Star Wars-The Empire Strikes Back eBook #starwars #ebooks

= I =

‘NOW this is what I call cold!’ Luke Skywalker’s voice broke the silence he had observed since leaving the newly established Rebel base hours earlier. He was astride a Tauntaun, the only other living being as far as the eye could see. He felt tired and alone, and the sound of his own voice startled him.

Luke as well as his fellow members of the Rebel Alliance took turns exploring the white wastelands of Hoth, gathering information about their new home. They all returned to base with mixed feelings of comfort and loneliness. There was nothing to contradict their earliest findings that no intelligent lifeforms existed on this cold planet. All that Luke had seen on his solitary expeditions were barren white plains and ranges of blue-tinged mountains that seemed to vanish in the mists of the distant horizons.

Luke smiled behind the masklike gray bandana that protected him against Hoth’s frigid winds. Peering out at the icy wastes through his goggles, he pulled his fur-lined cap down more snugly about his head.

One corner of his mouth curled upward as he tried to visualize the official researchers in the service of the Imperial government. ‘The galaxy is peppered with settlements of colonizers who care little about the affairs of the Empire or its opposition, the Rebel Alliance,’ he thought. ‘But a settler would have to be crazy to stake his claims on Hoth. This planet doesn’t have a thing to offer anyone – except us.’

The Rebel Alliance had established an outpost on the ice world little more than a month before. Luke was well-known on the base and, although barely twenty-three years old, he was addressed as Commander Skywalker by other Rebel warriors. The title made him feel a bit uncomfortable. Nonetheless, he was already in the position of giving orders to a band of seasoned soldiers. So much had happened to Luke and he had changed a great deal. Luke, himself, found it hard to believe that only three years ago he was a wide-eyed farm boy on his home world of Tatooine.

The youthful commander spurred his Tauntaun. ‘Come on, girl,’ he urged.

The snow-lizard’s gray body was insulated from the cold by a covering of thick fur. It galloped on muscular hind legs, its tridactyl feet terminating in large hooked claws that dug up great plumes of snow. The Tauntaun’s llamalike head thrust forward and its serpentine tail coiled out behind as the beast ran up the ice slope. The animal’s horned head turned from side to side buffeting the winds that assaulted its shaggy muzzle.

Luke wished his mission were finished. His body felt nearly frozen in spite of his heavily padded Rebel-issue clothing. But he knew that it was his choice to be there; he had volunteered to ride across the ice fields looking for other lifeforms. He shivered as he looked at the long shadow he and the beast cast on the snow. ‘The winds are picking up,’ he thought. ‘And these chilling winds bring unendurable temperatures to the plains after nightfall.’ He was tempted to return to the base a little early, but he knew the importance of establishing the certainty that the Rebels were alone on Hoth.

The Tauntaun quickly turned to the right, almost throwing Luke off-balance. He was still getting used to riding the unpredictable creatures. ‘No offense,’ he said to his mount, ‘but I’d feel a lot more at ease in the cockpit of my old reliable landspeeder.’ But for this mission, a Tauntaun – despite its disadvantages – was the most efficient and practical form of transportation available on Hoth.

When the beast reached the top of another ice slope, Luke brought the animal to halt. He pulled off his dark-lensed goggles and squinted for a few moments, just long enough for his eyes to adjust to the blinding glare of the snow.

Suddenly his attention was diverted by the appearance of an object streaking across the sky, leaving behind a lingering trail of smoke as it dipped toward the misty horizon. Luke flashed his gloved hand to his utility belt and clutched his pair of electrobinoculars. Apprehensive, he felt a chill that competed with the coldness of the Hoth atmosphere. What he had seen could have been man-made, perhaps even something launched by the Empire. The young commander, still focused on the object, followed its fiery course and watched intently as it crashed on the white ground and was consumed in its own explosive brilliance.

At the sound of the explosion, Luke’s Tauntaun shuddered. A fearful growl escaped its muzzle and it began to claw nervously at the snow. Luke patted the animal’s head, trying to reassure the beast. He found it difficult to hear himself over the blustering wind. ‘Easy, girl, it’s just another meteorite!’ he shouted. The animal calmed and Luke brought the communicator to his mouth. ‘Echo Three to Echo Seven. Han ol’ buddy, do you read me?’

Static crackled from the receiver. Then a familiar voice cut through the interference. ‘Is that you, kid? What’s up?’

The voice sounded a little older and somewhat sharper than Luke’s. For a moment Luke fondly recalled first meeting the Corellian space smuggler in that dark, alien-packed cantina at a spaceport on Tatooine. And now he was one of Luke’s only friends who was not an official member of the Rebel Alliance.

‘I’ve finished my circle and I haven’t picked up any life readings,’ Luke spoke into his comlink, pressing his mouth close to the transmitter.

‘There isn’t enough life on this ice cube to fill a space cruiser,’ Han answered, fighting to make his voice heard above the whistling winds. ‘My sentry markers are placed. I’m heading back to base.’

‘See you shortly,’ Luke replied. He still had his eye on the twisting column of dark smoke rising from a black spot in the distance. ‘A meteorite just hit the ground near here and I want to check it out. I won’t be long.’

Clicking off his comlink, Luke turned his attention to his Tauntaun. The reptilian creature was pacing, shifting its weight from one foot to the other. It gave out a deep-throated roar that seemed to signal fear.

‘Whoa, girl!’ he said, patting the Tauntaun’s head. ‘What’s the matter … you smell something? There’s nothing out there.’

But Luke, too, was beginning to feel uneasy, for the first time since he had set out from the hidden Rebel base. If he knew anything about these snowlizards, it was that their senses were keen. Without question the animal was trying to tell Luke that something, some danger, was near.

Not wasting a moment, Luke removed a small object from his utility belt and adjusted its miniature controls. The device was sensitive enough to zero in on even the most minute life readings by detecting body temperature and internal life systems. But as Luke began to scan the readings, he realized there was no need -or time – to continue.

A shadow crossed over him, towering above by a good meter and a half. Luke spun around and suddenly it seemed as if the terrain itself had come to life. A great white-furred bulk, perfectly camouflaged against the sprawling mounds of snow, rushed savagely at him.

‘Son of a jumpin’…”

Luke’s hand blaster never cleared its holster. The huge claw of the Wampa Ice Creature struck him hard and flat against his face, knocking him off the Tauntaun and into the freezing snow.

Unconsciousness came swiftly to Luke, so swiftly that he never even heard the pitiful screams of the Tauntaun nor the abrupt silence following the sound of a snapping neck. And he never felt his own ankle savagely gripped by his giant, hairy attacker, or felt his body dragged like a lifeless doll across the snow-covered plain.

Black smoke was still rising from the depression in the hillside where the air-borne thing had fallen. The smoky clouds had thinned considerably since the object had crashed to the ground and formed a smoldering crater, the dark fumes being dispersed over the plains by the icy Hoth winds.

Something stirred within the crater.

First there was only a sound, a droning mechanical sound swelling in intensity as if to compete with the howling wind. Then the thing moved – something that glinted in the bright afternoon light as it slowly began to rise from the crater.

The object appeared to be some form of alien organic life, its head a multiorbed, skull-like horror, its dark-lensed blister eyes training their cold gaze across the even colder reaches of wilderness. But as the thing rose higher from the crater, its form showed it clearly to be a machine of some sort, possessing a large cylindrical ‘body’ connected to a circular head, and equipped with cameras, sensors, and metal appendages, some of which terminated in crablike grasping pincers.

The machine hovered over the smoking crater and extended its appendages in various directions. Then a signal was set off within its internal mechanical systems, and the machine began to float across the icy plain.

The dark probe droid soon vanished over the distant horizon.

Another rider, bundled in winter clothing and mounted on a spotted gray Tauntaun, raced across the slopes of Hoth toward the Rebel base of operations.

The man’s eyes, like points of cold metal, glanced without interest at the domes of dull gray, the myriad gun turrets and the colossal power generators that were the only indications of civilized life on this world. Han Solo gradually slowed his snow-lizard, guiding the reins so the creature trotted through the entrance of the enormous ice cave.

Han welcomed the relative warmth of the vast complex of caverns, warmed by Rebel heating units that obtained their power from the huge generators outside. This subterranean base was both a natural ice cave and a maze of angular tunnels blasted from a solid mountain of ice by Rebel lasers. The Corellian had been in more desolate hell-holes in the galaxy, but for the moment he couldn’t remember the exact location of any one of them.

He dismounted his Tauntaun, then glanced around to watch the activity taking place inside the mammoth cave. Wherever he looked he saw things being carried, assembled, or repaired. Rebels in gray uniforms rushed to unload supplies and adjust equipment. And there were robots, mostly R2 units and power droids, that seemed to be everywhere, rolling or walking through the ice corridors, efficiently performing their innumerable tasks.

Han was beginning to wonder if he were mellowing with age. At first he had had no personal interest in or loyalty to this whole Rebel affair. His ultimate involvement in the conflict between Empire and Rebel Alliance began as a mere business transaction, selling his services and the use of his ship, the Millennium Falcon. The job had seemed simple enough: Just pilot Ben Kenobi, plus young Luke and two droids, to the Alderaan system. How could Han have known at the time that he would also be called on to rescue a princess from the Empire’s most feared battle station, the Death Star?

Princess Leia Organa …

The more Solo thought about her, the more he realized how much trouble he eventually bought himself by accepting Ben Kenobi’s money. All Han had wanted originally was to collect his fee and rocket off to pay back some bad debts that hung over his head like a meteor ready to fall. Never had he intended to become a hero.

And yet, something had kept him around to join Luke and his crazy Rebel friends as they launched the now-legendary space attack on the Death Star. Something. For the present, Han couldn’t decide just what that something was.

Now, long after the Death Star’s destruction, Han was still with the Rebel Alliance, lending his assistance to establish this base on Hoth, probably the bleakest of all planets in the galaxy. But all that was about to change, he told himself. As far as he was concerned, Han Solo and the Rebels were about to blast off on divergent courses.

He walked rapidly through the underground hangar deck where several Rebel fighter ships were docked and being serviced by men in gray assisted by droids of various designs. Of greatest concern to Han was the saucer-shaped freighter ship resting on its newly installed landing pods. This, the largest ship in the hangar, had garnered a few new dents in its metal hull since Han first hooked up with Skywalker and Kenobi. Yet the Millennium Falcon was famous not for its outward appearance but for its speed: This freighter was still the fastest ship ever to make the Kessel Run or to outrun an Imperial TIE fighter.

