Star Wars TALES FROM THE MOS EISLEY CANTINA

by

Kevin J. Anderson editor

 

     TALES FROM THE MOS EISLEY CANTINA

 

     edited by

 

     Kevin J. Anderson

 

     BANTAM

 

     New York Toronto London Sydney Auckland

 

 

TO BILL SMITH of West

End Games who has been a wealth of information and ideas, providing the

character backgrounds and starting points for many of these stories.

 

 

    
Mos Eisley Spaceport.  You will never find a more wretched hive

of scum and villainy.  We must be cautious.

 

     OBI-WAN KENOBI

 

     I'm ready for anything.

 

     --LUKE SKYWALKER

 

    
CONTENTS

 

     We Don't Do Weddings:

 

     The Band's Tale

 

     Kathy Tyers

 

     A      Hunter's Fate:

 

     Greedo's Tale

 

     Tom Veitch and Martha Veitch

 

     Hammertong: The Tale of the

     "Tonnika Sisters"

 

     Timothy Zahn

 

     Play It Again, Figrin D'an:

 

     The Tale of Muftak and Kabe

 

     A. C. Crispin

 

     The Sand Tender: The Hammerhead's Tale

     Dave Wolverton

 

     Be Still My Heart:

 

     The Bartender's Tale

     David Bischoff

 

     Nightlily:

 

     The Lovers' Tale

     Barbara Hambly

 

     Empire Blues:

 

     The Devaronian's Tale

     Daniel Keys Moran

 

      Swapmeet: The Jawa's tale

      Kevin J. Anderson

 

      Trade wins: The Ranat's tale

      Rebecca Moesta

 

      When the desert wind turns:

 

      The stormtrooper's tale

      Doug Beason

 

      Soup's on: The pipesmoker's tale

      Jennifer Roberson

 

      At the crossroads: The spacer's tale

      Jerry Oltion

 

      Doctor death: The tale of Dr. Evazan

      and Ponda Baba

      Kenneth C. Flint

 

      Drawing the maps of piece:

 

      The moisture farmer's tale

      M. Shayne Bell

 

      One last night in the Mos Eisley Cantina:

 

      The tale of the wolfman and the lamproid

      Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens

 

      Contributor's biographies

 

 

      Tales from the Mos Eisley Cantina

 

 

   
We Don't Do Weddings:

 

     The Band's Tale

     by Kathy Tyers

 

     Jabba the Hutt's cavernous, smoky Presence Room stank of spilled

intoxicants and sweaty body armor.

     Guards and henchmen, dancers and bounty hunters, humans andJawas

and Weequays and Arcona lay where they'd toppled, crumpled under arches

or piled in semiprivate cubicles or sprawled in the open.  The inner

portcullis yawned open.

 

     Just another allnighter at Jabba's palace.

 

     That portcullis bothers me~what if we want to leave in a

hurry?--but it keeps out the worst of the riffraff.

     Let me rephrase that.  The worst of the riffraff, Jabba himself,

paid us well.  Crime lord, connoisseur, critic; his hairless, blotchy

tail twitched in rhythm when we played.  Not our rhythm.  His.

     We are Figrin D'an and the Modal Nodes, members in good standing

of the Intergalactic Federation of Musicians, and we are-or were

Jabba's full-time resident entertainers.  I've never spotted his ears,

but Jabba appreciates a good swing band.  He also likes controlling

credit and inflicting pain, and he finds either more therapeutic than

our music.

     Huddled on the back of the stage, we put away our horns while

Jabba's guests snored.  My Fizzz--you symphonic ridgebrows would call

it a Dorenian Beshni-quel, but this is jizzmslips into a thin case in

less time than it takes to roll an Imperial inspector and check his

pockets for credit vouchers.

     We are Bith.  Our high hairless craniums manifest a superior

evolutionary level, and our mouth folds pucker into a splendid

embouchure for wind instruments.

     We perceive sounds as precisely as other species perceive color.

     Our band leader, Figrin Da'n, was wearily swabbing his Kloo Horn

(there's a joke there, but you'd have to speak Bithian to get it).

     It's a longer double-reed than my Fizzz, richer in pastel

harmonics but not so sweet.

     Tedn and Ickabel were arguing over their Fanfar cases.

     Nalan had started disconnecting the horn bells from his Bandfill,

and Tech--we look alike to non-Bith, but you might've picked out Tech

by the glazed gleam in his eyes--sat slumped over his Ommni Box.

     Plaster chips from a midnight blaster skirmish littered the

Ommni's reception dish.  (The Ommni clips our peaks, attenuates the

lows, reverbs and amps the total sound.

     Playing it takes even a Bith's full genius.  Tech hates Figrin.

     Figrin won the Ommni last season in a sabacc game.)

 

     "Hey, Doikk".  Figrin's head glistened.  It was going

 

     to be a typical Tatooine scorcher, and Jabba's temp exchanger

needed repair.

     I cinched down my Fizzz.  My Fizzz.  "What?"  I had a shot "lip,"

as humans call it.  I was in no mood for foolishness.

 

     "Time for a friendly hand of sabacc?"

 

     "I don't gamble, Figrin."

     Figrin brushed the sheen off his head with one knobby hand.

     "You're thermal, Doikk."

 

     And you're compulsive.  "All musicians are thermal."

 

     "You're thermal for a musician.  Who ever heard of a bander that

didn't gamble?"

     I'm the band's inside outsider, the straight man.  I've carried

that sweet little Fizzz through six systems.  I peg it when it cracks

and lube it when the keys click.  I carve my own reeds.  I wasn't

betting it on any sabacc match.

     Not even to placate Fiery Figrin Da'n, a bandleader who criticizes

every missed note, owns everybody (else) 's instruments, and isn't shy

about giving orders.

     "I don't gamble, Figrin.  You know th--" A smoky silhouette rolled

in through the main arch.

     "Figrin," I mouthed, "turn around.  Slowly."

     The droid's wasp waist, huge shoulders, and squared-off head had

scalded my memory shortly after Jabba gave us our exclusive contract:

his vintage E522

     Assassin.  Eefive-tootoo had saved my neck when one of Jabba's

human sail-barge tenders accused me of munching out of Jabba's private

snack tank of live freckled toads.  Luckily for me, Eefive-tootoo gave

me an alibi.  I'd vowed never again to have more to do with humans than

necessary.

     ButJabba'd been hot to feed someone to the rancor.

     Justice would've suggested throwing in my human accuser, butJabba

and Justice are not on speaking terms.

     They dropped Eefive, liberally smeared with meat juice, through

the rancor's trapdoor in front of Jabba's throne.  By the timeJabba's

huge, slavering mutant spat him out, he was beyond repair.

 

     Or so I'd thought.  Was he back for revenge?

 

     He wore no restraining bolt.  Rolling around a blaster-scarred

column, he headed toward us.  Frantically I looked around.  Nobody

showed signs of waking up to rescue us.

     The droid raised his upper limbs.  Both ended at elbow joints.

     Somebody'd disengaged his business parts --but that didn't leave

him helpless.  Assassin droids carry backup.

     "Figrin Da'n?"  he asked in a brassy green treble.

     "What would you do .  . . if you found him?"  Figrin sidled closer

to me, trying to sound colorless.  I've never carried a blaster.  I

wished I had one then, for all the good it would've done.

     "Message delivery," honked the droid.  "Do not fear.  My

assassination programming has been erased, and as you can see, my

weapons are gone.  My new employer saved me from deconstruction by

using me this way."

     "He doesn't remember us," Figrin whispered in Bithian.  "His

memory's been erased, too."

     As I slowed my breathing, my longstanding attitude about assassin

droids resurfaced: Never worry about one you can see.  He hadn't fired

before we spotted him, so we were safe.  And I've always gotten along

better with droids than with most sentients.  Particularly humans.

     But as for stripping Eefive of his weapons, that would be like .

     . . like saving my life by cutting off all my fingers.

 

     "Who's your new owner?"  I asked.

 

     The droid hissed, shushing me with white noise.

     I dropped my voice.  "Who?"  I repeated sotto voce.

     The answer came softly.  "Mistress Valarian."

     Oh, ho.  Val to her friends, Jabba's chief rival in the spaceport

town of Mos Eisley, a tusk-mouthed Whiphid recently arrived on

Tatooine.  Gambling, weapons running, information for sale, the usual .

     . . but she'd thrived.  No wonder she sent a recycled envoy.

     Now that I'd processed the lack of immediate risk, I leaned back

against the stage.  "What does she want?"

     "She wishes to hire your services for a wedding, to be held in Mos

Eisley at her Lucky Despot Hotel."

     I'd heard of the Lucky Despot.  Figrin puckered his lip folds.

     "We don't do weddings," we answered in unison.

     Please understand.  A wedding gig wastes two days (three days,

with some species, plus the time it takes to learn new music).  You're

treated like a recording, told to repeat impossible phrases and

lengthen the usual processional, and ordered to play a final chord as

the nerve-wracked principals arrive center stage .  . . if they arrive.

     Someone always brings a screaming neo-note.

     Then the reception, where they inebriate themselves until no one

hears a note.  All this for half pay and full satisfaction: You've

helped perpetuate a species.

     Eefive swiveled his flat head toward Figrin.  Obviously his

recognition circuits still functioned.  "Mistress Valarian procured a

mate from her home world," he declared.

     Good thing I wasn't drinking.  I'd've choked.  The only thing

uglier than a Hutt is a Whiphid.  I tried to imagine another

gargantuan, rank-furred, yellow-tusked Whiphid arriving on Tatooine.

     Valarian had probably promised luxury accommodations and good

hunting.

     Wait'11 he saw Mos Eisley.

     The droid continued.  "This job is for their reception only.

     Mistress Valarian offers your band three thousand credits. 

Transport and lodging provided, and unlimited meals and drinks during

your stay.

     Also five breaks during the reception."

     Three thousand credits?  With my share, I could start my own

band--live in the finest habitats--Figrin hunched forward.  "Sabacc

tables?"  he asked.

     Too late, I recovered from my greed attack.  Jabba had given us an

exclusive contract.  He wouldn't like our performing for Valarian, and

when Jabba frowns, somebody dies.  No, Figtin.t I thought.

     "Except while performing, certainly," the droid answered.

     I buzzed my mouth folds for Figrin's attention, but his sublime

vision didn't deal me in.  Figrin set down his deck and commenced

negotiating.

     We flew into Mos Eisley during first twilight, with one of the

suns dipping behind a dull, murky horizon.  Our cramped little

transport skimmed through the decaying southern sector, chauffeured by

an orange service droid.  He, like the former assassin, wore no

restraining bolt, which predisposed me to like their owner.  Sentient

shadows slipped into darkening corners as we drove past.  The byword in

Mos Eisley, which looks like a cluster of populated sand dunes, is

camouflage.

     If nobody sees you, nobody shoots you.  Or testifies against you

in what passes for local courts.

     Three stories above one of Mos Eisley's nameless streets, twin

beacons blinked like ship lamps, and brilliant yellow beams glowed out

of a wide-open entry hatch.  The droid maneuvered us closer.  A long

curving ramp and straight stairs swooped up from street level' to the

elevated main entry.  Beneath the stairway, I spotted the hotel's most

notable feature: three large portholes.

     A group of investors crazy enough to sink their credits on

Tatooine had towed a beat-up cargo hauler here and sunk a quarter of it

under the sand.  Debris blown in by a recent dust storm lay clumped

along its near side, which had been starboard.  Antenna-cluster

wreckage drooped over what must've been the cockpit.  !

     mentally saluted the Lucky Despot with the spacer's traditional

appraisal of somebody else's ship: What a piece of junk.

     Our speeder settled at the foot of the long ramp.

     "Disembark here, gentles," droned the droid.

     We unloaded our gear from the airbus's cargo compartment onto a

repulsor cart.  We'd only brought one change of clothes and our

performing outfits, and left the rest of our belongings at Jabba's

palace.  Mos Els-ley's odors--ship fuels, rancid food, 1aw-tech

industrial haze, and the sheer desensitizing smell of hot sand hung in

sullen air.

     Once inside the lobby, we blinked while our eyes adjusted.  An

orange-suited human security guard slouched at one corner.  No sign of

Lady Val.  Mentally I recategorized her.  She might trust droids, but

she equated musicians with kitchen help.

     "This way."  Our droid led us past an extremely attractive

froht-desk person, species unknown to me, whose multifaceted eyes

glistened prettily.  A long, vast room filled a third of the ex-ship's

top deck.  Reflective black bulkheads and a shiny black floor enveloped

several dozen sparsely populated tables, but more than one table

tottered over damaged legs, and here and there white strips showed

through the peeling black bulkhead.  In here--the famous Star Chamber

Cafe--we set up and started a number to get the' room's acoustics.

     Early diners clapped, clicked their claws, or snapped their

mandibles.

     Satisfied, we repacked our gear and grabbed an empty dinner table.

     Within minutes, the show began.  A comet whizzed past Figrin's

head.

     Constellations appeared beneath the ceiling and reflected in my

soup.

     Holographic sabacc spreads flickered into existence over several

tables.  Now I remembered the rest of what I'd heard: Jabba had made

sure the Despot never got her gambling license from local Imperial

bribemeis-ters, so Valarian had to hide her gaming equipment until

dark.  Reportedly Jabba warned Lady ¥al of planned police raids .  . .

     for a price.

     Figrin ate rapidly, pulled out his deck, and wandered away.

     Tonight he would lose.  On purpose.  My other comrades joined a

low-stakes Schickele match.

     I found a bored-looking Kubaz security guard and struck up a

conversation.  Kubaz make excellent security staff.  Their long

prehensile noses discern scents the way Bith distinguish pitch and

timbre, and a Kubaz's greenish-black skin blends into every shadow.

     In exchange for my personal stats, which he probably knew anyway,

and a mug of mildly intoxicating lum, I found out that the green-caped

Kubaz's name was Thwim, that he was born on Kubindi, and that Mistress

Valarian's prospective bridegroom, D'Wopp, was an expert hunter--common

enough profession on their homeworld.

     I also spotted a familiar triangular face.  Not friendly, but

familiar.  Kodu Terrafin pilots Jabba's courier run between palace and

town house.  He's Arcona: Dressed in a spacer's coverall, he looks like

a dirt-brown snake with clawed legs and arms and a large, anvil-shaped

head.

     I kept up my conversation with Thwim as Kodu minced from table to

table, swiveling the anvil head.  I watched sidelong.  Abruptly I

spotted the yellow-green glitter of his eyes.

     Immediately he slithered in my direction.  He's got me mixed up

with another Bith, I thought wearily.  Thwim pushed back, lifting one

edge of his cape, and made room for Kodu.

 

     "Figrin, ihss it?"  The bulbous scent organ between

 

     Kodu's faceted eyes twitched.

 

     "Not quite," I mumbled.

 

     "Oh, Doikk.  Hssorry."  At least he knew my voice.

     "Information for hssale.  Want to find Figrin?"

     I glanced toward Figrin's glimmering holographic sabacc table.

     Our leader hunched crookedly over his cards, feigning

intoxication.

     Not a good time to interrupt.

     (Who made Doikk No'ts the band manager?  I wondered.) Kodu pushed

closer.  "I don't want to hsstay," he hissed.  "Do you want to buy?

     You'd hbetter."  He smiled smugly.

     "Ten," I offered.  Figrin would cover that, if the news was worth

hearing.  Thwim watched the Uvide wheel studiously.  His prehensile

nose quivered as a cluster of Jawas hurried by, jabbering rapidly.

     "A hhundred," Kodu answered without hesitation.

     Within three minutes we'd settled on thirty-five.  He aligned his

cred card with mine and we effected the transfer.

 

     "Jabba."  Kodu clicked his fingerclaws.  "Hess angry."

 

     "Angry?"  I glanced around.  "Who, this time?

     Why?"

 

     "You hsskipped out on your contract."

 

     My stomachs knotted around each other.  "We got another band to

cover for us!  Not as good as we are, but--"

 

     "Jabba notissed."

 

     It was the worst compliment imaginable.  Who'd have guessed the

big slug paid attention?  "What'd he do?"

     Kodu shrugged.  "Fed two guardss to the rancor and promissed .  .

     ." He shrugged again, skinny shoulders rising along his brown

neck.

     Promised to pay well if someone hauled us back to the palace.

     Good-bye, IFM retirement home.  "Thanks, Kodu."  I tried to sound

as if I meant it.  I'd left a sentimental mother at the bubbling pink

swamps of Clak'dor VII.  She missed her musical son.

     Kodu touched his blaster.  "Good-bye, Doikk.  Good luck."

     Luck.  Right.  Either we slipped out of Jabba's range fast, in

which case Kodu wouldn't see me again,

 

     or .  . .

 

     I weaseled through the crowd to Figrin's table.  Fortunately,

Figrin had just lost big-time.  A Duro shuffled the sabacc deck,

scattering and regathering card-tiles with a deft grav hand.  I tugged

Figrin's collar.  "Finish up.  Bad news."

     He excused himself droopily and arose.  It takes twice as long to

cross a room when you're looking over your shoulder every other step.

     Jabba pays well for mayhem.

     We found an empty spot at the bar.  "what?"  Figrin's eyes seemed

to have shrunk: spicing already, or faking it well.

     I dropped the news on him.  "We've got our instruments and two

changes of clothes," I finished.  ' "But I'm losing.

     I'm behind."

     I flicked my mouth folds.  We would also need this gig money to

buy food till we could get another job--or Jabba recovered from his

temper.  I explained that to Figrin.

 

     Barlight reflections wobbled back and forth on his

 

     head as he shook it.  "We'll get off planet," he said.

     "What about your .  . . stash, back atJabba's?"

     "Nothing irreplaceable.  We'll leave tomorrow afternoon, after the

wedding.  I'm ready for bigger crowds again."

     I agreed.  "Even if gigs aren't so regular, out there in the

competition."  We've always had a following, but you .can't eat

"esoteric."

     "Richer tables, too," he added, gilding his voice.

     "Somebody'd better stay awake tonight.  Did I hear you volunteer?"

     So the spicing act was just that .  . . an act.  "I'll take the

first shift," I said.

     Our band set up bleary-eyed the next morning in the Star Chamber

Cafe.  After breakfast, wedding guests started prancing, oozing, and

staggering into the Lucky Despot's lounge.  Waiting in the cafe, we

tuned.  I tried to imagine a Whiphid wedd)ng (Did they osculate, lock

tusks, or shout battle cries at the climactic moment?).  I'd spotted

two turbolifts, a kitchen entry, the main entry, and a small circular

hatch that must've once been an emergency airlock.  My caped,

long-snouted friend Thwim staunchly held up one end of the bar.  Around

ten banqueting tables, Lady Val's staff laid out food, programmed

bartend droids, and hung garlands, making the Star Chamber as classy as

it could be, given its state of disrepair.

     Beyond the big tables lay a dozen little ones.  I could almost

feel Figrin's mouth folds twitch, anticipating a wealthy crowd in the

mood to celebrate.

     A red-'raucous cheer erupted in the lounge.  "They must be

married," Figrin mumbled.  Beings streamed out into the cafe.  Figrin

swung into our opening number.

     Before we finished, I'd started to sweat .  . . and not from the

heat.  Several of Jabba's toughs had ridden the wave of that stream

into the cafe.  Were they invited guests?  Or hadJabba set us up a

one-way trip to the Great Pit of Carkoon?

     One more time, I looked around at Valadan's security.

     Eefive-tootoo stood beside her back hatch, gleaming new blasters

and needlers retrofitted for the occasion .  . . and a shiny new

restraining bolt dead center on his massive chest.  Evidently she only

trusted droids so far.

     A young human tottered up to our stage, wearing clean, unpatched

clothing and a slouch.  "Play 'Tears of Aquanna.'" He tugged Figrin's

pant leg where it gathered above his boot.  Figrin pulled his leg free.

     The human repeated his request, then headed toward me.

     I didn't want my pants stretched.  "Got it," I said toward him,

then took a fast breath and hit my E flat entrance.

     How were we to know that a local gang had adopted one of our

numbers as their official song?  The slouch and several friends huddled

at the foot of our stage and caterwauled lyrics they'd obviously

invented.

     Several other humans lurched toward the stage, glaring.

     I elbowed Figrin.  He took an unorthodox cut to the coda.  We

finished playing before the gang finished singing.  Several of them

glowered.

     One newcomer, a darkly tanned female, shoved a nonsinging

bystander aside.  "Now play 'Worm Case,'" she growled in a voice that

matched the shade of her skin.  "For Fixer and Camie."

     "Got it," said Figrin.  I have a six-bar intro into "Worm Case."

     I cut it to four.

     When you've played a piece six hundred times from memory, you lose

track of where you are during the six hundred and first.  This time

through, it became a crazy game of cut-and-patch.  I don't remember

having so much fun with that moldy jump tune.  This group didn't try to

sing.

     Thwim and another security guard accompanied both gangs away.  I

rechecked Jabba's toughs.  They'd gathered near the bar, just killing

time .  . . for now.

     At the end of that set, Figrin headed for a sabacc or Jabba

recovered from his temper.  I explained that to Figrin.

 

     Barlight reflections wobbled back and forth on his

 

     head as he shook it.  "We'll get off planet," he said.

     "What about your .  . . stash, back at Jabba's?"

     "Nothing irreplaceable.  We'll leave tomorrow afternoon, after the

wedding.  I'm ready for bigger crowds again."

     I agreed.  "Even if gigs aren't so regular, out there in the

competition."  We've always had a following, but you can't eat

"esoteric."

     "Richer tables, too," he added, gilding his voice.

     "Somebody'd better stay awake tonight.  Did I hear you volunteer?"

     So the spicing act was just that .  . . an act.  "I'll take the

first shift," I said.

     Our band set up bleary-eyed the next morning in the Star Chamber

Cafe.  After breakfast, wedding guests started prancing, oozing, and

staggering into the Lucky Despot's lounge.  Waiting in the cafe, we

tuned.  I tried to imagine a Whiphid wedd)ng (Did they osculate, lock

tusks, or shout battle cries at the climactic moment?).  I'd spotted

two turbolifts, a kitchen entry, the main entry, and a small circular

hatch that must've once been an emergency airlock.  My caped,

long-snouted friend Thwim staunchly held up one end of the bar.  Around

ten banqueting tables, Lady Val's staff laid out food, programmed

bartend droids, and hung garlands, making the Star Chamber as classy as

it could be, given its state of disrepair.

     Beyond the big tables lay a dozen little ones.  I could almost

feel Figrin's mouth folds twitch, anticipating a wealthy crowd in the

mood to celebrate.

     A red-'raucous cheer erupted in the lounge.  "They must be

married," Figrin mumbled.  Beings streamed out into the cafe.  Figrin

swung into our opening number.

     Before we finished, I'd started to sweat .  . . and not from the

heat.  Several of Jabba's toughs had ridden the wave of that stream

into the cafe.  Were they invited guests?  Or hadJabba set us up a

one-way trip to the Great Pit of Carkoon?

     One more time, I looked around at Valarian's security.

     Eefive-tootoo stood beside her back hatch, gleaming new blasters

and needlers retrofitted for the occasion .  . . and a shiny new

restraining bolt dead center on his massive chest.  Evidently she only

trusted droids so far.

     A young human tottered up to our stage, wearing clean, unpatched

clothing and a slouch.  "Play 'Tears of Aquanna.'" He tugged Figrin's

pant leg where it gathered above his boot.  Figrin pulled his leg free.

     The human repeated his request, then headed toward me.

     I didn't want my pants stretched.  "Got it," I said toward him,

then took a fast breath and hit my E flat entrance.

     How were we to know that a local gang had adopted one of our

numbers as their official song?  The slouch and several friends huddled

at the foot of our stage and caterwauled lyrics they'd obviously

invented.

     Several other humans lurched toward the stage, glaring.

     I elbowed Figrin.  He took an unorthodox cut to the coda.  We

finished playing before the gang finished singing.  Several of them

glowered.

     One newcomer, a darkly tanned female, shoved a nonsinging

bystander aside.  "Now play 'Worm Case,'" she growled in a voice that

matched the shade of her skin.  "For Fixer and Camie."

     "Got it," said Figrin.  I have a six-bar intro into "Worm Case."

     I cut it to four.

     When you've played a piece six hundred times from memory, you lose

track of where you are during the six hundred and first.  This time

through, it became a crazy game of cut-and-patch.  I don't remember

having so much fun with that moldy jump tune.  This group didn't try to

sing.

     Thwim and another security guard accompanied both gangs away.  I

rechecked Jabba's toughs.  They'd gathered near the bar, just killing

time .  . . for now.

     At the end of that set, Figrin headed for a sabacc table.  I

lingered onstage, up out of the congealing smokes and odors.

     One of the ugliest humans I'd ever met, with a diagonal sneer for

a mouth, sauntered over carrying two mugs.  "You dry?"  he asked in a

surly black tone.  "This one'slum, that one's wedding punch."

     "Thanks."  Despite my distaste, I seized the mug of punch and put

down half of it.

     "You're welcome."  My plug-ugly sat down on one edge of the

reflective bandstand, then stared out over the crowd.  Not wanting to

turn his back.  Probably a native.  i wondered if he'd consider it

polite to ask his name, or if he'd take a swing at me.  "Good band," he

muttered.  "What're you doing on Tatooine?"I set down my mug beside the

Ommni.  "Good question," I said stiffly.  "We've played the best

palladiums in six systems."

     "I believe it.  You're excellent.  But you haven't answered my

question."

     I began to warm toward him.  "You're looking at it."

     I nodded down toward Figrin's gaming table.  "We were passing

through and got stuck.  You work around here?"

     "Yah."  Sounding blue-gray, he picked up my mug.

     "I tend bar up the street.  Rough living, but somebody's gotta

keep the droids from taking over."

     I hissed softly in a range humans find inaudible.

     Droids improve life.  I was getting ready to remind him when he

said "Keep your reed wet, my friend," and hustled away.

     Was he one of the rare, approachable types?  Had that been a

warning?  I looked for Thwim by his green cape and twitching snout, but

I couldn't spot either.

     Soon Figrin rejoined us on the bandstand.  "Losing?"

     I murmured as he plugged in his horn.

     "Naturally.  Give me an A."  We swung back to work.

     At the table just below us, something changed hands with

infinitesimal, micron-per-minute movements: a normal Mos Eisley

business deal.

 

     Something else---something hugelumbered into

 

     view.  Two gargantuan Whiphids--two and a half meters of tusk and

claw and pale yellow fur, lashed together with a garland of imported

greenery--danced toward our stage with their long furry arms draped

around each other.  I stood on a platform, but their heads towered over

mine.

     D'Wopp stared rapturously into the broad, leathery, tusk-bottomed

face of his bride.  Without seeing the surreptitious traders already

occupying the closest table, the Despot's owner and her professional

hunter sank onto empty chairs.  They started untwisting greenery .

     I held my head at an angle that made it look as if I were staring

out over the dance floor, but actually, I was watching one of Jabba's

toughs, an anemic, gray-skinned Duro, glide in our direction .  . .

     alone.

     A trio of Pappfaks twirled past, entwining their turquoise

tentacles in something that looked like a prenuptial embrace of their

own.  They nearly tripped over a mouse droid wheeling toward Lady Val.

     Seeing the droid, our hostess bride excused herself from D'Wopp

with a fond pat of his lumpy head.  She followed the droid toward her

kitchens.

     The Duro's red eyes lit.  He edged along the dance floor,

approached D'Wopp, paused, and bowed.  "Goo-ood hunting, Whiphid?"

     Jabba's Duro shouted, gargling through rubbery lips.  He extended

a thin, knobby hand.

     D'Wopp's massive paw closed on the Duro's arm, dangling a ribbon

of leaves.  "Explain that remark, Duro, or I shall serve your roasted

ribs to my lady for breakfast."

     "No-o, no-o."  The Duro rocked his head, cringing.

     "I do not signify your lo-ovely mate.  I am addressing D'Wopp,

bounty hunter of great r-repute, am I not?"

     Placated, D'Wopp released the gray arm.  "I am he."

     He tilted his head back.  "Is there someone you want splashed,

Duro?"

 

     I breathed a little easier, too.  Playing by memory

 

     means occasional boredom and backflashes, but sometimes it saves

your neck.  I kept listening and playing.

     "Has the lovely hr-ride offered any game yet?"  asked the Duro.

     D'Wopp flicked one tusk with a foreclaw.  "What is your point?"

     I strained to hear the Duro answer.  "There is a bigger-r boss on

Tatooine, excellent one.  Lady Valarian pays him protection money.  A

Whiphid who truly enjoys the hunt doesn't settle for small bait.  My

employer just offered a r-record bounty.  You're probably not looking

for work at the moment, but opportunities like this come r-rarely."

     So the toughs were baiting Lady Val through her bridegroom--and

not us!  Goggle-eyed, I hit a string of offbeats and reminded myself

that Jabba had plenty of time to come for us.

     D'Wopp clenched his paws over the table.  "Bounty?

     Is it a fierce bait?"

     The Duro shrugged.  "His name is Solo.  Small-time smuggler-r, but

he made the boss big-time mad.  Jabba has man-ny more enemies than Lady

Valarian has, reputable D'Wopp."  The Duro's red eyes blinked.  "May I

sponsor-r you to the mightyJabba?"

     The Whiphid's leathery nose twitched.  "Record bounty?"

     At last the Duro dropped his voice.  I missed the numbers that

clinched the deal, but D'Wopp sprang up.  "Tell your employer that

D'Wopp will bring in the corpse.  I shall meet him then."

     Solo .  . . Figrin had mentioned him as a tolerable sabacc player,

for a human.  Now he was my fellow bait on Jabba's short.  list.  The

Duro whined, "Ar-rent you staying for the celebration?"

     "Later," said D'Wopp.  "My mate and I shall celebrate my glorious

return.  She is Whiphid.  She will understand."

     Lady Val reappeared out of the crowd.  Jabba's Duro melted back

into it like an ice cube on a sand dune.  I held my breath.  Figrin

counted off another song, one I didn't know so well.  I had to

concentrate.  Something rumbled at the foot of the stage.  A deep voice

shouted "fickle" in Basic.  A gruffer one called "dishonorable."

     My reed squeaked.  Two bellows boomed out in an unidentifiable

language.  Our loving couple attacked each other tusk and claw, right

below the bandstand.  I stepped back and almost tripped over Tech's

Ommni.

     Figrin missed tipping the Fanfar by millimeters.

     A crowd gathered instantly.  Mos Eisley being what it is, and with

Jabba's brutes cheerleading, this brawl would spread like a sandstorm.

     I took advantage of a five-beat rest and blurted out the danger

signal.

     "Sundown.

     Sundown, Figrin."

     "I'm still losing," Figrin hissed.  "We can't leave yet."

     At the foot of stage left, Lady Val careened sideways into a knot

of onlookers.  Regaining her balance, she dragged three of them back

into the multicolored melee.

     D'Wopp whistled twice.  Two young Whiphids charged in.  Jabba's

toughs stampeded their side of the onlookers from behind.  Lady Val

shrieked.  Every off-planet gangster in town, and every passerby who'd

had too much of Jabba, rushed in on Lady Val's side.  Chairs flew.  One

crashed into the bulkhead, offstage left.

     Figrin bent over the Ommni.  "End of set, thank you very much," he

announced vainly over the bedlam.

     Tech, wide awake for once, broke down the Ommni.  I couldn't find

my Fizzz case.  Glancing frantically around, I spotted white armor at

the grand entry.

     Stormtroopers?  Not even Valarian could've called in Enforcement

that quickly!  All sabacc projectors shut down simultaneously, but the

gang at the uvide table got caught with its wheel spinning.  Just this

once, I guessed, Jabba hadn't tipped off Lady Val.  I'd've even bet

that he sent the stormtroopers himself, but I don't gamble.

     "Back door!"  Figrin leaped off one end of the stage, barely

missing a bulky human's murderous backswing.

     We followed Figrin along the bulkhead, clutching our

instruments--our livelihood.  I spotted my new friend Thwim bashing

heads.  "Help us!  We're unarmed!"  I shouted.

     His nose swiveled toward us.  He leveled his blaster into the

midst of us and fired.  Tedn shrieked and dropped his Fanfar case.

     Appalled, I ducked.  "Get the instruments!"  Figrin cried.  Nalan

dove into a scrum and emerged carrying one arm at an odd angle--and two

Fanfar cases, I grabbed Tedn's unwounded arm and pulled him closer to

the hatch, mentally promising anything and everything to any deity

listening, if only I could escape with my fingers unbroken and my

un-cased Fizzz undamaged.

     Eefive stood his post, calmly blasting every being that approached

him.  Figrin stopped running so suddenly that Tech almost bowled him

over.

     I glanced back over my shoulder.  No use heading that way.

     Imperial and unlicensed weapons popped off all over the Star

Chamber Cafe.

     Well, I reminded myself, I've always had better relations with

droids than with sentients.  I marched straight toward Eefive.

     "Doikk!"  Figrin cried.  "Get back here!  Get awayre" Eefive

didn't shoot.  Just as I'd figured, he still had us on his recognition

circuits.  "Let us out," I pleaded.

     Something whizzed over my head from behind.

     "Shut the hatch behind you," he honked.

     "Go!"  I shouted at Figrin, motioning him past me.

     Figrin ducked under my arm and cranked the hatch open.  I stood

rearguard.  As daylight appeared through the hatch, beings of all

shapes and sizes charged at it.  I spotted the slash-mouthed human

bartender among them.

     I hesitated.  If nothing else, I owed him for a sweet mug of

punch.  "Come on!"  I shouted, then I ordered Eefive, "Don't shoot that

human."

     Eefive may have recognized me, but he didn't take my orders.  He

pointed his needler straight at the bartender.

     Plug-ugly dropped to the floor, surprisingly agile for such a big

human.  "High register," he cried.

     "Do a slide!"

     It sounded crazy, but I raised my uncased Fizzz and let out a

squeal, pushing it higher with all the breath I could muster.

     Somewhere along the squeal, I must've hit the control frequency

for that brand-new restraining bolt.  The droid shut down.

     The barman sprang up and rushed past me.  We squeezed into the

airlock together.  "Stinkin' droids," he muttered, wiping blood off his

nose.  "Stinkin', lousy droids."

