Chewbacca growled something at him, and Lando frowned. He didn't have the greatest grasp of Wookiee -- a fact that caused Chewie no end of frustration -- but he caught the gist.
Coming up on shipping lane. Lots of traffic.
Lando loosened the collar of his white shirt and cleared his throat, glancing at the mountain of fur beside him. "You ready for this?"
Chewie snorted. He'd been ready for three months.
Outside the segmented cockpit windscreen, the glowing clouds of hyperspace swirled chaotically, revealing a sky full of starships.
The Falcon banked portside in a wide, graceful turn, moving parallel to the shipping lane. Lando stared at the instruments, looking for something amid all the signatures of tankers, freighters, and cargo scows. He watched for a particular signal -- one he'd managed to pull from Cloud City's central computer before his hasty departure from Bespin. No one knew he had the ship's signal: not the Alliance, not the Empire, not -- he hoped -- the ship's owner.
It all hung on that. Had his quarry guessed yet?
Chewie grunted something, reaching over and jerking Lando's controls. The gambler-turned-outlaw glanced up. He'd let the Falcon wander a bit too close to the shipping lanes. If it hadn't been for Chewie, he would've stared at the scope until he'd plowed into the side of a Tibanna tanker.
He muttered something unintelligible and looked back at the scope. And saw it.
Anyone who hadn't been looking specifically for that one peculiar signal would certainly have missed it; yet it was clear as an Ugnaught at a diplomatic function to Lando's eyes. Nearly eclipsed by the signal of an ore liner -- the guy sure had _kilpaks_, Lando had to admit, to fly so close to such a large vessel -- the ship rode the shipping lane like a shadow.
Lando keyed up the range-finder on the navicomputer, trying to be discreet, not to let Chewie know he'd found what they were looking for. A worked-up Wookiee didn't make good company, especially in a cramped little cockpit like the Falcon's. A few seconds later, the navicomputer responded with a soft _ping_.
A message appeared on the scope readout: SIGNAL LOCK 6AVV821J-SLV1...SEEKING.
Lando wiped a bead of sweat from his brow. This was it. He hoped he'd improved the tracking program enough to avoid detection, but there was always the chance...
He let out a slow, relieved breath. The signal's aspect hadn't changed: he was in. The computer wouldn't lose the signal...as long as he remained close.
"Uh," he said quietly, "Chewie?"
The Wookiee stared at him with eager, almost predatory, blue eyes, and voiced a "Hnnnnnh?" sound.
"I've got it. We found him."
Lando had flown out to the edge of a gas storm once, back on Bespin. The howling of the winds there had shaken the cockpit of his cloud car and left his ears ringing for two days. Chewbacca's roar of elation reminded him a lot of that noise.
"Easy there, big fella," Lando said, allowing himself to grin. "The hard part hasn't even started yet, you know."
With a barking laugh, Chewie slapped him on the shoulder. Lando sprawled against the controls. They'd developed a sort of camaraderie - - maybe even a limited trust, on Chewie's part -- over the past three months. It had taken a lot of work, and Lando knew it would never be complete until this whole grim business was over. Until he'd made amends.
He switched steering control over to Chewie's station and looked back at the scope as the Wookiee flew the Millennium Falcon into a small niche in the shipping lane, between a more legit spice freighter and some alien vessel Lando didn't recognize right away. It was a good hiding place -- Chewie was a smuggler, and he knew all the tricks. They could just ride the current of the transports bound the the Outer Rim until their quarry changed course.
Lando's lips tightened into a vicious little smile as he punched the magnification key on the scope. The signal the Falcon was tracking expanded to fill the screen, and Lando stared at it with venom.
"Hello, Fett," he murmured.
Boba Fett felt a prickling under his helmet. Something wasn't right.
The feeling had been building for some time now, a nagging itch that wouldn't go away. More than twenty-five years as a bounty hunter had told him to listen to his instincts. He scowled irritably, pulling down the sensor readout and staring into the viewfinder.
Nothing, nothing, nothing. His plan was airtight, his cargo safe. Glowering under his mask, he shoved the viewfinder back up out of the way. Three months floating from one dirt- hole spaceport to another, with only the occasional message from that bloated fool Jabba to keep him company, had frayed his nerves a little, he guessed.
He could have made a straight line from Bespin to the Hutt's palace, sure, but the long route threw off pursuit, rendered him invisible. Plus the wait was making Jabba restless, and that meant Fett might be able to drive his price up, if he bargained well.
He checked his proximity to the ore liner. Close enough that he could fly to it from the Slave I using his rocket backpack, if he'd wanted. He nodded once in satisfaction. The signal bleed from the liner would be enough to mask him from all but the most prying eyes -- if anyone knew what to look for, which they didn't.
It wasn't like the Slave I was _registered_ anywhere.
Trusting his computer to keep him in the liner's shadow, Fett unstrapped himself from his seat and climbed down from the cockpit into the ship's cramped interior. He walked past the rows of trophies hanging on the walls -- a pair of Gundark ears, the blaster-scorched uniform of a rogue Imperial commander he'd tracked down just last year, a crude quilt made of Wookiee scalps, and others -- to the hatch leading to the cargo hold. The best trophy of them all lay on the floor on the other side of that hatch...and he wasn't even going to be allowed to keep it. He punched the hatch's switch, and stepped through the door after it hissed open.
The hold was small and empty, except for a flat metal container. Stasis monitors flashed on its sides, indicating the being within was still alive, but showing signs of mild hibernation sickness. That was to be expected.
His armour jingling softly, Fett stalked toward the carbonite container. He felt a rush of triumph as he looked at the pained face of the man within, the hands raised vainly to ward off a danger he couldn't avoid. The man had been Fett's only constant company in the last three months.
But Boba Fett wasn't the kind who sought company.
He dropped to one knee beside the carbonite module. Then, with a sudden but smooth motion, the bounty hunter brought his rifle level with the man's frozen face.
"Solo," Fett said tonelessly. The muzzle of his gun remained perfectly still, a hair's breadth from Han Solo's left eye. "If only our friend Jabba hadn't wanted you alive."
He'd come down to the cargo hold countless times since leaving Bespin. He'd pointed his blaster at Solo each time, and each time it got harder to keep from pulling the trigger. It wasn't the fear of angering Jabba and losing his business that kept him from killing the smuggler outright -- the Hutts weren't the only ones who paid good money these days. No; somehow, it just wasn't right.
He wanted to shoot Han Solo dead more than anything in the galaxy, for reasons he'd tried to forget. But not this way. Within Fett's cold heart, there was a twisted sort of honour that kept telling him he'd only be satisfied if he killed Solo in a fair fight.
As it was, his trigger finger actually twitched.
"They'll be looking for you," Fett told his prize. He'd already heard rumours that Solo's Wookiee had been snuffling around Nathin III, maybe two weeks after Fett himself had been there. The woman -- Leia -- would be in on it, too. He didn't know how they'd escaped Darth Vader's clutches on Cloud City, but he guessed it had something to do with that boy Skywalker whom Vader had been so intent on.
"Let them look. They won't find you, will they?" Fett asked. No, of course they wouldn't. He'd see them coming light years away. Besides, he'd deliberately taken a route through the Galactic Core, just to throw off any rebels who might hop on his tail. He was in the clear.
His mind drifted back to the final days of the chase -- a chase that had begun well before Han had skipped out on Jabba. The price Jabba had put on Solo's head had only given Fett a focus for his driving urge to hunt down the smuggler.
Fett had used the trick of floating away with garbage dumped from Star Destroyers himself a couple of times. Anyone who'd been to the Imperial Academy, however briefly, could pull off a trick or two like that. He'd known what Solo was up to from the instant the Falcon had disappeared from the Avenger's scopes. Solo had thought he was safe, but he hadn't imagined someone like Fett would be watching for him -- Vader's stooges were the only ones who had concerned him.
That had been Solo's big mistake.
Finding the Millennium Falcon had been easy. Solo hadn't been particularly subtle, just zipping off away from the Anoat system after the fleet had finished deploying itself. Fett had picked up the Falcon easily, and followed it stealthily until he'd ascertained it was heading for Bespin. The only trouble had been keeping a fix on the smuggling ship's signal. The Millennium Falcon was a stealthy ship -- not nearly as stealthy as the Slave I, but what was? -- and it had taken a long time staring at his scanner readouts for Fett to secure a lock...
The bounty hunter stiffened suddenly, the prickling sensation returning with a vengeance. He muttered a curse, then turned and marched briskly back out of the cargo hold toward his cockpit. He knew what had been bothering him.
He should have trusted his instincts.
Lando smacked the terminal in the freighter's grubby lounge in disgust. He was sure the Millennium Falcon's computer cheated at sabaac For the third hand in a row, his cards had turned to nerf-dung in front of his eyes, just as he was laying them down. That _never_ happened in real life.
"Lousy piece of --" he growled, checking himself. Just because there wasn't anyone around to get offended by foul language, it didn't mean he should let his decorum slip. A good gambler always kept control of his temper, even when he was eight thousand credits in the hole.