Much of the Falcon’s success could be attributed to its maintenance, now entrusted to the shaggy hands of a two-meter-tall mountain of brown hair, whose face was at the moment hidden behind a welder’s mask.

Chewbacca, Han Solo’s giant Wookiee copilot, was repairing the Millennium Falcon’s central lifter when he noticed Solo approaching. The Wookiee stopped his work and raised his face shield, exposing his furry countenance. A growl that few non-Wookiees in the universe could translate roared from his toothy mouth.

Han Solo was one of those few. ‘Cold isn’t the word for it, Chewie,’ the Corellian replied. ‘I’ll take a good fight any day over all this hiding and freezing!’ He noticed the smoky wisps rising from the newly welded section of metal. ‘How are you coming with those lifters?’

Chewbacca replied with a typical Wookiee grumble.

‘All right,’ Han said, fully agreeing with his friend’s desire to return to space, to some other planet – anywhere but Hoth. ‘I’ll go report. Then I’ll give you a hand. Soon as those lifters are fixed, we’re out of here.’

The Wookiee barked, a joyful chuckle, and returned to his work as Han continued through the artificial ice cavern.

The command center was alive with electronic equipment and monitoring devices reaching toward the icy ceiling. As in the hangar, Rebel personnel filled the command center. The room was full of controllers, troopers, maintenance men – along with droids of varying models and sizes, all of whom were diligently involved in converting the chamber into a workable base to replace the one on Yavin.

The man Han Solo had come to see was busily engaged behind a great console, his attention riveted to a computer screen flashing brilliantly colored readouts. Rieekan, wearing the uniform of a Rebel general, straightened his tall frame to face Solo as he approached.

‘General, there isn’t a hint of life in the area,’ Han reported. ‘But all the perimeter markings are set, so you’ll know if anyone comes calling.’

As usual, General Rieekan did not smile at Solo’s flippancy. But he admired the young man’s taking a kind of unofficial membership in the Rebellion. So impressed was Rieekan by Solo’s qualities that he often considered giving him an honorary officer’s commission.

‘Has Commander Skywalker reported in yet?’ the general inquired.

‘He’s checking out a meteorite that hit near him,’ Han answered. ‘He’ll be in soon.’

Rieekan quickly glanced at a newly installed radar screen and studied the flashing images. ‘With all the meteor activity in this system, it’s going to be difficult to spot approaching ships.’

‘General, I …’ Han hesitated. ‘I think it’s time for me to move on.’

Han’s attention was drawn from General Rieekan to a steadily approaching figure. Her walk was both graceful and determined, and somehow the young woman’s feminine features seemed incongruous with her white combat uniform. Even at this distance, Han could tell Princess Leia was upset.

‘You’re good in a fight,’ the general remarked to Han, adding, ‘I hate to lose you.’

‘Thank you, General. But there’s a price on my head. If I don’t pay off Jabba the Hutt, I’m a walking dead man.’

‘A death mark is not an easy thing to live with … ‘ the officer began as Han turned to Princess Leia. Solo was not a sentimental sort, but he was aware that he was very emotional now. ‘I guess this is it, Your Highness.’ He paused, not knowing what response to expect from the princess.

‘That’s right,’ Leia replied coldly. Her sudden aloofness was quickly evolving into genuine anger.

Han shook his head. Long ago he had told himself that females – mammalian, reptilian, or some biological class yet to be discovered – were beyond his meager powers of comprehension. Better leave them to mystery, he’d often advised himself.

But for a while, at least, Han had begun to believe that there was at least one female in all the cosmos that he was beginning to understand. And yet, he had been wrong before.

‘Well,’ Han said, ‘don’t go all mushy on me. So long, Princess.’

Abruptly turning his back to her, Han strode into the quiet corridor that connected with the command center. His destination was the hangar deck, where a giant Wookiee and a smuggler’s freighter – two realities he did understand – were waiting for him. He was not about to stop walking.

‘Han!’ Leia was rushing after him, slightly out of breath.

Coolly, he stopped and turned toward her. ‘Yes, Your Highness?’

‘I thought you had decided to stay.’

There seemed to be real concern in Leia’s voice, but Han could not be certain.

‘That bounty hunter we ran into on Ord Mantell changed my mind.’

‘Does Luke know?’ she asked.

‘He’ll know when he gets back,’ Han replied gruffly.

Princess Leia’s eyes narrowed, her gaze judging him with a look he knew well. For a moment Han felt like one of the icicles on the surface of the planet.

‘Don’t give me that look,’ he said sternly. ‘Every day more bounty hunters are searching for me. I’m going to pay off Jabba before he sends any more of his remotes, Gank killers, and who knows what else. I’ve got to get this price off my head while I still have a head.’

Leia was obviously affected by his words, and Han could see that she was concerned for him as well as, perhaps, feeling something more.

‘But we still need you,’ she said.

‘We?’ he asked.

‘Yes.’

‘What about you?’ Han was careful to emphasize the last word, but really wasn’t certain why. Maybe it was something he had for some time wanted to say but had lacked the courage – no, he amended, the stupidity – to expose his feelings. At the moment there seemed to be little to lose, and he was ready for whatever she might say.

‘Me?’ she said bluntly. ‘I don’t know what you mean.’

Incredulous, Han Solo shook his head. ‘No, you probably don’t.’

‘And what precisely am I supposed to know?’ Anger was growing in her voice again, probably because, Han thought, she was finally beginning to understand.

He smiled. ‘You want me to stay because of the way you feel about me.’

Again the princess mellowed. ‘Well, yes, you’ve been a great help,’ she said, pausing before going on,’… to us. You’re a natural leader-‘

But Han refused to let her finish, cutting her off in midsentence. ‘No, Your Worship. That’s not it.’

Suddenly Leia was staring directly into Han’s face, with eyes that were, at last, fully understanding. She started to laugh. ‘You’re imagining things.’

‘Am I? I think you were afraid I was going to leave you without even a…’ Han’s eyes focused on her lips,’… kiss.’

She began to laugh harder now. ‘I’d just as soon kiss a Wookiee.’

‘I can arrange that.’ He moved closer to her, and she looked radiant even in the cold light of the ice chamber. ‘Believe me, you could use a good kiss. You’ve been so busy giving orders, you’ve forgotten how to be a woman. If you’d have let go for a moment, I could have helped you. But it’s too late now, sweetheart. Your big opportunity is flying out of here.’

‘I think I can survive,’ she said, obviously irked.

‘Good luck!’

‘You don’t even care if the-‘

He knew what she was going to say and didn’t let her finish. ‘Spare me, please!’ he interrupted. ‘Don’t tell me about the Rebellion again. It’s all you think about. You’re as cold as this planet.’

‘And you think you’re the one to apply some heat?’

‘Sure, if I were interested. But I don’t think it’d be much fun.’ With that, Han stepped back and looked at her again, appraising her coolly. ‘We’ll meet again,’ he said. ‘Maybe by then you’ll have warmed up a little.’ Her expression had changed again. Han had seen killers with kinder eyes.

‘You have all the breeding of a Bantha,’ she snarled, ‘but not as much class. Enjoy your trip, hot shot!’ Princess Leia quickly turned away from Han and hurried down the corridor.

= II =

THE temperature on the surface of Hoth had dropped. But despite the frigid air, the Imperial Probe Droid continued its leisurely drift above the snow-swept fields and hills, its extended sensors still reaching in all directions for life signs.

The robot’s heat sensors suddenly reacted. It had found a heat source in the vicinity, and warmth was a good indication of life. The head swiveled on its axis, the sensitive eyelike blisters noting the direction from which the heat source originated. Automatically the probe robot adjusted its speed and began to move at maximum velocity over the icy fields.

The insectlike machine slowed only when it neared a mound of snow bigger than the probe droid itself. The robot’s scanners made note of the mound’s size – nearly one-point-eight meters in height and an enormous six meters long. But the mound’s size was of only secondary importance. What was truly astounding, if a surveillance machine could ever be astounded, was the amount of heat radiating from beneath the mound. The creature under that snowy hill must surely be well protected against the cold.

A thin blue-white beam of light shot from one of the probe robot’s appendages, its intense heat boring into the white mound and scattering gleaming snow flecks in all directions.

The mound began to shiver, then to quake. Whatever existed beneath it was deeply irritated by the robot’s probing laser beam.

Snow began to fall away from the mound in sizable clumps when, at one end, two eyes showed through the mass of white.

Huge yellow eyes peered like twin points of fire at the mechanical creature that continued to blast away with its painful beams. The eyes burned with primeval hatred for the thing that had interrupted its slumber.

The mound shook again, with a roar that nearly destroyed the probe droid’s auditory sensors. It zoomed back several meters, widening the space between it and the creature. The droid had never before encountered a Wampa Ice Creature; its computers advised that the beast be dealt with expeditiously.

The droid made an internal adjustment to regulate the potency of its laser beam. Less than a moment later the beam was at maximum intensity. The machine aimed the laser at the creature, enveloping it in a great flaming and smoking cloud. Seconds later the few remaining particles of the Wampa were swept away by the icy winds.

The smoke disappeared, leaving behind no physical evidence -save for a large depression in the snow – that an Ice Creature had ever been there.

But its existence had been properly recorded in the memory of the probe droid, which was already continuing on its programmed mission.

The roars of another Wampa Ice Creature finally awakened the battered young Rebel commander.

Luke’s head was spinning, aching, perhaps exploding for all he could tell. With painstaking effort he brought his vision into focus, discerning that he was in an ice gorge, its jagged walls reflecting the fading twilight.

He suddenly realized he was hanging upside down, arms dangling and fingertips some thirty centimeters from the snowy floor. His ankles were numb. He craned his neck and saw that his feet were frozen in ice hanging from the ceiling and that the ice was forming on his legs like stalactites. He could feel the frozen mask of his own blood caked on his face where the Wampa Ice Creature had viciously slashed him.

Again Luke heard the bestial moans, louder now as they resounded through the deep and narrow passageway of ice. The roars of the monster were deafening. He wondered which would kill him first, the cold or the fangs and claws of the thing that inhabited the gorge.

I’ve got to free myself, he thought, get free of this ice. His strength had not yet returned fully, but with a determined effort, he pulled himself up and reached for the confining bonds. Still too weak, Luke could not break the ice and fell back into his hanging position, the white floor rushing up at him.

‘Relax,’ he said to himself. ‘Relax.’

The ice walls creaked with the ever-louder bellows of the approaching creature. Its feet crunched on the frigid ground, coming frighteningly nearer. It would not be long before the shaggy white horror would be back and possibly warming the cold young warrior in the darkness of its belly.

