Starlines shrunk into white dots speckling the black canvas of space ...
- Story by Chris Briesemeister
- Estimated reading time: 89 minutes (17,825 words)
Starlines shrunk into white dots speckling the black canvas of space as Han Solo pulled the Millennium Falcon out of hyperspace. Han and his co-pilot Chewbacca were returning from Kashyyyk, the Wookiee home world. Han was against the trip, wanting to pay his debt to Jabba the Hutt, but Chewie insisted on visiting his family for Life Day. After a second thought Han supposed that there was no safer a place for him than a planet full of Wookiees.
"It was a shorter trip than I thought it would be," Han said, pleased with the time they made from Kashyyyk.
"HRWAOOAN," growled the wookiee, reminded of his shortened family visit.
"Hey, I would've wanted to stay longer too, but with the Imperials and Jabba both breathing down our necks we wouldn't have much life left to celebrate if we stayed," argued Han.
Han thought of the Life Day ceremonies on Kashyyyk as rather silly. He guessed though that through elder wookiee eyes the true meaning of Life Day was seen. What a simple yet brilliant idea it was to celebrate just life, all life, and not focus the worship through a single entity, or one long since dead mortal as they did on Han's home planet of Corellia.
Unfortunately, Han had another minor delay. The beautiful though feisty Princess Leia asked him for a lift from Ord Mantell to an unnamed planet. Evidently the Rebels were in the process of moving their base from Ord Mantell and Leia wanted to help things along on the other side. Leaders of the Rebel Alliance didn't see Leia's presence as a very substantial part of the preliminary base development and would not free up an otherwise more valuable ship for her use. They didn't say she couldn't go, she would just have to find her own way there. Leia knew Han would be on Kashyyyk which was practically across the intragalactic street from Ord Mantell, its neighbor in the Outer Rim territories.
The trip to Ord Mantell was only a one hour long hyperspace jump from Kashyyyk. Since the trip didn't really delay him any more than he already, regretfully was, and since she had asked nicely, Han thought he might as well see if he and the Princess could get along under better circumstances.
"Here we are. I wonder what kind of place they'll find to top this," Han asked referring to the Rebellion's habit of finding such agreeable planets to place their headquarters.
Ord Mantell was in Han's viewport now. The planet was relatively small and barely supported the life it had on it. The limited supply of natural resources on Ord Mantell was being rapidly depleted. Han swore he could see smoke billowing from one of the many factories on the planet into space itself. All worlds were dying, albeit slowly, but Han was certain that the corrupt leaders of Ord Mantell would have him see its fate in his lifetime. Han had given a few Imperial reports on the planet a superficial perusal. In them he had seen the word volatile in at least five different places. If only the Imps knew just how volatile a planet Ord Mantell was they might pay a little more attention to it.
The planet, ever growing larger outside the cockpit, would have made a nice place to live under different circumstances. It even reminded Han of Corellia somewhat. It's single continent was once rippled with green mountains giving the image seen when throwing a stone into a murky, algae-infested, life filled swamp. Now, every meter of solid land was transformed into either living or industrial sectors. Every aspect of the planet's population was corrupt. Ord Mantell was home to at least eight known organized crime rings and nursed countless others on their way to maturity. All of which used legitimate businesses to help finance their operations. Because there were so many organizations the ones that didn't have a tight grip on their resources quickly died out. New ones would just as quickly fill in the void left behind only to follow the same fate.
It was the perfect hiding place for the Rebel Alliance. Its front was that of a new crime ring, a mask easily worn by the Rebels. After all, organized crime, like the Alliance, was anti-Imperial. All it took to convince anyone that theirs was a bona fide crime organization were a few convoy raids and perhaps a little smuggling activity, both of which were already on the Rebel agenda. The high traffic of non-Imperial military vessels they created on Ord Mantell was another matter. Y-wings were an old enough ship design that most all privatized organizations, legal or not, used them should they need to protect shipping lanes. Unified pirating groups found the disabling effects of a Y-wing's ion cannon very useful in convoy raids. With its increasing popularity among private military groups, and forged transponder codes, a Rebel Y-wing was as nondescript as a Jawa in a junk pile. That left X-wings and some of the Rebellion's newer starfighter models to be dealt with. While these ships were on Ord Mantell itself they were stowed in large bulk freighters. When the ships were called to duty they went through the arduous task of having the freighters make a short jump to Kashyyyk (or another nearby planet) and from there unloading the fighters who made their own jumps to the theater of battle. This time consuming process, more often than not, gave the Imperial forces the upper-hand. Just one more reason why the Rebellion was now moving its main base of operations.
The Empire considered the problems of Ord Mantell un-correctable. It was in fact on the list of potential targets for the recently destroyed Death Star. No one would really care about the Empire snuffing out the piece of smoldering cinder that Ord Mantell was.
"This is Captain Han Solo of the Millennium Falcon requesting permission to land." It was funny, really. Ord Mantell was so corrupt that it was one of the few places Han could use his real name and transponder codes to expedite the landing procedure. And every little bit helped, since a request for a temporary bay was passed down through about ten people until it reached someone deep enough in a certain organization to be trusted to make the OK. Han decided to push them a little.
"Saying again, this is the Millennium Falcon requesting clearance for satellite dock."
"Falcon, this is landing control. Permission granted to land on docking platform BB-15, on planet. Repeat. Docking platform BB-15, on planet."
"Thank you landing control," Han said, giving Chewie a look of surprise. The wookiee moaned a `beats me' in response.
Ord Mantell's factories relied on raw materials from other worlds. Consequently, the planet always had a high volume of shipping traffic and therefore used its one moon as a landing facility for non-commercial ships. Passengers were then shuttled to the planet itself. The shuttles were restricted to a large yet specific corridor that mercantile ships could not traverse. The irony of it was that because the crime rings used factories as their fronts many ships were granted on-planet landing for a few credits being given to the right people, not on the merit of the ships themselves. This made for an unusually large amount of traffic, clogging landing bays and slowing flight plans. Han couldn't decide whether Leia had arranged a special clearance for him or if somebody thought it was just old Han making another drop off. Well, the Falcon was a freighter after all. No use putting much thought into it.
Chewie barked in disbelief. Something wasn't right.
"Look, we've been on this planet a dozen times. Every one of those times something was screwy. I'd be nervous if something weird didn't happen." Chewie was almost as paranoid as that annoying protocol droid sometimes. Han had to admit though, landing on Ord Mantell was always an adventure.
Entering the planet's atmosphere Han and Chewie were reminded what a glorified hell hole Ord Mantell really was. The air was saturated with noxious, charcoal-colored smoke emitted from factories; thick enough that a young wookiee with a vibroblade could carve himself a model X-Wing from it. Mob bosses cut the corners of time and money by forgoing the installation of air scrubbers. Even walking on the planet's surface was like being on a cloud, only not as amicable.
Han saw the BB sector of the landing structure. He pulled the repulsorlifts to full hover above and north of the platform. A small troop transport still lingered in the spot, Han's spot.
Han impatiently rolled his eyes and reached for the comm switch. Was he ever going to get back to Tatooine?
"Landing control, this is Solo..."
"Yes, sorry Falcon. Blue Cetacae will be underway immediately. Had to make a last minute pre-flight adjustment," interrupted a voice over the comm speaker.
As if on cue, the transport slowly puttered into the sky.
"I hope nobody on that thing is in a big hurry," Han said, reminding himself of his own impatience.
Thinking pessimistically that the pilot of the transport might decide to return to the pad to reclaim his spot, Han decided to get in there sooner than any space-traffic controller would have advised. He cut the Falcon's forward repulsors down to half power, pointing the nose of the ship down to a forty-five degree angle from the planet's surface. Almost simultaneously he tapped at the forward thrust controls to compensate for the ship's lack of atmospheric aerodynamics. With the burst of ignited flame from the engines the Falcon slid underneath the transport. Han powered his aft repulsors down to half to level the ship and cut on his retro-maneuvering jets to stop its forward momentum. The landing skids sprang from the underside of the ship as it eased onto the pad. Han grinned, trying to convince himself that the two minutes he just saved would mean something. Maybe Leia was out there to be impressed by his little piece of show-boating. As the gangway met with the landing deck a blaster bolt thwapped the side of the ship.
The transport was supposed to stall another two minutes, according to plan. The henchmen from the Moofa gang were not set for their ambush when the Falcon landed. One young wiseguy got caught in the open and fired into the opening hatch thinking he could hit somebody before they saw the danger.
Han immediately closed the hatch back up and ran for the cockpit. Chewie was already there and Han wondered why they weren't already bolting for open space. Chewie snarled angrily and scowled into the sky. Han followed his gaze and saw that the poky troop ship was now hovering just above the Falcon's sensor array, making a reversal of Han's previous landing procedure impossible. The rear hatch of the transport sat open like a gawking mouth. Thick cables dangled from it like a giant sea serpent's baleen skimming for micro-organisms.
"Are they trying to round us up like baby Banthas?" Han asked with disdain. He saw that he had guessed wrong as troopers began sliding down the cables, five at a time in four waves. Han altered his field of vision to the platform to see the twenty men join about ten others struggling to set up reinforced plasteel riot barricades.
