By The Turn Of A Card (Penumbra,
by Catriona Campbell Boyle
It was the idiot. Lando Calrissian stared at the spread of card-chips he had only just placed upon the gaming board with a mixture of dismay, frustration and a growing sense of dread. At the very last second before the card entered the field of the table his Mistress of Staves had shimmered and shifted into the Idiot's facade, and his winning hand of sabacc had become a loser. Lando slouched morosely into his chair and glanced up at his chuckling host, Jabba the Hutt, as the gangster's lackey, Bib Fortuna gathered up the placed bets from the table. Salacious crumb, Jabba's pet which sat with him on the throne, cackled along with his master. This wasn't going as planned.
His gaze then flickered passed the crowd of courtiers, who had gathered to watch the Sabacc game, and his eyes settled on the far wall and the object which hung there like a favoured decoration. It was a block of pure carbonite, its surface broken by a facial expression for ever etched in agony, by hands thrown up in a futile attempt at self-defence and which were caught and frozen. It looked like a cleverly crafted sculpture, cut from the metal by some artist whose mind was caught in the nightmare of madness. In reality it was the live, sleeping body of his friend, Han Solo.
It was his fault Han was there. It was his act of betrayal which had sealed his friendís fate, and that of others. His city; his beautiful, peaceful sanctuary - lost. His people scattered and homeless, or caught on Bespin within the Empire's spreading grasp.
And for what? Lando questioned himself with incredulous sarcasm and shame. All those lost lives - for what? So the Dark Lord of the Sith could catch and kill one boy.
He drew his attention from the carbonite block as Jabba rumbled out a question, his mind quickly translating Huttese; "Another Hand?"
Lando glanced around the other three players as he took stock of the cash reserves he had left. It wasn't much and the stakes hand been getting bigger the longer they played and the more they drank. It had been his idea to infiltrate into one of Jabba's marathon Sabacc matches and, while on a winning streak, wager his hand on the unique decoration the Hutt owned. Thus far he had yet to discover that hoped for winning streak and the chances of getting Han back without the aid of the Princess Leia and Chewbacca - and risking all of their lives in the process - were getting slimmer with each card he received: he knew if he didn't contact the Falcon soon that Chewbacca and Leia would attempt to carry through their bounty hunter scam.
He watched as the Xalan Plainsman beside him withdrew from the game, then he nodded. "Sure, I'm in for another hand."
The Hutt's massive body undulated with waves of laughter. "It appears our human friend is eager to lose the shirt from his back."
Lando chuckled along with the beast, feigning a drunken cheerfulness he did not feel at the Hutt's use of the cliché. "I was going to offer it as my next wager, but it's not quite your size."
Jabba chortled at the intoxicated man before him, then motioned to his major-domo to reshuffle the deck and proceed. However, before Fortuna could begin dealing, an elegant chime resounded around the throne room. The creature looked up at his master and the Hutt nodded in response. As Fortuna scuttled from the court Jabba explained: "It appears we have been interrupted." He stabbed at the controls set at the side of his throne and the Sabacc table withdrew beneath the Hutt's mass. "We will continue the game at a later hour."
Lando moved back into the crowd happy to have received a reprieve, pleased to have been given the chance to gather his wits. He lifted a full glass of spirits from a passing service droid and sipped at it, wondering what the bittersweet tasting liquid was called. Then Fortuna returned to the hall leading another toward Jabba, another whose battered armour he instantly recognised: Boba Fett.
Lando shrank further into a darkened corner of the Hutt's chamber, cursing his poor luck as Jabba welcomed the bounty hunter. The two conversed in lower tones, then Jabba made a slight gesture and two Gamorrean's dragged a pleading human male before the throne. The Bounty Hunter stepped back as Jabba pronounced sentence on the wretched being and the guards removed him to the cells in the lower level where he would wait until the Hutt decided he wished some entertainment.
Lando's eyes remained on Fett as the band struck up a lively beat and as the alcohol flowed more freely. Oola, Jabba's favourite dancer rose from beside the throne and began to more rhythmically in time with the beat, he chains clinking along with the tune. Calrissian felt sick, disheartened. How could he continue this sham? How could he avoid Fett and instant recognition? Fett, a wild card, had entered the game and the odds had changed, the stakes had risen. Fett, who had out matched Han Solo, out thought him and had delivered him to Jabba for a hefty bounty. Fett...
Fett! And Lando smiled into his drink as a sudden realisation hit him. Fett! It was crazy, it was insane, it would mean bringing in Leia as the bounty hunter, but it may be the only move he had left, the last trick up his sleeve. He quickly swallowed the remainder of his drink, as though the liquid was an elixir of courage, and discreetly made his way from the chamber to the quarters Jabba had assigned to him for the duration of his stay. Once there he hurriedly activated his comlink and relayed his information and idea before sanity could re-assert its grip and turn him away from his decided course of action.
* * *
"At last we have the mighty Chewbacca!" Jabba roared with delight as the bounty hunter boushh stood with his captive before the Hutt's throne. The Wookiee's limbs were bound and a metal collar surrounded his neck, the chain attached linked him to his captor like a leash. After one howl of protest Chewbacca hung his head and waited for the outcome of the hunter's deal with the gangster.