_Maybe the blasted thing still hates me for losing it to Han in the first place_, he thought. He punched a key and the computer began to deal the next hand.
Eight of Coins. Five of Coins. Six of Coins. Nine of Coins.
Lando's mouth began to water in anticipation.
Ace of Sabres.
Stifling the curse that sprang to his lips, Lando weighed his odds: not good. Well, be honest -- mynock spit. Nothing to build on. Best to stand pat and wait for the first switch.
Suddenly the Ace of Sabres flickered on the screen. Lando tensed, then let out a loud whoop when it came back up Seven of Coins. He had a middle-straight: the computer would have to be nursing one hell of a hand to beat him this early in the round.
He almost laid down his cards then and there, but caught himself, his gambler's savvy kicking in. The odds were in his favour: now wasn't the time to end the game.
He raised the computer's wager by five hundred credits.
The computer saw his bet, and raised a thousand. Lando's skin felt clammy all of a sudden. Though it didn't mean a thing to a machine, he kept his straight face and raised another thousand.
After a minute of back-and-forth wagering, the pot held twenty thousand credits.
Lando couldn't believe it. Pots _never_ went up that fast, not even in the best casinos. It had taken at least ten minutes of feverish raising and counter-raising before he'd won Cloud City -- longer still to lose the Falcon. Yet there it was.
_Too bad it's not real money_, he thought. _Still--_
He couldn't take the suspense any more. He laid down his straight before the cards could turn on him. Lando smiled, imagining he could see the computer slump in defeat. "Come on, you rustbucket," he taunted. "Show me what you got."
The computer paused a moment, then the screen went black.
"Hey!" Lando snapped, leaning forward and swatting the terminal again, harder this time. "Quit being such a sore loser!"
The computer answered with a loud _blat_. Startled, Lando rocked back in his seat. A message appeared on the terminal screen in large red letters. It read:
PRIORITY SYSTEM OVERRIDE: SIGNAL LOCK COMPROMISED. UNABLE TO RE-
Lando _did_ curse that time, then sprang to his feet. As he sprinted toward the cockpit, he heard Chewbacca howling for him to hurry the hell up.
Alarm klaxons sounded on the bridge of the ore liner _Yingutsu_, waking Captain Duin Heshhil out of half-slumber. He stared around blearily. What in blazes would cause the alarms to go off in the _shipping lanes_?
"Proximity sensors, Cap!" shouted one of Heshhil's subordinates. "Someone's right on top of us -- I've never seen this kind of signal configuration before."
"Shields up," Heshhil cautioned, squinting out the bridge window. "Emergency stations. Charge the main guns." If some fool rammed his ship, he'd have him blown from the --
Suddenly a strange, elliptical ship roared right past the bridge, so close Heshhil could have spat on it through the window. He could imagine the paint on the Yingutsu's prow blistering in the wash of the ship's exhaust.
Duin Heshhil recognized the ship. He'd seen it once before, briefly, when the head of his trading syndicate had been desperate to track down a debtor. The bounty hunter Heshhil's boss hired had flown that same, unmistakable ship.
The bounty hunter's name had been Boba Fett.
Heshhil's mouth went dry. "Power down all weapons, _now_," he ordered. He turned to face his crew, his face pale and grave.
"None of you saw that ship," he breathed.
Chewbacca was frantically flipping switches and roaring like a wounded Nyloran lion-bear when Lando dashed into the cockpit and threw himself into the pilot's chair. The Wookiee pointed a hairy paw at the receding flare of the Slave I's engines and barked out a furious exclamation.
"I don't know!" Lando shouted back, guessing the meaning of Chewie's tirade. "He shouldn't have been able to spot us! I switched the Falcon's ID completely!"
Chewbacca snarled that that didn't change the fact that the Slave I was currently flying away at full speed.
"Hang on," Lando muttered, kicking in the Falcon's maneuvering thrusters. "I've got to get us out of this parking slip you put us in first." He twitched the steering controls from side to side, trying to give the freighter enough room to pull out of the shipping lane. He was still jiggling the ship back and forth a few moments later when he glanced up at the windscreen.
Lando did a double-take, not believing what he saw. The Slave I had turned around and was rocketing _toward_ the Falcon! "What in the--" he sputtered, gaping.
Fortunately Chewie had seen the ship coming, and he reacted faster than Lando. He had just enough time to angle the deflector shields before the bounty hunter's ship peppered the Falcon with brilliant red bolts of laser fire. Even so, the blasts scored the freighter's hull and caused the lights to dim momentarily all over the ship. Then the Slave I roared past, beginning to wheel around for another pass.
"Cocky bastard," Lando muttered.
Chewie howled impatiently, pointing out the windscreen.
"Hang on, I'm almost there," Lando snapped. He jerked the controls to starboard, then grinned, shunting power back to the main thrusters.
The Falcon roared free of the shipping lanes, arcing toward the Slave I. Chewbacca started to power up the quad lasers on the top of the ship, knowing he couldn't just blow Fett out of the sky. He'd have to wing him, and that took a surer shot than the computer could manage. He roared at Lando, pushing himself to his feet and lunging out of the cockpit.
"Where are you--" Lando began to ask, but the cockpit door hissed shut behind the Wookiee before the gambler could finish his question. Lando turned back to look out at the approaching shape of the Slave I. "Great," he muttered, hauling on the steering controls as Fett's ship fired a couple of shots across the Falcon's bow.
Lando turned the freighter, sending it into an evasive spin that made the stabilizers whine in protest. _This isn't how it was supposed to go_, he thought in frustration as the Slave I struck a glancing blow on the Falcon's aft quarter. The ship bucked wildly for a moment, throwing Lando halfway out of his seat. He struggled back up and strapped himself in. "Chewie!" he shouted into the ship's intercom.
The Wookiee answered with a staccato bark as he swung the quads around, mashing the firing buttons with his massive thumbs. A stutter of pink light erupted from the Falcon's guns, scattering around the pursuing Slave I.
"Hey, watch it!" Lando warned. "Han's in there!"
Chewie stated that he was quite aware of that with a roar that made the cockpit intercom speaker crackle. Lando winced.
The Slave I came on full-throttle, firing again and missing the Falcon's sensor dish by a hand's-breadth. Beside Lando, the scope viewscreen flickered and the scanning system overloaded and crashed, taking most of the Falcon's computer down with it. Lando threw the freighter into a dive just as Chewie sprayed the Slave I with blaster fire again.
This time, one of the Wookiee's shots found the mark. It sizzled through the Slave I's port-side vane-wing, and Boba Fett suddenly found himself spinning end-over-end. Snarling, the bounty hunter hauled on the controls. _Enough games_, he thought, struggling to keep control of his wounded ship. The Millennium Falcon wasn't worth the risk.
The Slave I turned jerkily and blasted away into space.
Chewie was leering with satisfaction when he returned to the cockpit. Lando grinned at him as he brought the Falcon around to pursue the bounty hunter. "Nice shooting, pal," he said.
The Wookiee wuffed thanks, taking the main controls back from Lando as the gambler tried to coax the computer back on- line. Ahead, the Slave I jinked spasmodically as it tried to put space between it and the freighter.
Lando finally managed to restart the navicomputer, but couldn't get a fix on the Slave I's signal. "He's jamming us," he told Chewie. "You're going to have to do this on manual."
Chewie grunted. He'd keep it on manual for years if he had to.
Outside, lambent hyperspace clouds scudded past as the Falcon inched its way closer to its prey. Grumbling, Chewbacca tried to pour more power into the main engines. Lando thought he could smell something smoking, but forced himself to ignore it.
"I'll see where he's headed," Lando offered, bringing up the star- chart on the navicomputer. He fed in their co- ordinates and heading, and waited a moment. A star system profile scrolled onto the terminal screen.
"Uh-oh," Lando remarked.
Chewie glared at him.
"We got trouble, pal," Lando noted. "We're only a couple of parsecs from the Shana'i system."
The Wookiee growled an irritated question.
"I'll _tell_ you so what," Lando snapped back. "Says here the Empire's got a big munitions plant there." He peered at the readout, then his eyes widened. "Plus a Class IV garrison."
Chewie barked a disgusted oath.
Lando glanced up at the Slave I. They were close, but not close enough. Fett would reach Shana'i before they could catch him. "Look, Chewie," the gambler insisted, "I don't want to tell you what we're up against--"
Chewbacca tried to silence him with a roar, but Lando didn't relent. "But I'm with you all the way down, if you want it that way," he finished.
For once, the Wookiee was silent. Grimly, he pushed the Falcon even faster. An instrument on the ceiling sparked furiously, and Lando cringed, reaching up to shut it off.
A red warning light started flashing on the Falcon's control console, and a buzzer rang out gratingly loud. "We're coming up on Shana'i," Lando noted. "I'm going to have to cut in the sub-light engines in a few seconds."