"Great, just great," growled Han. He lowered the mini turbo-laser from the belly of the Falcon and spit out a volley of blasts. The laser fire landed true in the bodies of ten men. Han took a moment to let the relief he felt sink in but was quickly broken out of his trance by a series of laser blasts hitting the cockpit canopy. By the time Han triggered for another pass most of the men were behind the barricades. He only cut down five more. The fifteen men left were now taking pot shots at the Falcon from the safety of their temporary bunkers. The hull of the Falcon could handle a single blaster rifle, but fifteen men firing amplified Blastech assault cannons while the ship was sitting like a lame Mynock was not a good situation.
Coming into focus through the smoky atmosphere like angels of salvation, two Skipray Blastboats shredded the temporary fortifications, leaving no one on the surface of the deck alive to clean up their mess. The pilot of the troop transport, seeing he was out matched, kicked his thrusters up to full power and soared for space.
A voice came over Han's comm speaker. "Solo, glad I was around to protect my interests," boomed the deep voice. It was Orkin Natal, a lieutenant to one of the more permanent mob bosses on the planet. After delivering a load of spice to the man, Han had mentioned in passing that he'd be around again to drop off some more goodies. Little did Han know that engulfed in the mountain of spice he brought were cases of thermal detonators. As it turns out, Orkin's boss was inspired by the scenario and wanting to eliminate some of his competitors put his idea to good use. His boss immediately assigned Orkin the task of setting up a dummy spice warehouse that was to be obviously an appendage of the Fudos ring. In the warehouse were set the few loads of spice they could spare surrounding a detonator or two. Equipped with thermal sensors, when a would be thief happened across the spice he would become one less thing for the Fudos to concern themselves with as the detonators blew him, literally, into particles. A gory addendum Han had heard about that story was that the vaporized remains of the victims were simply swept up along with the scattered spice and thrown back together. The result was seemingly bigger piles of spice that attracted more thieves, thus creating a very vicious circle. Orkin must have thought Han had known about the thermal detonators, and was subtlely yet intentionally giving the gang the idea of how to use them. Orkin must have thought Han was bringing back some more goodies and couldn't wait to see what the clever smuggler had waiting for him this time.
"Ahh...thanks Orkin, but I'm not here on business, just visiting."
"Visiting? This smokehouse? Han come on!" The voice over the comm disbelieved but let Han's excuse go. Han was an honorable enough guy if you treated him right. "OK, well just you remember to bring a little extra spice the next time you stop by." The phrase had just the right mix of kidding and seriousness.
"Sure thing Orkin, next time I'm here." Which would be a long time, Han didn't say.
Moments after the melee on the planet, a flicker of pseudo-motion sparked in the vastness of space. Through it emerged Slave I, the personal ship of the highly esteemed bounty hunter, Boba Fett. Fett was known to be one of the most dangerous men in the galaxy. He did his job with remorseless, icy efficiency, like an Imperial Stormtrooper. Unlike a Stormtrooper, Fett had enough intelligence and initiative to not follow orders blindly. He had a free will. Chances are that if you were in his presence and weren't already dead, you were one of the safest people in the galaxy. Boba Fett had an aura about him, a calm coolness that frightened the weak and demanded the respect of the strong, including the Dark Lord of the Sith.
Boba knew Han would be on Kashyyyk this time of that planet's year. Why he cared about the whims of that muscle bound throw rug Fett would never understand. He tracked their hyperspace entry vector to here, Ord Mantell. Han was obviously getting back into the smuggling business. Fett wanted to stop him from earning enough money to pay off Jabba, and thus denying Boba of his own reward. Slave I was already too close to the landing structure of the moon for the crews' comfort.
"Unidentified ship, this is landing control. Please transmit your ID codes and state the intent of this visit," crackled Fett's comm speaker.
"This is Slave I, request emergency landing. Experiencing sub-light engine malfunction. Please reply." Fett didn't have time to hover around this pebble moon waiting for a landing bay.
"Slave I, permission granted to land in bay twenty-five on the northern quadrant."
In less than a minute Fett had powered down his ship and was seeking out a transport shuttle. He walked up the ramp of one as a steward stopped him. "I'm sorry sir, but this shuttle is full. You'll have to wait for the next one."
"I don't have time to wait," Fett said as he aimed his repeating assault rifle at the steward's forehead.
"I understand sir. I'll make arrangements." The now sweaty steward made a deep gulp, then walked into the shuttle and returned ushering out a disgruntled Sullustan.
"A space has been made available for you sir," he said proudly to the imposing figure.
Boba Fett took a seat in the shuttle next to a very uncomfortable looking spice trader.
Dahlaas Nouban was graciously given the opportunity to be a part of the rise of a growing crime organization. Gracious, in the eyes of the ones making it, but Dahlaas saw the offer as a frantic plea from a fanatic slowly slipping from his already supine perspective of the galaxy and its affairs. "You'll only have to get your hands dirty for a little while, `till we get a good solid base formed," he was told. Then he could go back to doing what he did best, hunting. Of course it wouldn't be for money after that, not even gruesomely for sport, at least not his own sport. Dahlaas Nouban sensed his future as nothing more than a hired thug, immensely over qualified, dancing to a tune played by someone else's will. He mildly regretted taking up the job. For months now he had been getting his hands dirtier and dirtier. Instead of forming a strong base, Dahlaas was struggling just to keep this organization from sinking further into its hole. Though he was good at the job--surviving--the weight of the entire organization was sagging his shoulders, numbing his reflexes, and dulling his senses. This was not the job for a hunter. A hunter had to have acute senses, but more importantly, a hunter needed to be more attuned to his senses than his senses were to their environment. He had to trust their counsel and in that, just once, he had failed. That was why he was here. One part of his body didn't listen to the rest.
Another organization that started to draw attention to itself about the same time as his was already twice their size. They must have had a stronghold offworld and moved the shop, thought his boss, but Dahlaas had another idea and like his boss had asked him to, he was taking care of it. An orderly charged in with the news Dahlaas was waiting to hear.
"Solo has landed on the planet sir."
"Good, who is he with? Where there any events when he landed?" "He's only got that wookiee he's always with." The orderly paused to consider how the next part of the report would be taken. "There was a little skirmish when he landed, but he got out of it."
"A skirmish you say. And just who was involved in this skirmish?" Dahlaas's interest was piqued.
"It's hard to tell sir, either the Moofa gang or the Fudos. They were both there."
"Well, it seems like Solo is pretty popular. Winning the Star of Alderaan will do that to a guy," Dahlaas commentated with evil cynicism. "Give me that communique from Jabba the Hutt, I'll be starting a few skirmishes myself." Dahlaas's eyes dreamily stared into infinity. He was going hunting again.
"Yes sir, right away sir."
The access ramp on the Millennium Falcon lowered to the deck. Han slowly walked down the ramp with his Blastech DL-44 blaster unholstered and set on full power. Chewbacca followed wielding his bowcaster which only had one setting. Wookiees rarely had the temperament to just stun somebody. The smoke from the firefight had already dissipated into that of the rest of the atmosphere. After circling the Falcon all Han's limited visibility could discern were the corpses of thirty men. Han gave Chewie a look asking the wookiee to confirm his assumption that they were safe for now. Chewbacca replied with a moan of uncertainty.
"Safe enough for now, I guess. Come on, let's go find Leia." Han raised and locked the ramp of the Falcon to protect it from the scavengers that made a living off careless pilots. He found the turbolift that would take them down to the base of the planet and waited for Chewie to back in before he hit the activator button. After a quick descent the door hissed open again revealing the backside of a young grease jock wiping off a hydrospanner amidst a slew of broken ship parts and the tools to make them functional.
"Hey," Han yelled, blaster still in hand, annoyed that this grease monkey was oblivious to the events that had just transpired not more than five minutes ago.
The figure turned around to reveal the grease smeared face of someone in their early to mid twenties in standard years. The man, human Han noted, was wearing baggy blue coveralls that concealed the build of the figure donning them. This person also wore a long-billed cap that had the tell-tale stains of an owner who stood under too many leaky coolant hoses. Long hair was balled up inside the cap, Han could tell from the bulge on the top and back of the head. Han took another look at the face. Not the face of the usual landing pad mechanic's prot!g!. The type of people who would fuel up your ship and top off coolant levels without you even asking, only to then have the audacity to demand a payment. It was not the face of a man, not even of a boy. It was the face of a girl. It was...
"Leia!" exclaimed Han.
"I've seen you go out with a blast but I didn't think you'd come in with one." The young former senator of Alderaan smiled.
"Nice. Too busy with that power coupling to help us out?" Han asked, steering Leia's eyes to the mangled coils before her feet.
"You think I'd blow my cover for you?" Leia said, not meaning it. "Besides, a hot-shot fly-boy like you should be able to take care of yourself."
"You know sweetheart, you should really treat your chauffeur a little better or you might find yourself sharing a compartment with a load of dewback feed. I hear space flight makes them real jumpy." Chewbacca let out a deep series of chuckles to verify Han's remark.
Leia let him have this one. "OK. I just have to go back to base to pick up a few things."
"Lets hurry!" Han's patience was worn far too thin already.
If the ignoramus of a shuttle pilot had possessed a little more faith in his flying Boba Fett would have been able to see the aftermath of a battle on landing platform BB-15 through the shuttle's viewport. The smoky atmosphere only granted him the vision of the unmistakable outline of the top of a YT-1300 Corellian light freighter. The thermal sensors in Fett's helmet failed to distinguish the cooling bodies of the gang members from the steel deck of the landing platform.
