He was up to his knees in algae-ridden water. His lungs burned as he tried to breathe the noxious air. Blood pounded in his ears, and flashes of white light exploded in his head. Worst of all, he felt like one of those Imperial torture droids he'd heard about had devoted its existence to making his legs blaze with liquid fire.
It was the algae, he knew. The Grey Swamp of Wyorl was one of the few places in the galaxy that lived up to every bit of dire folklore ever told about it. Not only was it a habitat for over three dozen known poisonous reptiles, and not only did its teeming insect life carry Siluthan Fever, the Twitches, and untold other diseases, but the algae itself was also deadly. It was burrowing into his calves, Korb knew, slowly dissolving skin and flesh, drawing out blood to sate itself. He'd seen a man fall into a sinkhole filled with the stuff once: it still turned his stomach to think of the gelatinous mess that had been pulled out again, hours later. Hell, even the Wyorlan natives were afraid to go beyond the outer fringes of the Grey Swamp.
Yet here he was, slogging through it, his teeth clenched firmly together to keep from making a sound. And he didn't -- couldn't -- even think of stopping.
After all, poison and diseases could be treated. The proper cybernetic implants could even compensate for the irreparable damage he was doing to his legs.
Death, however, was another matter.
He stumbled over something -- a submerged tree limb. At least that's what he told himself it was. He immediately stifled the thought that the thing had been _moving_. Slime splashed up over his thighs, and he hissed, spit flying between his teeth, as prickling fire danced up his legs. As he stopped to regain his balance, it suddenly occurred to him how _tired_ he was. Suddenly he could barely lift his head, let alone pull his feet free of the sucking mud beneath the Swamp's lethal waters. How long had he been running?
Well, half his life, truth be told. But how long had he been running _straight_? Twelve hours? Fifteen? He didn't know any more. It had just been too long.
"I can rest ... for a moment," Korb wheezed, not entirely certain whether he was speaking out loud or just thinking hard. "For a moment ..."
A red cloud was beginning to form in the water around his legs. He thought of the maybe-branch he'd tripped over, and the stories the natives told of fish that could strip a well-fed nerf to bare bones in seconds. They were drawn by blood, the Wyorlans believed. They could smell it from miles away. Anywhere else in the galaxy, Korb Stavren would have laughed such stories off as superstition. But not in the Grey Swamp.
If he was going to rest, and _survive_, he had to get out of the water.
With great effort, he dragged his gaze up from the darkening blood amid the algae, and spotted a twisted, gnarled eshaiba tree. Its roots clawed down into the water like a great, knotted fist, and he spotted several nooks in its leathery bark where he could seek shelter.
But not hide. Korb Stavren knew the tree would never hide him from the one who followed.
With a heavy sigh, he gritted his teeth and trudged toward the eshaiba tree. ***
Twelve hours wasn't anywhere near the truth. Korb Stavren had been running for three days -- which, given Wyorl's quick rotation, came to just over twenty-two hours.
Korb had used Wyorl as a hideout for years. All the good freelance smugglers had one or two out-of-the-way, poorly-charted planets they used as "safe-houses." He got on well with the natives -- a couple drums of Ruorr Winter Wine each season was enough to keep the Wyorlans quiet -- and neither the Empire nor any of the major crimelords had ever considered the world worth their while. It would have made an excellent base for the Rebel Alliance, Korb often thought, if its wilds weren't so insanely dangerous.
Korb had set his small, one-man freighter down nearly two weeks ago, by Wyorlan reckoning. He needed a place to lie low for a while. He'd just made a big score -- one that would set him up, if not for life, then at least for a comfortable span. Pure Kessel spice, seventy- two cases. He'd never even seen so much of the stuff in one place at one time before.
Problem was, that much spice had to _belong_ to somebody. It turned out that somebody was Orlugar Ghom.
If Korb had known the spice was Ghom's, he would have marveled at it for a few minutes, maybe whistled in appreciation, and crept carefully away. Ghom headed the local contraband syndicate, and his wealth was exceeded only by his callousness toward anyone who wasn't Ghom. Certainly he'd want the hide of anyone with the audacity to steal seventy-two cases of spice from one of his way-stations.
Korb had been halfway to the black market at Fereesi Nor when his ship's computer had matched up the symbols on the spice- cases with a sign used by Ghom's operatives. He'd changed course so quickly, he'd almost blown out his hyperdrive. He'd even considered dumping the spice -- and possibly his ship -- but the price the stuff would bring was too great a lure. He'd set course for Wyorl instead, with the hopes of making contact with a tech who'd be able to alter the spice-cases, and launder the stuff, so to speak.
He'd even begun to think he might get away with it. Then, three Wyorl-days ago, it had all gone wrong.
He and Qui'il, a young Wyorlan native, had been away from the tribal village. Qui'il had just passed his third birthday, and so had reached adulthood -- while its day was surprisingly short, Wyorl had an exceptionally long year, making Qui'il around seventeen by human reckoning. Having come of age, Qui'il had earned the right to bear the tenequa, the barbed spear wielded by Wyorlan hunters and warriors. He'd promised, on Korb's last stopover, to demonstrate the tenequa once he was allowed to use it. So Qui'il had taken Korb hunting org, his tribe's totem animal.
They had been returning to the village, Qui'il's tenequa still wet with brown org blood, and four of the vicious little creatures slung over their backs. The hunt had been a welcome distraction for Korb, and he'd forgotten all about his own troubles by the time it was over.
Until they'd seen the smoke, at least.
There were no survivors. Qui'il's tribe had been slaughtered -- even the young. The huts had been burned to the ground. The village's totem staffs had been thrown down into the mud. At first, Qui'il had thought the destruction had been wrought by a rival tribe, one that had warred with his own for a long time -- nearly seven Wyorl-years. Once he'd seen the first body, though, Korb had known different. The wounds it had borne hadn't been inflicted by a tenequa, or by any other weapon the Wyorlans used.
Someone had laid waste to the village with a heavy-duty blaster.
Qui'il had fallen into an enraged, almost delirious state, swearing vengeance on those who had eradicated his tribe, cursing their ancestors and descendants both. Korb's mind hadn't been on vengeance, though; it had concentrated on stark, maddening terror. He'd left Qui'il behind and headed straight for the sheltered valley where he'd hidden the Tepuri Starfire, his ship. His livelihood.
His _spice_, damn it.
And while he'd been disappointed -- hell, a bit traumatized was more like it -- to find the Tepuri Starfire had been destroyed too, he admitted later, as he was wading into the outer fringes of the Grey Swamp, feeling the maddening sting as the algae got their first taste of living flesh, that he hadn't been the least bit surprised.
That it had been Ghom's men was beyond doubt. Given the carnage at the village, he figured the crimelord had sent about six armed thugs after him. Maybe eight. They'd come, wiped out the village, set a few thermal detonators aboard his ship, cleaned out the spice ...
At that thought, he'd stopped. There'd been a strange smell in the air, one whose source he hadn't quite been able to place -- until that point. And when he'd realized what it was, he'd nearly fainted from fright.
It had been spice. _Burning_ spice.
A quick inspection of the wreckage confirmed it. The spice had been destroyed -- all of it -- along with the Tepuri Starfire. Whoever Ghom had sent, their mission hadn't been to recover the spice at all. They'd been after _him_ -- and if he hadn't been org-hunting with Qui'il, he'd have been just another smoldering corpse in the Wyorlan village.
As soon as he'd realized that, Korb had begun running.
Almost immediately, he'd thought something was following him. No, not thought -- _known_. Constantly, no matter how fast he ran, no matter how hard he tried to lose it, it had kept pace. And, after the second Wyorl-day, Korb had begun to realize his pursuer -- for some reason, he knew that instead of the six or eight, it was just a ruthless, unbelievably deadly _one_ -- was toying with him. It always stayed behind, just out of sight. Korb would think he'd lost it, but then he'd hear a footstep scuff on gravel, or a telltale rustle in the Grey Swamp's eshaiba trees. His pursuer wanted to catch him, of that he was sure.
Just not yet.
Eventually, though, Korb Stavren knew the game would grow old. His pursuer wouldn't remain behind him forever. And, as his strength had begun to flag and the bloodthirsty algae had started devouring his legs, he'd realized that that time would be soon. ***
A flash of movement in the moonlight jarred Korb out of his reverie.
He tried to see what it was, but it was gone as quickly as it had appeared. It was too hard to follow in the dark.
Korb caught his breath. _Dark?_ It had been midmorning when he'd settled into the nook between the eshaiba tree's clawing roots. That meant he'd been daydreaming -- _sleeping, more like,_ he thought to himself -- for ... how long?
"Four hours," he whispered. His hand strayed to the small light- duty blaster he wore at his hip. He'd reached for the gun more and more over the past few days, but now, for the first time, he slid the weapon free of its holster and flipped off the safety.
His pursuer had caught him, he knew. It was there, just beyond sight, in the darkness of the swamp.
An enormous, ten-legged insect landed on his hand. He gasped, watched it in horror for a second, then swatted it away. First, though, it made sure to bury its long, barbed stinger in his wrist.
Agony blazed up his forearm, and the limb went numb almost immediately. He nearly dropped the blaster, and quickly shifted the weapon to his good hand. And, as he was doing this, his pursuer suddenly appeared.
"Quorb," it said, in a thick, accented voice.
Korb spun, raising the blaster in his left hand. He never knew what kept him from pulling the trigger, but he was immediately glad he hadn't fired. Standing less than ten feet away, atop a rock that stuck up out of the swamp, was Qui'il. The white-skinned alien regarded Korb with dark, puzzled eyes. It had raised its tenequa reflexively, poised to throw, but was now lowering it.
Korb let out a tense breath that sounded more like a sigh than he cared to admit. "Blast it, Qui'il," he muttered. "Don't sneak up on me like that."
"I am sorry, Quorb," Qui'il stated, its lips still unable, even after a an entire Wyorl-year of knowing the smuggler, to form Korb's name properly. "I did not mean --"
Then Qui'il's head exploded.
Korb could only watch in slack-jawed horror as his friend's suddenly headless, smoking body toppled from the rock into the algae- ridden water. A few moments later, an ominous brown-red stain billowed where Qui'il had disappeared.
Parts of Korb's mind ran around madly, trying to get the other parts to get back together and form a coherent thought. Without realizing what he was doing, he shoved himself up awkwardly from his nook and started toward the water, his finger dancing spasmodically, just off the trigger of his blaster. He didn't make it three steps before his legs, weakened from running and still bleeding from his long slog through the Grey Swamp, gave out.
He slumped to his knees with a pained grunt, still not quite believing what he'd seen. Finally, he managed to bring his mind into some semblance of order. Something had blasted Qui'il, with cold, efficient accuracy. It had dropped the Wyorlan with a single shot, and now all that remained was the shaft of Qui'il's tenequa, sticking up over the waterline in the midst of the growing red patch in the slime.
Something had shot Qui'il, which meant the presence he'd felt had been his pursuer after all, and not the Wyorlan. And it wasn't through playing with him.
"The hell it isn't," Korb grunted, forcing himself back to his feet. He leaned heavily against an eshaiba-root, letting it take some of the weight his legs could no longer support. He raised his blaster quickly and fired a shot into the air. The sound of the discharge roared through the swamp, and the flash half-blinded him.