"You are welcome to the reward of twenty-five thousand."
Boushh, his head covered by a helmeted mask and dressed in a simple brown jacket with a rope of cartridges thrown over his shoulder, immediately responded in his native Ubese. "I want fifty thousand, no less." His voice was rough and electronically amplified.
Jabba, a master at several languages, was temporarily silent as he attempted to translate the words into Huttese; the hunter's language was not his most fluent and he struggled to find the correct words and tenses. Then he roared with indignation as they fell into place. "Fifty!! Why must I pay so much?"
Calmly the hunter removed a small metallic ball from his pocket. With a slight movement of his thumb the being activated the thermal detonator. His meaning did not require any complex translation. The courtiers immediately moved back, Salacious Crumb jumped from his place at Jabba's tail and hid behind the Hutt's bulk. Boba Fett instantly pulled his blaster.
And Jabba began to laugh, his slug-like body rippling with mirth. "This bounty hunter is my kind of scum. Fearless and inventive." He announced to his court. He turned and addressed Boushh. "I will pay thirty-five thousand, no more."
Boushh considered the offer for a moment, then he shut off the detonator and nodded. "Agreed." He released Chewbacca into Jabba's custody and moved back as the Wookiee, protesting loudly, was dragged away to the cells below. His eyes, behind the narrow slit of his mask, scanned the crowd and noticed Fett. The two hunters greeted each other with a bow of the head.
Beneath the Boushh facade Leia Organa fought to calm her pounding heart, fought to stop the adrenaline rush which caused her limbs to tremble. A thin trickle of sweat tickled down her spine as Fett turned away and Leia pushed down her anger, rejected her heady moment of hatred for the bounty hunter. She despised the man: Fett fed on the unfortunate, made his living from the grief of others, grew wealthy on blood tainted money, and he had carried Han from her. Snatched him from her grasp and brought him to this place where he was displayed to the court as an object of ridicule, as an example of Jabba's wrath upon those who crossed him. The bounty hunter disgusted her, but she reminded herself that he could prove useful for their purpose, that he could be exploited just as he had exploited them on Bespin.
"My master invites you to stay a while and has instructed that you be paid on your departure."
Leia turned at the voice to find a Twi'lek standing beside her. She eyed him with revulsion; he was of a proud race, how could he stoop so low to serve one such as Jabba? "Thank you." She responded quickly, still speaking Ubese, a language she had learned as an adolescent preparing for the life of a diplomat.
Fortuna scuttled away and Leia scanned the chamber looking for Lando. It was then she caught sight of the carbonite block. It had been months since she had seen Han, seen him as Vader had left him, and the despair and wretchedness she had experienced on Bespin came surging back. She wanted to approach the figure, wanted to touch his face as though she could smooth out the frozen lines of pain by a simple caress, wanted to rush forward there and then, and free him from the cruel prison of hibernation.
Do you know where you are? Can you remember what happened? Are you aware? She closed her eyes in anguish and rocked on her heels, now oblivious to her surroundings. Dear Gods, I pray you have slept in ignorance, that your mind is free from your captive body.
A gentle hand, placed upon her shoulder, pulled her back and she turned to find Lando behind her. They did not speak, his action was enough: now was not the time for grief, not the time for recalling the painful past. Now was the time for carefulness, for remembering each part, each step of their hastily constructed plan. She was Boushh, a toughened bounty hunter from a proud nomadic race. She nodded her understanding of his gesture.
Lando moved back into the crowd, ducking down as Fett turned his way. He remained near the back walls watching the bounty hunter move through the crowds towards an exit tunnel which lead to the guest quarters. He glanced toward Leia and saw her conversing with a Hammerhead. It was time to make his move and, pushing down his hesitancy, his fear, his doubts about his own idea, Lando followed Fett from the chamber.
The tunnel walls were hewed from the dry Tatooine rock upon which the palace rested. It was dry and musty, the light poor.
The bounty hunter twisted around, his blaster instantly in hand and pointed at the ex-Baron of Cloud City.
"Calrissian!" There was surprise and amusement in his voice as Lando stepped closer. "So, you escaped Bespin."
Lando shrugged, a tiny smile tinged his lips. "It wasn't so hard." He spread his hands, palm side up, to show Fett that he was un-armed.
There was tight laughter from beneath the hunter's helmet. "And now your conscience had got the better of you. You're here for Solo."
"Something like that."
"Having Chewie caught was the only way I could get him in," Lando explained calmly, watching Fett's blaster and trigger finger.
"And the Ubese?"
"A useful tool. He gets thirty-five thousand and is none the wiser."
Fett scoffed at the explanation. "You expect me to believe that?"
And Lando smiled. "No."
There was silence as Fett considered Lando's words. "What do you want, Calrissian?" There was suspicion in his voice. "You must know I'll turn you over to Jabba."
"Not if you're working for me."
Fett lowered his blaster, accepting that he was not in any immediate danger. "You wish to hire me?" There was surprise again, disbelief underscored the last word.