"Blast!" The word seeped out not only from underneath Fett's helmet but underneath his breath.
"Your ship really needs to be repaired quickly, huh? This shuttle is going rather slow." The spice trader next to Fett had heard the whispers floating around the shuttle and tried to make up a little conversation with the ominous figure, mainly to ease his own tension.
"Not as quickly as that smuggler will fall into my clutches," replied Boba Fett, strangling an invisible neck with his fist.
The spice trader stole a glance down at his over-sized brief case, wondering how this man could have known about its contents. The spicer gave Fett another look, saw the armored warrior fervently grip his blaster rifle, and then fainted.
As the beady-eyed man fell asleep Fett stood up and made his way to the cabin door. Another, rather looking steward stood in his way.
"How long until we land," asked Fett, mildly amused by the steward's attempt to look forceful.
"We are waiting for some traffic to clear, should be no more than ten minutes." The steward gave an over estimate, instinctively giving himself a buffer, not wanting to be the cause or the vent for this man's rage.
"Why don't you go make sure," said Boba Fett as his patience descended far faster than the shuttle he was riding.
"Yes sir," said the steward. Turning to the cabin door, he punched in a code and it hissed open. Upon entering the cockpit he slammed his hand on the CLOSE switch and punched in the reciprocal code to re-lock the door.
After hearing the high register of beeps that had to be the locking code, Boba Fett assumed he would not see this man again until the shuttle landed, if even then. He powered his blaster rifle down to a setting that could hardly stun a baby Ugunaut, then aimed the barrel of the rifle toward the locking mechanism. A wavy-blue field of energy exited the barrel of the rifle and entered the panel for the locking mechanism. The effect rung the right chord for the lock and the door slid open. None of the crew were expecting him to appear in the doorway.
The captain of the shuttle turned around casually. "Is that man go-," he said choking on the last word as his mind drew a picture of the green armored man surrounded by a dark luminance.
"When do we land," demanded a twangy baritone voice.
"Soon, sir. You see, with this traffic..." A globule of sweat rolled from the pilot's forehead down to his chin and made a leap for the floor.
The sound of Fett's rifle humming back up to full power was the preamble to his final request.
"Get out of that seat. We're landing now."
That shuttle pilot sure has some gall, mused Dahlaas Nouban as he saw one passenger transport swoop over another, then let gravity race it down to the landing platform until the very last minute before the repulors kicked in enough power to suppress a certain crash. Dahlaas redirected his gaze back to the unmistakable eight-foot outline of a wookiee. Solo was pretty hard to pick out of a crowd by himself, especially in this atmosphere, but as long as he kept that wookiee with him he was an easy target. Dahlaas would follow them until he could guess where they were headed and then spring his trap. That person in the coveralls was no mechanic, probably a Rebel sympathizer, and he was definitely leading Solo to a place that Dahlaas would find essential to his ultimate goal of base formation.
The streets of Ord Mantell were busy all twenty-six hours of its axial rotation. Dahlaas's build, though strong, was not particularly noticeable especially when covered by the black cloak of a mortician, one of the more highly demanded trades on Ord Mantell. He felt at home in the garment. Dahlaas took a heartbeat to notice the individual expressions of the crowd he was gracefully weaving through. Faces expressed familiarity with connotations of uneasiness. The type of expression a citizen of an outer world might give to a stormtroooper, Dahlaas thought; their presence rung an alarm for trouble ensuing yet was by no means uncommon. Accessorizing the outfit was a sawed off Force Pike used by Imperial Royal Guards, that could stun or kill an enemy when prodded with the flexible carbonite staff. With the staff cut in half and Dahlaas's palm covering the glowing amber tip, the Force Pike looked like nothing more than an old man's cane.
Solo and his companions turned a corner and crossed to the opposite side of the intersecting street. Dahlaas, not so abruptly, followed suit. The element of surprise would counteract Solo's quick draw, but the wookiee made the situation a little hairier. A stun blast to Solo in the back from a distance great enough to allow time for Dahlaas to change his blaster setting to KILL before Chewbacca could react was the basic idea. Not an elegant way to hunt, but pragmatism sometimes excluded elegance from the plan. But what of Solo's second companion? Was he armed, and if so was he any good with a blaster? Would he even bat an eye upon Solo's abduction? It was a new element to the puzzle that needed to be solved quickly.
As Dahlaas was weighing the risks of this new variable the equation simplified itself through a subtraction of two.
As they were walking down the streets of Ord Mantell's main city of Isengard Han's attention was divided between Leia's conversation, and scanning for a nice cantina to pick up on a sabacc game.
"Why couldn't Luke just hop in a Y-wing and take you to this place?" Han asked not really thinking he would turn over an overlooked stone.
"Luke is already at the base, and between helping General Rieekan and going over his Jedi exercises he has no time to play space taxi," replied Leia.
So the kid was still hanging on to the few tricks the old wizard had taught him, thought Han. He blew up the Death Star without a targeting computer, so what. The kid was a good shot, why didn't he just give himself credit when it was due? Han guessed that Luke was still too young and inexperienced to give himself and his abilities the credit they deserved. He was not the only person in the galaxy to explain away his actions by blaming some unfathomable force. Han himself often gave the credit to luck after winning a sabacc game rather than accounting for his ability to read the faces, or what passed for faces, on many of the sentient life forms he had sat across a table from. Whether the Force or just dumb luck, Han thought it must be some perverse form of modesty that people experienced. Regardless, the kid must be pretty serious about it, enough to throw away the chance to spend some time with the Princess. Han had read the boyish thoughts Luke had for her on his face. But, Luke was there, Han was here.
"Can't blame a guy for staying out of the way of a lot of fireworks I guess," Han said as he glazed the sarcasm over with a wink.
"Well, after I heard Luke was unavailable, and that no garbage scows were visiting this sector of space, I thought I'd try you," Leia replied with equal sarcasm.
The group had just walked by a promising looking cantina when Han realized just what one of the things Leia wanted to pick up was. He had no interest in spending anymore time with C3P0 than necessary.
"Hey, why don't you two go on and meet me back here. I'm going to see if I can get in a game," Han said pointing a thumb to a set of wooden double doors surrounded by a decaying archway.
Chewbacca rumbled off an argument.
"Don't worry, almost all of it is still in the ship. I just brought some credits for walking around," said Han referring to the reward the Alliance had given to them, stashed away in the hidden compartments of the Falcon. "Besides, I want you to tell me what that base looks like," he added softly as he leaned in toward Chewbacca.
"All right, we'll be back here in an hour," said Leia seeing the look of content on Chewie's face.
Boba Fett's thermal sensors and jet pack working in tandem made for the ultimate in stealth tracking on this planet. He hovered high enough not to be seen through the smoke while having a bird's eye, infra-red view of everything going on below him. Fett followed the thermal outline of a wookiee, one of the few he had seen on this planet, accompanying two humans. It was obvious that one of the humans was leading the other and the wookiee somewhere, meaning the two humans were not originally together. That left a human and a wookiee who were in comfortable proximity with each other, neither of which knew where they were headed. Those two would be Han Solo and Chewbacca.
Boba Fett saw the group stop in front of a building that he could see the top of with his unaided eyes. They paused for a moment and the wookiee and one human left the other behind. The lone human ducked into the building and his two companions walked in single file, human first then wookiee. That most likely meant that the human was the one who was originally leading the group. That left Solo behind in what Fett would bet was some sort of cantina or gambling hall. He switched off his thermal sensors and slowly descended to the roof top of the building. He would have to find a way down without Solo noticing. Fett retrieved a grappling hook from his utility belt, hooked it to a ventilation box on the roof, and began rappelling down the backside of the building.
The advantage Dahlaas had was that he was an unknown among the movers and shakers of the galaxy. His name left the planet far less often than he actually did. This advantage allowed him to stroll right behind the booth Solo had roosted on after paying the entry fee to the man guarding the inner door without so much as a look from the smuggler.
The cantina was primarily a gambling arena and only seconded as a drinking hall. A myriad of sabacc tables, all full, ran deep into the large base floor of the establishment. The limited lighting managed to keep all of the players in its shadows, revealing only thick patches of smoke, individually not different from the outside atmosphere, but the difference was in that, their individuality. The owner of this place seemed to care enough about his business and clientele to install a suitable ventilation system. The patches of smoke were only noticeable around the tables and the bar, and then only when the majority of the patrons indulged in a cigarra or pipe filled with some mystical herb. Fans mounted on the ceiling dissipated the smoke into the otherwise clean but dark air of the cantina.
Dahlaas took a stool at the bar, placing Solo between himself and the door. Not a tactically supreme spot, but it would have to do. He didn't know exactly the right time to spring his trap but his instincts told Dahlaas to wait. Have at least one drink in the meantime, he convinced himself.
Dahlaas tapped the bartender on the shoulder to get the bustling man's attention.
"Yeah, what'll it be buddy?"
"I'll have a Corellian spiced ale." No other drink would pass the time as well Dahlaas joked to himself.
The bartender drew the drink from the tap into a frosty mug. He then took a rag from underneath the bar and gave the area in front of Dahlaas a superficial wipe down before setting the drink on the bar. "You know you're the second person in the last five minutes to order this," said the bartender curiously.
"Well its good to see somebody else agrees with my tastes," replied the bounty hunter.
"Taking a break from the other side of mortality?" asked the bartender. Dahlaas didn't catch on at first. The smile on the bartender's face, signaling a joke, reminded Dahlaas of his disguise.
