Star Wars-Return of the Jedi eBook #starwars #ebooks

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…

Prologue

THE very depth of space. There was the length, and width, and height; and then these dimensions curved over on themselves into a bending blackness measurable only by the glinting stars that tumbled through the chasm, receding to infinity. To the very depth.

These stars marked the moments of the universe. There were aging orange embers, blue dwarfs, twin yellow giants. There were collapsing neutron stars, and angry supernovae that hissed into the icy emptiness. There were borning stars, breathing stars, pulsing stars, and dying stars. There was the Death Star.

At the feathered edge of the galaxy, the Death Star floated in stationary orbit above the green moon Endor – a moon whose mother planet had long since died of unknown cataclysm and disappeared into unknown realms. The Death Star was the Empire’s armored battle station, nearly twice as big as its predecessor, which Rebel forces had destroyed so many years before – nearly twice as big, but more than twice as powerful. Yet it was only half complete.

Half a steely dark orb, it hung above the green world of Endor, tentacles of unfinished superstructure curling away toward its living companion like the groping legs of a deadly spider.

An Imperial Star Destroyer approached the giant space station at cruising speed. It was massive – a city itself – yet it moved with deliberate grace, like some great sea dragon. It was accompanied by dozens of Twin Ion Engine fighters – black insectlike combat flyers that zipped back and forth around the battleship’s perimeter: scouting, sounding, docking, regrouping.

Soundlessly the main bay of the ship opened. There was a brief ignition-flash, as an Imperial shuttle emerged from the darkness of the hold, into the darkness of space. It sped toward the half-completed Death Star with quiet purpose.

In the cockpit the shuttle captain and his copilot made final readings, monitored descent functions. It was a sequence they’d each performed a thousand times, yet there was an unusual tension in the air now. The captain flipped the transmitter switch, and spoke into his mouthpiece.

‘Command Station, this is ST321. Code Clearance Blue. We’re starting our approach. Deactivate the security shield.’

Static filtered over the receiver; then the voice of the port controller: The security deflector shield will be deactivated when we have confirmation of your code transmission. Stand by …’

Once more silence filled the cockpit. The shuttle captain bit the inside of his cheek, smiled nervously at his copilot, and muttered, ‘Quick as you can, please – this better not take long. He’s in no mood to wait:

They refrained from glancing back into the passenger section of the shuttle, now under lights-out for landing. The unmistakable sound of the mechanical breathing coming from the chamber’s shadow filled the cabin with a terrible impatience.

In the control room of the Death Star below, operators moved along the bank of panels, monitoring all the space traffic in the area, authorizing flight patterns, accessing certain areas to certain vehicles. The shield operator suddenly checked his monitor with alarm; the view-screen depicted the battle station itself, the moon Endor, and a web of energy – the deflector shield – emanating from the green moon, encompassing the Death Star. Only now, the security web was beginning to separate, to retract and form a clear channel – a channel through which the dot that was the Imperial shuttle sailed, unimpeded, toward the massive space station.

The shield operator quickly called his control officer over to the view-screen, uncertain how to proceed.

‘What is it?’ the officer demanded.

‘That shuttle has a class-one priority ranking.’ He tried to replace the fear in his voice with disbelief.

The officer glanced at the view-screen for only a moment before realizing who was on the shuttle and spoke to himself: ‘Vader!’

He strode past the view port, where the shuttle could be seen already making its final approach, and headed toward the docking bay. He turned to the controller.

‘Inform the commander that Lord Vader’s shuttle has arrived.’

The shuttle sat quietly, dwarfed by the cavernous reaches of the huge docking bay. Hundreds of troops stood assembled in formation, flanking the base of the shuttle ramp – white-armored Imperial stormtroopers, gray-suited officers, and the elite, red-robed Imperial Guard. They snapped to attention as Moff Jerjerrod entered.

Jerjerrod – tall, thin, arrogant – was the Death Star commander. He walked without hurry up the ranks of soldiers, to the ramp of the shuttle. Hurry was not in Jerjerrod, for hurry implied a wanting to be elsewhere, and he was a man who distinctively was exactly where he wanted to be. Great men never hurried (he was fond of saying); great men caused others to hurry.

Yet Jerjerrod was not blind to ambition; and a visit by such a one as this great Dark Lord could not be taken too lightly. He stood at the shuttle mouth, therefore, waiting – with respect, but not hurry.

Suddenly the exit hatch of the shuttle opened, pulling the troops in formation to even tauter attention. Only darkness glowed from the exit at first; then footsteps; then the characteristic electrical respirations, like the breathing of a machine; and finally Darth Vader, Lord of the Sith, emerged from the void.

Vader strode down the ramp, looking over the assemblage. He stopped when he came to Jerjerrod. The commander bowed from the neck, and smiled.

‘Lord Vader, this is an unexpected pleasure. We are honored by your presence.’

‘We can dispense with the pleasantries, Commander.’ Vader’s words echoed as from the bottom of a well. ‘The Emperor is concerned with your progress. I am here to put you back on schedule.’

Jerjerrod turned pale. This was news he’d not expected. ‘I assure you, Lord Vader, my men are working as fast as they can.’

‘Perhaps I can encourage their progress in ways you have not considered,’ Vader growled. He had ways, of course; this was known. Ways, and ways again.

Jerjerrod kept his tone even, though deep inside, the ghost of hurry began to scrabble at his throat. ‘That won’t be necessary, my Lord. I tell you, without question this station will be operational as planned.’

‘I’m afraid the Emperor does not share your optimistic appraisal of the situation.’

‘I fear he asks the impossible,’ the commander suggested.

‘Perhaps you could explain that to him when he arrives.’ Vader’s face remained invisible behind the deathly black mask that protected him; but the malice was clear in the electronically modified voice.

Jerjerrod’s pallor intensified. ‘The Emperor is coming here?’

‘Yes, Commander. And he will be quite displeased if you are still behind schedule when he arrives.’ He spoke loudly, to spread the threat over all who could hear.

‘We shall double our efforts, Lord Vader.’ And he meant it. For sometimes didn’t even great men hurry, in time of great need?

Vader lowered his voice again. ‘I hope so, Commander, for your sake. The Emperor will tolerate no further delay in the final destruction of the outlaw Rebellion. And we have secret news now’ – he included Jerjerrod, only, in this intimate detail – ‘The Rebel fleet has gathered all its forces into a single giant armada. The time is at hand when we can crush them, without mercy, in a single blow.’

For the briefest second, Vader’s breathing seemed to quicken, then resumed its measured pace, like the rising of a hollow wind.

= I =

OUTSIDE the small adobe hut, the sandstorm wailed like a beast in agony, refusing to die. Inside, the sounds were muted.

It was cooler in this shelter, more hushed, and darker. While the beast without howled, in this place of nuance and shadow a shrouded figure worked.

Tanned hands, holding arcane tools, extended from the sleeves of a caftanlike robe. The figure crouched on the ground, working. Before him lay a discoid device of strange design, wires trailing from it at one end, symbols etched into its flat surface. He connected the wired end to a tubular, smooth handle, pulled through an organic-looking connector, locked it in place with another tool. He motioned to a shadow in the corner; the shadow moved toward him.

Tentatively, the obscure form rolled closer to the robed figure. ‘Vrrrr-dit dweet?’ the little R2 unit questioned timidly as it approached, pausing when it was just a foot from the shrouded man with the strange device.

The shrouded man motioned the droid nearer still. Artoo Detoo scooted the last distance, blinking; and the hands raised toward his domed little head.

The fine sand blew hard over the dunes of Tatooine. The wind seemed to come from everywhere at once, typhooning in spots, swirling in devil-winds here, hovering in stillness there, without pattern or meaning.

A road wound across the desert plain. Its nature changed constantly, at one moment obscured by drifts of ochre sand, the next moment swept clean, or distorted by the heat of the shimmering air above it. A road more ephemeral than navigable; yet a road to be followed, all the same. For it was the only way to reach the palace of Jabba the Hutt.

Jabba was the vilest gangster in the galaxy. He had his fingers in smuggling, slave-trading, murder; his minions scattered across the stars. He both collected and invented atrocities, and his court was a den of unparalleled decay. It was said by some that Jabba had chosen Tatooine as his place of residence because only in this arid crucible of a planet could he hope to keep his soul from rotting away altogether – here the parched sun might bake his humor to a festering brine.

In any case, it was a place few of kind spirit even knew of, let alone approached. It was a place of evil, where even the most courageous felt their powers wilt under the foul gaze of Jabba’s corruption.

‘Poot-wEEt beDOO gung ooble DEEp!’ vocalized Artoo Detoo.

‘Of course I’m worried,’ See Threepio fussed. ‘And you should be too. Poor Lando Calrissian never returned from this place. Can you imagine what they’ve done to him?’

Artoo whistled timidly.

The golden droid waded stiffly through a shifting sand hill, then stopped short, as Jabba’s palace suddenly loomed, suddenly dark, in the near distance. Artoo almost bumped into him, quickly skidding to the side of the road.

‘Watch where you’re going, Artoo.’ See Threepio resumed walking, but more slowly, his little friend rolling along at his side. And as they went, he chattered on. ‘Why couldn’t Chewbacca have delivered this message? No, whenever there’s an impossible mission, they turn to us. No one worries about droids. Sometimes I wonder why we put up with it all.’

On and on he rambled, over the desolate final stretch of road, until at last they reached the gates to the palace: massive iron doors, taller than Threepio could see – part of a series of stone and iron walls, forming several gigantic cylindrical towers that seemed to rise out of a mountain of packed sand.