"Enough of this!" he yelled, his voice cracking with an emotion he didn't like at all. "Show yourself, and let's get this over with!"
Half of him didn't really expect a reply, and for a moment, that half was right. Then a strange sound reached his ears: a high-pitched whine accompanied by a deep, thrumming drone. His gaze flicked about the marsh quickly as he wondered where the noise was coming from. Then, suddenly, he realized what it was: a small rocket engine. And he realized the shot that had killed Qui'il had come from above. He looked up.
There was nothing. And there was nothing. And there was nothing.
Then, with a sudden, head-splitting roar, a metal figure dropped out of the sky, its back spouting fire.
At first glance, it looked like some kind of demon from Wyorlan shaman-stories, but then, as it landed on the root of another eshaiba tree, Korb realized it was an armored man, and on the man's back was a jetpack, the sort of thing certain warrior sects had used for short- range personal flight back during the Clone Wars.
Part of Korb Stavren knew who he was looking at; but another part wouldn't let him admit it. Instead, that part blinded him with fear. The blaster dropped from a hand suddenly gone as nerveless as the one the gigantic insect had stung. The gun disappeared into the slime with a soft burble. Korb didn't even notice: he just stared at the armored figure in growing horror, a thin stream of drool trickling from the corner of his gaping mouth.
"You --" he wheezed, but it was barely audible.
The armored figure nodded. The gesture was sardonic and very slight, but it also seemed -- to what little reason was left in Korb Stavren's mind -- to be a bit respectful. _It's been a good game,_ the armored figure seemed to say. _Too bad it ends here._
"Korb Stavren," the armored figure said. Its voice was soft and menacing. It was not asking a question.
"I -- I --" Korb babbled.
"Korb Stavren," the armored figure repeated, its voice rising very slightly, perhaps with irritation. "You stole seventy-two cases of uncut Kessel spice from the storehouses of Orlugar Ghom."
"I didn't mean ... I didn't know ..." Korb was bleating, although he no longer recognized his own voice.
The figure raised a hand. It was an inoffensive gesture, despite the weapons bristling at its armored wrist. _Shut up and let me get this part over with,_ the figure was saying.
Korb shut up, suddenly feeling very calm. A warm, wet patch was spreading at the crotch of his trousers.
The figure lowered its hand -- slowly, deliberately, just like it had raised it. "Ghom doesn't take well to having his best stock stolen, Stavren," it said.
"Kill me quickly, then," Korb said, hardly believing he'd had the _kilpaks_ to say it.
The figure inclined its helmeted head, almost quizzically, then its shoulders shook slightly -- though whether with rage or mirth, Korb couldn't tell. When it spoke, its voice was as flat and emotionless as ever. "I'm afraid that's not what I've been paid to do," it said.
Korb's eyes narrowed. Then, just as he was starting to pull himself back from the brink of total gibbering panic, he heard a soft puff. Something struck his neck.
He swatted at it irritably, thinking it was another one of those stinging bugs, then his skin rose in chill-bumps as he touched metal. He pulled a small object free from his flesh.
His vision was already beginning to dim as he regarded the object. It was a tiny, envenomed dart. He felt like he was slipping away from himself, and stumbled drunkenly away from the root.
"Wh -- ?" he asked, looking up at the armored figure. Though his vision was too blurry to tell, he felt sure the man had never moved.
Darkness smothered Korb Stavren, and he toppled face-first into the murk of the Grey Swamp of Wyorl. ***
Orlugar Ghom fingered the communications console in his personal chambers. Behind him, a lithe figure stirred listlessly in his bed.
"This had better be good," he growled into the com panel.
"I apologize, sir, if I caught you at an ... _inopportune_ moment," the voice at the other end purred. As always, Ghom thought he caught a slight mocking tone in that voice -- but not enough to be sure.
"Eyrthen." Ghom scowled. His chief adviser never contacted him after-hours for anything trifling. His hairless scalp prickled, and he scratched at the ridge of spines that ran up the back of his neck. "Trouble?"
"In a manner of speaking."
After a moment, Ghom realized Eyrthen wasn't going to add anything more without some goading. Eyrthen was a fine mind at many things -- finances, legal issues, battle strategy -- but tact wasn't part of his repertoire. Ghom glanced regretfully back at the half-asleep, half- drugged Twi'lek woman who lay sprawled among his sheets, her eyes simultaneously glazed and twinkling from Kessel spice. He knew that particular avenue of pleasure was closed off for the night. By morning, he'd probably be tired of the woman and send her away.
He shook his head irritably, scratched at his well-muscled shoulder, and turned back to the com panel. "Well?" he snarled.
"Fett's returned," Eyrthen replied succinctly.
Ghom actually fell back a pace. His golden eyes widened, then narrowed, and his lipless mouth turned downward in a scowl. "Don't tell me he lost the trail already," he grumbled.
"Quite the contrary, sir," Eyrthen purred. "The matter has been dealt with."
If his facial structure had allowed for it, Orlugar Ghom would have whistled. "That was fast," he muttered. How long ago had he dispatched the bounty hunter -- seven, eight days? _At the most,_ he thought. Ghom had hired Boba Fett on one or two occasions before, and had found him to be expensive but entirely reliable. But to have found the spice-thief _this_ fast --
Eyrthen cleared his throat politely -- or at least with a veil of politeness -- on the other end of the com channel. "Shall I send him up to you, sir?" he inquired. Politely.
Ghom glowered at the panel. "Don't be an idiot, Eyrthen," he snapped. He grabbed a pair of trousers from the floor, stopped the amorous Twi'lek with a look as she crawled across the bed toward him, and began to smooth his facial whiskers back into some sort of order. "Stall the man a moment. I'll be right down."
"Yes, of course, sir," purred Eyrthen. Orlugar Ghom could have sworn he'd heard the sarcasm that time. ***
"The bounty hunter, Boba Fett," proclaimed Ghom's furred, feline adviser, stepping aside to clear the main entrance to the crimelord's personal office.
With a soft, metallic jangle, a man clad in dented, battle-worn Mandalorian armor walked -- almost _strolled_ -- into the room. He didn't even glance at Eyrthen, nor at the blaster-armed guards who stood behind Ghom. Though his face was obscured, as always, by his helmet, Boba Fett was clearly staring at Ghom himself.
"You've outdone yourself this time, Fett," Ghom noted casually. He stroked at his facial whiskers, still not happy with how they were behaving. "Eight standard days to track, catch, and retrieve a thief? I doubt even Bossk could have done that."
Ghom thought he could hear a slight sneer in Fett's voice, but quickly thrust the thought aside. "How did you do it?" he asked.
Fett thought the question over. "You'll pardon me if I don't reveal _all_ my secrets," he said. "The man was stupid. He left certain traces."
"Where is he?"
The bounty hunter almost seemed reluctant to answer -- but only momentarily. "Outside," he replied. "I didn't know whether you wanted me to bring all the ... _apparatus_ in here."
There was something about the stress on the word -- and the pause before it -- that made Orlugar Ghom's scalp prickle. "Apparatus?" he prompted.
Again the slight reluctance. "There was an accident," Fett responded. "He was damaged."
Ghom raised an eyebrow. "Damaged? How?"
"It seems the environment of the planet where I caught up with him is somewhat hostile," Fett answered. "There was some kind of flesh-eating algae in the water there. He fell in."
"How sloppy of you."
Fett drew himself up angrily. Ghom's guards leveled their blasters, but Fett halted them with a baleful glare. Ghom himself tensed, waiting for the invisible sign for the bounty hunter and his men to start a firefight -- and wishing he were anywhere but smack in the crossfire. Instead, though, Fett looked away from the guards and back at him. "Shall I bring him in?" he asked.
Ghom looked to Eyrthen, who still stood by the door. The feline shrugged fluidly, with the same almost-contemptuous air it carried in its voice. Ghom recognized the gesture, turned back to Fett, and nodded once.
The hunter motioned, and one of Ghom's personal servants pushed in a medical stasis pod. The pod floated on repulsorlifts, skimming smoothly to a stop between Fett and Ghom. Various devices hummed and winked at its sides. The glass of the pod was fogged, smeared with something red in one place. Ghom looked to Eyrthen again, and was simultaneously alarmed and amused to see the horrified look on his adviser's face. The servant who had pushed the pod in looked ready to pass out.
Fett was unperturbed.
Morbidly curious, Ghom rose from his desk and walked around to the pod. He found a clear spot in the glass and peered in. And immediately wished he hadn't.
Something was inside the blood-smeared stasis pod. And, judging from the shape and size, that something had once been humanoid. That was about all Ghom could tell. He felt his gorge rise, and turned away. What had Fett called it -- "damaged"?
"I managed to get him back to the Slave I and into the pod before his condition could worsen," Fett remarked coolly.
Ghom turned back and looked at the bounty hunter incredulously. Had he _carried_ that ... thing ... to his ship? Then, suddenly, a different emotion swept over the crimelord. "I wanted him _intact_," he growled.
"My contract states 'alive,'" Fett countered. "Nothing more."
Ghom glanced -- very briefly -- at the pod. "Yes, but I wanted him as a person. Not as ... jelly."
The servant clapped a hand over his mouth and scurried out of the room.
Fett regarded Ghom dispassionately. "If you had stated that in the contract, you would have him intact," he explained slowly, patiently. "I kept my end of the bargain. I hope you don't mean to renege on yours."
Orlugar Ghom was used to being threatened. He was a hands- on kind of master criminal, unlike some of his competitors, and had been known to get into a fight or two. But most of the invective hurled his way wasn't serious. He knew, though, that Fett's threat, though veiled, was for real. And he had a feeling the hunter would be able to carry through, if his bluff was called.
The thing in the pod twitched and moaned. Ghom's stomach lurched.
"Eyrthen," he hissed. His adviser looked toward him expectantly. "See that our guest is paid in full." He tried not to look at the stasis pod. "Then have this ... this ..."
"I'll see it's destroyed, sir," Eyrthen replied swiftly. He turned and left. Fett turned to follow, then paused at the door and half-turned back. Although he'd never know for sure, Orlugar Ghom always imagined there was a wry smile on Boba Fett's face, beneath the helmet, as he looked at the befogged capsule hanging in the air in the middle of the office.
"You can keep the pod," Fett said. ***
In the cockpit of the Slave I, with several parsecs between himself and Orlugar Ghom's hideout, Boba Fett allowed himself a small chuckle. Ghom, despite his outward fearsomeness and dire reputation, was, when it came down to hard bargaining, a bit of a pushover. Many other crimelords would have demanded Fett's fee be lowered for bringing back quarry that, while nominally alive, was only so thanks to a medical stasis pod. But not Ghom.
Fett shook his head slightly, examining his scopes, making sure no one had decided to tag along in his hyperspatial wake. One of the curses of being the best was that there was always some blaster-happy idiot out to prove himself by picking a fight. Fett had left at least seven such hotshots cooling on spaceport floors, or used the Slave I's cannons to turn them into expanding clouds of superheated gas. The latest one, three months ago, had actually damaged one of the Slave I's shields in low orbit over Velaris Two.
That night, the debris that had been Fett's opponent had made the most spectacular meteor shower in Velarese memory.