"You can never really get away from that sort of thing you know. Things always have away of turning up dead." With that the bartender moved away from the morose figure to tend to another customer. With their line of work morticians really could use a sense of humor, thought the barkeep.
Dahlaas had just finished gulping down the last drop of the fine ale when a skirmish between the inner and outer sets of double doors told him it was time to spring his trap.
Nobody had seen Boba Fett descend the backside of the cantina. With his jet pack off no one had heard him either. He walked through a side alley to the front of the building and into a set of double doors made of solid Bafforr wood. Fett wondered if the designers of the building had known that the last evidence of their building's extravagant exterior was from a sentient life form. Ithorians and other species of fauna that had the ability to communicate with the trees believed that any structure that incorporated the fallen trees' corpses was a dwelling for ill spirits and bad luck. Fett wondered what kind of person won their games at this establishment. He pushed through the set of double doors to find a heavy set man sitting upon a stool with a credit pouch strapped around his waist. Boba proceeded to walk past him when a stiff arm froze him in his tracks.
"Hey pal, its ten credits up front to get in here," said the man in a reminding tone of voice.
"Ten credits to have a drink?" questioned Boba Fett, fondling his blaster rifle with his unexposed hand.
"Yeah, the boss has got to make sure he makes money somehow. Now ten credits mac, or beat it."
"I don't have ten, all I have is this," Fett said as he swung his repeating blaster rifle into the man's view, resting it at his hip.
"That must be worth at least ten," said the man as he nervously reached around his back for the blaster shoved in his belt.
Boba saw the threatening move and sent a blast through the man's credit pouch and into his obese gut. Credit chips escaped from the battered pouch and mingled with the mutilated bloody remains of the man as they clanked on the floor.
"Keep the change," said Boba Fett as he brought his blaster setting back down to stun.
After Chewbacca's tall frame was no longer distinguishable from the crowd Han turned toward the set of double doors. Han was no carpenter but he could tell from the rarity of the doors' wood that this building was designed for greater things. Handsome though it was, Han sensed that the wood might have looked even better in its original, living state. Maybe it was just a bad choice of the stain some designer chose. Han shrugged the thought off and proceeded through the doors to find an obese man sitting on a bar stool, fumbling through a coin purse strapped around his waist.
"How much," Han asked, knowing that the amount of money the man had was not from patrons leaving tips.
"Ten credits," replied the man, dismissing a palm from fondling the money to collect some more.
Han dug into his pockets, dumped some coins into the man's hand, and entered the second set of double doors made from a different type of wood.
Han was relieved to see this establishment conformed with any other cantina he had visited. The tables were dimly lit and the patches of smoke added to the visible barrier, concealing most of the gambling going on here and all of the other illegal negotiations. Han made a quick stroll through the room to find all the tables occupied, then proceeded to the relatively brighter bar. Han was lucky enough to catch the bartender's attention as he took a seat near the door and decided to get an inside scoop on the sabacc situation here.
"What's a guy gotta do to get in a sabacc game around here," asked Han politely.
The bartender grabbed a piece of parchment posted on a wall and said, "put your name on the list and wait."
Han studied the list for a few moments. Twenty-three names ahead of where he would put his, none of which he recognized. It would take far more than an hour before he could get in a game. "I guess I'll just have a drink. You got any Corellian ale?"
"Sure we do, loaded with as much spice as some ships from that system I hear," joked the man as he poured the drink. He put it down in front of the bar and swept up the credit chips Han had already laid down.
Han took a sip of the ale. "Not on a good day anyway," Han said as the teasing after taste danced on his tongue.
As Han was sipping at his drink he scanned the other patrons at the bar. Mostly human, he noted. Nobody he recognized. He caught one man staring at him as he sat in front of a deep amber mug of what Han guessed was also Corellian ale. The man must be a regular here and was studying him to see what his presence had to offer. Han turned his attention back to his drink, knowing this planet was probably a prime hangout for bounty hunters and hoping at the same time it was not.
As he swallowed down another sip the unequivocal sound of a blaster shot rang in Han's ears. Han set his mug down and thought, "I've got a bad feeling about this," to himself as he squared his shoulders with the doorway and unbuttoned the release clip on his holster. What seemed like hours after he heard the blaster shot the set of double doors swung wildly open to reveal a green and gray armored figure whose menacing gaze Han could see through its Mandalorian helmet; the figure encased in the armor as none other than Boba Fett.
Boba Fett made a quick glance of the room he had just entered, finding his target with satisfying quickness. Boba raised his rifle to his shoulders and took one moment more than he could have to take aim, seeing his target aware, butundefended.
As the bounty hunter raised his weapon Han knew fleeing was not an option. Han's right hand made a reflexive sweep across his leg and came back into view wielding his DL-44 blaster. In what looked like a continuous motion Han squeezed the trigger, without appearing to take aim. The laser bolt lit up the room for a split second as it raced to its intended target. The blast scored square in the stock of the bounty hunter's rifle. The negative flow of energy surged through the casing and found a home in the rifle's power cells. Unable to contain the raw energy, the power cells exploded, launching Boba Fett out of the doorway and back into a wall of the foyer. As the bounty hunter unconsciously hit the floor he splashed into a pool of his latest victim's blood.
Han, thinking the trouble was over, holstered his blaster and started a brisk walk toward the doorway. A firm grip on his shoulder and the barrel of a blaster prodding his kidney halted his first step. "Stop right there," ordered a sinister voice over his shoulder.
"Boba Fett's not the only bounty hunter in this bar." Han slowly raised his hands above his head as he turned around to see the face of the man that had been eyeing him earlier. The man's thin lips opened up to allow his voice to issue another command but were interrupted by the excited voice of the bartender. "Put those blasters away and go play with them some place else," shouted the bartender.
Dahlaas turned around to see that the blundering comedian of a bartender had managed to brandish a two-shot stun gun used for subduing large animals. The invariable setting could possibly kill a human, if not certainly and permanently maim one. The communique he received from Jabba was to inform all bounty hunters that an open bounty was declared on Solo, meaning that Fett and others were not going to let up if he got away. He was not going to let a barkeep restrain him from getting his fortune.
As the bounty hunter's attention was drawn away from him, Han took the opportunity to lower both of his hands and grasp the barrel of his enemy's blaster rifle. By the time Dahlaas had swung his head back toward his captive Solo already freed up his grip and swung the weapon into the misty shadows of the gambling area. As Dahlaas watched the weapon fly away from him with calamity Solo landed a fist in his jaw that sent him sprawling back into the crowd. Solo was on his way out the door by the time Dahlaas planted his feet firmly on the ground again.
"Stop Solo! With the price on your head you won't get off this planet alive if you get away from me"
Solo was in the inner doorway as the words made him pause. The tone of the voice made the phrase sound more like an offer than a threat. As Han turned around a nylon cable was ejected from another of the dark man's weapons. The cable snugly wrapped around him before he could re-think his last action. Solo was certain he was a captive, the gamble was whether he would be seeing the Bloated One on friendly terms or not.
The last thing Han remembered was his captor saying, "I should make this as convincing as possible. Plus I owe you," and then seeing an amber tipped black staff rushing toward his forehead. He woke up convinced, in what was obviously a prison cell. Surprisingly similar to many cells he had been in before, Han was mildly impressed with the set up. Most crime organizations didn't have more than a room with a locked door for a holding facility. Han stood up from the musty smelling, uncomfortable cot, the kind that nothing other than time would make more inviting. Time that Han Solo did not want to spend.
Han searched the room. Three permacrete walls, each etched and chipped at by a long line of the room's previous occupants. He noticed that one defacing of the north wall was not meant as a feeble attempt at escape but rather a legacy left behind by someone's captor. A legacy and a warning. The text read: DAHLAAS NOUBAN WILL PAY FOR HIS TORMENTS.
The clang of metal striking metal alerted Han that someone had entered the outer corridor. He turned around with as much nonchalance as he could muster to see the pale face of the man who imprisoned him. The figure no longer wore the all black outfit he had before. The flowing black cape was still there but the matching tunic and trousers were replaced. In their stead were tight-fitting gray slacks that accentuated the man's tight calves and thighs and an off white tunic that draped off his bulging, burly chest. The shiny cape matched the man's hair which was short and greasy enough to give the appearance of being painted on.
"I hope you're comfortable," said Dahlaas Nouban, grinning. His sparkling white teeth seemed to glow on their own.
"Who are you," asked Han, dismissing the cliche.
"You don't know do you? Some little unknown bounty hunter catches the famous pirate and Rebel hero, Han Solo," regaled Dahlaas.
"Everyone gets lucky sometimes." Han was already becoming annoyed with this man.
"We could make a little game of this. I might let you go if you could only guess my name. Might, that is, if I didn't need you," toyed Dahlaas.
"You don't need me. If you need some cash you could rent out these rooms to weary travelers," joked Han.
"Oh, I want more from you than money, Solo," announced the bounty hunter. "Its whether I finally turn you in to Jabba the Hutt when this is all over or not that should concern you." Dahlaas was inspired by himself. "Perhaps that will be our game. If you can tell me my name, then maybe you shall never have to worry about seeing Jabba again."