Chewie was almost whimpering in frustration. Ahead, the Slave I disappeared back into realspace. The Wookiee continued to press onward.
Lando waited a moment, watching as the hyperspace shadows of Shana'i's triple suns grew dangerously close on the scope. "Chewie?" he asked softly.
The Wookiee sank back into his seat in resignation, then grunted for Lando to drop the ship below light-speed.
A technician looked up from the multiple sensor screens on the bridge of the Star Destroyer _Wrathful_, then stood and ran to the edge of the control pit. "Captain Colldin!" he announced. "Two new signals at system edge!"
Captain Colldin had been gazing thoughtfully out the viewport at the once-verdant world of Shana'i III, where a battery of Imperial factories churned out a ceaseless supply of weapons for the war against the terrorist Alliance. He spun on one heel to glare down into the pit. "Profiles?"
"I can't get a reading from either vessel, sir. Sir, they're heading in- system at high speed."
Captain Colldin shrugged. "Helm, bring us around. We'll stare these interlopers down. Have all weapon stations report in." He thought a moment, then smiled. "Signal the _Expediter_. Have them join us. If these trespassers are rebel scum, they won't leave the system alive."
"I see them! I see them!" Lando snapped, trying his best to jury-rig the depleted deflector shields. Ahead, two pinpoints of light were moving out from deep in the star system, on an intercept course. "Star Destroyers, and about a million TIE Fighters, according to the scopes." He frowned. "I don't think we're going to catch him, Chewie."
The Wookiee raged at the too-distant form of Fett's ship, telling the bounty hunter which limb he was going to tear off first if he ever came face-to-face with him. He could see very plainly that the Star Destroyers and their TIEs would be down the Falcon's throat before they could overtake the Slave I, but he stubbornly kept on.
Lando watched in horror as the great wedge-shaped battle- cruisers grew ever-nearer, surrounded by a haze of fighters. A few brilliant green lances of laser fire lashed out at the freighter. The warning shots didn't seem to have any effect on Lando's co-pilot.
"Chewie," Lando whispered, unable to take his eyes off the Star Destroyers. More laser fire flashed around them, closer this time.
Chewbacca ignored it all, seeing only the impossibly remote Slave I.
"Chewie!" Lando repeated more forcefully. The Wookiee rounded on him, lips curled to reveal a mouthful of fangs, but Lando didn't back down. "You can't help him, pal," the gambler reasoned. "If we don't get out of here now, there won't be anyone left to rescue Han."
Chewbacca felt tears mist his eyes, and fought them back angrily. Back on Bespin, in the carbon-freeze chamber, Han had kept him from throwing his life away. "There'll be another time," his friend had told him.
The Wookiee realized this wasn't going to be it.
Reluctantly, petulantly, Chewbacca throttled down and brought the Falcon around, growling for Lando to make the jump back into hyperspace.
Captain Colldin wasn't surprised when the farther of the two unidentified vessels turned and vanished into infinity. "Track that one," he ordered his scan crew. He turned to the tactical station. "Have the forward batteries target the other ship and stand by."
In the control pits, officers silently obeyed their commander's orders. The scan crew were the first to report back. "Sir, the ship that fled is moving at a speed we cannot match," one officer reported.
Colldin scowled. Perhaps he and the captain of the _Expediter_ had been overzealous in their show of force. "Tactical?" he demanded.
"We have a firing solution, sir," responded his chief gunnery officer.
"Very good, Lieutenant," Colldin declared. "Stand by."
"Sir!" interrupted another crewman, elsewhere on the bridge.
Colldin whirled to face the communications station. "What is it?" he thundered.
The communications officer quailed, then held a hand to the earpiece of his headset. "The other vessel is transmitting a priority signal," he answered. "It's preceded by the security code of the _Executor_."
Everything on the bridge went silent, save the low thrumming of the _Wrathful_'s stardrive. Someone behind Colldin had the audacity to gasp. "What does it say?" the captain asked at length.
"It says the vessel belongs to a bounty hunter under Imperial commission and is not to be molested, sir," the communications officer reported. Suddenly his face turned ashen and he steadied himself against his console. "Sir, the message bears Lord Vader's personal security code."
Colldin's mouth tightened into a lipless grimace. He'd almost given the order to destroy a craft sanctioned by Darth Vader himself. He could almost feel his throat tightening. "Tactical," he commanded, a faint tremor in his voice, "stand down all weapons. Signal the _Expediter_ to do the same." He turned back to the communications station.
"Hail the ship," he ordered. "Ask him if -- we can be of any assistance."
Relannto Nyngith smiled when he saw the ship profile appear on his traffic control screen. It was forged: Relannto was about the only man in the sector able to recognize such a good fake, which was what had gotten him his posting as head controller of Mos Eisley Spaceport. His smile broadened when he cut through the forgery and saw the spice freighter's _true_ identity.
_Well, well_, he thought, opening a comm channel. _Look who's back_.
"Freighter _Kessel's Bane_," he announced, unable to keep from chuckling softly at the ship's fake name, "this is Mos Eisley control. You are cleared for approach. Please proceed to Docking Bay 35."
"Copy, control. Transmitting approach vector now."
Relannto stopped, frowning, and checked the scope again. Quickly he keyed in an encryption filter for the comm channel. "That you, Solo? It sure didn't sound like you."
He received silence as a reply. After a moment, the voice came over the comm again, distinctly subdued. "This had better be a secure channel, control."
"Of course it is," Relannto huffed. "This _isn't_ Solo, is it? Isn't that the Millennium Falcon?"
"Negative, control," the voice replied pointedly. "This is the _Kessel's Bane_, and if you know what's good for you, that's what you'll tell anyone who asks. Got that?"
"Copy," Relannto answered, his concern growing. "Who is this?"
"A friend of Han's," the voice replied. "I can't say anything more." Relannto could hear the grunting of a Wookiee in the background, and smiled. That sounded like Chewbacca, anyway. After a moment, the voice came back on. "Has a ship come through here in the past while, kind of elliptical-shaped with a thing like a handle sticking out of it, steering vanes on the sides ?"
Relannto pursed his lips. This was getting a bit strange, and he was worried about Han. He and the smuggler had been through a lot together. He paged through the record logs for the past few weeks, then turned the comm channel back on. "Nothing meeting that description," he answered. "You looking for someone?"
The channel remained awkwardly silent for a while. "Um, yeah," the voice replied softly, "we're looking for someone." In the background, the Wookiee muttered again. "Proceeding to Docking Bay 35, control. _Kessel's Bane_ out."
The channel clicked closed.
Relannto leaned back, staring at the ship's forged profile in perplexity. Something was wrong, but he couldn't place it.
Then a shuttlecraft from a Bestinese cruiser signalled its approach, and Relannto Nyngith forgot about Han Solo and the _Kessel's Bane_ for the time being.
Lando turned to Chewbacca, pulling the brow of his cap down to shield his eyes from the scouring sand as the landspeeder he'd "acquired" skimmed over the Dune Sea. "How far is this place, anyway?" he asked, half-shouting to be heard over the whine of engines and the roar of the wind.
Chewie groaned in reply, squinting ahead against the light of Tatooine's twin suns. Lando figured it was a safe bet the Wookiee had told him it wasn't far.
"The kid had better be here," Lando muttered, more to himself than the Wookiee, who was intent on driving the speeder. "It's been a long time since we left him and Leia on that cruiser. A lot could have happened."
Chewbacca snapped back, his temper rising. Of course Luke would be there.
Sure enough, when they came within sight of the shabby old house on the edge of the Jundland Wastes, both gambler and Wookiee could see an old tri-engine landspeeder hovering nearby. Lando grinned at the sight of the battered, rust-coloured vehicle: at least _he'd_ had the sense to get his hands on one of the flashy, new XP-38 models.
Chewie had barely brought the speeder to a halt when he vaulted onto the sand and started loping toward the house. Lando stumbled after him, trying to catch up.
The abandoned hermit's shack looked derelict, the door swinging loosely in the hot sirocco breeze. "Anyone home?" Lando shouted into the darkened house.
A black-robed figure suddenly appeared out of the shadows. Lando's eyes widened, and Chewie roared in alarm as both envisioned the gargoyle-like form of Darth Vader. Then the man cast back his hood to reveal the weathered face of the kid Lando and Chewie had said good-bye to months ago.
Chewbacca immediately smothered Luke Skywalker in a bone- crunching hug.
"Hey there, kid," Lando said, eyeing Luke after Chewie finally released him. "What's with the get-up?"
Luke looked down self-consciously at the robe he'd found inside Obi-Wan Kenobi's old house. "Traditional Jedi garb," he replied, stepping aside so Chewie could duck into the house and out of the baking heat. Lando followed, and Luke regarded him with a half-smile. "I might ask you the same question."
The gambler beamed, spreading his arms wide to display his full regalia: shiny gold tunic over blue breeches and high boots, with a deep blue cape overtop. He doffed his blue, plumed cap rakishly. He even wore an eyepatch over his left eye. "I'm in disguise," he stage- whispered. "I didn't want to attract any attention. Name's Penfen Royle, if anyone asks."