Satisfied he wasn't being tracked, Fett double-checked his nav- puter. There was a juicy contract waiting in the Lossamer system, and Fett knew of at least five other hunters who would be interested -- two of whom might actually provide some competition. The Slave I's hyperdrive was going full throttle, but it would still be a day or two before it reached Lossamer's outer markers. Fett had time.
Time to think.
He unstrapped himself and climbed down the ladder into the main hold of his small vessel, his mind drifting back to Orlugar Ghom. Thieves stole Ghom's spice shipments on a regular basis -- it was mostly his fault, for skimping on credits when it came to hiring guards. But this one particular thief, this Korb Stavren, had aroused a particular brand of fury in the crimelord. Fett wondered why that might have been. Seventy-two cases of Kessel spice was worth a lot, but it didn't match up with what Ghom had paid Fett.
No, there was something more to it than stolen spice. Whether Stavren had known it or not, Orlugar Ghom had had a vendetta against him before that. The pirated contraband had only been an excuse. That also explained why Ghom had wanted Stavren alive, when the standard underworld punishment for spice-theft was disintegration.
What was it, Fett wondered, that made an otherwise cold, rational -- if somewhat blustering -- crimelord go to such expense for one petty thief? It shouldn't have mattered whom Ghom hired. A freshman hunter could have tracked Stavren down, eventually. But Ghom had insisted on hiring from the upper echelon, and had been nearly ecstatic when Fett had answered the contract. Why, when he could have had the same results for a fraction of the cost, had Ghom taken him on?
"It doesn't matter," Fett told himself firmly. "Not as long as there's another ten thousand credits under your name."
He walked across the hold, his gaze flicking over the many trophies he'd mounted on the walls. Boba Fett wasn't a sentimental man by any standard, but he still enjoyed collecting mementoes of the more memorable hunts he'd undertaken in his long career. Korb Stavren was nowhere near worthy of such an honor.
Having given his trophies the usual cursory glance -- a Meerlock skull here, a Corporate Sector Authority uniform there -- Fett settled into a seat at his computer terminal and keyed up a particular file. A list of names scrolled up the screen, and Fett looked at them, one at a time. Each represented a contract, a quarry, a few thousand more credits waiting to be collected. Most were minor targets, to be left to the kids and the grunts, but occasionally Fett stopped and brought up a file that caught his interest. Today, though, the pickings were scarce, so Fett's mind began to drift.
What had Ghom had the gall to call him? Sloppy? Fett glowered beneath his helmet, but not at the crimelord's arrogance. Ghom had been _right_, and although he'd never show such weakness in anyone else's presence, Fett knew he _had_ been sloppy. Flesh- eating algae or no flesh-eating algae, he should have been able to bring Stavren back in a condition that left him ready for whatever sadistic punishment Ghom had devised.
Fett wondered whether, after so many years, he was starting to slip. The Slave I's damaged shield -- although long repaired -- pointed to this possibility too. Maybe he _was_ getting sloppy, careless ... soft. Of course, he was still the best: it would take more than a partly- botched contract and a scratched deflector to bring him down to the rest of the pack. But still, it bothered him to think --
Fett stopped, his wandering mind jerking back to the screen before him. He even gasped, very slightly. On the list of potential employers, amid the usual sea of petty gangsters, minor nobles, and puny legal syndicates, was a name that had no business being there. No business at all.
DARTH VADER, it read.
Fett stared at those two words for the better part of a minute, a slow, cold smile forming behind his mask. "Well well," he told the screen. "It's been a long time, hasn't it, Your Lordship?"
He chuckled, punching the key that would bring up Vader's file. It was encoded, of course -- well encoded, in fact -- but the Slave I had all the standard Imperial encryption routines on file. The computer ruminated a moment, then spat the file out on the monitor.
For the second time in as many minutes, Boba Fett gasped.
Unable to do anything but shake his head in wonder, he stared at the file:
AUTH: Darth Vader, Imp. Code 001A
REQ: Seek/capture, SLF Millennium Falcon
LOC: SSD Executor, Anoat System
Fett's eyes kept flicking back to the name of the ship the Impies wanted caught. The Millennium Falcon itself didn't concern him much: it was just another junkheap freighter. Rather, it was what might be -- no, _had_ to be -- aboard that junkheap freighter that held his attention.
Fett's smile broadened.
"Solo," he said, savoring the name. "You _do_ enjoy making powerful enemies, don't you?"
There was already a price on Han Solo's head. Jabba the Hutt had put it there a year or so ago, on account of a skipped payment for a load of spice Solo had dumped. Fett had even picked up Solo's trail for a while. Then some clumsy fool had attacked Solo and his companions on Ord Mantell, and the Corellian had dropped well out of sight. By that point, Fett's expenses were threatening to nullify Jabba's promised reward, and he'd given up the chase -- reluctantly. Since then, the Hutt had upped the bounty a couple times, but never enough to pique Fett's interest. So Han Solo had stayed missing.
Now, though, the Empire wanted Solo -- or his ship, at least. And while Jabba the Hutt paid well, Fett knew from experience that Darth Vader paid much better.
A distant memory pricked at Fett's mind. He'd tried to sublimate it, but hadn't been entirely successful. There was a reason, other than credits, for Fett to hunt Han Solo. A damn good reason, in fact.
That, coupled with the promise of a double reward -- from the Empire for the Falcon, from Jabba for Solo himself -- was more than enough. Fett realized he'd known, all along, why Ghom had wanted Stavren so badly: revenge. There was one man in the galaxy whom Boba Fett hated that much.
He switched off the hold's computer terminal and started up the ladder to the cockpit again. When the usual group of thugs and professional hunters gathered at Lossamer to bid for the juicy contract, Fett was not among them. ***
"New signal, Commander," stated one of the Executor's battery of scan controllers. "I don't recognize the configuration, sir."
Commander Jhoff looked up from the scopes he'd been monitoring. "Rebels?"
"Negative, sir," the controller replied. "Unless it's an independent ship."
Jhoff knew all about independent ships working in concert with the Alliance. He'd been watching the scopes for one such ship for days now, and the last thing he wanted was another one on his hands. "Run it through com-scan," he ordered. "Let me know when the computer finds a match."
"Yes, sir," the controller responded, and turned back to his scope.
Jhoff looked up out of the control pit to the catwalks that overlooked the Executor's bridge. His eyes sought out the one figure who wasn't wearing a standard-issue Imperial navy uniform. That figure wasn't hard to find.
Darth Vader stood by the large windows at the head of the bridge, glaring out at the vast array of stars. He'd spent most of the recent chase in that position, even when the enormous Star Destroyer had bulldozed its way through a remarkably dense asteroid field. He'd been standing there for two hours straight, now.
Jhoff considered mentioning the new signal to Vader, then thought better of it. Vader had spoken directly with the Emperor two hours ago, and word among the men was that the Sith Lord's master had not been pleased with his servant's seemingly obsessive pursuit of one stock light freighter. Jhoff doubted the Emperor would chew Vader out, but he'd served with the Dark Lord for quite some time now, having worked up from controller aboard Vader's old Star Destroyer, the Devastator, and he could read the fearsome man's body language. Vader was quivering, almost imperceptibly, the folds of his cloak rippling as if he stood in a very slight breeze.
_That_ certainly wasn't a good sign. Jhoff had seen a man interrupt Vader when he was in such a mood, once. The man's face had been blue when his corpse had been dragged off the bridge.
Not terribly eager to have his throat crushed, Jhoff turned and looked for a more agreeable superior. Admiral Piett was on the far side of the bridge, conferring with one of his lieutenants. Again, it probably wasn't the best idea to interrupt him, if only because the resulting disturbance might attract Lord Vader's attention.
"Anything yet?" Jhoff asked, deciding to find out what they were dealing with before risking asphyxiation.
The controller looked up for a second. "Computer's still working on it, sir. Wait -- here it comes now."
As Jhoff made his way to the controller's station, he saw the man's eyes widen. "What is it?" he demanded.
The controller only pointed, not fully able to speak. Jhoff studied the readouts for a second, then caught his breath. "Are you sure that's a proper match?" he asked, his voice an odd mixture of impatience and reluctance.
The controller tapped a few keys on his console. A line of data appeared at the bottom of his screen. "Com-scan gives a ninety-eight- point-two, sir," he said. "Not completely sure, I'm afraid."
_But close enough_, Jhoff thought. He was willing to gamble his life on ninety-eight-point-two per cent odds. "Track him," he told the controller. "Let me know if he deviates from his current course."
"Aye, sir," the controller answered. Jhoff turned to go, but the controller's voice stopped him. "Sir?"
Jhoff half-turned, his gaze straying to the black-robed figure at the head of the bridge. "What is it?"
"Should I alert armaments, sir?"
The commander thought about this for a moment, weighing the possibilities. "No," he answered, at length. "I want to discuss this with the admiral first." Without waiting for the controller to respond, Jhoff started up a ladder to the catwalks where his commanders stood.
Piett saw him coming, and raised a hand for his young lieutenant to step aside. "Yes, Commander?" he asked as Jhoff approached.
Jhoff stopped and half-bowed from the waist. Piett nodded his head, still visibly uncomfortable with this show of respect. A few days ago, he'd been a captain, and had bowed that same way to Admiral Ozzel. Now, of course, Ozzel was dead, his body spaced, his records erased from the ship's computer. Piett didn't want to think about that.
"Com-scan has picked up a ship signal, sir," Jhoff reported. "It just dropped out of hyperspace at system edge."
Piett's eyes widened. "A ship?"
"Not a capital ship, sir," Jhoff amended, mentally rapping his knuckles for not being more specific. "A small vessel, one-man."
"Dispatch a squadron of TIEs," Piett commanded, his gaze flicking nervously to the starfield outside the bridge. Jhoff thought the admiral was unduly nervous about small, one-man ships. "I don't want another vessel confusing the search, Commander."
"Aye, sir," Jhoff replied, turning toward the armament station.
"Belay that order, Commander," boomed a low, menacing voice.
All activity on the bridge stopped, just for an instant, as every pair of eyes flicked to the towering, armored figure. Darth Vader didn't turn around. Piett looked like he was about to question the figure's statement, but swallowed hard, his hand going reflexively to his throat, and looked at the floor.
"Send a transmission," Vader intoned, still staring out at the void. "Clear the ship to land in the main hangar, and tell the captain he is to report to the bridge once he has docked. I don't want that vessel interfered with. Is that understood?"
Jhoff's face turned a peculiar shade of grey. "Completely, sir," he rasped, half-bowing to the robed figure. He changed direction and headed back to the com-scan section, beads of sweat forming on his brow.
When he glanced at Vader again, he was horrified to see the rippling of the cloak had gotten faster. ***
Jhoff's life became much more interesting in the following hours. Five more ships, all with signatures that had to be identified using the computer, dropped out of hyperspace in the Anoat system. All were underworld-type vessels, built for stealth, speed, and easy modification. All were, technically, wanted ships. All were directed to dock, their captains to report to the Executor's bridge.
Jhoff wasn't particularly looking forward to the resulting meeting. ***
Fett looked out over the assemblage with a combination of disdain and appreciation. If Darth Vader had wanted to collect the meanest menagerie in the galaxy, he'd done a pretty good job. There were one or two noteworthy faces missing -- probably already on hunts, or too far away to be bothered -- but the group on the Executor's bridge was probably the deadliest collection of hunters ever assembled in one place.