     I emerged on a narrow duracrete ledge, three stories up.  The

bartender leaned back, sandwiching my Fizzz between his gray-belted

bulk and a pitted bulkhead.

     "Careful!  That's my horn!"  I cried, teetering as I glanced down.

     Figrin jumped off the foot of a precipitous steel escape ladder

and dashed away, dodging filth and leaping sandpiles.

     An anvil-shaped Arcona head poked out the airlock.

     Clutching my Fizzz in one hand, I backed down the ladder.  The

human almost stomped my head in his hurry.  "Come on," he grumbled.

     "Move."  The ladder swayed from his weight.  I barely held on,

wishing I'd never met the guy.  As more escapees piled on, the ladder's

sway became a terrifying oscillation.

     I kept dropping.  Once down, I spotted another half-dozen

stormtroopers trotting up the main ramp in for-marion.

 

     Another hot morning in Mos Eisley.

 

     Ignoring the trickle of escapees behind us, we ran.

     "Now what?"  wailed Nalan, cradling his arm against his chest.

     "Without the credits from that job, how are we going to get off

planet?"

     "Three thousand credits," Tech moaned, wagging his large, shiny

head.  "Three thousand credits."

     ! glanced down to examine my Fizzz.  It looked undamaged.

     "Not only that, but Figrin gambled away our reserves, seeding the

table so he'd win today.  Didn't you, Figrin?"

     The barman changed directions without even slowing down, and I

almost got left.  "This way," he called.

 

    
STAR ~VARS ~- 18

 

     "We can't pay you for a bolt hole."  I hustled to catch up.

     "Thanks,- but we're broke."

 

     "This way," he repeated.  "I'11 get you a job."

 

     He led us up street and down alley.  I followed, thinking, I'll do

anything--shovel sand, polish bantim saddles but I won't work for

humans.

     But his boss wasn't human.  The cantina owner, a beige and gray

Wookiee named Chalmun, offered us a two-season contract.

     No, I thought across the Wookiee's office at Figrin.

     It's too public, and that's too long.  Jabba will find us for

sure.

     "Sounds good," Figrin answered.  In Bithian, he added, "Once we

find a way offworld, the Wookiee can keep our severance pay.  Say yes."

     I almost walked back down the back stairs, but loyalty is loyalty.

     We found crash space at Ruillia's Insulated Rooms.

     We emerge daily to play in the cantina where my only human friend,

Wuher, tends bar.  Solo beat Figrin at sabacc yesterday, so he's still

alive, but D'Wopp was shipped home in pieces.  Lady Val is single again

and looks to stay that way.

     And every time we tune up, I check the crowd.  Just now, I spotted

Jabba's swivel-eared green Rodian .  . .

     Greedo.  He's not bright, but he's armed.

 

     I'm watching him.

 

     A Hunter's Fate: Greedo's Tale by Tom ¥eitch and Martha ¥eitch I.

     The Refuge

 

     "Oona goota, Greedo?"

 

     The question, spoken fearfully, was answered by the mocking cries

of luminous ho-toads hidden in the mountain cave in the dripping green

jungle.  Pqweeduk scratched the insect bite on his tapirlike snout and

made a brave hooting noise.  He listened as the sound echoed with the

wind in the dark hole that had swallowed his older brother.

     Pqweeduk's spiny back shivered.  He flicked on his hand-torch and

the suckers of his right hand fastened tightly to the shiny hunting

knife Uncle Nok had given him for his twelfth birthday.

 

     Pqweeduk stepped into the yawning cave.

 

     But the cave in the jungle was not a cave, and a few meters in,

the rocks and packed earth ended at an open steel door!

     Pqweeduk leaned through the rectangular opening and flashed his

torch upward.  He was in a dome that filled the inside of the mountain.

     The young Rodian saw three great silvery ships squatting silently

in the vastness.

 

     "Greedo?"

 

     "Nthan kwe kutha, PqweedukV' That was his brother's voice.

     Pqweeduk saw Greedo's hand-torch signaling and he walked toward

it.

     His bare feet felt a smooth cold floor.

     Greedo stood in the open hatch of one of the big ships.  "Come on,

Pqweeduk!  There's nothing to be afraid of!  Come on inside and check

it out!"

     Their bulbous multifaceted eyes, already large, grew even larger

as the two green youths explored the interior of the silver vessel.

     Everywhere were strange and unfamiliar metallic shapes that

glittered and flashed in torchlight or presented dark angular

silhouettes full of hidden purpose.  But there were also places to sit,

and beds to lie on, and dishes to eat from.

     Greedo had a funny feeling he'd been here before.

     But it was only a feeling, without any memories attached.

     Indeed, the only memories he possessed were of life in the green

jungle where his mother harvested Tendril nuts and his uncles herded

the arboreal Tree-Botts for milk and meat.  About two hundred Rodians

lived together under the grand Tendril trees.  They had always lived

here, this was the only life he knew, and all his fifteen years Greedo

and his younger brother had run wild in the forest.

     The Rodians had no enemies in this place, except for the

occasional Manka cat, wandering through on its way to the distant white

mountains during Manka mating season.

     The younger Rodians stayed close to home during that part of the

year.  The Mankas' savage roaring warned everyone of their coming, and

the RodJan men would take weapons out of secret keeping places, and

stand guard at the edge of the village, waiting for the Mankas to pass

in the night.

     During Manka season, Greedo would hear the guns scream, as he lay

in bed, unable to sleep.  The next morning the carcass of a big Manka

would be hanging for all to see, from cross-trees in the village

center.

     Except for the Manka-killing, the Rodians led a quiet

self-contained existence.  The Olders never spoke of any other life at

least not in front of the children.  But Greedo overheard them, when

they thought he was asleep, talk of things happening out among the

stars.

     He heard the Olders use words like "Empire," "the clan wars,"

"bounty hunters," "starships," "Jedi Knights," "hyperspace."  These

words made strange images in his mind--he couldn't make sense of them

at all, because the only life he knew was the jungle, the trees, the

water, and endless days of play.

     But the Olders' secret talk filled him with feelings of

unexplainable longing.  Somehow he knew that he didn't belong to this

green world.  He belonged somewhere else, out among the stars.

     The silver ships were the proof.  He knew with uncanny certainty

that these were the "starships" he had heard his mother and uncles

speak about.  Surely his mother would tell him why the ships were

hidden under the mountain.

     Pqweeduk isn't old enough to know .  . . but I am.

     Greedo's mother, Neela, was sitting on the ground in front of

their hut, by firelight, peeling Tendril nuts.

     Her hands moved rapidly, slitting the thick husks with a bone

knife and peeling them back.  She hooted quietly to herself as she

worked.

     Greedo crouched nearby, carving a piece of white Tendril wood into

the shape of a silver starship.  When the ship was finished he held it

up and admired it, making sure his mother could see it.  "Mother," he

asked abruptly, "when are you going to teach me about the silver ships

in the mountain?"

     The rapid movement of his mother's hands stopped.

     Without looking at her son, she spoke, in a voice that betrayed

emotion.  "You found the ships," she said.

     "Yes, Mother.  Pqweeduk and me--" "I told Nok to fill in the

opening in the mountain.

     But Nok loves the past too much.  He's always sneaking up there to

look at the ships."  She sighed and resumed peeling the leathery skins

off the big nuts.

     Greedo moved closer to her.  He sensed that she was ready to tell

him things he wanted to know .  . . things he needed to know.  "Mother,

please tell me about the ships."

     Her moist faceted eyes met his.  "The ships .  . .

     brought us to this place .  . . this world .  . . two years after

you were born, Greedo."

 

     "Wasn't I born here .  . . in the jungle?"

 

     "You were born out.there"--she pointed at the evening sky, visible

through the tall Tendril trees, where the first stars were

appearingm"on the world of our people, the planet Rodia.  There was

much killing then.

     Your father was killed, while I was carrying your

 

     brother.  We had to leave .  . . or die."

 

     "I don't understand."

     She sighed.  She saw she would have to tell him everything.

     Or almost everything.  He was old enough now to know the facts.

     "Our people, the Rodians, were always hunters and fighters.  The

love of death was strong in us.  Many years ago, when the meat-game was

gone, we learned to raise all our food.  But our people began to hunt

each other, for sport."

 

     "They .  . . killed each other?"

 

     "Yes, for sport.  For deadly sport.  Some Rodians thought it was

foolishness, and refused to participate.

     Your father was one of those.  A great bounty hunter was he .  . .

     but he refused to join the foolish gladiator hunts."

     "What is a bounty hunter, Mother?"  Greedo felt a chill in his

spine, waiting for the answer.

     "Your father hunted criminals and outlaws .  . . or people with a

price on their heads.  He was highly bon ored for his skills.  He made

us very wealthy."

     "Is that why he died?"

     "No.  An evil clan leader, Navik the Red, named for the red

birthmark that covers his face, used the gladiator games as an excuse

to make war on the other clan leaders.  Your father was murdered.  Our

wealth was taken, and our clan, the Tetsus, were nearly wiped out.

     "Fortunately, some of us were able to escape the killing, in the

three silver ships you've found."

     "Why did you never tell Pqweeduk and me about the ships .  . . and

about our people?"

     "We have changed.  There was no need to dredge up the dark past.

     We have become peaceful here.  The guns are only brought out when

the Manka cats are prowling.  We made a vow, in our council, that the

children should not know of the terrible past, until they were full

grown.  I am breaking that vow now, in telling you these things.  But

you are .  . . almost as tall as your father now."

     His mother's eyes seemed to envelop Greedo.  He loved the way she

looked at him.  Her skin exuded a pleasing perfume, a strong Rodian

scent.  He gazed at her wonderingly.  Suddenly there was so much more

to know.  He wanted desperately to learn... everything.

 

     "What is the Empire, Mother?"

 

     She frowned and wrinkled her long flexible snout.

     "I've told you enough, Greedo.  On another day perhaps I will

answer all your questions.  Go to bed now, my son."

     "Yes, Mother."  Greedo touched his hand suckers to his mother's in

the traditional all-purpose greeting and good night.  He went to his

straw-filled bed in their little hut, where his brother was already

asleep.

     Greedo lay for hours, thinking of silver ships, of his father the

bounty hunter .  . . and the greatness of life among the stars.

 

     2. Red Navil~

 

     A month and a day after Greedo and Pqweeduk found the silver sky

ships, Navik the Red, leader of the powerful Chattza clan, found the

Tetsus.

     Greedo and his brother were climbing high in the Tendril trees

when they saw a bright flash in the sky.

     They watched with quiet curiosity as the flash flowered and became

a glittering red shape that grew larger and larger, until they could

see it was a sky ship, twenty times larger than the small silver ships

in the cave.

     Anxious voices called from below.  Greedo hooted with excitement

and began to slide rapidly down the smooth tree, uging his suckers to

skillfully brake his descent.  His brother was right behind him.

     Below they could see the people coming out of their huts and

pointing at the big sky ship.  Uncle Nok and Uncle Teeko and others

were running to get the weapons.

     Greedo sensed their fear.

     "C'mon, Pqweeduk!"  Greedo shouted, as his feet hit the ground.

     "We have to save Mother!  We can't let them kill her!"

     "What are you talking about, Greedo?  Nobody's killing anybody!"

     Pqweeduk dropped to the ground and obediently followed his older

brother.

     As they ran through the trees, the red ship swooped lower,

uncoiled its landing gear, and settled in a cloud of fiery smoke at the

edge of the village.

     Twin hatches hissed open.  Greedo stopped and turned and gaped in

awe as armored Rodian warriors poured out of the giant ship--hundreds

of them, each wearing bright segmented armor and each carrying a

vicious-looking blaster rifle.

     The sight of these killers transfixed the young Rodian.  It was a

full minute before he felt his brother tugging fearfully at his sleeve.

     And then he heard his mother's voice, urging him to run.  The last

thing Greedo saw, before he turned his face to the forest, was the

figure of a tall, imposing Rodian with a bloodred mark that stained

most of his face.  The marked warrior shouted an order, and the others

raised their weapons.

     The scream of laser fire mixed with the dying shrieks of the

people, as Greedo and his brother and mother fled into the jungle.

     Uncle Nok and Uncle Teeku and twenty others made it to the cave

ahead of them.  There was a great grinding noise and the roar of a

landslide, as the top of the mountain opened, throwing off its burden

of earth and stones.

     Greedo caught his breath as the three silver ships gleamed in the

light of the midday sun.  Powerful engines already whined awake.

     Uncle Nok greeted Greedo's mother as he urged everyone to get

aboard as fast as possible.  "Neela now you know why I was always

visiting the ships!  I was keeping them in repair for this very day!"

     Greedo's mother hugged her brother Nok and thanked him.  Then they

all rushed aboard, followed by a stream of refugees coming out of the

forest.

     Two of the silver ships lifted easily on columns of repulsor

energy, their fission-thrust engines whining up so high that the sound

vanished beyond the range of Greedo's hearing.  The third ship was

waiting for the last stragglers .  . . the last survivors of the

massacre.

     A portly Manka hunter named Skee charged out of the forest,

screaming that everyone behind him was dead--"Leave!  Take the ships

away, while you still have a chance!"

     The third ship never got its hatch closed.  A single bolt of ion

energy fused its stabilizers into a molten mass, and a split second

later a powerful laser blast blew the power core.

     As the first two ships shot skyward, a bright sphere of fusion

fire blasted back the jungle, mocking the midday sun.  The third ship

was no more.

     Greedo never heard the explosion.  He was in the cockpit of The

Rodian, gawking at the starlines, as Uncle Nok's silver ship vaulted

into the unknown.

 

     3. Not Shaddaa

 

     Planning for this emergency, Nok had programmed the Rodian ships

to jump to a heavily trafficked region of the galaxy, where the

survivors of his little tribe could lose themselves among the myriad

alien races engaged in interstellar commerce.

     So it was they came to Nar Shaddaa, a spaceport moon orbiting Nal

Hutta, one of the principal worlds inhabited by the wormlike Hutts.

     There was a continual buzz of space traffic between Nar Shaddaa

and the far-flung systems of the galaxy: mighty transgalactic

transports and bulk cargo vessels, the garish yachts and caravels of

the Hutt ganglords, the battle-scarred corsairs of the mercenaries and

bounty hunters, the pirate brigantines, and even the occasional

commercial passenger liner, packet starjam-mer, or massive migration

arks.  And, of course, the ever-present star cruisers and sleek patrol

vessels of the Imperial Navy.

     The surface of Nar Shaddaa was an interlocking grid of miles-high

cities and docking stations, built up over thousands of years.  Level

upon level of freight depots and warehouse and repair facilities were

linked by gaudy old thoroughfares that spanned the globe, bridging

canyons that reached from the upper strata, swarming with life, to the

glowing depths where several forms of subspecies thrived on the refuse

that fell continuously from the towering heights.

     Greedo and his brother and mother and all the pilgrims on those

two silver ships came to Nar Shaddaa, merging with the life of the

great spaceport moon, finding a home in the huge sector controlled by

Corel-lion smugglers.

     The Corellians kept things reasonably under control in their part

of the moon.  Gambling was an important source of income for them.  All

races were invited to wander the brightly lit avenues and gawk and eat

and drink and throw away money in the sabacc joints.  A gun duel or a

bounty killing now and then was to be expected, and petty thievery was

largely overlooked.

     But there was an unwritten law in the Corellian Sector, enforced

by Port Control: If you want to make big trouble, do it somewhere else.

     The Rodian refugees merged with the denizens of the dingy

warehouse districts on Level 88.  Over the next months they found work

as freight handlers and house servants, and went about their lives.

     Nok ordered everyone to stay away from the public levels, the

thoroughfares, and the casinos, on the chance they'd be recognized by a

Chattza hunter.  Nok assured them their stay on Nar Shaddaa was a

temporary one, until he could locate another jungle world where they

could dwell in peace.

     For the adult Rodians it was not a happy time--they deeply missed

the lush green world they had left behind.

     But for Greedo and Pqweeduk, a whole universe of excitement began

to reveal itself.

     Four years later Greedo's people were still on Nar Shaddaa,

working and surviving.  Greedo was nineteen, his brother was sixteen.

     The green youths had merged with the boundless spectacle of the

Galaxy.

 

     4. Bounfy Hunfers

 

     "Jacta mn chee yja, Greedo!"

     Greedo leaped back as three repulsor bikes whipped past, jumped a

broken retaining wall, and disappeared into one of the crowded

concourses that had been declared off-limits by Uncle Nok.

     He watched his brother and friends swerve their bikes among the

landspeeders, antique wheeled cabs, Hutt floaters, skillfully dodging

the strolling gamblers, alien pirates, spice traders, street hawkers,

ragtag homeless .  . . and bounty hunters.

     "Grow up, Pqweeduk!"  Greedo slouched against a wall, waiting for

his friend Anky Fremp, a Siona Skup biomorph who had taught him the

secrets of the street.

     Greedo, on the edge of adulthood, had left the games of childhood

behind.  He'd traded his repulsor bike for a fine pair of boots.  He

had stolen a precious rancor-skin jacket.  He had learned how to strip

therm pumps and shield regulators off Hutt floaters while the local

crimelords were lounging in the Corellian bathhouses, making deals with

their interstellar counterparts.

     Anky Fremp had shown Greedo the ins and outs of the black

market--who paid the most for stolen hardware .  . . and who had the

best price on glitterstim, skin jackets, and Yerk music cubes.

     Fremp and Greedo were a team, and had been a team for two years.

     Pqweeduk was still a dumb kid, playing mindless street games with

his pals.

 

     "Ska chusko, Pqweeduk!"  Grow up, Pqweeduk!

 

     While he waited for Fremp, Greedo watched the street.

     Every kind of life, human and alien, passed through Nar Shaddaa.

     Maybe half were legitimate traders and freight haulers, working

for one or another of the great transgalactic corporations.  The rest

were operating somewhere beyond the outer edges of the law.

     One group that fascinated Greedo didn't seem to be chasing gold

and excitement, and you almost never saw them on the street.  They were

the so-called Rebels, political outsiders who had taken a stand against

the despotic rule of Emperor Palpatine and his cruel military dictator,

Darth Vader.

     There were Rebels on this spaceport moon--Greedo knew.  They hid

out in an old warehouse on Level 88, the same level where the Rodian

refugees lived.  The Rebels were stashing all kinds of weapons

there--weapons that arrived hidden in exotic cargos of precious metals

and spice .  . . and left in the darkest hours of the night, on

blockade runner ships destined for.far-flung outposts among the stars.

     I'll bet the Empire would pay a lot to know what the Rebels are

doing on Nar Shaddaa.  But how would I give the Imps that information ?

     I don't know anybody who works for the Empire.

     Just then Greedo heard the shrill sting of laser shots and he

instinctively ducked, crouching down behind the crumbling retaining

wall his brother had repulsor-jumped a few minutes before.

     Peering carefully.  over the top of the wall, he saw a man in the

distinctive green uniform of an Imperial spice inspector emerge from

the shadows and run through the crowded thoroughfare.  More laser shots

echoed, and the crowd began to rapidly disperse into the surrounding

alleys and gambling saloons.

     Greedo saw bright bolts of energy smashing off buildings and

vehicles.  The running man was hit and went down, not three meters from

Greedo's hiding place.

     Two imposing figures stepped out of the shadows onto the brightly

lit concourse.  With deliberate steps they approached the fallen man.

     The larger of the two figures, who was dressed in a rusted

skull-shaped helmet and full Ithullan armor, nudged the victim with his

boot.  "He's dead, Goa."

     The shorter figure bent over to inspect the victim, and Greedo got

a glimpse of a mottled brown wide-beaked face squatting on a

disarrangement of leather and iron and bandoleers.  "Too bad, Dyyz,"

said the short one.  "I only tried to wing him.  He was worth twice as

much alive."

     Bounty hunters, thought Greedo.  They've taken their prey .  . .

     now they'll be collecting the reward.  I'll bet it's a lot.  I'll

bet they're rich.

     The big one, whom the other called Dyyz, bent over and picked up

the dead spice inspector and slung him easily over his shoulder.  "All

in a day's work, hey, Goa?  I gave this scum a bribe or two myself,

over the years... but when the Imps put a man on the bounty roster,

there's only one way to go!  Let's bag and stash him and go for a

drink."

     "Fine with me.  I'm thirsty as a Tatooine farmboy."

     Greedo noticed for the first time that the one called Goa had an

oversized blaster rifle slung on his back.

     He'd never seen a blaster that large.  It was cased in scrolled

black metal and layered with tubing and electronics.

     A custom job, Greedo thought.  Look at the sights on that thing!

     I'll bet that ~ one bounty hunter who always gets his man.

     Greedo expected the two bounty hunters to disappear back the way

they came, but instead they walked straight toward him.

     The closer they got to the retaining wall, the more frightening

their appearance became.  The big one, Dyyz, wore a corroded parasteel

helmet that covered his entire head.  The face mask--narrow eyeslits in

a stylized death's-head--communicated deadly, inexorable threat.  This

one wore the armor of the extinct Ithul-ian race--Greedo knew the

warlike Ithulls had been wiped out hundreds of years ago, their

civilization crushed and annihilated by another, equally warlike race,

the Mandalore.  From the looks of his armor, thought Greedo, he must

have stolen it from an Imperial museum!

     The other bounty hunter, Goa, was outfitted in a hodgepodge of

gear that suggested he never changed it or took it offmhe had simply

added new pieces over the worn-out ones, until he became a walking

collection of military costuming and equipment.

     The most fascinating aspect of Goa was his head: obviously an

intelligent species of bird-or descended from birds.  Mottled brown

leathery skin, featherless, with tiny intense eyes buried behind a

broad scarred beak.

     Dyyz and Goa reached the retaining wall and Greedo ducked down.

     The next thing Greedo heard was a third voice, rasping and cruel:

"Well, well, if it ain't Dyyz Nataz and Warhog where ya been, boys?

     You should know better'n to stiff an' old friend!"

     "Ease up, Gorm.  You'll get your share.  Fact is, Warhog and me

are takin' in this blacklisted spice inspector.

     The Imps'11 pay us plenty and we'll be more than happy to cut you

in on the deal!"

     "Hell we will, Dyyz."  That was Goa's voice.  "There's two of us

and one of Gorm.  He can wait for the credits we owe him."

     "One of me is worth six of you cage cleanerst" Blaster fire

spanged and red bolts of energy shot over Greedo's head.  He ducked

lower and the sounds of a fierce struggle came to his ears.  Suddenly

Goa's big blaster rifle came flying over the wall and clattered on the

pavement next to Greedo.

     As he impulsively reached out to touch the weapon, Greedo heard

the one called Gorm directing the one called Dyyz to hand over the body

of the spice inspector.

     "Give 'im up .  . . and I'll let ya live another day--" Finding

the courage to again peer over the wall, Greedo saw a most awesome

figure, two heads higher than Dyyz Nataz, clothed in heavy plated armor

and full helmet.  The eyes of the face mask were glowing red

electronics.  Must be a droid, Greedo thought.  I've heard of renegade

assassin droids taking up the bounty trade.

     Or maybe it isn't a droid .  . .

     Greedo suddenly had an idea.  Taking the huge blaster rifle in

trembling suckers, Greedo hefted the weapon as quietly as he could into

firing position.  He checked for a safety switch--found it and armed

the gun.

 

     Then, surreptitious as Uncle Nok waiting for a

 

     Manka cat, he hoisted the nose of the rifle over the edge of the

retaining wall.  It pointed straight at the back of Gorm.

     Greedo saw Goa's eyes go to the rifle and then flick away.  Greedo

squeezed the trigger.

     The weapon whistled and roared and the bounty hunter called Gorm

toppled forward with a grunt, a blackened blaster hole in the center of

his back.

     As Greedo stood up, Goa emitted a maniacal cackling noise and

lunged for the rifle.  But Greedo swung the barrel at Goa's head.

     "Whoa, kid!  Easy there!  That's a hair-trigger yer pinching!,'

Dyyz snorted and laughed.  "Thanks, kid.  You saved our skin.  We're

eternally in your debt.  Now if you'll just give my parmer back his

weapon, we'll be on our way."

     Greedo clambered carefully over the wall, keeping the blaster

rifle trained on Goa.  Moving closer to the prone figure of Gorm, he

looked into the hole he'd made in the big bounty hunter's back.  Fused

wires, exploded electronics.  "Is he a droid?"  asked Greedo.

     "You might say that," said Goa.  "Now about the gun --how about we

cut you in on the reward for this inspector?

     You've earned it."

     "I've got a better idea," said Greedo.  "I think I can help you

guys make a lot of money."

 

     5. The Smuggler and the Wookiee

 

     "Spurch Warhog Goa?"  Why do they call him Warhog?

     Anky Fremp, Greedo's street friend, sat on the edge of a parking

platform, with his short legs dangling over a miles-deep city canyon.

     Anky was a Sionian Skup, a near-human race with small closely

spaced eyes, hair as brittle as glass, and skin the color of dianoga

cheese.

     Anky pitched one bottle after another into the abyss.

     The distance from the spaceport's highest tower to the surface of

the Nar Shaddaa moon was so great, they never heard the bottles hit.

     But sometimes the bottles collided with a cab or freighter

repulsing up the shaft, and that was fun.

     "What you doin' that for?"  Greedo said with disdain.

     "That's the kind of stupid game my kid brother plays.  If

Corellian Port Control catches ya, we can be conscripted to work on an

ore hauler."

     "Yeah .  . . you're right.  I'm getting' too old for this stuff.

     Oh well, there goes the last one."

     A hangar scow emerged into the shaft seven levels down, and

Fremp's missile hit the scow pilot square on his protective helmet.

     The man looked up, screaming, and shook his fist.

     When the scow lifted rapidly toward them, Greedo and Fremp

'decided they'd been edge-sitting long enough, and began walking fast

toward Ninx's garage --one of their favorite hangouts.

     "Okay, so tell me the deal, Greedo.  These bounty hunters you met

are going to make you rich?"

     "Yeah, I told 'em about the Rebels runnin' guns through Level 88.

     The Empire pays a big bounty for that kind of information.  Dyyz

and Warhog said they'd cut me in on the take."

 

     "Wow.  Will ya share it with me?."

 

     Greedo sounded superior.  "Yeah .  . . I'll throw a few credits

your way, Fremp.  But most of it I'm going to use to buy me my own

ship.  Ninx has got a cute little Incom corsair he'll let me have for

fourteen thousand.

     All she needs is new power couplings."

     "That's nothing.  We can steal the couplings!"

     "Right.  I can steal the power couplings."  Greedo gave his eager

friend the Rodian's version of a condescending look, as they arrived at

the secret door to Ninx's garage.  Fremp doesn't need to think any part

of my new ship is going to belong to him.

     Shug Ninx's assistant was an ambidextrous Corellian hyperdrive

mechanic named Warb.  Warb recognized the two youths on the entry

monitor.

     "Hey, Anky .  . . Greedo.  Got any hot therm pumps for me today?"

 

     "Sorry, Warb.  Tomorrow we'll have something."

 

     "Okay, see ya tomorrow.  Shug ain't around and I'm busy."

     "I want to show Anky that little Incom corsair I'm going to buy."

     "Hmmm .  . . okay.  C'mon in.  But if any tools show up missin'

I'm gonna know who to vaporize."

     Warb buzzed them into Ninx's garage and went back to work helping

a smuggler overhaul the lightdrive on a beat-up YT-1300 freighter he'd

won in a sabacc game.

     The cavernous repair shop was a confusion of dismembered ships and

the greasy clutter of a lifetime--parts everywhere, whole assemblies

hanging from lifts and cradles--and bright flashes of ion flow welding

from technician droids working high on scaffolding surrounding a

massive Kuat Starjammer-IZX fast freight hauler that seemed to take up

half the garage.

     Greedo and Anky wandered through a maze of packing crates to where

the Incom Corsair sat on her landing skids, gleaming like an Arkanian

jewel.  She looked almost new!

     "There she is," said Greedo proudly.  "I'm going to call her The

Manka Hunter.  Nice, huh?"

     Anky gulped.  "Only fourteen thousand credits for this?  I don't

believe it!  Shug's probably going to substitute some broken-down

clunker once he's got the money."

     "Not my pal Shug.  He knows I'm going to be a bounty hunter.  He

knows a bounty hunter has to have a good ship."

 

     "You're going to be a bounty hunter?"

 

     Greedo puffed out his chest.  "Yeah.  My friend Warhog Goa said

he'd teach me the trade.  He said some of the best bounty hunters are

Rodians."

     Anky became an instant believer.  "Do you think he'd teach me to

be a bounty hunter, too?"

     Greedo hooted.  "I don't think the Skups were ever known to do

much in the way of bounty killing."

     Anky looked crestfallen.  The Sionan home world was noted mostly

for the master thieves it had produced.

     "Come on, Anky.  Let's look at the inside of my ship."

     But the Corsair's hatch was locked.  Since Shug wasn't around,

they'd have to ask Warb to unlock it.

     They made their way back through the packing crates and clutter

and headed toward the YT-1300 where Warb and the smuggler were working.

     They were almost to the freighter when Greedo spotted a pair of

Dekk-6

     power couplings sitting on a workbench, next to Shug's milling

machine.

     Greedo knew right away they were Dekks.  Dekk-6's were the best.

     Modog couplings used to be the best, but starship technology was

advancing very rapidly, thanks to the Empire and its insatiable

military needs.

     Fremp spotted the Dekks too, and both youths stopped to admire the

gleaming components.  A pair of Dekk-6's could cost twenty thousand

credits--that's how advanced they were.

     "I'll bet Warb is planning to put these in that junk heap he's

workin' on," said Greedo.  "He's going to have to mill the casings, to

fit the converter flanges on that old freighter."

     "These are just what we need for your new Corsair," said Anky,

fingering the expensive hardware.  "They'll drop fight in."

     Yes.  Greedo had already felt an impulse to steal the Dekks.  They

were brand-new, they were beyond beautiful, and he would never find

their like stripping Hutt caravels.

     A bounty hunter needs a fast ship.  My ship will be the best.

     I will replace every part of my ship with the most advanced

components I can buy or steal.  No one will outrun The Manka Hunter.

     Greedo looked around casually and scanned the garage.

     Warb and the smuggler were floating a heavy power cell up the

gangway of the YT-1300.  They disappeared through the hatch.

 

     No one was watching.

 

     Greedo slipped off his rancor-skin jacket and wrapped it around

the fist-sized couplings.

     "Come on, Anky.  Let's go.  I gotta meet Goa in twenty 'minutes."

 

     "Right.  Let's go."

 

     Suddenly Greedo felt powerful shaggy paws grip him around the

waist and hoist him into the air.  He dropped the skin jacket as he

kicked and struggled, and the Dekk couplings clattered onto the floor.

     "Te kalya skrek, grulla woska!"  Put me down, ya hairy heap!

     The Wookiee turned Greedo with his paws so he could look into the

snouted green face.  'WNHNGR-RAAAGH.t" Greedo saw bared teeth and angry

eyes, and he wilted.  Anky Fremp was already heading for the door.

     "What's goin on, Chewie?"  The tall Corellian smuggler appeared,

with Warb at his side.  The smuggler had his right hand on a holstered

blaster.

     "HNNtLRNAWWN."  The Wookiee's groans were just terrifying noise to

the youth, but the smuggler seemed to understand them perfectly.

     "Stealing our Dekk-6's, huh?  Great.  What kind of shop you guys

running, Warb?  Do you know what I had to pay for these Dekks?"

     "Sorry, Han.  I told Shug I didn't trust these street kids, but he

took a liking to the green one .  . . You know the rules, Greedo.  I'm

goin to have to tell Shug about this.  If you know what's good for ya,

you'll get out of here and never come back .  . . that is, if the

Wookiee don't break yet neck first!"

     The big Wookiee was still holding the terrified Rodian a meter off

the floor, as if waiting for a signal from his friend the smuggler.

     "Wait a minute," said the smuggler.  "Don't hurt him, Chewie.  I'm

going to teach the little sneak a lesson .  . . Where'd you put those

burnt-out Modogs, Warb?"

 

     The Wookiee lowered Greedo to the floor, but kept

 

     his hairy paw on him as Warb fished around in a big trash barrel

next to the workbench.  A second later Warb emerged with two blackened

and corroded Modog power couplings.  He gave them to the smuggler and

the smuggler handed them to Greedo.

     "Here.  The kid wants power couplings, he can have these.  I took

'em off the Millennium Falcon.  They've got a real pedigree, kid.  And

all I want for 'em is this ran-cot-skin jacket.  What do you say?  Even

trade?"

     The smuggler grinned and the Wookiee squeezed Greedo's shoulder.

 

     "T-te jacta."  I'll get you for this.

 

     "Did he say what I think he said?"  asked the smuggler.

 

     "He said it's a deal," laughed Warb.

 

     "Good.  The kid knows a bargain when he sees one."

     The smuggler held out his hand for a handshake, but Greedo ignored

it.  Instead he made a popping noise with his hand-suckers and threw

the burnt couplings on the floor.  Then he turned and ran for the door.

     "HWARRNNUNH.  " "Yeah, Chewie, I was probably a little rough on

him.

     But you got to set punks straight while they're still young.

     Otherwise no telling where they'll end up .  . .

     Here, Warb, ya want this jacket?  It's a birthday present."

 

     "Thanks, Han.  How'd you know today's my birthday?"

 

     6. The Teacher Spurch Warhog Goa was sitting by himself, counting

a pile of credits, in a corner of the Meltdown Cafe.  He waved his arm

when he saw Greedo come in.  "Hey, kid over here!"

     Greedo was still nursing his anger and resentment, but he tried to

look like a seasoned spacer as he moved through the noisy gathering.

     He started to feel better when one grizzled old Twiqek actually

jumped out of his way.

 

     "Hello, Spurch."

 

     "Have a seat, kid.  Ya want something' to drink?  .  . .

     Don't sit too close.  You Rodians don't smell right to a Diollan."

     Greedo took a place opposite his new mentor.  Goa ordered up a

bottle of Tatooine Sunburn for Greedo.