A female voice came out of the shadows of Ben Kenobi's sitting room. "Isn't it hard to be incognito with a Wookiee by your side?" she asked.
Lando strode across the room to where a short young woman with long, dark hair sat, smiling at him. "Actually, a good Wookiee's better than just about anything for keeping people from asking too many questions," he replied, accepting the water-flask she offered and taking a long pull from it. Behind him, Chewie chuckled. "Hello, Leia."
She stood up, offering her hand for him to kiss. He was still a bit sweet on her, in spite of all the bad feelings she'd had over what had happened to Han. "I'm sorry we couldn't catch that bounty hunter at Shana'i," he apologized, passing the flask to Chewbacca, who drained it in one long gulp.
"You did all you could," she answered, but her eyes were looking far away, at what could have been. "We can still try again, at Jabba's palace."
"The message you sent to Mos Eisley said you had a plan," Lando prompted, turning back to Luke.
Luke nodded gravely, then gestured at the crude benches in the sitting area. "Please, sit," he said. When the group had gathered around the table where, not so long ago, Luke had first shown Obi-
Wan the hologram of Leia, the Jedi errant folded his hands in front of him. "First, are you sure Fett hasn't arrived yet?"
Lando bobbed his head. "He'll be playing it safe, especially since that close call we had. He won't reach Jabba's palace for a while."
Leia leaned forward. "Then we'd better go ahead with Luke's plan to rescue Han."
Lando flipped his eyepatch up onto his forehead, blinking and rubbing his eye. "So tell us what it is, already."
Luke told them.
When he'd finished, Lando whistled. "That plan's full of holes large enough to fly the Falcon through," he noted. "I mean, you're assuming we can all get into the palace all right, and that Jabba doesn't kill you outright when you show up, and that when he does decide put you to death he'll take you to this Pit of Carkoon place instead of just having you shot, and that you can catch a light sabre fired out of the top of an Artoo unit -- and that five of us, plus the droids, can take out Fett, Jabba, and whatever uglies he's got with him at the time." He paused, licked his lips. "Am I missing anything?"
Luke had on his best broad, trust-me grin. "No."
"Okay," Lando said slowly. He raised his eyebrows. "You've got to admit," he said, "the odds _do_ look a little long."
"I'll take care of everything," Luke said cryptically. Maybe it was the tone of the kid's voice, but Lando actually believed him a little.
"It's our best chance to save Han," Leia said earnestly. "And a lot of the odds depend on you, since you're the first one in."
"True," Lando said.
"That's the crux of the plan," Luke agreed. "You have to be inside before the rest of us. It could be months: the Alliance might call Leia away, and I still have some Jedi training ahead of me. We won't be able to speak to you in all that time." He stared intently at Lando, who had the eerie feeling the kid was looking straight inside him. "Are you willing to do that?"
Lando's head was swimming. Months in Jabba's palace, surrounded by the most vicious scum in the galaxy, huh? Charming. "Well, it's not exactly the same as administrating a gas mining installation," he said with a sly half-smile, "but I'm a gambler by nature. Besides," he added, suddenly deadly serious, "I owe Han one."
The great door of Jabba's palace stood half-open as Lando made his way up the road. His black leather clothes were hot under the desert suns, and the metal plates were heavy and awkward. And he could barely see for the blasted teeth festooning the faceguard of his helmet. He wished he'd put a bit more thought into the practicality of his latest disguise.
_Too late to turn back_, he thought, feeling sweat trickle down his face as he trudged up the packed-dirt road. Ahead, he could see some of Jabba's toadies loitering around the palace's main keep. _Take it easy_, he told himself. _Just remember -- you're one of them_.
He tried not to meet the gazes of the smugglers, crime lords and killers gathered around the doors as he cast about, looking for one figure in the crowd. As it happened, that one figure found him.
"Die wanna wanga?"
Lando glanced around, saw a Twi'lek in brown robes, his cranial tentacles wrapped stylishly around his shoulders. Bib Fortuna red eyes narrowed as he regarded Lando.
"Die wanna wauaga," Lando replied. He could understand most of what Fortuna said; every good underworld-type knew a smattering of Huttese. It was good business sense for a gambler, anyway, since the Hutts held so much of the galaxy's non- Imperial money.
Bib Fortuna looked him up and down. "You are new here," he said. It wasn't a question. "You wish to see the mighty Jabba."
Lando hoped the elaborate chin-guard of his helmet hid the way his lip curled. "I wish to enter his employ. Name's Tyl Remaz."
Fortuna smiled, revealing a mouthful of pointed teeth. "Many seek to work for Jabba. What have you to offer?"
Lando knew all about this kind of back-and-forth banter from countless hours at the sabaac table. He decided it was time to bluff. "I'm good with this," he said, holding out his pole- axe and wishing he'd been able to bring a blaster instead.
Fortuna nearly laughed. "We have plenty of strong-arms," he said, waving a long-nailed hand at a pair of hulking Gamorreans slouching just inside the palace.
Lando glanced disinterestedly at the tusked, smelly creatures. Time to pull the Ace out of his sleeve, he decided. He hoped it didn't turn into a Deuce on him before he could lay it down. "How many of them worked for Sempoor Usk?"
Fortuna had been turning to leave. He stopped, then turned back, very slowly. "Sempoor Usk was murdered four months ago."
"Not on _my_ shift."
Fortuna smiled indulgently. Sempoor Usk had been a crime lord in another part of the galaxy. His right-hand man had killed him and taken over his syndicate. Bib hadn't missed the implied parallel: he'd coveted Jabba's operation for some time now. "I will take you to Jabba now," he said after a moment.
Smiling behind his mask, Lando followed the Twi'lek into the depths of the palace.
For all he'd heard of the gangster, Lando had never actually _seen_ Jabba the Hutt before. Standing before the corpulent, immobile monster, he decided this had been a good thing.
Even considering his race's general unattractiveness, Jabba was as ugly as a Tanaaban tree weevil. He had a sickly cast about him, like he hadn't been in full sunlight for decades; his pupils were dilated from puffing too much on the spice-pipe next to him; his girth nearly spilled off the dais he sprawled upon; hell, even his _nostrils_ were uneven. Plus he stank.
Lando's mouth contorted briefly in disgust before he remembered just how serious his situation was.
Jabba didn't seem to notice him right away. That was good: it meant he blended in. Lando decided to circumspectly glance around the throne room.
He quickly came to the realization that, being human, he was in a distinct minority in Jabba's court. That lessened his chances of being recognized by the courtiers -- a lot of aliens had trouble telling one human from another. On the other hand, if he was spotted doing something he wasn't supposed to do, he'd have a hell of a time conning people into believing it was someone else they'd seen.
_Worry about that later_, he told himself, noting a few folks he thought he'd met before -- the spice smuggler Ree-Yees, the bounty hunter Amanaman, that useless piece of filth Ishi Tib. He decided to steer clear of Tib: he'd beaten the bird- faced alien rather badly in a recent sabaac game. If Tib was serious about carrying grudges, he might blow Lando's cover.
Fortuna was on the dais, whispering in Jabba's ear and pointing at Lando. The Hutt eyed him blearily, clearly annoyed at having been roused out his spice-induced narcosis. Nestled inside Jabba's coiled, twitching tail, the crimelord's pet lizard-monkey jabbered unintelligibly at Lando and laughed. The gambler tried not to shiver.
Jabba motioned Fortuna away, beckoned to Lando with an obese, stubby-fingered arm. "Bo shuda," he rumbled, then wiped a crust of green slime from the corner of his mouth.
Lando stepped forward, trying not to let his nose wrinkle at the smell of the Hutt and his courtiers, some of whom looked to have never bathed in their lives. "I offer my services, Mighty One," he said clearly, calmly, bowing.
Jabba rapped his knuckles together thoughtfully, not deigning to switch from Huttese to Galactic Basic for the benefit of this foolish human. "My advisor tells me you worked for Sempoor Usk before his - - _unfortunate_ demise." The spectre of a smile played on the Hutt's lips. He'd made considerable gains in three other sectors thanks to Usk's death and his usurper's inept management of his crime empire. "Surely you know I cannot verify this. Usk's records were destroyed in the fighting after his death."
No kidding, Lando thought. He leaned arrogantly on his pole-axe. "Surely you've _heard_ of me, Jabba," he stated plainly. "I made quite a name for myself in Sempoor's gang."
"His name's Tyl Remaz--" Bib Fortuna inserted helpfully.
"You _told_ me his name," Jabba snapped. "I've never heard of a Remaz."
Lando swallowed hard. This was the hardest part of the game, and he had to play well, or he'd wind up paying an early, unexpected visit to the Pit of Carkoon. He stared flintily at Jabba. "Well then, your spies in Sempoor's gang obviously weren't as loyal as you thought." He half-turned, as if he meant to leave. "Maybe I don't want to work in such a shoddy operation after all."