"You're the best," Lando told him, and Fett bowed his head in acceptance of the compliment. "You're the one who cornered Han. I figure you're the one to pull him out."
"I'm expensive. I could get more from Jabba for your hide."
"Perhaps," Lando conceded, heartened that Fett had chosen to listen to him and no immediately turn him in. "But think of the challenge, the achievement of snatching Han from beneath the Hutt's nose. I have money, it should be enough to pay for your services."
"It won't be easy," Fett told him, his voice sounded thoughtful, his manner changing from one of suspicion to one of business. "Jabba is rather fond of Vader's art work, and he is a dangerous enemy as Solo found out."
"Think of the respect you'd gain from Jabba's rivals? The prestige you'd gain in other sectors."
"I don't think so." Fett turned from him.
"Twenty-five," Lando responded. It didn't really matter what figure they settled on. He didn't have that much cash anyway, and he certainly wasn't counting on actually having to pay Fett. However, he needed the bounty hunter and bargaining may convince him the money was available.
* * *
"Artoo, are you sure this was such a good idea?"
Threepio scuttled after Artoo Detoo as the small Astro droid followed the robed Twi'lek who had greeted them in the cavernous entrance hall of the palace. He threw the Gamorrean walking beside them a brief, nervous scan: he knew these pig-like beasts had no tolerance for droids and was rather afraid that he and Artoo would end up as piles of discarded scrap collecting dust in some forgotten corner of Jabba's domain.
The group rounded a bend and descended a flight of steps and the droids found themselves in the middle of a party. Beings from all corners of the galaxy danced and jigged in front of Jabba's throne. The gangster himself was rocking back and forth in time with the music the live band provided. It was a disgusting sight: Jabba's flesh swelled and rolled like some ocean tide, his tongue lolled loosely from his mouth as he leered at the female Twi'lek who swayed provocatively before him.
It took all of Threepio's resolve, and the presence of the Gamorrean, to keep him from turning on his heels and making a quick exit. He followed Artoo through the prancing throng and found himself positioned before Jabba. He waited anxiously as the major-domo climbed up next to his master and whispered in Jabba's ear. The roar of displeasure and the sudden silence which followed did nothing to aid Threepio's courage.
The courtiers moved back and the droids found themselves alone on the floor and the centre of attention.
"Droids!" Jabba growled, grasping Bib Fortuna by the scruff of his neck and pulling him close. "You interrupt me for a pair of droids?!"
The Twi'lek hastily explained. "They bring a message master, and insist that it is for your ears alone."
Jabba pushed bib to the side and turned on the droids. He eyed them suspiciously. "Well?" He rumbled at them.
Artoo shrilled out an electronic stream of chatter and Threepio reluctantly stepped forward. "Uh, my mistress.. Uh.." He glanced around the chamber at the crowd.
"Relay your message, droid. My friends will hear it, too." There was a distinct threatening tone in the Hutt's voice.
Theepio leaned toward Artoo. "The message, Artoo!"
The Astro droid tilted back slightly and a life sized hologram image of a young woman appeared. Jabba murmured his appreciation of her figure, her looks and his tongue hung from his open mouth. He made a comment in Huttese and the crowd giggled and cackled in response to his obscene suggestion.
Leia, watching from a corner, turned away at the vile words. Her gut twisted in fear and revulsion; her image was being defiled, her body had become the object of lust and she felt as though that hologram really was her standing with the droids, felt as though she had left her body somehow and was watching it from afar. She moved further into the corner, trying to throw away the feeling, trying to view the scene as dispassionately as possible. She was safe, she was hidden and would, hopefully, remain so until they escaped this place.
Her image spoke and her husky tones hushed the crowd. "I am The Princess Leia Organa of Alderaan..."
"Princess of Nothing," Jabba responded with a laugh.
"...I am also a friend of Captain Solo's. I realise that Han owes you a great deal of money, Jabba, and has accrued a certain percentage in interest. I am prepared to meet with you and discuss the terms for his release. I am also prepared to pay off all his debts. I plead with you to consider my offer and the benefits which you will gain. Please return my droids with your reply." The hologram bowed her head and disappeared.
There was a moment of quiet as Jabba considered the Princess' words, and Leia held her breath searching for Lando among the crowd. She spotted him with Fett near the rear of the chamber. Jabba's choice now would determine how they acted. If he accepted the terms then Boushh would leave and return as the Princess. However, after the Hutt's earlier words, Leia was loathed to attempt this and perhaps put herself in further danger. If Jabba rejected the offer then they would proceed with Lando's idea and Boushh would remain.
Jabba glanced at the hanging block of carbonite. "There will be no terms," he announced. "I like Solo where he is!"
Curiosity made Threepio follow Jabba's gaze. He started in surprise. "Artoo, look! Captain Solo! And he's still frozen in carbonite!"
Threepio's outburst drew the Hutt's attention back to the droids.
"Oh, dear," muttered Threepio as Artoo moaned loudly.
"Remove these droids. Take them below and find some use for them."