The two droids fearfully looked around the ominous door for signs of life, or welcome, or some sort of signaling device with which to make their presence known. Seeing nothing in any of those categories, See Threepio mustered his resolve (which function had been programmed into him quite a long time earlier), knocked softly three times on the thick metal grate, then quickly turned around and announced to Artoo, ‘There doesn’t seem to be anyone here. Let’s go back and tell Master Luke.’

Suddenly a small hatch opened in the center of the door. A spindly mechanical arm popped out, affixed to which a large electronic eyeball peered unabashedly at the two droids. The eyeball spoke.

‘Tee chuta hhat yudd!’

Threepio stood erect, proud though his circuits quivered a bit. He faced the eye, pointed to Artoo, and then to himself. ‘Artoo Detoowha bo Seethreepiosha ey toota odd mischka Jabba du Hutt.’

The eye looked quickly from one robot to the other, then retracted back through the little window and slammed the hatch shut.

‘Boo-dEEp gaNOOng,’ whispered Artoo with concern.

Threepio nodded. ‘I don’t think they’re going to let us in, Artoo. We’d better go.’ He turned to leave, as Artoo beeped a reluctant four-tone.

At that, a horrific, grinding screech erupted, and the massive iron door slowly began to rise. The two droids looked at each other skeptically, and then into the yawning black cavity that faced them. They waited, afraid to enter, afraid to retreat.

From the shadows, the strange voice of the eye screamed at them: ‘Nudd chaa!’

Artoo beeped and rolled forward into the gloom. Threepio hesitated, then rushed after his stubby companion with a start. ‘Artoo wait for me!’ They stopped together in the gaping passageway, as Threepio scolded: ‘You’ll get lost.’

The great door slammed shut behind them with a monumental crash that echoed through the dark cavern. For a moment the two frightened robots stood there without moving; then, haltingly, they stepped forward.

They were immediately joined by three large Gamorrean guards – powerful piglike brutes whose racial hatred of robots was well known. The guards ushered the two droids down the dark corridor without so much as a nod. When they reached the first half-lit hallway, one of them grunted an order. Artoo beeped a nervous query at Threepio.

‘You don’t want to know,’ the golden droid responded appre hensively. ‘Just deliver Master Luke’s message and get us out of here quick.’

Before they could take another step, a form approached them from the obscurity of a cross-corridor: Bib Fortuna, the inelegant major-domo of Jabba’s degenerate court. He was a tall, humanoid creature with eyes that saw only what was necessary, and a robe that hid all. Protruding from the back of his skull were two fat, tentacular appendages that exhibited prehensile, sensual, and cognitive functions at various times – which he wore either draped over his shoulders for decorative effect or, when the situation called for balance, hanging straight down behind him as if they were twin tails.

He smiled thinly as he stopped before the two robots. ‘Die wanna wanga.’

Threepio spoke up officially. ‘Die wanna wanaga. We bring a message to your master, Jabba the Hutt.’ Artoo beeped a postscript, upon which Threepio nodded and added: ‘And a gift.’ He thought about this a moment, looked as puzzled as it was possible for a droid to look, and whispered loudly to Artoo, ‘Gift, what gift?’

Bib shook his head emphatically. ‘Nee Jabba no badda. Me chaade su goodie.’ He held out his hand toward Artoo.

The small droid backed up meekly, but his protest was lengthy. ‘bDooo EE NGrwrrr Op dbooDEEop!’

‘Artoo, give it to him!’ Threepio insisted. Sometimes Artoo could be so binary.

At this, though, Artoo became positively defiant, beeping and tooting at Fortuna and Threepio as if they’d both had their programs erased.

Threepio nodded finally, hardly happy with Artoo’s answer. He smiled apologetically at Bib. ‘He says our master’s instructions are to give it only to Jabba himself Bib considered the problem a moment, as Threepio went on explaining. ‘I’m terribly sorry. I’m afraid he’s ever so stubborn about these things.’ He managed to throw a disparaging yet loving tone into his voice, as he tilted his head toward his small associate.

Bib gestured for them to follow. ‘Nudd chaa.’ He walked back into the darkness, the droids following close behind, the three Gamorrean guards lumbering along at the rear.

As See Threepio descended into the belly of the shadow, he muttered quietly to the silent R2 unit, ‘Artoo, I have a bad feeling about this.’

See Threepio and Artoo Detoo stood at the entrance of the throne room, looking in. ‘We’re doomed,’ whimpered Threepio, wishing for the thousandth time that he could close his eyes.

The room was filled, wall to cavernous wall, with the animate dregs of the universe. Grotesque creatures from the lowest star systems, drunk on spiced liquor and their own fetid vapors. Gamorreans, twisted humans, jawas – all reveling in base pleasures, or raucously comparing mean feats. And in the front of the room, reclining on a dais that overlooked the debauchery, was Jabba the Hutt.

His head was three times human size, perhaps four. His eyes were yellow, reptilian – his skin was like a snake’s, as well, except covered with a fine layer of grease. He had no neck, but only a series of chins that expanded finally into a great bloated body, engorged to bursting with stolen morsels. Stunted, almost useless arms sprouted from his upper torso, the sticky fingers of his left hand languidly wrapped around the smoking-end of his water-pipe. He had no hair – it had fallen out from a combination of diseases. He had no legs – his trunk simply tapered gradually to a long, plump snake-tail that stretched along the length of the platform like a tube of yeasty dough. His lipless mouth was wide, almost ear to ear, and he drooled continuously. He was quite thoroughly disgusting.

Chained to him, chained at the neck, was a sad, pretty dancing-girl, a member of Fortuna’s species, with two dry, shapely tentacles sprouting from the back of her head, hanging suggestively down her bare, muscled back. Her name was Oola. Looking forlorn, she sat as far away as her chain would allow, at the other end of the dais.

And sitting near Jabba’s belly was a small monkey-like reptile named Salacious Crumb, who caught all the food and ooze that spilled out of Jabba’s hands or mouth and ate it with a nauseating cackle.

Shafts of light from above partially illuminated the drunken courtiers as Bib Fortuna crossed the floor to the dai’s. The room was composed of an endless series of alcoves within alcoves, so that much of what went on was, in any case, visible only as shadow and movement. When Fortuna reached the throne, he delicately leaned forward and whispered into the slobbering monarch’s ear. Jabba’s eyes became slits … then with a maniacal laugh he motioned for the two terrified droids to be brought in.

‘Bo shuda,’ wheezed the Hutt, and lapsed into a fit of coughing. Although he understood several languages, as a point of honor he only spoke Huttese. His only such point.

The quaking robots scooted forward to stand before the repulsive ruler, though he grossly violated their most deeply programmed sensibilities. ‘The message, Artoo, the message,’ Threepio urged.

Artoo whistled once, and a beam of light projected from his domed head, creating a hologram of Luke Skywalker that stood before them on the floor. Quickly the image grew to over ten feet tall, until the young Jedi warrior towered over the assembled throng. All at once the room grew quiet, as Luke’s giant presence made itself felt.

‘Greetings, Exalted One,’ the hologram said to Jabba. ‘Allow me to introduce myself. I am Luke Skywalker, Jedi Knight and friend of Captain Solo. I seek an audience with Your Greatness, to bargain for his life.’ At this, the entire room burst into laughter which Jabba instantly stopped with a hand motion. Luke didn’t pause long. ‘I know that you are powerful, mighty Jabba, and that your anger with Solo must be equally powerful. But I’m sure we can work out an arrangement which will be mutually beneficial. As a token of my good will, I present to you a gift – these two droids.’

Threepio jumped back as if stung. ‘What! What did he say?’

Luke continued. ‘… Both are hardworking and will serve you well.’ With that, the hologram disappeared.

Threepio wagged his head in despair. ‘Oh no, this can’t be. Artoo, you must have played the wrong message.’

Jabba laughed and drooled.

Bib spoke in Huttese. ‘Bargain rather than fight? He is no Jedi.’

Jabba nodded in agreement. Still grinning, he rasped at Threepio, ‘There will be no bargain. I have no intention of giving up my favorite decoration.’ With a hideous chuckle he looked toward the dimly lit alcove beside the throne; there, hanging flat against the wall, was the carbonized form of Han Solo, his face and hands emerging out of the cold hard slab, like a statue reaching from a sea of stone.

Artoo and Threepio marched dismally through the dank passageway at the prodding of a Gamorrean guard. Dungeon cells lined both walls. The unspeakable cries of anguish that emanated from within as the droids passed echoed off the stone and down the endless catacombs. Periodically a hand or claw or tentacle would reach through the bars of a door to grab at the hapless robots.

Artoo beeped pitifully. Threepio only shook his head. ‘What could have possibly come over Master Luke? Was it something I did? He never expressed any unhappiness with my work…”

They approached a door at the end of the corridor. It slid open automatically, and the Gamorrean shoved them forward. Inside, their ears were assaulted by deafening machine sounds – wheels creaking, piston-heads slamming, water-hammers, engine hums -and a continuously shifting haze of steam made visibility short. This was either the boiler room, or programmed hell.

An agonized electronic scream, like the sound of stripping gears, drew their attention to the corner of the room. From out of the mist walked EV-9D9, a thin humanlike robot with some disturbingly human appetites. In the dimness behind Ninedenine, Threepio could see the legs being pulled off a droid on a torture rack, while a second droid, hanging upside down, was having red-hot irons applied to its feet; it had emitted the electronic scream Threepio heard a few moments earlier, as the sensor circuits in its metal skin melted in agony. Threepio cringed at the sound, his own wiring sympathetically crackling with static electricity.

Ninedenine stopped in front of Threepio, raising her pincer hands expansively. ‘Ah, new acquisitions,’ she said with great satisfaction. ‘I am Eve-Ninedenine, Chief of Cyborg Operations. You’re a protocol droid, aren’t you?’