     "T-that's a lot of money, Spurch."  Greedo eyed the pile

nervously.  He hoped Ninx would still sell him the Corsair, after what

happened.

     "Call me Warhog, kid.  I don't care for that other name.  My

mother thought it was cute 'cause it means 'brave bug catcher' in our

language."  Goa snorted.  He took a stack of chits off the pile in

front of him.  "Here, kid.  For you.  Thanks for the tip about the

Rebels.  It paid off .  . . big-time."

     "Cthn rulyen stka wen!"  Wow, that's great!  Greedo picked up the

bills and flipped through them.  They were small denominations .  . .

     far less than he had expected.  Visions of piloting his own fast

Corsair began to evaporate.

     "Uh... two hundred credits .  . . uh, thanks, Warhog."

     "Whatsamatter, kid?  You look disappointed."  Goa surveyed his new

prottg6 with a bright bird eye.

     "Uh .  . . I thought there would be more, I guess."

     "Hey, kid.  You want to be a bounty hunter, right?

     Didn't I say Rodians make the best bounty hunters?

     Didn't I?"

     Greedo nodded solemnly.  I do want to be a bounty hunter.  But a

bounty hunter needs a ship.

     "Now, you think I train bounty hunters for free?

     Huh?  Do ya?  .  . . Drink your Tatooine Sunburn, kid, it's

delicious."

     Obediently Greedo picked up the bottle and swallowed the thick

fluid.  It tasted bitter.  He felt embarrassed.

     Warhog was right.  "Uh .  . . I guess I .  . . uh, never thought

about that," he said.

     "Right.  It never crossed your greedy little mind.  Goa gets paid

for teaching young punks how to hunt!  Now look here--" Goa reached

into one of the many pouches strapped to his body and pulled out a much

larger roll of credits.  "This is all yours, if you want it--twenty

thousand.  That's one-third of what the Imps paid for the intelligence

on the Rebels."

     Greedo's eyes watered, and a profound hunger rip-pied in his guts

as he stared at the mound of credit notes.  Visions of The Manka Hunter

sthrted to re-form.

     Goa leaned forward and fixed Greedo with his beady eyes.  "But if

you take this money, that's it, ya understand?

     I never want to see you again.  You gotta make up your mind, kid.

     Do you want to learn the trade from an expert .  . . or do ya want

a few nights on the town and the down payment on a hot rod you'll

probably crash in a week?  Warhog Goa can make you the galaxy's

second-greatest bounty hunter, kid .  . . Warhog Goa being the first."

     Greedo let Goa's words roll around inside his head for a minute,

and they connected with his deepest desires.  He wanted that Corsair

more than anything, but he felt a deeper need to hunt .  . . a need to

be like his father.  And the trade of bounty-hunting was a way of

making lots of money.  A rich bounty hunter might own his own moon and

lots of ships--sloops, cruisers, cutters .  . . even warships.

     "You'll really teach me the secrets?"  asked Greedo diffidently.

     "Teach you, I'll shove the stinkin' secrets down your stinkin'

throat!  We got a deal, kid?  Believe me, I wouldn't do it for anybody.

     But you saved my life.  You cut me and DTyz in on your first

capture .

     . . and by the Cron Drift, you're a Rodian.  I tell ya, Rodians

are born bounty hunters."

     Greedo felt waves of pride sweep over him.  Born bounty hunter.

     Rodians are born bounty hunters.  Yes, I can feel it, I've always

pit it.  My father was a bounty hunter.

     I will be a bounty hunter.  I am a bounty hunter.

     "Deal, Warhog."  Greedo hooted and held out his hand.

     Goa looked at the suckered fingers and a look of disgust crossed

his face.  Even the kid's hand smells funny.

     He carefully touched Greedo's hand with his own.

     'Deal, "he said.  "C'mon, I'll buy ya another Sunburn at the bar .

     . . introduce ya to some of the boys."

     Fool kid fell for it, thought Goa, as he pushed his way toward the

bar.  I get to keep his share, and all I got to do is tell him a few

"secrets" and most likely he'll get himself aced in a month or two .  .

     . Anyway, who knows, maybe he will make a good bounty hunter .  .

.

     'Tho I never saw a Rodian good for anythin' except killin' unarmed

Ugnaughts!

 

     7. Vader

 

     Fifteen thousand kilometers out from the spaceport moon, in the

shadow of the luminous Hutt planet, the starry void cracked open and a

mighty triangular war ship emerged from hyperspace.

     Star Destroyer.

     As the massive vessel 'moved into stationary orbit over Nal Hutta,

Imperial shocktroops answered the assembly klaxon, buckling on white

body armor and pulling energized blaster rifles from charging sheaths.

     The troopers' boots resounded in the main launch bay as they ran

to formation next to the two camouflaged Gamma Assault Shuttles that

would carry them to the spaceport moon.

     High above, on the quarterdeck of the Star Destroyer Vengeance,

the Mission Commander received final instructions from an imposing

figure entirely encased in black armor.  The figure's deep voice

resonated through an electronic breath mask.

     "I want prisoners, Captain.  Dead Rebels won't tell me where

they're shipping those weapons."  The menacing hiss of the grotesque

breath mask underscored the threat implicit in the voice and the words.

     "Yes, Lord Vader.  It shall be as you request.  The incident on

Datar was unfortunate, sir.  The Rebels fought us to the last man."

     "We had lost the element of surprise, Captain.  Vice Admiral Slenn

paid with his life for that mistake.  This time there won't be a

mistake.  This time the Rebels won't know we're coming.  Are the

assault shuttles ready?"

     "Yes, Lord Vader.  I've had them camouflaged as light freighters,

sir.  Our agents have obtained the necessary priority docking codes

from Port Control.  We're free to enter the Corellian Sector of Nar

Shaddaa at any hour of our choosing."

     "Good.  Leave at once, find the enemy enclave, and capture as many

Rebels as you can.  I will follow the moment the situation is secure."

 

     "Very good, sir.  The mission will launch immediately."

 

     When Rebel SpecForce sentinel Spane Covis saw the two

weatherbeaten stock freighters drop past him down the.flight shaft and

enter Level 88, he didn't think anything about it.

     From his post in a rented viewroom in Port Tower One, Covis was

supposed to alert his cadre commander if any unusual ship traffic

entered the vicinity.  It was a boring job.  Nothing out of the

ordinary happened.

     Covis's attention was operating at about thirty percent.

     Then it hit him: The sheathing's all wrong.  The cargo doors are

too small.  The cooling towers are in the wrong place.  I've never seen

freighters configured like those.

     Covis grabbed his comlink and yelled.  "Stardog One, this is

Dewback!"

 

     "Go ahead, Dewback, what's the problem?"

 

     "Watch your tail, Stardog.  Two rancors in the house!"

 

     "Got it, Dewback."

 

     Twenty Rebel commandos had already taken up positions inside the

warehouse, their surveillance sensors scanning the street, when the

camouflaged Gammas rumbled into view.

 

     In the rear of the cavernous building, other

 

     SpecForce infantry loaded the hold of a massive Z-10 transport,

clearing the warehouse of as much ordnance as they could before the

firefight began.

     In the very center of the warehouse, behind a heavy blast shield,

a C4-CZN ion field gun was rolled into position.

     The element of surprise the Imperials hoped for was gone.

     The firefight on Level 88 was very fierce and it happened very

fast.

     Greedo's mother Neela heard a shuddering roar and ran to the

window of the reconstructed ventilation flue where she and her sons

lived, in the warren of structures crammed into one end of the

warehouse district.

     At that moment one of the Gamma Assault Shuttles transformed into

flaming vapor, becoming a sphere of light and energy that expanded in a

flash, igniting both sides of the street.  The green fireball seared

Neela's large eyes, and 'she turned and bolted screaming into the back

of the apartment.

     The other Gamma unleashed twin turbos, and the front of the Rebel

warehouse shattered and split.  The shuttle crew ramps came down.

     Imperial shocktroops emerged blasting.

     Another round from the C4 ion gun, and the second Gamma was

history.  A rain of blaster shots were exchanged, sixty shocktroops

went down, and the fight was over.  The rest surrendered.

     Greedo was hanging around with Goa and Dyyz and a bunch of other

bounty hunters on Level 92.  The hunters had news that a wanted list

had been released by a top Hutt ganglord.  The Hutt was assigning

collection jobs on a first-come basis, complete with signed contracts.

 

     Suddenly emergency sirens began to blare and

 

     Greedo saw Corellian firefighting scows plunging down the flight

shaft, red strobes flashing.

     "Looks like the Imps got our message," said Warhog, giving Greed9

     a knowing wink.

     Greedo tried to sound nonchalant.  "Yeah--maybe so.  Could be just

another fire started by the Gloom Dwellers.". Then smoke began to pour

up the shaft and Greedo started to worry.

     It hadn't occurred to Greedo until after he'd told Goa and Dyyz

about the Rebel gunrunners that there might be danger for his people.

     The Rodian refugees lived and worked on Level 88--they'd be in the

path of any attack by Imperial stormtroopers.

     "Uh .  . . guess I'll .  . . uh, see ya later, Warhog.

     You too, Dyyz.  Got some business to take care of."

     Goa raised an eyebrow.  "Sure, kid.  Me and Dyyz are most likely

jumpin' to Tatooine tonightmso if I don't see ya, good luckY' Tatooine!

     The Hutt contracts!  Greedo walked away feeling angry and betrayed

that Goa hadn't invited him to go with them.  So far Goa had given him

very little training.  And he took my share of the reward.

     Greedo started to turn back, to beg Warhog and Dyyz to take him to

Tatooine.  Then his mother's screaming face suddenly flooded his mind.

     Instead of turning back, Greedo began to run for the nearest

repulsor lift.

     Greedo stepped into the lift and hit the stud marked "88."  The

lift dropped like a stone, stopping smoothly a few seconds later at

Level 88.  An alarm sounded and the lift door refused to open.

     Automatic sensors had locked out the lift at this level.

     Looking through the transparent door, Greedo saw why--the street

was a mass of smoke and flame.  The Corellian firefighting scows were

working the blaze with chemical sprays, and making rapid headway.

     Greedo tried to peer through the smoke to see if his family's

dwelling complex was on fire.  The Rodians lived back near the refuse

core.  Greedo couldn't see that far, but he guessed everything was

okay.  Only the Rebel warehouse and the buildings across the street

were burning.

     Greedo relaxed and began to enjoy the scene before him.  He

recognized Rebels helping the ritefighters, and he began to wonder

exactly what had.  happened here.  The only stormtroopers visible were

lying on their backs, helmets shattered.

     Just then Greedo heard the sound of rending metal and he saw the

firefighters all turn toward the flight shaft, which was out of his

line of vision.  The firefighters' faces changed to fear, and a second

later a massive black war machine hovered into view, spewing laser fire

from ten different points on its convoluted surface.

     The machine was a monstrous engine of death, shaped like a crab,

with ripping claws left and right, a phalanx of blast weapons fore and

aft, and a command cockpit secured behind heavy shielding in the

center, about where a crab's mouth would be.  It floated on repulsor

energy, it moved very swiftly, and it killed everything in its path.

     Greedo pounded on the lift door.  It still wouldn't open.  Part of

him was glad it wouldn't open.  Part of him wanted to leave.  That part

of him punched the button for Level 92.  My family will be okay.

     Only'the Rebels are going to die.

     As the lift rose away from the carnage, Greedo got a last glimpse

of the Death Engine as it spewed a thick stream of white-hot energy

into the Rebel warehouse.

     Then he was moving between levels and his vision was blocked.

     A moment later the whole sector shook as if it had been hit by an

asteroid.

     Greedo stumbled out onto the Level 92 thoroughfare and promptly

fell on his face.  The street heaved and shook, and a terrifying rumble

filled the air.  People ran or grabbed onto vehicles as they careened

past, heading for the flight shaft.

 

     As he dragged himself to his feet, Greedo saw the

 

     bounty hunters moving together toward the reserved parking

platform where they had all stashed their ships.  He saw Dyyz Nataz,

but he couldn't make out Warhog Goa.

     A gloved hand grabbed Greedo's shoulder.  He looked up into the

broad-beaked face of his friend.

     "Ifya know what's good for ya, kid, you'll come with me and Dyyz.

     The Imps are in a bad mood about some-thin'.

     I think the Rebs gave 'em more of a fight than they expected."

 

     "My folks .  . . I can't leave my family .  . . my people."

 

     "Don't worry about the family, kid.  If you're goin to be a bounty

hunter, you're going to have to kiss off the family, sooner or later. 

Now's as good a time as any .  . . Besides, they'll probably be okay."

     Warhog Goa gave Greedo a questioning look and then walked away,

following Dyyz toward their ship.

     Greedo stood and watched Warhog go, trying to make up his mind,

trying to decide what he really wanted.

 

     He wanted to be a bounty hunter.

 

     The sleek cruiser Nova Viper lifted with the swarm of

bounty-hunter craft that headed out of port, lining up for jump

clearances.

     No clearances came.  Port Control was preoccupied.

     So the ships jumped anyway.

     The last thing Goa and Dyyz and Greedo saw was the collapse of an

entire quarter of the Corellian Sector, floor upon floor, with a

magnificent flash and rumble and roar.

 

     "Wheez!  Musta took out twenty levels!"  shouted

 

     Dyyz.  "A lot of good people just died, Goa."

 

     "And we're alive .  . . right, Greedo?"

 

     Greedo didn't answer.  He just stared at the swell{ng

conflagration, the succession of fireballs, the billowing black clouds.

     The navicomp clicked in for Tatooine.

     They jumped.

 

     8. Mos Eisley

 

     A massive armor-plated figure stood in the entrance of the dim and

noisy cantina, surveying the motley crowd with glowing red electronic

eyes.

     "Hey--ain't that Gorm the Dissolver?  What's he doin' here?  I

thought we killed him!"

     "Sure .  . . my buddy Greedo decimated his motivator.

     But there's biocomponents from six different aliens in Gorm.  The

only way to kill him is to vaporize the whole assembly."

     Dyyz Nataz groaned.  "Why didn't ya tell me that, Goa?  I would

have finished him.  Now we got to worry about him hittin' us for the

credits we owe him!"

     "Take it easy, Dyyz.  Jodo Kastjust told meJabba gave Gorm the

sweetest hit on the wanted list--fifty thousand credits to bring in

Zardra."

     "You're kiddin'.  Zardra's a bounty hunter.  What's Jabba got

against her?"

     The three were sitting in the smoky shadows of the Mos Eisley

Cantina, sipping green Pica Thundercloud and watching the bounty

hunters drift in from around the galaxy: Weequays, Aqualish, Arcona,

Defels, Kauronians, Fneebs, Quill-heads, Bomodons, Alpher-idians---and

the inevitable Ganks.  Greedo even saw a couple of Rodians.  They

nodded in his direction, but he didn't return the greeting.  He'd

learned long ago that unknown Rodians could be dangerous.

     A cocky Corellian and a big Wookiee entered and stood on the lobby

steps for a minute, surveying the crowd.  Greedo recognized the

smugglers he'd come up against in Ninx's repair barn on Nar Shaddaa.

     He felt hatred roll up inside him at the sight of the two.

     Then the Corellian turned and left the cantina, and the Wookiee

followed him.  Dyyz Nataz snorted: "Right, Solo.  You're in the wrong

place, buddy."

     "Han Solo?  Is he here?"  Warhog Goa swung around in his chair and

looked around the room.

     "Yeah.  Solo and his Wookiee pal Chewbacca came in and looked

around and left.  Solo's on Jabba's list, ya know.  If I was him, I'd

make like a space frog and hop to some other galaxy!"  Dyyz took a deep

swallow of Thundercloud.  "Now, what's this about Zardra?  What did she

ever do to be worth fifty to o1' Jabba?"

     Goa turned back to his two companions and hoisted his glass.  For

a bone-dry planet, Tatooine sure brewed some of the best beverages in

the galaxy--expensive, but very tasty.  "Here's to Zardra," he said,

and he drank, then wiped his mouth with his gloved hand.

     "Zardra and Jodo Kast were on a hunt in the Sten-ness System, look

in' for a pair o' spicejackers named the Thig Brothers.  The Thigs were

armed to the gills with Imperial blasters they'd stole from a military

supply depot.  Jodo says to Zardra, 'Why don't we split up?

     I'll put the word around the ports that I'm following the Thigs .

     . . and you stay out of sight.  The Thigs will be itchin' for a

fight--I know those guys.  They'll come look in' for me, I'll stage a

little face-off, and you sting 'em from the shadows.  Just stun 'em,

you know.

     We'll take 'em alive.' "Jodo knew he could count on Zardra.  She's

as fearless as they come--and a crack shot with a stun-laser."

     "Yeah.  I've seen her in action.  The best.  So then what

happened?"

     All this time Greedo wasn't saying anything.  He was savoring

Dyyz's remark that Solo was on Jabba's list.

     Half-formed images of revenge flickered through his mind.  He was

content to sit and listen to his friends and watch the crowd of bounty

hunters.  I'm one of them, he thought.  I'm a bounty hunter.  Spurch is

going to take me to meetJabba .  . . Jabba needs good hunters right now

. . .

     lots of'era.  Jabba needs me.

     Just then Gorm the Dissolver stood up at his table and scanned the

room with his electronic red eyes.

     Greedo ducked and shielded his face with his hand.

     Squinting between two suckered fingers, he watched the big bounty

hunter turn and swagger toward the lobby.

     "There goes Gorm," said Greedo, alerting his friends.

 

     "Oh .  . . yeah?  Good riddance, I say.  He'll be on

 

     his way to find Zardra.  I hope she melts him to slag!"

     "Maybe we ought to warn her, Warhog."

     "Don't worry, she knows.  She's got a lot of friends in our line

of work.  I'll wager a good krayt steak Jodo's already told her."

     "You're probably right .  . . Sowhat's the rest of the story?  Why

is Jabba the Hutt payin' Gorm fifiy thousand to kill Zardra?"

     "Easy.  She killed a Hutt, that's why!  When the Thig Brothers

came look in' forJodo, they found him waitin' in the Red Shadow--that's

a bistro on Taboon, a slag heap of a planet where nobody but 'Nessies

would ever live.  Trouble was, a Hutt named Mageye was passin' through,

on his way to cut a deal with o1' BolBol, another Hutt who practically

owns the Stenness System."

     "Oh, I get it.  Mageye gets caught in the crossfire?"

     Dyyz made a yawning noise under his blastmask.

     "Worse.  Mageye is carried into the bistro on a palanquin, ya see,

by these five strong Weequays.  The excitement starts, the Thigs are

shootin' at everything that moves, two Weequays get hit, they drop the

palanquin, and the worm rolls off .  . . right on top of Zardra!"

     "Hah!  Poor Zardra!"

     "Poor Mageye.  Zardra's wearin' full armor, but she's still

getting' crushed and the slime and stench is about to suffocate her . 

.

     . So she pulls a gauge-six thermal detonator out of her pocket and

pops it into.  the Hutt's mouth!"  Goa paused for effect, letting his

listeners form an image of what happened next.  Greedo made a soft

hoofing noise.  Dyyz emitted a choking sound.  Goa picked up his

Thundercloud and swallowed.

     "It took 'era a month to clean up the mess, boys."

     Goa swigged more Thundercloud, and his foam-covered beak made a

satisfied clacking,noise.

     "Uh .  . . great.  Good story, Warhog," said Dyyz, laughing.  "So

when's our turn to meet with Jabba?"

     Goa looked at his chronometer.  "Actually, we're late," he said.

     "Let's get moving."

 

     9. Jabba

 

     Jabba the Hutt, gangster preeminent, was receiving petitioners at

his Mos Eisley town house, a short walk from the cantina.

     A violent windstorm brewed in the surrounding desert, whipping

clouds of grit over Mos Eisley.  The narrow streets of the spaceport

were dust-choked and dim.

     The three bounty hunters pulled protective cloaks across their

faces as they hurried to their audience with the notorious Hutt.

     "Don't know how they can keep droids functioning on a place like

this," said Dyyz.  "My visor's already got three centimeters of sand

under it."

     "Moisture farmers use up a lot of droids," said Goa.

     "Sand seizes joints and clogs cooling fins, and the 'tronics burn

out.  Half the population thrives off the junk that's the main product

of this hot and dusty planet."

     Two stout Gama'rrean tuskers blocked the heavy iron grid that

protected the courtyard of Jabba's town house.  The piglike brutes made

threatening grunts and brandished batde-axes as the bounty hunters

appeared out of the darkening streets.  But Warhog Goa didn't hesitate,

roaring .out the password he'd been given earlier.  The Gamorreans

immediately stepped back.

     The spear-tipped gate rose with the grinding of hidden gears, and

Goa sauntered under the menacing points with a cocksure gait.  Dyyz and

Greedo held back, waiting to see what happened to their friend.

     Goa turned and cackled.  "What's the matter, Dyyz?

     You afraid of old Jabba?  He's the hunter's friend!

     C'mon, Greedo, I'll show you how to get rich!"

 

     Suddenly four vicious-looking Nikto emerged from

 

     the shadows of the courtyard and leveled blaster-prods at Goa.

     "Nudd chao!  Kichawa jato!"  one of them ' shouted.

     "What do you know--we're just in time!  Jabba's ready to see us!"

     Goa ignored the prods and strode fearlessly toward the glowing

aperture of Jabba's domicile.

     The Nikto lowered their weapons and snarled something

unintelligible.

 

     Dyyz and Greedo followed, cautiously.

 

     The raucous babble of the galactic riffraff that crowded Jabba's

audience chamber was deafening.

     Alien and human, a hundred different species, faces contorted with

greed and depravity, wearing.  a motley assortment of spacers' costumes

and military gear.

     All eyes turned to the three newcomers.  Greedo surveyed the

grotesque gathering and wonderedwit seemed as if he recognized only a

few species from his years on Nar Shaddaa.  "Are these all bounty

hunters?"

     he shouted to Goa.

     "Nah.  Maybe about half of 'em.  The rest are just the slimy

bottom feeders that enjoy being around Jabba's stench and corruption."

     Goa wasn't just kidding.  Greedo noticed~a rancid odor permeated

the room, and in a few seconds he guessed its source: the great worm

himself, Jabba the Hutt, ensconced on a platform to his right, puffing

on a convoluted water pipe.

     Greedo had seen many Hutts in the streets of Nar Shaddaa.  But he

had never been in a closed space with one.  His stomach churned and

twisted at the sight and smell of the miasmic mass of the great

gangster, fawned over by unctuous Twi'leks and Squidheads and .  . .

     Rodians.  Yes, the two Rodians they'd seen in the cantina were

before the great Jabba, bowing slavishly, like supplicants in the

palace of a Paladian Prince.  A silver protocol ,droid was translating

their groveling remarks for maltdorous Jabba.

     "Maybe they're bending over to throw up," said Dyyz, reading

Greedo's thoughts.

     "How would a Rodian know the difference?"  said Goa.  "The green

goons stink almost as bad as Jabba."

     Greedo gave Goa a startled look.  Why did he say that?

     Am I just a "green goon" to him?  He decided Goa was trying to

make a crude joke.

     As the two Rodians faded back into the crowd, ma-jordomo Bib

Fortuna cast a suspicious eye toward the new visitors.  With an almost

imperceptible nod, he signaled for Goa, Dyyz, and Greedo to step

forward.

     The rabble quieted as the three hunters moved to position in front

of the great worm.  Everyone wanted to see if a death sentence was

about to be executed.

     When it became apparent that these were just another team of

rapacious bounty hunters, the hubbub resumed.

     "Vifaa karibu uta chuba JabbaY' began Goa, speaking perfect

Huttese.  He knew that Jabba himself spoke many languages fluently, and

used his protocol droid for the several million other forms of

communication.

     But he wished to honor the crimelord in every way possible.

 

     "Mojajpo chakula cha asubuhi!"  rumbled the Hutt,

 

     apparently pleased to be treated with respect by scum.

     "What did he say?"  said Dyyz.  "What did you say?"

     "I told 'im he's the most disgustin' pile o' swamp sludge in the

galaxy.  He thanked me for groveling before his bloated slimy putrid

body."

 

     "R-really," whispered Greedo.  "You said that?"

 

     "Goa's pullin' yer snout, kid.  We'd be rancor bait if he'd said

any of that stuff."

     Goa turned his full attention to the Hutt, hoping Jabba hadn't

heard the whispered exchange.

     If he had heard it, Jabba gave no sign.  He proceeded to laugh

quite jovially and popped a squirming sand maggot into his mouth.

     Greedo almost retched at the sight of the swollen tongue, dripping

with slaver.  At this distance, of not more than a meter and a half,

the malignant smell of Jabba's breath was overpowering.

     The Hutt's lardaceous body seemed to periodically release a greasy

discharge, sending fresh waves of rotten stench to Greedo's sensitive

nostrils.

     "Ne subul Greedo, pombo gek fultrh badda wanga!"

     Goa put one hand on Greedo's shoulder as he introduced his protkg~

to the illustrious gangster.  Greedo bowed nervously, as the huge eyes

turned on him and reduced him to space dust.

     Jabba and Goa exchanged a few more phrases, and then Jabba

proceeded to deliver a long soliloquy that ended with the words "...

     kwa ho noodta du dedbeeta Han Solo?"

     Goa turned to Greedo and Dyyz.  "The worm has seen fit to offer us

the opportunity of hunting one of his most notorious debtors--that

pirate Hah Solo.  Solo claims he lost a load of spice when he got

boarded by Imps.  ButJabba thinks Solo sold the spice and kept the

money,; This is a collection job--Jabba wants that "I ain't messin'

with Solo," said Dyyz.  "He's got too.

     many ways of getting' revenge .  . . even after he's dead."

     "I can handle him," said Greedo.  "He's just a smalltime Corellian

spicerunner who thinks he's big stuff.

     He stole a rancor-skin jacket off me.  I'll take Solo."

     Warhog Goa looked at Greedo for a moment and then slapped him on

the back.  "Okay, kid.  That's what I like to hear!  This'11 be a good

assignment to cut your baby teeth on, 'cause Solo's on Tatooine!  We

saw him today in the cantina, remember?  I'll even be able to give ya

some backup.  If he's got the money on him, you'll get it easy."

     Dyyz snorted.  "Great--you help the kid.  I don't want nothin' to

do with it .  . . Now what about us?  You gonna set up a couple of

deals for us, or you gonna waste the whole trip on the kid?"

     "Right.  I got that covered."  Goa exchanged a few more words with

Jabba, and then Fortuna handed the bounty hunters three scrolls, the

official contracts assigning them exclusive "hunting rights" for the

period of two Tatooine months.  The Solo scroll was for a much shorter

period, due to the fact that Jabba was anxious to clean up a debt that

had remained uncollected far too long.

     On a signal from Fortuna, the three bounty hunters bowed

ceremoniously and moved back to make room for the next team of job

applicants--an unsavory human named Dace Bonearm and his IG-model

assassin droid.

     Greedo found himself separated from Goa and Dyyz, as they were

swallowed up in the crowded audience chamber.

     Greedo made his way to an open spot in a corner, next to the bar.

     Without being asked, the Aqualish bartender slid a brimming glass

his way.  Greedo felt proud of himself as he leaned back against the

wall and sipped the syrupy Tatooine Sunburn.

     Across the room he could see Dyyz, standing next to a hunter named

Dengar that Greedo remembered from Nar Shaddaa.  They were both

examining their scrolls and comparing notes.

     Warhog Goa was deep in conversation with one of the Rodians.

     Greedo felt a twinge of jealousy, seeing his mentor talking to

another Rodian bounty hunter.

     I'm a bounty hunter, he thought.  l'm going to stalk my prey and

I'm going to collect the reward and l'm going to start building a rep.

     I'm going to be the toughest Rodian bounty hunter that ever was.

     I wonder.  what that Rodian and Goa are talking about?

     He saw Goa look toward him and then the Rodian's eyes met his, and

Greedo realized they were talking about him.  At first he felt uneasy

being noticed by the strange Rodian.  Then Goa waved and the Rodian

held up his hand, suckers out, in a gesture of brotherhood.

     Greedo beamed with pride.  Okay, they're.  talkin' about

me--Greedo the Bounty Hunter.

 

     10.  Solo "Returns"

 

     The Wookiee slammed a shaggy fist down on the Millennium Falcon's

shield generator and pushed back his welding mask.

     "Take it easy, Chewie.  I wanna get off this dirtball as much as

you do.  But without deflectors we're easy

 

     game for spicejackers and nosy Imps."

 

     "Hwuarrn?  Nnrruahhnm?"

     "Right.  Jabba's throwing the biggest bounty-hunting bash in the

sector--and you just know our names are getting' bandied around over

dessert.  That's another reason to blow this joint.  But like I say, if

the ship had been undercover during the sandstorm, we wouldn't be in

this mess."

     Han Solo finished vacuuming sand out of the alluvial dampers and

wiped his brow on his sleeve.  Why does a free and unfettered guy like

me always end up on wasted planets like this, when he could be basking

in the oceanside breezes of any gambling resort in the universe?

     Because I'm not'very good at sabacc, he thought.  Lucky sometimes,

yeah.  But not that lucky.  Unlike some people I know, I gotta work for

a living.

     Chewbacca made a soft warning growl and Solo raised his head and

looked around.  Two bulbous faceted eyes were staring at him out of

spiny green balls of flesh.  The leather-garbed humanoid body beneath

the head held a blaster in multisuckered fingers.

     "Han Solo?"  The voice from the long green snout spoke through an

electronic translator.

     "Who wants to know?"  Han knew who wanted to know.  A Rodian with

a blaster is always a bounty hunter .  . . or a bill collector.

 

     "Greedo.  I work for Jabba the Hutt".

 

     "Greedo .  . . oh yeah, I remember you--the kid who tried to steal

my power couplings.  Okay, good for you, so now you're workin' for

Jabba.  By the way, I understand Rodian, so you can turn off the squawk

box."

 

     Hanjumped down from the scaffolding as casually as

 

     he could and picked up a rag to wipe his hands.  Hidden in the rag

was a small Telltrig-7 blaster, carefully placed there for just this

eventuality.  Fortunately he didn't have to use itMhis mouth was his

best weapon: "Listen .  . . tell Jabba the truth -I came to Tatooine

for only one reason: to pay him."

     Greedo turned off the translator.  Goa had suggested he use it to

make sure the "client" fully understood the gravity of the situation.

     But if Solo really understands Rodian, I'll be able to use

untranslatable Rodian threats.

     "Neshki J'ha klulta ntuz tch krast, Solo."  Jabba doesn't believe

dorsal-spine parasites tell the truth, Solo.

     "Yeah, well, what does that overfed vermiform know?  Do you really

think I'd come anywhere near this place if I didn't have the money?"

     Greedo's hand tightened on his gun.  He wasn't sure if insulting

one's employer required special action on the part of a bounty hunter.

     What Solo said about being on Tatooine was logical, though.  If

somebody was after your hide, would you fly into his back pocket?

     This is going to be easy.

     "Skak, tm kras ka noota, Solo."  All right, then give me the

money, Solo.  "Vnu sna Greedo vorskl to."

     Then Greedo will be on his way.

     "Yeah, tell ya what, Greedo .  . . 'tell ya what.  It's not quite

that simple.  The loot is bolted into the frame of the Falcon here.

     Secret hiding place.  Understand?  Why don't you .come back

tomorrow morning and I'll hand it right over, easy as pie.  How's that

sound?"

     "Nvtuta bork te ptu motto.  Tm snato."  No, get it right now.

     I'll wait.

     I'm not letting this gulley fish slip out of my grasp, Greedo

thought .  . . espedally with Warhog watchin' me from the shadows.

     "I can't get it right now.  Listen, if you can wait till tomorrow,

I'll throw in a little bonus-a couple thousand credits just for you.

     How's that sound?"

 

     That sounded good.

 

     "Prog mnete enyaz ftt save shuss."  Make it four thousand credits.

     "Four thousand?  Are you craz~v--?  Oh, all right, ya got me over

a barrel, pal.  We'll do it your way.  Four thousand for you, first

thing in the morning.  It's a deal."

     Without another word, Solo turned his back on the bounty hunter

and began cleaning a spanner.  He palmed the little blaster, just in

case the green kid changed his mind.  But a minute later Chewie gave

his "all clear" grunt and Solo relaxed.

     "Great, Chewie.  Can you believe the nerve of that guy?  Now we

got to finish prepping the ship tonight.

     When that punk comes around tomorrow morning, all he's going to

find is a big grease spot on the hangar floor!"

     over to Jabba, after the word starts to get around .  . . then

I'll make friends with those guys.  They'll respect me and we'll have a

drink together and they'll tell me some great stories and I'll tell

them about how I saved Dyyz and Goa by blasting Gorm right through his

electronic guts.

     "... so, like I say, Greedo, there's two sides to every deal with

Jabba.  That's my lesson for today.  If you collect the debt, you'll be

inJabba's good graces.  But if you let Jabba down, you're as good as

dead."

     Greedo tried to sound scornful.  "Don't worry, Warhog.  Solo will

pay.  First we find out for sure if he's got the money with him.  Then,

if he doesn't hand it over, I'll kill him and take it .... You still

going to work backup--in case the Wookiee tries anything?"

     "Sure.  That's the plan, ain't it?"

     "Wknuto, Goa."  Thanks, Goa.

     Warhog Goa sipped a Starshine Surprise and glanced around the Mos

Eisley Cantina.  The bounty-hunter crowd was thinning out.  A lot of

hunters had gotten their contracts and jumped.  Some of 'em were

probably already stalking targets in the streets of cities a thousand

parsecs away.  "Solo doesn't plan to pay you," he said, looking at his

proff~g& "Don't you get it?  It's a stall."

     Warhog noticed the two Rodians sitting in the booth near the

entrance lobby.  They nodded to him and he nodded back.  "You ought to

meet those two Rodies, Greedo.  They're good hunters.  I'll bet they

can teach ya stuff even I don't know.  Want me to introduce you?"

     Greedo looked down at his drink.  Goa wouldn't know about the clan

wars.  I never told him.  He wouldn't know about the time the ships

came, hunting the Tetsus refugees.

     Tetsus just don't talk to strange Rodians.  He wouldn't know that,

because I never told him.

