask seemed to stare blankly at Fett for a second, then turned their attention to Bremton. A smile crept over the admiral's face, despite his suddenly colorless features.
"You're more clever than I thought," Kratnal said quietly.
Bremton took a confident step forward, his blaster cautiously drawn. "So these little critters really do work, then. Thank you for proving it for me."
Fett looked to each of the men, then studied the pack that Bremton had put on before they left.
"Ysalamari," Kratnal explained. "The Empire still maintains a vestige of its resourcefulness, I see."
"I thought you would appreciate that, Kratnal," replied Bremton. "Now it's time to earn your credits, Fett."
"Yes, Fett," Kratnal said mockingly. "Serve them as a dog would. âKill!' âFetch!' Earn yourself a treat."
Fett was undeterred. "This ends now."
Kratnal half-bowed. "As you wish."
Even with his Force powers hampered, Kratnal still reacted amazingly fast to Fett's first volley of shots. The younger, more agile man dodged the shots and lunged with his pike, only to have Fett dodge that in return. Without his Force-attuned reactions, Kratnal was unable to stop himself in time, and Fett landed a hard blow to his side, knocking him past. Fett brought up his blaster to fire again, but a quick slash from Kratnal's pike severed the barrel of the rifle and the shot went wild. Kratnal swung the pike back around, but Fett ducked beneath it and drove himself forward into Kratnal's stomach. The two toppled to the ground, much to Bremton's growing amusement.
They struggled in each other's grasp before finally untangling themselves, each rolling to his feet and coming up into a fighting stance. Kratnal still brandished his Force pike, but Fett quickly fired his whipcord at Kratnal's hands, attempting to tie him up. The assassin managed to twitch his hands out of the way, but the whipcord secured itself around the hilt of the pike. Fett jerked his end of the cord to the side and sent the pike flying out of Kratnal's hands.
Fett could almost see the anger seething off of Kratnal now, and he was at once thankful for Bremton's ysalamiri. Kratnal's advancing Force powers showed themselves in his fight with the stormtroopers, and at this point he could only wonder what Kratnal wanted to do to him.
Screaming caught the attention of both Fett and Kratnal, and they turned to see Bremton writhing on the ground in pain. Part of his foot was laying bloody on the floor next to him, and Kratnal's Force pike hummed quietly nearby. Bremton was swearing profusely.
"Let me finish him, Fett," Kratnal said calmly.
Fett shook his head and dropped to a hand-to-hand fighting stance. "You know I can't."
"You can, Fett," said Kratnal. "It's the right thing to do."
"I don't betray my contractors."
"Do your other contractors plan to turn children into bombs?" Kratnal asked. "Don't be shocked. You know what the Empire was developing here. I'm just trying to stop it."
"This is bigger than you and I, Fett. I didn't come here to kill Bremton out of vengeance. When the Empire dragged me out of hyperspace, I practically eliminated that interdictor from action. If I hadn't done that, the Rebel task force that arrived minutes later would have been decimated. The Rebels managed to track me down and told me what Bremton was doing. I'm here on their behalf; the fact that I get my own fulfillment from the matter is of no consequence to them."
"You're working for the Alliance?" Fett asked, incredulous, still wary of a trick by Kratnal.
"Don't listen to him, Fett," Bremton growled, regaining some of his composure. "Just kill him and get me out of here."
Kratnal removed his mask to reveal almost the same youthful face that Fett had seen last, only the eyes maintained their white, misty glow. He pointed to his eyes and said, "Side effects of the little trip you sent me on. No one was ever recovered from such an ordeal before me, so as you can imagine I'm a bit of an attraction."
"Fett!" Bremton hissed. "Kill him!"
"Think, Fett," Kratnal continued. "You saw the defenses on this world. Not even I could have gotten through them all. Do you think this Rebel attack was just a coincidence? Let me do this, Fett, now. We'll meet again another time."
Boba Fett looked at Kratnal; then he looked at Bremton, lying on the ground. His eyes were cold, like a reptile's, watching Fett with growing frustration and anger, his face contorted to display those feelings. He turned back to Kratnal as he relaxed his stance. "Do what you need to, then go far away from here. If I ever find you again, I will kill you."
Kratnal merely nodded.
"Fett, what are you doing?" Bremton shouted. "Come back here! Fett! Damn you, Fett!"
But Fett was already walking away, his helmet still monitoring Kratnal even as he turned his back on him. The assassin did not move before Fett left the docking bay.