‘I am See Threepio, human-cyborg re-‘Yes or no will do,’ Ninedenine said icily.

‘Well, yes,’ Threepio replied. This robot was going to be trouble, that much was obvious – one of those droids who always had to prove she was more-droid-than-thou.

‘How many languages do you speak?’ Ninedenine continued.

Well, two can play at that game, thought Threepio. He ran his most dignified, official introductory tape. ‘I am fluent in over six million forms of communication, and can-‘

‘Splendid!’ Ninedenine interrupted gleefully. ‘We have been without an interpreter since the master got angry with something our last protocol droid said and disintegrated him.’

‘Disintegrated!’ Threepio wailed. Any semblance of protocol left him.

Ninedenine spoke to a pig guard who suddenly appeared. ‘This one will be quite useful. Fit him with a restraining bolt, then take him back up to the main audience chamber.

The guard grunted and roughly shoved Threepio toward the door.

‘Artoo, don’t leave me!’ Threepio called out, but the guard grabbed him and pulled him away; and he was gone.

Artoo let out a long, plaintive cry as Threepio was removed. Then he turned to Ninedenine and beeped in outrage, and at length.

Ninedenine laughed. ‘You’re a feisty little one, but you’ll soon learn some respect. I have need for you on the master’s Sail Barge. Several of our astrodroids have been disappearing recently – stolen for spare parts, most likely. I think you’ll fill in nicely.’

The droid on the torture rack emitted a high-frequency wail, then sparked briefly and was silent.

The court of Jabba the Hutt roiled in malignant ecstasy. Oola, the beautiful creature chained to Jabba, danced in the center of the floor, as the inebriated monsters cheered and heckled. Threepio hovered warily near the back of the throne, trying to keep the lowest profile possible. Periodically he had to duck to avoid a fruit hurled in his direction or to sidestep a rolling body. Mostly, he just laid low. What else was a protocol droid to do, in a place of so little protocol?

Jabba leered through the smoke of his hooka and beckoned the creature Oola to come sit beside him. She stopped dancing instantly, a fearful look in her eye, and backed up, shaking her head. Apparently she had suffered such invitations before.

Jabba became angry. He pointed unmistakably to a spot beside him on the dai’s. ‘Da eitha!’ he growled.

Oola shook her head more violently, her face a mask of terror. ‘Na chuba negatorie. Na! Na! Natoota

Jabba became livid. Furiously he motioned to Oola. ‘Boscka!’

Jabba pushed a button as he released Oola’s chain. Before she could flee, a grating trap door in the floor dropped open, and she tumbled into the pit below. The door snapped shut instantly. A moment of silence, followed by a low, rumbling roar, followed by a terrified shriek was followed once more by silence.

Jabba laughed until he slobbered. A dozen revelers hurried over to peer through the grate, to observe the demise of the nubile dancer.

Threepio shrank even lower and looked for support to the carbonite form of Han Solo, suspended in bas relief above the floor. Now there was a human without a sense of protocol, thought Threepio wistfully.

His reverie was interrupted by an unnatural quiet that suddenly fell over the room. He looked up to see Bib Fortuna making his way through the crowd, accompanied by two Gamorrean guards, and followed by a fierce-looking cloaked-and-helmeted bounty hunter who led his captive prize on a leash: Chewbacca, the Wookiee.

Threepio gasped, stunned. ‘Oh, no! Chewbacca!’ The future was looking very bleak indeed.

Bib muttered a few words into Jabba’s ear, pointing to the bounty hunter and his captive. Jabba listened intently. The bounty hunter was humanoid, small and mean: a belt of cartridges was slung across his jerkin and an eye-slit in his helmet-mask gave the impression of his being able to see through things. He bowed low, then spoke in fluent Ubese. ‘Greetings, Majestic One. I am Boushh.’ It was a metallic language, well-adapted to the rarefied atmosphere of the home planet from which this nomadic species arose.

Jabba answered in the same tongue, though his Ubese was stilted and slow. ‘At last someone has brought me the mighty Chewbacca …’ He tried to continue, but stuttered on the word he wanted. With a roaring laugh, he turned toward Threepio. ‘Where’s my talkdroid?’ he boomed, motioning Threepio to come closer. Reluctantly, the courtly robot obeyed.

Jabba ordered him congenially. ‘Welcome our mercenary friend and ask his price for the Wookiee.’

Threepio translated the message to the bounty hunter. Boushh listened carefully, simultaneously studying the feral creatures around the room, possible exits, possible hostages, vulnerable points. He particularly noticed Boba Fett – standing near the door – the steel-masked mercenary who had caught Han Solo.

Boushh assessed this all in a moment’s moment, then spoke evenly in his native tongue to Threepio. ‘I will take fifty thousand, no less.’

Threepio quietly translated for Jabba, who immediately became enraged and knocked the golden droid off the raised throne with a sweep of his massive tail. Threepio clattered in a heap on the floor, where he rested momentarily, uncertain of the correct protocol in this situation.

Jabba raved on in guttural Huttese, Boushh shifted his weapon to a more usable position. Threepio sighed, struggled back onto the throne, composed himself, and translated for Boushh – loosely -what Jabba was saying.

‘Twenty-five thousand is all he’ll pay …’ Threepio instructed.

Jabba motioned his pig guards to take Chewbacca, as two jawas covered Boushh. Boba Fett also raised his weapon. Jabba added, to Threepio’s translation: ‘Twenty-five thousand, plus his life.’

Threepio translated. The room was silent, tense, uncertain. Finally Boushh spoke, softly, to Threepio.

‘Tell that swollen garbage bag he’ll have to do better than that, or they’ll be picking his smelly hide out of every crack in this room. I’m holding a thermal detonator.’

Threepio suddenly focused on the small silver ball Boushh held partially concealed in his left hand. It could be heard humming a quiet, ominous hum. Threepio looked nervously at Jabba, then back at Boushh.

Jabba barked at the droid. ‘Well? What did he say?’

Threepio cleared his throat. ‘Your Grandness, he, uh … He-‘Out with it, droid!’ Jabba roared.

‘Oh, dear,’ Threepio fretted. He inwardly prepared himself for the worst, then spoke to Jabba in flawless Huttese. ‘Boushh respectfully disagrees with Your Exaltedness, and begs you to reconsider the amount… or he will release the thermal detonator he is holding.’

Instantly a disturbed murmuring circled in the room. Everyone backed up several feet, as if that would help. Jabba stared at the ball clenched in the bounty hunter’s hand. It was beginning to glow.

Another tense hush came over the onlookers.

Jabba stared malevolently at the bounty hunter for several long seconds. Then, slowly, a satisfied grin crept over his vast, ugly mouth. From the bilious pit of his belly, a laugh rose like gas in a mire. ‘This bounty hunter is my kind of scum. Fearless and inventive. Tell him thirty-five, no more – and warn him not to press his luck.’

Threepio felt greatly relieved by this turn of events. He translated for Boushh. Everyone studied the bounty hunter closely for his reaction; guns were readied.

Then Boushh released a switch on the thermal detonator, and it went dead. ‘Zeebuss,’ he nodded.

‘He agrees,’ Threepio said to Jabba.

The crowd cheered; Jabba relaxed. ‘Come, my friend, join our celebration. I may find other work for you.’ Threepio translated, as the party resumed its depraved revelry.

Chewbacca growled under his breath, as he was led away by the Gamorreans. He might have cracked their heads just for being so ugly, or to remind everyone present what a Wookiee was made of but near the door he spotted a familiar face. Hidden behind a half-mask of pit-boar teeth was a human in the uniform of a skiff guard

Lando Calrissian. Chewbacca gave no sign of recognition; nor did he resist the guard who now escorted him from the room.

Lando had managed to infiltrate this nest of maggots months earlier to see if it was possible to free Solo from Jabba’s imprisonment. He’d done this for several reasons.

First, because he felt (correctly) that it was his fault Han was in this predicament, and he wanted to make amends – provided, of course, he could do so without getting hurt. Blending in here, like just one of the pirates, was no problem for Lando, though -mistaken identity was a way of life with him.

Second, he wanted to join forces with Han’s buddies at the top of the Rebel Alliance. They were out to beat the Empire, and he wanted nothing more in his life now than to do just that. The Imperial police had moved in on his action once too often; so this was a grudge match, now. Besides, Lando liked being part of Solo’s crowd, since they seemed to be right up at the business end of all the action against the Empire.

Third, Princess Leia had asked him to help, and he just never could refuse a princess asking for help. Besides, you never knew how she might thank you some day.

Finally, Lando would have bet anything that Han simply could not be rescued from this place – and Lando just plain couldn’t resist a bet.

So he spent his days watching a lot. Watching and calculating. That’s what he did now, as Chewie was led away – he watched, and then he faded into the stonework.

The band started playing, led by a blue, flop-eared jizz-wailer named Max Rebo. Dancers flooded the floor. The courtiers hooted, and brewed their brains a bit more.

Boushh leaned against a column, surveying the scene. His gaze swept coolly over the court, taking in the dancers, the smokers, the rollers, the gamblers … until it came to rest squarely on an equally unflappable stare from across the room. Boba Fett was watching him.

Boushh shifted slightly, posturing with his weapon cradled like a loving child. Boba Fett remained motionless, an arrogant sneer all but visible behind his ominous mask.

Pig guards led Chewbacca through the unlit dungeon corridor. A tentacle coiled out one of the doors to touch the brooding Wookiee.

‘Rheeaaahhr!’ he screamed, and the tentacle shot back into its cell.

The next door was open. Before Chewie fully realized what was happening, he was hurled forcefully into the cell by all the guards. The door slammed shut, locking him in darkness.