The offer was too double-sided for Han. Did this man mean that if Han guessed his name then he wouldn't turn him in? But then how could he collect his money, and what more than that was Han worth to this man? Did this man enjoy his anonymity so much that he would feel threatened if Han could figure his name out and consequently do something rash? The word "maybe" decided Han not to make a game of this at all.
"Come on now, Dahlaas, I don't see what interest you could have with me besides Jabba's bounty," said Han very evenly.
The sound of his name coming from Solo's voice so coolly took Dahlaas aback. He said it as if they had known each other for years. The surprise showed through the otherwise dull features of his face. How could this man be so reckless? How could he be so smug knowing that the rest of his life would be spent in Jabba's living trophy case if his life continued at all? Dahlaas snapped out of his rage stoked trance, and stopped his hand from taking his blaster out of its holster. He took a few moments to regain his composure before speaking again.
"As long as we're being so friendly, Han, allow me to be blunt as well," started Dahlaas. "You see, I know that you were well rewarded for assisting the rebels with their little Death Star assault. I also know that you couldn't have possibly spent all of it yet." Dahlaas let out a laugh. "If you had you wouldn't be here now."
"OK, so you want the money? Fine, you got it," said Han with finality.
"No, no, Han. As I said earlier I need you for more than money." Dahlaas took an instant to examine the emotion on Han's face and found no concern over what he had just said. "You don't seem too concerned with the thought of losing all your hard earned money to someone other than Jabba. As if you might have more, or at least have friends that could provide you with more." Dahlaas raised an eyebrow after his last statement.
"My associates and I are looking for some financial backing, as well as some equipment. Equipment that I'm sure your friends could provide," continued Dahlaas.
"All I did was a minor favor, what makes you think the Alliance would do anything for me?" Han now saw what the man was after. A small time crime organization wanted the Alliance to set them up with a strong foundation complete with an arsenal that probably included ships, and they wanted Han to be the mason.
"Assisting in blowing up the Empire's ultimate token of technology and rescuing one of the premier leaders of the Alliance is hardly a minor favor. Don't sell yourself short. I certainly am not." Dahlaas let out a maniacal roar of laughter.
Han saw in the man's eyes that he was giddy with what he thought was a perfectly planned operation coming to a successful end. "Look, I was in the wrong place at the wrong time," argued Solo.
"Of course you were Han, that's why you became a hero," Dahlaas let out a whole-hearted laugh fueled by his own sarcasm.
Han could see that talking was not going to be his means of escape, not from this man anyway.
"Well Solo, we leave to pick up your money on the bottom of the hour, I trust you have it on your ship?"
"Never leave home without it," replied Han.
"Good, I'll see you then. Do make yourself comfortable." With that Dahlaas turned and headed for the outer door.
Han sat down on the cot as he heard the clang of metal on metal again. As he began to brainstorm ideas on how to get out of the cell, he noticed himself already getting used to the uncomfortable lump cot.
It did not take long for Boba Fett to recreate what had occurred after he blacked out. Actually, one man filled in most of the gaps in Fett's memory after Boba hit him with the stun gun he liberated from the bartender. He even was conscious enough to provide the name of the man who took Solo, Dahlaas Nouban.
In order to be a successful bounty hunter one had to know how to track down a person with little or no information on him. Boba Fett was a very good bounty hunter. A few inquiries, and a few more interrogations of a handful of people, one of which he actually had dealt with before, led Fett to the main service gate of a warehouse lying in one of the less appealing sectors of the planet. The building was nothing more than a large rectangle from the outside. No more style put into it than what one would find in a protocol droid's personality circuits. Two huge smoke stacks pierced the smog and the limits of visibility, further drowning the air with pestilent pollutants.
Boba Fett approached the loading dock of the warehouse to find three over-heated men loading an air truck full of equally shaped crates. The man perched on a heavy duty turbo-repulsor lift loader noticed the green figure first.
"Can I help you with something?" asked the dock worker with as much politeness as his twelve hour day of exigent labor would allow.
"I'm looking for your boss," replied Boba Fett with respect. These men posed no threat to the bounty hunter. They probably played no cognizant part of the real operations that their bosses ran. Men who worked this hard usually didn't, and despite the reputation that he had earned, Boba Fett was not totally ruthless.
As if the lift loader operator could see the respectful gaze of the masked man, he permitted himself to give an otherwise off limits answer. "His office is inside and around the corner, but he usually is down on the lower levels." The wiry man thought of asking the armored man to state his business, as was his job, but let it go. To ask him what he was doing here would show a lack of respect, and for some reason other than his ominous outfit, the lift operator thought he deserved some.
"Thank you," said Boba Fett as he leaped up the meter and a half height to the loading dock, landing squarely on the top of the platform. He proceeded into the vast bowels of the building seeing nothing more than towering racks being loaded and unloaded by repulsor lift loaders buzzing around the floor. A shout from behind informed Fett that the office was to his right. Boba turned accordingly and came across a single room office set in from the huge inner wall. A secure door and large transparisteel window that made up the office's front wall was the only barrier between the office and the stifling, greasy warehouse floor. Fett saw through the window that no one was in the office. He then turned his attention to the lock. An ancient latch bolt was all that the security measure consisted of. Boba Fett raised his rifle to the latch of the door and melted a break in the bolt. Boba threw his right shoulder into the door and it swung open. Upon entering the room, Fett immediately headed for the computer terminal, hoping to find the layout of the sub-levels of the building. Information that would lead him to the real office and perhaps the location of Han Solo.
The minute change in the air flow around the room alerted Fett that someone had entered. His rifle was leaning against the terminal, in perfect view of whoever was behind him. Boba primed his wrist rockets for action as he saw the reflection of the shape in the monitor of the terminal. The image on the monitor showed up as a shadow like a miniature representation of the man behind him. The absence of color in the reflection allowed Fett to distinguish only that the person behind him was humanoid.
"Well, Mr. Fett. To what do I owe the honor of your company?" inquired the slow, sinister voice.
Boba Fett turned around to see an unarmed man whose dark garments conveyed the definition in his limbs. Fett saw that the man had an aura of evil illuminating from him. His white teeth seemed to glow with a dark power. Fett had been around a large number of beings that would be considered evil by the general population of the galaxy. It was his trade after all. From his experiences he knew that what this man had was pure concentrated evil, and it was already taking its toll on his body. His pale skin and wiry frame were indicators of a man who was not in touch with any type of compassion or mercy. Even Darth Vader, the Dark Lord of the Sith, a user of the Dark Side of the Force, had sense enough not to kill everything in his sight. Boba Fett was living proof of it. A man who thrived on pure evil slowly shrunk away from the land of the living, like a drying fruit sitting for days under a hot sun. Unlike Vader, this man did not have the innate abilities to control his power, and more importantly he did not know how to use the Force. "What do you want?" Fett asked lacking anything more substantial to say.
"I suppose I should ask you the very same thing," replied the wiry dark figure. "After all, you are in my office."
Boba Fett replayed the events from the cantina in his head, searching for visions that were not immediately apparent. The husky bartender, the smoke-filled sabacc tables, the mostly human crowd, the semi-circle of patrons who surrounded Solo and starred at him while he stood staunchly in the doorway, the thin faced man who watched it all directly behind Solo. The dark man. Yes, this was him, not dressed exactly as before but Fett remembered the cold, pale face. The man his inquiries told him was Dahlaas Nouban.
"I want to see Han Solo," ordered Fett quite frankly.
Dahlaas let out ice breaking laughter, "So you can reclaim him for yourself and take away my bounty?" Dahlaas realized his bad choice of words the instant "reclaim" vibrated through the air. The look on his face showed that he was aware of entering murky waters. There was a fine line in the honor code among bounty hunters that Dahlaas may have clumsily tripped over. To take somebody else's prey was acceptable if they got away, but to openly admit that what was once somebody else's is now yours was uncouth. The word "reclaim" also gave the innuendo that perhaps Solo's escape was not entirely done on his own, also very uncouth. Fett didn't react to the faux pas.
"Solo's worth a lot of money," answered Fett, "like a prize jewel. If I can't at least have him for myself I'd like to see him in his display case."
The request seemed like a reasonable one, thought Dahlaas. One hunter showing the other his trophy room was certainly not out of the ordinary, no matter what the prey.
"You may see him," said Dahlaas. "With an escort of course," he added.
"Of course," returned Boba.
In the five minutes after Dahlaas had left him, Han had thoroughly searched the cell for a means of escape. He checked the walls around him for the possibility of their being broken through, as well as the ceiling and the floor which most would be escape artists often forgot. Unfortunately, none of these gave any signs of giving; the floor was solid, natural rock, and prying through the ceiling would only land Han in the middle of the main floor of this--base?
The familiar clang of metal against metal alerted Han that someone was entering the corridor. It was hardly ten minutes since Dahlaas had left him, had the man become impatient already? Han thought that that was the only possibility, but the three pairs of legs he saw opposite him proved him wrong.
Assuming that only Dahlaas was coming to take him early, Han made no move from the cot and showed no concern. None of the three men who entered prompted Solo in any way, nor did he even raise his head to fully view them. When Han finally decided to get this standoff over with, the surprise from what he saw caused him to spring up from the cot as if it had just been set ablaze. After that he realized that there was nothing he could say or do besides stare at the figure on the other side of the bars. The figure did nothing but stare right back.
The naivete of one of Boba Fett's escorts finally thawed the frozen scene into life.
"Well, here he is." The phrase momentarily hung in the air like the smog that engulfed the planet. Solo decided to ride the wave of conversation.