Luke’s eyes darted about the gorge, finally spotting the pile of gear he had brought with him on his mission, now lying in a useless, crumpled heap on the floor. The equipment was nearly a full, unattainable meter beyond his grasp. And with that gear was a device that entirely captured his attention – a stout handgrip unit with a pair of small switches and a surmounting metal disk. The object had once belonged to his father, a former Jedi Knight who had been betrayed and murdered by the young Darth Vader. But now it was Luke’s, given him by Ben Kenobi to be wielded with honor against Imperial tyranny.

In desperation Luke tried twisting his aching body, just enough to reach the discarded lightsaber. But the freezing cold coursing through his body slowed him down and weakened him. Luke was beginning to resign himself to his fate as he heard the snarling Wampa Ice Creature approaching. His last feelings of hope were nearly gone when he sensed the presence.

But it was not the presence of the white giant that dominated this gorge.

Rather, it was that soothing spiritual presence which occasionally visited Luke in moments of stress or danger. The presence that had first come to him only after old Ben, once again in his Jedi role of Obi-Wan Kenobi, vanished into a crumple of his own dark robes after being cut down by Darth Vader’s lightsaber. The presence that was sometimes like a familiar voice, an almost silent whisper that spoke directly to Luke’s mind.

‘Luke.’ The whisper was there again, hauntingly. ‘Think of the lightsaber in your hand.’

The words made Luke’s already aching head throb. Then he felt a sudden resurgence of strength, a feeling of confidence that urged him to continue fighting despite his apparently hopeless situation. His eyes fixed upon the lightsaber. His hand reached out painfully, the freezing in his limbs already taking its toll. He squeezed his eyes shut in concentration. But the weapon was still beyond his reach. He knew that the lightsaber would require more than just struggling to reach.

‘Gotta relax,’ Luke told himself, ‘relax …’

Luke’s mind whirled as he heard the words of his disembodied guardian. ‘Let the Force flow, Luke.’

The Force!

Luke saw the inverted gorillalike image of the Wampa Ice Creature looming, its raised arms ending in enormous gleaming claws. He could see the apish face for the first time now, and shivered at the sight of the beast’s ramlike horns, the quivering lower jaw with its protruding fangs.

But then the warrior divorced the creature from his thoughts. He stopped struggling for his weapon, his body relaxed and went limp, allowing his spirit to be receptive to his teacher’s suggestion. Already he could feel coursing through him that energy field generated by all living beings, that bound the very universe together.

As Kenobi had taught him, the Force was within Luke to use as he saw fit.

The Wampa Ice Creature spread its black, hooked claws and lumbered toward the hanging youth. Suddenly the lightsaber, as if by magic, sprang to Luke’s hand. Instantly, he depressed a colored button on the weapon, releasing a bladelike beam that quickly severed his icy bonds.

As Luke, weapon in hand, dropped to the floor, the monstrous figure towering over him took a cautious step backward. The beast’s sulfurous eyes blinked incredulously at the humming lightshaft, a sight baffling to its primitive brain.

Though it was difficult to move, Luke jumped to his feet and waved his lightsaber at the snow-white mass of muscle and hair, forcing it back a step, another step. Bringing the weapon down, Luke cut through the monster’s hide with the blade of light. The Wampa Ice Creature shrieked, its hideous roar of agony shaking the gorge walls. It turned and hastily lumbered out of the gorge, its white bulk blending with the distant terrain.

The sky was already noticeably darker, and with the encroaching darkness came the colder winds. The Force was with Luke, but even that mysterious power could not warm him now. Every step he took as he stumbled out of the gorge was more difficult than the last. Finally, his vision dimming as rapidly as the daylight, Luke stumbled down an embankment of snow and was unconscious before he even reached the bottom.

In the subsurface main hangar dock, Chewie was getting the Millennium Falcon ready for takeoff. He looked up from his work to see a rather curious pair of figures that had just appeared from around a nearby corner to mingle with the usual Rebel activity in the hangar.

Neither of these figures was human, although one of them had a humanoid shape and gave the impression of a man in knightly golden armor. His movements were precise, almost too precise to be human, as he clanked stiffly through the corridor. His companion required no manlike legs for locomotion, for he was doing quite well rolling his shorter, barrel-like body along on miniature wheels.

The shorter of the two droids was beeping and whistling excitedly.

‘It is not my fault, you malfunctioning tin can,’ the tall, anthropomorphic droid stated, gesturing with a metallic hand. ‘I did not ask you to turn on the thermal heater. I merely commented that it was freezing in her chamber. But it’s supposed to be freezing. How are we going to get all her things dried out?… Ah! Here we are.’

See Threepio, the golden droid in human shape, paused to focus his optical sensors on the docked Millennium Falcon.

The other robot, Artoo Detoo, retracted his wheels and frontal leg, and rested his stout metal body on the ground. The smaller droid’s sensors were reading the familiar figures of Han Solo and his Wookiee companion as those two continued the work of replacing the freighter’s central lifters.

‘Master Solo, sir,’ Threepio called, the only one of the robotic twosome equipped with an imitation human voice. ‘Might I have a word with you?’

Han was not particularly in a mood to be disturbed, especially by this fastidious droid. ‘What is it?’

‘Mistress Leia has been trying to reach you on the communicator,’ Threepio informed him. ‘It must be malfunctioning.’

But Han knew that it was not. ‘I shut it off,’ he said sharply as he continued to work on his ship. ‘What does her royal holiness want?’

Threepio’s auditory sensors identified the disdain in Han’s voice but did not understand it. The robot mimicked a human gesture as he added, ‘She is looking for Master Luke and assumed he would be here with you. No one seems to know-‘Luke’s not back yet?’ Immediately Han became concerned. He could see that the sky beyond the ice cavern entrance had grown considerably darker since he and Chewbacca had begun to repair the Millennium Falcon. Han knew just how severely the temperatures dropped on the surface after nightfall and how deadly the winds could be.

In a flash he jumped off the Falcon’s lift, not even looking back toward the Wookiee. ‘Bolt it down, Chewie. Officer of the Deck!’ Han yelled, then brought his comlink to his mouth and asked, ‘Security Control, has Commander Skywalker reported in yet?’ A negative reply brought a scowl to Han’s face.

The deck sergeant and his aide hurried up to Solo in response to his summons.

‘Is Commander Skywalker back yet?’ Han asked, tension in his voice.

‘I haven’t seen him,’ the deck sergeant replied. ‘It’s possible he came in through the south entrance.’

‘Check on it!’ Solo snapped, though he was not in an official position to give commands. ‘It’s urgent.’

As the deck sergeant and his aide turned and rushed down the corridor, Artoo emitted a concerned whistle that rose inquiringly in pitch.

‘I don’t know, Artoo,’ Threepio answered, stiffly turning his upper torso and head in Han’s direction. ‘Sir, might I inquire what’s going on?’

Anger welled up inside Han as he grunted back at the robot, ‘Go tell your precious princess that Luke is dead unless he shows up soon.’

Artoo began to whistle hysterically at Solo’s grim prediction and his now-frightened golden partner exclaimed, ‘Oh, no!’

The main tunnel was filled with activity when Han Solo rushed in. He saw a pair of Rebel troopers employing all their physical strength to restrain a nervous Tauntaun that was trying to break free.

From the opposite end, the deck officer rushed into the corridor, his eyes darting around the chamber until he had spotted Han. ‘Sir,’ he said frantically, ‘Commander Skywalker hasn’t come through the south entrance. He might have forgotten to check in.’

‘Not likely,’ Han snapped. ‘Are the speeders ready?’

‘Not yet,’ the deck officer answered. ‘Adapting them to the cold is proving difficult. Maybe by morning-Han cut him off. There wasn’t any time to waste on machines that could and probably would break down. ‘We’ll have to go out on Tauntauns. I’ll take sector four.’

‘The temperature is falling too rapidly.’

‘You bet it is,’ Han growled, ‘and Luke’s out in it.’

The other officer volunteered, ‘I’ll cover sector twelve. Have control set screen alpha.’

But Han knew there was not time for control to get its surveillance cameras operating, not with Luke probably dying somewhere on the desolate plains above. He pushed his way through the assemblage of Rebel troops and took the reins of one of the trained Tauntauns, leaping onto the creature’s back.

‘The night storms will start before any of you can reach the first marker,’ the deck officer warned.

‘Then I’ll see you in hell,’ grunted Han, tugging the reins of his mount and maneuvering the animal out of the cave.

Snow was falling heavily as Han Solo raced his Tauntaun through the wilderness. Night was near and the winds were howling fiercely, piercing his heavy clothes. He knew that he would be as useless as an icicle to Luke unless he found the young warrior soon.

The Tauntaun was already feeling the effects of the temperature drop. Not even its layers of insulating fat or the matted gray fur could protect it from the elements after nightfall. Already the beast was wheezing, its breathing becoming increasingly labored.

Han prayed that the snow-lizard wouldn’t drop, at least not until he had located Luke.

He drove his mount harder, forcing it on across the icy plains.

Another figure was moving across the snow, its metal body hovering above the frozen ground.

The Imperial Probe Droid paused briefly in midflight, its sensors twitching.

Then, satisfied with its findings, the robot gently lowered itself, coming to rest on the ground. Like spider legs, several probes separated from the metal hull, dislodging some of the snow that had settled there.

Something began to take shape around the robot, a pulsating glow that gradually covered the machine as if with a transparent dome. Quickly this force field solidified, repelling the blowing snow that brushed over the droid’s hull.

After a moment the glow faded, and the blowing snow soon formed a perfect dome of white, completely concealing the droid and its protective force field.

The Tauntaun was racing at maximum speed, certainly too fast considering the distance it had traveled and the unbearable frigid air. No longer wheezing, it had begun moaning pitifully, and its legs were becoming more and more unsteady. Han felt sorry about the Tauntaun’s pain, but at present the creature’s life was only secondary to that of his friend Luke.

It was becoming difficult for Han to see through the thickening snowfall. Desperate, he searched for some interruption in the eternal plains, some distant spot that might actually be Luke. But there was nothing to see other than the darkening expanses of snow and ice.

Yet there was a sound.

Han drew the reins in, bringing the Tauntaun to an abrupt halt on the plain. Solo could not be certain, but there seemed to be some sound other than the howling of the winds that whipped past him. He strained to look in the direction of the sound.

Then he spurred his Tauntaun, forcing it to gallop across the snow-swept field.