He raised his head and let out a long, pitiful howl that carried through the entire mountain of iron and sand up to the infinitly patient sky.

The throne room was quiet, dark and empty, as night filled its littered corners. Blood, wine, and saliva stained the floor, shreds of tattered clothing hung from the fixtures, unconscious bodies curled under broken furniture. The party was over.

A dark figure moved silently among the shadows, pausing behind a column here, a statue there. He made his way stealthily along the perimeter of the room, stepping once over a snoring Yak Face. He never made a sound. This was Boushh, the bounty hunter.

He reached the curtained alcove beside which the slab that was Han Solo hung suspended by a force field on the wall. Boushh looked around furtively, then flipped a switch near the side of the carbonite coffin. The humming of the force field wound down, and the heavy monolith slowly lowered to the floor.

Boushh stepped up and studied the frozen face of the space pirate. He touched Solo’s carbonized cheek, curiously, as if it were a rare, precious stone. Cold and hard as diamond.

For a few seconds he examined the controls at the side of the slab, then activated a series of switches. Finally, after one last, hesitant glance at the living statue before him, he slid the decarbonization lever into place.

The casing began to emit a high-pitched sound. Anxiously Boushh peered all around again, making certain no one heard. Slowly, the hard shell that was covering the contours of Solo’s face started to melt away. Soon, the coating was gone from the entire front of Solo’s body, freeing his upraised hands – so long frozen in protest – to fall slackly to his sides. His face relaxed into what looked like nothing so much as a death-mask. Boushh extracted the lifeless body from its casing and lowered it gently to the floor.

He leaned his gruesome helmet close to Solo’s face, listening closely for signs of life. No breath. No pulse. With a start, Han’s eyes suddenly snapped open, and he began to cough. Boushh steadied him, tried to quiet him – there were still guards who might hear.

‘Quiet!’ he whispered. ‘Just relax.’

Han squinted up at the dim form above him. ‘I can’t see … What’s happening?’ He was, understandably, disoriented, after having been in suspended animation for six of this desert planet’s months – a period that was, to him, timeless. It had been a grim sensation – as if for an eternity he’d been trying to draw breath, to move, to scream, every moment in conscious, painful asphyxiation – and now suddenly he was dumped into a loud, black, cold pit. His senses assaulted him all at once. The air bit at his skin with a thousand icy teeth; the opacity of his sight was impenetrable; wind seemed to rush around his ears at hurricane volumes; he couldn’t feel which way was up; the myriad smells filling his nose made him nauseous, he couldn’t stop salivating, all his bones hurt – and then came the visions.

Visions from his childhood, from his last breakfast, from twenty-seven piracies … as if all the images and memories of his life had been crammed into a balloon, and the balloon popped and they all came bursting out now, randomly, in a single moment. It was nearly overwhelming, it was sensory overload; or more precisely, memory overload. Men had gone mad, in these first minutes following decarbonization, hopelessly, utterly mad – unable ever again to reorganize the ten-billion individual images that comprised a lifespan into any kind of coherent, selective order.

Solo wasn’t that susceptible. He rode the surge of this tide of impressions until it settled down to a churning backwash, submerging the bulk of his memories, leaving only the most recent flotsam to foam on the surface; his betrayal by Lando Calrissian, whom he’d once called friend; his ailing ship; his last view of Leia; his capture by Boba Fett, the iron-masked bounty hunter who …

Where was he now? What had happened? His last image was of Boba Fett watching him turn into carbonite. Was this Fett again now, come to thaw him for more abuse? The air roared in his ears, his breathing felt irregular, unnatural. He batted his hand in front of his face.

Boushh tried to reassure him. ‘You’re free of the carbonite and have hibernation sickness. Your eyesight will return in time. Come, we must hurry if we’re to leave this place.’

Reflexively Han grabbed the bounty hunter, felt at the grated face-mask, then drew back. ‘I’m not going anywhere – don’t even know where I am.’ He began sweating profusely as his heart once again churned blood, and his mind groped for answers. ‘Who are you, anyway?’ he demanded suspiciously. Perhaps it was Fett after all.

The bounty hunter reached up and pulled the helmet away from his head revealing, underneath, the beautiful face of Princess Leia.

‘One who loves you,’ she whispered, taking his face tenderly in her still-gloved hands and kissing him long on the lips.

= II =

HAN strained to see her, though he had the eyes of a newborn. ‘Leia! Where are we?’

‘Jabba’s palace. I’ve got to get you out of here quick.’

He sat up shakily. ‘Everything’s a blur … I’m not going to be much help …’

She looked at him a long moment, her blinded love – she’d traveled light-years to find him, risked her life, lost hard-won time needed sorely by the Rebellion, time she couldn’t really afford to throw away on personal quests and private desires … but she loved him.

Tears filled her eyes. ‘We’ll make it,’ she whispered.

Impulsively, she embraced him and kissed him again. He, too, was flooded with emotion all at once – back from the dead, the beautiful princess filling his arms, snatching him from the teeth of the void. He felt overwhelmed. Unable to move, even to speak, he held her tightly, his blind eyes closed fast against all the sordid realities that would come rushing in soon enough.

Sooner than that, as it happened. A repulsive squishing sound suddenly became all too obvious behind them. Han opened his eyes, but could still see nothing. Leia looked up to the alcove beyond, and her gaze turned to an expression of horror. For the curtain had been drawn away, and the entire area, floor to ceiling, was composed of a gallery of the most disgusting miscreants of Jabba’s court -gawking, salivating, wheezing.

Leia’s hand shot up to her mouth.

‘What is it?’ Han pressed her. Something obviously was terribly wrong. He stared into his own blackness.

An obscene cackle rose from the other side of the alcove. A Huttese cackle.

Han held his head, closed his eyes again, as if to keep away the inevitable for just one more moment. ‘I know that laugh.’

The curtain on the far side was suddenly drawn open. There sat Jabba, Ishi Tib, Bib, Boba, and several guards. They all laughed, kept laughing, laughed to punish.

‘My, my, what a touching sight,’ Jabba purred. ‘Han, my boy, your taste in companions has improved, even if your luck has not.’

Even blind, Solo could slide into smooth talk easier than a spice-eater. ‘Listen, Jabba, I was on my way back to pay you when I got a little side-tracked. Now I know we’ve had our differences, but I’m sure we can work this out…”

This time Jabba genuinely chuckled. ‘It’s too late for that, Solo. You may have been the best smuggler in the business, but now you’re Bantha fodder.’ He cut short his smile and gestured to his guards. ‘Take him.’

Guards grabbed Leia and Han. They dragged the Corellian pirate off, while Leia continued struggling where she was.

‘I will decide how to kill him later,’ Jabba muttered.

‘I’ll pay you triple,’ Solo called out. ‘Jabba, you’re throwing away a fortune. Don’t be a fool.’ Then he was gone.

From the rank of guards, Lando quickly moved forward, took hold of Leia, and attempted to lead her away.

Jabba stopped them. ‘Wait! Bring her to me.’

Lando and Leia halted in mid-stride. Lando looked tense, uncertain what to do. It wasn’t quite time to move yet. The odds still weren’t just right. He knew he was the ace-in-the-hole, and an ace-in-the-hole was something you had to know how to play to win.

‘I’ll be all right,’ Leia whispered.

‘I’m not so sure,’ he replied. But the moment was past; there was nothing else to be done now. He and Ishi Tib, the Birdlizard, dragged the young princess to Jabba.

Threepio, who’d been watching everything from his place behind Jabba, could watch no more. He turned away in dread.

Leia, on the other hand, stood tall before the loathsome monarch. Her anger ran high. With all the galaxy at war, for her to be detained on this dustball of a planet by this petty scumdealer was more outrageous than she could tolerate. Still, she kept her voice calm; for she was, in the end, a princess. ‘We have powerful friends Jabba. You will soon regret this

‘I’m sure, I’m sure,’ the old gangster rumbled with glee, ‘but in the meantime, I will thoroughly enjoy the pleasure of your company.’

He pulled her eagerly to him until their faces were mere inches apart, her belly pressed to his oily snake skin. She thought about killing him outright, then and there. But she held her ire in check, since the rest of these vermin might have killed her before she could escape with Han. Better odds were sure to come later. So she swallowed hard and, for the time being, put up with this slimepot as best she could.

Threepio peeked out momentarily, then immediately withdrew again. ‘Oh no, I can’t watch.’

Foul beast that he was, Jabba poked his fat, dripping tongue out to the princess, and slopped a beastly kiss squarely on her mouth.

Han was thrown roughly into the dungeon cell; the door crashed shut behind him. He fell to the floor in the darkness, then picked himself up and sat against the wall. After a few moments of pounding the ground with his fist, he quieted down and tried to organize his thoughts.

Darkness. Well, blast it, blind is blind. No use wishing for moondew on a meteorite. Only it was so frustrating, coming out of deep-freeze like that, saved by the one person who …

Leia! The star captain’s stomach dropped at the thought of what must be happening to her now. If only he knew where he was. Tentatively he knocked on the wall behind him. Solid rock.

What could he do? Bargain, maybe. But what did he have to bargain with? Dumb question, he thought – when did I ever have to have something before I could bargain with it?

What, though? Money? Jabba had more than he could ever count. Pleasures? Nothing could give Jabba more pleasure than to defile the princess and kill Solo. No, things were bad – in fact, it didn’t look like they could get much worse.

Then he heard the growl. A low, formidable snarl from out of the dense blackness at the far corner of the cell, the growl of a large and angry beast.

The hair on Solo’s arms stood on end. Quickly he rose, his back to the wall. ‘Looks like I’ve got company,’ he muttered.

The wild creature bellowed out an insane ‘Groawwwwr!’ and raced straight at Solo, grabbing him ferociously around the chest, lifting him several feet into the air, squeezing off his breathing.