     Yeah, but what's the point?  I'm a bounty hunter now, that's the

important thing.  Bounty hunters hang together, drink together, trade

war stories, help each other out of jams.  So after I take my first

bounty, after Solo pays me and I hand the money Han Solo's ship, the

Millennium Falcon, was still sitting in the docking hangar when Greedo

walked in shortly after sunrise the next morning.

     Han Solo was nowhere to be seen.  Greedo tried to open the

Falcon's hatch, but it was code-locked.

     Greedo and Goa finally found Solo and the Wookiee having breakfast

at a little outdoor cafe behind the dewback stables.

     Greedo kept his hand on his holstered gun, but didn't bother to

turn off the safety because Goa had a rifle trained on the quarry from

the alley across the street.

     "Rylun pa getpa gushu, Solo?"  Enjoy your breakfast, Solo?

     Greedo tried to sound tough and relaxed, but in fact he was wound

up fight.  If Solo stiffed him today, he wouldn't know what to do.

     Jabba wouldn't be happy if he killed Solo without collecting the

debt.

     The contract was for the money, not'a corpse.

     "Greedo!  I've been looking all over for you!  Decide to sleep in

today?"  Han chortled to himself and took another bite of dewback

steak.  Chewbacca raised an eyebrow and cocked his head.  He had his

bowcaster leaning against his leg, loaded and ready.

     "Fna ho koru gep, Solo.  Kras ka noota."  Don't be funny, Solo.

     Give me the money.

     "Sure.  The money.  Happy to oblige.  You want something to eat

first?  You look like you could use a good meal."

     Greedo realized Solo was putting him on, and sudden anger flared

in his veins.  Impulsively he reached down and grabbed Solo's shirt.

     "Ka noota!  Grot pieno ka Jabba spulta?"  The money!  Or would you

like to explain to Jabba personally?

     '2VNRRARRG!"Instantly Chewie was on his feet, one huge shaggy arm

around Greedo's neck, the other grippingthe bounty hunter's blaster

hand.

     "Nfuto~!"

     "Thanks, Chewie."  Han stood up and casually wiped his mouth with

a napkin: He reached over and took Greedo's weapon, snapped open the

chamber, and removed the power cell.  He handed the useless blaster

back to Greedo.

     "You know, kid, I was almost starting to like you.  Now I'm not so

sure.  Let me give you some sage advice.  Stay away from slugs

likeJabba.  Find an honest way to make a living .  . . Let him go,

Chewie."

     "Hnnruaahn!"  Chewie released his grip, and Greedo tumbled

forward.  Han stepped out of the way and Greedo fell against a table,

sending .dishware crashing.

 

     "Nice.  Where does Jabba-find these punks?  What

 

     about the guy in the alley across the street, Chewie?"

     "Hwarru n !  " "Disappeared, huh?  Another half-baked bounty

creep, probably.  You'd thinkJabba could buy the best to track a guy

like me!"

 

     ' 'Hurrwan nwrunnh."

 

     "Yeah, I agree.  We're 'playin' with fire hanging around here.

     The Falcon's prepped--we could have jumped this morning if Taggart

had kept his promise.

     If he doesn't show by tomorrow with that load of glit terstim he

wants transferred, we're history, okay with

 

     you?"

 

     "WNHUARRN!"

 

     "I thought so:"

 

     Jabba the Hutt was not amused.

     "Kubwa fungo no jibo!  You said this inexperienced slime-wart

could collect from Solo!  I ought to toss you both into my private

dungeon and let you rot!"

     Or words to that effect.  The great worm huffed and rumbled and

oozed foulness.  On either side of his throne platform, Weequays and

Nikto brandished their weapons ominously.  As usual, Jabba's audience

chamber was crowded with the dregs of a hundred galactic civilizations.

     Warhog Goa was abject.  He groveled shamelessly before the bloated

drooling crimelord.  As he did so, he regretted bringing Greedo back

here without the prize.  But he had to seek another audience, to

persuade Jabba to let Greedo kill Solo without collecting the debt.

     That was the key.  Now the words tumbled out in one breath--he had

to say it all before Jabba pronounced their deaths!

     "Oh, most incomparable Jabba, as you are well aware, Han Solo,

that worthless piece of dianoga dung, is a very difficult customer.

     May I suggest that you allow my prot6g6 to simply kill Solo, and

take his ship as payment for the debt he owes you?"

     Jabba grunted and puffed his water pipe thoughtfully.

     Then he seemed to brighten, if that were possible.

     "Ne voota kinja.  Jabba likes your suggestion.  He will spare the

superfluous life of your prot6g&" He looked straight at Greedo before

he spoke again.

     At a signal from Jabba, the silver protocol droid, K-8LR, stepped

up and translated Jabba's every evil word into the Rodian tongue: "You

may bring me Solo so that I may kill him--or you may kill him yourself

and deliver his ship's papers to me, Jabba has seen in his wisdom that

this must be so."

     Greedo breathed a sigh of relief and bowed slavishly.

     "Thank you, great Jabba.  Your wisdom is--" "No kungo!  But you

had better work fast!  ! now declare an open bounty on Han Solo.  And I

raise the price for his head to one hundred thousand credits!"

     "One hundred thousand!"  said Goa.  "Every bounty hunter in the--"

"Yes.  So true.  If your protege can't get Solo, somebody else most

certainly will!"

     Then Jabba leaned forward and once again fastened his malevolent

eyes on Greedo.  "And if you do not fulfill our bargain, you had better

start running, little green insect.  Bring me Solo--alive or dead?'

 

     1 1. The Cantina

 

     There was live music today.  The patrons were in an ugly mood.

     Greedo and Goa sat in the booth next to the lobby entrance.  When

Solo and the Wookiee came in, Solo pretended not to see them, but

Chewbacca articulated a low growl as he passed Greedo.

 

     "They know we're here, Warhog."

 

     "Yeah.  That's the idea.  Are you ready to execute the plan?"

     "Nchtha zno to.  Fnrt pwusko vtulla' pa."  I'm not sure.  I'm

getting a bad feeling.

     "Well, if you're not ready, I suggest we head for by perspace,

before Jabba finds out.  I've got work to do:" "Where's Dyyz?"

     "He left this morning.  Hitched a ride with 4-Lorn and Zuckuss.

     Dyyz has a rich contract--a warlord who decided to evict the Hutts

from the Komnor system."

     "Sounds like a difficult job."

     "Very difficult.  But Dyyz Nataz is the man to do it.

     And you're the right hunter for the Han Solo hit, Greedo my boy.

     Are you ready?"

     Just then there was a disturbance at the bar.  Shouting, a

scuffle, then the sudden flash and drone of a lightsaber.  A

dismembered arm flew through the air, landing near Greedo's chair.  The

music stopped.

     Greedo and Goa had noticed the old man and the boy come in, and

they had heard the bartender eject the droids.  Goa had noted the quiet

intensity of the old man, and the thought had crossed his mind: He's

old, but I wouldn't want to test myself against him in a blaster fight.

     The room was deathly silent.  Greedo sucked in his breath and

hooted softly.  "Nice piece of work for an old man," he said.

     "Must be a Jedi," said Goa.  "I thought their kind were long

gone."

 

     Greedo had never seen a Jedi.

 

     The room came to life again, the band resumed too-fling, the

bartender's helper removed the mutilated arm.  Somebody ordered a round

of drinks for the house.

     "Check it, Greedo.  The old man and the kid are talking to Solo

and the Wook.  You're going to have to wait your turn."

     Greedo didn't respond.  His veins were pumping excitement at the

sudden carnage.

     The two Rodian bounty hunters strolled in, and Goa motioned them

over to the table.  Greedo looked at his beer, concentrating on what he

was going to say to Solo.

     "Boys .  . . I'd like you to meet Greedo .  . . my apprentice.

     Greedo, this is Thuku and Neesh, two fine bounty killers."

     Greedo looked up and saw two pair of huge eyes studying him with

detached curiosity.  Did he detect hostility glinting in those

multifaceted orbs?  The one called Thuku held out a suckered hand.  "Wa

tetu dot oota, Greedo."

     "To ceko ura nsha," said Greedo, allowing his suckers to briefly

engage Thuku's.  The three Rodians entered into a short conversation,

while Goa looked on, amused.  Neesh told Greedo he'd heard that Jabba

had awarded him Han Solo as a quarry.  Neesh seemed impressed.  Thuku

warned Greedo that Solo "has already killed two of Jabba's bill

collectors .  . . Be careful, brother.  You could be the next."

     "Thanks for the advice," said Greedo, with bravado.

     "I'm not worried.  I've got Warhog for backup, in case Solo or the

Wookiee try anything stupid."

     The two fellow Rodians exchanged glances with Goa, and Greedo

thought he detected they were silently laughing at him.  Yeah, of

course they think I'm a young fool.

     Well, that's the way it is when you're just starting out.  I'll

show 'em!

     Imperial stormtroopers entered the bar, and a minute later, when

Greedo looked across the room, Solo and the Wookiee were sitting alone.

     The old man and the boy had disappeared.

     After the Imps passed their table, Goa unhRched his blaster and

placed it in front of him.  "Okay, lad.  This is your chance.  If the

Wook tries to interfere, I'll blast him to red smoke."

     The moment had come.  Greedo felt a mixture of fear and

excitement.  He closed his eyes and gathered his energies.  Suddenly

his mind filled with a bright image of a jungle world, dripping green

neon leaves, a gathering of little huts and busy half-naked green

bodies.

     He saw himself, and his brother Pqweeduk, running under the tall

Tendril trees, running toward the village.  He saw his mother standing

in the clearing waiting for them.  He saw himself and his brother run

to her and she held out her arms and hugged them both.  Then he was

inside the vision, looking up into her huge eyes.  She was crying.

     "What's the matter, Mother?  Why are you sad?  .... I am sad and I

am happy, Greedo.  I am sad because of what must happen.  I am happy

because you are coming home."

     Greedo snapped out of his trance and a feeling like an electric

shock went through him.  What was that ?  he thought.

     Goa was staring at him with an annoyed look.

     "C'mon, kid.  Are you gonna make your move?  Solo and the Wook are

startin' to leave!"

     The Wookiee, Chewbacca, passed their table and disappeared into

the lobby.  The perfect moment had arrived.

     Greedo stood up, hand on his blaster.

 

     "Oona goota, Solo?"  Going somewhere, Solo?

 

     "Yes, Greedo, in fact I was just going to see your boss.  Tell

Jabba I've got the money."

     "Sompeetalay.  Vere tan te nacht vakee cheeta.  Jabba warm cheeco

wa rush anye katanye wanaroska."

     Greedo snickered.  "Chas kin yanee ke chusko!"  It's too late, you

should have paid him when you had the chance.  Jabba's put a price on

your head so large every bounty hunter in the galaxy will be looking

for you.

     "Yeah, but this time I've got the money."

     "Enjaya kul a intekun kuthuow."  And I found you first.

 

     "I don't have it with me.  Tell Jabba--"

 

     "Tena hikikne.  Hoko ruya pulyana oolwan spa steeka gush shuku

ponoma three pe."  If you give it to me I might forget I found you.

     Jabba's through with you.  He has no use for smugglers who drop

their cargo at the first sign of an Imperial cruiser.

     "Even I get boarded sometimes.  You think I had a choice?"

     "Tlok Jabba.  Boopa gopakne et an anpaw."  You can tell that to

Jabba.  He may only take your ship.

 

     "Over my dead body."

 

     Goa saw the blaster coming out of Solo's holster under the table.

     He relaxed and leaned back, sipping his Sunburn.

     Poor Greedo, he thought.

     "Ukle nyuma cheskopokuta klees ka tlanko ya oska."  That's the

idea.  I've been looking forward to this for a long time.

 

     "Yes, I'll bet you have."

 

     With a tremendous explosion of light and noise Solo's blaster

propelled a bolt of energy through the wooden table.  When the smoke

cleared there was very little left of Greedo.

     "Sorry about the mess," said Solo, flipping the bartender a coin.

     Spurch Warhog Goa met with the two Rodians on Docking Bay 86, as

he made ready to board his ship, the Nova Viper.

     The tall one, Thuku, handed Goa a chest of newly minted Rodian

coinage, pure gold, each coin embossed with the image of Navik the Red.

     "The Rodians thank you, Goa.  We would have killed him ourselves,

but we can't let it be known we are hunting our own kind."

     "His clan are all sentenced to die," said Neesh, making a snorting

noise with his green snout.

     Goa picked up one of the coins and watched it glint in the

bright-hot Tatooine sun.  "Yeah .  . . but tell ya the truth, boys,

this is one bounty I ain't too proud of.

     Least I didn't have to kill him myself.  I knew Solo would take

care of that."

 

     Hammertong:

 

     The Tale of the "Tonnika Sisters" by Timothy Zahn ~ ~ It's a

dilemma, really, that's what it is," Dr.  Keller ling said in that

precise Imperial Prime University voice of his that went so well with

his young, upper-class-pampered face.  And so poorly with the decidedly

low-class tapcafe he and the two women were sitting in.

     ~'On the one hand there's the whole question of security,"

Kellering continued.  "Especially with all the Rebel activity in this

sector.  And I can assure you that Dr.

     Eloy and I aren't the only persons within the project who are

concerned about it."

     His forehead wrinkled in upper-class-pampered perplexity.

     "But on the other hand, Captain Drome is extremely hot-tempered in

regard to what he considers his personal territory.  If he knew I was

even talking about this matter outside the compound, he'd be terribly

angry.  Especially with people like--well, like you."

     Seated across the table from Kellering, Shada D'ukal took a sip

from her cup, the wine carrying with it a hint of remembered bitterness

and shame.  Like most girls growing up on their war-devastated world,

the Mistryl shadow guards had been the focus of all her hopes.

     They had been the last heroes of her people, the enigmatic cult of

warrior women still fighting to force justice for her world from

uncaring, even hostile, officials of the Empire.  She had begun her

training as soon as they would take her, studying and working and

sweating her way against the odds until, at last, she had been deemed

worthy to be called a Mistryl.  Assigned to a team, she had headed out

on her first mission.

     Only to learn that the Mistryl were no longer the valiant warriors

of legend.

     They were mercenaries.  Nothing more than mercenaries.

     Hiring out to useless, insipid people like Keller-ing.

     She sipped at her wine again, listening with half an ear as

Kellering prattled on, letting the memories fade.

     Now, a year and seven missions later, the shame had faded to a

dull ache in the back of her mind.  Someday, she hoped, it would be

gone altogether.

     Beside Shada, Team Prime Manda D'ulin lifted a hand, finally

putting an end to Kellering's ramblings.

     "We understand your problem, Dr.  Kellering," she said.  "May I

suggest that you've already made your decision.

     Otherwise the three of us wouldn't be sitting here."

     "Yes, of course."  Kellering sighed.  "I suppose I'm still--but

that's foolish.  The Mistryl may be somewhat --but still, you certainly

come highly recommended.

     When my cousin was telling me about you, he said you had" "The

mission, Doctor," Manda interrupted again.

     "Tell us about the mission."

     "Yes.  Of course."  Kellering took a deep breath, his eyes darting

around the crowded tapcare as if wondering which of the humans or

aliens at the other tables out there might be Imperial spies.  Or maybe

he was just wondering what he was doing outside his pampered little

academic world.  Consorting with mercenaries.

     "I'm connected to a research project called Hammertong," he said,

his voice so low now that Shada could barely hear it over the

background noise.

     "My superior, Dr.  Eloy, is senior scientist of the group.

     A couple of weeks ago the Emperor's representative to the project

informed us that we were all going to be moved to some new location.

     We're to leave in three days."

     "And you don't think Captain Drome is handling security properly?"

     Manda asked.

     Kellering shrugged uncomfortably.  "Dr.  Eloy doesn't.  The two of

them have had several arguments about it."

 

     "So what exactly do you want from us?"

 

     "I suppose--well, I really don't know," Kellering confessed,

throwing hooded looks back and forth between the two women.  "I suppose

I thought we could talk to Captain Drome about you bringing in some

people to help guard us en route .  . ."  He trailed off, apparently

finally noticing the expression on Manda's face.

     "Let me explain something about the Mistryl, Dr.

     Kellering," she said, her voice still polite but with an edge of

chromed mullinine to it.  "Your cousin probably told you we were just

your standard group of fringe mercenaries.  We're not.  He probably

told you we sell our services to the highest bidder, no questions or

ethics involved.  We don't.  The Mistryl are the warriors of a

forgotten cause; and if we hire ourselves out as temporary security to

people like you, it's because our world and our people require money to

survive.  We will not work with Imperial forces.  Ever."

     Strong words.  But that was all they were.  There was a great deal

of simmering hatred toward the Empire among the Mistryl, anger for

their suspected complicity during the war and for their complete

indifference since then.  But with the remnant of their people living

on the edge of survival, the simple cold truth was that the Mistryl

couldn't afford to turn down anything but the most odious of offers

from the most odious of people.

     Manda could sound as high-minded as she wanted to, but in the end

she and the team would accept Kel-lering's job.

     And as she had seven times before, Shada would do her best to help

them fulfill the contract.  Because the other simple cold truth was

that she had nowhere else to go.

     But of course, Kellering didn't know that; and from the look on

his face, Manda might have just dropped a large building on him.  "Oh,

no," he breathed.

     "Please.  We need you.  Look, we're not really with the

Empire--we're funded by them, but we're actually a completely

independent research group."

     "I see," Manda murmured, frowning thoughtfully.

     Making a show of the decision-making process, probably in hopes of

stifling any protest on Kellering's part when she finally named her

price.  With an Imperial-funded project, that price was likely to be

high.

     It was.  "All right," Manda said at last.  "We can bypass your

Captain Drome entirely and run you a forward screen net that should

flash out the sort of ambushes the Rebel Alliance likes to stage these

days, You said three days till departure; that'll give us time to bring

a few other teams in.  We should be able to field a minimum of ten

ships in the screen, plus a two-ship aft guard in case the Rebels try

something cute."  She lifted her eyebrows slightly.  "The fee will be

thirty thousand."

     Kellering's eyes bulged.  "Thirty thousand?"  He gulped.

     "You got it," Manda said.  "Take it or don't."

     Shada watched Kellering's face as it went through the run of

shock, nervousness, and discomfiture.  But as Manda had pointed out, if

he hadn't already made his decision they wouldn't be here.  "All

right," he sighed.  "All right.  Dr.  Eloy can cut you a credit when we

meet with him this afternoon."

     Manda shot Shada a quick glance.  "You want us to meet with Dr.

     Eloy?"

 

     "Of course."  Kellering seemed surprised by the

 

     question.  "He's the one most worried about security."

     "Yes, but .  . . where would we meet him?  Here?"

     "No, at the compound," Kellering said.  "He almost never leaves

there.  Don't worry, I can get you in."

     "What about Drome?"  Manda asked.  "You said yourself he was

pretty touchy on the subject of outsiders."

     "Captain Drome isn't in charge of the project," Kel-lering s. aid

with precise firmness.  "Dr.  Eloy is."

     "Such details seldom bother Imperial military of-ricers," Manda

countered.  "If he catches us therein" "He won't," Kellering assured

her.  "He won't even know you're there.  Besides, you need to see how

the Hammertong's been loaded aboard the ship if you're going to know

how to properly protect it."

     Manda didn't look happy, but she nodded nevertheless.

     "All right," she said, her hand curling into a subtle signal as

she did so.  "I have a couple of matters to attend to here first, but

after that I'll be happy to come with you, Shada can go off planet in

my place and get the rest of the team assembled."

     "Understood."  Shada nodded.  The team didn't need any assembling,

of course--all six of them were right here in this tapcafe, with their

two disguised fighters, the Skyclaw and Mirage, parked in separate

docking bays across town.  But it was as good an excuse as any for

Shada to disappear from sight.  Backups, after all, weren't supposed to

be seen.

     "Good," Manda said briskly.  "Have the others here in Gorno by

nightfall.  In the meantime--" She gestured Kellering toward the door.

     "We'll go deal with a couple of details, and then go meet your Dr.

     Eloy."

     "They're approaching the gate," Pav D'armon's voice murmured from

one of the two comlinks fastened to Shada's collar.  "Two guards

visible, but I see movement in the gatehouse behind the fence.  Could

be as many as six or seven more in there."

     "Copy," Shada acknowledged, stroking a finger restlessly across

the side of her sniper's blaster rifle and wishing Pav wouldn't get so

chatty on the air.  Mistryl comlinks were heavily encrypted, but that

wouldn't stop the Imperials from pinpointing the transmissions if they

took it into their heads to do so.  And this close to a major base,

that was a distinct possibility.

     The base.  Lifting her eyes from the section of road winding

through the hills below--the road Manda and Kellering would be

traversing in a few minutes if they made it through the gate Shada

studied the waves of rolling hills that stretched into the distance

beyond the innocuous security fence cutting across her view.  It

certainly looked like the agricultural test ground the signs on the

fence claimed it to be, not at all like the weapons-bristling popular

image of an Imperial military research base.  But its strategic

location, within fifty kilometers of the Gorno spaceport and four major

technical supply and transport centers, made its true identity obvious.

     Perhaps too obvious.  Perhaps that was why they were moving

everyone out.  She wondered how they would handle it: subtly with

freighters, or blatantly with Imperial Star Destroyers.  Kellering had

implied this Ham-mertong thing had already been loaded for transport; a

look at the ship they were using should give Manda a clue as to how

they were going to go about it.  That would affect how their screen net

would be put together".  They're through," 'Pav reported.  "Gate's

closing.

     They're headed your way."

     "Copy," Shada said, frowning.  There was something in Pav's voice

. . . "Trouble?"

     "I don't know," Pav said slowly.  "It all looks okay.

     But there's something here that feels wrong, somehow."

     Shada tightened her grip on her blaster rifle.  Pav might be a

chattercase on the com, but she hadn't survived long enough to become

Manda's team second without good combat instincts.  "What do you mean?"

     "I'm not sure," Pav said.  "They got through just a little bit too

quickw" And abruptly, Pav's voice dissolved into an earsplitting shriek

of jamming static.

     With a curse, Shada ripped the comlink from her collar with her

left hand, throwing it as far away from her as she could.  So much for

Kellering's naive assurances of safety.  In the split of a hair the

thing had suddenly gone sour .  . . and Manda and Pav were right in the

middle of it.

     With Shada herself about to come in a close third.

     Beyond the fence, from over the next line of hills, the gleaming

white figures of a dozen stormtroopers on speeder bikes had suddenly

appeared.  Headed her way.

     Shada cursed again, lining up her blaster rifle with her right

hand as she groped for the switch on her backup comlink with her left.

     If they were lucky, they'd have a minute before the Imperials

found that frequency and locked it down too.  She located the switch,

flicked it on " trap--repeat, a trap," Pav was saying, her voice tight.

     "They've got Manda--she's down.  Probably.  And they're coming for

me."

     "Pav, it's Shada," Shada cut in, squinting through the sight and

squeezing off a shot.  The lead storm-trooper's speeder bike exploded

into a shower of sparks, pitching him to the ground and nearly doing

the same to the two on either side of him.  "I can be there to back you

up in two minutes."

 

     "Negative," Pav said.  The tension in her voice was

 

     gone, leaving a sad sort of resignation that sent a cold chill up

Shada's neck.  "They're already too close.  I'll do what I can to keep

them busy--you and Karoly had better get back to the ships and get out

of here.  Good luck, and good--" There was a brief crinkle of sound,

and then silence.

     Ahead, the speeder bikes had shifted into evasive maneuvers.

     Shada fired four rapid shots, catching another of the

stormtroopers with the third of them.

     "Karoly?"  she called toward her comlink.  "Karoly?  Are you

there?"

     "They're gone, Shada," Karoly D'ulin said, her voice almost

unrecognizable.  "They're gone.  The storm-trooperst" "Snap out of it,"

Shada snarled, keying the Viper grenade launcher attached to her

blaster rifle barrel.

     The recoil kicked the gun hard into her shoulder as the slender

cylinder blasted out toward the approaching stormtroopers.  "Can you

get to your speeder?"

     There was a short pause, and Shada could imagine Karoly's earnest

face as she pulled herself together.

     "Yes," she said.  "Are we retreating?"

     "Not a chance," Shada said through gritted teeth, getting halfway

to her feet and heading at a crouch toward the bushes where her speeder

bike was hidden.

     "We're heading in.  Get moving."  The approaching stormtroopers,

finally presented with a target, opened fire-Just as the grenade hit

the ground ten meters in front of them, exploding into a billowing

cloud of green smoke.

     "We're going in?"  Karoly echoed in disbelief.

     "Shada--" "I'm clear."  Shada cut her off, slinging the rifle over

her shoulder and kicking the speeder bike to life.  Over the roar of

the engine she could hear the thuds of her erstwhile attackers falling

out of the sky as the specially formulated smoke burned into the

speeder bikes' power connectors.  "Call Cai and Sileenmtell them to

bring the ships in for backup."

 

     "But where are we going?."

 

     Shada swung the speeder bike around.  Manda and Pav were gone, and

she knew that eventually the pain of that loss would catch up with her.

     But for right now, she had only enough room for a single emotion.

     Rage.

     "We're going to teach the Imperials a lesson," she told Karoly.

     Kicking the throttle to full power, she jumped the fence, curved

around the edge of the green cloud, and headed in.

     It was a little over ten kilometers from the outer fence to the

main base area, and for the first eight of them Shada flew low over the

rolling hills and wondered where in blazes the vaunted Imperial

defenses were.  Either they hadn't thrown this ambush together until

Kellering's ground car pulled up at the gate, or else they'd assumed

their quarry would run for it and had concentrated their forces out

beyond the fence.

     Or else they were concentrating on Karoly.  Blinking against the

wind pounding against her face, trying not to think about what she

might have gotten her teammate into, Shada kept going.

     She was two kilometers out when the Imperials seemed to finally

wake up to the fact they had an intruder in their midst .  . . and

those two kilometers more than made up for the preceding eight.  Three

Mekuun hoverscouts rose from nowhere to meet her, bolstered by two more

squads of speeder-bike storm-troopers.

     Off to the side, sections of two hills opened up, revealing a pair

of what looked like Comar an-tiatmospheric guns.  The air around her

was suddenly thick with blaster and laser bolts, some missing, the rest

deflected by shields that hadn't really been designed with this kind of

all-out attack in mind.  Clenching her teeth hard enough to hurt, Shada

kept going, maneuvering and returning fire on pure reflex.  Off to her

left, she could see another whirlwind of Imperial activity near where

Karoly should be coming into

 

     And then, suddenly, the hoverscouts and speeder

 

     bikes seemed to scramble out of her path.  The Comar guns shifted

their aim away from herin And with a screaming roar the Skyclaw shot

past overhead, spitting a withering fire of laser blasts at the

Imperials.

     "Kan si manis per tam, Sha," Sileen's voice blared from the

Skyclaw's belly loudspeaker.  "Mi nazh ko."

     "Sha kae," Shada shouted back, shifting fifteen' degrees to her

left as per Sileen's instructions and permitting herself a flash of

cold satisfaction.  The Imperials might be able to jam comlinks and

slice sophisticated encrypts, but she would bet starships to

groundworms they wouldn't have the faintest idea what to do with

Mistryl battle language.  To her left, she could see Cai and the Mirage

now, running cover for Karoly, and she made a quick estimate of their

intersect point.  Just over the next row of hills, she decided.

     Dropping a little lower to the ground-, she braced herself for

whatever Sileen had sent her toward.

     She topped the hills; and there, nestled in a wide valley, was a

complex of perhaps twenty buildingg, ranging in size from flat office

blocks to a single windowless structure the size of a capital ship

maintenance hangar.  The Hammertong base, without a doubt.

     And lying in the middle of it all, dominating the scene by the

sheer unexpectedness of its presence there, was the long sleek shape of

a Loronar Strike Cruiser.

     "Sha re rei sam kava no talae," Sileen's voice boomed again from

above her.  Without waiting for an answer, both fighters veered off to

the right.

     A motion to her left caught Shada's eye, and she turned as

Karoly's speeder bike slid into formation beside her.  "You all righO"

Shada called.

     "Yes," Karoly shouted back.  She still looked nervous, but at

least she didn't look as if she were going to freeze up again.  "What

did Sileen say?  I didn't catch it."

     "More Imperials coming," Shada said.  "She and Cai are going to

intercept."

 

     "What about us?"

 

     Shada nodded toward the Strike Cruiser.  "We're going to make the

Imperials hurt a little.  Bow hatchway's open--let's try to get there

before they get it sealed."

     They found out immediately what two of the smaller buildings on

the periphery of the complex were for, as sections of wall fell away

and four more Comar guns opened fire.  But it was too little too late.

     Between the harassment from the two fighters and the small size

and maneuverability of the speeder bikes themselves, Shada and Karoly

made it past the hot drive nozzles at the Strike Cruiser's stern and

into the relative shelter of its flank with no damage apart from

burned-out shields.

     "Pretty rotten security they've got here," Karoly huffed as they

headed toward the bow hatchway.  An instant later she nearly had to

swallow those words as, from the ground beside the landing ramp, a

dozen Imperials opened fire with blaster rifles.  But the two speeder

bikes had the edge in both firepower and targeting accuracy, and they'd

covered no more than half the Strike Cruiser's four-hundred,fifty-meter

length before that nest of opposition had been silenced.

     "Now what?"  Karoly asked as they braked to a halt at the foot of

the ramp.

     "We do some damage," Shada said, half standing up on her speeder

bike and taking a quick look around.

     There was still some resistance, mostly from the Comars and the

handful of speeder-bike stormtroopers that hadn't yet been blown out of

the sky.  She and Karoly should have enough time to make their way to

tide Strike Cruiser's bridge, drop a canister or two of their corrosive

green smoke where it would do the most good, and get the blazes out

again.

     And then, over the distant hills ahead, a new group of Imperial

forces appeared, burning through the air toward them like scorched

mynocks.  "Uh-oh," Karoly muttered.  "I take it back about their

security.  Maybe we'd better get out while we still can."

     Shada took a deep breath, her last views of Manda's and Pav's

faces floating up from her memory.  "Not until we've hurt them," she

said, swiveling around and pointing her speeder bike at the ramp.

     "Stay here long enough to give me a two-minute warning, then you

can take off."

     Karoly hissed between her teeth.  "Get moving," she gritted out as

she dropped her speeder bike into the limited protection of the ramp

and unslung her blaster rifle.  "I'll cover you.  Make it fast."

     "Bet on it," Shada agreed tightly, trying to visualize the

standard Strike Cruiser layout as she headed up the ramp.  She would

have to go forward about ten meters along the exit corridor, then

starboard to the central corridor, then forward another twenty meters

to get to the bridge.  Standard Strike Cruiser complement was something

over two thousand crewers; if there was even a fraction of that number

aboard who felt like getting in her way .  . . but she would just have

to do what she could.  She reached the top of the ramp, swerving to the

side as she passed under the hatchway arch to avoid the exit corridor

bulkheadAnd lurched to an abrupt halt.  "Mother of---" "What?" 

Karoly's voice snapped from the comlink on her collar.

     "Shada?  What is it?"

     For a moment Shada was too stunned even to speak.

     Stretched out in front of her, where the command rooms, crew

quarters, and combat stations should have been, was a vast cavern of

open space, three hundred meters long and nearly fifty in diameter,

running all the way from the bow to the main drive section.  A heavily

reinforced deck had been built across the bottom of the huge room,

connected to the outer hull by an intricate spiderwebbing of support

lines and bracing struts.

     And extending down the center of the chamber for at least

three-quarters of its length was a three-meter-diameter cylinder

studded with thousands of pipe connections and multicolored power and

control cable linkages.  Carefully wrap-protected, just as carefully

static-fastened to the deck, all ready for travel.

 

     The Hammertong.

 

     "Shada?"  Karoly called again.

     Shada swallowed, glancing around.  The chamber seemed to be

deserted, its crew or workers probably those who'd been shooting at

them from the foot of the ramp.  To her left, at the far forward end of

the chamber, the standard Strike Cruiser bridge had been replaced by a

simplified freighter-style cockpit, also unmanned.

     And from the looks of the status displays--and the way those drive

nozzles had been humming when she and Karoly had passed themit looked

as if they'd been running an active status check on the flight systems

when the Mistryl attack had interrupted them.

     Which meant the ship should be pretty much ready to fly .  . .

     "Change of plans," she told Karoly, swiveling around and gunning

the speeder bike forward toward the cockpit setup.  "Get in here.  And

seal the door behind you."

     She was running the start-up procedure at the Strike Cruiser's

helm by the time Karolyjoined her.  "Mother of space and time," Karoly

breathed, backing up to the copilot's seat, her eyes goggling at the

room behind them.  "Is that the Hammertong thing Kellering was talking

about?"

     "I don't know what else it could be," Shada said, mentally

crossing her fingers as she eased in the repul-sorlifts.

     A ship this size wasn't really designed to come this deep into a

gravity well .  . . but it seemed to be lifting okay.  The Imperials

must have added more repulsorlifts while they were gutting the

interior.  "Get the comm adjusted to our frequency, will you?"

     "Sure."  Still keeping half an eye behind them, Karoly sat down

and busied herself with the comm.

     "What's the plan?"

     "The Imperials went to a lot of work to build that thing and

modify a .ship to transport it," Shada said, giving the displays a

careful scan.  For all their arrogance, the Imperials weren't stupid,

especially when it came to hardware as impressive as the Hammertong.

     If their ground defenses had been low-profile, they were bound to

have some heavy space-based weaponry nearby to back it up.

     But if it was there, it wasn't showing up on the displays.

     Hiding around the horizon?  Or could the Mistryl counterattack

have caught the whole bunch of them by surprise?

     Either way, there was no percentage in waiting around for them to

get their seats under their rears.

     "You got Cai and Sileen yet?"  she asked Karoly.

     "Almost," Karoly said, her hands busy on the board.

     "I'm running a split-freq mix .  . . there we go."

     "Shada?  Karoly?"  Sileen's voice came over the speaker.  "What in

blazes are you doing?"

     "We're giving the Empire a bloody nose," Shada said.  The Strike

Cruiser had cleared the boundary of the base now and was starting to

pick up speed, leaving what was left of the speeder-bike force behind

them.