"Yes, here I am. Hello, bounty hunter." Han was not going to complement the man by using his real name.
"Smuggler," replied Boba Fett, whose rationale was along the same lines.
"So, I see you've found a partner," said Han, testing his immediate assumption.
"No Solo. I still work alone," corrected Fett. "I just wanted to see that you were in one piece and let you know that the game is still afoot."
Han noticed that Boba Fett's two escorts had their attention, and their weapons focused on the bounty hunter, and not himself. "What do you mean by that?" asked Han.
"I mean that when you escape from here I'll be right behind you."
The strange mixture of encouragement and threat in the statement sent a shiver up Han's spine.
"And I'll be right in front of you," returned Han, "just like I always am." Solo punctuated his statement with half a smile.
The fiery rage did not escape from the bounty hunter's armor. He simply commanded his escorts that it was time to go, and began walking toward the door.
Boba Fett accepted the aim of his escorts' blasters as a preventive measure to insure that he did not harm their boss's captive. The fact they were out of the corridor and he was still in their sights was unacceptable. Dahlaas had insisted that Boba take the power cells out of his rifle and he'd complied to the futile gesture. Both he and Dahlaas knew that Boba would have to be stripped naked to totally disarm him. The three men reached a huge lift platform used to transfer large materials from the upper to lower levels. The floor was set on their level and left an opening in the ceiling large enough to launch a small starfighter through. Boba's two escorts would soon learn that they had picked the wrong place to stage their ambush.
"Hold on a second sir," requested one of the guards.
Fett turned around to see both men still aiming their blasters at him.
"What is the problem?" Fett crossed his hands in front of the buckle of his utility belt.
"Well sir," paused the escort who took it upon himself to do the talking, "you see, you are the problem. The boss told us to let you have your fun with the prisoner and then eliminate you. You really should have taken more advantage of your opportunity." The guard laughed childishly.
"I'll have to use that advice in the future."
The other man joined the first in laughter until Fett threw the powder that heemptied into his hands at the faces of the two men. Glitterstim lost its intoxicating effects after too much exposure to light and became nothing more than finely ground dirt, but after being treated with water from Calamari it reacted violently when it came into contact with most forms of skin. Each granule of the spice was lured into the pores of the skin by an ionic gradient where a reaction expanded it to twenty times its former size. The effect expanded each pore of the exposed skin by the same amount, painfully ripping the epidermis of the victim off, leaving holes large in diameter but shallow in depth. After a minute of shearing pain the victim usually died from excessive loss of blood.
As the two men were desperately grabbing their faces trying fruitlessly to repress them from ripping apart, Boba Fett ignited his jet pack and launched himself up to the ground level of the warehouse through the hole left by the lift. He landed just inside the loading dock area.
Dahlaas must have planned for the worst. Upon hearing the nerve-wracking screams of their comrades, men on both levels rushed toward the lift area. Fett noticed the men running toward him from the inside of the building. The hole in the floor met nothing but a wall on one side, and a few meter wide walkway on the other. Boba scanned his surroundings to find a load-lifter near the walkway. Men raced toward him from the opposite side of the gap. The crew must have gone on break before completing its last task; the forks of the machine still held a huge bundle of machinery parts, many times greater in volume and weight than the lifter itself. Boba ran for the machine and slid into the driving compartment like a hand sliding into a glove. He found that the access card was still in its slot as he had hoped. He hit the RUN button and the outdated carbon fuel burning engine coughed out its emissions, then found itself a comfortable idling frequency. The machine was wheel based but used repulsors to succor the heavy stresses of the loads it carried. Boba's feet, working in coordination with each other, got the machine into gear and rolling toward the walkway. As he was racing toward the walkway and his attackers, his right hand reached for the lift controls to send the load up twenty feet into the air. Laser blasts hit the pile of machine parts, knocking loose some of the restraints which bound the pieces together as one unit. When Fett's path narrowed into nothing more than the walkway he simultaneously hit the controls to tilt the loading forks down and slammed on the brakes. His attackers were on the opposite end of the walkway when the loose pieces poured onto the floor in front of them. A few who could not stop their momentum in time were trapped under the pile of debris. The others could not get over or through the metallic mess Boba had just dumped before them. After releasing the load, Boba Fett ran for the nearby loading dock and re-ignited his jet pack. He flew straight for the landing platforms where he would acquire a shuttle to get himself back to Slave I.
Chewbacca and Princess Leia, along with C3P0 completely searched the cantina without turning up any sign of Han. The last task of the now disgruntled bartender was to clean up the corpse of the bouncer before he was replaced by a new man. The tall, wiry, brown-hared man had just begun his shift and knew nothing of the man that this beautiful woman described to him. Leia had replaced her mechanics coveralls with a firm fitting white blouse and matching trousers accompanied by a long flowing white cape that concealed her sensuous form when it was fully wrapped around her.
"So you haven't seen this man," demanded Leia.
"No lady. I told you, I just got here. The other bartender that was here might have seen him," offered the man, trying to look as helpful as he could.
"So where is the other bartender?" Why couldn't this man give a straight answer without being prompted?
"Oh, Zorin left for the day to whatever he calls home." The man gave Leia a smile that only annoyed her more.
Leia turned to Chewbacca and said, "Threepio and I will go look for him by the ship. You stay here in case he comes back."
Chewbacca let out a series of guttural sounds that gave the impression to Leia that he was protesting. C3P0 gave the exact translation.
"Madam, if I may, Chewbacca says that he wants to go to the ship in case Captain Solo has gambled it away," Chewie amended his request that C3P0 translated as, "He also thinks it will be safer if you stay here."
Leia turned her head to the bartender who was still listening in on their conversation. "Actually I'd be better off out there, besides I know this planet better than you," Leia said in her best tone of wookiee diplomacy.
"Hummphhroorh," said the wookiee after careful consideration.
"He agrees and says that if you are not back in one hour he will come to the ship himself--I think that is a gesture of chivalry on his part. Wookiees are very protective of their company and to let one go off in an environment such as this is a sign of..."
"Thank you Threepio, you can come with me," said Leia cutting him off before he wasted more of their time.
As Leia approached the door the bartender got her attention one last time. "If you don't ever find this guy I'm free later this evening," offered the barkeep. For a moment and no longer Leia conceded to herself that Han Solo would be a much better catch than this oaf. She continued out the door. The bartender's fantasies about the woman in white ceased as he caught the stony gaze of the wookiee she left behind.
"Come on Solo, we're going now." Dahlaas was wielding a Bi-Polar Blaster carbine. Han was familiar with the weapon's capabilities. The SoruSuub manufactured weapon was dual barreled and could be set to fire each barrel individually. Its other, more potent setting, fired the two barrels simultaneously. The two blasts emitted from the weapon each had opposite polarities. When the blasts reached its intended target they recombined to form quite a nasty explosion quite similar to the effect of rubbing two wires of opposite polarity together. The effect was even more magnificent when the target wore metallic armor, or was metallic itself. Han also knew that the carbine did not have a STUN setting.
Dahlaas opened the "cage door," as Han had begun to call it, to allow one of his lackeys to tie Han's hands together. When finished, Dahlaas dismissed the man.
"OK Solo, I assume it is to your ship that we will be going first, to pick up the money."
"That's right, I put a lot of money into that ship," said Han telling himself an inside joke to mitigate his mood.
"Off we go then," said Dahlaas as if he were rushing along a child. He moved from the doorway to allow Han to exit, "And remember its not me who you're leading, its this Carbine, and it gets really mad if it gets teased."
"I'll remember that," said Han. What a freak, is what he thought.
Chewbacca decided to have a drink to ease the nervous looks he had been getting from his fellow customers. Actually, Chewie was not a customer at all, but a loiterer, and that was what made the other patrons uncomfortable. The glass of Gnarr juice that Chewie ordered was more soothing to the bar's other patrons than it was to the wookiee. The sweet taste of the juice hung on his tongue like the thought of Han losing the Falcon in some bet hung on his mind.
A brown cloaked figure walked into the cantina. A hood hid the man's head and face but could not hide his somewhat portly shape. The man noticed Chewbacca and made a note to speak with the wookiee as soon as he completed his other business. The man continued through the bar until he found something that everyone else in the place had failed to properly identify. The droid that stood against the wall looked like a close cousin to the lamp that it was next to. The lack of a lamp shade on the head exhibited its cylindrical shape that curved in to a conical point at the very top. The wire frame of the droid was as tall as Chewbacca and astonishingly more sturdy. The figure in the brown cloak placed a data card in the droid's two-pronged caliper hand and dropped a sack at its feet. The man whispered, "You don't have to bring this one in alive IG-88." The droid remained motionless as its risk calculation processors deduced that, "Don't have to bring in this one in alive," equaled, "Do not bring in alive," for the sake of efficiency.
The brown cloaked figure turned around and headed for one of the sabacc tables to chat with another acquaintance. His conversation lasted five minutes before he realized that his need to talk to Chewbacca became more urgent.
The man sat up and headed for the stool next to Chewie. The wookiee was looking toward the door and did not acknowledge the man's presence. The man removed his hood to uncover a hairless head. The man's round face showed a deep smile, he thought a wookiee's sense of smell would have told Chewbacca who he was sitting next to by now. Maybe the smoke messed up his olfactory senses.
"So, you gonna buy old Orkin one of whatever it is you're drinking?" asked the man to get Chewie's attention.