"Um, may I respectfully remind you you...your......uh..." Threepio stumbled over a title for the gangster. "Your Mightiness... That the Princess Leia expects us to return with your reply."
"Then she will be disappointed," Jabba informed him.
A huge green hand pushed him from behind and Threepio found himself being taken from the throne room by the Gamorrean who had accompanied them from the door. Artoo trundled along beside him. "Artoo, I have a bad feeling about this!"
* * *
Chewbacca anxiously paced the dirt floor of his cell, his nostrils twitching in response to the stink of the place. He paused to glance out of the grill of the door and saw nothing in the dark corridor beyond. He turned away as a moan of anguish sounded from the neighbouring cell and he hunkered down in a corner to wait, trying to shut out the wretchedness of the place, the sounds of misery and pain from next door, the dark and the stench of captivity.
This place offended his Wookiee sensibilities, his free wandering nature. This place snatched away a being's hope and replaced it with despair and fear - the very foods on which the Hutt gorged, satiating his lust with the pain of others. Chewbacca loathed him and he rued the day Han had accepted payment to run the Kessel system with an illicit shipment of spice. They had been forced to dump the cargo when they were stopped and boarded by the Imperial authorities in that sector, and by doing so they had indebted themselves to Jabba.
And this was where it had finally gotten: they were now both prisoners of the Hutt - although Chewbacca reminded himself he was here willingly. He had readily accepted this position as his part in their attempt to free Han from his sleeping prison.
He cocked his head, listening carefully as new sounds reached his ears, and he rose and quickly crossed the cell to the door. He peered through the grill and howled.
"What?" A prim voice questioned as Threepio reached the door and his opticals turned to regard the imprisoned Wookiee. "Oh no, Chewbacca!"
There was a shrill whistle from nearer the floor.
Chewbacca bellowed again, and Artoo, hidden from the Wookiee's line of vision, hooted in response. There was a slight 'click' on the door.
"What?" Threepio asked again, tilting to regard his counterpart. "Artoo, why...? Oh my...." He was roughly pushed forward by the following Gamorean, which then turned and snorted laughter at the Wookiee as it took a swat at the grill. It disappeared after the robots and Chewbacca was left alone once more in the silence of his cell where he waited, stifling his desire to move as soon as the droids had passed, forcing himself to settle and pace his actions. To hurry now would only result in failure and death.
* * *
It was night, the party had gradually worked its way towards the inevitable conclusion and the palace slept in drunken contentment. Using the quiet, Boushh moved silently among the shadows as the Princess worked her way through the maze of tunnels which lay below the structure itself. She reached a closed door, paused and pulled her blaster.
* * *
He was falling, spiralling down into unknown depths. His senses reeling from the sudden shift in perception. First there had been nothing, now there was everything. His skin tingled, his muscles spasmed painfully, his ears rang from the sudden cacophony of sounds which surrounded him. And there was darkness, a pure and frightening night which closed over his eyes. He thrust his hands before him, afraid of hitting the hidden ground, and he was caught by steadying hands and laid down on a warm, grainy surface.
What? He tried to voice his confusion, tried to make his words heard among the ambiguous mutterings around him, but nothing escaped his lips and his question remained within.
Then the first image arose from the ashes of his memory. The frozen picture of a young woman, grief and horror etched on her features as she gazed upon him.
* * *
Chewbacca moved back to the door and listened carefully. It was quiet beyond his cell, the atmosphere one of night and slumber. He quickly opened one of the pockets of his bandoleer and withdrew a small, flat piece of metal. He grinned and woofed quietly to himself: his captors had not placed any significance to the metal when they searched him, had failed to see any possible use for a small fragment and had dropped it back into the pouch. How ignorant these beings were, how predictable.
He placed the metal against the door and gently moved it around the rusted surface. There was a slight scraping noise from the other side and Chewbacca eased the magnet up to the grill, pushed his finger through one of the slats and caught his prize. He pulled it in and let the small explosive fall into his palm.
* * *
Leia listened carefully to the conversation beyond the door, trying to assess how many occupied the room. She gripped her blaster tightly, took a deep breath and punched the door release with keen determination. She stepped into the room.
* * *
He struggled then, fought against the restraining shadows of his mind, against the jumble of noise and sensations, fought to release himself - and the first breath punched into him, tore at his starving lungs. It brought pain, it brought warm fetid air, but it cleared his system, swept the gauze from his mind and he gasped for more.
"Leia!" The word was hoarse and choked, but it was whole and distinct. Leia standing with Chewbacca. Leia angry and indignant within the ice corridors of Hoth. Leia helping him up from the floor. Leia watching as he was lowered into the freezing pit on Bespin. "Leia!"
* * *
The burst from the tiny device was barely audible, there was a brief flare, nothing more, and the lingering scent of smoke was soon swallowed by the greater stink of the detention area. Chewbacca placed his paws on the surface of the door and pushed. Freed from the locking mechanism by the explosion it easily shifted to the side. Curling his fingers around the door the Wookiee pulled until it had retracted to provide him with enough space to slip through. Once in the corridor he pushed the door back into place.