     "Shada--look, we're all upset about Manda and Pav," Sileen said

carefully.  "But this is just crazy.

     You're going to bring the whole Imperial fleet down on top of us."

     "They need to know they can't just go around killing Mistryl,"

Shada retorted.  "Not without paying dearly for it.  Karoly and I can

handle it ourselves if you want to leave."

     There was a hissing sigh from the speaker.  "No, we'd better stick

together," Sileen said.  "Anyway, what can the Empire do to us that

hasn't already been done?"

     "I'm in, too," Cai said.  "One small question: Now that we've got

the Hammertong, what are we going to do with it?"

     Shada glanced back at the long silent cylinder behind her, the

enormity of what she'd gotten them into belatedly starting to sink in.

     What were they going to do with the Hammertong?  She and Karoly

could nurse the Strike Cruiser along for a short flight by themselves,

but that was it.  Anything beyond that--fancy maneuvering, combat, even

basic running maintenance--was out of the question.  "We'll have to

ditch the ship," she told the others.  "Someplace close by.  Find a way

to hide it, then see if we can disassemble the Ham-mertong into pieces

we can put aboard one of our own freighters."

     "Sounds tricky," Karoly said.  "You got someplace in mind?"

     "We've got company," Sileen cut in before Shada could answer.

     "Imperial Star Destroyer, coming out of hyperspace aft."

     "Got it," Karoly said, swiveling around to the sensor section of

the board.  "Confirm one Imperial Star Destroyer.

     Launching TIE fighters."

     "The base probably called for help," Shada said, keying the

navcomputer.  This was it: no second thoughts, no chance of grounding

the Strike Cruiser and escaping aboard the fighters.  They were

committed now.  "Cai, Sileen, here comes your course feed--code

Bitterness.  Make the jump to lightspeed as soon as you can; we'll be

right behind you."

     There was a brief pause.  "You sure this is where you want to go?"

     Sileen asked.

     "I don't see us having a lot of choices," Shada said.

     "It"s close, it hasn't got much of an Imperial presence, and the

locals don't ask a lot of questions."  She could imagine Sileen gazing

out at the Strike Cruiser and wondering just how far the locals'

indifference was going to stretch.  But-"All right," was all Sileen

said.  "You want both of us to come with you, or should I head out and

try to scare up a freighter?"

 

     "That's a good idea," Shada agreed.  "Go ahead.  Cai

 

     and Karoly and I can handle this end."

 

     "Okay.  Good luck."

 

     The Skyclaw flickered with pseudomotion and vanished into

hyperspace.  "Here we go," Shada muttered, keying in their course and

hoping fervently that the Imperials hadn't torn the hyperdrive apart as

part of the ship's preflight check.  Those TIE fighters back there were

getting uncomfortably close, and there wasn't much margin for error

here.  "Everything set there, Karoly?"

     "Looks like it," Karoly said, checking over her own board.  "You

going to let me in on the big secret of where we're going?"

     "No secret," Shada said, reaching for the hyperdrive levers.

     "Just a useless little hole in space.  Called Tatooine."

     It was not so much a landing as it was a marginally controlled

crash; and by the time the Strike Cruiser had skidded to a halt against

one of the rippling sand dunes, it was clear to Shada that the ship

would never leave there again.  Not without a great deal of assistance.

     "Terrific landing," Karoly commented, her breath coming a little

heavily as she shut down the drive.  "I presume it's occurred to you

that we stick out here like a Wookiee wearing landing lights."

     "Not for long we won't," Shada said, checking the displays.  "That

cloud to the west is the leading edge of a sandstorm.  Another hour and

no one's going to find us.  Come on, let's go take a lookat our new

toy."

     They had the wrap-protection off the first couple of meters of the

Hammertong by the time Cai joined them.  "Any trouble?"  Shada asked.

     "Not really," Cai said, stepping up to the Ham-mertong and peering

closely at it.  "I'm not sure they even picked me up coming in.  They

sure didn't hail

 

     me."

 

     "Usually no one bothers with ships that aren't coming into the

spaceport at Mos Eisley," Shada said.  "A lot of contraband comes

through Tatooine, and everyone pretty much looks the other way."

     "I'm glad one of us keeps up with these things," Cai said dryly.

     "So this is the Hammertong, huh?  Any idea what it is?"

     "Not yet," Shada said.  "How's your astromech droid doing these

days?"

     "Deefour?  Erratic but functional.  You want me to go get him?"

     Shada nodded.  "We'll want to get a technical readout at the very

least.  Is the Mirage ready for that sandstorm?"

     "As ready as it's going to be," Cai said, heading back toward the

hatchway.  "I tried to position it to keep a passage clear to both

ships, and we can put the hatchway deflector shields up just to make

sure.  I'll be right back."

     The full force of the sandstorm hit about ten minutes after Cai

and the droid returned; and it took less than ten minutes more for

Shada to wonder if this whole idea might not have been a big mistake.

     Even through the thick hull they could hear the drumming of the

sand against the ship, a drumming that was growing louder with each

passing minute.  The plan had been to hide the Strike Cruiser from

probing Imperial eyes; it would be a rather costly victory if they all

wound up entombed inside it.

     Cai was apparently thinking along the same lines.

     "That's all the bolts down there," she said, climbing out from

under the Hammertong and handing her hydrospanner to Karoly.  "I'm

going to go check on the storm.  Make sure we're not getting buried too

deep."

     "Good idea," Shada said, returning her attention to her own line

of bolts.  She finished them, waited as Karoly finished hers, and then

together they eased the massive access panel off.

     The Hammertong's inner workings weren't nearly as complex as the

number of pipe and power connections poking through the surface would

have suggested.

     Most of the power and control cables seemed to run to a series of

multihelix prismatic crystals and a group of unlabeled but identical

black boxes; the piping seemed mostly connected to coolant lines and

sleeves.  "Maybe it's some new kind of power core," Shada suggested.

     "It's a modular design--see how the pattern of connectors repeats

every five meters down the side?  We ought to be able to take it apart

at those spots."

     "Maybe," Karoly said, prodding thoughtfully at one of the black

boxes with the end of her hydrospanner.

     "Deefour, see if you can find a place to tie in.  Might as well

start pulling a technical readout--we're going to want everything we

can get on this thing."

     "Hey?  Cai called from the cockpit area.  "Shada, Karoly--you'd

better come see this."

     She was hunched over the main display, fiddling with the

fine-tuning, when the other two reached her.

     "What is it?"  Shada demanded.

     "I'm not sure," Cai said.  "Hard to tell through all the sand, but

I think there's a battle going on up there.

     An Imperial Star Destroyer against something about the size of a

bulk freighter."

     Shada leaned over the display, heart pounding.  If Sileen had been

unexpectedly fast at bringing in transport for them .  . . "Can you

scrub the image any more?"  she asked.

     "I'm at the limit already," Cai said.  "It's the sand-storm--wait

a minute, there's a break.  It's a Corellian Corvette."

     Shada let out a quiet sigh.  Not one of the Mistryl's ships, then.

     "I wonder what's going on."

     "I don't know," Cai said slowly.  "Wait a minute.  Two more Star

Destroyers coming in from hyperspace."

     "That's a lot of firepower for a planet like Tatooine," Karoly

said.  "They only had one Star Destroyer guarding the Hammertong."

     "Unless one or more of these were supposed to have been there,

too," Shada suggested.  "Could be they got pulled away to help chase

that Corellian."

     "Either way, the Corellian must be pretty important to them," Cai

said.  "We could be in the middle of something really big here."

     Shada looked back at the Hammertong and,the diminutive droidr

working alongside it.  Cai was right .  . .

     and suddenly she was feeling very short on time.  "Cai, do you

think we could get one of those modules off the Hammertong?"

     "We could try.  Probably take a couple of days with just the three

of us and Deefour.  Why?"

     "l don't think we're going to be able to wait for Sileen to bring

back a ship," Shada said.  "If she hasn't made it in by the time we get

one of those modules off, we'd better take what we've got and get out

of here."

     "You'll never get one of those modules into the Mi- ' rage,"

Karoly objected.  "It's way too big."

     "I know," Shada said.  "That's why, if it comes to that, you and I

will go to Mos Eisley and hire ourselves a freighter.  Come on, let's

get started."

     "Over there," Shada said, pointing toward a dilapidated building

across the sandy Mos Eisley street and double-checking her datapad.

     "That's the cantina."

     "Doesn't look like much," Karoly said, swinging the Mirage's

antique speeder over toward it.  "You really think we're going to find

a good pilot in there?"

     "Someone in the Mistryl thought so."  Shada shrugged.  "It was the

top name on the contingency list for Tatooine."

     "I doubt that's a really telling recommendation," Karoly grumbled,

letting the speeder coast to a stop.  "I don't like this, Shada.  I

really don't."

     "Brea, not Shada," Shada corrected her.  "And you're Senni.  Don't

forget that inside or this whole thing could fall apart."

     "It's got a good chance of doing that all by itself," Karoly shot

back.  "Look, just because a couple of stormtroopers on traffic duty

bought this charade"--she gestured sharply at the slinky jumpsuit and

hived-hairdo wig she was wearing--"doesn't mean anyone who actually

knows the Tonnika sisters is going to fall for it.  They're not."

     "Well, we certainly can't use our own names and IDs," Shada

pointed out, trying to hide her own nervousness about this masquerade.

     "This place is crawling with stormtroopers already, and if they

haven't got listings on us yet, they will soon.  The Mistryl have been

running this camouflage prematch system for a long time now, and I've

never yet heard of it failing.  If it says the two of us can pass as

Brea and Senni Tonnika, then we can."

     "Looking like them and acting like them are two very different

things," Karoly countered.  "Besides which, pretending to be a couple

of criminals is not my idea of keeping low."

 

     She had a point, Shada had to admit.  Brea and

 

     Senni Tonnika were professional con artists~good · ones, too--who

were said to have separated an impressive amount of wealth from an

equally impressive list of the galaxy's rich and powerful.  Under

normal circumstances, borrowing their identities would indeed not be a

smart way to stay inconspicuous.

     But the circumstances here were far from normal.

     "We don't have any choice," she said firmly.  "Complete strangers

automatically draw attention, and a place like Mos Eisley is always

crawling with informants.

     Especially now.  Our only chance of keeping the Imperials off us

is to look as if we belong here.  To everyone."  She looked out at the

cantina.  Karoly was right; the place didn't look very inviting.  "If

you'd rather, you can stay out here and watch the door.  I can find a

pilot by myself."

     Karoly sighed.  "We're going to have to talk someday about these

sudden surges of recklessness.  Come on, we're wasting time."

     Shada had held out the hope that, like certain other criminal dens

she'd heard of, the cantina's interior would be a marked improvement

over its exterior.  But it wasn't.  From the dark, smoke-filled lobby

and flickering droid detector to the curved bar and secluded booths

along the walls, the cantina was as shabby as some of the less choice

tapcafes on their own world.

     Karoly had been right: Being number one on Tatooine wasn't saying

much.

 

     "Watch.  the steps," Karoly murmured beside her.

 

     "Thanks," Shada said, catching herself in time not to trip over

the steps leading down from the lobby to the main part of the cantina.

     She hadn't realized until then just how much her eyes were having

to adjust from the bright sunlight outside to the dimness of the

interior.

     Probably deliberately designed to give those already inside a

chance to check out any newcomers.

     But if any of the patrons were overly curious about her and

Karoly, they weren't showing it.  Around the room, humans and aliens of

all sorts were sitting or squatting at the tables and booths or leaning

against the bar, drinking a dozen different liquids and chatting in a

dozen different languages and not paying the least bit of attention to

the new arrivals.  Apparently, the Tonnika sisters were familiar enough

to the clientele to be known on sight.

 

     Or else minding one's own business was the general

 

     rule here.  Either way, it suited Shada just fine.

     "What now?"  Karoly asked.

     "Let's go over to the bar," Shada said, nodding to an empty spot

against one side.  "We can see the room better from there than from a

table or booth.  We'll get a drink and see if we can find anyone from

our listings."

     They made their way through the general flow of bodies to the bar.

     Across the room, a Bith band was belting out some bouncy but

otherwise nondescript tune, the music not quite able to drown out the

mix of conversations.  Partway around the bar a tall not-quite-human

was smoking from an oddly shaped loop pipe and gazing off broodingly

into space; beyond him, an Aqualish and a badly scarred man were

drinking and glaring around at other customers; beyond them, another

tall human was holding a quiet conversation with an even taller

Wookiee.

 

     "What'11 you have?"  a surly voice asked.

 

     Shada focused on the bartender standing there in front of them.

     The expression on his face matched his voice; but there seemed to

be some recognition behind the indifference in his eyes.

     Enough to risk an experimenL "We'll have the usual," she told him.

     He grunted and busied himself at the bar.  Shada glanced at

Karoly's suddenly aghast expression, winked reassuringly, and turned

back as the bartender put two slender glasses in front of them.  He

grunted again and walked away.

     Shada picked up her glass, willing the tension to flow out of her.

     "Cheers," she said, lifting the glass to Karoly.

 

     "Are you crazy?"  Karoly hissed back.

 

     "Would you rather I had ordered something way out of character for

us?"  Shada asked, taking a careful sip: Some kind of Sullustan wine,

she decided.  "Let's get started."

     Still glowering, Karoly pulled the slender cylinder of their

spies' scanner/datapad from her jumpsuit and flicked it on.  "All

right," she muttered, glancing back and forth between it and the

cantina's patrons.  "The fellow with the loop pipe .  . . never mind,

he's an assassin.

     Those two Duros over there .  . . no listing here for them."

     "Their flight suits look too neat for smugglers, anyway," Shada

said.  Across the bar, an old man with white hair and beard and dressed

in a brown robe stepped up to the Wookiee and his tall companion.

     There was a short conversation between the two humans, and then

the tall human gestured to the Wookiee and wandered away.  "What about

that Aqual-ish over there?"

     "I was just checking him," Karoly said, peering down at the end of

the scanner.  "Name's Ponda Baba, and he's definitely a smuggler.  That

scarface beside him--"

 

     "Hey!"  the bartender barked.

 

     Shada stiflened, her hand reaching reflexively for her hidden

knife.

 

     But the bartender wasn't looking at her.  "We don't

 

     serve their kind here," he snapped, gesturing sharply.

     "What?"  came a voice from behind her.

     Shada turned around.  At the top of the steps stood a boy about

her own age, dressed in loose white clothing and frowning in puzzlement

at the bartender.  Beside him were two droids, a protocol droid and an

astromech unit similar to Cai's Deefour model.  "Your droids," the

bartender growled.  "They'll have to wait outside--we don't want them

here."

     The kid spoke briefly to the droids, who turned and scurried back

out.  Continuing down the steps alone, he moved over to the bar and

gingerly wedged himself in between the Aqualish and the old man in the

brown robe.

     "The scarface is named Dr.  Evazan," Karoly said.

     "I've got ten death sentences listed here for him."

     "For smuggling?"  Shada asked, frowning at the brown-robed old

man.  There was something about him; some sense of quiet alertness and

self-control and power that set the hairs tingling on the back of her

neck.

     "No," Karoly said slowly.  "Botched surgical experiments.

     Yecch."

     "We'll keep him in mind as a last resort," Shada said, her eyes

and thoughts still on the brown-robed man.  Whoever he was, he

definitely didn't fit in with the rest of the clientele.  An Imperial

spy, perhaps?

     "That old man over there--do a check on him," she told Karoly.

     The kid was still standing on his other side, gawking around like

a tourist.  Were they together?

     Grandfather and grandson, maybe, in from the countryside to see

the big city?

     And then, abruptly, the Aqualish gave the kid a shove and snarled

something at him.  The kid looked at him blankly, then turned back to

the bar.  Stepping away from the bar, smiling rather like a predator

preparing himself for lunch, Dr.  Evazan tapped the kid on the

shoulder.  "He doesn't like you," he said.

     "Sorry," the kid breathed, starting to turn away again.

     Evazan grabbed a handful of the kid's clothing and yanked him back

around.  "I don't like you, either," he snarled, shoving his mangled

face close to the kid's.

     Around them, conversations came to a halt as heads turned to look.

     "You just watch yourself," Evazan continued.

     "We're wanted men."

 

     "Uh-oh," Karoly said quietly.

 

     Shada nodded silently.  The kid was in for it now--she'd seen

enough tapcafe fights to know a setup when she saw one.  "We're staying

out of it," she reminded Karoly.

 

     "But if they get arrested--"

 

     Shada cut her off with a sharp gesture.  Smoothly, gracefully, as

if he'd been fully aware of the situation from the start, the old man

had turned away from his conversation with the Wookiee.  "This little

one's not worth the effort," he said soothingly to Evazan.

     "Come, let me get you something."

     It was, Shada realized, as neat a face-saving gesture as she'd

ever seen.  Evazan and the Aqualish could now accept a drink, maybe

snarl and posture a little more, and then move on with whatever passed

for personal honor intact.

     But unfortunately for the old man, Evazan wasn't interested in a

peaceful settlement.  For a split second he glared at the old man, his

predator look hardening into something ugly and vicious.  Conversation

at the bar had all but ceased now, every eye turned toward the violence

about to break.  From their alcove the band played on, oblivious to

what was happening.

     And then, with a roar, Evazan shoved the kid violently to the side

to crash into one of the tables.  His hand swung up, a blaster gripped

in it.  Beside him, the Aqualish also had his blaster out, an urgent

"No blasters--no blasters!"  from the bartender going completely

unnoticed.  The weapons swung up, targeting the old man.

     They never got there.  Abruptly, the old man's hand exploded into

brilliant blue-white light, a flickering hard-edged fire that slashed

with surgical precision across his two attackers.  There was a blaster

shot that ricocheted into the ceiling, a scream and gurgling roarAnd

then, as abruptly as it had begun, it was over.

     Evazan and the Aqualish collapsed out of sight beyond the bar,

their moans showing they were at least temporarily still alive.  From

where she stood, Shada could see the Aqualish's blaster lying on the

floor, still clutched in a hand no longer attached to its owner.

     For another moment the old man remained as he was, his glowing

weapon humming, his eyes flicking around the cantina as if assessing

the possibility of more trouble.  He could have saved himself the

effort.

     From the casual way the other patrons were turning back to their

drinks, it was obvious that no one here had any particular affection

for the downed smugglers.

     At least not enough to take on the old man over it.

     And it was in that second's worth of pause that Shada was finally

able to identify the weapon the old

 

     man had used against his attackers.

 

     A lightsaber.

     "You still want to know who he is?"  Karoly asked dryly from

beside her.

     Shada licked at her lips, a fresh tingle running through her as

the old man closed down his weapon and helped the kid back to his feet.

     A Jedi Knight.  A real, living Jedi Knight.  No wonder she'd

sensed something odd about him.  "I doubt he's for hire," she told

Karoly, taking a deep breath and forcing her mind back to the business

at hand.

     If the Jedi Knights of the Old Republic had still been in power

when their world was destroyed .  . . "Well, that eliminates Evazan and

the Aqualish," she said to Karoly.  "Keep looking."

     They spent the next few minutes sipping their drinks and

surreptitiously scanning the room, then spent a few minutes more

talking to three of the most likely prospects.  But to no avail.  Two

of the smugglers were already under contract, though one of them

offered with a leer to take them along as passengers if they were nice

to him.  The third smuggler, an independent, was willing to talk, but

made it clear that he wasn't planning to move his ship until this

sudden Imperial focus on Tatooine had calmed down.

     "Great," Karoly grumbled as they returned to their previous spots

at the bar.  "Now what?"

     Shada looked around.  A few new faces had come into the cantina

since they'd begun their search, but most of them had the look about

them of men who didn't want to be disturbed.  She looked in turn at

each of the booths lining the walls, wondering if they might have

missed someone.

     And paused.  There, right behind them, were the Jedi Knight and

the kid.  Talking to the Wookiee and a man she hadn't seen come in.

     "Check him out," she said, nodding toward the latter.

     Karoly peered at the scanner readout.  "Name's Han Solo," she

said.  "Smuggler.  Does a lot of business with Jabba the Hutt--" "Put

it away," Shada interrupted her, looking toward the cantina lobby.

     "Quick."

     Karoly followed her gaze, and Shada felt her stiffen.

     Striding down the steps toward the bar, heavy weapons held at the

ready, were a pair of stormtroopers.  Who clearly weren't here for a

drink.

     "I wonder if there's a back door out of here," Karoly murmured.

     "I don't know," Shada said, running a finger along her slender

wineglass as the Imperials summoned the bartender over.  Thrown against

the face of a storm-trooper helmet, it ought to slow him down long

enough for her to slide her knife blade into a critical junction .  . .

     The bartender pointed somewhere behind them.

     Shada frowned, then understood.  "They must be asking about the

Jedi Knight," she said, turning to look at the booth.  A knot of aliens

brushed past, momentarily blocking her view.  They continued on The old

Jedi was gone.  So was the kid.  The storm-troopers stepped up to the

booth, eyed Solo and the Wookiee a moment, then moved on.  For a

moment, as they looked around, their armored masks seemed to pause on

Shada and Karoly.  But they said nothing, and continued on their way

toward the rear of the cantina.

     Karoly nudged her.  "Now's our chance," she said.

     "Let's go talk to him."

     Shada turned back.  Solo and the Wookiee had left the booth now,

Solo heading for the lobby while the Wookiee went in the direction the

stormtroopers had gone.  Probably where the back door was, which would

explain how the Jedi and the kid had disappeared.

     "Right," Shada agreed, taking one last sip from her glass and

putting it back on the bar.  She turned again To find that Solo was no

longer walking toward the lobby.  He was, instead, backing into a booth

at the wrong end of a blaster held by a dirty-looking Rodian.

     "Uh-oh," Shada said.  "Friend of his?"

     "Doubt it," Karoly said, palming the scanner.

     "Hang on .  . . his name's Greedo.  He's a bounty hunter."

     For a long moment Shada stared at the quietly tense discussion in

the booth, trying to decide what to do.

     Taking action would jeopardize her cover as Brea Ton-nika, and

certainly there was no shortage of smugglers in the cantina.  But there

was something about the way Solo carried himself that she liked.  Or

maybe the fact that he'd been talking with the Jedi Knight .  . .

     "I'm going to take him," she told Karoly.  "Get ready to back me

up."

     She reached for her knife; but before she could draw it, Solo

solved the problem on his own.  From the booth came a flash of muffled

blaster fire, and the Rodian slumped over onto the table.  Warily, Solo

slid out of the booth, holstered his blaster, and continued on toward

the lobby, flipping a coin to the bartender as he passed.

     Karoly let out a breath.  "Good thing we weren't interested in

Greedo.  This isn't a very healthy place to hang around."

     "No kidding," Shada said.  "Let's go catch Solo before he gets

away."

     And then, from behind her, a sweaty hand closed on her wrist.

     "Well, well, well," a voice said.  "What have we here.>" Shada

turned.

     The sweaty hand belonged to a sweaty Imperial colonel, his uniform

streaked with sandy dust, a maliciously pleased look on his face.

     Behind him were the two stormtroopers who'd come through earlier.

     "Brea and $enni Tonnika, I do believe," the colonel went on.  "How

nice of you to drop back into sight again.  You can't imagine how

brokenhe~irted Grand Moff Argon has been since your departure.  I'm

sure he'll be pleased to see you again."  He lifted an eyebrow.

     "As well as the twenty-five thousand you stole from him."

     Smiling sardonically, he gestured to the storm-troopers.

     "Take them away."

     The police station cell was cooler than the cantina had been, but

that was about all it had going for it.  Small, sparsely furnished,

streaked with Tatooine's ubiquitous sand, it had all the charm of a

used transport crate.

     "Did you catch when they'd be moving us out?"

     Karoly asked, leaning against a wall and gazing dolefully at the

door.

     "Didn't sound as if it would be anytime soon," Shada said.  "The

colonel said something about finishing up the search before getting us

transferred to his ship."

     Karoly's lip twitched.  Clearly, she was also appreciating the

irony here: 'The Imperials' search had already ended, only they didn't

know it.

     Or maybe they did know it.  Maybe the colonel was just playing

along with the masquerade while he sent out for the proper

interrogation equipment.

     Shada looked around the .room.  A single bunk, a reading lamp

fastened to the wall over one end, primitive refresher facilities, a

barred door, and a one-way observation window opposite it.  Limited

resources, and no privacy to use them.

     Which left only their combat training.  And the possibility that

the Imperials still didn't know they were dealing with Mistryl.  "I

just hope they feed us before then," she commented to Karoly.  "I'm

starving."

     Karoly's eyebrow twitched.  "So am I," she said, looking around.

     "Maybe I should beat on the bars and see if I can get someone's

attention."

     "Go ahead," Shada said, stretching out on the bunk and letting her

hand rest idly on the reading lamp above her head, examining it with

her fingertips.  It Was fastened to the wall over the bunk, but a

little work with her belt buckle ought to get it off.  Behind it would

be power cables .  . . "On second thought, you might want to try that

mirror instead," she said to Karoly, nodding back at the spy window.

     "Someone's probably watching it."

     "Okay," Karoly said.  She stepped over to the window and pressed

her face against it, blocking the view into the cell.  "Hey!  Anyone

there?"

     Quickly, Shada pulled off her buckle and got to work as Karoly

kept up the noise.  She got one of the three fasteners loosened; did

the second; started on the third"Shut up the noise!"  someone snapped.

     Shada paused, palming the buckle, as a man in a faded uniform

appeared at the door.  "We're hungry," she complained.

     "Too bad," he growled.  "The meals come in two hours.  Now shut up

or I'll have you strapped down and muzzled."

 

     "Two hours?"  Shada repeated.  "We'll never make it

 

     that long.  Can't you get us something to tide us over?"

     "Please?"  Karoly added, smiling encouragingly.

     The guard's lip twisted; and he was just opening his mouth for

what would probably have been a memorable comeback when a young man in

civilian clothing stepped into view.  "Problems, Happer?"

     "Always," the other growled.  "I thought you were off till

tonight."

     "I am," the younger man said, peering thoughtfully at Shada and

Karoly.  "Heard you were drowning in prisoners; figured I'd come in and

take a look.  Who do we have here?"

     "Brea and Senni Tonnika."  Happer threw a glower at the two women.

     "Very special prisoners of Colonel Pare, And none of our business,

if you ask me.  If the Imperials want to lock up half of Mos Eisley,

the least they could do is provide their own holding tanks."

     "And do their own ID checks?"

     "Don't remind me."  Happer grunted.  "I've got fifteen of them

running right now, with about thirty more in the hopper."  He glared

again at the prisoners.

     "Look, Riij, do me a favor, will you?  Go down to Stores and pull

a couple of ration bars for these two.  I've got to go down to the

check room--the sifter's been needing a lot of babysitting today, and

those stormtroopers are starting to get snotty."

     "I'll handle it," Riij assured him.  "Have fun."

     Happer grunted again and disappeared down the corridor.  "So,"

Riij said, gazing at them again.  "Brea and Senni.  Which is which?"

     "I'm Brea," Shada said carefully.  There was something about the

way he was looking at her that she didn't at all care for.

     "Ah," he said.  "I'm Riij--~ij Winward.  You know, I could have

sworn I heard you two had gotten on a transport heading out toward

Jabba the Hutt's three hours ago."

     Shada's heart seemed to seize up inside her.  The Tonnika sisters

were here?  On Tatooine?  "We came back," she said through suddenly dry

lips.  "I guess we shouldn't have."

     "I guess not."  Riij paused.  "I heard something else interesting

too, just after this big Imperial droid search came down all over Mos

Eisley a couple of days ago.  It seems the Empire's also put out an

urgent search-and-detain order for a stolen Strike Cruiser."

     "A Strike Cruiser?"  Shada repeated, putting as much scorn as she

could into her voice.  "Oh, I'm sure.

     People steal Strike Cruisers all the time."

     "Yeah, I thought that sounded pretty strange my self," Riij

agreed.  "So I went over and talked to a pal of mine at the control

tower to see if that was even possible . You know what he told me?"

     "I'm dying to hear."

     "He said he'd picked up something sneaking in toward the.  Dune

Sea an hour or so before that Star Destroyer showed up and all these

Imperials dropped in on us.  Something just about the size of a Strike

      Cruiser."  Riij lifted his eyebrows.  "Interesting,

 

     wouldn't you agree?"

 

     "Tremendously," Shada said, fighting to keep her sudden dread out

of her voice.  So they had spotted the Strike Cruiser, after all.  And

Cai was in big trouble.

     "Were the Imperials pleased to hear this?"

     "Actually, he hasn't told them yet," Riij said, eyeing her

closely.  "He was going off duty at the time and didn't feel like

holding a question session with a bunch of stormtroopers.  'Course,

once they came down in force and took over the tower, he was even less

inclined to remember stuff like that.  That happens on Tatooine."

     "I see," Shada murmured.  They were still in trouble, but at least

they still had a little breathing space.

     "You'll forgive me if lost Imperial property isn't high on my list

at the moment.  We have more pressing problems of our own."

     "I'm sure you do," Riij said solemnly.  "Number one being how to

get out of here before Happer finds out you aren't Brea and Senni

Tonnika."

     Shada felt herself tense up again.  She'd suspected he knew, but

had been hoping fervently that she was wrong.  "That's ridiculous."

     "It's all right," Riij said.  "The microphones in this cell

haven't worked in three months.  I popped out the circuit fuse a few

minutes ago too, just to make sure."

     Shada glanced at Karoly.  She looked as puzzled as Shada felt.

     "All right," she said, looking back at Riij.

     "Fine.  Let's cut through the smoke here and tell us what you

want."

 

     Riij seemed to brace himself.  "I'11 let you out," he

 

     said.  "In exchange for some of whatever's in that Strike

Cruiser."

     Shada frowned at him.  "What are you doing, running a smuggling

service on the side?"

 

     "Not smuggling."  He shook his head.  "Information.

 

     To certain interested parties."

 

     "What parties?"

 

     "It's not important."  Riij smiled faintly.  "On Tatooine, one

normally.doesn't ask that question."

     "Yes, well, we're new here," Shada countered, thinking hard.  This

could be an Imperial trick, she knew: a way to get her and Karoly to

tell them where they'd hidden the Hammertong.  But somehow that seemed

a little too subtle for people who owned interrogator droids and

normally had no compunction about using them.  "All right," she said.

     "But only if you can find us a freighter that can handle something

three by five meters.~'

 

     Riij frowned.  "Three by--?"

 

     "Hey, Riij!"  Happer's voice called from down the corridor.

     "Gotta go--something big brewing over at Docking Bay 97.  The

Imperials have called the whole duty force in to run backup.  Can you

watch things here a while?"

 

     "Sure, no problem," Riij assured him.

 

     "Thanks."

     Happer ran off, his footsteps cut off by the boom of a closing

security door.  "Well?"  Shada prompted.

     "I can get a freighter," Riij said, forehead wrinkled in thought.

     "The problem's going to be getting it fast enough.  There's a

sandstorm sweeping in across that part of the Dune Sea--a big one. 

It'll hit in a couple of hours, and there's a good chance it'll bury

your ship for good."

     "Then we haven't got much time, have we?"  Shada said.  "Get us

out of here, and let's go."

     The wind was already picking up across the sand dunes as Riij set

the transport ship awkwardly down at the edge of the makeshift tunnel

leading to the Strike Cruiser.  "How long have we got?"  Shada asked,

shouting to be heard over the wind as the three of them half walked,

half slid their way down the sand to the hatchway.

     "Not long," Riij called back.  "Half an hour.  Maybe less."

     Shada nodded back, keying the panel open and stepping inside.  On

the deck just inside the hatchway lay the segment of the Hammertong

they'd removed, its loadlifters still attached.  Across the huge empty

room Deefour was warbling to himself as he poked around the rest of the

huge cylinder, searching for any last-minute bits of data he could add

to his extensive tech-meal readout of the device.  There was no sign of

Cai.

     "Cai?"  Shada called.  "Da mala ci tri sor kehai."

     "Sha ma ti," Cai replied, emerging from hiding behind one of the

support struts and holstering her blaster.  "I was starting to think

you weren't going to make it back in time."

     "We may not have," Shada said grimly.  "We've got another

sandstorm breathing down our necks.  There's a transport outside--you

and Karoly get that Hammertong segment aboard."

     "Right," Cai said.  "Karoly?  Grab the lifts on that end."

     Together they got the Hammertong segment off the floor and out the

hatchway as Shada went forward to the Strike Cruiser's cockpit.  As it

had before, the flying sand was interfering with the sensors, and she

had to adjust the fine-tuning several times before she was able to get

a good view.  As far as she could tell, there were no longer any Star

Destroyers over Tatooine.  They must have assumed their escaped

prisoners had already made it off planet.  Keying off, she headed back

to where Riij was crouched beside the end of the Hammertong cylinder,

his face pressed close to one of the openings.  "So there it is," she

said.  "What do you think?"

 

     He looked up at her, his face pasty-white.  "Do you

 

     know what you have here?"  he whispered.  "Do you have any idea?"

 

     "Not really," she said warily.  "Do you?"

 

     "Look here," he said, pointing to a plate.  "See?

     'D.S. Mark Two.  Module Seven, Prototype B. Elom Lemelisk."

 

     "I see it," Shada said.  "What does it mean?"

 

     Riij straightened up.  "It means this is part of the prototype

superlaser for the Death Star."

     Shada stared at him, a shiver running up her back.

     "What's a Death Star?"

     "The Emperor's latest grab for power.  Like nothing you've ever

seen."  Riij looked back along the Ham-mertong's length.  "And we've

got a piece here of its main weapon."

     "A piece?."  Shada frowned, following his gaze.  A solid two

hundred meters of laser.  "You mean this isn't all of it?"

     "I don't think so," Riij said.  "Module Seven, remember?"

     He looked at Shada sharply.  "I've got to have that piece you cut

off.  It's absolutely vital."

 

     "Forget it," Shada said.  "If this really is a weapon,

 

     my people can find a better use for it than you can."

     "We'll pay you anything you want."

     "I said forget it," Shada said again, brushing past him.  Cai was

going to need help; And abruptly, she was spun back around by a hand on

her arm.  Reflexively, she reached up to break his grip.