Chewie turned around, surprised to see Orkin Natal. The wookiee roared off a hearty hello and thanked the man again for his previous help.
"Well as it turns out I think I'm gonna help you again," started Orkin. "You see the word in this place is that old Han was captured by some bounty hunter." Chewie jumped from his seat ready to run for the door but his lack of information stopped him from going any further.
"The name of this guy is Dahlaas Nouban, and from what I understand this guy is really screwed up. If the contract asks for dead or alive and you make him mad, he'll kill ya in a real slow, painful way, just for kicks." That was not the background Chewie was looking for. Chewie rattled off a series of groans, demanding Orkin for information on where this man could be found.
"If I know this Dahlaas guy right, and I think I do, he's probably got old Han at your ship right about now. He's a greedy bastard, he'll get Jabba's money and fly off with an extra bonus."
Chewie asked for a lift back to the landing area but Orkin disappointedly told him that he had walked to the cantina. He was trying to get back into shape. Chewie thanked Orkin for the information and ran out of the doorway toward the landing complex.
Princess Leia finally reached the landing platform on which the Millennium Falcon was parked. The streets of Isengard were especially busy in the early evening and C3PO was not very good at walking quickly through crowds. As the turbolift door hissed open Leia saw that the Falcon's access ramp was down. She cursed Han for not waiting where he had said he would. Leia charged for the ship across the now clear landing area, not being able to contain the urge to scold the man for his irresponsibility. The corpses of the former hit men had already been remorselessly shoveled away without question. Blood stains were cleaned up by the same porous material mechanics used to clean up grease and coolant spills.
C3P0 waddled after her, yelling, "Princess Leia, please, wait for me!"
Leia rushed into the cockpit, frustration rushing into her with the deep breath she took. Han was not there. If he was working on the ship there could be any number of crawl spaces and access hatches he could be hiding in. Leia walked into the main lounge of the ship when she heard C3P0 yell for help.
Leia ran along the corridor to where she heard the droid cry and found C3P0's shiny golden head set against the silver polished metal of the ship's deck. As she got closer, Leia saw that the droid clumsily fell into a hidden compartment in the deck.
"Oh, Princess Leia, thank goodness. I completely forgot about these compartments. Regardless, I wouldn't have thought them to be open."
Yes, why would they be open? Was Han doing a little side job while he was here? Leia really hoped that she would be able to terminate Han's already dwindling doubts about joining the Alliance full-time on this trip. If he was doing a smuggling run along the way it might prove more difficult. Leia peered into the open compartment. What she saw, rather what she didn't see, sent a revelation rushing into her head. There was only one case of the credit chips the Alliance had given Han as a reward left down there.
"That fool," exclaimed Leia. "How in the galaxy could he have spent all that money already!"
Leia was fuming. She knew Han was in debt, but up until now she thought the reasons were not entirely his fault. At least not considering his profession. She seriously considered abandoning the trip. The thought that the Alliance would not send her until the base was adequately set up stopped the thought short. Instead of convincing Han to stay with the Alliance, she would take pleasure in bedeviling him while they were trapped in hyperspace.
Aboard Dahlaas's space yacht the Wild Game, were Han Solo and the lofty bounty hunter, Dahlaas Nouban. The physical transfer of Han's credits was a slow and wearing process despite the fact that Dahlaas's ship was on the landing pad adjacent to the Falcon. Han, of course bore the burden, carrying each case from the Falcon to the Wild Game. Dahlaas was actually taking pleasure in watching the man sweat, and of course pragmatism stated that he not lower his weapon to help out. It was too bad, Dahlaas thought, that this was all he could do to physically punish Han Solo. The first cold-blooded blow Dahlaas would land would give Solo an immediate hint that death was to follow--the pessimist he was--and he would thus refuse to help any further. Not that Han had really done anything to deserve such abuse, but it would be fun to use his advantage of power to the fullest over a man who otherwise deserved superior respect. Still, despite his being at gun point, Han Solo had a demeanor to him that portrayed a man who thought he was still in complete control of his destiny. That attitude--cockiness, is all Dahlaas thought it was--had to be stripped away somehow. If not physically, then perhaps verbally.
"Don't worry Han, when this is all over with you can go back to whatever's left of your life," Dahlaas lied. "I'm sure the Alliance would love to have you back after helping rob them blind. And Jabba will still have his bounty hunters searching the galaxyfor you. I know one in particular that has taken a special interest in you. I wonder why that is?"
Han was actually glad to be doing a little strenuous work. He needed something to get his blood churning after being penned up in the cell. Doing the work under the gun though wouldn't let out his aggression toward this man physically, but he was more than willing and able to take him on in this verbal combat.
"I see I'm not the only one he has special interest in," said Han, redirecting the verbal blow and pointing with his eyes to the blaster carbine. "That ought to do the trick against someone wearing Mandalorian armor."
Dahlaas could see that this line of conversation was not going to get the effect he was looking for. Maybe a more direct assault on his ego would razz him more.
"Speaking of old friends, I'm sure the entire underworld will have a good laugh when I tell them about how Han Solo did the grunt work in erasing his fame and fortune."
This guy was trying to get under Han's skin with personal insults now. OK. He sunk to that level; Han would sink to that level too, only do a better job at it. "You know Dahlaas, that reminds me of an old saying on Corellia," started Han. "What great men do, lesser ones babble about."
That was enough. Dahlaas was not up to dealing with this man on this level. He would have him finish his labor, take him to the Rebel base, and then maybe he could break his knee caps. "Come on," snapped Dahlaas raising his blaster carbine a little higher. "Let's go get that last case."
"What ever you say," replied Han.
Immediately after the door to the landing decks hissed open, Chewbacca ran through the now chilly air for the ramp of the Millennium Falcon, mildly relieved that it was still there. Chewbacca aimed his bowcaster up the ramp when he reached its base. With as much stealth as his shape allowed, he climbed the ramp, finding nothing still.
He saw nothing, but smelled trouble.
Chewbacca saw from the outside of the ship that no one was in the cockpit and therefore went to investigate the ship's lounge. Seeing Leia released a bit more of the tension from his body. He growled a warm hello.
Leia turned around seeing the large wookiee brandishing his bowcaster. "Chewbacca! Did you find Han?" Her gaze and tone were as chilly as the planet's atmosphere. Whatever was bothering the Princess this was not the time for her to dwell on it. Han's life was at stake. Seeing the protocol droid sitting at the holoboard game table Chewie rattled off as brief an explanation as he could without losing the severity of what was happening.
The droid took a few pounding wookiee heartbeats to realize his cue. "What Chewbacca is trying to say Madam, is that Captain Solo appears to be in some sort of trouble."
"You bet he is--"
"That's a pretty sure bet," interrupted a quiet voice from the entryway. Leia looked over to see a pale, wiry man jabbing a double-barreled blaster in Han's back.
Chewbacca did all he could to not make any threatening moves but his temper forced a ferocious snarl out of him.
"Tell the wookiee to put his weapon down," said Dahlaas calmly.
"Do as he says, Chewie," relayed Han.
Chewie reluctantly obeyed, and laid his weapon down on the floor between himself and the bounty hunter.
The shapely form in the opposite corner of the room caught Dahlaas's eye again.
"Well, what have we here? The lovely Princess of Alderaan I see. My, Han, your company has improved lately," said Dahlaas sardonically.
"His company is a lot better that you imagine," warned Leia. "And I don't think you want to run into any other of Han's new friends." Leia immediately tried to support Han after realizing that her assumptions she made about him were wrong.
"Oh, you have me all wrong. I want to meet them all," chided Dahlaas. "I hope to become very close to them. Get in the corner with the others!" His last sentence was a frightening change from his first calm statements. Dahlaas almost forgot that this beautiful lady was a distraction, and therefore a threat.
"Its too bad really that you didn't show up sooner. Old Han here could have used a hand," continued Dahlaas, in a calm and quiet voice again. "Looks like all three of you can carry the one case that's left."
"Hell-loo," crooned a voice from outside the ship. "Anybody in there?" Dahlaas made the same mistake twice, turning his attention and weapon to the new threat. A pair of scavengers were outside looking for whatever they could loot from or pry off the ship. Most scavengers seconded as traders when they happened to come across an occupied ship, hoping , and usually succeeding to trade up from whatever they managed to steal from the ship next door.
"Go away," spat Dahlaas. "We don't want anything!"
"You sure," asked one of the scavengers, continuing up the ramp. "We have some pretty good stuff, looks like you could use it too."
"Don't be a fool," said the other. "The way your ship looks I'm sure you could use a new--"
The man's phrase was halted by the double energy bolts that blasted out of Dahlaas's carbine. One bolt landed square in the man's chest while the other hit just below his naval. For nanoseconds after the blasts burned through his skin searching for each other, the scavenger convulsed wildly. When the charges connected his entire torso blasted apart. The other scav ran from the ramp for his life.
It was now or never. Dahlaas made sure that he was at least an arm's length away from his captives before he turned away from them; a human arm's length. It all happened so fast. Chewbacca grabbed the back of Dahlaas's neck with one hand and his utility belt with the other. He then swooped the man off his feet banging his head against the entryway in the process. Dahlaas dropped his carbine, flailing wildly like a baby who was denied by a parent from getting at the object of his fancy. Chewie roared a wookiee battle cry, shaking the man he held in the air. He then tossed the man out onto the entry ramp. Dahlaas bounced off the ramp like a stone skipping across a pond and skidded to a stop on the landing deck. Han slapped the CLOSE switch on the ramp and sprinted for the cockpit while yelling, "Chewie, let's get outta here!"