They would have been a formidable fighting force, if they hadn't hated one another so intensely.
Fett's eyes met those of Zuckuss. The insectoid alien fingered its heavy rifle and flashed a glance at its companion, 4-LOM. Fett tried to gauge the creatures' attitudes, but couldn't. They were just too inhuman.
The next was equally inhuman, but easier to read. Bossk's lip curled in a hateful snarl as his bloodshot eyes gave Fett the once-over. Of all the lesser hunters in the cosmos, Fett imagined Bossk was the closest thing he had to a rival. Of course, the Trandoshan was Fett's inferior by anyone's guess -- except Bossk's own, of course -- but Fett knew better than to underestimate him. The two had had enough run-ins to figure out each deserved a wide berth, whenever possible.
_Doesn't look like that's possible this time, though, Your Ugliness,_ Fett thought with a sneer.
Beside Bossk stood IG-88. If Bossk was the only hunter on the bridge whom Fett considered a rival, the towering chrome phlutedroid was the only one he respected. Having been built as a war machine, IG- 88 was incredibly deadly, tough, and ruthless. In a straight-up fight, the droid could probably kill any hunter on the bridge -- except, perhaps, Fett himself. Unfortunately for IG-88, no intelligent hunter ever fought straight-up. And that, Fett knew, was where the droid fell short: it lacked the creativity to be appropriately sneaky, using brute force and blasters where secrecy and a quick knife in the back might be more effective.
The thought of secrecy and a quick knife in the back caused Fett's gaze to shift to Dengar. Although he was almost as well-armored as Fett himself, and he carried a gun powerful enough to blast a Gundark in half, Dengar wasn't a warrior. His creased face tightened in a scowl as he eyed the other hunters, as if he was trying to think of a way to cut everyone else's throat without being noticed. His gaze met Fett's for an instant, and he nodded once.
Fett looked away.
Something stirred behind them, toward the front of the bridge. Fett didn't have to look to know what it was. The rasp of mechanically enhanced breathing drew nearer, and several of the hunters tensed reflexively. Fett rolled his eyes behind his mask.
As Darth Vader neared, one of the Impies, a lean-faced man in an officer's uniform, glared up at the hunters. Fett glanced at the officer's rank insignia and chuckled inwardly. Even this man -- an admiral, probably the commander of this monstrosity of a starship -- needed to have the Dark Lord close by before he could show his disapproval.
"Bounty hunters," the admiral said to one of his toadies, some sort of group commander who hadn't bothered to conceal his apprehension since the first hunters had stepped onto the bridge. "We don't need that scum."
Fett chuckled again, but he saw that some of the others weren't so amused. Bossk, in particular, had a dangerous gleam in his eyes.
"Yes, sir," the commander noted, glancing apprehensively at the Trandoshan.
"Those Rebels won't escape us," the admiral pursued.
_Rebels?_ Fett wondered. Was this the same Millennium Falcon he knew? Was it the same Han Solo?
"Murtsprek," Bossk hissed at the Impies. He bared needle-like teeth at the admiral in particular.
Fett frowned. _That's why you're never going to one-up me, Ugly,_ he told Bossk silently. _You've got too much of a temper._
The admiral looked up at Bossk and seemed to shudder.
"Sir?" asked a controller, staring at his console. "We have a priority signal from the Star Destroyer Avenger."
"Right," the admiral answered, clearly overjoyed to have his attention directed away from the ornery Trandoshan.
Darth Vader passed through the bounty hunters' midst and began to pace. "There will be a substantial reward for the one who finds the Millennium Falcon," he informed them. "You are free to use any methods necessary, but I want them alive." He stopped in front of Fett and shook a finger at him, warningly. "No disintegrations."
_Oh, not this again,_ Fett thought. But what he said was more respectful. "As you wish," he murmured.
Vader turned, as did Dengar and several other hunters. The admiral was heading toward the group with newfound vigor. Apparently whatever the Avenger had told him had given the man a spine. He came to a stop before Vader, ignoring the hunters entirely. "My lord," he said breathlessly, "we have them."
Beside Fett, Dengar muttered an angry curse. Fett glanced at him slowly, silencing him. Zuckuss was twitching, too, and Fett thought Bossk might just turn around and blast a smoking hole in the admiral's stomach. He could understand the others' agitation: obviously he wasn't the only one who'd given up another tempting contract to head to the Anoat system. If the Impies actually managed to capture the Falcon ...
Oddly, Vader didn't seem to give this possibility much credence. "Give me regular reports, Admiral," he told the officer, then turned away to face Fett again.
The admiral gaped at his back. "But, milord," he began to protest.
"You have your orders," Vader snapped, not looking at the officer. "Perhaps you wish to question them?"
The admiral suddenly looked short of breath. His eyes bulged in panic. "N-no, milord," he gasped. An instant later he drew in a deep lungful of air and scurried off, his face white. "Give me regular reports, Commander," he barked at his toady in the control pit.
Fett looked questioningly at Vader, who glared coldly back.
"We reasonably expect the ship's main hyperdrive is inoperative," Vader continued, resuming his pacing. "Still, my crews are ill-equipped for such operations. Her captain is quite cunning -- we've already lost one Star Destroyer in an asteroid belt, trying to follow him."
"What's so important about this one ship?" Dengar asked, and Fett groaned silently.
Vader whirled, and Dengar flinched visibly as the black- armored giant stalked up to him. "That's none of your concern, _bounty hunter_," he rumbled, the contempt with which he said the last words almost overwhelming. Dengar looked like he wanted to disappear through the floor. "You should only worry about finding it."
"Of-of course, Lord Vader," Dengar sputtered. "I-I only meant --"
"Lord Vader!" shouted the admiral from the com-scan pit. "The Avenger reports that the Rebels' aft shield is failing."
Vader whirled. "Tell Captain Needa the ship is not to be destroyed," he commanded. "If it is, he will find the consequences unpleasant."
The admiral gulped. "Y-yes, milord."
Vader resumed his pacing, apparently having forgotten about Dengar. "When you have located the Millennium Falcon, inform me personally. You will be supplied with the proper coding sequence for your transmissions." He stopped, looking down into the com-scan pit. There seemed to be some confusion from that direction. Fett knew immediately what it meant. "What is the problem, Admiral?" Vader demanded.
The officer looked up, his eyes full of dread. "The Avenger has ... has lost them, milord."
The admiral recoiled as if struck. "They -- they no longer appear on their scopes, milord." He paused, drawing a shaky breath. "It would appear they succeeded in making the jump to hyperspace."
_Idiot,_ Fett thought.
"Cap-Captain Needa is on his way to convey his apologies, milord," the admiral added.
"Of course he is," Vader replied. There was wry amusement in his voice, although his demeanor didn't change in the slightest. "Have him report to me when he arrives." He turned back to the hunters, all of whom looked at him expectantly. "I want that ship," he said, and nothing more.
As the hunters filed from the bridge, Fett's mind was working quickly, discarding possibilities, considering others, guessing what his competitors might do next. By the time he reached the doors leading into the bowels of the Executor, he had a plan.
Fett turned to Dengar, and their gazes met again. This time, it was Fett who nodded. ***
Bossk sat in the cockpit of the Teskrut, his modified fighter, deep in thought. Only one of the hunters had left the Executor yet: Boba Fett. Bossk had been worried when the Slave I had pulled out of the docking bay, but his fears had been quickly allayed: Fett was bound only for the Avenger, no doubt to question the bridge crew about the Millennium Falcon's disappearance. Bossk had considered doing that himself, but had realized the scan crews wouldn't have kept anything from Darth Vader. They wouldn't have been able to.
Fett was just getting old, Bossk decided. Old and rusty.
He thought about the Millennium Falcon. He didn't know much about Han Solo, but he was more than a bit familiar with Solo's first mate. Bossk had been a Wookiee hunter most of his life, and had earned a decent living recapturing escaped slaves for the Empire when he wasn't doing more general bounty hunting. Chewbacca was one of a handful of Wookiees that had eluded him. The possibility of finally erasing one of his record's few black marks was too tempting to ignore.
So where would Chewbacca have gone? Bossk had a few ideas. He'd pulled the Falcon's last known trajectory out of the Imperial com-scan network, and had pinpointed three potential destinations. One of them was openly hostile to Wookiees, which left the Trindh and Eshkibok systems. Neither had an Imperial garrison, both had thriving underworlds, and both, though officially unaligned, were moderately sympathetic to the Alliance. Either would make a perfect hiding place for the Millennium Falcon.
Bossk ran a raspy tongue over his pointed teeth, and his thick, webbed fingers twiddled with a gauge on the Teskrut's control panel. Finally, he rejected both systems. They were too obvious, and from what he'd gathered, Solo was too clever to settle for the obvious. He checked the list of systems again, and suddenly another option leaped out at him.
He punched it into his nav-puter before he realized he'd thought of it, and his engines were already starting to warm up as he considered how _right_ Ord Lethi's profile was.
Virtually uninhabited. Rocky terrain with plenty of large caves and canyons. Capable of supporting life, if only barely. No Imperial presence. No known Rebel presence, either. Bossk considered the possibility of using the system as a hideout himself, once this business was dealt with.
As he rolled this idea around in his head and waited for his engines to charge, a small warning light went off on his control panel. Someone else was leaving the Executor.
He checked the scope. It was Dengar's motley, battered ship, already on its way out of the docking bay. Bossk watched it nervously as it soared free of the Star Destroyer. As he followed it out into space, he noticed a third ship -- the vessel manned by Zuckuss and 4-LOM -- was already howing heat blooms around its engines. It would be right on his tail.
He focused on Dengar's ship as he soared free of the hangar bay. Not surprisingly, it was headed in the same direction he was. That meant nothing, in and of itself: every one of the hunters would almost certainly head out along the same trajectory, at least at the start. But a growing suspicion was picking at Bossk's brain. Checking his scope, he saw Zuckuss and 4-LOM were headed that way, too.
Suddenly Dengar's ship flashed out of sight. It had made the jump to hyperspace. Bossk furtively started feeding course information into his nav-puter. At the same time, he told the main computer to extrapolate a destination for Dengar's ship.
It returned only one possibility: Ord Lethi.
Muttering a string of Trandoshan curses, Bossk flipped a lever, and starlines streaked around his ship as it lunged into hyperspace. He was sure Zuckuss and 4-LOM would be following on the same heading.
Fine, then, he decided. If this was how the game was going to unfold, he'd just have to make sure he got to Ord Lethi ahead of the others. He reached for another lever on the control panel, and opened up his thrusters full throttle. ***
Behind, in the Anoat system, the fleet of Star Destroyers started breaking up. Zuckuss and 4-LOM leapt into hyperspace, then the enormous capital ships began to streak off in every direction, dumping massive hunks of scrap metal -- many of which were larger than the bounty hunters' ships themselves -- before vanishing into infinity. Among the last to do so was the Avenger.
When all the Star Destroyers were gone, leaving only long trails of garbage behind, a small, battered freighter crept free of one such stream. Firing its main thrusters, it headed off in a direction entirely different from the way Dengar, Bossk, and Zuckuss had gone.