Han was totally motionless for several long seconds – he couldn’t believe his ears. ‘Chewie, is that you!?’

The giant Wookiee barked with joy.

For the second time in an hour, Solo was overcome with happiness; but this was an entirely different matter. ‘All right, all right, wait a second, you’re crushing me.’

Chewbacca put his friend down. Han reached up and scratched his partner’s chest; Chewie cooed like a pup.

‘Okay, what’s going on around here, anyway?’ Han was instantly back on track. Here was unbelievably good fortune – here was someone he could make a plan with. And not only someone, but his most loyal friend in the galaxy.

Chewie filled him in at length. ‘Arh arhaghh shpahrgh rahr aurowwwrahrah grop rahp rah.’

‘Lando’s plan? What is he doing here?’

Chewie barked extensively.

Han shook his head. ‘Is Luke crazy? Why’d you listen to him? That kid can’t even take care of himself, let alone rescue anyone.’

‘Rowr ahrgh awf ahraroww rowh rohngr grgrff rf rf.’

‘A Jedi Knight? Come on. I’m out of it for a little while and everybody gets delusions

Chewbacca growled insistently.

Han nodded dubiously in the blackness. ‘I’ll believe it when I see it-‘ he commented, walking stoutly into the wall. ‘If you’ll excuse the expression.’

The iron main gate of Jabba’s palace scraped open harshly, oiled only with sand and time. Standing outside in the dusty gale, staring into the black cavernous entranceway, was Luke Skywalker.

He was clad in the robe of the Jedi Knight – a cassock, really – but bore neither gun nor lightsaber. He stood loosely, without bravado, taking a measure of the place before entering. He was a man now. Wiser, like a man – older more from loss than from years. Loss of illusions, loss of dependency. Loss of friends, to war. Loss of sleep, to stress. Loss of laughter. Loss of his hand.

But of all his losses, the greatest was that which came from knowledge, and from the deep recognition that he could never un-know what he knew. So many things he wished he’d never learned. He had aged with the weight of this knowledge.

Knowledge brought benefits, of course. He was less impulsive now. Manhood had given him perspective, a framework in which to fit the events of his life – that is, a lattice of spatial and time coordinates spanning his existence, back to earliest memories, ahead to a hundred alternative futures. A lattice of depths, and conundrums, and interstices, through which Luke could peer at any new event in his life, peer at it with perspective. A lattice of shadows and corners, rolling back to the vanishing point on the horizon of Luke’s mind. And all these shadow boxes that lent such perspective to things … well, this lattice gave his life a certain darkness.

Nothing of substance, of course – and in any case, some would have said this shading gave a depth to his personality, where before it had been thin, without dimension – though such a suggestion probably would have come from jaded critics, reflecting a jaded time. Nonetheless, there was a certain darkness, now.

There were other advantages to knowledge: rationality, etiquette, choice. Choice, of them all, was a true double-edged sword; but it did have its advantages.

Furthermore he was skilled in the craft of the Jedi now, where before he’d been merely precocious.

He was more aware now.

These were all desirable attributes, to be sure; and Luke knew as well as anyone that all things alive must grow. Still, it carried a certain sadness, the sum of all this knowledge. A certain sense of regret. But who could afford to be a boy in times such as these?

Resolutely, Luke strode into the arching hallway.

Almost immediately two Gamorreans stepped up, blocking his path. One spoke in a voice that did not invite debate. ‘No chuba!’

Luke raised his hand and pointed at the guards. Before either could draw a weapon, they were both clutching their own throats, choking, gasping. They fell to their knees.

Luke lowered his hand and walked on. The guards, suddenly able to breathe again, slumped to the sanddrifted steps. They didn’t follow.

Around the next corner Luke was met by Bib Fortuna. Fortuna began speaking as he approached the young Jedi, but Luke never broke stride, so Bib had to reverse his direction in mid-sentence and hurry along with Skywalker in order to carry on a conversation.

‘You must be the one called Skywalker. His Excellency will not see you.’

‘I will speak to Jabba, now,’ Luke spoke evenly, never slowing. They passed several more guards at the next crossing, who fell in behind them.

‘The great Jabba is asleep,’ Bib explained. ‘He has instructed me to tell you there will be no bargains-Luke stopped suddenly, and stared at Bib. He locked eyes with the major-domo, raised his hand slightly, took a minutely inward turn. ‘You will take me to Jabba, now.’

Bib paused, tilted his head a fraction. What were his instructions? Oh, yes, now he remembered. ‘I will take you to Jabba now.’

He turned and walked down the twisting corridor that led to the throne chamber. Luke followed him into the gloom.

‘You serve your master well,’ he whispered in Bib’s ear.

‘I serve my master well,’ Bib nodded with conviction.

‘You are sure to be rewarded,’ Luke added.

Bib smiled smugly. ‘I am sure to be rewarded.’

As Luke and Bib entered Jabba’s court, the level of tumult dropped precipitously as if Luke’s presence had a cooling effect. Everyone felt the change.

The lieutenant and the Jedi Knight approached the throne. Luke saw Leia seated there, now, by Jabba’s belly. She was chained at the neck and dressed in the skimpy costume of a dancing girl. He could feel her pain immediately, from across the room – but he said nothing, didn’t even look at her, shut her anguish completely out of his mind. For he needed to focus his attention entirely on Jabba.

Leia, for her part, sensed this at once. She closed her mind to Luke, to keep herself from distracting him; yet at the same time she kept it open, ready to receive any sliver of information she might need to act. She felt charged with possibilities.

Threepio peeked out from behind the throne as Bib walked up. For the first time in many days, he scanned his hope program. ‘Ah! At last Master Luke’s come to take me away from all this,’ he beamed.

Bib stood proudly before Jabba. ‘Master, I present Luke Sky-walker, Jedi Knight.’

‘I told you not to admit him,’ the gangster-slug growled in Huttese.

‘I must be allowed to speak,’ Luke spoke quietly, though his words were heard throughout the hall.

‘He must be allowed to speak,’ Bib concurred thoughtfully.

Jabba, furious, bashed Bib across the face and sent him reeling to the floor. ‘You weak-minded fool! He’s using an old Jedi mind trick!’

Luke let all the rest of the motley horde that surrounded him melt into the recesses of his consciousness, to let Jabba fill his mind totally. ‘You will bring Captain Solo and the Wookiee to me.’

Jabba smiled grimly. ‘Your mind powers will not work on me, boy. I am not affected by your human thought pattern.’ Then, as an after thought: ‘I was killing your kind when being a Jedi meant something.’

Luke altered his stance somewhat, internally and externally. ‘Nevertheless, I am taking Captain Solo and his friends. You can either profit from this … or be destroyed. It’s your choice, but I warn you not to underestimate my powers.’ He spoke in his own language, which Jabba well understood.

Jabba laughed the laugh of a lion cautioned by a mouse.

Threepio, who had been observing this interplay intently, leaned forward to whisper to Luke: ‘Master, you’re standing-‘ A guard abruptly restrained the concerned droid, though, and pulled him back to his place.

Jabba cut short his laugh with a scowl. ‘There will be no bargain, young Jedi. I shall enjoy watching you die.’

Luke raised his hand. A pistol jumped out of the holster of a nearby guard and landed snugly in the Jedi’s palm. Luke pointed the weapon at Jabba.

Jabba spat. ‘Boscka!’

The floor suddenly dropped away, sending Luke and his guard crashing into the pit below. The trap door immediately closed again.

All the beasts of the court rushed to the floor-grating and looked down.

‘Luke!’ yelled Leia. She felt part of her self torn away, pulled down into the pit with him. She started forward, but was held in check by the manacle around her throat. Raucous laughter crowded in from everywhere at once, set her on edge. She poised to flee.

A human guard touched her shoulder. She looked. It was Lando. Imperceptibly, he shook his head. No. Imperceptibly, her muscles relaxed. This wasn’t the right moment, he knew – but it was the right hand. All the cards were here, now – Luke, Han, Leia, Chewbacca … and old Wild Card Lando. He just didn’t want Leia revealing the hand before all the bets were out. The stakes were just too high.

In the pit below, Luke picked himself up off the floor. He found he was now in a large cavelike dungeon, the walls formed of craggy boulders pocked with lightless crevices. The half-chewed bones of countless animals were strewn over the floor, smelling of decayed flesh and twisted fear.

Twenty-five feet above him, in the ceiling, he saw the iron grating through which Jabba’s repugnant courtiers peered.

The guard beside him suddenly began to scream uncontrollably, as a door in the side of the cave slowly rumbled open. With infinite calm, Luke surveyed his surroundings as he removed his long robe down to his Jedi tunic, to give him more freedom of movement. He backed quickly to the wall and crouched there, watching.

Out of the side passage emerged the giant Rancor. The size of an elephant, it was somehow reptilian, somehow as unformed as a nightmare. Its huge screeching mouth was asymmetrical in its head, its fangs and claws set all out of proportion. It was clearly a mutant, and wild as all unreason.

The guard picked up the pistol from the dirt where it had fallen and began firing laser bursts at the hideous monster. This only made the beast angrier. It lumbered toward the guard.

The guard kept firing. Ignoring the laser blasts, the beast grabbed the hysterical guard, popped him into its slavering jaws, and swallowed him in a gulp. The audience above cheered, laughed, and threw coins.

The monster then turned and started for Luke. But the Jedi Knight leaped eight meters straight up and grabbed onto the overhead grate. The crowd began to boo. Hand over hand, Luke traversed the grating toward the corner of the cave, struggling to maintain his grip as the audience jeered his efforts. One hand slipped on the oily grid, and he dangled precariously over the baying mutant.