Chewie paused for a moment, gauging his position, recalling the lay out of the palace from previous visits. Then he started down the corridor, following the path the droids had taken.
* * *
"Up against the wall!" Boushh
ordered in Standard. The Princess motioned with her gun, directing the
three beings towards the back wall. Their hands were raised, they were
unarmed and had been taken completely by surprise. Their eyes darted nervously
to each other then back to the small Ubese before them. Leia could almost
feel their confusion, their shock; no-one ever dared such a move within
Jabba the Hutt's domain!
"Sit down!" Leia directed.
* * *
Han pulled back from the sound of the male voice. Its familiar tones retrieving more memories from his recent past: ones of friendship, of betrayal. Where was he? What was happening? Han the carbon freezing failed? Were they going to lift him from the floor and throw him back into the pit? There was a rustle of movement, of cloth, at his side and his ears tuned to the sound. If this was the freezing chamber where was the hiss of steam, where were the groans of machinery, the grunts of Ugnaughts? Why was he lying on dry ground and not the metal grating of the chamber's floor?
"Lando?" He tried, gazing blindly towards the sounds, not wanting to trust the man he had called friend, but having no choice for the moment. "Where are we?"
"Han grimaced as his muscles spasmed once more. He shivered. Jabba... So Fett had delivered his prize, collected the bounty on his head. How long had he been here, how long had he been trapped within the block of carbonite and: "What the hell are you doing here?" He voiced this question, unable to keep the disbelief from his tones, his anger, confusion.
"Keep your voice down! I came to get you out."
"I can't see," Han confessed, his voice carrying a hint of panic.
"It'll wear off," Lando quickly reassured him.
"We cannot remain here," another warned,
Han started at the words, again he pulled away, and again he fought with sightless eyes to focus on the speaker. He knew who this was, too. "Fett!" Instinctively his hand moved to his side searching for an absent blaster.
"He's with me," Lando hastily explained, glancing around the quiet hall fearful of discovery. Fett was right; they couldn't stay here. He grabbed hold of Solo and, with Fett taking Han's other arm, they lifted him from the floor. "I'll explain later."
* * *
Chewbacca dropped the head he had wrenched from the droid's shoulders and stepped over its prone body. He could never tolerate 'holier than thou' robots and Eve NineDeNine had triggered the wrong nerves. He glanced over at See Threepio - who had staggered up against a far wall when Chewbacca's temper had snapped - and grumbled out a quick question.
"What?! Oh dear..." Threepio stumbled nervously, his opticals staring at NineDeNine's still sparking neck. "They assigned him to the hangers, to Jabba's sail barge."
The Wookiee immediately gestured for the golden droid to follow and disappeared from the room.
Threepio shuffled forward and carefully shifted passed the headless droid, as though he were afraid to touch the metallic remains. "Oh my..."
* * *
She shackled and gagged them, using fetters they had removed and stored from the remains of their unfortunate victims, and cloth torn from their own clothes. Satisfied they posed no danger to her, Leia turned her attention to the cage, and to the animal it held.
* * *
Confusion shook him, questions surrounded him. He was unable to absorb all that was happening. There had been darkness, a suffocating fabric which had enclosed him and held him tight, pressed firmly against his face and, it first he had resisted, fought against it, strained to break his bonds. His dreams had brought terror, but his screams had been silent; his lungs unable to draw in the breath he required to vent his fears.
Gradually his strength had been eroded and he had fallen back into the comfort of the cloth, he had learned to enjoy the touch of it against his skin. It was his guardian, his security, its deep silence was tranquil and alluring. His sleep had become restful, peaceful and his dreams had reflected that new found harmony.
And now he had been thrown from his bed, thrust into the waking world and forced to recall all which had occurred prior to his sleep. They had escaped Hoth, fled to Bespin and somehow during the journey Leia had... Leia?
The images returned: the invitation to dinner, the appearance of Vader and Fett, the torture, the explanation from Calrissian that they had been set up as a lure for Luke, the carbon freezing chamber and Leia standing with Chewbacca as he was positioned over the waiting pit.
"I love you!"
The words were wrenched from her, words uttered with fear and despair, with the realisation they were too late. He had been unable to offer her comfort and that caused more pain than anything the Sith Lord could inflict. He could only tell her he had known her feelings all along, could only watch her as he was lowered down and as she was taken from him.
"Where's Leia?" He asked, with sudden anxiousness as he was set upon his feet. Lando was here with Fett. It made no sense that his betrayer and his enemy be united to free him. Where was Leia? Where were those he called friends; his partner and Luke? Where were those who should be here? What events had passed since his incarceration?
Calrissian shot a hasty glance to Fett before answering. "She's safe. She's with the Falcon."
Safe! The Falcon! Wonderful words, secure words - if they were true. "Luke and Chewie?"
There was hesitation, then: "Later."
"Later?" He questioned, his fear rising, his anxiousness returning. What had happened to Luke and Chewbacca? He felt himself being carried forward, his weakened legs incapable of carrying him, his boots dragging on the floor. "What do you...?"