Once he was satisfied it had gone far enough, Boba Fett turned from his tracking scope and fired up his own engines.
He'd gone to the Avenger, true, but not for the reason Bossk had suspected. He'd known, back on the Executor, exactly what Solo had meant to do. Clinging to a larger vessel was an old smuggler's trick -- and an old bounty hunter's trick, too. Fett had used it once or twice himself.
He'd convinced the Avenger's dubious new captain that he wanted his ship to be jettisoned with the garbage before the jump to light speed. He'd considered telling the captain not to dump his garbage at all -- he was curious about what Solo would do if the Impies didn't follow standard procedure -- but he wanted the Falcon all to himself, for now.
After a while, the Falcon jumped. It wasn't totally helpless without its main hyperdrive: the backup systems were still good for short hops. The problem was, they weren't very fast, and they were easily tracked.
Fett examined a few readouts on his control panel, then smiled behind his helmet.
Bespin, then. ***
Glowing clouds swirled around the Teskrut's cockpit windows as Bossk settled into his seat. It had been three days since he'd left the Anoat system: three days of tinkering with his engines and checking the scopes for signs of the other hunters' ships.
He checked the scanner again, although he knew its readings wouldn't have changed from an hour ago. Of Zuckuss' ship there was no sign. Chances were, with two other vessels ahead of them, old Zuck and LOM had decided to call off the search and find quarry with less competition. Bossk didn't blame them: they were good, but up against himself and Fett -- hell, even IG-88 -- Zuckuss and his droid were out of their league.
Dengar was out of his league, too, Bossk knew, but to his credit the human had stuck it out. A blip that had to be his ship was still visible on the scope, as it had been from the start of the chase.
The difference was, _Dengar_ was the one doing the chasing now.
Bossk made a harsh coughing sound that could have been a laugh. The Teskrut was built for speed before anything else. He'd pulled even with Dengar at the end of the first day, and after a couple hours of mucking with the hyperdrive motivator, he'd gone right on by the other hunter. By the end of he second day, Bossk could have left Dengar far enough behind to be out of sensor range, but he'd decided it was too much fun to let the human see he was being outstripped. He'd toyed with Dengar for the last twenty-four hours.
Now it was time to stop playing games. Ord Lethi was coming up. Bossk figured he'd have six hours' lead time before Dengar reached him. That, he decided, would be plenty. All he had to do was _find_ the Falcon, then contact Vader. Let the Impies clean up the mess.
A red warning light started flashing on the Teskrut's control panel. Bossk gave it a passing glance, then slapped a scaly hand on the hyperdrive control lever. His thick tongue flicked out of his lipless mouth in anticipation, then he pulled the lever back.
Starlines tightened into distant points of light. Bossk's bloodshot eyes widened.
Where was Ord Lethi?
According to the starchart in his ship's computer, there should have been a large red sun blazing dead ahead. He should have been able to see that star's outermost planet, an unremarkable ringless gas giant, about sixty degrees to port.
Bossk made a low gurgling sound. What the hell could cause a whole star system to disappear? He'd heard the Alliance's propaganda about an Imperial space station that had blasted Alderaan into rubble, but he'd never given it any credence. Everyone knew the Alderaanians had been conducting secret weapons research: the planet's destruction had certainly been the result of an accident during one experiment or another.
But even if the supposed "Death Star" had been more than a Rebel fabrication, it wouldn't have been able to blow away an entire _star system_. It was impossible.
Which left the problem of why there was no star system _here_, where his starchart said one had to be.
Reflexively, Bossk raised his deflectors and switched power to his forward gun array. Only after he was ready for whatever danger might be out there did he check his scope to see if there _was_ anything out there.
Nothing. Not a blip.
Bossk clacked his pointed teeth together in frustration. What the hell was going on? Was his nav-
puter on the blink? No; he'd checked it just a week before receiving the summons from Lord Vader. It ought to have lasted for months' worth of jumps before it started to drift -- and to have drifted so far as to miss a whole _system_ was ridiculous. Besides, he reminded himself, Dengar was on the same course --
Bossk suddenly went rigid, his jaw drooping open slightly. Dengar!
His control console beeped: incoming message. He knew what it said without having to open the channel. Still, he opened it anyway. A one-way, text-only transmission began to scroll up the Teskrut's computer screen:
UNCL HYPERTRANS XG17B38 Teskrut
SEND BW11N20 Sarnar's Luck
MSG COMM --
Thought you might be wondering by now where Ord Lethi was. Maybe I can help: there is no Ord Lethi. I made it up.
You really should cross-check your starchart more often, Bossk. It's amazing how few people go to the bother. But don't get too mad with yourself: old Zuck didn't notice I'd tampered with his system either. Of course, at least he had the good sense to quit before he wasted too much time.
Anyway, in case you want to know, Fett should be well on his way to the Millennium Falcon by now. You may as well kiss those reward credits good-bye. Better luck next time.
Bossk stared at the readout for the better part of a minute, his face expressionless. Then he balled his thick-fingered hand into a fist and slammed it against the screen, cracking the glass. The terminal sparked and went dark. ***
Darth Vader was at one with the dark side of the Force.
Sitting in his closed meditation chamber, deep in the heart of the Executor, the Dark Lord of the Sith relished the chance to breathe without his confining helmet. The chamber was filled with pure oxygen, which allowed even his wasted lungs to respire without the aid of the stifling mask. It seemed a strange thing to inhale and exhale without the mechanical rasp that had accompanied his every breath for twenty years.
He relished it.
_If he could be turned,_ Vader thought. He had focused on that thought with each breath for the past hour. _If he could be turned._
Darth Vader had never seen his son. But soon, soon. He savored the thought even more than the chance to breathe freely.
His thoughts turned to the Emperor. There had been something in the message Vader had received from his master -- something more than a warning about Skywalker. Palpatine had been probing Vader's thoughts as they had spoken. Evidently he had been pleased with what he had found.
It had been a test, then. An attempt to evoke some sort of emotional response. The name alone -- _Skywalker_ -- had been pronounced with such clarity, such precision ...
_We have a new enemy. Luke Skywalker._
And Vader had not flinched. Any ties he had with the past, with the man he had once been, had burned away in the molten pit where Obi-Wan Kenobi had left him to die. The name Skywalker no longer had any meaning for him. But, he supposed, the Emperor may have worried that, with age, Vader might seek to re-establish those ties, to atone for whatever misdeeds had led him here, to this meditation chamber in the heart of the most powerful star cruiser ever constructed.
_If he could be turned._
The ties remained broken.
Vader blinked once, irritably. "What is it, Admiral?" he asked, drawing out the title into a thinly veiled threat.
Admiral Piett's voice crackled over the chamber's com system. "We're receiving a hail signal, milord. It carries your personal priority code."
Vader steepled his fingers, allowing himself a rare smile. "What is the source?" he asked.
Piett's voice faltered, and Vader's smile melted into a scowl. The Admiral was obviously still unnerved by the time he had seen the Dark Lord unmasked. Ordinarily, Vader would have punished such an affront by crushing the man's windpipe, but Piett was a competent man -- moreso than most of the fools Vader had commanded -- and Vader had let him live.
He was beginning to regret it.
"What is the source?" he repeated, impatiently.
"M-my lord," Piett replied, "there appears to be some sort of error. The signal carries no source code whatsoever. My men cannot tell what its origin is."
Vader's smile returned. Only one man would contact the Executor without identifying himself. "There is no mistake, Admiral," he said.
Piett stammered again, helplessly. Vader reached out with the force and gave the admiral's throat the slightest pinch. When Piett spoke again, his voice rose with panic. "Shall -- shall I patch it through to you, milord?" he squeaked.
"Wait one minute, Admiral," Vader answered. "Then send the signal to my chamber."
"Y-yes, milord," Piett replied, and the channel clicked off.
Vader lost himself in thought for another moment, piecing together his plan once more, making sure there were no flaws. Finding none, he reached to his side and pressed a button. Hydraulics hissed as a manipulator arm descended from the ceiling, bearing his helmet. Vader sat still as the black death-mask came down on over his head, then felt a strange, momentary twinge of disappointment as he drew his first breath through his mechanical lungs. He blinked it away.
The viewscreen above him flickered to life. When the picture -- distorted and blurred by the many light years of distance between sender and receiver -- resolved itself, Vader noted with satisfaction that his guess had been right.
Boba Fett had been the right one to call on.
The bounty hunter regarded the Dark Lord evenly. "I've found them," he said, not even waiting for Vader to ask the question.
"Very good, bounty hunter," Vader replied. "You have done well."
"I've done what I'm being paid to do," Fett stated dismissively.
Vader bristled for an instant at the hunter's tone, then calmed himself. There were few people in the galaxy whom Darth Vader truly respected. Grand Moff Tarkin had been one, before his pride had cost him his life. Boba Fett was another. "Tell me the system," he commanded.
Fett actually had the audacity to pause, as if weighing his options. Vader didn't react, though -- he knew the hunter, knew his games. Fett was trying to get the Dark Lord to show some sort of weakness. Vader afforded him none. At last, the bounty hunter broke the silence. "Bespin," he stated.
Vader examined a computer screen nearby. "A Tibanna outpost," he noted. "With several private mining facilities."
Fett nodded. "Don't worry about where they'll dock," he said. "There's a small settlement called Cloud City, run by an old partner of Solo's. A man named Lando Calrissian."
"Has the Millennium Falcon arrived yet?" Vader asked.
"No," Fett replied. "They're running on backup drive only. It will take them a week, maybe more. Plenty of time to set up a welcome party."
Vader gave a curt nod. "We will set out for Bespin immediately," he said. "Expect us in two days."
"You're coming here personally?" Fett asked. A rare note of surprise crept into his voice.
"Expect us in two days," Vader repeated, and switched off the comlink. The screen went dark before Fett could react.
Vader sat in silence for a moment, drumming his fingers on the meditation chamber's control panel. Excellent. Everything was falling into place. He reached for the comlink again, and opened a channel to the bridge. "Admiral," he thundered, "set a course for the Bespin system. I want us underway _now_."
He closed the channel before the astonished Piett could reply.
Vader sat in silence a moment longer, then reached to his side and flipped a switch. The manipulator arm descended again, clamped around his helmet, and pulled it free. Clean air flooded Vader's mouth and nose once more, and he closed his eyes, focusing on one thought only.
_If he could be turned._ ***
As the Slave I dropped down through the white clouds of Bespin, two twin-pod cloud cars rose to meet it.
"You are entering Cloud City airspace," stated an official- sounding voice over a general-access frequency. "Please submit your ship profile and state your business."
Boba Fett responded by increasing his speed. He glared at the oncoming ships. After a moment, the official-sounding voice returned. "Unidentified vessel," it declared, "you are entering restricted airspace. Transmit your manifest or leave this area _immediately_."
Fett gave the Slave I a bit more throttle. The cloud cars were getting very close.
"Unidentified ship!" the voice repeated, sounding less official and more frantic with each passing second. "Name yourself or you will be fired upon!"
Fett stared at the cloud cars in mild disbelief. The fools were on a collision course. _Of course,_ he thought, _so am I._
An instant later, one of the cloud cars spat a brief barrage of blaster fire at the Slave I. Flak erupted around Fett's windscreen. It was a harmless shot, meant to frighten rather than cause any damage.