The building began to rumble and Fett sensed the danger he was in, remembering the raging battle that was taking place on and above the planet. He quickened his pace to a run as bits of stone began to crumble out of the ceiling. Just as he reached the exterior, the citadel came under a fierce orbital bombardment. Fett ran in a crouch as the massive compound was pummelled from space. Bombers streaked overhead and dropped their payloads, monstrous thunderclaps rendering all else inaudible.
A sudden, tremendous explosion knocked Fett to the ground, and he rolled over to see that little remained of the citadel other than a few glowing heaps of stone. Fett made a quick scan of the rubble for signs of life, and even though the accuracy of the scan could not be counted on, there was no life to be found. He watched the smouldering ruins in silence and wondered whether Kratnal had escaped in time or not.
Fett looked over the readouts once more, then looked at the cliff face that rose up before him. According to the prospector's map, a failed mining attempt had left in its wake a network of tunnels about ninety meters up the sheer rock wall. The prospector had reported that the tunnels had not been used for mining purposes in three years, and yet over the past few months he had seen some activity around the canyon, specifically near to where the tunnel entrance was supposedly located.
From his vantage point Â and any other point from the bottom of the canyon Â the entrance to the tunnel could not be descried. Nor would any sort of aerial reconnaisance do any good, for the canyon was far too narrow for anything short of a military probe to navigate through, and those were far too expensive for a moon like Gall. But the prospector had staked his life on the existence of that lost tunnel and the activity he had witnessed around it, so Fett was determined to find what he could.
He checked the fuel level on his jetpack and, finding it satisfactory, engaged its thrusters. He rose slowly, still wary of a trap of some sort planned by Kratnal, if this was indeed his hideout. While one hand managed his pack's controls, the other held his blaster at the ready. The sensors in his helmet were on full scan mode, though they still seemed to be responding sluggishly after that run-in with Kratnal, or whoever he was. Fett was still not all that sure that his attacker was in fact the dark assassin or merely a protÃ©gÃ© â¦ or something else entirely.
Precisely ninety-two meters from the bottom of the canyon Fett ascended to the narrow opening of what appeared to be a small network of caves. Leading off to the right was a very narrow ledge with carefully concealed handholds above it, and as Fett studied the entrance to the cave closer he noticed that it had once been much wider, only recently closed up. He realized at once that this was definitely the work of a professional, the work of someone not wanting to be found.
Quietly touching down on the narrow ledge, Fett shut down his pack and then glanced at his blaster's charge. Good enough, he decided as he turned his attention to the cave before him. His helmet was having trouble getting proper readings from the interior due to the large concentration of unexploited minerals in the surrounding cliff.
Even as he took his first step into the cave, something tingled in the pit of his stomach. For the first time in his life, Fett almost felt as if there were some connection to the Force and himself. Not Force abilities, but just a simple confirmation at last that the Force did indeed wind its way through all living things. But the dry voice inside Fett told him it was the work of nerves, and this thought only brought on more tingling. What nerves? Why was he nervous?
The answer was simple: he was entering the predator's lair, the lion's den, the eagle's eyrie. Years ago a younger Boba Fett would have received a thrill from this feeling, eager for the culmination of the hunt. But this Boba Fett did not know what to feel, and for once he was thinking of his mortality.
And then, a single thought pierced his mind like a bolt.
I'm too old for this.
The realization struck him so hard that it manifested itself physically, bringing his slow walk to a halt. He was too old, he realized. The galaxy had changed all around him, the scum of the universe had gotten worse, the plague of injustice had festered like an infected wound and spread further into the reaches of space. And Boba Fett had been left behind, a relic of a time gone by, aging out of importance. What good had he really done? His actions on Telinnus had undoubtedly saved millions, if not billions of innocent lives. Many of his hunts had been for respectable clients with true justice intended; they had not all been for crime lords and underworld bosses. But what impact did he really have? What good could a single person do, especially when their entire life had been defined by darkness and death?
A person can do whatever he can, however he can, with what little time he has.
A new clarity entered Fett's mind with this conclusion. It's not time to fall into self-pity or self-loathing yet, he thought. There's still one more account to settle. Then it's over. For good.
Fett resumed his slow walk, and as he approached a corner he dropped into a crouch. Around that corner the tunnel abruptly expanded into a rather large room of sorts. It was a chamber filled with stacked crates, some of them opened with the lids scattered haphazardly, and hastily cobbled together computers. It looked very much like the headquarters of a professional assassin; it was, in fact, something Fett would have engineered, he realized. And set off to one corner, separated by simple screen dividers, was what had to be the occupant's living area. There was a small light on beyond the screen, and it silhouetted a sleeping cot. Also shadowed on that cot was a person.