Luke could have been a corpse, food for the scavengers, by the time the light of dawn returned. But somehow he was still alive, though barely, and struggling to stay that way even with the night storms violently assaulting him. Luke painfully pulled himself upright from the snow, only to be blasted back down by the freezing gale. As he fell he considered the irony of it all – a farm boy from Tatooine maturing to battle the Death Star, now perishing alone in a frozen alien wasteland.

It took all of Luke’s remaining strength to drag himself a half meter before finally collapsing, sinking into the ever-deepening drifts. ‘I can’t…’ he said, though no one could hear his words.

But someone, though still unseen, had heard.

‘You must.’ The words vibrated in Luke’s mind. ‘Luke, look at me!’

Luke could not ignore that command; the power of those softly spoken words was too great.

With a great effort, Luke lifted his head and saw what he thought was a hallucination. In front of him, apparently unaffected by the cold and still clad only in the shabby robes he had worn in the hot desert of Tatooine, stood Ben Kenobi.

Luke wanted to call out to him, but he was speechless.

The apparition spoke with the same gentle authority Ben had always used with the young man. ‘You must survive, Luke.’

The young commander found the strength to move his lips again. ‘I’m cold… so cold …’

‘You must go to the Dagobah system,’ the spectral figure of Ben Kenobi instructed. ‘You will learn from Yoda, the Jedi Master, the one who taught me.’

Luke listened, then reached to touch the ghostly figure. ‘Ben … Ben…” he groaned.

The figure remained unmoved by Luke’s efforts to reach it. ‘Luke,’ it spoke again, ‘you’re our only hope.’

Our only hope.

Luke was confused. Yet before he could gather the strength to ask for an explanation, the figure began to fade. And when every trace of the apparition had passed from his sight, Luke thought he saw the approach of a Tauntaun with a human rider on its back. The snow-lizard was approaching, its gait unsteady. The rider was still too far away, too obscured by the storm for identification.

In desperation the young Rebel commander called out, ‘Ben?!’ before again dropping off into unconsciousness.

The snow-lizard was barely able to stand on its saurian hind legs when Han Solo reined it to a stop and dismounted.

Han looked with horror at the snow-covered, almost frozen form lying as if dead at his feet.

‘Come on, buddy,’ he appealed to Luke’s inert figure, immediately forgetting his own nearly frozen body, ‘you aren’t dead yet. Give me a signal here.’

Han could detect no sign of life, and noticed that Luke’s face, nearly covered with snow, was savagely torn. He rubbed at the youth’s face, being careful not to touch the drying wounds. ‘Don’t do this, Luke. It’s not your time.’

Finally a slight response. A low moan, barely audible over the winds, was strong enough to send a warm glow through Han’s own shivering body. He grinned with relief. ‘I knew you wouldn’t leave me out here all alone! We’ve got to get you out of here.’

Knowing that Luke’s salvation – and his own – lay in the speed of the Tauntaun, Han moved toward the beast, carrying the young warrior limply in his arms. But before he could drape the unconscious form over the animal’s back, the snow-lizard gave an agonized roar, then fell into a shaggy gray heap on the snow. Laying his companion down, Han rushed to the side of the fallen creature. The Tauntaun made one final sound, not a roar or bellow but only a sickly rasp. Then the beast was silent.

Solo gripped the Tauntaun’s hide, his numbed fingers searching for even the slightest indication of life. ‘Deader than a Triton moon,’ he said, knowing that Luke did not hear a word. ‘We haven’t got much time.’

Resting Luke’s motionless form against the belly of the dead snow-lizard, Han proceeded to work. It might be something of a sacrilege, he mused, using a Jedi Knight’s favorite weapon like this, but right now Luke’s lightsaber was the most efficient and precise tool to cut through the thick skin of a Tauntaun.

At first the weapon felt strange in his hand, but momentarily he was cutting the animal’s carcass from hairy head to scaly hind paws. Han winced at the foul odor that rose from the steaming incision. There were few things he could remember that stank like a snow-lizard’s innards. Without deliberation he tossed the slippery entrails into the snow.

When the animal’s corpse had been entirely eviscerated, Han shoved his friend inside the warm, hair-covered skin. ‘I know this doesn’t smell so good, Luke, but it’ll keep you from freezing. I’m sure this Tauntaun wouldn’t hesitate if it were the other way around.’

From the body of the snow-lizard, another blast of entrail-stench rose out of the disemboweled cavity. ‘Whew!’ Han almost gagged. ‘It’s just as well you’re out cold, pal.’

There wasn’t much time left to do what had to be done. Han’s freezing hands went to the supply pack strapped to the Tauntaun’s back and rummaged through the Rebel-issue items until he located the shelter container.

Before unpacking it, he spoke into his comlink. ‘Echo Base, do you copy?’

No response.

‘This comlink is useless!’

The sky had darkened ominously and the winds blew violently, making even breathing close to impossible. Han fought to open the shelter container and stiffly began to construct the one piece of Rebel equipment that might protect them both – if only for a short while longer.

‘If I don’t get this shelter up fast,’ he grumbled to himself, ‘Jabba won’t need those bounty hunters.’

= III =

ARTOO DETOO stood just outside the entrance to the secret Rebel ice hangar, dusted with a layer of snow that had settled over his plug-shaped body. His inner timing mechanisms knew he had waited here a long time and his optical sensors told him that the sky was dark.

But the R2 unit was concerned only with his built-in probe-sensors that were still sending signals across the ice fields. His long and earnest sensorsearch for the missing Luke Skywalker and Han Solo had not turned up a thing.

The stout droid began beeping nervously when Threepio approached him, plodding stiffly through the snow.

‘Artoo,’ the gold-colored robot inclined the upper half of his form at the hip joints, ‘there’s nothing more you can do. You must come inside.’ Threepio straightened to his full height again, simulating a human shiver as the night winds howled past his gleaming hull. ‘Artoo, my joints are freezing up. Will you hurry … please?…’ But before he could finish his own sentence, Threepio was hurrying back toward the hangar entrance.

Hoth’s sky was then entirely black with night, and Princess Leia Organa stood inside the Rebel base entrance, maintaining a worried vigil. She shivered in the night wind as she tried to see into the Hoth darkness. Waiting near a deeply concerned Major Derlin, her mind was somewhere out on the ice fields.

The giant Wookiee sat nearby, his maned head lifting quickly from his hairy hands as the two droids Threepio and Artoo reentered the hangar.

Threepio was humanly distraught. ‘Artoo has not been able to pick up any signals,’ he reported, fretting, ‘although he feels his range is probably too limited to cause us to give up hope.’ Still, very little confidence could be detected in Threepio’s artificial voice.

Leia gave the taller droid a nod of acknowledgment, but did not speak. Her thoughts were occupied with the pair of missing heroes. Most disturbing to her was that she found her mind focused on one of the two: a dark-haired Corellian whose words were not always to be taken literally.

As the princess kept watch, Major Derlin turned to acknowledge a Rebel lieutenant reporting in. ‘All patrols are now in except Solo and Skywalker, sir.’

The major looked over at Princess Leia. ‘Your Highness,’ he said, his voice weighty with regret, ‘nothing more can be done tonight. The temperature is dropping fast. The shield doors must be closed. I’m sorry.’ Derlin waited a moment then addressed the lieutenant. ‘Close the doors.’

The Rebel officer turned to carry out Derlin’s order and immediately the chamber of ice seemed to drop even more in temperature as the mournful Wookiee howled his grief.

‘The speeders should be ready in the morning,’ the major said to Leia. ‘They’ll make the search easier.’

Not really expecting an affirmative reply, Leia asked, ‘Is there any chance of their surviving until morning?’

‘Slim,’ Major Derlin answered with grim honesty. ‘But yes, there’s a chance.’

In response to the major’s words, Artoo began to operate the miniature computers inside his barrellike metal body, taking only moments to juggle numerous sets of mathematical computations, and climaxing his figurings with a series of triumphant beeps.

‘Ma’am,’ Threepio interpreted, ‘Artoo says the chances against survival are seven hundred twenty-five to one.’ Then, tilting toward the shorter robot, the protocol droid grumbled, ‘Actually, I don’t think we needed to know that.’

No one responded to Threepio’s translation. For several prolonged moments there was a solemn silence, broken only by the echoing clang of metal slamming against metal: the huge doors of the Rebel base were closed for the night. It was as if some heartless deity had officially severed the assembled group from the two men out on the ice plains and had, with a metallic bang, announced their deaths.

Chewbacca let out another suffering howl.

And a silent prayer, often spoken on an erstwhile world called Alderaan, crept into Leia’s thoughts.

The sun that was creeping over Hoth’s northern horizon was relatively dim, but its light was enough to shed some warmth on the planet’s icy surface. The light crawled across the rolling hills of snow, fought to reach the darker recesses of the icy gorges, then finally came to rest on what must have been the only perfect white mound on the entire world.

So perfect was the snow-covered mound that it must have owed its existence to some power other than Nature. Then, as the sky grew steadily brighter, this mound began to hum. Anyone observing the mound now would have been startled as the snow dome seemed to erupt, sending its snowy outer covering skyward in a great burst of white particles. A droning machine began pulling back its retractable sensor arms, and its awesome bulk slowly rose from its frozen white bed.

The probe robot paused briefly in the windy air, then continued on its morning mission across the snow-covered plains.

Something else had invaded the morning air of the ice world – a relatively small, snub-nosed craft, with dark cockpit windows and laser guns mounted on each side. The Rebel snowspeeder was heavily armored and designed for warfare near the planet’s surface. But this morning the small craft was on a reconnaissance mission, racing above the expansive white landscape and arcing over the contours of the snowdrifts.

Although the snowspeeder was designed for a two-man crew, Zev was the ship’s only occupant. His eyes took in a panoramic scan of the desolate stretches below, and he prayed that he would find the objects of his search before he went snowblind.

Presently he heard a low beeping signal.

‘Echo Base,’ he shouted jubilantly into his cockpit comlink, ‘I’ve got something! Not much, but it could be a sign of life. Sector four-six-one-four by eight-eight-two. I’m closing in.’

Frantically working the controls of his ship, Zev reduced its speed slightly and banked the craft over a snowdrift. He welcomed the sudden G-force pressing him against his seat and headed the snowspeeder in the direction of the faint signal.

As the white infinity of Hoth’s terrain streaked under him, the Rebel pilot switched his comlink to a new frequency. ‘Echo Three, this is Rogue Two. Do you copy? Commander Skywalker, this is Rogue Two.’

The only reply that came through his comlink receiver was static.

But then he heard a voice, a very distant-sounding voice, fighting its way through the crackling noise. ‘Nice of you guys to drop by. Hope we didn’t get you up too early.’