It took a lot, however, to frighten Boba Fett.
With a calmness edging on boredom, He reached for his own weapon control and fired. He let off one single blast, but it was enough.
The blast struck the cloud car that had shot at him, vaporizing the engine module between the ship's two pods. The explosion sent both pods spinning sideways, in opposite directions, and they hung in Bespin's rarefied upper atmosphere for a moment, looking like they wanted to stay aloft despite gravity and their lack of propulsion. Then, with an eerie, silent grace, both pods tumbled downward, vanishing into a cloudbank. A terrified scream erupted over the general-
access frequency, then cut off into static.
The pilots of the other cloud car stared downward in utter shock, then looked up at the onrushing Slave I. Fett could see the looks of horror on their faces as the cloud car swerved out of his way, narrowly avoiding a collision. Fett didn't twitch.
He checked his scope, and shook his head in disgust. The second cloud car was coming around, its pilots apparently intent on coming in on his aft quarter and avenging their comrades' demise. Fett considered blasting it, too -- it wouldn't take much effort, he was sure - - but set the idea aside. He'd made his point.
"Cloud City security," he said into his comlink, his voice flat, "I am sending my ship's profile now."
He reached for his computer terminal and punched a few keys. The Slave I had, on file, about two dozen false manifests, all excellent forgeries and quite capable of winning him landing privileges at Cloud City.
Fett didn't transmit any of them. Instead, he sent the ship's _real_ profile.
Dead silence answered him on the com. He watched the cloud car on the scope, his finger drifting back toward the firing switch. After a moment, though, a voice crackled over the speakers. It sounded terrified to the point of nausea.
"At-attention vessel S-Slave I," the voice stammered. "Y-you have b-been cl-cleared for l-l-
landing. Proceed t-to Platform --"
"I will land on the main east platform," Fett stated. The voice on the other end fell silent. "As for my business, tell Administrator Calrissian to cancel whatever affairs he's seeing to. I want to speak with him." ***
"I'm sorry," Lando Calrissian said smoothly. "I don't think I heard you right."
Under his helmet, Boba Fett scowled. Calrissian was an inveterate con artist and gambler, always looking for the angles. Under normal circumstances, Fett preferred blasting smoking holes through such men's chests and going about his business. The thing was, these weren't normal circumstances. Killing Calrissian would cause a stir, and though Fett didn't doubt he'd be able to shoot his way through Cloud City's less-than-crack security forces, it wouldn't do to have the colony in chaos for Lord Vader's arrival.
Or Solo's, for that matter.
Fett eyed Calrissian warily, and couldn't help being a little impressed. Other men would have smirked as they toyed with him -- if they had the _kilpaks_ to toy with him at all -- but the administrator of Cloud City had a real face for sabacc. He didn't even bat an eye.
Fett decided to play along.
"If you're having so much trouble," he ventured, "then why don't you tell me what you _think_ I said, and I can tell you where you went wrong?"
Lando raised his eyebrows, spearing a piece of the Telusian lake-crab he'd ordered for himself and his new guest. Fett hadn't touched the meat, hadn't given it a second glance. "Well, from what I gather," Lando answered, "my old buddy Han's due to show up in a week or so, and you want me to just hand him over to you."
"Then you were mistaken: you heard me right after all."
Lando pursed his lips and glanced back at Lobot. The cyborg's gaze flicked to meet his, and he shrugged slightly. There was a message in the bald man's eyes, though, and Fett recognized it as a warning. _Watch yourself,_ it seemed to say. _This one isn't much for your games._
Lando looked back at Fett, his face as blank as ever. He chewed on his lake-crab for a moment, then sat back in his chair. "What's in it for me?" he asked. Still looking for the angles.
"Your business goes on," Fett replied. "Undisturbed."
Calrissian laughed. It was meant to be charming, but after a moment he realized it wasn't doing him much good. "Look, friend," he said, "I realize you could blow my head all over the walls before I could blink, but understand this: you don't scare me. No one comes into my place, kills two of my patrol pilots, and starts telling me which way the wind blows. If I'm going to betray Han, there'd better be compensation for my trouble. And it had better have one hell of a lot of zeroes."
Fett fought the urge to grab Calrissian by the throat and shake him till his eyes crossed. "You don't understand," he hissed. "I'm not telling you which way the wind blows. I'm telling you that, if you don't do as I say, the wind's going to _stop_ blowing. I can spread word about you, Calrissian. You'll find your contracts dry up, clients go elsewhere for Tibanna, maybe an accident or two happens. This lovely city of yours will be just a weather balloon with buildings. I can ruin you, Calrissian, without my finger ever going near a trigger. How would you like to go back to scratching out a living in the cheap tables at run- down, Outer Rim casinos? You're getting a bit old for the ruffian's life, I think."
Lando stared at Fett for a moment, then shoved his chair back from the table, rose to his feet, and turned to Lobot. "See our guest gets back to his ship without any incidents," he told the cyborg. "Once he's aboard, give him clearance for departure."
Fett watched as Lando stalked toward the door. It was a good act, but that was all it was: a bluff. The set of Calrissian's shoulders betrayed his apprehension, anxiety, fear. Still, Fett was duly impressed. Lando was quite a scammer, a challenge indeed at the sabacc table, no doubt.
But Fett was still holding an ace.
Lobot started toward him, but he stopped the cyborg with a look. The aide wasn't afraid of Fett -- such feelings were alien to his mechanical brain -- but he knew the bounty hunter wouldn't think twice about killing him.
Fett stood as Lando reached the door. "What _I_ can do to you is nothing," he murmured, "compared with what the Empire will do."
Calrissian froze, too abruptly. He tried to recover by turning slowly, with a nonchalant sweep of his heavy cape, but his calm facade had cracked. The corners of his mouth quivered nervously. "You don't have _that_ much pull," he stated, his voice trembling very slightly.
Fett's shoulders shook with a silent chuckle. "Oh, I do," he said. "What's more, they're already coming. Lord Vader should arrive by tomorrow night."
Lando started, then swallowed, a single drop of sweat glistening on his temple. "Vader's coming here?" he asked. "What the hell does he want with Han?"
"Nothing," Fett amended. "_I'm_ the one who wants Solo. Lord Vader only wants his ship."
_My ship,_ Lando thought. His lips tightened, but he remained silent.
"I don't think I need to tell you what displeasing the Empire might mean," Fett said, gazing idly out the window at the cityscape and the vast expanse of clouds beyond. "They're always looking to expand their industrial holdings, and this is quite a lucrative little business you have here, Calrissian -- even if you do scramble your ledgers."
Lando swallowed again, glanced helplessly at Lobot -- who glanced helplessly back -- then took a hesitant step back toward the table. Fett gestured casually at Lando's seat.
"All right," Lando said at last, having finally run out of angles. "I guess I don't have any choice." ***
Dusk on Bespin was a wondrous sight. The endless ocean of clouds, almost wholly white during the day, turned saffron, golden, and finally blazing scarlet as the gas giant's sun vanished below what was, in effect, the horizon. Even after the sun had set, though, an occasional swirl in the nimbus allowed an errant beam of light to shine through, as if the planet itself were ablaze.
Fett watched this with, if not wonder, at least healthy appreciation. He was not a man of keen aesthetic sense -- except for the art of the hunt, of course -- but he _was_ human, and beauty affected him.
For a while.
Eventually, the wonder wore off. As night began to creep over Cloud City, Boba Fett turned his mind elsewhere. To somewhere between Bespin and the Anoat system, where a dented, ungainly freighter was limping its way through hyperspace. It would be days before the Millennium Falcon docked at the platform he and Calrissian had designated, but Fett still stared hungrily into the blue-
black sky as the first stars began to appear. Although he wasn't sure which was Anoat -- star-
charts were for the Slave I's computer to keep track of -- he felt he could sense the Falcon out in the void, like the scent of blood on the planet's raging winds.
After a moment, he looked back down, at the city below him. A sea of lights played around its many towers and causeways. Distant sounds rose up to meet him. Here and there, cloud cars hissed through the sky. It may have been any city on any of a thousand planets, and so it didn't interest Fett much. Besides, even if it did, he couldn't go down there.
Calrissian had allowed him to use guest quarters in one of Cloud City's highest towers. The apartment was luxurious, too much so for Fett's taste: because of the spectacular view, it was normally reserved for ambassadors, nobility, and crime lords. More important than its ostentatiousness, however, was its seclusion. Here Fett could remain unperturbed by the bustle of the mining colony below, and likewise he could avoid disturbing the city's populace. One of the curses of being notorious was that he often caused a panic in public, especially among semi-legal riffraff like the denizens of Cloud City. Here, in his remote apartments, Fett could remain covert.
He turned away from the railing of his balcony. His ragged cape snapping behind him in Bespin's rising night-gales, he started back toward his apartment. He was tired, and although he disdained the rooms' opulence, he was looking forward to the chance to sleep somewhere other than the Slave I's cramped bunkspace.
As he stepped into the apartment, his thoughts wandered onward, touching on the other hunters who had answered Vader's call. Most of them were out of the race, now. Dengar had seen to that, setting himself up as a decoy and leading a merry chase far, far out of the way. Fett had arranged such partnerships with Dengar before, and it had been good luck that the motley human had been on the bridge of the Executor that day. By now, Dengar was probably sitting in some cantina somewhere, enjoying whatever slosh the locals drank and waiting for Fett to transmit his cut of the reward.
It wouldn't be a full cut this time, though: Dengar had only been partially successful. Though he'd drawn off Zuckuss and, thankfully, Bossk, the hunter hadn't managed to fool IG-88. The renegade droid was out there, somewhere, still on the hunt.
_Still,_ Fett thought, _the odds that he'd have picked up the trail too --_
He stopped, freezing halfway across the room, and cocked his head. His ears, aided by the sensors in his helmet, picked up a strange sound. A dim humming, and the faint clank of metal.
Swallowing a curse, Fett ducked.
The reflex saved his life. A blaster bolt tore through the air where his head had been an instant before, striking the room's far wall. A small fire sizzled in the hole the bolt blew in the panelling, then went out with a hiss of smoke.
In a single, fluid motion, Fett spun around, dropped to one knee, and stretched his hand toward the apartment's entrance, where the shots had come from. Without bothering to aim, he squeezed off three quick blasts from the gun mounted on his wrist. The bolts sprayed around IG-88, who stood in the open doorway, a blaster in each hand. One glanced off the war droid's shoulder, throwing a shower of sparks onto the room's lush carpeting, but the droid didn't react.
"Hello, IG," Fett muttered, then dropped and rolled behind a sofa as a succession of blaster bolts scorched the floor around him. The barrage stopped as soon as Fett reached cover, and he listened to the faint _whir_ of the droid's sensor-studded head as it swept over the room.
Fett gauged the situation. The droid wasn't here to talk, that was for certain: it obviously meant to eliminate him and claim the reward. It had no way of knowing Fett had already told Vader of his success, or that the Executor would be in orbit in less than twenty-four hours. And it probably wouldn't have cared at that.