Two jawas ran across the top of the grate. They mashed Luke’s fingers with their rifle butts; once again, the crowd roared its approval.

The Rancor pawed at Luke from below, but the Jedi dangled just out of reach. Suddenly Luke released his hold and dropped directly onto the eye of the howling monster; he then tumbled to the floor.

The Rancor screamed in pain and stumbled, swatting its own face to knock away the agony. It ran in circles a few times, then spotted Luke again and came at him. Luke stooped down to pick up the long bone of an earlier victim. He brandished it before him. The gallery above thought this was hilarious and hooted in delight.

The monster grabbed Luke and brought him up to its salivating mouth. At the last moment, though, Luke wedged the bone deep in the Rancor’s mouth and jumped to the floor as the beast began to gag. The Rancor bellowed and flailed about, running headlong into a wall. Several rocks were dislodged, starting an avalanche that nearly buried Luke, as he crouched deep in a crevice near the floor. The crowd clapped in unison.

Luke tried to clear his mind. Fear is a great cloud, Ben used to tell him. It makes the cold colder and the dark darker; but let it rise and it will dissolve. So Luke let it rise past the clamor of the beast above him, and examined ways he might turn the sad creature’s rantings on itself.

It was not an evil beast, that much was clear. Had it been purely malicious, its wickedness could easily have been turned on itself -for pure evil, Ben had said, was always self-destructive in the end. But this monster wasn’t bad – merely dumb and mistreated. Hungry and in pain, it lashed out at whatever came near. For Luke to have looked on that as evil would only have been a projection of Luke’s own darker aspects – it would have been false, and it certainly wouldn’t have helped him out of this situation.

No, he was going to have to keep his mind clear – that was all -and just outwit the savage brute, to put it out of its misery.

Most preferable would have been to set it loose in Jabba’s court, but that seemed unlikely. He considered, next, giving the creature the means to do itself in – to end its own pain. Unfortunately, the creature was far too angered to comprehend the solace of the void. Luke finally began studying the specific contours of the cave, to try to come up with a specific plan.

The Rancor, meanwhile, had knocked the bone from its mouth and, enraged, was scrabbling through the rubble of fallen rocks, searching for Luke. Luke, though his vision was partially obscured by the pile that still sheltered him, could see now past the monster, to a holding cave beyond – and beyond that, to a utility door. If only he could get to it.

The Rancor knocked away a boulder and spotted Luke recoiling in the crevice. Voraciously, it reached in to pluck the boy out. Luke grabbed a large rock and smashed it down on the creature’s finger as hard as he could. As the Rancor jumped, howling in pain once more, Luke ran for the holding cave.

He reached the doorway and ran in. Before him, a heavy barred gate blocked the way. Beyond this gate, the Rancor’s two keepers sat eating dinner. They looked up as Luke entered, then stood and walked toward the gate.

Luke turned around to see the monster coming angrily after him. He turned back to the gate and tried to open it. The keepers poked at him with their two-pronged spears, jabbed at him through the bars, laughing and chewing their food, as the Rancor drew closer to the young Jedi.

Luke backed against the side wall, as the Rancor reached in the room for him. Suddenly he saw the restraining-door control panel halfway up the opposite wall. The Rancor began to enter the holding room, closing for the kill, when all at once Luke picked up a skull off the floor and hurled it at the panel.

The panel exploded in a shower of sparks, and the giant iron overhead restraining door came crashing down on the Rancor’s head, crushing it like an axe smashing through a ripe watermelon.

Those in the audience above gasped as one, then were silent. They were all truly stunned at this bizarre turn of events. They all looked to Jabba, who was apoplectic with rage. Never had he felt such fury. Leia tried to hide her delight, but was unable to keep from smiling, and this increased Jabba’s anger even further. Harshly he snapped at his guards: ‘Get him out of there. Bring me Solo and the Wookiee. They will all suffer for this outrage.’

In the pit below, Luke stood calmly as several of Jabba’s henchmen ran in, clapped him in bonds, and ushered him out.

The Rancor keeper wept openly and threw himself down on the body of his dead pet. Life would be a lonely proposition for him from that day.

Han and Chewie were led before the steaming Jabba. Han still squinted and stumbled every few feet. Threepio stood behind the Hutt, unbearably apprehensive. Jabba kept Leia on a short tether, stroking her hair to try to calm himself. A constant murmuring filled the room, as the rabble speculated on what was going to happen to whom.

With a flurry, several guards – including Lando Calrissian -dragged Luke in across the room. To give them passage, the courtiers parted like an unruly sea. When Luke, too, was standing before the throne, he nudged Solo with a smile. ‘Good to see you again, old buddy.’

Solo’s face lit up. There seemed to be no end to the number of friends he kept bumping into. ‘Luke! Are you in this mess now, too?’

‘Wouldn’t miss it,’ Skywalker smiled. For just a moment, he almost felt like a boy again.

‘Well, how we doing?’ Han raised his eyebrows.

‘Same as always,’ said Luke.

‘Oh-oh,’ Solo replied under his breath. He felt one hundred percent relaxed. Just like old times – but a second later, a bleak thought chilled him.

‘Where’s Leia? Is she …’

Her eyes had been fixed on him from the moment he’d entered the room, though – guarding his spirit with her own. When he spoke of her now, she responded instantly, calling from her place on Jabba’s throne. ‘I’m all right, but I don’t know how much longer I can hold off your slobbering friend, here.’ She was intentionally cavalier, to put Solo at ease. Besides, the sight of all of her friends there at once made her feel nearly invincible. Han, Luke, Chewie, Lando – even Threepio was skulking around somewhere, trying to be forgotten. Leia almost laughed out loud, almost punched Jabba in the nose. She could barely restrain herself. She wanted to hug them all.

Suddenly Jabba shouted; the entire room was immediately silent. ‘Talkdroid!’

Timidly, Threepio stepped forward and with an embarrassed, self-effacing head gesture, addressed the captives. ‘His High Exaltedness, the great Jabba the Hutt, has decreed that you are to be terminated immediately.’

Solo said loudly, ‘That’s good, I hate long waits …”

‘Your extreme offense against His Majesty,’ Threepio went on, ‘demands the most torturous form of death …”

‘No sense in doing things halfway,’ Solo cracked. Jabba could be so pompous, sometimes, and now with old Goldenrod, there, making his pronouncements …

No matter what else, Threepio simply hated being interrupted. He collected himself, nonetheless, and continued. ‘You will be taken to the Dune Sea, where you will be thrown into the Great Pit of Carkoon-‘

Han shrugged, then turned to Luke. ‘That doesn’t sound too bad.’

Threepio ignored the interruption.’… the resting place of the all-powerful Sarlacc. In his belly you will find a new definition of pain and suffering, as you slowly digest for a thousand years.’

‘On second thought we could pass on that,’ Solo reconsidered. A thousand years was a bit much.

Chewie barked his whole-hearted agreement.

Luke only smiled. ‘You should have bargained, Jabba. This is the last mistake you’ll ever make.’ Luke was unable to suppress the satisfaction in his voice. He found Jabba despicable – a leech of the galaxy, sucking the life from whatever he touched. Luke wanted to burn the villain, and so was actually rather glad Jabba had refused to bargain – for now Luke would get his wish precisely. Of course, his primary objective was to free his friends, whom he loved dearly; it was this concern that guided him now, above all else. But in the process, to free the universe of this gangster slug – this was a prospect that tinted Luke’s purpose with an ever-so-slightly dark satisfaction.

Jabba chortled evilly. Take them away.’ At last, a bit of pure pleasure on an otherwise dreary day – feeding the Sarlacc was the only thing he enjoyed as much as feeding the Rancor. Poor Rancor.

A loud cheer rose from the crowd as the prisoners were carried off. Leia looked after them with great concern; but when she caught a glimpse of Luke’s face she was stirred to see it still fixed in a broad, genuine smile. She sighed deeply, to expel her doubts.

Jabba’s giant antigravity Sail Barge glided slowly over the endless Dune Sea. Its sand-blasted iron hull creaked in the slight breeze, each puff of wind coughing into the two huge sails as if even nature suffered some terminal malaise wherever it came near Jabba. He was belowdecks, now, with most of his court, hiding the decay of his spirit from the cleansing sun.

Alongside the barge, two small skiffs floated in formation – one an escort craft, bearing six scruffy soldiers; the other, a gun skiff, containing the prisoners: Han, Chewie, Luke. They were all in bonds, and surrounded by armed guards – Barada, two Weequays. And Lando Calrissian.

Barada was the no-nonsense sort, and not likely to let anything get out of hand. He carried a long-gun as if he wanted nothing more than to hear it speak.

The Weequays were an odd sort. They were brothers, leathery and bald save for a tribal top-knot, braided and worn to the side. No one was certain whether Weequay was the name of their tribe, or their species; or whether all in their tribe were brothers, or all were named Weequays. It was known only that these two were called by this name, and that they treated all other creatures indifferently. With each other they were gentle, even tender; but like Barada, they seemed anxious for the prisoners to misbehave.

And Lando, of course, remained silent, ready – waiting for an opportunity. This reminded him of the lithium scam he’d run on Pesmenben IV — they’d salted the dunes there with lithium carbonate, to con the Imperial governor into leasing the planet. Lando, posing as a nonunion mine guard, had made the governor lie face down in the bottom of the boat and throw his bribe overboard when the ‘union officials’ raided them. They’d gotten away scot-free on that one; Lando expected this job would go much the same, except they might have to throw the guards overboard as well.

Han kept his ear tuned, for his eyes were still useless. He spoke with reckless disregard, to put the guards at ease – to get them used to his talking and moving, so when the time came for him really to move, they’d be a critical fraction behind his mark. And, of course – as always – he spoke just to hear himself speak.