     She froze, staring at the blaster that had appeared from nowhere

in Riij's hand.  "Is this how you keep your bargains?"  she demanded.

     "You have to let us have it," he said, his voice low.

     "Please.  We need to know everything we can about the

 

     Death Star."

 

     "Why?"

     He swallowed hard.  "Because we're likely to be its first target."

     Shada stared at him.  Tatooine was going to be the first target?

     Ridiculous.

 

     And then, suddenly, it fell into place.  "You're with

 

     the Rebel Alliance, aren't you?"

 

     He nodded.  "Yes."

 

     Shada focused on the blaster in his hand.  "And this thing is

important enough to you to kill me in cold blood?"

     He took a deep breath, let it out in a hissing sigh.

     "No," he conceded.  "Not really."

 

     "I didn't think so," Shada said.  "Mish kom."

 

     And in the blink of an eye, it was all over.  Cai, coming in from

behind the Hammertong, had .Riij's blaster.  And Riij.  "What do you

want me to do with him?"  she asked, handing the blaster to Shada.

     Shada looked at Riij, half bent over in Cai's grip.

     "Let him go," she said.  "He can't stop us now.  Anyway, he's sort

of on our side."

     "If you say so," Cai said, releasing her hold on his arm.  "We're

ready to go as soon as you are."

     "All right."  Shada pursed her lips.  "Riij, can you beat the

storm in that' airspeeder you had aboard the transport?"

     He nodded.  "If I can get going in the next few minutes.' ' "Fine.

     Cai, get it unloaded.  And then you or Karoly get Deefour aboard

and get the ships ready to fly."

     "Got it."  With one last look at Riij, Cai headed for the

hatchway.

     Riij was still standing there, looking at Shada.  "I'm sorry the

deal's fallen through," she told him, trying to ignore the pang of

guilt twisting through her stomach.

     He'd risked a lot for them, and it looked as if he were going to

wind up with nothing.  "Look, if you can get back in here after the

storm, you're more than welcome to what's left of the Hammertong."

     "Let me make you a counteroffer," Riij said.  "Join us.  You've

already said we're on the same side."

     Shada shook her head.  "We're barely making it ourselves.

     We don't have the time or the resources to take on the galaxy's

problems.  Not now."

     "if you wait too long, there may not be anyone left to fight with

you," he warned.

     "I understand," she said.  "I guess it's a chance we'll have to

take.  Good-bye.  And good luck."

     The sand was shaking the transport's hull by the time Shada

finished double-checking the Ham-mertong's restraints and made it back

up to the bridge.

     "We all set?"  she asked Karoly as she strapped herself in.

 

     "Yes.  Riij get off all right?"

 

     Shada nodded.  "Looks as if just in time, too."

     Karoly threw her a sideways look.  "I'm not sure it was such a

good idea to let him go."

     "If we start killing anyone who gets in our way, we're no better

than any other mercenaries," Shada said.

     "Besides, he doesn't like the Empire any more than we

 

     do."

 

     The comm pinged.  "I'm ready," Cai's voice came.

     "Same here," Shada told her.  "Is Deefour all settled in?"

     "Deefour?"  Cai echoed.  "Didn't Karoly take him?"

     "I thought you had him," Karoly said.

     For a long moment she and Shadajust stared at each other.  Then,

with a muttered curse, Shada jabbed at the corem panel.  "Riij?  Riij,

come in."

     There was a hiss of sand-driven static; and then the other's voice

came faintly over the speaker.  "This is Riij," he said.  "Thanks for

the loan of your droid.  I'll leave him with the Bothan shipping

company on Piroket; you can have him back when you return the

freighter."

     Another crackle of static and he was gone.  "You want me to go

after him?"  Cai asked.

     Deefour, with a complete technical readout on the Hammertong .  .

     "No," Shada told her, smiling in spite of herself at Riij's

ingenuity.  "No, it's all fight.  We owe him that much.  And if he's

right, he and his friends are going to need all the help and

information they can get."

 

     Her smile faded.  "D.S. Mark 2" the plate on the

 

     Hammertong had said.  Death Star, Mark 2, perhaps?  A second

generation of this thing Riij was so afraid of?.

     It could be.  And if so, the Mistryl might have to seriously

consider that offer to join up with the Rebel Alliance.

     And if not all of the Mistryl, perhaps Shada would do so on her

own.  Maybe there she would find something she could truly believe in.

     But in the meantime, she had a package to deliver.

     "Fire up the repulsorlifts," she told the others.  "Let's go

home."

    
Play It Again.

     Figrin D'Art: 'The Tale of Muftak and Kabe

 

     by A. C. Crispin

 

     M 'uftak whiffed the chilly, moist air with his short, .tubular

proboscis, testing it, trying to determine whether it was safe.  As he

sniffed, the huge four-eye searched the street for infrared afterimages

with his night-eyes, the larger, lower pair in his furry visage.

     Here, in the older part of Mos Eisley spaceport, the darkness was

nearly absolute, only lightened by the tiny gray half-moon scuttling

overhead.

     Gesturing to his small companion, Kabe, to stay be !02

     hind him, the shaggy giant crept forward to a better vantage point

behind a large garbage receptacle.  As he scanned, his four black

ball-bearing eyes gleamed in the darkness of his face.  Automatically,

his olfactory organ filtered out the stench of the rotting garbage, the

rankness of unwashed bodies, both alien and human, and the sharp, musky

scent of his Chadra-Fan friend and accomplice.

     No one here recently.  He waved a massive, fur-covered paw at his

companion.  "Come on," he rumbled, "the sandtroopers are gone."

     Kabe scampered out, her fanlike ears and little snout twitching

indignantly.  "I could have told you that long ago!"  she scolded, in

her squeaky, double-time voice.

     "You are so cursed slow, Muftak!  Slower than a bantha, that's for

sure.  We'll never reach home before.  daybreak!

     And I'm tired."

     Muftak gazed down at her, patiently enduring her tirade.  Kabe,

despite all her streetwise sophistication, was still a child.  He'd

adopted her when he'd found the baby Chadra-Fan wandering the streets.

     "We must be extra cautious," he reminded her.  "Imperial troops

are everywhere.  The sooner we reach home, the safer we'll be.  Let's

go."

     Kabe subsided sulkily, and started after him.

     "Why're they here, that's what I'd like to know.  Do you know,

Muftak?"  She didn't wait for a reply, and the four-eye held his peace.

     Muftak knew a great deal about the comings and goings in Mos

Eisley, but generally, he only divulged what he knew for a price. 

"Ships landing all night!"  she complained.  "What the hell is going

on, anyway?  The Hutt's hiring them, that's what it is.  He's going to

cut us out completely.  And if he won't take us back, we'll have to

beg!"

     Muftak emitted an exasperated buzzing sound.  "The Bloated One

isn't part of this.  This is Imperial business."

     Kabe's sharp little face blazed in Muftak's infrared vision, and

he saw her expression change.  "Can't we go to the cantina today?"  she

demanded, changing the subject.  "Spacers go there, drunk spacers with

fat pockets.  Last time we were there we ate for a week on what I

lifted.  Please, Muftak?"

     "Kabe."  Muftak sighed, a faint humming noise in the stillness.

     "I'm not so stupid as all that.  I know you never miss a good

pocket, but the real reason you want to go to the cantina is for juri

juice."

     Absently, (he four-eye inspected the twisty alleyways that opened

onto the street.  "Two cups and I'll have to carry you home .  . . the

way I always do."

     Kabe's 0nly response to this truism was an audible sniff.

     Dawn came rapidly on Tatooine, and the desert sky was already

taking on the faint silver sheen that presaged the rising of the suns.

     Muftak lengthened his strides, tempted to pick Kabe up bodily and

really hurry.  It was his fault they were so late.

     Expert thieves though they were, neither Kabe's skill with

electronics nor Muftak's great strength had prevailed against the new

time-lock devices that all the Imperial hangars now bore.  Worse, one

of the sand-troopers had spotted them .  : .  but humans had very poor

night vision, and, to them, all exotic aliens tended to run together.

     In the dark, Muftak hoped, he could've been mistaken for a Wookiee

or one of the other large bipeds.  Kabe was about the same size as a

 

     Jawa.

 

     Stealing Imperial property was extremely risky--but these days,

there was little else they could do.  Any payoff would have justified

their effort, given them the wherewithal to buy back their burglary

franchise (lost due to an ill-advised bit of pickpocketry by Kabe) from

the Hutt.  Everything of value that didn't belong to the Empire either,

belonged to or had been declared off-limits by Jabbamand nobody was

crazy enough to cross the Hutt crime lord.

     In order to reach "home"--a tiny cubicle in a section of abandoned

tunnels beneath Docking Bay 83~ they had to pass through the

marketplace.  Risky, but they had no choice.

     Kabe bounced as she walked, half skipping, her restless energy

undepleted despite their night's labors.

     Muftak shuffled rapidly, though he felt almost too weary to place

one huge, padded foot before the other.  Suddenly, the tops of the

whitewashed domes gleamed; moments later, everything was splashed with

gold.  The first sun was rising.  Muftak instinctively switched over to

his day-eyes, obscuring some details, revealing others.  They passed a

street vendor setting up for the day, then another.

     Mos Eisley was a hellhole at best, and recent changes made

survival even more uncertain.  The increasing Imperial presence added

an unpleasant new dimension to Jabba's corrupt regime.  Muftak's and

Kabe's lives had never been easy; the two of them had scrabbled for

years to eke out a living.  Now, with the Senate's inaction, things

were growing worse.  Previously, the four-eye had shared his little

friend's indifference to politics, not caring who was in power, as long

as they let him alone.

     But the sandtroopers were even worse than the Hutt's thugs.  Cold,

cruel, brutal, they were like killing droids.  Hundredsmmaybe

thousands--had been arriving during the last two days to enforce the

will of that ancient, rotting Emperor who lived far, far away.

     Tightening the Empire ~ grip on my world .  . .

     Bzzzzz.  Muftak's remote laughter echoed in his head like a

dancing bee.  My world?  Ridiculous!  Bzzzzz .  . .

     Since there were no other creatures on Tatooine even remotely like

him, Muftak knew only too well that this was not his home world.  When

he'd awakened that day long ago, standing beside his shredded cocoon,

he'd figured that his people had originated on another world--which

one, he had no idea.  He'd spent a lifetime searching for information

about himself, and, in the process, had learned mdch about Tatooine,

its deserts so different from the lush paradise of his dreams.

     Knowledge, the four-eye found, was power, of sorts.  Denizens of

Mos Eisley knew that if you wanted information about almost any

activity or person on Tatooine, you went to see Muftak.

     Since he'd "adopted"-Kabe,' an orphan like himself, the big

alien's hazy dream-memories had receded into the background.  For all

practical purposes, Tatooine was his world.

     The second sun was rising as they made their way through the main

square of the marketplace.  It was already getting hot, and Muftak felt

his dew-wet, diaphanous fur drying out.  Reaching the main street, the

pair turned west, toward their little burrow, trying to hurry without

looking suspicious.  The fences were setting up quickly and

efficiently, displaying freshly stolen booty.  Muftak glanced nervously

at several blasters, priced well beyond his means, trying to look as

though he had nothing better in the world to do than shop.

     Kabe skittered about, muttering to herself, whiffing the air, then

squinching up her muzzle with disdain.

     "Look at that trash."  She snorted.  "If you'd let me rob Jabba's

town house, I'd give them some real stuff to fence.  It'd be a snap,

and we'd be set up for life."

     This was such an old argument Muftak didn't bother to reply.  The

Hutt was currently occupying his desert palace, but his residence in

Mos Eisley was still fully guarded.  The four-eye lengthened his

stride.  Sanctuary lay just ahead .  . .

     Suddenly a mechanical-sounding voice barked, "You there, Talz,

halt!"  The voice belonged to an Imperial soldier.

     Hastily, Muftak obeyed, then turned, slowly and ponderously, to

face the sentry.  As he did so, he was careful to conceal Kabe's small

form with his huge body.

     Knowing the plan, she darted off and ducked behind a public dew

collector.  Signaling to her behind his back to stay out of sight,

Muftak faced the white-armored human.

     Only then did it strike him... the word the trooper had 'used.

     "Talz."  What was a Talz?  Slowly he felt the truth sink in, like

moisture in the desert.  The Imperial trooper must have recognized his

species!

     The word "Talz" reverberated through Muftak's mind, his heart.

     Talz .  . . yes!  It was part of the meaningless vocabulary he had

found in his brain after his "birth."

     Talz means me.  I am a Talz".

     Muftak shook his head, pushing this revelation to the back of his

mind.  There was a more immediate dilemma to face.  The sandtrooper,

blaster drawn, was staring at him, waiting.  Muftak let the air filter

out slowly from his proboscis, humming a little.  "Yes, Of-ricer.

     What can I do for you?"

     "We are looking for two droids, one bipedal and the other wheeled,

traveling unaccompanied.  Have you seen them?"

     Not looking for us, no, by the Force, not looking for us.

     Looking for those two droids, like all the others .  . . "No, sir.

     I haven't seen any droids this morning.  But if I do, Officer,

I'll let you know."

     "See that you do.  All right, Talz, on your way."  As the trooper

began to turn away, curiosity overcame Muftak's caution.  "Excuse me,

sir," he began, scratching his head nervously.  "I noticed that you

seem to recognize--" There was a whooshing sound .and an aircar

appeared from around a corner.  As it approached, Muftak saw two

Imperial troopers, one dressed in the blue uniform and short-billed cap

of an officer.  The Talz took a cautious step back, but resisted the

urge to run.

     The sentry snapped to attention as the aircar stopped.

     The officer, a pale, sagging man with a supercilious air, inclined

his head briefly and commanded, "Your report, Trooper Felth."  His

words sounded lifeless, barely different from the mechanically filtered

voice of Felth.

     "Nothing to report, Lieutenant Alima.  It's been very quiet, sir."

     Muftak tensed.  He recognized that name.

     His friend Momaw Nadon had told him about a Captain Alima, the

butcher who'd decimated the hammerhead's home world.  Could this be the

same man?  His rank was different, but .  . .

     "Interrogate everyone you see, Felth.  Don't take any chance with

this local scum .  . . and keep your blaster ready.  These bastards

will as soon kill you as look at you."

 

     "Yes, Lieutenant."

 

     "What about that one?"  Alima drew his pistol and pointed it at

Muftak.  "An ugly bug .  . . has he seen

 

     the droids?"

 

     "No, sir."

     Muftak gathered his courage.  Things were becoming very

interesting.  Worth a little risk.  "Sir, respected representative of

our beloved Empire, I am well connected in the more .  . . shall we

say, obscure .  . . sections of Mos Els!ey.  It would be my pleasure to

uncover this information for you, if I can."

     The officer's eyes were very dark as he stared hard at the Talz.

     "See that you do, four-eyes.  Now get on about your business. 

Don't dawdle .  . . off with you!"

     Kabe was only a little distance away, still hiding behind the dew

collector, and Muftak walked in that direction without looking back.

     As he passed, the little one joined him, chattering happily. 

"They let you go!  I thought they had us, didn't you?  What happened?"

     "They weren't looking for us, Kabe.  Just two unlucky droids.  But

something very .  . . important happened.

     A chance encounter.  That trooper knew who .  . .

     what .  . . I am.  I am a Talz!  Kabe .  . . this may be the clue

I've been looking for."

     The Chadra-Fan looked up at Muftak, squinting her little eyes

against the morning sun.  "But, but you're not going away, now, are

you?  You can't go.  We need each other.  We're partners, aren't we?"

     Muftak gazed down at his friend, feeling a strange emotion, a

distant tugging that he had never felt before.

     Gigantic hanging purple flowers filled his mind's eye.  He scraped

a claw across his domed forehead.

     "Don't worry, little one.  I'd never leave you alone.

     Right now, we're going back to get some sleep.  Then I have some

inquiries to make .  . . and before evening, I must go to Momaw Nadon's

house, find out if he knows anything about the race called the Talz. 

And perhaps .  . . give him some information in return."

     "But what about the cantina?"  Kabe wailed.  "You promised,

Muftak!"

     The Talz ignored this palpable untruth.  "You will get your wish,

little one.  We'll go tomorrow."

     Chalmun's cantina was, as always, bursting with disreputable life.

     Momaw Nadon was already at their usual spot, and Muftak took the

seat opposite, against the wall.  The hammerhead pushed a drink across

the table.

     "Welcome, my friend."  From the position of his eyestalks and the

tone of his grayish skin, Muftak deduced that the Ithorian was glad to

see him, but also apprehensive--not unexpected, in view of their

meeting yesterday.

     The Talz picked up his drink, a polaris ale appropriately tepid,

and thrust his proboscis into the liquid, drawing deep.  "Things are

going well, Momaw.  Last evening I planted the seed that you desired.

     Alima now thinks you know the whereabouts of the droids."

     "Planted the seed."  Momaw Nadon blinked slowly.

     With his eyes squinched shut, all semblance of a face vanished.

     "A good way to express it.  If all goes as planned, the 'seed'

will come to fruition before this day is over."  One eyestalk swiveled.

     "Did Alima pay well?"

     Muftak buzzed with amusement.  "Five hundred.

     The Imperial chit he issued proved worthless, of course."

 

     "Not surprising," Nadon said.

 

     Muftak ran a claw through his hair, scratching nervously.

     "Momaw .  . . what will become of you?  A!ima is ruthless.  Now

he's looking for you."

     "He has found me," Nadon admitted, his dual voice a harsh whisper.

     "Do not worry, my friend.  All is unfolding as it must."

     The Talz took another sip of ale, reluctant to pursue this

depressing subject.

     "No matter what happens today," the Hammerhead continued, "things

here in Mos Eisley are changing.

     Yesterday you learned the name of your species.  Soon you will

discover the name of your world, and where it is located.  Then .  . .

     what?  Will you go home?"

     Muftak let out a tiny buzz, rising in pitch.  "Home.  It is such a

simple word.  In my native language, the word is 'p'zil.'" He paused,

unwilling to reveal such intimate details even to a friend.  "If I have

dreamed truly, it is a cool, wet world, with wide, rich jungles beneath

a deep indigo sky.  My dreams are full of huge flowers shaped like

giant bells, all colors, hanging high in the lush foliage.  I climb to

those flowers, treading along a strong ridged petal.  Deep in the

center darkness lies a rich reservoir of nectar.  I drink, marvelous

rippling flavors .  . ."  He sighed.  "This ale is only a pale

reflection."

     The Ithorian bobbed his eyestalks in understanding.

     "Those dreams are true, my friend.  Racial memories, no doubt, to

guide you when you emerge from your cocoon.  Just as you were born with

a knowledge of your native language, I have never heard of such a

people as the Talz, but they are obviously unique and of great value.

     You must return and join your essence with that of your people. 

It is the Law of Life."

     "I haven't thought that far, I'm afraid," said Muftak.

     "I don't have the credits to pay for such a trip.

     And .  . . what about Kabe?  The galaxy is in turmoil.

     Even if I could obtain safe passage for us, I can't trust her.

     She only thinks of herself.  How can I take her with

 

     me?"

 

     Momaw Nadon closed his eyes for a long moment.

     "I may not live out the day, so I cannot help you.  But you will

think of something, Let us drink--" Suddenly Kabe bobbed up at Muftak's

side.  "He won't serve me again!"  she sputtered angrily.  "Damn that

Wuher.  And damn Chalmun!  I'll feed the Sarlacc with them both.  They

won't sell me any juice, Muftak.

     My credits are good, damn it!  Damn them all!  You know that I--"

Muftak interrupted her with a loud buzz.  "Calm down, little one.  What

did Wuher say?"

     "He said he wanted no tipsy Ranats robbing his customers.

     Me, a Ranat!  Muftak, can you go talk to him?

     Please?"

     Muftak stroked his proboscis slowly, thinking.  "His reaction

isn't surprising, considering what happened last time we were here,

Kabe.  But .  . . I'll speak to him."  He raised his glass to Momaw

Nadon.  "After all, this is a celebration .  . . of sorts."

     Kabe's ears twitched with distaste as Figrin D'an's sextet swung

into yet another off-key, off-tempo number.

     The little Chadra-Fan's hearing was as sensitive as Muftak's sense

of smell, and this "music" was particularly jarring.  But Chalmun's

cantina was the cheapest source ofjurijuice around, so she endured it.

     She guzzled the dregs from her cup, feeling the pleasant rush of

the liquor.

     Licking the last drops from her whiskers, she held up her tumbler.

     "More, Wuher.  More juri juice!  I'm thirsty!"  The bartender

glanced across the room at Muftak, muttered something under his breath,

then grudgingly took the glass and refilled it with the ruby brew. 

Kabe grabbed it eagerly.

     Suddenly, the bartender straightened, scowling angrily.

     Was he getting ready to summon the bouncer?

     Kabe stood poised, ready to run to Muftak, but all Wuher did was

order some moisture boy to get his two droids out of the cantina.

     Relaxing, Kabe studied the customers closest to her, scanning

expertly for pockets to pick.  With a little juri juice in her, she was

twice as fast and twice as clever.

     No one was safe.

     The identity of the two customers on either side of her gave her

pause; Dr, Evazan and Ponda Baba weren't good prospects.  It was one of

Kabe's secret prides that she'd once managed to pick both their

pockets, dropping a few trinkets from the good doctor's purse into

Baba's pocket at the same time--but they'd been very juiced then .  . .

     which they weren't at the moment.  High; perhaps, but not enough

to tempt her.  The risk wasn't worth it.

     The two prospects beyond Evazan were definitely more promising.

     The grungy moisture boy who'd been dumb enough to bring the droids

in was standing on her immediate right.  The man he'd entered with was

an old fellow with a beard the color of Muftak's fur, wearing a coarse

brown cloak with a hood no doubt made by a Jawa tailor, Kabe thought,

amused.  She recognized neither of them, which meant they weren't from

Mos Eisley.  Good!  Wide-eyed desert dwellers usually presented easy

pickings.  Beyond them was the contraband runner Chewbacca, but she

dismissed him without a second thought: Not only did he not possess

pockets to pick, but everyone knew it wasn't wise to upset a Wookiee.

     Muftak was still in deep conversation with Momaw Nadon.  Damn him,

too.  Suppose he finds his home world, what then ?  He'll probably want

to go there .  . . and then, by the Force, where'll that leave me?

     Kabe had a brief vision of herself, stuck in Mos Eisley, with no

one to make Wuher serve her juri juice .  . . no one to protect her

from outraged victims when her fingers weren't quick enough .  . .

     She'd be all alone.  Kabe took a deep draft of juice, thinking of

her small, secret hoardmso secret that even Muftak didn't know about

it.  It wouldn't last long .  . .

     a tenday, maybe.  And then what?  No doubt .about it, trouble was

coming, unless she found a way to distract the Talz.

     A tall, thin humanoid down the bar was puffing away on a hookah.

     Expertly, she located his credit pouch.

     Easily accessible .  . . but something, she wasn't sure what, held

her back.  Ears twitching, she strained to pick up his vibrations.  For

some reason she couldn't define, he sounded wrong.  When his gaze

brushed hers, the fur on the back of her neck crawled suddenly, as if

someone had draped something limp and dead across her shoulders.

     Not him, Kabe thought, shuddering.  Definitely not him.

     The boy, she decided.  He was obviously nervous, but not really

alert.  And then the old man.  There was something about the old man

that betokened a quiet competence, despite his shabby clothes.  She'd

have to be extra careful with that one.

     Suddenly Kabe sensed movement on her left from Ponda Baba.  She

ducked back, barely in time to avoid a vicious elbow as he deliberately

shoved the boy.  "Out of my way, human excrement!"  he bellowed in

Aqual-ish.

     Oh no, she thought, here we go again.  Whiskers twitching, Kabe

scurried behind the old desert dweller, then peeked cautiously out,

carefully putting her half-empty glass on the bar.

     The boy obviously didn't understand the big alien's language.  He

glanced up, starfled, then silently moved away and went back to his

drink.  Kabe poised herself for action; when Evazan and Ponda Baba's

newest victim lay charred and smoking, she'd have only a moment to snag

his purse before he was dragged away.

     Maybe, she thought, now would be a good time to do the old one.

     His attention was fixed on Ponda Baba.  Perfect.

     Now, if she could only find his purse .  . . "I have the death

sentence on twelve systems!"  Evazan's loud voice hurt her ears.  Hmm.

     That was a promising little bulge.

     Just a little closer .  . .

     The old man stepped forwardmand his pocket slid away from her

fingers.  Cautiously, Kabe followed.

     There was a sudden exodus away from the bar, and Kabe realized the

fight was about to startrebut she was determined to snatch the credits

before she too retreated.

     "This little one isn't worth the effort," the old human was

saying, his soft, pleasant voice carrying an undercurrent of true

authority.  "Come, let me buy you something."

 

     Ponda Baba roared in inarticulate rage, Evazan let

 

     out a bellow, and the young human flew past her, landing in an

ignominious heap beneath a nearby table.

     "No blasters!  No blasters!"  screamed Wuher.

     There was a sound like tearing silk, and Kabe shrank closer to the

old desert dweller, cowering until she was almost covered by his cloak.

     Ponda Baba shrieked, Evazan howled with pain, and something

dropped to the floor with an ominous thud.

     Kabe peered out, to see that the thing on the floor was Ponda

Baba's arm, fingers still twitching as they tried without success to

fire the blaster again.  The old man stepped back gracefully, and the

searing blade of light that was his weapon (a weapon Kabe had never

seen before) flicked out.  Abandoning all thought of robbery, she

scampered back.  As the old man helped the youngster up, the boy

staggered, staring in disbelief at the still-twitching arm .  . . and

his heel crunched down on Kabe's toes.

     She squeaked shrilly at the sharp pain.  Damn--Humans are

heavy--Whimpering, limping, Kabe retreated into the darker recesses of

the room, waiting for them to clean up.  Luckily, they hadn't spilled

her juri juice...

     "You mean you'll help me?"  Kabe stared up at her friend, amazed.

     Muftak nodded.  "There'll never be a better time to take the town

house.  The Hutt is away at his palace and the city is in chaos."

     The little Chadra-Fan gazed at him goggle-eyed, the aftereffects

of juice slowing her thoughts.  Suddenly, she dropped her half-eaten

falotil fruit to the dusty floor of their lair, jigging ecstatically.

     "I knew you had it in you, Muftak!"

     He nodded, wishing he were as confident.  The Hutt's vengeance

would be terrible indeed if they were caught, but the store of

treasures in Jabba's town house, deliberately displayed to tempt the

greedy, would be easy pickings if Kabe's "secret" entrance panned out. 

The Talz had made his decision on the way home from the cantina,

carrying the unconscious Kabe in the crook of his arm.

     Muftak looked around the dwelling they'd shared for almost five

years.  Kabe's little nest, his sleeping perch, a trunk holding their

few possessions.  Nothing, really.  And the future would only be worse.

     "We'll be able to leave this dump," said Kabe, as if she'd read

his thoughts.  "Maybe buy our own cantina.

     Live in real style."  Disdainfully, she scratched a crumbling

wall, sending a little avalanche of dirt onto the floor.  "The credits

will be worth a little risk, you'll see."

     The Talz scratched his head, buzzing softly.  "There's no sense in

waiting.  Tonight."

 

     I~be nodded happily.

 

     Nighttime.  Muftak, surprisingly agile for his size, pulled

himself over the lip of the roof, until he was crouched on the main

dome of Jabba's town house.

     Cautious as always, he drew his ancient blaster, scanning the

rooftop for signs of life.  The moon was heading down, losing its

luster among distant clouds, leaving them in near-total darkness.

     Ahead of him, Kabe was already halfway up the dome, moving

quickly.  She stopped suddenly, and Muftak made out a large,

crescent-shaped orifice just below the dew-collector array.  Replacing

the weapon in the sling across his back, he climbed, claws scrabbling,

up the rough pourstone surface.

     "See, Muftak," the Chadra-Fan whispered, knotting the climbing

rope she'd carried to the dew-collector base, "it's just like I said.

     It hasn't changed since I discovered it.  Just the standard

security net.  Hear that?

     Air currents singing along the edges of the metal door.

     One good shove, and it'll give."

     Muftak crouched beside the portal.  "Hard to believe," he said.

     "Can you hear anyone inside?"

     Kabe listened, ears twitching.  "Just snores on another floor.  No

one moving around."

     "Then here goes."  The Talz got a good hold on the sill and

pushed.  The access portal slowly gave, bending inward, then the hinges

broke and the metal fell away.

     A muffled clank sounded from somewhere below.

     "The vibrations haven't changed," Kabe exulted.

     "What'd I tell you, Muftak?  This'11 be a cinch for sure!"

     Before Muftak could stop her, Kabe swung herself over and down

into the darkness.  The Talz heard her chittering quietly as she

climbed, and knew she was listening for echoes.  "Nothing unusual so

far," she reported.

     "I'm almost dowm" Hearing her break off, Muftak flung himself

down, head through the hole, straining his night-eyes.  Below him, Kabe

dangled, spinning slowly, a paw's length from the floor.

     "Kabe, what's happening?  Why'd you stop?"  Muftak demanded.

     "Shhh."  As he watched, Kabe changed position, turning upside

down, then lowering her head until her ear was just above the carpet.

     She chittered again.

     "Oh, banthe dung .  . ."  he heard her mutter.

     "What is it?"

     "A noise, below the floor... something down there.  The air has to

go around it, and it hums .  . .

     metal, probably."  Suddenly she let out a terrified little squeak.

     "Don't come down yet!  It's some kind of trap!

     There's a spring actuator .  . ."

     Muftak watched as she clicked, trying to gauge the structures

below the floor.  "Standard joists over here .  . ."  she muttered, a

few seconds later.  With a couple of vigorous wiggles, she swung back

and forth, then dropped her pry bar as a test.

     "No change!"  she cried, then leaped off herself.

     "Just land right here .  . ."

     When Muftak was down, they left the dome room, and crept down the

dark stairway.  At the bottom, Kabe heard the distinctive electronic

hum of an alarm.

     Quickly, the little Chadra-Fan located and deactivated it.

     To their right, an archway led into a large room, a lounge of some

sort, outfitted with luxurious, plush furniture.  One wall held an open

curio cabinet filled with small golden statues and bejeweled antique

weapons.

     Muftak gasped softly .  . . the plunder of a hundred worldsmtheirs

for the taking!

     Cautiously, they entered.  Working with feverish haste, they began

stuffing valuables into the sacks they'd brought.

     "We'll be out of here before you know it," Kabe whispered, sliding

a particularly ornate pipestand into her bag.  "Now aren't you sorry

you didn'tk" Two lights winked on in the lounge's anteroom.  A droid,

turning itself on.  Kabe froze in terror.  Muftak drew his blaster.

     "Oh, forgive me for interrupting you," said the droid in a

melodious tone.  "I've been waiting for .  . .

     by the way"--its tone changed.  "what are you doing here at this

time of night?  I know that Master Jabba's friends are a little .  . .

     unusual, but .  . ."

     Muftak took a step toward the machine.  "We belong here.  Your

illustrious master asked us to fetch some of his possessions to

transport to his palace."

     The droid took a few mincing steps into the room.

     "That explains it then.  Bzavazh-ne pentirs o pie-urith leez?"

     Muftak did a double take.  His language.  "Where did you learn

that?"

     The droid tilted its head, and its illuminated eyes seemed full of

satisfaction.  "Oh, friend Talz, I am conversant in the languages and

customs of your planet, Alzoc Three, and four thousand nine hundred and

eighty-eight other worlds.  I am MasterJabba's protocol droid,

Kay-eight Ellerr.  Master Jabba couldn't do without me.  Admittedly,

I've never had a chance to use my Talz module before.  I'll just check

with Master Fortune to see if you are telling the truth."

 

     Kabe, under control now, was moving slowly toward

 

     the droid, trying to look pleasant.  She uncoiled her climbing

rope.  "We're telling the truth, droid.  You don't have to check."

     "Oh, but I do, friend Chadra-Fan, k'sweksni-nyip-tsik.

     You have no idea what trouble I'd get into if I didn'tw" Suddenly

Kabe sprang and wrapped the rope around its limbs.  "The restraining

bolt, Muftak!"

     "My friends, please don't--" K8LR was moaning like a Jawa street

beggar.  "Oh!  Master Jabba will punish you--" It began to fight, but

the Talz loped forward, and with a single motion collared it and

grabbed the bolt affixed to its chest.  K8LR was struggling, trying to

free itself of the ropes around its body, but Muftak was desperate.

     With a quick wrench, he ripped the bolt free.

 

     When the bolt came off, the droid stopped struggling.

 

     "Oh, thank you," it said.  "You have no idea how much better that

feels.  I never liked working here.

     Never.  That Jabba .  . . so uncouth!  And the rogues that work

for him!  Things I've seen would curl your proboscis, friend Talz.

     Now, if you don't mind, I think I'll be leaving.  Could you untie

me?"

     "Be quiet, droid!"  Kabe pricked up her ears, listening intently.

     When she detected nothing, they began gathering loot again.  Kabe,

still half trussed, followed them about, complimenting them on their

selections in a metallic whisper.

     "Kay-eight Ellarr," Muftak said, stuffing a tiny figurine carved

from living ice into his furry abdominal pouch, "if you really are

grateful, tell us where the Hutt keeps his most valuable treasures."

     The droid stopped, appearing to think.  "There are Corellian

artifacts on the walls of his audience chamber that are beyond price,

if my memory banks are correct.  And a shapework from the earliest days

of human civilization."

 

     "Take us there!"

 

     As Muftak and the droid headed for the door, talking in low voices

about the location ofAlzoc III, Kabe hastily pried a large fire-gem

from the eye of a sculpture.

     She stuffed it into one of the myriad pockets of her robe, joining

the other small valuables she'd secreted about her person.  I'll never

have to pick pockets again, she thought.

     They followed the droid back into the hall and to the right.  As

they tiptoed along, Kabe's ears twitched at a noise so soft no one else

could have heard it.  Breathing.

     Agonized, rasping .  . . and aware.  She halted before the third

door.  "Who is in this room?"  she demanded of K-8LR.  "Whoever is in

here is awake."