Zev welcomed the characteristic cynicism in Han Solo’s voice. He switched his transmitter back to the hidden Rebel base. ‘Echo Base, this is Rogue Two,’ he reported, his voice suddenly rising in pitch. ‘I found them. Repeat…’

As he spoke, the pilot pulled in a fine-tune fix on the signals winking on his cockpit monitor screens. Then he further reduced the speed of his craft, bringing it down close enough to the planet’s surface so that he could better see a small object standing out against the fleecy plains.

The object, a portable Rebel-issue shelter, sat atop a snowdrift. On the shelter’s windward side was a hard-packed layer of white. And resting gingerly against the upper part of the snowdrift was a makeshift radio antenna.

But a more welcome sight than any of this was the familiar human figure standing in front of the snow shelter, frantically waving his arms at the snowspeeder.

As Zev dipped his craft for a landing, he felt overwhelmingly grateful that at least one of the warriors he had been sent out to find was still alive.

Only a thick glass window separated the battered, near-frozen body of Luke Skywalker from five of his watchful friends.

Han Solo, who appreciated the relative warmth of the Rebel medical center, was standing beside Leia, his Wookiee copilot, Artoo Detoo, and See Threepio. Han exhaled with relief. He knew that, despite the grim atmosphere of the chamber enclosing him, the young commander was finally out of danger and in the best of mechanical hands.

Clad only in white shorts, Luke hung in a vertical position inside a transparent cylinder with a combination breath mask and microphone covering his nose and mouth. The surgeon droid, Too-Onebee, was attending to the youth with the skill of the finest humanoid doctors. He was aided by his medical assistant droid, FX-7, which looked like nothing more than a metal-capped set of cylinders, wires, and appendages. Gracefully, the surgeon droid worked a switch that brought a gelatinous red fluid pouring down over his human patient. This bacta, Han knew, could work miracles, even with patients in such dire shape as Luke.

As the bubbling slime encapsulated his body, Luke began to thrash about and rave deliriously. ‘Watch out,’ he moaned, snow creatures. Dangerous … Yoda … go to Yoda … only hope.’

Han had not the slightest idea what his friend was raving about. Chewbacca, also perplexed by the youth’s babbling, expressed himself with an interrogative Wookiee bark.

‘He doesn’t make sense to me either, Chewie,’ Han replied.

Threepio commented hopefully, ‘I do hope he’s all there, if you take my meaning. It would be most unfortunate if Master Luke were to develop a short circuit.’

The kid ran into something,’ Han observed matter-of-factly, ‘and it wasn’t just the cold.’

‘It’s those creatures he keeps talking about,’ Leia said, looking at the grimly staring Solo. ‘We’ve doubled the security, Han,’ she began, tentatively trying to thank him, ‘I don’t know how-‘Forget it,’ he said brusquely. Right now he was concerned only with his friend in the red bacta fluid.

Luke’s body sloshed through the brightly colored substance, the bacta’s healing properties by now taking effect. For a while it appeared as if Luke were trying to resist the curative flow of the translucent muck. Then, at last, he gave up his mumbling and relaxed, succumbing to the bacta’s powers.

Too-Onebee turned away from the human who had been entrusted to his care. He angled his skull-shaped head to gaze at Han and the others through the window. ‘Commander Skywalker has been in dormo-shock but is responding well to the bacta,’ the robot announced, his commanding, authoritative voice heard distinctly through the glass. ‘He is now out of danger.’

The surgeon robot’s words immediately wiped away the tension that had seized the group on the other side of the window. Leia sighed in relief, and Chewbacca grunted his approval of Too-Onebee’s treatment.

Luke had no way of estimating how long he had been delirious. But now he was in full command of his mind and senses. He sat up on his bed in the Rebel medical center. What a relief, he thought, to be breathing real air again, however cold it might be.

A medical droid was removing the protective pad from his healing face. His eyes were uncovered and he was beginning to perceive the face of someone standing by his bed. Gradually the smiling image of Princess Leia came into focus. She gracefully moved toward him and gently brushed his hair out of his eyes.

‘The bacta are growing well,’ she said as she looked at his healing wounds. ‘The scars should be gone in a day or so. Does it still hurt you?’

Across the room, the door banged open. Artoo beeped a cheerful greeting as he rolled toward Luke, and Threepio clanked noisily toward Luke’s bed. ‘Master Luke, it’s good to see you functional again.’

Thanks, Threepio.’

Artoo emitted a series of happy beeps and whistles.

‘Artoo expresses his relief also,’ Threepio translated helpfully.

Luke was certainly grateful for the robots’ concern. But before he could reply to either of the droids, he met with yet another interruption.

‘Hi, kid,’ Han Solo greeted him boisterously as he and Chewbacca burst into the medical center.

The Wookiee growled a friendly greeting.

‘You look strong enough to wrestle a Gundark,’ Han observed.

Luke felt that strong, and felt grateful to his friend. Thanks to you.’

That’s two you owe me, junior.’ Han gave the princess a wide, devilish grin. ‘Well, Your Worship,’ he said mockingly, ‘it looks like you arranged to keep me close by for a while longer.’

‘I had nothing to do with it,’ Leia said hotly, annoyed at Han’s vanity. ‘General Rieekan thinks it’s dangerous for any ships to leave the system until the generators are operational.’

‘That makes a good story. But I think you just can’t bear to let me out of your sight.’

‘I don’t know where you get your delusions, laser brains,’ she retorted.

Chewbacca, amused by this verbal battle between two of the strongest human wills he had ever encountered, let out a roaring Wookiee laugh.

‘Laugh it up, fuzz ball,’ Han said goodnaturedly. ‘You didn’t see us alone in the south passage.’

Until now, Luke had scarcely listened to this lively exchange. Han and the princess had argued frequently enough in the past. But that reference to the south passage sparked his curiosity, and he looked at Leia for an explanation.

‘She expressed her true feeling for me,’ Han continued, delighting in the rosy flush that appeared on the princess’s cheeks. ‘Come on, Your Highness, you’ve already forgotten.’

‘Why, you low-down, stuck-up, half-witted, scruffy-looking nerf-herder…’ she sputtered in fury.

‘Who’s scruffy-looking?’ he grinned. ‘I tell ya, sweetheart, I must’ve hit pretty close to the mark to get you hoppin’ like this. Doesn’t it look that way to you, Luke?’

‘Yeah,’ he said, staring at the princess incredulously, ‘it does … kind of.’

Leia looked over at Luke with a strange mixture of emotions showing on her flushed face. Something vulnerable, almost child like, was reflected in her eyes for a moment. And then the tough mask fell again.

‘Oh, it does, does it?’ she said. ‘Well, I guess you don’t understand everything about women, do you?’

Luke agreed silently. He agreed even more when in the next moment Leia leaned over and kissed him firmly on the lips. Then she turned on her heel and marched across the room, slamming the door behind her. Everyone in the room – human, Wookiee, and droid – looked at one another, speechless.

In the distance, a warning alarm blared through the subterranean corridors.

General Rieekan and his head controller were conferring in the Rebel command center when Han Solo and Chewbacca burst into the room. Princess Leia and Threepio, who had been listening to the general and his officer, turned in anticipation at their approach.

A warning signal blared across the chamber from the huge console located behind Rieekan and monitored by Rebel control officers.

‘General,’ the sensor controller called.

Grimly attentive, General Rieekan watched the console screens. Suddenly he saw a flashing signal that had not been there a moment before. ‘Princess,’ he said, ‘I think we have a visitor.’

Leia, Han, Chewbacca, and Threepio gathered around the general and watched the beeping monitor screens.

‘We’ve picked up something outside the base in Zone Twelve. It’s moving east,’ said Rieekan.

‘Whatever it is, it’s metal,’ the sensor controller observed.

Leia’s eyes widened in surprise. ‘Then it can’t be one of those creatures that attacked Luke.’

‘Could it be ours?’ Han asked. ‘A speeder?’

The sensor controller shook his head. ‘No, there’s no signal.’ Then came a sound from another monitor. ‘Wait, something very weak…’

Walking as rapidly as his stiff joints allowed, Threepio approached the console. His auditory sensors tuned in the strange signals. ‘I must say, sir, I’m fluent in over sixty million forms of communication, but this is something new. Must be in a code or-‘

Just then the voice of a Rebel trooper cut in through the console’s comlink speaker. ‘This is Echo Station Three-Eight. Unidentified object is in our scope. It’s just over the ridge. We should have visual contact in about-‘ Without warning the voice filled with fear. ‘What the-? Oh, no!’

A burst of radio static followed, then the transmission broke off completely.

Han frowned. ‘Whatever it is,’ he said, ‘it isn’t friendly. Let’s have a look. Come on, Chewie.’

Even before Han and Chewbacca were out of the chamber, General Rieekan had dispatched Rogues Ten and Eleven to Station Three-Eight.

The mammoth Imperial Star Destroyer occupied a position of deadly prominence in the Emperor’s fleet. The sleekly elongated ship was larger and even more ominous than the five wedge-shaped Imperial Star Destroyers guarding it. Together these six cruisers were the most dreaded and devastating warships in the galaxy, capable of reducing to cosmic scrap anything that strayed too close to their weapons.

Flanking the Star Destroyers were a number of smaller fighter ships and, darting about this great space armada, were the infamous TIE fighters.

Supreme confidence reigned in the heart of every crew member in this Imperial death squadron, especially among the personnel on the monstrous central Star Destroyer. But something also blazed within their souls. Fear – fear of merely the sound of the familiar heavy footsteps as they echoed through the enormous ship. Crew members dreaded these footfalls and shuddered whenever they were heard approaching, bringing their much feared, but much respected leader.

Towering above them in his black cloak and concealing black headgear, Darth Vader, Dark Lord of the Sith, entered the main control deck, and the men around him fell silent. In what seemed to be an endless moment, no sounds except those from the ship’s control boards and the loud wheezes coming from the ebony figure’s metal breath screen were to be heard.

As Darth Vader watched the endless array of stars, Captain Piett rushed across the wide bridge of the ship, carrying a message for the squat, evil-looking Admiral Ozzel, who was stationed on the bridge. ‘I think we’ve found something, Admiral,’ he announced nervously, looking from Ozzel to the Dark Lord.

‘Yes, Captain?’ The admiral was a supremely confident man who felt relaxed in the presence of his cloaked superior.

‘The report we have is only a fragment, from a probe droid in the Hoth system. But it’s the best lead we’ve had in-‘We have had thousands of probe droids searching the galaxy,’ Ozzel broke in angrily. ‘I want proof, not leads. I don’t intend to continue to chase around from one side of-‘

Abruptly the figure in black approached the two and interrupted. ‘You found something?’ he asked, his voice somewhat distorted by the breath mask.