Jabba was livid. He poised his hand over a button on his throne. One push, and this upstart would be Rancor fodder. Seething, he forced himself to relax as his courtiers closed around Lando, preventing him from leaving. "You'd do well not to take such a tone with me, Remaz," Jabba thundered. "You never know what might happen to you."
Lando turned back to face the Hutt, a broad, toothy grin splitting his face. "Now _that_ sounds more like the Jabba I've heard so much about," he said. Behind him, he heard the sound of several blasters being drawn from their holsters. Steeling himself, he coolly ran a finger along the blade of his pole-axe. "Tell your twerps to put their toys away before I get angry."
Bib Fortuna hissed at Lando, his pale red eyes narrowing to slits. Beside him, Jabba seemed to shrug, and waved dismissively. "Put up your weapons, boys," he commanded. After a moment, his guards slid their guns back into their holsters. Jabba stared hard at Lando, not knowing what to make of him. "You've got _kilpaks_, Remaz," he said at length, a cruel mirth creeping into his tone. "You're my kind of scum."
"Good," Lando replied quickly. "Maybe we can start talking about my price, then."
Jabba blinked his spice-heavy eyelids in confusion, then started to laugh. "Don't insult me, Remaz," he said. "Someone as resourceful as you ought to know I don't like to haggle."
Lando folded his arms across his chest. "You don't have to if you don't want to," he said. "I'm asking sixty thousand a cycle. No less."
The smile vanished from Jabba's face. Behind Lando, the courtiers muttered, tensely expecting their master to fly into a rage. Instead, he reached for his spice-pipe and puffed thoughtfully on it for a moment. Bubbles rose in the pipe's oil- bowl, and cloying smoke seeped from the corners of the Hutt's mouth.
A droplet of sweat slid down Lando's cheek.
"I like your style, Remaz," Jabba said slowly, "and that's why I'm going to forget you ever tried to dictate a price to me."
Lando didn't react. This was all part of the game. Confidence tricks were a delicate business, but Calrissian was good at what he did. He was playing Jabba like a kloo horn.
"You'll start on sentry duty in my dungeon immediately," Jabba continued. "Standard wage is forty-five thousand credits a cycle. No exceptions."
Lando nodded once, slowly. "I assume pay increases from there."
"Then, Jabba, you've got yourself a deal," Lando concluded, smiling. "You won't regret this."
"I expect not," the Hutt stated coldly. He twisted his massive bulk so he could peer behind him. "Talkdroid!"
"Yes, Your Majesty?" came a mechanical voice from behind Jabba. A tarnished silver Threepio droid stumbled from the chamber behind the dais. "How may I serve you?"
Jabba motioned at Lando. "Obtain a contract from Mister Remaz here, and show him to quarters," he boomed, then turned back to Lando. "I expect you on duty promptly for your next shift."
"I'll be there," Lando answered. He turned to go, waving for the crowd of courtiers to part. "Pardon me, gentlemen," he said.
"Sir! Wait!" cried the silver protocol droid, tottling after him.
Once he was out of the throne room, Lando took several deep gulps of fresh air and tried to calm his thundering heart. The droid clanked to a stop behind him. "If you'll follow me, your quarters are this way," the robot stated, shuffling off toward a waiting elevator. Gritting his teeth, Lando followed after.
"You can access staff lists, palace maps, and rules of conduct on the computer terminal," the droid chattered as he showed Lando around his cramped quarters. "If you desire an alternate climate, you can bring it up here." The robot motioned at a wall panel with temperature, humidity and air pressure controls.
_Damn right I want another climate_, Lando thought. He was half- dead from the heat inside his cumbersome uniform. The droid moved on to describe Lando's toiletry facilities, which were barely above rudimentary. Lando began to understand why the throne room smelled like the lower levels of Mos Eisley's sewers.
He watched as the droid finished its brief tour of the facility. "I will require a code signal on your contract, sir," the silver Threepio proclaimed, moving back to the computer terminal and keying up a complex document. Lando didn't doubt Jabba had contrived the contract to cheat his employees out of as many credits as possible.
As the droid read off the contract's convoluted terms, Lando removed his helmet with one hand and wiped his sweat- soaked forehead with the other. Then he reached inside the helmet and pulled a small memory wafer from its lining. Tossing the headgear aside, Lando reached out and deftly flicked a switch on the Threepio unit's neck, shutting it off in mid- sentence.
He scrambled to keep the suddenly inert droid from clattering noisily to the floor, then quickly flipped its back panel open. Within seconds, he'd slid the memory wafer into the droid's circuitry, sealed the robot's back panel up again, and switched it back on.
The droid didn't seem to notice; it just went prattling on about the conditions of Lando's termination, should he violate any of Jabba's rules. Lando smiled. The first part of the program he'd placed on the memory wafer was working perfectly. The Threepio unit had no memory of having been switched off in the first place. As far as it knew, nothing unusual had happened.
Lando was even prouder of the second part of the program. He'd written it himself, and considered it extremely elegant. As he entered Tyl Remaz's forged personal code on the contract, he found himself hoping he wouldn't have to wait long before it came into play.
Boba Fett stared down at the pewter-coloured, coffin-like module that floated along the road ahead of him. "This is it, Solo," he hissed at the frozen form inside the carbonite block. "Jabba the Hutt has been waiting a _long_ time for this." Under his helmet, the bounty hunter allowed himself a cold smile. "And so have I."
The sky was dark, the main doors shut when Fett arrived at Jabba's palace. He rapped on the huge metal portal in annoyance with a gauntleted fist. He'd hoped there would be more people around -- he'd even repainted parts of his armour so he could make a grand entrance. Fett disdained flamboyance, but a certain amount was necessary to maintain his reputation as the most infamous bounty hunter in the galaxy.
A large metal eye telescoped out of a hatch in the door and stared at Fett. "Te chuta hhat yud," it said.
Fett glared at it and said nothing. After a moment, the eye relented and disappeared into the palace again. The main door groaned open.
Bib Fortuna was waiting there, flanked by brutish Gamorreans. Fett didn't give the grunts a second glance. If things went wrong, he could take them both down before they even raised their weapons. The bounty hunter slid the carbonite capsule forward.
Fortuna's eyes widened in delight when he saw the agonized grimace on Han Solo's face. He reached out and touched the frozen fingers. "Yes, yes," he crowed, checking the module's readouts and confirming the prisoner was still alive. "Jabba will be pleased with this." He began to pull the carbonite capsule with him.
Fett slammed a hand down on the dull metal surface and shot a warning glance that stilled the restless Gamorreans. "No," the bounty hunter said, "he stays with me. Take me to Jabba."
Fortuna glanced into the darkness of the palace's inner depths, his hands clenching and unclenching nervously. "Jabba is sleeping --" he began.
"Then wake him," Fett interjected harshly. "Now."
Fortuna looked like he might protest. Fett moved, slightly, resting the heel of his hand on his rifle. The Twi'lek shut his toothsome mouth and whirled. "Nudd chaa," he told Fett, then hurried off ahead to rouse his master.
Boba Fett wouldn't be rushed, though. Pushing the hovering carbonite capsule in front of him, he stalked slowly after Bib Fortuna.
Jabba was wearing his broadest predatory grin when Fett finally reached the throne room. The chamber was virtually empty, save a few of the Hutt's most loyal retainers. Everything was deathly quiet, and Jabba's eyes gleamed in the low light as the bounty hunter slid the frozen form of Han Solo into the room.
"At last!" Jabba rejoiced. "I've been waiting a long time for this. I lost too many good men trying to catch him, but now Han Solo is finally mine. You've done well, Fett my boy."
Fett didn't move. "He isn't yours yet," he noted.
Jabba's smile never wavered. "No, of course not." He motioned behind him. "Talkdroid!"
Boba Fett took the opportunity to look around the room, noting the few others that lingered in the court. He recognized most of the figures, although there were one or two newcomers as well. He spied two faces in particular -- faces he hadn't seen since he'd stood before Darth Vader on the bridge of the _Executor_ a year ago. One of them, Bossk, glared balefully at him with his bloodshot eyes, still obviously angry Fett had gotten to Solo instead of him.
On the other side of the room, Dengar favoured Fett with a brief, sly grin. Fett nodded once, slowly, in reply. Dengar had been willing to run interference for Fett, in return for a share of the reward for Solo. He'd managed to draw all the other bounty hunters away from the Millennium Falcon's trail -- all except IG-88. The assassin droid had arrived at Bespin not long after Fett himself, but Fett had dealt with him. To the best of Fett's knowledge, IG-88 was still sprawled next to a scrap metal furnace deep inside Cloud City's core.
A battered silver protocol droid stumbled to Jabba's side, its arms twitching nervously, and Fett returned his attention to the massive Hutt. "I am here, Your Majesty," the droid declared.
Fett glowered from behind his mask. Trust Jabba to use an interpreter when both Hutt and bounty hunter could understand each other perfectly well. This kind of nonsense was supposed to distance Jabba from the dirty business of haggling, and give him an advantage.