     K-8LR stopped.  "It is one of my former master's victims, I'm

afraid.  A human courier.  They have been torturing him for days with a

nerve disruptor."

     Muftak motioned her on, but Kabe hesitated.  "Do you know how much

Valarian would pay for a nerve disruptor?"  she whispered to the Talz.

     "Droid, can you open it?"

     "Certainly, madam."  K-8LR interfaced with the lock and the door

swung open.

     Muftak shifted nervously, scratching his head.

     "Kabe, let's not get involved with this.  It stinks in there."

     The Chadra-Fan ignored her friend, marching into the room.

     Reluctantly, Muftak followed.

     A naked, frail, sallow man with an air of infinite sadness lay

strapped onto a bunk, moaning.  As they entered, his eyes fastened on

them.  The nerve disruptor, a small black box mounted on a tall tripod,

stood by the bed.  Kabe went over and, resolutely ignoring the human,

began to disconnect it.

     "Water," the man pleaded in a ghastly husk of a voice.  "Water...

     please."

     "Be quiet," Kabe snapped.  Even as her fingers moved, deftly

unscrewing little components, she remembered the days before Muftak had

found her, when she'd wandered the streets of Mos Eisley, him gry .  .

. and nearly crazed with thirst.  Unable to stop herself, she looked up

at the human.  Their eyes met.

     "Water," rasped the man, "Please .  . ."

     Kabe's fingers slowed, then, cursing under her breath, she pulled

a small flask from her belt and held it out.  "Here's water.  Now leave

me alone."  With his arms restrained, the human could only gaze at the

flask longingly.

     "I'll give it to you, sir," said K-8LR, coming forward.

     He raised the human's head, and held the water to his lips.

     The nerve disruptor was finally detached.  Kabe stuffed it in her

sack.  "This alone will buy us enough juice for a lifetime!"  she said

triumphantly.

     The human finished the water and licked his cracked, impossibly

rough lips.  He eyed them carefully.

     "You two .  . . are interested in credits.  How'd you like to earn

thirty thousand, quick, without risk?"

     Muftak, restless, was keeping a lookout on the hall.

     Kabe, already turning to leave, halted.  She regarded the man

suspiciously.  "What d'you mean, human?"

     "My name is Barid Mesoriaam.  Remember that name, because it will

be your password.  If you deliver a datadot to a certain Mon Calamari

who will be in Mos Eisley for the next few days, the credits are

yours."

     Kabe considered.  "A datadot.  Thirty thousand?  But where'11 you

get it?  How do we know--" "You'll just have to trust me.  As to the

location of the dot..."  Mesoriaam closed his mouth and worked his

tongue against his teeth.  When he opened it, there was a tiny black

circle visible on the tip of his tongue.  Kabe plucked the datadot off.

     Muftak, who'd returned to the bedside in time to hear most of the

exchange, stared wide-eyed at the man.  "What is on this dot that is of

such value?"  he asked.

     Mesoriaam tried to raise himself, but he was too weak.  "That is

not for you to know.  Tell the Mon Calamari it is for General Dodonna's

eyes only."

 

     "Barid Mesoriaam is a participant in the Rebellion

 

     against the Empire," said K-8LR smugly.  "They wish to restore

power to the Senate, as I understand it.  No doubt the datadot has

something to do with Rebel plans."

     The Talz stroked his proboscis, thinking.  "Here, Muftak, put this

in your pouch," Kabe oratered, holding out the datadot.

     Muftak complied.  "Rebels," he repeated meditatively.

     "Kay-eight, what was Jabba trying to get out of him?  Was he under

Imperial order to do this?"

     "My former master does not play favorites," replied the droid.

     "He sells to the highest bidder.  Unfortunately for him, no matter

how Mesoriaam was tortured, he revealed nothing."

     "Since you know what I am and what this dot contains," said

Mesoriaam, "there is nothing to stop you from selling the information

to the Prefect.  But, if you do, remember that there is no place for

nonhumans in the Empire.  In the proud days of the Republic, all beings

had equal status.  Look around you and tell me if that is still the

case."

     Kabe scowled impatiently.  "If your friend'11 give us thirty

thousand, I don't care what he--" She whirled around abruptly.  "what

was that?"

     Lights came on in the hall.  "Oh, no," said K-8LR.

     "This doesn't seem to be a very promising turn of events," Muftak

drew his blaster.  "Let's get out of here.

     NOW."

     The Talz held his breath as he reached the hallway, brandishing

his blaster, but no one was in sight.  Kabe followed, trying to fit one

more prize in her already full bag.  "Jabba's audience chamber, Muftak.

     That shapework must be worth millions!"

     Muftak gaped at her, incredulous.  "Kabe, are you crazy?  We've

got to---" From out of the lounge sprang two burly, porcine Gamorreans

brandishing axes, grunting obscenely.

     Muftak shoved Kabe behind him, and they backed away from the

newcomers.  The Talz triggered his blaster--but nothing happened.

     "Shoot them, Muftak!"  Kabe shrilled.

     Muftak emitted a frustrated hum.  "I'm trying!"

     Encumbered by his sack, he examined the weapon as best he could,

backpedaling all the while.  The Gamor-reans squealed at each other,

evidently making plans.

     Desperately, Muftak wiggled the power supply into better contact,

saw the ignition coil begin to glow hot.  Got it.  Aiming, he fired at

the nearest guard.  The weapon spat, and the bolt of.energy caromed off

the guard's axhead, which it was using as a shield.  The Gamorre-ans

dived for cover, just as a tiny Jawa appeared from another door, firing

its blaster.  Muftak coaxed out a few more shots, sending the Jawa

scurrying back into hiding.

     "This way!"  Kabe was heading past the main entrance, a reinforced

blast door big enough to admit the enormous Hutt.  One glance told

Muftak it was electronically locked.

     The Chadra-Fan scurried in the direction of the audience room.

     "There's another exit in here--hold them off while I get it open!"

     "Hold them off?."  Muftak cried.  "How?"  He followed Kabe, and

they dashed into the huge, circular audience chamber.  Dominating the

far end of the room was the Hutt's ornate wooden dais; over it hung a

gigantic tapestry depicting a grotesque scene of Hutt family life.

     Just as Kabe had promised, there was another, smaller door--but it

too bore an electronic bolt.  "Now what?"  Muftak gasped.  "We're

trapped!"

     "Maybe I can get it open .  . ."  Kabe said uncertainly.

     "But I'll need time .  . ."  Pulling out the nerve disruptor, she

set it on the floor, pointing at the doorway, then turned it on.  "I'll

use this to block the entrance!"

     Time was against them--they'd only gotten halfway across the

chamber before more Gamorreans charged through the door, howling like

Tusken Raiders.  One was armed with a blaster.  Lethal bolts ricocheted

behind them as Muftak grabbed Kabe and dashed across the chamber,

taking cover behind Jabba's audience dais.

     The blaster bolts halted abruptly, and the two thieves peered out

to see the four Gamorreans staggering in the entranceway, yowling with

pain and fury.  Sighting carefully, Muftak cut three of them down with

wellplaced shots.  The fourth escaped back into the hall.

     Kabe started crawling for the door.  "I'll openre" All hell broke

loose.  Ten guards of various species appeared at the doorway, each of

them loosing a barrage of blaster fire.  Kabe's disruptor held them

back for the moment, but the two friends were pinned down behind the

dais.

     "We can't hold out much longer like this."  Muftak grunted,

sighting and firing into the gaggle of guards jammed into the entrance.

     "Sooner or later one of their shots will hit the disruptor--and

then they'll be in here."

     Kabe's only response was a terrified squeal.  Muftak peered over

the dais, searching for a good target, and glimpsed chalky-white albino

features at the back of the crowd.  Bib Fortuna .  . . Jabba's Twi'lek

major-domo, who was doubtless directing the battle from the safety of

the hallway.  A whistling snarl from overhead attracted his attention,

and he glanced up to see a huge net hanging from the ceiling, large

enough to cover the entire middle of the audience chamber.

     Word had it that the net contained kayven whistlers, flying

carnivores with appetites as large and sharp as their teeth, Jabba used

the kayven to "influence" recalcitrant business associates into deals

favorable to the Hutt.

     Aiming at a hulking Abyssin's torso, Muftak squeezed off another

shot, and was rewarded when the being went down with a scream.

     "Muftak, what are we going to do?"  Kabe bleated.  He glanced down

at her, saw her huddled, quivering, against his side.

     "If we could only get that.  t door open," the Talz muttered, half

to himself.  But it was too far away .  . .

     Another blaster shot sizzled overhead, so close that Muftak threw

himself over Kabe, almost mashing her flat.  A crackling filled the

air; the tapestry behind them was now burning in one spot and

smoldering in several others.  That's it .  . . we'll never get out of

here alive, he thought.  I'll never get off this sandy hell, never see

Alzoc III .  . . never taste the nectar of those flowers-"Get off me!"

     Kabe squeaked beneath him.  Muftak levered himself up, gasping and

gagging on smoke.

     Kabe stared at the fire round-eyed.  "Muf-tak .  . ."  she wailed.

     The Talz squinted against the smoke tendrils, trying to aim.  He

fired at a Gamorrean, but blurred vision made him miss.  Return fire

caromed off the furniture.

     One blaster bolt struck the nerve disruptor, shattering it.

     Now they'll be all over us.t Muftak thought, but the guards still

held back.  Evidently they hadn't realized that the entrance was now

clear--either that, or the smoke deterred them.  Maybe Bib Fortuna

ordered them to stay back, figuring the fire will get us, he thought.

     That way he doesn't risk losing any more guards.

 

     Without warning, the exit door swung open.

 

     Fresh night air rushed in, fanning the flames, sending the smoke

eddying in billows.  Muftak grabbed the two sacks of loot, shoving them

into Kabe's hands.

     "Run for it!"  he ordered.  "I'll cover you!"

     The Chadran-Fan hesitated.  "But what about you?"

     "I'll be right behind you!"  he lied.  Someone as small and quick

as Kabe might be able to make it out the door, under the cover of his

fire, but Muftak, with his lumbering bulk, didn't have a chance.  But

at least Kabe would live.  With the wealth in those sacks, she'd be set

for life .  . .

     "Go.t" he cried, literally booting her out from behind the dais.

     He fired at the guards, catching a glimpse of her scuttling

through the smoke out of the corners of his left eyes.

     A hail of fire forced him down again, but not before Muftak was

rewarded by the sight of Kabe vanishing through the door.  Thank the

Force for that.  He settled back, his blaster scorching his paw as he

prepared to sell his life dearly .  . .

     Gasping, choking, Kabe staggered out the exit and into the night.

     The heavy sacks of loot weighed her down, but she'd sooner have

cut off her arm than lose them.

     Ducking through a gate and into a walled garden, she sagged

against a life-size sculpture of Jabba, gulping air.  Behind her she

could hear blaster bolts whining.

     Where was Muftak?

     Peeking through the gate at the exit from the audience chamber,

the Chadra-Fan watched as clouds of smoke billowed.  With each passing

second, the pain in her pounding heart and straining lungs eased.

     Still no Muftak.  Kabe glanced up the street, hearing the distant

sounds of firefighters and water sellers converging on the Hutt's town

house from all directions.

 

     Where in the name of the Force was Muftak?

 

     Kabe winced at the sounds of more blaster fire from the audience

chamber.  Smoke darkened the night, obscuring the stars.  The entire

room must be ablaze .  . .

     Muftak!

     Grimly, the little Chadra-Fan realized that her friend had never

intended to follow her.  He'd given her the chance to escape at the

price of his own life.  Slowly, she picked up the two laden sacks.

     She'd be crazy to throw away the Talz's last gift to her .  . .

Muftak wanted her to get away--with the loot.

     Kabe took a step toward the gate on the other side of the 'garden,

heading for the alley.  Images flashed before her eyes, of herself,

starving, whimpering in alleys, too weak to run, almost too weak to

walk.  Muftak had picked her up, tucked her under his arm, and carried

her home to his den .  . . had bought water for her, and food .  . .

 

     Kabe took another step .  . .

 

     The sacks slipped from the Chadra-Fan's fingers, thudded to the

sandy ground near the sculpture's stone tail.  Kabe kicked them

viciously, knowing they wouldn't last two seconds out here, no matter

how she tried to conceal them.  "Damn you, Muftak!"  she squealed

 

     --and; turning, raced back into the audience chamber.

 

     Chittering loudly, Kabe could pick up Muftak's presence by his

vibrations, even through the engulfing smoke.  The Talz was still where

she'd left him, but the room was now filled with advancing guards.

     Muftak was returning fire, but the power pak in his blaster was

clearly running lowrathe beam flickered as she scuttled across the

floor of the audience chamber.

     Eyes watering, coughing as she tried to sense vibrations, Kabe

picked up a shape in front of her.  A Rodian.  She leaped, fastening

her sharp teeth in the guard's leg.  He shrieked, dropped his blaster

and turned, trying to club her away with his fist.  The Chadra-Fan let

go, grabbed the blaster, and shot the guard at point-blank range.

     "Muftak!"  she shrilled.

     "Come on!  I'll cover you!"

     Somehow, despite the melee, he heard her.  Kabe chittered wildly

amid the chaos of smoke, flame, and scuttling bodies, and was rewarded

with the sound of the Talz crawling out from behind the dais.

     Crouching down, she made herself as small a target as possible,

all the while firing wildly at anything moving.

     She could see Muftak; he was lumbering toward her, knocking aside

guards as though they were children, using his enormous bulk to flatten

anything in his path.

 

     "Over here!"  Kabe called.  "The door!"

 

     Muftak headed toward her--only to be confronted by two Gamorreans,

grunting and squealing threats.

     Kabe took careful aim, and shot one in the back.  His partner

whirled toward her, and Muftak kicked him aside.

 

     Suddenly a new voice called out.  "Friend Talz!

 

     Friend Talz--stand away from the' center of the room, please!"

     Kabe glanced up, through the smoke, to see K-8LR leaning out of a

window halfway up the wall of the dome.  Muftak obeyed, changing the

direction of his charge just in time to avoid a huge net that tumbled

down from the apex of the dome, engulfing most of the guards.

     Shrieks and squeals from the guards mingled with the savage

hootings of kayyen whistlers.  The net heaved wildly.

     One long stride later, Muftak reached the Chadra-Fan, scooped her

up without pausing, then raced out the open door.

     "Put me down?' Kabe squeaked, the moment they were clear of the

town house.  Quickly, she hurried over to the shadow of the statue,

but, of course, the sacks were gone.

     The Chadra-Fan's shoulders sagged.

     "Bantha

 

     dung!"

 

     "Kabe .  . . you came back .  . ."

     It was Muftak, and he was regarding her incredulously, his eyes

still clouded with smoke.  "I thought you'd be halfway home by now."

     Kabe kicked the crumbling garden wall disgustedly.

     "Muftak, you're so cursed stupid!  Of course I couldn't leave you

in there, when you're too dumb to get out of there by yourself..  You'd

have been bantha fodder for sure !  ' ' The Talz regarded her

quizzically, then, suddenly, he buzzed with soft amusement.  "Kabe .  .

     . you saved my life.  You and Kay-eight.  You came back to save

me."

     The Chadra-Fan put both hands on her hips and glared at him.

     "Well, of course I did, you idiot!  We're partners, aren't we?"

     Muftak nodded.  "That's for sure, Kabe.  Partners.

     Come, let's get out of here."

     The two began skulking along, automatically moving in shadows,

avoiding passersby.  Behind them, the blaze was spreading.  "The walls

won't burn," Muftak observed, "but the interior is going to be gutted,

at this rate."

     "Jabba's so rich he'll fix it up, no problem," Kabe said

truthfully.  "Muftak .  , .  one thing puzzles me.

     Who opened the door?"

     "It must have been the droid," the Talz replied.  "I only hope

that Bib Fortuna didn't seeit helping us out.

     If he did, there's no hope for Kay-eight Ellarr."

     "Where will we go now?"  Kabe, ever-practical, asked.

     "Momaw Nadon's house.  He'll hide us .  . . if he's alive.  And

there were no reports of his death, so he must have managed to

outmaneuver Alima somehow."

     "But we can't stay here .  . ."  Kabe wailed.  "Our lives won't be

worth Sarlacc spit ifJabba finds out who messed up his house!"

     Muftak gave her a long look.  "You're right .  . . we can't stay

here.  We're getting out of Mos Eisley and off Tatooine before anyone

can inform on us."

     "How, Muftak?  We lost almost all of our loot!"

     Which wasn't quite true... Kabe could feel the small bulges of

half a dozen gems in her robe.

     "Have you forgotten the datadot?"  Smugly, the Talz patted his

furry belly.

     Kabe stared at him, wide-eyed, then began to chatter happily to

herself.  "Thirty thousand!  And it will all be ours!  And you didn't

even want to go into that room .  . . I practically had to drag you!  I

told you you'd never regret this night, Muftak, didn't I?  Didn't I?"

 

     Silently, the big Talz nodded agreement.

 

     Two nights later, in the secret hiding place beneath the roots of

the Ithorian's carnivorous vesuvague tree, Muftak faced the Mon

Calamari that Momaw Nadon had conducted there to meet him.  "Barid

Mesoriaam said this was to be for General Dodonna's eyes only," the

Talz said.

     "I understand," the fish-being said, holding out a tinned hand.

     "The datadot, please?"

     "First, our payment," Kabe piped up.  "Do you think we're stupid?"

     Silently, the Mon Calamari produced credits from a pouch that made

the Chadra-Fan's eyes gleam avidly.

     Muftak hastily counted it.  "There is only fifteen thousand here,"

he complained.  "We were promised thirty."

     "I have something better than credits, to make the rest of the

payment," promised the Rebel contact, reaching into his pocket.

     "What could be better than credits?"  scoffed Kabe, openly

contemptuous.

     "These--" the spy said, holding up two official-looking stamped

and sealed documents.  "Two letters of transit, signed by Grand Moff

Tarkin himself.  With these, you can go anywhere!"

     Muftak stared at the documents, all four eyes huge.

     Letters of transit!  With these they'd be able to reach Alzoc

III--and then, perhaps, Chadra, Kabe's world of origin.

     "But obtaining passage out of Mos Eisley is still no easy task .

     . ."  Muftak said, taking the precious documents and stowing them,

along with the credits, in his pouch.  Gravely, he handed over the

datadot.

     "Passage has been arranged, my friend," Momaw Nadon said, stepping

out of the shadows.  "You leave tonight.  Perhaps, now that you have

those .  . ."--the Ithorian cocked one eyestalk in the direction of the

letters of transit--"you will one day be able to aid the Rebellion

again."

     "Don't count on it, Momaw," Kabe squeaked.

     "We're in this for ourselves, not for any Rebellion, right,

Muftak?"

 

     The Talz scratched his head, and didn't answer.

 

     Kabe craned her neck to peer out the porthole of the small

freighter, gazing down at the golden world below them, turning lazily

in the light of its double suns.  "I never thought I'd see Tatooine

from here," she chirped, a little uneasily.  "I could use a drink,

Muftak."

     "Not while we're in space, little one," the Talz said.

     "We don't want you getting sick.  But on Alzoc .  . .

     ah, there is the finest of nectar to sip!"

     "What about juri juice?"  she demanded, taken aback.  "Don't tell

me they don't have any juri juice, Muftak!"

     Muftak hummed softly.  "I have no idea, little one," he said

gently.  Every time the Talz moved, he could feel the letters of

transit in their place of concealment.

     First Alzoc III, he thought.  Then, perhaps, Chadra .  . .

     and from there?  Who knows?  The Rebellion has been far more

charitable to us than the Empire ever was or would be .  . .

     perhaps, after we have seen our home worlds, it will be time to

think once again of the Rebellion.

     Kabe was still gazing out the porthole, muttering disgustedly to

herself about the lack ofjuri juice.  But suddenly she glanced up at

her large friend, her little eyes twinkling.  "I've just thought of one

more reason I'm

 

     glad to leave Mos Eisley, Muftak."

 

     "What is that, little one?"

     "At least I'll never have to listen to that .  . . that noise

Figrin D'an makes again!  Especially his rendition of 'The Sequential

Passage of Chronological Intervals.' That one really hurt my ears .  .

     ."

     Muftak stroked his proboscis, buzzing softly with amusement.

 

     The Sand Tender:

 

     The Hammerhead's Tale

 

     by Dave Wolverton

 

     T he cantina was crowded now that the afternoon suns beat down on

Tatooine, yet even sitting with his friend in the crowded cantina,

Momaw Nadon felt somehow alone.  Perhaps it was because Nadon was the

only Ithorianmor Hammerhead---on the planet.  Or perhaps it was the

news that his longtime friend Muftak bore.

     Muftak the hairy white four-eye drank a cup of fermented nectar,

slurping with his long proboscis, and said with palpable excitement,

"Talz is the name of my specieswat least that is what the stormtrooper

called me, and as soon as he said it, I recognized the word.

     Have you heard of the Talz?"

     Nadon had a perfect memory.  "Unfortunately, I have never heard of

your species, my friend," Nadon answered, the words from his twin

mouths cutting through the room in stereo.  "But I have contacts on

other worlds.  Now that we know your species, we may be able to learn

where your home lies."

     Muftak got a faraway look in his eyes as he sipped his drink.

     "Home."

     "These Imperial stormtroopers that questioned you," Nadon asked,

"what were they after?"

     "I have heard," Muftak said, "that they are searching for two

droids who evacuated a Rebel ship and dropped into the Dune Sea.  The

Imper, i, als are conducting a door-to-door search, even now.

     "Hmmm .  . ."  Nadon considered.  He couldn't tell what the

Imperials were really after.  Often they would visit a planet, pretend

to investigate a minor infraction as an excuse to bully the locals,

then leave a garrison of gunslingers to "ensure the peace."  A small

force of stormtroopers had been on planet for some time.  Now it looked

as if the Empire were raising the stakes on Tatooine.  At this very

moment, all over the planet, residents of the underworld were scurrying

to hide illegal drug shipments, forging documents.  Nadon saw worried

faces in the crowded bar.  There was no telling how long the new

Imperial forces might stay or what direction their investigations might

take.

     Muftak laid a heavy claw on Nadon's arm in warning.

     "There is something more that I must tell you, my old friend.  The

Imperials that stopped us were led by a commander named Lieutenant

Alima, an older human from the planet Coruscant."

     At the mention of Alima's name, Momaw Nadon's blood went cold and

the muscles of his legs tightened, preparing him to run.  "It would be

a .great favor," Nadon said, "if you could discover if this man once

led the Star Destroyer Conquest in its attack against a herd-ship on

Ithor."

     "I have already begun asking around," Muftak answered.

     "I noticed that the men in Alima's command did not respect

himwthey looked away when he gave orders--and even his subordinates

retained a healthy distance from him."

 

     "Which means?"  Nadon asked.

 

     "This Alima is an outcast among his own menw probably recently

demoted, on his way down in the ranks.  There is a good chance that he

is the one who betrayed your people.  If he is, what will you do?"

     Nadon stopped his digestive processes for a moment, sending extra

blood to his brains as he considered.

     Alima was a vicious man.  Contacting him would be dangerous, but

Nadon knew he could not resist confronting the man who was responsible

for his exile.  "I don't know what I will do," Nadon said.  "If this

Alima is my old foe, tell him that you know of an enemy to the Empire

who may be harboring the droids.  Sell him my name .... And make sure

he pays you well."  It was an ironic moment.  For years now, Nadon had

spied for the Rebellion and had sought to hide this affiliation.  Now

he was asking a friend to sell him out.

     "One more thing," Muftak said with a note of warning.

     "This Alima was brought in by Lord Vader as an interrogator.  Word

from the desert is that he's already killed fifty of our citizens."

     "I know the type of man I am dealing with," Nadon said heavily.

     That evening, as the lavender- and rose-colored suns of Tatooine

dipped below the horizon, Nadon felt restless.

     His sympathies for the Rebellion were widely known, and he did not

doubt that the Imperials would soon come to question himwprobably even

torture him.

     Over the years, Nadon had used his share of his family fortune to

invest in farming ventures on a hundred worlds.  His investments were

paying such handsome dividends that he had gained a fortune, and

usually at this time of night he would have been hard at work, managing

his wealth.  But tonight he was ill at ease.

     To calm himself, Nadon decided to engage in an ancient Harvest

Ceremony, so he took his hovercar to a nameless valley in the mountains

north of Mos Eisley.

     There, Nadon had planted leathery, shade-giving Cydorrian driller

trees.  With their far-reaching root systems, the driller trees had

quickly formed a thriving grove.

     Nadon went to the healthiest specimen and pulled a series of thin

golden needles from a pouch at his belt, then inserted the probes into

the tree bork so that he could harvest gene samples.  As a part of the

gene-Har-vest Ceremony, he talked softly to the tree as he woi'ked.

     "With your gift, my friend," he told the tree, "I will splice the

DNA for producing your long root systems into the native Tatooine hubba

gourd.  The hubba gourd serves as the staff of life to Tatooine's wild

Jawas and Sand People.  And so, because of this little pain I have

inflicted, many people will be served.

     For this harvest I thank you.  And I thank you for the greater

harvests to come."

     When he had collected his samples, Nadon lay back on the warm

sand, watched the stars burning in the night skies, and remembered

home.  Nadon had a flawless memory, so he replayed incidents in his

mind, and as he remembered, the' sights and smells and emotions all

came to him new again so that he was lost to the present.  He relived

the time that he and his wife Fandomar had planted a small, gnarled

Indyup tree to commemorate their son's conception.  For a moment in his

memory, Nadon knelt beside his wife digging beneath a .sun-splattered

waterfall in the steaming Ithorian jungle, then cocked his head to

listen to an arrak snake that burst into song from the heights of a

nearby cliff.

     Then he recalled being a child, gently inhaling with both mouths

the sweet smell of a purple donor flower.

     After the rush of memories, Nadon felt frail, wasted.

     Home.  Nadon could not go home.  Once, he had been revered among

his people as a great High Priest, an Ithorian renowned for his

knowledge of many agriculo rural ceremonies.  But then Captain Alima

had come with his Star Destroyer and forced Nadon to reveal the secrets

of Ithorian technology to the Empire.

     Nadon's people had banished him.  As his punishment, Momaw Nadon

had chosen to live on this dreary world of Tatooinewthe equivalent of

an Ithorian hell.

     Where once he had led his people in caring for the vast forests of

Ithor, Nadon now tended the barren sands of Tatooine.  As penance for

his crimes, he struggled to develop plants that could thrive in these

deserts, hoping that someday Tatooine would become a lush and inviting

world.

     Nadon replayed his first memories of Alima, captain of the

Imperial Star Destroyer Conquest.  Alima had been a young man with dark

hair, a craggy face, and fierce eyes.  Nadon had been newly married,

High Priest of the Tafanda Bay.

     On his native Ithor, Nadon's people lived in immense floating

cities called herdships, which used repulsorlift engines to constantly

sweep over the forests and plains, and the Tafanda Bay was the largest

and finest of Ithor's planetary herdships.  Inside each herd-ship,

hundreds of biospheres were painstakingly reproduced down to the

microscopic flora and fauna of the topsoils.  The Ithorians harvested

plants from the biospheres of the ships, but particularly on their huge

groundships, they also harvested from the abundant forests of

Ithor--taking nourishment from fruits and grains, creating medicines

from saps and pollens, using plant fibers to create fabrics and

ultrastrong porcelains, harvesting minerals and energy from otherwise

unusable roots and stems.

     The study of plants and their uses was the lifework of most

Ithorians, and the greatest of the students became priests who guided

others, prohibiting the people from harvesting plants that could think

or feel.

     Only those plants that slept, those that were not self-aware,

could be harvested, and then only under a rigid law: For every plant

that was destroyed in the harvest, two must be planted to replace it.

     This was the Ithorian Law of Life.

     As a High Priest, Nadon had spent decades in the service of life,

until Captain Alima came seeking excuses to board the Tafanda Bay, then

demanded to know the secrets of Ithorian technology.  At first Nadon

had refused to reveal his secrets, until Captain Alima trained his Star

Destroyer's blasters on the sentient forests of Cathor Hills.

     Thousands of the Bafforr died, trees that had been Nadon's

teachers and friends in his youth.  Neither the trees nor the Ithorians

had the weapons to fight the Empire.

     When the forest was destroyed, Captain Alima had turned his

weapons on the Tafanda Bay and ordered Nadon to surrender.  In a

last-ditch effort to save his own people, Nadon had no choice but to

relinquish the secrets of Ithorian technology to Alima.

     As punishment for revealing the Ithorian agricultural ceremonies,

Nadon could still hear the elders' judgment ringing in his ears, "We

banish you from Ithor and from our mother jungles.  Go and consider

your evil actions in solitude."

     Home.  Nadon found himself both envying Muftak and feeling

gratitude that perhaps the hairy creature would find joy.

     Nadon was interrupted from his reveries by a comlink call on his

personal channel.

     "Nadon," Muftak said over audio, "I just sold your name to this

Lieutenant Alima.  You had better get home to meet him.  Be careful, my

old friend."

 

     "Thank you," Nadon said.

 

     When Momaw Nadon reached Mos Eisley, his house was quiet.  With

the suns down, many of the townspeople were on the streets, enjoying

the cool evening.

     Out across the Dune Sea, winds raced over the sand, raising clouds

of dust.  Static discharges in the dust clouds made the night growl

with the sound of distant dry thunder.

     Nadon unlocked his door, checking the doorjamb for any sign that

someone might have forced their way in before him.  The air in his

house was rich with the smell of kater, and dreeka fish chirped among

the reeds of the pond in his living room.  Everywhere in the dome,

creepers climbed the pourstone walls toward the skylights.  Small trees

shivered under the weight of a breeze produced by fans.

     Nadon made his way over a paved trail into one of his many side

domes, to a small grove of Bafforr trees that glowed pale blue in .the

starlight under black leaves.  Nadon knelt before them and wrapped his

long leathery gray fingers around the trunk of one tree.  The bork was

smoother than glass.

     "My friends," Nadon whispered.  "Our enemy ColY-tain Alima is

coming.  I do not know how to admit this, but I wish to kill him."

     The bork hummed under his touch, and a pure and holy feeling

enervated him, as if light entered his every pore.  The soothing

mind-touch of the sentient trees nearly overwhelmed him with its

beauty, but the trees were displeased by his confession.  Above him,

the black leaves trembled, hissing the words, "Noooo.  We forbid it."~

"He slew the Bafforr of Cathor Hills," Nadon said.

     "He is a murderer.  And he killed your brothers so that he could

gain greater prestige among evil men.  His every intent was impure."

     "You are a priest of Ithor," the woods whispered.

     "You have vowed to honor the Law of Life.  You cannot slay him."

     "But he killed your kin," Nadon reasoned.  He did not know if the

Bafforr understood him.  Each tree in itself had limited intelligence,

but through their intertwining roots they were connected and thus

formed a group intelligence.  A large forest grew wiser in lore than

any other being, but these few trees were not a great forest.  Still,

Nadon had not come for their counsel, only for their permission.

     "Our kin would have died in time," the Bafforr reasoned.

     "Atima only hurried their end."

     '~[ust as I wish to hurry Alima's end," Nadon said.

     "You are not like Alima."  The trees sharpened the focus of their

mind-touch, and Nadon gasped at the beauty he felt as rivers of light

cascaded through him.

     The profound peace that settled in his bones was meant both as a

reward and a warning.  While he basked in the glow, he dreaded the

moment when he would have to leave the sacred grove and return to the

mundane world.  "If you break the Law of Life," the Bafforr said, "we

will no longer be able to tolerate your touch."

     "I would not kill him myself," Momaw Nadon pleaded, "I would

command the vesuvague tree to strangle him, or I would have the alleth

consume him or the arool poison him."

     "All of these are lower life forms than us," the Bar-forr said,

"and they respond to your command as if they were common weapons.  But

once again, we warn you, you cannot break the Law of Life."

     The mind-touch of the Bafforr withdrew abruptly, and Nadon choked

out a sob as he was suddenly excluded from the group mind.  He fell to

his face and began to weep.

     "Fancy meeting you here," an unfamiliar voice said.

     Momaw Nadon turned.

     Beneath a glow globe that shone like a moon stood an aging human

in an Imperial uniform.  Emerald-winged moths fluttered about the

globe, and for a moment the human eyed their bright green wings.

     Alima's face was fatter than when Nadon had last seen him, and his

voice had grown hoarser with age.

     His cheeks had sagged and his hair was graying, but Nadon

recognized him.  He would have recognized that face anywhere.  "I see

you are still a priest, crying over your sacred trees," Alima said.  He

waved a blaster toward the grove.

     "And I see that you are still a servant of evil," Nadon said,

"though somewhat fallen in rank."

     Alima chuckled.  "Believe me, my old friend," he countered, "my

fall from grace was carefully orchestrated.

     Only a fool would want to be captain of Lord Vader's flagship: The

mortality rate is phenomenal.

     Still, Vader finds uses for me even as a lowly lieutenant --which

is why I'm here.  So, tell me--enemy of the Empire--where the droids

are.  I paid good money to learn the name of one who was said to be

harboring them."

     "Then you wasted your money," Nadon retorted, hoping that Muftak

had extorted plenty.  "I don't know the location of any droid."

     "But you are an enemy of the Empire, serving the Rebellion," Alima

whispered dangerously.  "I'm sure of it!"

     "I know nothing about any droids," Nadon answered softly.  He

checked Alima's location.  The warrior stood close to an arool cactus.

     Nadon could command it to strike, but in order to get within range

of its stinging spines, Alima would have to move a couple of steps

farther down the path.

     Nadon got up from the forest floor, stepped onto the path, and

backed away from Alima, hoping to lure him a meter.

     Alima followed Nadon's eyes, glanced at the arool.

     "Do you really think I'm so stupid as to walk into your traps,

Priest?"  Alima asked.

     Alima raised his blaster and pointed it at Nadon, then abruptly

swiveled and fired into the grove of blue-glowing Bafforr.  A tree

exploded into flame, its trunk splitting under the impact.  Black

leaves rustled and waves of pain rippled from the woods, battering

Nadon's senses as if they were mighty fists.