He edged his way into the room. His sensors detected nothing unusual, nor did his eyes. His blaster rifle was held at the ready, and it was set for kill.
The trap was sprung so incredibly fast that Fett could not react in the slightest way. From the opened crates and jumbled computers nearly a dozen blue bolts of energy lashed out at Fett, most hitting him dead in the chest and knocking him to his feet. The stun bolts did their job, and even before he hit the ground he felt paralysis overtake him. Oddly, though, he maintained consciousness. So, Kratnal wanted him alive and well aware of what was about to take place.
He heard footsteps coming from the direction of the entrance, and Fett's helmet brought up a display that showed three armed men approaching. They did not look like the smugglers or pirates that Fett was used to dealing with in his line of work, however. These men were clothed in a type of black armor very similar to that of an Imperial stormtrooper, only lacking the helmet. The tingling sensation returned to Fett's stomach.
"Boba Fett," said a voice from the partitioned living area.
Fett struggled with his neck muscles to lift his head, but it was to no avail. He heard the sound of someone approaching from that direction.
One of the men behind him grabbed Fett's shoulders and lifted his body into a sitting position. He jerked Fett's helmet roughly and forced his head to stay up.
The man behind the partition finally stepped into view.
Fett's heart skipped a beat. "Bremton?"
It was the very likeness of Imperial Admiral Meke Bremton that stood before him, though he was garbed not in the standard olive drab of an Imperial officer, but rather the clothes befitting an Imperial moff.
"Yes, Fett," Bremton said coldly, "in the flesh. Well, not the original flesh. That was almost completely obliterated on Telinnus. Almost. Luckily, there was enough left to create this," he said, feeling his face. "Just enough."
Fett continued to stare without saying anything. At the moment he was rendered mute.
"Do you know how painful it is, Fett?" Bremton asked, still approaching the downed bounty hunter. His walk was slow, deliberate. "Do you know how painful it is to die? And then to be reborn again, to remember that feeling in every waking moment of your new existence?"
"Where's Kratnal?" Fett asked, finally gaining the composure to speak again.
"Dead," Bremton replied flatly. "He died on Telinnus, Fett. All those years ago."
And suddenly it all came crashing down on Fett. Even up until that moment, he had not even entertained the thought that he would not find some way to escape this. But now, sitting there completely unable to move and surrounded by four deadly men, he realized that there was no going back.
"You see, Fett," Bremton continued, "the Empire does not forget those who betray it. The Empire does not forgive. When you allowed Kratnal to kill me and destroy my research, you dealt a severe blow to the Empire's military campaign, whether you knew it or not. We would have won the war, Fett, years ago. The galaxy would be back under the iron fist of the Empire. You have no idea of what you did. But when you did that, you also sealed your fate. You signed the order to terminate your life."
"So where do we go from here?" Fett asked.
"I will be returning to Bastion after this," Bremton responded. "You, however, are going someplace far, far away. Of what happened after I died I remember nothing, for I was reborn again shortly thereafter. But you, Fett â¦ you will explore the great unknown. Search for the afterlife, scum. The last hunt of Boba Fett."
Fett lapsed in and out of consciousness during the torture that followed. It was nothing like the excruciating pain he had felt in the belly of the Sarlacc, but nothing else in his life could compare to this. Fett awoke once more, only half conscious, to hear Bremton speaking to the others.
"Strip him of his armor," he said, almost spitting the words. "It will be a worthy prize."
Fett did not feel them removing his armor; most of the feeling was gone from his body. He did not even know how much of his body remained; his nerves had been numbed by the torture.
"No," he heard Bremton say foggily. "Leave his helmet. He did serve the Empire loyally for many years; we will allow him a last dignity."
The men continued to speak for some time, the exact amount of time, though, was unknown to Fett. Instead, his mind wandered, drifting toward the edge of a great sea of endless sand dunes. He did not think of much in these moments, not much except for his Tatooine farmstead. He would have liked to have retired there, he decided. It would not have been so bad. The old bounty hunter, harvesting moisture from the air, enjoying the freedom of the work, revisiting the site of the Sarlacc he had killed, no longer looking over his shoulder â¦ bartering for droids with Jawas.
In the comfort of his mask, Boba Fett allowed himself a grimace.
INTERCEPTED IMPERIAL COMMUNIQUE:
Mission success. Returning to Bastion with requested items. Debriefing will commence upon return.
Death of Boba Fett confirmed.
Boba Fett will return...