"Inform my guest he will be paid the eighty thousand credits immediately, as promised," Jabba said, never taking his eyes off the armoured bounty hunter and Solo's frozen form.
"You are to be paid eighty--" the droid echoed, dutifully translating from Huttese to Basic for its master.
"There were unforeseen difficulties," Fett interrupted. "The Millennium Falcon nearly shot me down near Shana'i. I had to pay the Empire to repair the Slave I. My price has gone up to a hundred and ten."
"One hundred and ten thousand is his counter-offer," the protocol droid recited in Huttese.
Jabba roared in fury, thrashing his tail and sending his pet lizard-monkey skittering across the throne room. "I should kill you right here, Fett," he snapped. "We signed a contract. The agreement was eighty thousand!"
Fett was unfazed by the Hutt's fury. He waited for the protocol droid to translate, milking Jabba's impatience for all he could.
The protocol droid's head twitched to the side for a moment, drawing a puzzled glance from Bib Fortuna. It seemed to be having trouble performing the translation for some reason. "Jabba the Hutt agrees to your demands," the droid said in Basic, "and raises the reward to one hundred and fifty thousand credits."
Everyone in the room stared incredulously at the protocol droid, which looked around in confusion. Even Fett was surprised. Sputtering, Jabba sent the droid stumbling back to crash against a wall with a swing of his rubbery arm. At the edge of the room, in the shadows of a doorway, Lando Calrissian smiled behind his helmet as the droid struggled to its feet again. The second program on the implanted memory wafer was working perfectly.
"What kind of trick is this?" Fett asked slowly, his suspicion growing.
"Talkdroid!" Jabba thundered, rounding on the droid as it staggered back to his side. "Tell him the agreement was eighty thousand!"
The droid's head jerked sideways again, and it turned to face Fett. "The Great Jabba the Hutt demands that you leave immediately. Take Captain Solo with you when you--"
Bib Fortuna hurriedly switched the Threepio droid off.
Spittle sprayed from Jabba's lips as he regarded the inert protocol droid, which had crashed to the stone floor. "Have that thing disintegrated," he ordered Fortuna. "And tell Eve- Ninedenine I need a new protocol droid."
Fett's shoulders were shaking slightly in silent, mocking laughter. Jabba's mood blackened even further when he saw this. "Eighty thousand!" he barked, feeling his control of the situation slipping away.
Fett shrugged. "Perhaps I _will_ leave, after all." He began to wheel the carbonite capsule around. A guard moved to intercept the bounty hunter, but he fell to floor a second later, a smouldering hole blasted through his chest. Fett returned his rifle to its ready position again. "Tell your goons to stay back, unless they want to end up like that one," he said, nodding at the corpse on the floor.
The other courtiers didn't need telling; they shrunk away from the bounty hunter as he walked slowly toward the door.
Jabba goggled helplessly at Fett's back. "Wait!" he shouted, knowing he'd been beaten. He wanted Solo more than the extra money anyway. It was a matter of principle. "One hundred thousand!" he offered.
Fett stopped, turned slowly to face the Hutt again. "Did I hear that right?" he asked, his tone slightly derisive. "Nothing got lost in the translation this time?"
Jabba fumed at the bounty hunter, hating Fett for his glacial calmness. "I'm only paying you more than the agreed-upon price because you're the best, Fett," he rumbled. "One hundred thousand. My final offer."
Fett drummed his fingers on the surface of the carbonite, savouring Jabba's nervous anticipation. Hutts were so easily agitated. "All right," the bounty hunter said finally. "One hundred. Have it transferred to my name immediately."
Jabba nodded, waving to Fortuna. His major domo hurried out of the room, followed by two Gamorreans carrying the defunct protocol droid. Jabba turned back to face Fett. "Bring Solo to me," he told the bounty hunter.
His armour jingling softly with each slow step, Fett pushed the carbonite container over to the dais. He stepped back, letting Jabba leer down at the trapped form of Han Solo, and looked around the room. He felt an odd, familiar prickling as his eyes passed over one helmeted guard, and frowned.
"Mount him there," Jabba ordered his retainers, gesturing at a blank space on a wall to his right. "Leave him frozen. I want to savour this a long time." His eyes lingered on Solo's twisted face. "A long time..."
Jabba's throne room was dark and all but empty as Lando crept in from the depths of the palace. Here and there the gambler could see the forms of the Hutt's retainers, sleeping off a night of heavy drinking. Some of them snored, but none stirred.
Lando stole a glance toward the dais where Jabba normally lay, even when he slept. It was empty, marked only by the dark, stained blankets that kept Jabba's flabby flesh from chafing against the stone platform. Lando afforded himself a nod of grim satisfaction.
It had been a month since he'd first arrived at the palace, a week since Fett had delivered Han. He'd swiftly worked his way up from dungeon duty to a posting in the throne room, and expected to be promoted to skiff guard soon. This was the first time since the bounty hunter's arrival that the throne room had been vacant. Jabba, Fortuna, and any courtiers who could walk had gone out for a cruise on the Hutt's sail barge as part of the ongoing celebrations marking Solo's capture. Lando figured they were probably going to throw some of the gangster's prisoners into the Sarlacc while they were there, just for fun.
Just like the kid's plan said it would be with Luke, Han and Chewie. And it would be up to Lando -- with a little help from the others -- to save their hides. He still didn't like the odds of surviving that blowout, but it was better than giving up on Han.
Lando stared across the room at the softly lit alcove where the frozen smuggler hung, a grim reminder to all who entered the palace of what awaited those who failed Jabba the Hutt. The gambler clenched his fists, then looked around him to make sure he was alone. Certain no one had followed him, Lando slipped down the stairs past a row of tinkling wind chimes and crept toward the carbonite capsule.
Han's tormented face seemed to watch him accusingly as he stole up to the wall. Lando had been hoping for this chance for a long time now -- a chance to be alone with Solo. It sure raised a lot of ghosts for Calrissian.
He examined the display panels on the side of the capsule. The life-sign indicator still glowed green, and the bio-readouts concurred. Han was alive, and in hibernation.
That hibernation had been perfect in Cloud City, but hibernation states weren't very stable, and Han wasn't in as good a shape as he'd been in when Vader had turned the smuggler over to Fett. The instruments all pointed to a case of acute Stage One hibernation sickness. Han would be disoriented, feverish, and temporarily blind when he was thawed out of the carbonite. A couple more months, and his illness would evolve to Stage Two: he'd be deaf, too, as well as physically atrophied and mentally unbalanced. Stage Three meant insanity and eventual death to all but the strongest captives.
Lando caught himself as he reached out for the thawing controls that would free Han of his metal tomb. True, he could grab Han and try to make a run for it, but he didn't have the security pass-
codes he needed to get out of the palace. He was as much a prisoner as his old friend.
And not everyone was away on the sail barge. Fett, for one, had eschewed his own party and was still somewhere in the building.
Lando dropped his hand to his side. No, he'd have to stick by Luke's plan, as preposterous as it seemed. He took a couple of quick steps back from the carbonite capsule and stared up at Han's pained face.
"This is my fault," he muttered. "If it wasn't for me, you and Leia would be safe together, with Chewie and Luke and the droids. But you aren't, because I gave in to Vader and that bounty hunter.
"I'm sorry, old buddy." Lando felt his lower lip quiver, his eyes flood with warm tears. "I didn't think things would end up like this. I was looking out for myself, and I forgot others might get hurt. I told you I didn't have a choice, but I did; I just didn't want to face that choice."
Han's face didn't change, of course. No forgiveness seemed forthcoming.
"Y'know," Lando said, his lips curling into a smile, "I keep thinking about the old times, before you got mixed up with Jabba, the Rebellion and the Empire. Back when we used to fly around raising hell together. Remember?
"It sure didn't last long, did it?" He looked down at the floor. "Blast it, Han, I didn't think I'd say this, not after all we've been through, but I miss you."
"How touching," a soft voice drawled behind him.
Lando froze, his throat tightening. He turned to make a run for it.
"I wouldn't do that," warned the voice, sounding bored.
"Fett," Lando hissed, turning to face the bounty hunter.
Boba Fett stood on the other side of the throne room, his rifle casually nestled in the crook of his arm, its barrel pointed at Lando's head. Stealthily, he swaggered into the court. "Hello, Calrissian," he said. Lando jerked at the sound of his name, and Fett's voice turned cruel, mocking. "Did you think I wouldn't recognize you?" he scoffed. "I saw you when I first arrived."
"Why didn't you turn me over to Jabba, then?" Lando rasped, barely able to speak. He could see all the carefully constructed plans for rescuing Han beginning to crumble.
The bounty hunter stopped, keeping his blaster trained on Lando. "There was nothing in it for me," he said. "You don't have a price on your head, and you've never crossed me, Calrissian. I don't have anything against you." He paused, angling his head menacingly. "Not as long as you step away from Solo _now_."