‘I think my sight is getting better,’ he said, squinting over the sand. ‘Instead of a big dark blur, I see a big bright blur.’

‘Believe me, you’re not missing anything.’ Luke smiled. ‘I grew up here.’

Luke thought of his youth on Tatooine, living on his uncle’s farm, cruising in his souped-up landspeeder with his few friends – sons of other settlers, sitting their own lonely outposts. Nothing ever to do here, really, for man or boy, but cruise the monotonous dunes and try to avoid the peevish Tusken Raiders who guarded the sand as if it were gold-dust. Luke knew this place.

He’d met Obi-Wan Kenobi, here – old Ben Kenobi, the hermit who’d lived in the wilderness since nobody knew when. The man who’d first shown Luke the way of the Jedi.

Luke thought of him now with great love, and great sorrow. For Ben was, more than anyone, the agent of Luke’s discoveries and losses – and discoveries of losses.

Ben had taken Luke to Mos Eisley, the pirate city on the western face of Tatooine, to the cantina where they’d first met Han Solo, and Chewbacca the Wookiee. Taken him there after Imperial storm-troopers had murdered Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru, searching for the fugitive droids, Artoo and Threepio.

That’s how it had all started for Luke, here on Tatooine. Like a recurring dream he knew this place; and he had sworn then that he would never return.

‘I grew up here,’ he repeated softly.

‘And now we’re going to die here,’ Solo replied.

‘I wasn’t planning on it,’ Luke shook himself out of his reverie.

‘If this is your big plan, so far I’m not crazy about it.’

‘Jabba’s palace was too well guarded. I had to get you out of there. Just stay close to Chewie and Lando. We’ll take care of everything.’

‘I can hardly wait.’ Solo had a sinking feeling this grand escape depended on Luke’s thinking he was a Jedi – a questionable premise at best, considering it was an extinct brotherhood that had used a Force he didn’t really believe in anyway. A fast ship and a good blaster are what Han believed in, and he wished he had them now.

Jabba sat in the main cabin of the Sail Barge, surrounded by his entire retinue. The party at the palace was simply continuing, in motion – the result being a slightly wobblier brand of carousing -more in the nature of a prelynching celebration. So blood lust and belligerence were testing new levels.

Threepio was way out of his depth. At the moment, he was being forced to translate an argument between Ephant Mon and Ree-Yees, concerning a point of quark warfare that was marginally beyond him. Ephant Mon, a bulky upright pachydermoid with an ugly, betusked snout, was taking (to Threepio’s way of thinking) an untenable position. However, on his shoulder sat Salacious Crumb, the insane little reptilian monkey who had the habit of repeating verbatim everything Ephant said, thereby effectively doubling the weight of Ephant’s argument.

Ephant concluded the oration with a typically bellicose avowal. ‘Woossie jawamba boog!’

To which Salacious nodded, then added, ‘Woossie jawamba boog!’

Threepio didn’t really want to translate this to Ree-Yees, the three-eyed goat-face who was already drunk as a spicer, but he did.

All three eyes dilated in fury. ‘Backawa! Backawa!’ Without further preamble, he punched Ephant Mon in the snout, sending him flying into a school of Squid Heads.

See Threepio felt this response needed no translation, and took the opportunity to slip to the rear – where he promptly bumped into a small droid serving drinks. The drinks spilled everywhere.

The stubby little droid let out a fluent series of irate beeps, toots, and whistles – recognizable to Threepio instantly. He looked down in utter relief. ‘Artoo! What are you doing here?’

‘dooo WEEp chWHRrrrree bedzhng.’

‘I can see you’re serving drinks. But this place is dangerous. They’re going to execute Master Luke, and if we’re not careful, us too!’

Artoo whistled – a bit nonchalantly, as far as Threepio was concerned. ‘I wish I had your confidence,’ he replied glumly.

Jabba chuckled to see Ephant Mon go down – he loved a good beating. He especially loved to see strength crumble, to see the proud fall.

He tugged, with his swollen fingers, on the chain attached to Princess Leia’s neck. The more resistance he met with, the more he drooled – until he’d drawn the struggling, scantily-clad princess close to him once more.

‘Don’t stray too far, my lovely. Soon you will begin to appreciate me.’ He pulled her very near and forced her to drink from his glass.

Leia opened her mouth and she closed her mind. It was disgusting, of course; but there were worse things, and in any case, this wouldn’t last.

The worse things she knew well. Her standard of comparison was the night she’d been tortured by Darth Vader. She had almost broken. The Dark Lord never knew how close he’d come to extracting the information he wanted from her, the location of the Rebel base. He had captured her just after she’d managed to send Artoo and Threepio for help – captured her, taken her to the Death Star, injected her with mind-weakening chemicals … and tortured her.

Tortured her body first, with his efficient pain-droids. Needles, pressure points, fire-knives, electrojabbers. She’d endured these pains, as she now endured Jabba’s loathsome touch – with a natural, inner strength.

She slid a few feet away from Jabba, now, as his attention was distracted – moved to peer out the slats in the louvered windows, to squint through the dusty sunlight at the skiff on which her rescuers were being carried.

It was stopping.

The whole convoy was stopping, in fact, over a huge sand pit. The Sail Barge moved to one side of the giant depression, with the escort skiff. The prisoners’ skiff hovered directly over the pit, though, perhaps twenty feet in the air.

At the bottom of the deep cone of sand, a repulsive, mucus-lined, pink, membranous hole puckered, almost unmoving. The hole was eight feet in diameter, its perimeter clustered with three rows of inwardly-directed needle-sharp teeth. Sand stuck to the mucus that lined the sides of the opening, occasionally sliding into the black cavity at the center.

This was the mouth of the Sarlacc.

An iron plank was extended over the side of the prisoners’ skiff. Two guards untied Luke’s bonds and shoved him gruffly out onto the plank, straight above the orifice in the sand, now beginning to undulate in peristaltic movement and salivate with increased mucus secretion as it smelled the meat it was about to receive.

Jabba moved his party up to the observation deck.

Luke rubbed his wrists to restore circulation. The heat shimmering off the desert warmed his soul – for finally, this would always be his home. Born and bred in a Bantha patch. He saw Leia standing at the rail of the big barge, and winked. She winked back.

Jabba motioned Threepio to his side, then mumbled orders to the golden droid. Threepio stepped up to the comlink. Jabba raised his arm, and the whole motley array of intergalactic pirates fell silent. Threepio’s voice arose, amplified by the loudspeaker.

‘His Excellency hopes you will die honorably,’ Threepio announced. This did not scan at all. Someone had obviously mislaid the correct program. Nonetheless, he was only a droid, his functions well delineated. Translation only, no free will please. He shook his head and continued. ‘But should any of you wish to beg for mercy, Jabba will now listen to your pleas.’

Han stepped forward to give the bloated slime pot his last thoughts, in case all else failed. ‘You tell that slimy piece of worm-ridden filth-‘

Unfortunately, Han was facing into the desert, away from the Sail Barge. Chewie reached over and turned Solo around, so he was now properly facing the piece of worm-ridden filth he was addressing.

Han nodded, without stopping. ‘ – worm-ridden filth he’ll get no such pleasure from us.’

Chewie made a few growly noises of general agreement.

Luke was ready. ‘Jabba, this is your last chance,’ he shouted. ‘Free us or die.’ He shot a quick look to Lando, who moved unobtrusively toward the back of the skiff. This was it, Lando figured – they’d just toss the guards overboard and take off under everyone’s nose.

The monsters on the barge roared with laughter. Artoo, during this commotion, rolled silently up the ramp to the side of the upper deck.

Jabba raised his hand, and his minions were quiet. ‘I’m sure you’re right, my young Jedi friend,’ he smiled. Then he turned his thumb down. ‘Put him in.’

The spectators cheered, as Luke was prodded to the edge of the plank by Weequay. Luke looked up at Artoo, standing alone by the rail, and flipped the little droid a jaunty salute. At that prearranged signal, a flap slid open in Artoo’s domed head, and a projectile shot high into the air and curved in a gentle arc over the desert.

Luke jumped off the plank; another bloodthirsty cheer went up. In less than a second, though, Luke had spun around in freefall, and caught the end of the plank with his fingertips. The thin metal bent wildly from his weight, paused near to snapping, then catapulted him up. In mid-air he did a complete flip and dropped down in the middle of the plank – the spot he’d just left, only now behind the confused guards. Casually, he extended his arm to his side, palm up – and suddenly, his lightsaber, which Artoo had shot sailing toward him, dropped neatly into his open hand.

With Jedi speed, Luke ignited his sword and attacked the guard at the skiff-edge of the plank, sending him, screaming, overboard into the twitching mouth of the Sarlacc.

The other guards swarmed toward Luke. Grimly he waded into them, lightsaber flashing.

His own lightsaber – not his father’s. He had lost his father’s in the duel with Darth Vader in which he’d lost his hand as well. Darth Vader, who had told Luke he was his father.

But this lightsaber Luke had fashioned himself, in Obi-Wan Kenobi’s abandoned hut on the other side of Tatooine – made with the old Master Jedi’s tools and parts, made with love and craft and dire need. He wielded it now as if it were fused to his hand; as if it were an extension of his own arm. This lightsaber, truly, was Luke’s.

He cut through the onslaught like a light dissolving shadows.

Lando grappled with the helmsman, trying to seize the controls of the skiff. The helmsman’s laser pistol fired, blasting the nearby panel; and the skiff lurched to the side, throwing another guard into the pit, knocking everyone else into a pile on the deck. Luke picked himself up and ran toward the helmsman, lightsaber raised. The creature retreated at the overpowering sight, stumbled … and he, too, went over the edge, into the maw.

The bewildered guard landed in the soft, sandy slope of the pit and began an inexorable slide down toward the toothy, viscous opening. He clawed desperately at the sand, screaming. Suddenly a muscled tentacle oozed out of the Sarlacc’s mouth, slithered up the caked sand, coiled tightly around the helmsman’s ankle, and pulled him into the hole with a grotesque slurp.

All this happened in a matter of seconds. When he saw what was happening, Jabba exploded in a rage, and yelled furious commands at those around him. In a moment, there was general uproar, with creatures running through every door. It was during this directionless confusion that Leia acted.

She jumped onto Jabba’s throne, grabbed the chain which enslaved her, and wrapped it around his bulbous throat. Then she dove off the other side of the support, pulling the chain violently in her grasp. The small metal rings buried themselves in the loose folds of the Hutt’s neck, like a garrote.

With a strength beyond her own strength, she pulled. He bucked with his huge torso, nearly breaking her fingers, nearly yanking her arms from their sockets. He could get no leverage, his bulk was too unwieldy. But just his sheer mass was almost enough to break any mere physical restraint.

Yet Leia’s hold was not merely physical. She closed her eyes, closed out the pain in her hands, focused all of her life-force – and all it was able to channel – into squeezing the breath from the horrid creature.

She pulled, she sweated, she visualized the chain digging millimeter by millimeter deeper into Jabba’s windpipe – as Jabba wildly thrashed, frantically twisted from this least expected of foes.

With a last gasping effort, Jabba tensed every muscle and lurched forward. His reptilian eyes began to bulge from their sockets as the chain tightened; his oily tongue flopped from his mouth. His thick tail twitched in spasms of effort, until he finally lay still -deadweight.

Leia set about trying to free herself from the chain at her neck, while outside, the battle began to rage.

Boba Fett ignited his rocket pack, leaped into the air, and with a single effort flew down from the barge to the skiff just as Luke finished freeing Han and Chewie from their bonds. Boba aimed his laser gun at Luke, but before he could fire, the young Jedi spun around, sweeping his lightsword in an arc that sliced the bounty hunter’s gun in half.

A series of blasts suddenly erupted from the large cannon on the upper deck of the barge, hitting the skiff broadside, and rocking it forty degrees askew. Lando was tossed from the deck, but at the last moment he grabbed a broken strut and dangled desperately above the Sarlacc. This development was definitely not in his game plan, and he vowed to himself never again to get involved in a con that he didn’t run from start to finish.

The skiff took another direct hit from the barge’s deck gun, throwing Chewie and Han against the rail. Wounded, the Wookiee howled in pain. Luke looked over at his hairy friend; whereupon Boba Fett, taking advantage of that moment of distraction, fired a cable from out of his armored sleeve.

The cable wrapped itself several times around Luke, pinning his arms to his sides, his sword arm now free only from the wrist down. He bent his wrist, so the lightsaber pointed straight up … and then spun toward Boba along the cable. In a moment, the lightsaber touched the end of the wire lasso, cutting through it instantly. Luke shrugged the cable away, just as another blast hit the skiff, knocking Boba unconscious to the deck. Unfortunately this explosion also dislodged the strut from which Lando was hanging, sending him careening into the Sarlacc pit.

Luke was shaken by the explosion, but unhurt. Lando hit the sandy slope, shouted for help, and tried to scramble out. The loose sand only tumbled him deeper toward the gaping hole. Lando closed his eyes and tried to think of all the ways he might give the Sarlacc a thousand years of indigestion. He bet himself three to two he could outlast anybody else in the creature’s stomach. Maybe if he talked that last guard out of his uniform …

‘Don’t move!’ Luke screamed, but his attention was immediately diverted by the incoming second skiff, full of guards firing their weapons.

It was a Jedi rule-of-thumb, but it took the soldiers in the second skiff by surprise: when outnumbered, attack. This drives the force of the enemy in toward himself. Luke jumped directly into the center of the skiff and immediately began decimating them in their midst with lightning sweeps of his lightsaber.

Back in the other boat, Chewie tried to untangle himself from the wreckage, as Han struggled blindly to his feet. Chewie barked at him, trying to direct him toward a spear lying loose on the deck.

Lando screamed, starting to slide closer to the glistening jaws. He was a gambling man, but he wouldn’t have taken long odds on his chances of escape right now.

‘Don’t move, Lando!’ Han called out. ‘I’m coming!’ Then, to Chewie: ‘Where is it, Chewie?’ He swung his hands frantically over the deck as Chewie growled directions, guiding Solo’s movements. At last, Han locked onto the spear.

Boba Fett stumbled up just then, still a little dizzy from the exploding shell. He looked over at the other skiff, where Luke was in a pitched battle with six guards. With one hand Boba steadied himself on the rail; with the other he aimed his weapon at Luke.

Chewie barked at Han.

‘Which way?’ shouted Solo. Chewie barked.

The blinded space pirate swung his long spear in Boba’s direction. Instinctively, Fett blocked the blow with his forearm; again, he aimed at Luke. ‘Get out of my way, you blind fool,’ he cursed Solo.

Chewie barked frantically. Han swung his spear again, this time in the opposite direction, landing the hit squarely in the middle of Boba’s rocket pack.

The impact caused the rocket to ignite. Boba blasted off unexpectedly, shooting over the second skiff like a missile and ricocheting straight down into the pit. His armored body slid quickly past Lando and rolled without pause into the Sarlacc’s mouth.

‘Rrgrrowrrbroo fro bo,’ Chewie growled.

‘He did?’ Solo smiled. ‘I wish I could have seen that-A major hit from the barge deck gun flipped the skiff on its side, sending Han and almost everything else overboard. His foot caught on the railing, though, leaving him swinging precariously above the Sarlacc. The wounded Wookiee tenaciously held on to the twisted debris astern.

Luke finished going through his adversaries on the second skiff, assessed the problem quickly, and leaped across the chasm of sand to the sheer metal side of the huge barge. Slowly, he began a handover-hand climb up the hull, toward the deck gun.

Meanwhile, on the observation deck, Leia had been inter mittently struggling to break the chain which bound her to the dead gangster, and hiding behind his massive carcass whenever some guard ran by. She stretched her full length, now, trying to retrieve a discarded laser pistol – to no avail. Fortunately, Artoo at last came to her rescue, after having first lost his bearings and rolled down the wrong plank.

He zipped up to her finally, extended a cutting appendage from the side of his casing, and sliced through her bonds.

‘Thanks, Artoo, good work. Now let’s get out of here.’

They raced for the door. On the way, they passed Threepio, lying on the floor, screaming, as a giant, tuberous hulk named Hermi Odle sat on him. Salacious Crumb, the reptilian monkey-monster, crouched by Threepio’s head, picking out the golden droid’s right eye.

‘No! No! Not my eyes!’ Threepio screamed.

Artoo sent a bolt of charge into Hermi Odle’s backside, sending him wailing through a window. A similar flash blasted Salacious to the ceiling, from which he didn’t come down. Threepio quickly rose, his eye dangling from a sheaf of wires; then he and Artoo hurriedly followed Leia out the back door.

The deck gun blasted the tilting skiff once more, shaking out virtually everything that remained inside except Chewbacca. Desperately holding on with his injured arm, he was stretching over the rail, grasping the ankle of the dangling Solo, who was, in turn, sightlessly reaching down for the terrified Calrissian. Lando had managed to stop his slippage by lying very still. Now, every time he reached up for Solo’s outstretched arm, the loose sand slid him a fraction closer to the hungry hole. He sure hoped Solo wasn’t still holding that silly business back on Bespin against him.

Chewie barked another direction at Han.

‘Yeah, I know, I can see a lot better now – it must be all the blood rushing to my head.’

‘Great,’ Lando called up. ‘Now could you just grow a few inches taller?’

The deck gunners on the barge were lining up this human chain in their sights for the coup de grace, when Luke stepped in front of them, laughing like a pirate king. He lit his lightsaber before they could squeeze off a shot; a moment later they were smoking corpses.

A company of guards suddenly rushed up the steps from the lower decks, firing. One of the blasts shot Luke’s lightsaber from his hand. He ran down the deck, but was quickly surrounded. Two of the soldiers manned the deck gun again. Luke looked at his hand; the mechanism was exposed – the complex steel-and-circuit construction that replaced his real hand, which Vader had cut off in their last encounter.

He flexed the mechanism; it still worked.

The deck gunners fired at the skiff below. It hit to the side of the small boat. The shock wave almost knocked Chewie loose, but in tipping the boat further, Han was able to grab onto Lando’s wrist.

‘Pull!’ Solo yelled at the Wookiee.

‘I’m caught!’ screamed Calrissian. He looked down in panic to see one of the Sarlacc’s tentacles slowly wrap around his ankle. Talk about a wild card – they kept changing the rules every five minutes in this game. Tentacles! What kind of odds was anybody gonna give on tentacles? Very long, he decided with a fatalistic grunt; long, and sticky.

The deck gunners realigned their sights for the final kill, but it was all over for them before they could fire – Leia had commandeered the second deck gun, at the other end of the ship. With her first shot she blasted the rigging that stood between the two deck guns. With her second shot she wiped out the first deck gun.

The explosions rocked the great barge, momentarily distracting the five guards who surrounded Luke. In that moment he reached out his hand, and the lightsaber, lying on the deck ten feet away, flew into it. He leaped straight up as two guards fired at him – their laser bolts killed each other. He ignited his blade in the air and, swinging it as he came down, mortally wounded the others.

He yelled to Leia across the deck. ‘Point it down!’

She tilted the second deck gun into the deck and nodded to Threepio at the rail.

Artoo, beside him, beeped wildly.

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