There was a rumble of laughter, and his words died in his throat. Calrissian and Fett halted, and Han felt Lando stiffen with surprise. Fett released his arm and moved away. The mirth heightened as other voices joined the first; cackles and hoots of humour echoed around the chamber. Han did not require his eyes to tell him what had happened.
* * *
It was quiet in the hanger bay and this unsettled the Wookiee. He crouched behind a landspeeder and peered over its chrome body into the vast hall. There did not appear to be any guards patrolling between the parked vehicles. There did not seem to be anyone on board the sail barge which towered over the lesser vessels. Was Jabba confident enough with his position as Gangster King to leave areas of his domain unguarded? Did he know of their plans to free Han and was allowing them to proceed until he decided to spring his surprise and thus provide himself with greater entertainment?
Chewbacca could not shake off his doubts, his fears, but he could see no other way forwards but to continue with his given task. He glanced over at the doorway where Threepio remained hidden and murmured for him to come forward.
"There doesn't seem to be anyone here," Threepio observed as he toddled into the hall.
Chewbacca grumbled at him to be quiet and together they moved toward the sail barge. They were met almost immediately by a cheerful happy tooting.
Chewbacca winced as the sounds echoed around the hanger.
"Artoo!" Threepio greeted his counterpart, then fell silent as Chewbacca rumbled out several sentences. He turned to Artoo as the little droid trundled down the barge's ramp toward them. "Chewbacca is asking that you lower your sound synthesiser, and wants to know if you had any problems."
Somewhat quieter Artoo blooped back with a negative response. His assignment had been completed without incident.
Threepio relayed this to the Wookiee, who crouched before the Astro droid. Artoo opened one of his compartments and ejected two timer charges into his hands. He stood, told the droids to find Lando's landskimmer and move it to the exit of the hanger, and to remain there until he returned with the rest of the group. Then he turned and disappeared among the skiffs and speeders.
* * *
Leia lifted the gun she had found and smiled broadly beneath the mask, thankful that Chewbacca's tales of his and Han's past dealings with the Hutt were proving fruitful. She loaded it with the cartridges stored beside it and approached the cage.
It took three shots of the powerful tranquilliser before the rancor topped over and settled into the dirt. It began to snore.
* * *
The laughter slowly petered out. Han shifted his feet uneasily and peered into the gloom of his blindness, trying to gauge just how much trouble he was in. He had started to believe it was possible that Lando and Fett could have joined forces to rescue him, begun to believe that he would be carried from this place back to the Falcon and back to Leia. It was an innocent belief - one worthy of Luke...
Where was he? Impossible, dumb rescue attempts were the kid's speciality.
...and he berated himself for falling for its charms. It was appear that he had been wakened merely to provide entertainment for the Hutt and his entourage.
Calrissian watched as Fett moved to stand beside Jabba. The hunter folded his arms across his chest and regarded the gambler. Lando was sure that a smug, satisfied grin was spread over the man's features beneath the mask and, although he had expected something like this would happen, he had to suppress the surge of fury which coursed through him, had to fight the urge to leap the few metres which separated them and smash a clenched fist against Fett's bland facade.
"I told you I could earn more from Jabba," Fett pleasantly explained.
There was another rumble of laughter from Jabba. "It would appear that your run of bad luck has continued," he observed leaning forward as he spoke, enjoying the fleeting look of anger and terror which entered Calrissian's eyes.
Lando shrugged nonchalantly, pushing away his fears. He had kept Fett busy, kept the bounty hunter away from the cells below and, fortune willing, the Wookiee was free and active. "It goes with the territory."
Han had been listening closely, tilting his head this way and that, trying to place everyone, trying to figure out how many were present, trying to figure out the odds. It didn't sound promising; just himself and Lando against an unknown amount of Jabba's lackeys.
"Solo!" Jabba roared, intentionally trying to intimidate the Corellian.
In spite of himself Han Jumped, and turned his head in Jabba's direction.
"There is a small matter of an unpaid debt."
Han spoke as quickly and as smoothly as he could under the circumstances. "Look Jabba, I was just on my way to pay you back, when I got a little side tracked. It's not my fault." He tried to sound innocent.
"It's too late for excuses, Solo," Jabba informed him. "You may have been a good smuggler, but you have been away for too long. Others have taken your place. Even in Carbonite you had your uses, but awake you are redundant - useful only as Bantha fodder."
There was a chorus of cackles and giggles at this.
"Look Jabba..." Han desperately began again.
"The Rancor!" Jabba announced.
Lando and Han were grabbed and carried across the throne room. They were stood before Jabba's empty dais, stood over the trap door to the rancor's pit. Han's mind swooned with horror; he had seen this creature, watched with disgust in the past as it tore and fed upon those unfortunates who had been dropped into its lair. He was blind, helpless and an easy meal for the beast. He was glad when Calrissian took his arm, somehow it was comforting to know he would not be dying alone.
Jabba slithered upon his throne, and his courtiers settled around him. He slobbered and leered for several moments prolonging the execution. Then he lifted his hand and spat: "Boscka!"