Keeping his hands out in front of him, wishing again that he had a blaster of his own, Lando took several steps toward Fett, leaving Han's frozen form behind him. "What do you care what happens to Han?" he asked. "You've been paid."
"Pay's got nothing to do with it, in Solo's case," Fett snarled. "It's personal between him and me." He thought a moment, then seemed to relax. "I was going to leave Tatooine soon, Calrissian. There's work for me elsewhere in the galaxy. But you've changed my mind."
Lando smiled wanly, gave a weak laugh. "It's not too late to change it back."
Fett chuckled silently, but there was still a palpable air of danger around him that kept Lando ill at ease. "I don't know what your game is, Calrissian," the bounty hunter stated, "but I'm going to find out." He turned his back on Lando then, lowering his rifle as he walked away. The gambler could only watch him leave.
As Fett was about to step out of Jabba's throne room, he paused, and turned back to look at Lando, who hadn't moved. "I wouldn't mind if you and your rebel friends tried to free him," he said, nodding toward Han. "In fact, I think I might appreciate it. I enjoyed the chase so much, I'd hate to see it end this way. It'd be so much more satisfying to shoot Solo dead."
Lando squared his shoulders, trying to stare down Fett. "You'd have to go through me first."
Fett turned and stalked out of sight, his shoulders shaking with silent laughter.
When he returned to his quarters, Lando threw off his helmet and spent a long moment sitting on his cot with his head between his knees, trying to catch his breath.
He knew. Fett _knew_.
_He's right, you know_, he told himself. The bounty hunter had no real reason to betray Lando to Jabba. But the gambler still felt nauseated, just knowing Boba Fett could have blown a hole in his back in the throne room, and he never would have known.
He felt vulnerable, like he'd never felt before. Lando had always been careful to make sure, no matter how bad his situation was, that there was always a safe way out. That he could walk away. Things had backfired before, of course -- most recently when Darth Vader altered his bargain at Cloud City - - but it wasn't the same. He'd known he couldn't walk away from this, from the beginning. It had been stupid, it had been foolish, it had been downright insane.
It was the kind of idiot thing Han would do.
Thinking of the smuggler -- his friend -- trapped and helpless and dying by degrees on the wall of Jabba's throne room, Lando found his focus. He drew the back of his hand across his eyes and looked around the room.
Well, if he was in over his head, he wasn't going to paddle around any longer than absolutely necessary. He stood up and grabbed his pole axe. It was a crude weapon, like most of the mainly ceremonial arms Jabba's guards carried, so it didn't attract much attention.
Which was good, he thought as he twisted off the weapon's head. He reached into the hollowed-
out shaft and produced a small, cylindrical metal device. Lando smiled. Fett had said he didn't know his game: well, let him find out. The gambler flipped a switch on the tiny transmitter, and it sent out a plain, clear signal out across Tatooine.
Time to start the game.
The black-robed figure hunched over a worktable in the derelict old hermit's cottage at the edge of the Jundland Wastes. Before him lay a foot-long cylindrical device. He eyed it critically, traced its edges with cyborg fingertips, and smiled.
Luke Skywalker had spent a long time teaching himself to build a new light sabre. Now that he was finished, he was another step closer to becoming a Jedi Knight. Still, he reminded himself, he wouldn't be able to claim that honour until Yoda conferred it upon him.
Yoda. Had it really been almost a year since he'd left Dagobah, childishly believing he could rescue his friends, that he could face Darth Vader and, if not defeat the Dark Lord of the Sith, at least emerge unscathed?
Luke thought of the black-armoured monstrosity standing on the wind control gantry in Cloud City's central shaft, his hand outstretched, beckoning. "No," Vader had said. "_I_ am your father."
His father. It was true, Luke realized, no matter how much he wanted to deny it. He would ask Yoda when he returned to Dagobah, but the Jedi Master would merely tell him what he already knew.
Luke looked around Obi-Wan's house, which had been abandoned until he'd returned a month ago, to rendezvous with Lando and Chewie. "Why didn't you tell me?" he whispered at the empty room, half-expecting Ben Kenobi's spirit to materialize before him.
Instead, See-Threepio bustled into the workshop. "Master Luke! Master Luke!" the golden droid squawked. "Artoo has just received a signal on the frequency you told him to monitor!" Behind Threepio, Artoo-Detoo rolled into the workshop, emitting a stream of excited beeps.
Luke raised his eyebrows. So soon? Lando must have been a better con man than he'd given him credit for. "Thank you, Threepio," he said, lifting his newly constructed light sabre from the worktable. He stood, walked across the room, and picked up a memory wafer. "I need the two of you to run an errand for me," he said, sliding the wafer into the port on Artoo where he'd found Leia's desperate message, not so long ago.
"Of course, Master Luke," Threepio replied. "Any service we may render --"
"I want you to go to the palace of Jabba the Hutt. Artoo, when you get there, play the message for him."
Threepio was flabbergasted, if such a thing were possible for a droid. "Jabba the Hutt!" he exclaimed, taking a nervous step back. "But you said Lando Calrissian and Chewbacca never returned from his palace! He'll sell me for spare parts!"
Artoo blatted something.
"No, I don't know what he'll do to you," Threepio sniped.
"Threepio," Luke interjected, drawing on the patience he had learned at such a price, on Bespin and since. He wished he could use Ben's Jedi mind trick on the droid -- it would make things so much easier. "Everything will be all right. I just want you to deliver the message."
"Does it pertain to Captain Solo?" Threepio ventured.
"Yes," Luke replied slowly, "and it is very important. I'm counting on both of you, Threepio."
Threepio looked down at his gleaming feet. Going to Jabba's palace meant he'd have to walk across Tatooine's deserts again. He'd be lucky if he didn't fall apart from dust contamination in the middle of the journey. But Master Luke's reliance on him and and Artoo bolstered his confidence, filling him with a certain sort of pride. "Very well, Master Luke. We shall leave immediately. Come along, Artoo."
Threepio bustled out of the room, and Artoo turned to follow. Luke held up a hand. "Wait, Artoo. I need you for a moment."
Swiveling his head in confusion, the squat astromech droid wheeled around and rolled back toward Luke, tootling a question whose meaning Luke easily guessed. "No, I don't want you to tell Threepio what's in the message," he said. "He might be afraid to go to the palace. Have you processed all the information on the wafer?"
Artoo beeped an affirmative.
"Good," Luke said. He shifted his new light sabre into his bionic hand and touched its activation switch. With a humming hiss, a brilliant green blade sprang from the hilt. Luke smiled, waving the blade in front of him, testing the weapon's balance and length.
It felt like an extension of his arm, more comfortable in his grasp than his father's sabre -- lost now to Bespin's gaseous core, along with his right hand -- had ever felt. Confident in his abilities, Luke shut down the sabre. "Open your top storage hatch," he told Artoo. The little droid complied, and he slid the sabre's hilt inside. "Now remember, Artoo -- you have to get to the top deck of the sail barge, no matter what."
Artoo bleeped that he knew what he was doing. Luke grinned and patted the droid's metal dome.
"I'll see you soon," he promised the little droid. "May the Force be with you." He wasn't sure whether the Force worked for droids, but he was willing to bet it did, at least in Artoo and Threepio's case.
Artoo trundled out of the room, joining Threepio outside and ignoring the protocol droid's scolding for keeping him waiting. Together they headed off into the desert, toward the palace of Jabba the Hutt.
Inside Obi-Wan Kenobi's hut, Luke seated himself on the floor and shut his eyes, focusing his thoughts on another mind, far away in another part of Tatooine. And the mind opened to him once more.
Leia sat in the lounge of the Millennium Falcon in Docking Bay 35 of Mos Eisley Spaceport, turning a thermal detonator around and around in her hand. Beside her lay her Ubese bounty hunter uniform. She mouthed the lines she'd composed for haggling with Jabba.
Her thoughts kept returning to the thermal detonator, though. What if something went wrong? What if some overeager thug shot her when she pulled out the grenade?
Well, the explosion would turn most the Hutt's palace into a smouldering crater pretty quick, for one thing. It'd take Jabba and Fett out, but she'd go up in the fireball too, along with Lando, Chewie, the droids -- and Han.
There were other parts of the plan that bothered Leia, too. She didn't like the idea of leading Chewbacca into the palace as a prisoner, for one thing -- there was no telling what Jabba might do to the Wookiee. Chewie, of course, had no such reservations. His life-debt was simple: he would die for Han, if it came to that.
Leia bit her lip. Would she?
Suddenly something pulled her mind away from Jabba, Han, Chewie, and thermal detonators. Someone was calling out to her, from far away. Her eyes lost focus. "Luke," she whispered, feeling an odd familiarity as his mind entered hers.
A moment later, she knew all Luke knew. Lando had sent the signal. Artoo and Threepio were on their way. She had to be ready.
Luke was gone from her mind again. Leia set down the thermal detonator and hurried to the cockpit of the Falcon. She flipped several switches on a console above the door, and the freighter shunted power to the main control systems with a whine of protest. The instruments in the cockpit lit up as she settled into the pilot's seat and tuned the ship's communication systems to a private comlink frequency. She had to find her co-pilot.