     "You will devote all of your resources to finding those droids,"

Alima said.  "Look to your friends within the Rebellion.  If you do not

have a location on the droids by tomorrow evening, I will sew your eyes

open and make you watch as I take a vibroblade and slice each limb off

your precious Bafforr trees, one at a time.  Then I'll drop a thermal

detonator in your living room and fry the rest of your damned vegetable

friends.  Believe me, if your family were here or if I thought there

was anything that you loved more in life, I would gladly destroy it,

too--" "I'll kill you--" Momaw Nadon shouted, his stereophonic voice

ringing through the dome surprisingly loud.

     "You?"  Alima asked.  "If I thought you had it in you, I'd have

brought a squadron of men.  No, you'll cave in to my demands, just as

you have in the past!"

     Alima turned and walked away, unconcernedly, and Nadon could do

nothing but watch helplessly even though rage burned within him.

     When Alima had left, Nadon went to his grove to see if he could

save the wounded Bafforr, but the pale blue sheen of its glasslike

trunk was already turning black in death.

     He reached out for the trees with his mind.  Nadon fell to his

knees in the mossy turf under the dark leaves and pleaded, "Now?  Now

may I kill him?"

     The leaves of the living Bafforr trees circling him rustled dimly

in response.  "What?  What happened?

     Who touches us?"

     Momaw Nadon listened to the trees' voices.  Their number had been

reduced from seven trees down to six--just below the number needed for

the grove to achieve true sentience.  He could not tell how much they

might understand.  "MOmaw Nadon, a friend, touches you.  Our enemy

killed a member of your grove.  I wish to punish him for his act."

     "We understand.  You cannot break the Law of Life," the Bafforr

whispered with finality.  "We forbid it."

     Nadon backed away without closing his eyes in the traditional sign

of acceptance.  Perhaps the Bafforr were willing to die for their

principles, but Nadon could not sit by quietly and let them.

     He considered his options.  He could search for the droids, give

in to Captain Alima's demands.

     The thought was so revolting that it caused Nadon physical pain,

made his eyes feel gritty and itch.  Nadon rubbed his forehead between

his eyes with his long thin fingers, physically stimulating a

pleasure-inducing gland along the ridge of his brow so that he could

think clearly again.

     If the Empire wanted those two droids so badly, then it was

imperative that the Empire not get them.

     No, Nadon had to fight.  Lieutenant Alima was a dangerous man--as

vicious as they come.  He would leave a trail of charred and mutilated

victims behind in his search for the droids, and sooner or later,

someone would tell him what he wanted to know.

     As much as Nadon detested violence, he knew that Alima was a

monster, someone who must be destroyed.

     It would be a small loss to the Empire, an ineffectual blow, but

Alima represented a constant, undeniable threat to the Rebel Alliance.

     Just as importantly, by letting Alima live, Nadon would be

allowing the man to kill more plants, more people.  Nadon couldn't

allow Alima to live.

     In another room a sprinkler system softly hissed to life, and

Nadon took that as a signal to leave.  He checked his utility belt for

some credit chips, then went out the front door.

     Down the street, he spotted three stormtroopers on guard, standing

together talking.  They didn't hide the fact that they were watching

his house.  Nadon had to walk past them.  The flashing red lights on

their blaster rifles testified that the rifles were set to kill.  As

Nadon passed, one of the stormtroopers peeled away and followed at a

discreet distance.

     The streets were crowded now that full night had hit and the

blistering temperature had fallen to a comfortable level.  Nadon passed

through the markets and had no trouble losing the stormtrooper.

     Nadon made his way to Kayson's Weapons Shop.  The gruff human who

owned the shop had been in business forever, but Nadon had never set

foot on the premises.  It .took less than five minutes to buy a heavy

blaster and a holster that could be concealed under Nadon's cloak, then

the Ithorian was back out the door.

     He wandered the streets aimlessly for nearly an · hour, without

any kind of plan.  He simply hoped to spot Lieutenant Alima, pull his

blaster, and shoot the human.  Nadon knew that nothing much would be

accomplished by such an action.  He would kill the human, but in the

end he would forfeit his own life.  The precious Bafforr trees in his

home would be uprooted by whoever took over his house, and one way or

another he would never be able to speak with them again.

     But at least they would not be tortured by the likes of Alima.

     He set the blaster to kill, then searched the streets until he

heard the scream of fire sirens in his own neighborhood.  For a moment

he was struck with horror, fearing that Lieutenant Alima had already

come to burn his house, but as he ran up the streets, Nadon saw that

some trader's home was a roaring blaze.

     Firelight reflected from the column of smoke, lighting the streets

and alleys in a dull red.

     From every home, people were running toward the house with foam

canisters.  Water was so precious on Tatooine that the authorities

would probably let the house burn rather than waste the water used in

the foam extinguishers, but if the hapless owner of the home was in the

vicinity, he might purchase enough canisters--at inflated prices--to

rescue his valuables.

     From the corner of his eye, on a side street, Nadon .glimpsed the

dark uniform of an Imperial officer with ~ts billed cap.  He turned

just in time to recognize Lieutenant Alima walking steadfastly up the

hill toward the fire, Nadon rushed up the street parallel to Alima's

path, then turned down the next alley, running toward Alima.  He pulled

out his blaster, fumbled with it momentarily.

     The gun was not made to accommodate an Ithorian's extraordinarily

long, thin fingers, and Nadon could hardly get his finger into the

trigger guard.  He found that his hearts were racing, thumping wildly

in his chest like a pair of Jawas in a struggle.

     Nadon huddled against a wall, and checked the side streets in

three directions.  He could not see anyone.

     Good.  There would be no witnesses.

     Alima walked into the open not a meter away, and Nadon shouted his

name, pulled the blaster up level to Alima's face.

     Alima turned and looked at the Ithorian calmly, glanced at the

blaster.

     "Come here, into the alley!"  Nadon commanded.

     His mind was racing, and he could not think what to do.  He

thought of pulling the trigger, but he wanted to talk first, to tell

Alima why he felt he had to do this.

     Perhaps, Nadon thought, he will even repent.  Perhaps he will turn

away from the Empire.  Nadon's legs cramped, aching with the desire to

run, his species' preferred response for-coping with danger.

     Alima laughed.  "You can't kill me with a blaster set to Stun," he

said.  Nadon knew he had set the blaster to Kill, but feared that

perhaps it had been knocked off the setting by accident.  Nadon glanced

down in horror at the indicator lights on the blaster, saw the red

flashing lights of the Kill setting.  Just as Nadon realized his

mistake, Alima dodged from Nadon's line of fire and pulled his own

blaster.

     A blue bolt tore through the darkness, slamming Nadon between his

stomachs, knocking the big Ithorian into the stone wall at his back.

     For a moment, it seemed that a white sun blazed before his eyes,

and then Nadon found himself lying on the ground in a dark alley, and

someone was kicking his right eyestalk.

     Blood oozed from the wound.  Nadon reached up with his long arms,

trying to cover his eyestalks, and he moaned loudly.

     His attacker stopped kicking, apparently more from being winded

than from any desire to offer mercy.

     "You pacifist species are so pathetic in battle," Alima said,

standing over Nadon, panting.  "You're lucky that my blaster was set to

Stun!"

     Nadon groaned, and Alima waved two blasters in his face.  "Find me

those droids!  You have until sunset tomorrow!"

     He pointed his blaster between Nadon's eyes and pulled the trigger

again.

     Nadon woke with a throbbing ache in his eyestalks.  It was nearly

dawn, and a pale light washed through Mos Eisley, turning the pourstone

buildings to golden domes.  Nadon wiped the blood from his face with

his cloak, then managed to crawl to his knees.  He felt as if he stood

in a whirling fog that threatened to sweep him away, and he leaned

against the side of the building for support.

     Stupid.  I was stupid, he realized.  For one split second, Nadon

had had the opportunity to kill Lieutenant Alima, and he had failed to

do so.  Even though Nadon understood intellectually that the Empire

could only be overthrown by violence, his Ithorian nature had not

allowed him to kill.

     Nadon closed his eyes, tried to blink away the pain.

     He glanced up.  A thin smoke hung over the city, and people were

already beginning to scurry for cover from the morning heat.

     Nadon got up and wearily headed for home, his ears still ringing.

     He shook his head, tried to clear it.  He went into his house, sat

beside a pool and washed the blood from his eyestalk.  During the cool

of the night, moisture had condensed at the top of the dome.  No.

     it sometimes fell like droplets of rain.  Above his head was a

large gorsa tree, a stout flowering tree that used phosphorescent

flowers to attract night insects for pollination.

     Now that morning had come, the pale orange phosphorescent flowers

were folding in on themselves.

     In Mos Eisley it was rumored that Momaw Nadon's house was filled

with carnivorous plants.  Nadon encouraged the rumor in order to keep

out water thieves.

     Besides, the rumors were true, but those who walked through the

biospheres under the High Priest's protection did not have anything to

fear.

     Nadon went to a side dome where vines and creepers hung from a

large, red-barked tree that stood beside a pool.  Nadon said, "Part

your vines, friend."

     The tree's limbs quivered, and the vines parted, exposing the

trunk.  In the dim light of morning, four human skeletons were revealed

hanging from the limbs near the trunk of the tree, each with a thick

creeper wrapped around its neck--hapless water thieves.

     Nadon fumbled beneath some thick grass near the tree's trunk,

pulled at a handle until a concealed door jerked upward.  A light

flipped on below him, showing the ladder leading down.

     Nadon had secreted many a Rebel in the room below, and for a long

moment he considered climbing down himself, hiding.  Perhaps in this

concealed chamber, he would be able to disappear from view for a while.

     Alima could ignite a thermal detonator in this room, but there was

a chance that Nadon could ride out the firestorm intact, remain hidden.

     He had enough food stored here to last for weeks.

     And Nadon was sorely tempted to climb down.

     But he couldn't.  He couldn't let Alima kill his plants.

     One last chance, Nadon thought.  When Alima comes this evening, I

might be able to kill him yet.

     Nadon got up, strolled through his biosphere, touching the limbs

of trees, stroking the gentle fronds of ferns, tasting the scent of

moisture and undergrowth, the life all around him.

 

     There was no other way, Nadon realized.

 

     He would have to remain and fight, though it cost him all.  In the

evening, Alima would come.  Nadon knew that Lieutenant Alima would be

true to his word.

     He would sew Nadon's eyes open and make him watch as he slew the

Bafforr.  It would gratify Alima's little Imperial heart to know how he

had tortured an Ithorian, leaving Nadon alive to bear witness to the

Empire's cruelty.  Alima would then incinerate the house.

 

     Momaw Nadon considered what that would mean.

 

     All of his plants would be destroyed, all of his notes.

     Years of work would be wasted.  Nadon considered the plants,

decided that he would take some containers outside, saving the

specimens that showed the best hope of improving the ecology of

Tatooine.

     The Bafforr would diemthey could not be uprooted --but the Bafforr

had accepted their fate, and Nadon realized that now he must accept

his.

     For years Momaw Nadon had hidden on this rock, seeking cleansing,

trying to overcome the anger that insisted he should fight back against

the Empire.  The elders of Ithor had balked when he suggested that the

Empire was a weed that needed to be destroyed.  His elders would have

let the Imperials destroy the Bafforr forests of Cathor Hills, trusting

that some shred of decency left in Alima would make him stop short of

genocide against an entire species.  His elders would have forgiven the

Empire.

     But in all his years seeking spiritual cleansing, Nadon had never

been convinced that he was wrong.

     He believed that he had been right to try to save what he could.

     Nadon was not above killing an insect to save a tree.

     So, Nadon had to resist the Empire the best he knew how.  Even if

that meant he had to watch the Bafforrs be destroyed.  Even if it meant

he himself was destroyed.

     He could not just let the Empire crush him.

     Nadon was exhausted, but could not sleep.  He decided to calm

himself by continuing his Harvest Ceremony.

     He went to his laboratory on the east wing of the house, opened

the fruit of a large Tatooine hubba gourd, and removed some pale,

transparent seeds: Using tiny robotic manipulators, he carefully opened

four young seeds and removed the zygotes.

     Using his genetic samples from the Cydorrian driller trees, he put

the DNA into a gene splicer.  Nine genes controlled the drillers' root

growth.  Nadon took these genes, spliced them into the hubba gourd

zygotes, then returned the gourd's zygotes to a nutrient mixture so

that they could grow.

     The whole painstaking ritual calmed Nadon immensely, even though

he knew that soon most of his work would probably be destroyed.  The

task took nearly twelve hours, and when Nadon looked up from his work,

he saw by the shadows on the wall that nightfall was approaching.

     Soon, Alima would come.

     Time to say good-bye, Nadon whispered.  At this time of the day,

his good friend Muftak would be trying to cool himself off at Chalmun's

cantina--a difficult task considering the thickness of the four-eye's

furry white pelt.

     Nadon went to the cantina, thinking furiously, wondering how he

might best lure Alima into the dangerous depth of his own personal

biosphere.

     The cantina was as busy as usualNbustling with disreputable

aliens.  It was a tough place, frequented by cruel beings.

     Sure enough, Nadon found Muftak sitting alone at a table, sipping

polaris ale while his parmer in crime, the little thief Kabe, chittered

and wandered about in the darkness, begging Wuher the bartender for

juri juice and eyeing the pockets of the cantina's inhabitants.

     Nadon spoke to Muftak of inconsequential things--the price that

Muftak had gained for selling Nadon's name, Muftak's dreams of home.

     Always, Nadon tried to accentuate the positive, to leave his

friend uplifted, but Nadon's own thoughts were dark, and when they

drank a toast, Nadon found himself offering comfort that he himself

could not receive.

     Suddenly there was a disturbance in the cantina: A hideously

scarred human named Evazan and his alien sidekick Ponda Baba were

picking a fight with some wide-eyed local moisture boy.  "I have the

death sentence on twelve systems!"  the scarred human warned.

     Nadon looked at the small group.  The moisture boy was unfamiliar,

some farmer from the desert who had come in only moments earlier with

the old mystic Ben Kenobi.  Nadon had seen Ben only once before, when

he'd come into town to shop.  Nadon had noticed the pair because the

barkeep Wuher had shouted for them to leave their droids outside.

     Evazan and Ponda Baba were regulars, had been hanging around the

spaceport for weeks.

     Suddenly, Ponda Baba swung a clawed arm, bashing the moisture

farmer across the face, sending the boy crashing against a table.

     Ponda Baba then pulled a blaster free just as Wuher shouted from

behind the bar, "No blasters!"

     Old Ben Kenobi whipped out an ancient lightsaber.

     It hummed to life, flashing blue as he slashed off Ponda Baba's

arm, sliced Evazan's chest.  Then he flipped off his lightsaber and

cautiously backed away with the young moisture farmer in tow.

     Nadon followed Ben Kenobi with his eyes as the music went silent.

     The bloodshed nauseated Nadon.  Old Ben Kenobi took his young

friend to the back of the cantina, and together they spoke with the

Wookiee smuggler Chewbacca, then retired to a private cubicle with

Chewbacca's partner, Han Solo.

     "I think I should be going," Nadon said to Muftak.

     "Things are getting.hot in here."

     "Please," Muftak said heavily.  "One last drink for old times.

     I'm buying."

     This was such an unusual offer that Nadon didn't dare refuse.

     They ordered another round, and Nadon sat talking for a few more

moments with Muftak, said his good-byes.  A moment later, Ben and his

moisture boy got up from their table at the back of the bar, and a seed

of thought sprouted in Nadon's head.  He wondered what business the old

mystic from the Jundland Wastes might have in town with smugglers,

especially bringing a moisture farmer in tow.

     Then he remembered the droids that Ben Kenobi had with him, and

Momaw Nadon saw the truth: Ben Kenobi was trying to smuggle the droids

off Tatooine.

     In that one second, Momaw Nadon's hearts beat wildly and he saw

his salvation.  Nadon knew exactly where to look for the droids, and if

he told Alima, then the lieutenant would spare his life.

 

     But as old Ben Kenobi passed him, the mystic

 

     glanced calmly into Nadon's eyes, and somehow, Nadon suspected

that Kenobi knew what he was thinking.

     Ben and the moisture boy walked past, yet Ben said nothing to

Nadon.

     "Did you see the way he looked at you?"  Muftak asked.  "Like a

Tusken Raider staring down a charging bantha.  What do you think that

was all about?"

     "I have no idea," Nadon said.  Yet he looked down at the table,

ashamed even to have thought of sacrificing someone else in an effort

to escape his own pain.

     Nadon fell silent for a moment, glanced around the room.

     Certainly, if Nadon could figure out what was happening here,

others might also.  Yet Ben Kenobi was not a regular in town, and few

in the cantina would have recognized him.  No one followed the old

mystic

 

     OUt.

 

     Muftak laid a hairy paw on Nadon's smooth gray-green arm.  "You

are 'afraid, my old friend.  Your worries weigh on you.  Is there

anything that I can do?"

     Blaster fire erupted from a cubicle at the back of the cantina,

and Han Solo stepped out, holstered his blaster.  He puffed out his

chest in false bravado, threw a credit chip to Wuher as he left.

     Muftak put a hairy paw to his head and scratched.

     "I think I had better be leaving, too," Momaw said.

     "I don't want to be here if the Imperials come to investigate."

     Momaw hurried out, looked up at the suns dropping toward the

horizon.  Time for the torture to begin.

     He glanced up in despair, wishing that he were like Han Solo,

wishing that he could kill someone who merited death, then walk away

calmly.  But he couldn't.

     Even in his deepest rage, he could not harm another.

     And so, there was nothing left to do but save what he could.

     Momaw Nadon breathed deeply for a moment, then hurried home and

began carrying the most valuable of his plant samples and setting them

outside the back door in the hope that they would escape the fire.

     The streets were nearly deserted, except for a few stormtroopers

that watched the house.

     When this is done, Nadon promised himself as he worked, I will go

home.  I will repudiate the elders and their foolish traditions.  I

will bear the limbs of the burned Bafforr trees in my arms, and I will

show the elders my scarred eyes, and then they will see how monstrous

the Empire has become, and they will know that we must fight.

     Nadon chuckled to himself.  Somehow, his spiritual eyes had been

sewn open long ago.  He'd seen the evil, known he had to fight it.  But

when Alima came and made the act physical, then Nadon's scars would

bear witness to his people.  The Ithorians were not a stupid species.

     They were not as hopelessly pacifistic as Lieutenant Aiima and his

Empire believed.  Though they might never go to war themselves, they

could still help fund the Rebellion.  Perhaps this one small evil act

could turn against Lieutenant Alima in the long run.

     The Empire's evil will betray itself, Nadon told himself.

     As he considered the possibilities, Nadon felt a strange rush of

hope.  Perhaps his suffering would be worth something after all.

     Perhaps he could end this seclusion, return to his wife and his

son and the vast forests of Ithor.

     And as Nadon considered the possibilities, he realized that his

loneliness and suffering here as an outcast on Tatooine did not hurt so

much.  His deepest regret, he found, was not the pain he had endured,

but that his work here--his plant samples--would be destroyed.

     On Ithor, the people had a saying: "A man is his work."  Never had

the saying felt more true.  By destroying the results of Nadon's labor

here on Tatooine, Alima would destroy a part of Nadon.

     Nadon stood gazing down at his little plants sitting in the

sunlight outside the door, decided to carry them across the street,

give them a better chance of survival.

     The muted explosions of blaster fire punctured the air and began

echoing from buildings.  Nadon looked up from his labors.  Down the

street, stormtroopers that had been guarding his house all began

running toward the spaceport.  Nadon looked up in time to see Han

Solo's old junker, the Millennium Falcon, blasting into the sky.

     So, Nadon realized, old Ben Kenobi's droids made it.

     off Tatooine.  He watched the ship for several moments to make

sure that none of the planetary artillery fired on the Falcon.  When he

was certain that the ship had gotten away, he found himself running

behind the stormtroopers toward the docking bays.

     Outside the bays, some Imperial captain stood before dozens of

stormtroopers and port authorities, shouting in a frantic rage: "How

could this happen?

     How could you let all four of them get away?  Someone must be held

accountable, and it won't be me!"

     There at the back of the crowd, Nadon saw Lieutenant Alima

standing nervously, staring toward the ground.  No one was stepping

forward to claim responsibility for Solo's breakout, and the frantic

look in the captain's eye suggested that he needed a scapegoat.

     The evil of the Empire will turn against itself.  A man is his

work.  You cannot break the Law of Life.

     Nadon realized what he must do.  He could never kill a man, but he

could stop Alima.  He could sabotage the man's career, get him demoted

even further.

     Nadon called out to the Imperial captain; "Sir, last night I

informed Lieutenant Alima that a freighter owned by Han Solo would be

blasting out of here with two droids as its primary cargo.  I suspect

that your lieutenant's negligence in letting Solo escape goes beyond

ineptitude, and should be considered criminal in nature."

     Nadon looked at Alima, wondering if he could make such charges

stick.  Nadon had a perfect memory.  He would never get tangled in a

snare of his own lies, so long as he chose those lies carefully.

     "No!"  Alima shouted, giving Nadon a pleading look that betrayed

profound horror.  The Imperial captain was already fixing Alima with a

dark stare.  Stormtroopers stepped aside, clearing a path between the

two men.

     The captain glanced back at Nadon.  "Would you swear to this under

oath, Citizen?"

     "Gladly," Nadon said, seeing ways that he could make his false

testimony stand up in a military tribunal.

     The two had met alone in Nadon's house.  Surely Alima had listed

his meeting with Nadon in his personal logs.  Nadon knew that as

Ithorians--a race of peaceful cowards--his people were known as easy

targets for intimidation.  Nadon could claim that Alima had tortured

the information from him.  Certainly, with the bruises and bloody

eyestalks, he could show that he'd been tortured.  There was a good

chance that Alima would be demoted--perhaps even imprisoned.

     The captain glanced back at Alima and said, "You know what Lord

Vader would do if he were here."  Before Nadon had time to blink, the

captain pulled his blaster and fired into Lieutenant Alima three times.

     Blood and gobbets of roasted flesh spattered across the courtyard.

     Nadon stared in shock, realizing belatedly that the captain had

not wished to convene a tribunal.  He simply needed a scapegoat.

     "I will expect your testimony to be recorded," the captain said.

     Momaw Nadon stood blinking, unable to move, and the suns seemed to

have gone cold.  He wavered, feeling faint.  The stormtroopers all

began walking away, apparently heading toward a transport so they could

leave Tatooine.  The Law of Life kept running through Nadon's mind like

a litany.  "For every plant destroyed in' the harvest, two must be

cultivated to replace it."

     Nadon knew that his act would require penance.

     The blood of a man was on his hands, and such a stain could not

easily be removed.  But surely the Bafforr would understand.  Surely

they would forgive him.

     At last, before the Imperial medics could arrive, Nadon forced his

legs to move.  Numbly, he went to the warm corpse, leaned over, and

took two golden needles from his belt.  He inserted the needles and

removed the genetic samples.  On Ithor were cloning tanks that would

allow him to create duplicates of Alima.  For his penance, Nadon would

nurture Alima's twin sons.  Perhaps in their day, they too would grow

wise and kind, serving as Priests on Ithor, promoting the Law of Life.

     Nadon packed the needles in his utility belt, then headed toward

his biosphere.  There would be so much to do before he left

Tatooine--depositions to give the Imperials, plants to be uprooted in

preparation for the move, hubba gourd seeds to be sown in the wilds.

     A stiff wind kicked up, and stinging sand blew in from the desert.

     Nadon closed his eyes against it, and allowed himself to become

lost for a moment in the memory of his wife's final embrace as he was

banished from Ithor, and in the memory he relished the scent of his

young son.  "I will be waiting here for you if you ever return," she

had said.  And for the first time in ages Momaw Nadon walkefffree and

his steps felt light.

     He was heading home.

 

    
Be Still My Heart:

 

     The Bartender's Tale

 

     by David Bischoff

 

     O n his way to work, Wuher, after-double-noon shift bartender at

the Mos Eisley Spaceport Cantina, was accosted.  To make matters worse,

the accoster was his least favorite of the many things that congregated

in this most egregious of congregations of intergalactic scum.

     An extensor whipped from the pale shadows of the alley, wrapping

around his ankle lighfiy, yet w~th enough strength to detain him.

     Automatically, Wuher reached to the back of his belt for his

street-club.  A weapon of some kind was always a necessity for those

who strode the byways of a haven for cutpurses and cutthroats like Mos

Eisley.  However, the pathetic voice from the juncture of walls and

garbage cans gave him stay.

     "Please, sir.  I mean you no harm.  I humbly request asylum."

     Wuher blinked.  He rubbed his grimy sleeve over his puffy eyes.

     He'd drunk too much of his own barbrew last night and overslept. 

He had a faint growl of hangover nagging him; he was in no mood to deal

with riffraff begging for shelter or alms.

     "Get off me," he snarled.  "Who the hell are you?"

     Wuher was a surly sort who preferred to keep his

 

     i 54

 

     thoughts to himself.  He also had a rather aggressive curiosity

sometimes, though.  This was a trait that his employer, Chalmun the

Wookiee, found to be a resource in the chemical experimentation aspects

of Wuher's work, but claimed would ultimately cause him grief.

     "I am Ceetoo-Arfour," squeaked the voice, accompanied by a curious

blend of whistles and clicks.  "I have escaped from the Jawas, who

intend to utilize me for spare parts, despite extreme functional

utility if I am left in one piece--to say nothing of the value of my

consciousness.  Through sheer good luck, the Jawas used a corroded

restraining bolt, which fell off, allowing me to escape."

     Wuher moved farther into the shadows, his eyes adjusting farther

away from the ambient, anguished brightness that was one of the planet

Tatooine's charming qualities.  There, amongst the stacked refuse and

plastic and metal containers, squatted one of the oddest things that

Wuher had ever laid eyes upon.  And Wuher had laid eyes upon far too

many of these scut-fling tech-rats for his taste.

 

     "You--you're a blasted droid!"  he spat.

 

     The metallic creature released what little tension was left in the

extensor and cringed back with the vehemence of Wuher's accusation.

     "Why, yes sir, I am indeed.  But I assure you, I am no ordinary

droid.  My presence on Tatooine is a mistake on a veritable cosmic

level."

     The droid's body was low and rounded, similar to the streamlined

contours of R2 units.  However, this was where the similarity ended.

     Bulbs and boxy appendages hung like balconies on the robot's

sides, amidst an array of two whiplike metal extensors and two

armatures invested with digits.  In the very middle of its sensor-node

"face" was an opening with a grill, set with what appeared to be

jagged, sharp teeth.  The whole affair looked cobbled together, as

though the droid had indeed begun its life as an R2 unit, but had been

sent onto other paths with the help of a demented mechanical mind

owning a half-baked electronic and welding talent.

     "Wait a minute.  You look like a souped-up Artoo unit, but you

sound like one of those pansy protocolers!"

     "My components include aspects of both units, as well as several

more.  However, my specialties include meal preparation, catalytic fuel

conversion, enzymatic composition breakdown, chemical diagnostic

programming, and bacterial composting acceleration.  I am also an

excellent blender, toaster oven, and bang-corn air-popper, and can whip

up an extraordinary meal from everyday garbage."

 

     Wuher goggled at the plasteel contraption in disbelief.

 

     "But you're a droid.  I hate droids."

 

     "I would be of extraordinary use!"

 

     Wuher wondered why he was even giving the droid the time of day.

     Damned curiosity, that must be it.  He needed a blasted brain

scrub, that's what he needed.

     "Look, machine excrement.  I despise your kind, as does my boss,

for good reason.  Even the lowliest Jawa knows what tribe he's from,

even if he's stabbing that tribe in the back.  You droids--who knows

who you are or where you're from.  You look like bombs, and nine times

out of ten you blow up in the face of your owners, doubtless just to

spite them."  Wuher lifted a foot, planted it squarely on the thing's

head.  "Now get out of my way.  I have work to do!"  He gave the thing

a shove.  It rolled back, beeping, into the recesses of its corner as

Wuher proceeded on his way.

     "Sir!  Kind sir!  Forgive my offense!  Reconsider!  I shall be

here all day, recharging my batteries.  I dare not emerge in sunlight,

for the Jawas will find me.

     Grant me asylum, and you will not be sorry, I swear."

     "Pah!  The word of a droid.  Useless!"  the man snarled in

contempt.

     With grand, elevated disgust, Wuher hurried away.

     Just one more proof that he should not be so free about strolling

through alleys to save a scant few seconds.  He avoided the darker,

cooler ones, since they tended to attract crowds.  This one, though,

was lighter and Wuher had thought it would be a safe shortcut.

     The normal byways of Mos Eisley were a dusty cloud through which

double suns beat beat beat hot radiation upon ugly buildings and

hangars.  Occasionally a roaring beast of a spaceship would propel

itself into the brightness of the sky, or descend shakily to hunker

down in hiding.  The place smelled even more strongly of its usual

blend of noxious space fuels and heated alien body effluvia, touched

with the occasional whiff of exotic spice, or rather more mundane rot

or urine.

     Wuher noticed amidst the urban burblings a larger number of

speeders than usual, as well as a discom-firing percentage of

stormtroopers.

 

     Something odd was afoot, that was certain.

 

     Oh, well.  It just meant that maybe he'd be busier at the cantina

today.  Another shuck, another buck, as Chalmun so eloquently stated.

     Still, as the human bartender bustled through the busy streets,

sun hood up, squinting, he was bothered by that droid who had accosted

him.  Wuher was well aware that droids were essentially harmless.  To

hate them was like hating your latrine or stove or moisture vaporator

if they'd somehow been overlaid with innocuous consciousness.  True,

droids tended to be essen-tialty faithless, with no ethical or racial

structure.  So were a lot of biological aliens that Wuher had met.  The

truth, the bartender knew, was that droids were an easy target.

     Wuher had been abandoned on Mos Eisley in early youth, a human

amidst peoples who disliked humans.

     He'd been kicked about and spat upon all his squalid, hard life.

     His boss hated droids essentially because they didn't drink and

thus took up necessary room in the cantina that might be occupied by

paying customers.

     Wuher hated everyone, but droids were the only creatures he could

actually kick with impunity.

     He was a bulky, middle-aged man, Wuher, with a constant

late-afternoon-shadow beard, dark bags under his eyes, and a surly

attitude from the top of his greasy head to the depths of his low stony

voice.  His eyes were hard and dark, and it was impossible to see

anything but quotidian amoral stoicism in them.  However, a small fire

flickered in his heart, a dream that he kept alive with hard work

through years of drudgery.  At night, shuffling back to his grimy

hovel, often as not a little tipsy from his own spirits, Wuher would

gaze up at the night stars in the blessed cool and it would seem

possible to actually reach up and touch them, possible to live out his

fantasy.

     Perhaps then, when that dream was achieved, he would no longer

have to kick helpless, imploring droids to bolster his own pathetic

self-esteem.  Perhaps then he could give something to lesser creatures

than he.

     The lumpy mushroom shape of the cantina billowed before him.

     Wuher stumped around to the rear entrance.

     He took out his ID card, unlocked a door, and walked carefully

down dark steps.  He turned on lights.

     It was not dank down here in the cellar.  There were no dank

basements on a world like Tatooine.  However, a dry, earthy smell was

the foundation for all the other scents that fought for attention here,

smells that hung upon the rows of laboratory equipment, barrels and

tanks and vats that rose from tables and the floor like ridges of

metal, plastic, and glass mold.

     Chalmun imported a minimum of drinking materials, the cheap

bastard.  The rest of what the Mos Eisley Cantina served was either

made in the city, or down here.

     Wuher had little time.  His shift topside started soon.

     Nonetheless an urgent sense drove him to a small alcove in the

rear section, a portion of the large basement where the other employees

seldom ventured.  He turned on a small light there, revealing a machine

consisting of coils, tubings, dials, and glass beakers.  In the largest

of these beakers, a small amount of dark green fluid had collected.

     Wuher examined the dials detailing gravity and chemical

composition.  A kind of acrid effluvia hung over the enclosure, like

moldy socks.

     Sweet music to Wuher's nostrils!  And the dials and digital

readouts--why, they displayed almost exactly the ratios of contents

that Wuher had calculated was necessary.

     A shiver of excitement passed over him.  This could be the stuff.

     His elixir!  His perfect liqueur, suited expressly to the

biochemical taste buds of no less a personage than Jabba the Hutt, for

all intents and purposes lord and slave master of the criminal element

of Tatooine.

     Wuher contained his trembles, took a deep breath, and found a

sterile dropper tube.  He lifted the stopper of the beaker, inserted

the tube, and sucked up a minuscule amount.  Carefully, he withdrew the

jade treasure.

     Ah!  If this distillation was the right stuff, the drink that

Jabba the Hutt deemed to be the perfect liqueur, then what else could

Jahba do but name him his own personal bartender, distiller, brewer,

winemaster?  Thus elevated in position, the lowly Wuher might gain

reputation and monies that would allow him to ship off this anal

juncture of a desert snotworld to some bright, pristine bar on a

paradisal planet.

     Wuher brought the tube toward his mouth.  A dangle of fluid

sparkled diamonds in the amber light.  He let a touch drop to his

tongue.  A flash and sizzle.  A sliver of gas slithered off.  The pain

was immediate, but he bore it.  He allowed the flavoids to creep upon

his palate like death marchers with cleated boots.  He winced and

cringed and endured.  Rotwort.  Skusk.  Mummergy.  Bitter and fiercely

aromatic with a kicker alcohol afterburst.

     Damn it, though.  Not quite right.  His bioalchemist instincts,

having studied carefullyJabba's other favorite drinks, had synthesized

a theoretical perfect amalgam, a liqueur that would delight the huge

wormthing.

     This was not quite it.  A certain element was lacking.

     A certain gagging whisper of illusive yet ineffably attractive

decadence.

 

     Damn.

 

     The bartender went to get his apron, and to trudge wearily up the

stairs to where his smoky den of work awaited.

     "Water?  demanded the green alien in its annoying language.

     "Bottled distilled water, bartender, and make no mistake!  I've

got the credits for the real stuff.

     This nose can tell if it's anything more or less!"  The alien