Han couldn't stop the cry which tore from his throat as he fell, as he slipped down the chute into the Rancor pit, as he thudded into the ground. He rolled and scrambled to his feet as Lando arrived beside him with a grunt. Roars and cheers of delight echoed from above as he heard the familiar shriek of metal against metal as the door lifted to release the creature.
He backed away from the sound waiting for the bellow of outrage from the Rancor as it announced its presence to its intended victims.
Lando took his arm once more. "Come on!"
Come on?! Han couldn't understand Calrissian's words, couldn't understand why the man was pulling him toward the opening door instead of away. The crowd laughed and jeered above them as he dug his heels into the dirt, resisting Lando's lead, but he was tired, weak and disorientated, and he found himself being inexorably pulled forward.
The door ceased its squealing, the crowd watching overhead quietened, and Han heard the sound of running footsteps approach them. There was no roar from the Rancor, no reaching claws to grab them. Instead a small hand was placed on his other arm...
...and he found himself being carried between two.
It was then all hell broke loose above them.
There was a bellow of indignation and outrage from Jabba, a chorus of shrieks and howls of surprise followed by a flurry of blaster fire between the grills of the pit cover. The beings split and ran for the exit tunnels searching for a way down to the Rancor pit below to reach the escaping trio.
The first explosion shook the palace, brought down tons of rock upon those unfortunate to have been in the tunnels at the time. The blast effectively sealed off that exit. The angered creatures turned direction heading for the dungeon area and the second burst hit them.
* * *
Chewbacca sprinted back through the door to the hanger with the dust from the explosions blowing at his back. He ducked to the side, pressed his body against the wall and waited. If his diversions had worked then Calrissian and the Princess should be arriving within moments.
* * *
The floor shook below them and Han's legs buckled. Lando and Boushh caught him, pulled him up and set him on his feet.
"Not far!" Lando gasped from exertion. There was an ominous rumble from deep within the palace, dust and tiny splinters of rock pattered down on their heads. The ground rippled beneath their feet. "Come on!"
Han stumbled between them, moving his weakened legs as quickly as he could, then all he sensed was a sudden shift in atmosphere, a feeling on immense space. "Where?" He tried to ask Lando, then he was caught in a tight grip, torn from his helpers and lifted from the floor. Panic was his initial reaction: he was caught, they had him, it was the Rancor! The howl of some mad creature echoed around his sensitive ears and the noise somehow penetrated the cloud of confusion which still gripped him. "Chewie?!"
Strong, furred arms surrounded him, embraced him and he felt safe, he took comfort from Chewbacca's familiar presence, felt a section of his life slide back into place.
Leia watched the two, her own arms aching to hold her smuggler. She removed the Boushh helmet, let it fall to the floor and stepped forward.
There was a clamour of muted voices from beyond the hanger.
"There's no time for that!" Lando barked, peering through the door and out into the darkened tunnel. "They've got through!" Hr closed the door, and Leia sealed the lock with a blast from her gun.
They ran through the hanger dodged passed parked speeders and skiffs, ducked under starship foils and slowed only when they reached Lando's landskimmer. Lando couldn't suppress his whoop of triumph as he heard its engine burst into life, as he saw the droids sitting within it waiting for them.
"We've made it!"
Boba Fett stepped out from behind a neighbouring ship.
Chewbacca bellowed with fury, pulled Han back. Leia slipped her arm around the Corellian's body. Another tremble ran through the ground , dust fell from the ceiling hundreds of metres above. It appeared that the explosives planted by Chewbacca had damaged more than just the tunnels.
"Congratulations, Calrissian," Fett greeted. He walked towards them, stood before the skimmer blocking their path to the escape vehicle. "You almost had me fooled at times. Almost." The helmeted head turned to Leia and he stooped in a mocking bow. "Your Highness, it is a pleasure to make your acquaintance once more. Jabba should pay a healthy amount for your skin, since he showed so much interest in it."
"Highness?" Han echoed, his voice catching with a blend of surprise, delight and horror. Leia was here, with him? Leia was in the same danger as he? "Leia?"
"I'm here," she told him quietly, and he pulled her closer to him, as though he could protect her from whatever Fett had planned simply by holding her.
A dull banging echoed around the cavernous hanger, muffled shrieks and cries drifted through from the mob outside.
"The lynching party," Fett observed.
The floor shuddered under them and there was an ear splitting cracking of rock. They all involuntarily glanced toward the roof of the hanger: where a large fault now appeared running through the rock. There was a sudden change in pitch from the waiting skimmer's engine and the vehicle lurched forwards striking the off-guard Fett below the wait and he was thrown into Chewbacca's arms. Leia turned away at the sickening crunch and dull thud as the Wookiee twisted the hunter's neck and let his body drop.
The canopy of the skimmer popped open.
"...believe you did that!" Threepio's voice screeched at his counterpart. There was a tooted, humble reply from Artoo. "No, I didn't have it in gear and,...Oh! Captain Solo! It's so good to see you again!"
There was a blast from the other side of the hanger, a cry of voices and the clamour of running footsteps. Jabba's commanding tones were clear above the rest.