Chewbacca ignored the first paging beep from his comlink. His attention was fixed on the small, slender-framed man across the table from him.
The cantina was nearly empty today. Business had dropped off in the past year or so, since the Empire had established a rudimentary garrison in Mos Eisley. A lot of the underworld types had either moved their interests off-planet or joined with Jabba the Hutt for protection. There weren't many freelancers left on Tatooine. On the stage, a sole jizz-wailer was playing a slow, melancholy tune.
The man across from Chewie licked his lips and looked around, as if expecting someone. The Wookiee rumbled impatiently, and Relannto Nyngith returned his attention to him.
"I can't stay long," Relannto confided.
Chewie snuffed: get on with it, then. He was growing restless. Relannto had asked to meet him here, saying he had some information the Wookiee might find interesting. That had been too much for Chewbacca to pass up, but his patience with the nervous man was wearing thin.
"You know that ship your friend was asking about?" Relannto asked, then took a deep draft from the cup of malt in front of him. He glanced around again, lowering his voice. "The elliptical one with the wing-vanes?"
Chewie's hackles bristled, and he leaned forward with a grunt.
"A friend of mine in Imperial maintenance says it's docked in the spaceport," Relannto whispered. He clacked his teeth together a couple of times. "I checked my logs, but according to its profile the ship should be a small passenger liner. It's been here for a little over a week." He fell silent, looking expectantly at the Wookiee.
Chewie muttered something under his breath and pulled a couple of plastic hundred-credit chits out of his supply bag. His comlink paged again, but he pretended not to hear it as he slid the money over to Relannto.
The head of Mos Eisley space traffic control palmed the chits, seeming to grow more confident now that he had the Wookiee's money. "The ship's in Bay 79," he said. "It has a double Stormtrooper guard at the door. This guy you're looking for must be in the Empire's pocket, huh?"
Chewie nodded, his eyes twinkling at the thought of taking out the Stormtroopers. He even entertained the brief notion that maybe the ship's owner would be there. Pulling that one's arms out of their sockets would be particularly satisfying. He suddenly realized Relannto was staring at him expectantly again. He had more information, evidently. Chewie shrugged and produced another hundred-credit chit.
"My contact says the pilot unloaded some sort of cargo from the ship's hold and left with it not long after he put down," Relannto said. "He says he figures the guy went out into the desert, because there haven't been any sightings in the city."
Chewie nodded again, growling his thanks and pushing back from the table. "It's been a pleasure doing business with you, Chewbacca," Relannto said, scratching Chewie's neck in the traditional Wookiee sign of leavetaking, then got up and walked briskly out of the cantina.
Chewie stared thoughtfully at Relannto's half-finished malt, then his comlink paged him a third time. Growling, he fished the communicator out of his pack and flipped it on.
"Chewie?" asked Leia on the other end of the channel.
The Wookiee wuffed a reply.
"It's about time," Leia fumed. "I've been paging you for the last five minutes."
He didn't have time to explain the whole situation; Chewbacca just mentioned that he'd had some important business to conclude, and that he'd be at the Falcon just as soon as he'd dealt with it.
Leia didn't catch much of it, but understood the last part. "Well, hurry up," she told him. "I want us to get to the evac site before the suns set. It's still a couple days' walk from there to Jabba's palace."
Chewie grumbled back, pushing back from his table. He closed the comm channel, belted back the remainder of Relannto's malt and lumbered out of the cantina, leaving a healthy tip in case the bartender had heard something he shouldn't have.
The Wookiee squinted into the light of the twin suns as he stomped through Mos Eisley's streets, toward the Spaceport complex. He'd be at the Falcon in Bay 35 shortly, but first he had an errand to run. He had to visit Bay 79 and start repaying Boba Fett.
Leia scowled at Chewie as he threw himself into the co-pilot's seat of the Millennium Falcon. The Wookiee didn't meet her gaze. "Where have you been?" she asked. "I've had the engines charged for nearly an hour."
Chewie grunted noncommittally in reply, running through the pre-flight check and signalling traffic control that the freighter was ready to take off.
"I was worried about you," Leia pressed, her tone growing less harsh. "The computer said there was some sort of commotion at the other end of the Spaceport--" She caught her breath suddenly, seeing something on Chewbacca's arm. "Chewie," she gasped, reaching out.
He drew back protectively with a low growl.
"I'm not going to hurt you," she told him patiently. "Let me see." Reluctantly, the Wookiee allowed her to probe his shoulder.
"What _happened_ to you?" she asked. "That's a blaster burn!" A small patch of fur had been singed from his flesh, and the skin underneath was red and blistered. "Did you get into a fight?"
Chewie barked once, loud and decisively. Leia guessed he didn't want to talk about it, and swiveled her seat back to the Falcon's control console. She made a mental note to get some bacta from the Falcon's medikit later. The wound wasn't serious, and Wookiees healed quickly anyway.
Beside her, Chewbacca received liftoff clearance and engaged the ventral thrusters, lifting the Falcon out of its docking bay into the always-clear blue Tatooine sky. When they'd cleared the port, Leia punched the main thruster controls, and the freighter shot up and away from Mos Eisley.
Suddenly, behind them, a fireball erupted at the far end of the spaceport. Leia glanced around in alarm. "What was _that_?" she asked, banking the Falcon to starboard so she could see the plume of smoke rising from the shattered ruins of Docking Bay 79.
Chewbacca didn't answer; he just stared straight ahead, a look of grim satisfaction on his face.
Jabba's court was crowded with all sorts of scum. Fett had little use for any of them today. The bounty hunter was in as foul a mood as he could remember ever being in. He'd received word from Mos Eisley security a few hours ago that there'd been an accident in the spaceport. A power conduit had exploded, and it had wrecked the Slave I. His ship was now a mound of slag bonded to the docking bay's floor.
Like hell it was an accident. Fett turned his head slowly so he could stare at Calrissian. Lando didn't notice the bounty hunter's baleful look.
Calrissian was somehow connected to the destruction of the Slave I, Fett knew. Something big was about to happen. Fett considered warning Jabba, then shrugged off the idea. The Hutt didn't often listen to his employees' suspicions, no matter how well-grounded they were. Besides, Jabba would most likely dismiss Fett's uneasiness as being caused by the loss of his ship.
_What's your game_? he asked Lando silently, his brow furrowing. The gambler seemed agitated himself. Whatever he was planning, Fett surmised, it would happen very soon. The bounty hunter glanced over his shoulder at the frozen figure of Han Solo mounted on the throne room wall. Maybe he'd get his chance to gun the smuggler down sooner than he'd hoped.
There was a commotion at the door -- one of Jabba's pet Rybetian fang- toads was barking at something in the hall. Most of the courtiers paid it no mind, but Fett turned to watch the entrance. He noticed, out of the corner of his eye, that the barking had attracted Jabba's attention as well.
Bib Fortuna came down the steps into the throne room, followed by two droids. One was an Artoo-series astromech; Fett had never seen it before, and paid it no mind. The other, though, was quite familiar: a burnished gold Threepio unit.
Fett's eyes narrowed. He'd seen that one before -- it had been strapped to Solo's Wookiee's back in several pieces at the time, but there was no mistaking the prim movements of Solo's protocol droid. But what was it doing here? And how was the Artoo unit connected?
Jabba took a deep draught from his spice-pipe and grunted as Fortuna climbed onto the dais to whisper into his ear. A new protocol droid, the Hutt recognized. How timely.
"Kaba no-pais, meilodra," the Twi'lek said.
"Good morning," the Threepio droid inserted. Beside him, the astromech beeped hesitantly.
"Bachuwait ahutat," Fortuna elabourated, extending a long-nailed little finger toward the droids, then withdrawing. Jabba belched with delight, his eyes widening. He liked receiving gifts.
"The message, Artoo, the message," the Threepio unit prompted.
Jabba settled back, waving a massive arm indulgently. "Bo shuda," he beckoned as the Artoo unit's head swiveled around. Beeping hurriedly, the little droid began to project a holographic message.
Boba Fett stiffened when he saw the black-clad image that appeared in the midst of the throne room. He'd only seen Luke Skywalker once, briefly, in the corridors of Cloud City, but the bounty hunter could remember the faces of everyone he'd ever shot at -- especially the ones he'd missed. He wondered how the boy had managed to escape Lord Vader's trap.
His eyes flicked to Calrissian, who was trying his best to look disinterested. So this was it, Fett realized. The Skywalker boy and Calrissian were in this together, with these droids, Solo's woman, and the Wookiee, no doubt. The game had begun.
The bounty hunter grinned beneath his helmet, but the smile soon faded. He felt that old, familiar prickling at his scalp again, telling him everything wasn't as it seemed. He looked into Skywalker's holographic eyes, and saw a sureness that disturbed him.
Suddenly, Boba Fett had a bad feeling about this.