Servos hummed as IG-88 crept into the room. Fett grabbed a cushion from the sofa and tossed it in the air. Laser fire filled the room, and when the cushion hit the ground again, it was riddled with smoldering holes. _Looks like I'm not going anywhere,_ Fett thought wryly, listening as the droid came closer. He glanced over at the low table where he'd left his rifle, and wondered what his chances were of making it to the blaster before IG-88 could obliterate him. Not good was his best guess.
That didn't leave very much in the way of options.
Fett quickly ran over his armaments as the droid clumped across the room. The envenomed darts he'd used to bring down Korb Stavren on Wyorl were useless against a machine like IG-88. The same went for the lanyard concealed in his wrist-sheath: the droid's strength would be too much for the cable to hold. His wrist laser had a limited charge and was low on power now, with maybe enough kick for one more good shot. The _maybe_ bothered him too much to trust it.
That left one option. Fett hoped it would work.
IG-88's spindly shadow fell over him, and he lunged out of the way as the droid stalked around the sofa. He felt the heat of a blast scorch past his right leg, adding another scar to his already battered armor, then he twisted deftly to his feet and flicked his left arm out at the war droid. As it spun toward him, guns leveled, Fett pressed a hidden control stud on the heel of his gloved hand. With a roar, a blast of flame erupted from his wrist, enveloping the droid.
The flame projector did the trick. Both IG-88's blasters jammed as the fire roasted them. The charge-pack on one exploded with a small bang, blowing off the droid's right forearm. It dropped the other gun before the same could happen to its left. The droid's metallic body slowly gained a faint red glow from the heat.
Then Fett's flamethrower sputtered and died. IG-88 was still standing.
Fett backed quickly away. Half of his apartment was ablaze, and the rest was rapidly filling with smoke. IG-88 lurched unsteadily out of the flames, its severed arm sparking. The fire had damaged its servos, but it was still moving. And, therefore, still dangerous.
Fett dived to his right, toward his rifle. IG-88 hobbled after, still disturbingly silent. Wisps of smoke rose from its surface, which was charred an ugly brown-white where it had once been the color of tarnished silver. Fett landed on the floor beside the table where his blaster lay, grabbed the gun, and whirled, pointing it at IG-88.
He didn't get a single shot off before the droid's remaining arm cracked against his face, knocking him back toward the balcony door. White lights exploded in Fett's head, and a high-pitched whining sounded in his ears. The blow had been harder than any human could punch: only Fett's helmet had saved him from a crushed skull. Still, he found himself gasping for breath and wanting to vomit.
IG-88 took a step toward him, and he shook his head to clear it of the sticky glue that was gumming up his thoughts. His vision still blurry -- a condition helped in no way by the thick waves of smoke rising from his burning quarters -- he backed out the door onto the balcony. The blast of Bespin's cold night wind nearly shoved him back into the room.
Fett crept backward, away from the door, until he bumped against the balcony railing. He glanced behind, just for a second, and saw Cloud City's lights shimmering far below. Then IG-88 stepped out of the conflagration inside his room. The hulking droid's cylindrical head swiveled, and it spotted Fett. With an unnerving sureness, it started to clump toward him.
Fett raised his gun and pulled the trigger. Nothing happened.
He realized he'd left the safety on just as IG-88 reached out for him. With a curse, he fumbled for the switch that would unlock the rifle's firing circuits, but knew it was too late. He looked up at the war droid and felt a trickle of sweat run down his face.
Then, with another quick glance over his shoulder, Fett vaulted over the railing and fell out of sight.
IG-88 stopped, its remaining arm outstretched toward where Boba Fett had stood a moment before. Something was wrong, it knew, but the fire had caused a short in its logic processor, and it was having trouble figuring out why Fett had chosen to leap to his death rather than fight.
It only had to puzzle this over for a moment, then Fett reappeared, soaring up out of the light-
dotted abyss, the rockets on his jetpack spouting twin plumes of flame against the dark Bespin sky. IG- 88 stared at the armored figure, its head swiveling back and forth, looking for cover. It found none.
Fett raised his rifle, took careful aim at the chrome droid, and pulled the trigger. This time, the safety was off. ***
"I'll say it again: I have no idea where that _thing_ came from," said Lando Calrissian as he surveyed the charred wreckage that had been one of Cloud City's finest ambassadorial suites. A crew of Ugnaughts was sifting through the ashes, looking for whatever valuable items they might be able to scavenge.
Boba Fett glared at the administrator. "And _I'll_ say it again: I don't believe you."
Lando spread his hands, flashing a disarming smile. "Believe me or don't. You can check the spaceport logs. Hell, check the landing pads themselves. There's no ship matching the description you gave me. This IC-88 --"
"Whatever," Lando continued. "It didn't land at Cloud City. A droid flying a ship in here unaccompanied would have stuck in my memory." He glanced at his cyborg aide, who stood by the room's entrance, two security guards nearby. "Or Lobot's, at least."
Fett glanced at Lobot, scowling. "Have you checked the other colonies?" he asked. "It's possible he landed at another mine, then came in on a shuttle."
"It's possible," Lando conceded grudgingly. He decided to play along with the bounty hunter, for the benefit of his own health. He knew Fett was letting him live only because he was useful. He turned to Lobot. "Start asking around. See if anyone saw something at one of the other mines."
The cyborg nodded but said nothing. His electronic brain enhancer was already linked with the city's central computer, relaying Lando's request.
A couple of Ugnaughts let out squeals of pleasure, fishing a long piece of metal out of the still-
smoldering cinders. Fett glanced over and recognized it immediately: IG-88's arm, or what was left of it. It was junk, but the little pig-creatures were treating it like it was made of Namarran platinum. Cradling it in their arms, they took it to a hovering waste bin and laid it inside. The rest of the war droid was already inside the canister, bound for a trash heap deep inside the city. Fett had made sure to remove IG-88's central processor and incinerate it, despite the Ugnaughts' protests. It wouldn't do for them to accidentally re-activate the droid during their tinkering. Fett wasn't sure machines could hold grudges, but he wasn't keen on taking chances.
"Look," Lando said, breaking the uncomfortable silence that had settled over the room, "I'll set you up in another apartment. I'll have to move some of my other guests around, but it's really no trouble --"
Fett raised his hand, and Calrissian fell silent. "That won't be necessary," he said, glancing out onto the blaster-scored balcony. The sun had risen as the city's emergency crews had put out the fire. It was midmorning now. "Lord Vader will be arriving in a few hours. I'll stay aboard my ship until then."
Lando swallowed, still not believing the Empire's most feared agent was coming _here_, to _his_ city. Of all the luck.
Fett turned and headed to the door. Lobot and the security guards stepped aside to let him pass. "There won't be another incident like this, Calrissian," he said without looking back.
"Of course not," Lando replied smoothly, then Fett was gone. Lando put a hand to his forehead, not noticing that it was shaking as he did so. He hoped like hell he was right. ***
The question of how IG-88 had managed to sneak into Cloud City, find out which quarters had been assigned to Boba Fett, and attempt to assassinate the bounty hunter without anyone stopping it, was never satisfactorily answered. Lobot ran a cross-check with the other Tibanna mines' spaceports, but not all of them were entirely forthcoming. Lando wasn't the only shady operator on Bespin.
By nightfall, more important matters eclipsed IG-88's subterfuge. The Imperials started arriving.
Lando had been worried that the Empire's presence would drive much of his clientele away. He was, therefore, pleasantly surprised to find that their arrival was quiet and unremarkable. Generally, he knew, the Impies had all the subtlety of an enraged bantha. But this obviously wasn't an ordinary case.
The first shuttle arrived in the late afternoon, when Bespin's sun was beginning to streak the clouds with fire. It was an ordinary, boxlike utility vehicle, rather than the three-winged deals the Imperials normally used. It landed on a platform that Fett had told Lando to seal off from the rest of the city, and began to disgorge Stormtroopers. Several Imperial officers followed, sneering at Lando and his entourage -- and, to the administrator's surprise, Fett. But their glowers disappeared as soon as the first mechanical breath issued from the top of the ramp.
Lando's sense of fear had been deadened over the years: a good con man was never terrified, and such emotions had no place at the sabacc table, either. Still, as the black-masked gargoyle that was Darth Vader descended from the shuttle onto the landing platform, Calrissian's stomach turned cold with dread. Several of his men started to shift from one foot to the other, glancing at the deck, the skyline, each other -- anywhere but at the towering nightmare that strode toward them. Even Lobot looked edgy. Then Lando realized that Boba Fett, who stood next to him, was laughing silently, his armor rattling softly as his shoulders shook. Lando scowled, clenching and unclenching his fists, and watched as the Dark Lord of the Sith marched past his orderly rows of troops, his cape flapping in the wind. Finally, Lando stepped forward. He bowed slightly, but did not extend his hand.
"Lord Vader," he said, trying to sound delighted to be in the man's presence. "Welcome to Cloud City. I'm Lando Calrissian, the administrator of this facility."
Darth Vader didn't even glance at him, but kept walking. Lando had to step nimbly aside, or he would have been trampled by the Dark Lord's gleaming black boots. Boba Fett turned and walked beside Vader.
"You have done well, bounty hunter," Vader boomed. "Have you had any trouble making the arrangements I transmitted to you?"
"No," Fett replied. He didn't mention the altercation with IG-88. It wasn't important.
Lando watched the two armored figures march along the catwalk that led from the landing platform to the tower he had set aside as temporary barracks for the Imperials. A Stormtrooper shoved him aside as the troops fell in behind their leader. The Impie officers spared him and his men one last dark glance before bringing up the rear.
Lando looked at Lobot, grimaced, and followed. ***
Shuttles continued to arrive all week, one every few hours, each bearing another platoon of Stormtroopers. The Imperial tower filled up quickly, and Lando had to clear another building to supplement the barracks. He began to wonder if Vader had decided to bring half the Imperial army with him -- and whether he intended to leave any of the troops behind when he left. At least the Dark Lord had had the sense to leave his pet Star Destroyer in the Eala system, a short hyperspace jump away, where it wouldn't interfere with traffic.
The Imperials were actually quite well-behaved, considering their numbers and the fact that they could have gotten away with anything and Lando wouldn't have said a thing, for fear of Vader. The Dark Lord spoke maybe six words to Lando all week, which was how the administrator wanted things: the less he was around Vader, the better. Even better, the Dark Lord kept Boba Fett's attention, which meant Lando didn't have to put up with the bounty hunter's abuse as much as he had the first day.
The worst part of all this, though, wasn't the Stormtroopers skulking around his city, or the fact that Fett or Vader could kill him with barely a thought. No, the worst part was that Lando Calrissian was beginning to have doubts.
Han Solo was his friend. _Had_ been his friend, anyway, before Han had cut out on him at Delim Tar. Lando had been left behind, with six cases of counterfeit Jelazian fire-spheres and a buyer who had a tendency to dump people who upset him out airlocks. Lando had barely managed to talk his way out of it, and had sent word to Han, in no uncertain terms, that they were through working together. That had been six years ago, and Lando hadn't seen Han since.
Now, Han was in trouble. From what Lando had gathered, the Corellian had gotten mixed up in the Rebellion in some way: enough to get Darth Vader to offer a bounty for the Falcon. And Han was on his way here.
And Lando was going to turn on him.