Captain Piett respectfully gazed at his master, who loomed above him like a black-robed, omnipotent god. ‘Yes, sir,’ Piett said slowly, choosing his words with caution. ‘We have visuals. The system is supposed to be devoid of human forms …’

But Vader was no longer listening to the captain. His masked face turned toward an image beamed on one of the viewscreens – an image of a small squadron of Rebel snowspeeders streaking above the white fields.

‘That’s it,’ Darth Vader boomed without further deliberation.

‘My lord,’ Admiral Ozzel protested, ‘there are so many uncharted settlements. It could be smugglers-‘That is the one!’ the former Jedi Knight insisted, clenching a black-gloved fist. ‘And Skywalker is with them. Bring in the patrol ships, Admiral, and set your course for the Hoth system.’ Vader looked toward an officer wearing a green uniform with matching cap. ‘General Veers,’ the Dark Lord addressed him, ‘prepare your men.’

As soon as Darth Vader had spoken, his men set about to launch his fearful plan.

The Imperial Probe Droid raised a large antenna from its buglike head and sent out a piercing, high-frequency signal. The robot’s scanners had reacted to a lifeform hidden behind a great dune of snow and noted the appearance of a brown Wookiee head and the sound of a deep-throated growl. The blasters that had been built into the probe robot took aim at the furry giant. But before the robot had a chance to fire, a red beam from a hand blaster exploded from behind the Imperial Probe Droid and nicked its darkly finished hull. As he ducked behind a large snow dune, Han Solo noticed Chewbacca still hidden, and then watched as the robot spun around in midair to face him. So far the ruse was working and now he was the target. Han had barely moved out of range as the floating machine fired, blasting chunks of snow from the edge of his dune. He fired again, hitting it square on with the beam of his weapon. Then he heard a high-pitched whine coming from the deadly machine, and in an instant the Imperial Probe Droid burst into a billion or more flaming pieces.

‘… I’m afraid there’s not much left,’ Han said over the comlink as he concluded his report to the underground base.

Princess Leia and General Rieekan were still manning the console where they had maintained constant communication with Han. ‘What is it?’ Leia asked.

‘Droid of some kind,’ he answered. ‘I didn’t hit it that hard. It must have had a self-destruct.’

Leia paused as she considered this unwelcome piece of information. ‘An Imperial droid,’ she said, betraying some trepidation.

‘If it was,’ Han warned, ‘the Empire surely knows we’re here.’

General Rieekan shook his head slowly. ‘We’d better start to evacuate the planet.’

= IV =

SIX ominous shapes appeared in the black space of the Hoth system and loomed like vast demons of destruction, ready to unleash the furies of their Imperial weapons. Inside the largest of the six Imperial Star Destroyers, Darth Vader sat alone in a small spherical room. A single shaft of light gleamed on his black helmet as he sat motionless in his raised meditation chamber.

As General Veers approached, the sphere opened slowly, the upper half lifting like a jagged-toothed mechanical jaw. To Veers, the dark figure seated inside the mouthlike cocoon hardly seemed alive, though a powerful aura of sheer evil emanated from him, sending a chilling fear through the officer.

Uncertain of his own courage, Veers took a step forward. He had a message to deliver but felt prepared to wait for hours if necessary rather than disturb Vader’s meditation.

But Vader spoke immediately. ‘What is it, Veers?’

‘My lord,’ the general replied, choosing each word with care, ‘the fleet has moved out of light-speed. Corn-Scan has detected an energy field protecting an area of the sixth planet in the Hoth system. The field is strong enough to deflect any bombardment.’

Vader stood, rising to his full two-meter height, his cloak swaying against the floor. ‘So, the Rebel scum are alerted to our presence.’ Furious, he clenched his black-gloved hands into fists. ‘Admiral Ozzel came out of light-speed too close to the system.’

‘He felt surprise was a wiser-‘He’s as clumsy as he is stupid,’ Vader cut in, breathing heavily. ‘A clean bombardment is impossible through their energy field. Prepare your troops for a surface attack.’

With military precision, General Veers turned and marched out of the meditation room, leaving behind an enraged Darth Vader. Alone in the chamber, Vader activated a large viewscreen that showed a brightly lit image of his Star Destroyer’s vast bridge.

Admiral Ozzel, responding to Vader’s summons, stepped forward, his face almost filling the Dark Lord’s monitor screen. There was trepidation in Ozzel’s voice when he announced, ‘Lord Vader, the fleet has moved out of light-speed-But Vader’s reply was addressed to the officer standing slightly behind Ozzel. ‘Captain Piett.’

Knowing better than to delay, Captain Piett stepped forward instantly as the admiral staggered back a step, his hand automatically reaching for his throat.

‘Yes, my lord,’ Piett answered respectfully.

Ozzel began to gag now as his throat, as if in the grip of invisible talons, began to constrict.

‘Make ready to land assault troops beyond the energy field,’ Vader ordered. Then deploy the fleet so that nothing can get off that planet. You’re in command now, Admiral Piett.’

Piett was simultaneously pleased and unsettled by this news. As he turned to carry out the orders, he saw a figure that might someday be himself. Ozzel’s face was hideously contorted as he fought for one final breath of air; then he dropped into a dead heap on the floor.

The Empire had entered the system of Hoth.

Rebel troops rushed to their alert stations as the warning alarms wailed through the ice tunnels. Ground crews and droids of all sizes and makes hurried to perform their assigned duties, responding efficiently to the impending Imperial threat.

The armored snowspeeders were fueled as they waited in attack formation to blast out of the main cavern entranceway. Meanwhile, in the hangar, Princess Leia was addressing a small band of Rebel fighter pilots. ‘The large transport ships will leave as soon as they’re loaded. Only two fighter escorts per ship. The energy shield can only be opened for a split second, so you’ll have to stay very close to the transports.’

Hobbie, a Rebel veteran of many battles, looked at the princess with concern. ‘Two fighters against a Star Destroyer?’

‘The ion cannon will fire several blasts which should destroy any ships in your flight path,’ Leia explained. ‘When you clear the energy shield, you will proceed to the rendezvous point. Good luck.’

Somewhat reassured, Hobbie and the other pilots raced toward their fighter cockpits.

Meanwhile, Han was working frantically to complete welding a lifter on the Millennium Falcon. Finishing quickly, he hopped to the hangar floor and switched on his comlink. ‘All right, Chewie,’ he said to the hairy figure seated at the Falcon’s controls, ‘give it a try.’

Just then Leia walked past, throwing him an angry look. Han looked at her smugly while the freighter’s lifters began to rise off the floor, whereupon the right lifter began to shake erratically, then broke partially loose to swing back down again with an embarrassing crash.

He turned away from Leia, catching only a glimpse of her face as she mockingly raised an eyebrow.

‘Hold it, Chewie,’ Han grunted into his small transmitter.

The Avenger, one of the Imperial armada’s wedgelike Star Destroyers, hovered like a mechanized death angel in the sea of stars outside the Hoth system. As the colossal ship began to move closer to the ice world, the planet became clearly visible through the windows which stretched 100 meters or more across the huge bridge of the warship.

Captain Needa, commander of the Avenger’s crew, gazed out a main port, looking at the planet when a controller came up to him. ‘Sir, Rebel ship coming into our sector.’

‘Good,’ Needa replied with a gleam in his eyes. ‘Our first catch of the day.’

‘Their first target will be the power generators,’ General Rieekan told the princess.

‘First transport Three Zone approaching shield,’ one of the Rebel controllers said, tracking a bright image that could only be an Imperial Star Destroyer.

‘Prepare to open shield,’ a radarman ordered.

‘Stand by, Ion Control,’ another controller said.

A giant metal globe on Hoth’s icy surface rotated into position and angled its great turret gun upward.

‘Fire!’ came the order from General Rieekan.

Suddenly two red beams of destructive energy were released into the cold skies. The beams almost immediately overtook the first of the racing Rebel transport craft, and sped on a direct course toward the huge Star Destroyer.

The twin red bolts struck the enormous ship and blasted its conning tower. Explosions set off by the blast began to rock the great flying fortress, spinning it out of control. The Star Destroyer plunged into deep space as the Rebel transport and its two fighter escorts streaked off to safety.

Luke Skywalker, preparing to depart, pulled on his heavy-weather gear and watched the pilots, gunners, and R2 units hurrying to complete their tasks. He started toward the row of snowspeeders that awaited him. On his way, the young commander paused at the tail section of the Millennium Falcon, where Han Solo and Chewbacca were working frenetically on the right lifter.

‘Chewie,’ Luke called, ‘take care of yourself. And watch over this guy, will ya?’

The Wookiee barked a farewell, gave Luke a big hug, then turned back to his work on the lifters.

The two friends, Luke and Han, stood looking at each other, perhaps for the last time.

‘I hope you make your peace with Jabba,’ Luke said at last.

‘Give ’em hell, kid,’ the Corellian responded lightly.

The young commander began to walk away as memories of exploits shared with Han rushed to his mind. He stopped and looked back at the Falcon, and saw his friend still staring after him. As they gazed at each other for a brief moment, Chewbacca looked up and knew that each was wishing the other the best, wherever their individual fates might take them.

The public address system broke in on their thoughts. ‘First transport is clear,’ a Rebel announcer proclaimed the good news.

At the announcement, a cheer burst from those gathered in the hangar. Luke turned and hurried over to his snowspeeder. When he reached it, Dack, his fresh-faced young gunner, was standing outside the ship waiting for him.

‘How are you feeling, sir?’ Dack asked enthusiastically.

‘Like new, Dack. How about you?’

Dack beamed. ‘Right now I feel like I could take on the whole Empire myself.’

‘Yeah,’ Luke said quietly, ‘I know what you mean.’ Though there were only a few years between them, at that moment Luke felt centuries older.

Princess Leia’s voice came over the address system: ‘Attention, speeder pilots … on the withdrawal signal assemble at South Slope. Your fighters are being prepared for takeoff. Code One Five will be transmitted when evacuation is complete.’

Threepio and Artoo stood amid the rapidly moving personnel as the pilots readied for departure. The golden droid tilted slightly as he turned his sensors on the little R2 robot. The shadows playing over Threepio’s face gave the illusion that his faceplate had lengthened into a frown. ‘Why is it,’ he asked, ‘when things seem to get settled, everything falls apart?’ Leaning forward, he gently patted the other droid’s hull. ‘Take good care of Master Luke. And take good care of yourself.’