"Move over, Threepio," Han ordered him by way of reply as they all piled into the skimmer. The canopy closed over them as Artoo edged the craft forward toward the huge doors of the hanger. There was a deep rumble, the ground pitched and heaved and Leia clutched Han tightly, holding her breath as she watched the bay doors slowly slide to the side, as the sunlight of Tatooine spilled into the darkness of Jabb's domain.
The skimmer pitched forward over the undulating ground, then it shot into the desert.
The massive doors swung shut after them. Those in the hanger stumbled over heaving dirt, glanced hesitantly around themselves as the rumbling in the palace grew to unbearable levels. They ran to their own craft, revved the engines in eager anticipation of escaping the collapsing structure, of the coming chase as they raced after those responsible. The sail barge rose among them and the vehicles converged on the doors.
The doors remained closed, obeying the command given to them by Artoo Detoo.
And pandemonium was loosed within the hanger as panic danced among the creatures crowded at the doors. They ran from their craft, wailed and beat upon the dull metallic surfaces, fought and pushed at each other in futile attempts to move the massive closures. There was another, final, loud crack, the roar of rock caving in, the rush of fire as the packed vehicles exploded, and Jabba's carefully crafted home and Empire sank into the desert landscape.
* * *
He sat in the relative silence of the cockpit, listening to the pulsing hum of the freighter's engines, to the ticking of the guidance systems as they monitored the ship's path, and he stared out of the cockpit window as yet unable to see the twisting lights of hyperspace but taking comfort from their presence nonetheless. This place was familiar, this place was home and he was thankful to be here; thankful to be free from enforced sleep, that he still had his life, that he had a group of friends willing to risk their own lives for him, and that he had Leia.
He smiled, recalling the moment the hatch of the Falcon had sealed them off from the desert, when he had finally been able to wrap his arms around her slight body and draw her close enough to kiss. She, too, had risked all for him - had even taken time out from her rebellion - and that realisation made him humble, gave him an inner sense of peace, and yet...
There was something missing, someone missing, someone who's absence from the group left a stark and glaring gap, one that which had begged to be explained once events had settled.
"Where's Luke?" He asked once he had fastened his shirt. He sat on his bunk and reached for his boots, listening to Leia fussing around him. His question stopped her. And he could sense her reluctance, her hesitancy and grief, so he answered for her with the only explanation he could think off. "Vader?"
And he felt strangely calm at the confirmation. "Carbonite?"
"Do they still have him?"
"I'm not sure....they had a broadcast and..."
Han frowned, she sounded confused, unsure; they either still had him or they didn't. "Is he dead?"
And she did tell him. She told him about their flight from Bespin, Luke's capture and public execution, her visit to the Lars homestead and what she learned there. For his part he had said nothing, just listened, just took her into her arms and held her as she grieved for a brother lost.
The events of the day had tired the Princess and her weeping had soon ceased as she gradually fell asleep. Han gently extricated himself from her embrace and laid her upon the coverlet of his bunk. He could not sleep, felt as though the past few months in carbonite had robbed him of the ability. His mind was active, his body restless, and so he had left his cabin, made himself a warm cup of caffin and had worked his way through the ship to the cockpit.
Han took a sip from the steaming cup as his last brief exchange of words with Luke returned. They had been simple words, they had been expressions of friendship, they had been the shields behind which they both hid, unable to convey their true feelings or what they both knew they words meant.
What did they mean?
Han tried to shrug off his own question, his own recollections of the parting and the emotions he had experienced when he watched Luke walk away towards his waiting squad.
They had been saying goodbye.
He sipped again at the cup. Something didn't make sense, dammit! Something was there at the back of his skull screaming it out, he was just too deaf - or too blind - to hear it. The image of Luke standing below him wearing the orange flight suit, his helmet cradled under his arm, was so damned clear it couldn't belong to a dead man!
"Vader wants us all dead."
"He doesn't want you at all! He's after someone called...ah...Skywalker."
"Luke," Han repeated the name, the word he had followed Lando's announcement with back on Bespin. "Luke."
"He's set a trap for him."
"And we're the bait."
Vader had tested the carbonite on him, had wanted it to freeze a subject and see if that person could survive. Then he had sprung the trap on the kid. Why go to all that trouble if he was going to kill Luke eventually? Why did Vader place so much significance on a farm kid turned rebel hero. Why the carbonite instead of a pair of binders? Why had Leia been so hesitant to speak? Why had she sounded so unsure when she had pronounced him dead. Why....?
"He was my brother, Han. My twin. And we never knew. Never had the chance...to know. I don't know why they separated us. Maybe....maybe they thought it was too dangerous to keep two Jedi children together. I guess I'll never know now...."
And there it was. Jedi. That word, that name which had condemned so many. Luke had drawn attention to himself, had brought the wrath of the Empire down on his head, but... The sith Lord had wanted him alive!
Han rested his head against the back of the pilots chair and stared blindly ahead, but his mind was clear, his inner vision feeding him with sickening realisation. Vader wouldn't kill Luke, not when he had a gift which could be exploited, not when he possessed an innocence which begged corruption.
"Ah, kid. No," his denial was a whisper, an expression of grief, of fear for a friend astray. "No...."
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