_It's exactly what he did to you,_ he told himself. _Serves him right, too, for messing with politics instead of running spice._ But, for some reason, the thought did nothing to comfort Lando. He'd double- crossed people before, more times than he cared to remember, but con games were one thing. Giving someone to Darth Vader was something else.
The problem was, no matter how badly the situation stank, there wasn't a damn thing he could do about it that wouldn't cost him everything he'd worked so hard to build on Bespin, and maybe his life on top of that.
At last, as what may have been the most nerve-wracking week in Lando Calrissian's life drew to a close, the matter was taken out of his hands. He was relaxing between games of sabacc in Rantal's, one of Cloud City's finer casinos, when a man walked up to him.
Lando watched the man approach, a sinking feeling in his stomach. It was one of Vader's Impie lickspittles, out of uniform but easily recognizable by the sneer on his lips. Lando toyed briefly with the idea of putting a few of the man's polished teeth down his throat, then quickly put the thought out of his head. He took a long drink of Rantal's house spice-wine, then folded his hands on the table and gave the officer his most winning smile.
"Good evening, friend," he said, motioning to an empty chair. "Care to join me for a hand or two? The deck's running fast tonight."
To Lando's surprise, the Impie actually looked tempted by the offer -- but just for a second. Then his back stiffened and his glare turned cold. "Your guest wishes to see you immediately," he said.
The sinking feeling in Lando's gut got worse. He pushed the sabacc deck back to the waiting dealer, motioning for his winnings to be put on his drink tab, then downed the last of his spice-
wine. Steeling himself, he rose from his chair and followed the officer out of the casino.
_Sorry, Han old buddy,_ he thought wistfully. _I'm gonna have to let you down this time._ ***
Darth Vader stared out the huge windows of Cloud City's control tower. Unlike Boba Fett, he felt no stirring inside as the colors of dusk rioted across the cloud-ridden sky. His mind was elsewhere, somewhere far from this minor Tibanna colony. He could sense Skywalker out there, far away. And the boy was growing stronger. The gradually increasing ripples in the normally glass-smooth surface of the Force attested to that.
But how could that be? Vader was certain only one Jedi had survived the great purge he had led at the fall of the Republic -- and now Obi-Wan Kenobi was gone, too, and of no help to the boy. No one remained to teach the ways of the Force, save the Emperor and Vader himself. Still, there was no doubt in Vader's mind that Luke Skywalker's power was building: still not strong enough to be dangerous, but the potential was there. Darth Vader began to understand his master's worries about the boy.
Behind him, a door hissed open. Calrissian. Vader could tell from the sound of the man's breathing, the tread of his step, the faint ripple of unease that accompanied him. The Dark Lord did not turn.
Awkwardly, Lando cleared his throat. "I take it the Falcon's arrived," he said.
"It came out of hyperspace at system edge a short time ago," Vader answered, still staring out at the clouds. "It will arrive here soon."
"All right," Lando pressed, the confidence of his voice betrayed by a slight tremor. "Isn't it time someone told me what's going on?"
"You don't need to know anything, Calrissian." This from Boba Fett, standing by a control panel, watching Cloud City's orbital tracking systems monitor the Falcon's approach.
"No, bounty hunter," Vader amended. "It would be best if our host learned our plans." He turned, slowly, and glared at Calrissian. "I want that ship."
"I gathered," Lando replied, and laughed weakly. His chuckle died quickly under Vader's baleful stare. "But -- it's just a hunk of junk. A _fast_ hunk of junk, but --"
"My reasons are not your concern, Calrissian," Vader hissed. "That ship will be mine. You will go out to greet its captain personally. Make everyone aboard that vessel feel comfortable. I will tell you when the trap is to be sprung."
"You said you wanted the ship," Lando countered, "not the people aboard her."
Vader angled his head slightly. If such were possible in the Dark Lord's countenance, Lando would have thought he was amused. "Indeed," he said. "I have no interest in her crew, save what use they can be to me in the short term. When I am through with them, they may all go free."
Boba Fett stirred, his armor rattling, and looked sharply at Vader. The Dark Lord glanced at him once, warningly, and the bounty hunter sat back and glanced doubtfully at the tracking screens again.
Lando's brow furrowed. "You're just going to let them go? I don't get it."
"It is not yours to know my purposes, Calrissian," Vader growled. "But know this: I am not interested in the Millennium Falcon and her crew. They are simply a means to an end. I am only interested in Skywalker."
Vader ignored the question. "If I hear you have told anyone of my designs -- or even of my presence here -- the outcome will not be enjoyable," he stated.
Lando scowled, then opened his mouth to speak. For a moment, he couldn't find any breath to voice the question -- it was as if someone were squeezing his trachea, very slightly. Then his eyes met Vader's, and he paled visibly. Vader nodded once, and air rushed into Lando's lungs. Reflexively touching his throat, he snapped his mouth shut again.
"Lord Vader," announced an officer seated at the control panel next to Fett. "The freighter is entering the planet's atmosphere."
"Very good, Commander Jhoff," Vader told the officer. He glanced briefly at Lando. "Calrissian?"
Lando didn't need to be told twice. He hurried to Jhoff's side and picked up a slender microphone from the control panel. "Patrol vessels," he stated, "we've picked up a new signal on its way to the city." He glanced at the readout screen that showed the Falcon's position. "Four-seven-mark-
two-five. Send two cars to intercept. Give him a hard time, but let him land at Platform 327. Use your blasters for incentive, but don't damage him."
"Copy, Cloud City control," crackled the response over the control tower's speakers. "We're on our way. Patrol out."
Lando set the mic back in its holding bracket and looked up at Vader. "That should take care of things," he said. "I'd better go meet them now." He reached for a control device strapped to his wrist and punched a few buttons, informing Lobot to meet him at Platform 327.
Vader responded with an indulgent wave, and Lando was out of the room faster than a mynock from an ion storm.
Boba Fett waited for the door to hiss shut behind Calrissian, but not a moment longer. He marched toward the Dark Lord, all but scowling visibly. "I thought we had a deal," he snarled. "Solo's mine."
"Calm yourself, bounty hunter," Vader replied. "He will be handed over to you in due time."
"But you said he was to be set free!"
Vader angled his head in that gesture of amusement again. "Surely one of your profession must understand the value of ... _withholding_ the full truth from time to time," he said. "Calrissian will be of more use to us if he believes Solo will not be mistreated."
Fett relaxed slightly. "All right," he conceded. "But you'd better be right. There's a lot of money on Solo's head."
"I am aware of your concerns," Vader stated coldly, and turned away from the bounty hunter to stare out the window again. It had taken considerably longer than he'd anticipated, but the ship that had knocked him out of the battle over the Death Star was finally in his grasp. And then ...
_Soon, my son,_ he thought. _Very soon._ ***
Boba Fett sat at the dining table, checking his rifle for the twentieth time. This time, he swore, he wouldn't make any stupid mistakes like leaving the safety on. If things came to a firefight, he'd see that it was over quickly.
Of course, he didn't want it to come to a firefight, or any other circumstance that would see Solo dead. As much as he wanted to burn a hole through the smug Corellian's heart, the fact remained that Jabba's bounty promised double if Solo was delivered to Tatooine alive. That was enough.
He started to check his rifle again.
Be still," barked Darth Vader, seated at the head of the table. The Dark Lord had been irritable since the Falcon had landed. It seemed one of the ship's passengers, an interfering busybody of a protocol droid, had somehow managed to stumble on a group of Stormtroopers, within minutes of the ship's docking. The Impies had done a decent job of covering their tracks, blasting the droid and sending its remains to the same Ugnaught-manned dump site where IG-88's broken shell had been shipped. Still, its disappearance had aroused suspicions on the part of at least one other person from the Falcon: a woman named Leia.
The woman's presence in the city had riled Vader even more. It appeared to Fett that there was some sort of score between them that remained unsettled. Still, the bounty hunter knew better than to pry. He'd gotten used to breathing.
Fett eyed the door at the other end of the room. Any minute now, Calrissian would arrive, with Solo and Leia and the Wookiee in tow. The door would open, and Fett would watch Solo's face fall as he realized that, after all these years, bad luck had finally caught up with him. Fett shifted his rifle, inspecting it once more.
Vader turned toward him, his cloak rippling softly around his shoulders. "Leave," he said simply.
Fett stared incredulously at the Dark Lord. "Now?" he asked.
"I will not abide your constant fidgeting," Vader declared, "and I don't want you shooting anyone."
The hunter stared at Vader a moment longer, saw the deadly seriousness in the Dark Lord's blank eyes. He pushed himself up, stifling the urge to rail against his employer for robbing him of the opportunity to be present at Solo's downfall. "I'll be in the next room," he said, stalking behind Vader toward an alcove in the rear of the dining hall.
"You may return when the danger has passed," Vader stated. "Not until."
Daringly, Fett snuck a glare at the Dark Lord's back, then stalked around the corner into the alcove. Almost as soon as he'd left the room, he heard the great doors at the other end of the dining room slide open, and he tensed. For an instant, the mechanical rasp of Vader's breathing was the only sound, then the din of blaster fire filled the air.
Fett could hardly believe his ears. Was Solo _shooting_ at Darth Vader? He marveled at the Corellian's _kilpaks_: he had much more of those than brains, from the sounds of things. And he understood, too, why Vader had dismissed him. When Solo had drawn his blaster, Fett would have fired back, instinctively, and one -- or both -- of them would have been killed. Solo probably would have fallen first, but it sounded like the smuggler's draw had gotten quicker over the years, and Fett was no longer quite so sure he'd have gotten off the first blast.
The shooting stopped as quickly as it had begun: still, Solo got off four or five bolts. Fett half-expected to walk back into the room and see Vader lying crumpled on the ground, his armored body blasted halfway to hell. But he knew instinctively that not even the fastest gun in the galaxy would be able to defeat the Dark Lord of the Sith, and the continuing hiss of Vader's breathing confirmed his suspicions. He just hoped Solo was still alive.
For a heartbeat, all was quiet, and Fett knew the danger was over. Nestling his rifle in the crook of his arm, he took a deep breath to calm himself and, feeling serene with triumph, stalked back into the dining hall, his armor jingling softly with each measured step. As he entered the room, he saw Darth Vader, standing now, set Han Solo's blaster on the table before him: somehow, it had gotten all the way across the room by itself.
He saw Lando Calrissian, looking vaguely like someone had just punched him in the stomach. He saw Lobot standing out in the hall with a platoon of battle-ready Stormtroopers. He saw the Wookiee, Chewbacca, and the woman, Leia. Both were plainly distressed. But his eyes finally settled on Han Solo, and under his helmet, Boba Fett smiled.
"We would be honored if you would join us," Darth Vader declared as Fett stopped, beside and slightly behind the hulking black figure.
Solo looked at Vader, looked at Fett, then glared at Calrissian.
"I had no choice," Lando said, looking like he wanted to be anywhere in the galaxy but in this room. "They arrived right before you did. I'm sorry."
Solo seemed to sigh with resignation. "I'm sorry, too," he replied.
The great doors slid closed like the doors of a prison cell. Solo looked at his companions, then at Vader and Fett. His eyes were full of despair. Although he appeared as calm as he ever did, inside Boba Fett rejoiced.