The engines of Han Solo's ship ignited as Dahlaas began doing a quick diagnostic check on himself. A check cut too quickly for him to realize the cracked rib he had before painfully becoming aware of it while lifting himself off the deck. He ignored the pain; he had no time for it. Dahlaas had to get to his ship and chase after the Millennium Falcon before it entered hyperspace. The Wild Game was, luckily, already prepped for flight. As his ship's repulsors lifted it off the landing deck Dahlaas keyed his communicator to transmit his pre-set launching clearance codes. One ship blasting off from the planet without a word wouldn't rouse the subdued police forces, but if both he and Solo left the planet without clearance he would probably run the risk of patrol ships snooping into his business.
Dahlaas was relieved that the Millennium Falcon was on his scanners as soon as he exited Ord Mantell's atmosphere. He vectored in an intercept course and began charging up his ship's ion cannon. Dahlaas did not want to chance blowing the ship out of space with regular laser cannons. ot only did he need Solo, but killing the Rebel Alliance's premier leader would not bode well for him or his organization.
The Falcon was in range of the Wild Game's ion cannons a minute after its scanners picked it up. Another minute, perhaps more, and Han Solo and company would be safely in hyperspace, depending on where they chose to go. The general rule of thumb was that the further away the planetary system was, the longer it would take a ship's navicomputer to calculate the hyperspace jump. Han, being well aware of this, began making his calculations for Kashyyyk when the blasts started rocking the ship.
"Those are ion cannons he's firing at us," said Han as he checked the shield integrity display. "Chewie, transfer all power to the aft shields."
"Well I guess he wants you alive," said Leia bluntly. "How much more can this bucket take before he cripples the electronics?"
"She's already walking on crutches as it is," conceded Han. "Don't worry, I think we'll be out of here before our shields fall."
Another salvo of blasts hit the ship, sending C3P0, who was still standing, sprawling onto the pilot's control panel. "Oh my, we're doomed, we must surrender!"
Han shoved the droid the floor. "Sit him down, strap him in, and shut him up," growled Han. C3P0 got himself strapped into the navigator's chair, while Leia reached for the switch behind his neck that would turn him off.
A series of four blasts hit the ship again.
"Shields dropped fifteen percent," reported Han. "Time to out fly this guy."
The quick, cheery beeps from the navicomputer announced that the calculations had been made, saving Han the trouble of going into evasive maneuvers. "Hold on," said Han. "Here we go."
Each star elongated across space as if a wheeled vehicle rolled over a puddle of white paint tracing a line in its wake across a black surface. Those starlines then formed the cloud-like tunnel of hyperspace. Everyone in the cockpit exhaled a breath of relief. Everyone but Han.
"Would one of you mind telling me what all that trouble was about?" asked Princess Leia.
"We're not out of it yet sweetheart. Even rookie bounty hunters like him usually have pretty sophisticated tracking equipment installed in their ships," replied Han. "As soon as we got out near Kahsyyyk this will start all over again. I just hope our shields will hold long enough for the computer to calculate a more complicated jump."
Chewbacca growled away Han's hopes of that event, reminding him that the shields were down to fifty percent and couldn't be charged up while in hyperspace.
Leia sat silently in thought for a moment. There was a process that the Alliance was using to make the transition for their fighters from Ord Mantell to the battle plane quicker. She just wasn't sure if it could be applied to the Falcon. "How long will we have until he comes back into normal space after we do?"
"About two and a half minutes, thirty seconds for his tracking computer to figure out where we went and two minutes for his navicomputer to calculate the jump," said Han. "We'll probably have another fifteen seconds or so counting the speed advantage we have. It doesn't make that much of a difference on short trips though."
"We might be able to get back into hyperspace before he even gets into normal space," Leia said hopefully.
Han and Chewie exchanged skeptical looks with each other. "And just how are we going to do that? Do the jump calculations yourself?"
"The Alliance was working on a plan to get our fighters into hyperspace as soon as they left the freighters that took them out of Ord Mantell. Kashyyyk was the planet they were testing near. From what I understand, a navicomputer needs to see the surrounding stars and other spatial entities to give itself a starting point to make the calculations. Your navicomputer certainly has been to Kashyyyk enough to know what the surrounding space looks like. We just have to convince it that it is already there and it can start making the calculations for the jump before we even get there."
"Then we just jump out and jump back in," summed up Han. "But just how are supposed to convince a navicomputer that it is where it isn't? They have pretty strict programming and I don't exactly speak its language." Han was inspired after his last expression. Leia must have had the same idea, probably from the moment she mentioned this cockamamie plan. Han looked over his right shoulder as Leia turned her head in the same direction. For a quiet moment that they both reveled in, they stared at the deactivated droid as the realization that they might actually get out of a tough situation with ease and grace descended over them.
A shadow crossed over the flicker of sunlight that shown on Han's heart as he realized that he needed to start all over again, in order to pay back Jabba.
"OK, turn Goldenrod on and plug him in," said Han. "And tell him to get to the point, I don't want him babbling with my computer about electronic gossip."
Han suddenly realized that he had forgotten that he had no idea where they were going. "Hey, exactly where is this little base of yours anyway?"
Leia paused for a moment, somewhat embarrassed. "Hoth," she said. "The base is on Hoth."
"Hoth," exclaimed Han. "You guys can sure pick the spots."
A few moments ago Han thought the hour long trip was going to feel like days as he ran through the possible scenarios in his head. Now, it felt like each of those days were reduced to just heartbeats, very anxious heartbeats.
Boba Fett knew that it was only a matter of time until he would see the Millennium Falcon enter space again. Time that he would spare. He was waiting patiently in his ship as it was orbiting the landing moon of Ord Mantell when he saw the Falcon being hounded by another ship. He didn't have to guess who that ship belonged to, especially when he saw the blue ion beams that most bounty hunters bought or stole for their ships railing on the Falcon. No high class bounty hunter could do without one. The weapon was one of the best inventions Fett had ever seen. The ability to render a ship totally immobile while not really hurting the passengers or the structure of the ship itself revolutionized pirating and bounty hunting.
The readout on Fett's scanners told him that the Falcon's shields were down to fifty percent. He knew all too well how good a pilot Solo was. He also knew that if Solo had but running in mind, those ion cannons would have been silenced long ago. Fett keyed his tracking computer to begin focusing on the Falcon but with the quickness that the ship entered hyperspace he again didn't have to guess where Solo had jumped to.
Fett fired up his engines and headed for open space as his navicomputer made the calculations for the jump to Kashyyyk. The second before normal space became a blur the space yacht that was chasing Solo flicked into hyperspace as well. So, Dahlaas was continuing the chase. Fett had roughly an hour to decide how to deal with this new enemy and capture Solo at the same time. He only needed a fraction of the time. Solo would be around to chase another day. To Boba Fett revenge was best served hot and steamy and he wanted to deal with Dahlaas while the plate was still warm.
After much coaxing C3P0 finally got the navicomputer to begin calculating the jump from Kashyyyk to Hoth. Han wouldn't be surprised if the droid had trouble talking a service droid into cleaning up a spill. Nevertheless, the computer began the task, taking care not to forget where the destination of its present trip was. The calculations were slowed by its reluctance and care not to forget what it was already doing, but it told C3P0 that it should have the course plotted by the time they got to Kashyyyk.
The reentry alarm went off and everyone in the cockpit was waiting anxiously to get out of hyperspace. Han pulled the levers on the control panel that in turn pulled them into normal space. The starlines shrunk into white dots. The huge green globe of the planet Kashyyyk loomed outside the port side of the cockpit.
"So far, so good," commented Han as he checked the control panel to confirm once again that the coordinates were set. "Here we go. This better work," he said aiming the comment at Leia.
"It'll work," she said. "Trust me, it'll work." That comment seemed all to familiar to her, though she never heard herself say it before.
Han pulled on the levers and the Millennium Falcon rushed back into hyperspace before anyone ever realized that it had been there.
A few minutes later two flickers, one right behind the other, flashed in the space surrounding the planet Kashyyyk. Dahlaas began running his ship's sensors on full sweep as his eyes did a visual search. Solo couldn't have gone into hyperspace already, though he might have been able to land on the planet. He saw nothing, but would wait until the sensors gave him a more complete story. He simply let his ship float innocently along. Instead of thinking of giving himself a defensive posture he thought of ways to capitalize on Solo's capture, and finally relieve himself of the stress the financial burden of the organization laid on him. Licking his chops before the taste of victory even entered his mouth. It would be his last thought.
Like a wild bird of prey Slave I swooped over its intended victim. Boba Fett squeezed the trigger for his laser cannons. A long and sustained series of blasts scored on the Wild Game's unshielded hull. Each of the red laser bolts stung the hull of the space yacht, the last of which hit a fuel tank, or some other super-compressed volatile fluid,erupting the Wild Game and its pilot into an expanding ball of flame. Solo would be found some other time. For now, Boba Fett had satisfied his hunger.
Copyright (C) 1995, Chris Briesemeister. All rights reserved. And redistribution or publication of this piece must be accompanied by this message and a notification to the author.
Added January 24, 1995
Updated July 28, 2015