Artoo whistled and tooted a good-bye, then turned to roll down the ice corridor. Waving stiffly, Threepio watched as his stout and faithful friend moved away.

To an observer, it may have seemed that Threepio grew misty-eyed, but then it wasn’t the first time he had gotten a drop of oil clogged before his optical sensors.

Finally turning, the human-shaped robot moved off in the opposite direction.

= V =

NO one on Hoth heard the sound. At first, it was simply too distant to carry above the whining winds. Besides, the Rebel troopers, fighting the cold as they prepared for battle, were too busy to really listen.

In the snow trenches, Rebel officers screamed out their orders to make themselves heard above the gale-force winds. Troopers hurried to carry out their commands, running through the snow with heavy bazookalike weapons on their shoulders, and lodging those death rays along the icy rims of the trenches.

The Rebel power generators near the gun towers began popping, buzzing, and crackling with deafening bursts of electrical power -enough to supply the vast underground complex. But above all this activity and noise a strange sound could be heard, an ominous thumping that was coming nearer and was beginning to shake the frozen ground. When it was close enough to attract the attention of an officer, he strained to see through the storm, looking for the source of the heavy, rhythmic pounding. Other men looked up from their work and saw what looked like a number of moving specks. Through the blizzard, the small dots seemed to be advancing at a slow yet steady pace, churning up clouds of snow as they moved toward the Rebel base.

The officer raised his electrobinoculars and focused on the approaching objects. There must have been a dozen of them resolutely advancing through the snow, looking like creatures out of some uncharted past. But they were machines, each of them stalking like enormous ungulates on four jointed legs.

Walkers!

With a shock of recognition, the officer identified the Empire’s All Terrain Armored Transports. Each machine was formidably armed with cannons placed on its foreside like the horns of some prehistoric beast. Moving like mechanized pachyderms, the walkers emitted deadly fire from their turnstile guns and cannons.

The officer grabbed his comlink. ‘Rogue Leader … Incoming! Point Zero Three.’

‘Echo Station Five-Seven, we’re on our way.’

Even as Luke Skywalker replied, an explosion sprayed ice and snow around the officer and his terror-struck men. The walkers already had them within range. The troopers knew their job was to divert attention while the transport ships were launched, but none of the Rebel soldiers was prepared to die under the feet or weapons of these horrible machines.

Brilliant billows of orange and yellow flames exploded from the walker guns. Nervously the Rebel troopers aimed their weapons at the walkers, each soldier feeling icy, unseen fingers pierce his body.

Of the twelve snowspeeders, four took the lead, soaring at full throttle as they moved toward the enemy. One All Terrain Armored Transport machine fired, barely missing the banking craft. A burst of gunfire blew another speeder into a ball of flaming oblivion that lit up the sky.

Luke saw the explosion of his squadron’s first casualty as he looked from his cockpit window. Angrily, Luke fired his ship’s guns at a walker, only to receive a hail of Imperial fire power that shook his speeder in a barrage of flak.

Regaining control of his ship, Luke was joined by another snowspeeder, Rogue Three. They swarmed like insects around the relentlessly stomping walkers, as other speeders continued to exchange fire with the Imperial assault machines. Rogue Leader and Rogue Three flitted alongside the lead walker, then moved away from each other, both banking to the right.

Luke saw the horizon tilt as he maneuvered his speeder between the walker’s jointed legs and soared out from under the monster machine. Bringing his speeder back to horizontal flight, the young commander contacted his companion ship. ‘Rogue Leader to Rogue Three.’

‘Copy, Rogue Leader,’ acknowledged Wedge, the pilot of Rogue Three.

‘Wedge,’ Luke called into his comlink, .’split your squad into pairs.’ Luke’s snowspeeder then banked and turned, while Wedge’s ship moved off in the opposite direction with another Rebel craft.

The walkers, firing all cannons, continued their march across the snow. Inside one of the assault machines two Imperial pilots had spotted the Rebel guns, conspicuous against the white field. The pilots began to maneuver the walker toward the guns when they noticed a lone snowspeeder making a reckless charge directly toward their main viewport, guns blazing. A huge explosion flashed outside the impenetrable window and dissipated as the snow-speeder, roaring through the smoke, disappeared overhead.

As Luke soared up and away from the walker, he looked back. That armor is too strong for blasters, he thought. There must be some other way of attacking these horrors; something other than fire power. For a moment Luke thought of some of the simple tactics a farm boy might employ against a wild beast. Then, turning his snowspeeder for yet another run against the walkers, he made a decision.

‘Rogue group,’ he called into his comlink, ‘use your harpoons and tow cables. Go for the legs. It’s our only hope of stopping them. Hobbie, are you still with me?’

The reassuring voice immediately responded. ‘Yes, sir.’

‘Well, stick close now.’

As he leveled his ship, Luke was grimly determined to glide in tight formation with Hobbie. Together they veered, dropping nearer Hoth’s surface.

In Luke’s cockpit, his gunner, Dack, was jostled by the abrupt movement of the craft. Trying to keep his grip on the Rebel harpoon gun in his hand, he shouted, ‘Whoea! Luke, I can’t seem to find my restraints.’

Explosions rocked Luke’s ship, tossing it about violently in the enveloping flak. Through the window he could see another walker that appeared to be unaffected by the full fire power of the Rebel attack speeders. This lumbering machine now became Luke’s target as he flew, moving in a descending arc. The walker was firing directly at him, creating a wall of laser bolts and flak.

‘Just hang on, Dack,’ he yelled over the explosions, ‘and get ready to fire that tow cable!’

Another great blast shook Luke’s snowspeeder. He fought to regain control as the ship wobbled in its flight. Luke began to sweat profusely, despite the cold, as he desperately attempted to right his plunging ship. But the horizon still spun in front of him.

‘Stand by, Dack. We’re almost there. Are you okay?’

Dack didn’t answer. Luke managed to turn and saw that Hobbie’s speeder was maintaining its course next to him as they evaded the explosions bursting around them. He craned his head around and saw Dack, blood streaming from his forehead, slumped against the controls.

‘Dack!’

On the ground, the gun towers near the Rebel power generators blasted away at the walking Imperial machines, but with no apparent effect. Imperial weapons bombarded the area all around them, blasting the snow skyward, almost blinding their human targets with the continuous onslaught. The officer who had first seen the incredible machines and fought alongside his men, was one of the first to be cut down by a walker’s body-ripping rays. Troops rushed to his aid, but couldn’t save him; too much of his blood had already spilled, making a scarlet stain against the snow.

More Rebel fire power blasted from one of the dishlike guns that had been erected near the power generators. Despite these tremendous explosions, the walkers continued to march. Another speeder made a heroic dive between a pair of the walkers, only to be caught by fire from one of the machines that exploded it into a great ball of rippling flames.

The surface explosions made the walls of the ice hangar tremble, causing deep cracks to spread.

Han Solo and Chewbacca were working frantically to complete their welding job. As they worked, it became obvious that the widening cracks would soon bring the entire ice ceiling smashing down upon them.

‘First chance we get,’ Han said, ‘we’re giving this crate a complete overhaul.’ But he knew that first he would have to get the Millennium Falcon out of this white hell.

Even as he and the Wookiee labored on the ship, enormous pieces of ice, broken loose by the explosions, came tumbling down throughout the underground base. Princess Leia moved quickly, trying to avoid the falling frozen chunks, as she sought shelter in the Rebel command center.

‘I’m not sure we can protect two transports at a time,’ General Rieekan told her as she entered the chamber.

‘It’s risky,’ she answered, ‘but our holding action is faltering.’ Leia realized that the transport launchings were taking too much time and that the procedure had to be hastened.

Rieekan issued a command through his comlink. ‘Launch patrol, proceed with accelerated departures …”

As the general gave his order, Leia looked toward an aide and said, ‘Begin clearing the remaining ground staff.’ But she knew that their escape depended completely on Rebel success in the on-going battle above.

Inside the cold and cramped cockpit of the lead Imperial walker, General Veers moved between his snow-suited pilots. ‘What is the distance to the power generators?’

Without looking away from the control panel, one of the pilots replied, ‘Six-four-one.’

Satisfied, General Veers reached for an electrotelescope and peered through the viewfinder to focus on the bullet-shaped power generators and the Rebel soldiers fighting to save them. Suddenly the walker began to rock violently under a barrage of Rebel gunfire. As he was propelled backward, Veers saw his pilots scrambling over the controls to keep the machine from toppling over.

The Rogue Three snowspeeder had just attacked the lead walker. Its pilot, Wedge, hooted with a loud Rebel shout of victory as he saw the damage his guns had caused.

Other snowspeeders passed Wedge, racing in the opposite direction. He steered his craft on a direct course toward another walking death machine. As he approached the monster, Wedge shouted to his gunner, ‘Activate harpoon!’

The gunner pressed the firing switch as his pilot daringly maneuvered their craft through the walker’s legs. Immediately the harpoon whooshed from the rear of the speeder, a long length of cable unwinding behind it.

‘Cable out!’ the gunner yelled. ‘Let her go!’

Wedge saw the harpoon plunge into one of the metal legs, the cable still connected to his snowspeeder. He checked his controls, then brought the speeder around in front of the Imperial machine. Making an abrupt turn, Wedge guided his ship around one of the hind legs, the cable banding around it like a metallic lariat.

So far, thought Wedge, Luke’s plan was working. Now all he had to do was fly his speeder around to the tail end of the walker. Wedge caught a glimpse of Rogue Leader as he carried out the maneuver.

‘Cable out!’ shouted the speeder’s gunner again as Wedge flew their craft alongside the cable-entangled walker, close to the metal hull. Wedge’s gunner depressed another switch and released the cable from the rear of the snowspeeder.

The speeder zoomed away and Wedge laughed as he looked down at the results of their efforts. The walker was awkwardly struggling to continue on its way, but the Rebel cable had completely entangled its legs. Finally it leaned to one side and crashed against the ground, its impact stirring up a cloud of ice and snow.

‘Rogue Leader … One down, Luke,’ Wedge announced to the pilot of his companion speeder.

‘I see it, Wedge,’ Commander Skywalker answered. ‘Good work.’

In the trenches, Rebel troops cheered in triumph when they saw the assault machine topple. An officer leaped from his snow trench and signaled his men. Bolting out of the trench, he led his troopers in a boisterous charge against the fallen walker, reaching the great metallic hulk before a single Imperial soldier could pull himself free.

The Rebels were about to enter the walker when it suddenly exploded from within, hurtling great jagged chunks of torn metal at them, the impact of the blast flinging the stunned troops back against the snow.

Luke and Zev could see the destruction of the walker as they flew overhead, banking from right to left to avoid the flak bursting around them. When they finally leveled off, their craft were shaken by explosions from the walkers’ cannons.

‘Steady, Rogue Two,’ Luke said, looking over at the snowspeeder flying parallel to his own ship. ‘Set harpoon. I’ll cover for you.’

But there was another explosion, this one damaging the front section of Zev’s ship. The pilot could barely see through the engulfing cloud of smoke that fogged his windshield. He fought to keep his ship on a horizontal path, but more blasts by the enemy made it rock violently.

His view had become so obscured that it wasn’t until Zev was directly in the line of fire that he saw the massive image of another Imperial walker. Rogue Two’s pilot felt an instant of pain; then his snub-nosed craft, spewing smoke and hurtling on a collision course with the walker, suddenly erupted in flames amid a burst of cannon fire. Very little of Zev or his ship remained to hit the ground.

Luke saw the disintegration and was sickened by the loss of yet another friend. But he couldn’t let himself dwell on his grief, especially now when so many other lives depended on his steady leadership.

He looked around desperately, then spoke into his comlink. ‘Wedge … Wedge … Rogue Three. Set your harpoon and follow me on the next pass.’

As he spoke, Luke was hit hard by a terrific explosion that ripped through his speeder. He struggled with the controls in a futile attempt to keep the small craft under control. A chill of fear swept over him when he noticed the dense twisting funnel of black smoke pouring from his ship’s aft section. He realized then that there was no way his damaged speeder could remain aloft. And, to make matters even worse, a walker loomed directly in his path.

Luke struggled with the controls as his ship plunged toward the ground, leaving a trail of smoke and flames behind. By then the heat in the cockpit was nearly unbearable. Flames were beginning to leap about inside the speeder and were coming uncomfortably close to Luke. He finally brought his ship down to skid and crash into the snow just a few meters away from one of the walking Imperial machines.

After impact, Luke struggled to pull himself from the cockpit and looked with horror at the looming figure of the approaching walker.

Gathering all his strength, Luke quickly squeezed himself from under the twisted metal of the control board and moved up against the top of his cockpit. Somehow he managed to open the hatch halfway and climbed out of the ship. With each elephantine step of the oncoming walker, the speeder shook violently. Luke had not realized just how enormous these four-legged horrors were until, unprotected by the shelter of his craft, he saw one up close.

Then he remembered Dack and returned to try and pull his friend’s lifeless form from the wrecked speeder. But Luke had to give up. The body was too tightly wedged in the cockpit, and the walker was now almost upon him. Braving the flames, Luke reached into his speeder and grabbed the harpoon gun.

He gazed at the advancing mechanical behemoth and suddenly had an idea. He reached back inside the cockpit of the speeder and groped for a land mine attached to the ship’s interior. With a great effort he stretched his fingers and firmly grasped the mine.

Luke leaped away from his vehicle just as the towering machine lifted a massive foot and planted it firmly on the snowspeeder, crushing it flat.

Luke crouched underneath the walker, moving with it to avoid its slow steps. Raising his head, he felt the cold wind slap against his face as he studied the monster’s vast underbelly.

As he ran along under the machine, Luke aimed his harpoon gun and fired. A powerful magnet attached to a long thin cable was ejected from the gun and firmly attached itself to the machine’s underbelly.

Still running, Luke yanked on the cable, testing to make sure its strength was sufficient to sustain his weight. Then he attached the cable drum to the buckle of his utility belt, allowing its mechanism to pull him up off the ground. Now, dangling from the monster’s underbelly, Luke could see the remaining walkers and two Rebel snowspeeders continuing the battle as they soared through fiery explosions.

He climbed up to the machine’s hull where he had observed a small hatch. Quickly cutting it open with his laser sword, Luke pulled open the hatch, threw in the land mine, and made a rapid descent along the cable. As he reached the end, Luke dropped hard onto the snow and became unconscious; his inert body was nearly brushed by one of the walker’s hind feet.

As the walker passed over and away from him, a muffled explosion tore at its insides. Suddenly the tremendous bulk of the mechanical beast exploded at the seams, machinery and pieces of hull flying in every direction. The Imperial assault machine crumbled into a smoking, motionless heap coming to rest upon what remained of its four stiltlike legs.

= VI =

THE Rebel command center, its walls and ceiling still shaking and cracking under the force of the battle on the surface, was attempting to operate amid the destruction. Pipes, torn apart by the blasting, belched sprays of scalding steam. The white floors were littered with broken pieces of machinery and chunks of ice were scattered everywhere. Except for the distant rumblings of laser fire, the command center was forebodingly quiet.

There were still Rebel personnel on duty, including Princess Leia, who watched the images on the few still-functioning console screens. She wanted to be certain that the last of the transport ships had slipped past the Imperial armada and were approaching their rendezvous point in space.

Han Solo rushed into the command center, dodging great sections of the ice ceiling that came plunging down at him. One great chunk was followed by an avalanche of ice that poured onto the floor near the entrance to the chamber. Undaunted, Han hurried to the control board where Leia stood beside See Threepio.

‘I heard the command center was hit.’ Han appeared concerned. ‘Are you all right?’

The princess nodded. She was surprised to see him there where the danger was severest.

‘Come on,’ he urged before she could reply. ‘You’ve got to get to your ship.’

Leia looked exhausted. She had been standing at the console viewscreens for hours and had participated in dispatching Rebel personnel to their posts. Taking her hand, Han led her from the chamber, with the protocol droid clacking after them.

As they left, Leia gave one final order to the controller. ‘Give the evacuation code signal… and get to the transport.’

Then, as Leia, Han, and Threepio made their hasty exit from the command center, a voice blared from the public address speakers, echoing in the nearby deserted ice corridors. ‘Disengage, disengage! Begin retreat action!’

‘Come on,’ Han urged, grimacing. ‘If you don’t get there fast, your ship won’t be able to take off.’

The walls quaked even more violently than before. Ice chunks continued to fall throughout the underground base as the three hurried toward the transport ships. They had nearly reached the hangar where Leia’s transport ship was waiting, ready for departure. But as they neared the corner they found the entrance to the hangar completely blocked by ice and snow.

Han knew they would have to find some other route to Leia’s escape ship – and quickly. He began to lead them back down the corridor, careful to avoid falling ice, and snapped on his comlink as they hurried toward the ship. ‘Transport C One Seven!’ he yelled into the small microphone. ‘We’re coming! Hold on!’

They were close enough to the hangar to hear Leia’s escape vessel preparing for lift-off from the Rebel ice base. If he could lead them just a few meters more, the princess would be safe and-The chamber suddenly quaked with a terrible noise that thundered through the underground base. In an instant the entire ceiling had crashed down in front of them, creating a solid barrier of ice between them and the hangar docks. They stared in shock at the dense white mass.

‘We’re cut off,’ Han yelled into his comlink, knowing that if the transport were to make good its escape there could be no time wasted in melting down or blasting through the barricade. ‘You’ll have to take off without Princess Organa.’ He turned to her. ‘If we’re lucky we can still make it to the Falcon.’

The princess and See Threepio followed as Han dashed toward another chamber, hoping that the Millennium Falcon and his Wookiee copilot had not already been buried under an avalanche of ice.

Looking out across the white battlefield, the Rebel officer watched the remaining snowspeeders whisking through the air and the last of the Imperial vehicles as they passed the wreckage of the exploded walker. He flipped on his comlink and heard the order to retreat: ‘Disengage, disengage. Begin retreat action.’ As he signaled his men to move back inside the ice cavern, he noticed that the lead walker was still treading heavily in the direction of the power generators.

In the cockpit of that assault machine, General Veers stepped close to the port. From this position he could clearly see the target below. He studied the crackling power generators and observed the Rebel troops defending them.

‘Point-three-point-three-point-five … coming within range, sir,’ reported his pilot.

The general turned to his assault officer. ‘All troops will debark for ground assault,’ Veers said. ‘Prepare to target the main generator.’

The lead walker, flanked by two of the hulking machines, lurched forward, its guns blazing to scatter the retreating Rebel troops.

As more laser fire came from the oncoming walkers, Rebel bodies and parts of Rebel bodies were flung through the air. Many of the soldiers who had managed to avoid the obliterating laser beams were crushed into unrecognizable pulp beneath the walkers’ stomping feet. The air was charged with the stink of blood and burning flesh, and thundering with the explosive noises of battle.

As they fled, the few surviving Rebel soldiers glimpsed a lone snowspeeder as it retreated in the distance, a black trail of smoke escaping its burning hull.

Although the smoke rising from his crippled speeder obstructed his view, Hobbie could still see some of the carnage that raged on the ground. His wounds from a walker’s laser fire made it torture even to move, let alone operate the controls of his craft. But if he could manage to work them just long enough to return to the base, he might be able to find a medical robot and…

No, he doubted he would survive even that long. He was dying – of that he was now certain – and the men in the trench would soon be dead, too, unless something were done to save them.

General Veers, proudly transmitting his report to Imperial headquarters, was totally unaware of Rogue Four’s approach. ‘Yes, Lord Vader, I’ve reached the main power generators. The shield will be down in moments. You may commence your landing.’

As he ended his transmission, General Veers reached for the electrorangefinder and looked through the eyepiece to line up the main power generators. Electronic crosshairs aligned according to the information from the walker’s computers. Then suddenly the readouts on the small monitor screens mysteriously vanished.

Confounded, General Veers moved away from the eyepiece of the electrorangefinder and turned instinctively toward a cockpit win dow. He flinched in terror at seeing a smoking projectile heading on a direct course toward his walker’s cockpit.

The other pilots also saw the hurtling speeder, and knew that there was no time to turn the massive assault machine. ‘He’s going to-‘ one of the pilots began.

At that instant, Hobbie’s burning ship crashed through the walker cockpit like a manned bomb, its fuel igniting into a cascade of flame and debris. For a second there were human screams, then fragments, and the entire machine crashed to the ground.

Perhaps it was the sound of this nearby blast that jarred Luke Skywalker back to consciousness. Dazed, he slowly lifted his head from the snow. He felt very weak and was achingly stiff with cold. The thought crossed his mind that frostbite might already have damaged his tissues. He hoped not; he had no desire to spend any more time in that sticky bacta fluid.

He tried to stand, but fell back against the snow, hoping he would not be spotted by any of the walker pilots. His comlink whistled, and somehow he found the strength to flick on its receiver.

‘Forward units’ withdrawal complete,’ the broadcast voice reported.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *