I apologise in advance for any misspellings. By the time I'd got around to looking up the various creature names, you'd have been waiting another week. :~P So if you see any obvious ones, please let me know? Thanks! ;~)
The memory of the blast of awareness he had felt from Solo on Dagobah exacerbated his concern. Luke didn’t know how anyone could suffer that sort of torment and remain sane.
The sky was lightening as they crossed the mountain range that separated the Uurakyn ‘sea’ from the rest of the planet. A sea of sand that covered almost a quarter of the planet and was full of the native and deadly sandworms. The vibrations created by simply walking on the sand below would bring one of the giant worms and, as far as Luke knew, only the Sandpeople had ever succeeded in surviving on this part of the planet. There were rumours that the Sandpeople actually rode the sandworms but, like the rest of Tatooine’s residents, Luke considered that one a fanciful myth. In his experience the Sandpeople were little more than vicious, opportunistic nomads.
Dawn passed quickly on Tatooine; a myriad of changing colours crammed into a very short five minutes. The colours of the desert leapt into sharp relief with the rising of the first sun, Tatoo 1, then shimmered through the reflected heat with the rising of Tatoo 2 a few minutes later. One of the passengers caught a glimpse of a sandworm in the distance and excitedly pointed it out to everyone else. Its head seemed to wave briefly in the hot air then it dove, vanishing into the sand. Being a former native, Luke was quite aware of the deceptive nature of the desert, and that the worm was a lot further away than it had seemed. It occurred to him that he was probably the only one on the skiff who could appreciate how big the worm really was.
He looked across at Leia. She, like the rest of the passengers, had been watching the worm, and Luke was relieved to see that she was once again wearing the bounty hunter’s helmet. All the passengers seemed to wilt a little as the temperature rapidly rose, and he wondered how she was coping.
They were fast approaching a mountain that stuck out from the surrounding sea of sand like a large island of rock. An island which, because of the worms, could only be reached by air and, with carefully controlled air traffic Luke decided, it was as secure an installation as any crime lord could wish for. Then he saw what he assumed was Jabba’s ‘palace’. The building itself looked firmly rooted into the rock; as though it had been there for hundreds of years, and had an almost Alderaanian architectural style. What it had originally been built for, Luke had no idea, but he felt certain it was something Jabba had appropriated rather than built.
There was some comlink chatter between the palace ground staff and the pilot flying the skiff, and a moment later they were swooping in through a cavernous opening in the side of the cliff face that bordered one side of the building. The abrupt drop in temperature was a welcome relief, as was the sudden darkness. The glaring sunlight was as unrelenting as the heat, and very hard on unprotected eyes.
Luke used the sudden darkness to shroud himself with the Force. It didn’t make him physically invisible to the other passengers, just totally unremarkable and forgettable.
They were permitted a small ‘fresher break before being lead to one of the inner rooms by a group of large Gamorrean guards. There they were met by a Twi’Lek male who eyed them all scornfully, then introduced himself as Jabba’s majordomo and proceeded to rattle off the do’s and don’ts of being in Jabba’s palace and, more particularly, in Jabba’s presence. He spoke in Huttese, but several protocol droids were hurriedly translating for the various language differences. Unfortunately they were all doing it at the same time, and the resulting cacophony made it difficult to understand any of them.
Then the Twi’Lek proceeded to interview each of the new arrivals personally, doubtless sorting them into an order of importance. Luke remained at the back of the small room, standing in a shadow, and was pleased to see that the Twi’Lek seemed excited by Chewbacca. With any luck Leia and Chewie would be taken to Jabba first and they could get this whole thing over and done with early. Nevertheless, it took a good hour before they were all processed and led into Jabba’s throne room.
The first thing that struck Luke about the room they were led into was the smell. Jabba’s throne room reeked of bodily fluids: sweat, blood, vomit, excreta, all competing with various food and drink smells. He couldn’t help casting a worried glance at Leia. If he was finding it hard to stomach, in her present condition he was sure Leia would be finding it even harder. Jabba, alone, gave off a stench that rivalled the garbage compactor on the Death Star.
Jabba was not the first Hutt Luke had ever seen, but he was definitely the biggest. Luke estimated the slug-like being was at least three metres from nose to tail, with a girth of almost two. And the biggest feature on him was his mouth. Which probably explained why Hutts were so driven by appetite, Luke decided.
He watched the Hutt eye the newcomers hungrily, surprised at how easily he could read the arrogance in the Hutt’s body language despite the difference in species. Luke had followed the group in; remaining hooded and cloaked, then slipped into an unoccupied shadow near the entrance. He felt a moment of disquiet when the Hutt’s eyes seemed to settle on him for a moment, then dismissed it as his own nervousness. No one else had given him a second glance.
The size of the room surprised Luke. Not that it was small, but he had expected it to be bigger. Nor did it help that the Hutt himself took up so much of it. But, Luke surmised, from his position on the raised dais Jabba would know exactly who was in the room with him. And the room was certainly full. The variety of life forms was mind-boggling, as was the noise. Music was blaring from one corner of the room and he had to concentrate to hear past it.
He found himself wondering where Calrissian might be and attempted looking for him among the crowd. He hoped the former
Searching through the crowd for Lando, Luke’s eyes found the carbonite slab containing Han Solo hanging on the wall in a small alcove opposite the entrance. Jabba had obviously had it placed it there as a warning to any supplicant or employee who might consider crossing him. The frozen expression of helpless pain on Solo’s face sent a cold chill through Luke. Having ‘felt’ his friend’s pain on Dagobah, the full horror of what he was looking at disturbed him greatly, and Luke had to force himself to look away.
He switched his gaze to Leia, but if she’d seen the slab of carbonite, there was no sign of it in her body language. She was holding a blaster against the Wookiee’s flank with one hand, the other ostensibly keeping a tight rein on the chain imprisoning him.
Jabba’s Twi’Lek majordomo was leaning towards the Hutt, whispering in his ear. Not that the Hutt had ears perse but, Luke guessed that Jabba’s hearing organ was in a similar area to most other life forms because that’s was the part of his anatomy the Twi’Lek was whispering at. Or maybe he was shouting to be heard over the music; it was impossible to tell. Then the Twi’Lek turned and loudly introduced the bounty hunter. Without a translator, Luke couldn’t be sure what he’d said, but Leia stepped forward and, in keeping with her masquerade as a Ubese bounty hunter, made her demands in clear Ubese. She also gestured at the carbonite slab several times, so Luke knew she had seen it.
The voice processor in her helmet effectively hid the fact that she was female, which had been a major factor in Luke and Chewie’s insistence that she wear it. Jabba’s proclivity for human females was well known, and the prospect of Jabba adding Leia to his harem of slave girls had almost been enough to get Chewbacca to agree to leaving Leia behind. He had relented only because she had agreed to wear the suit.
Her demands had been translated and were met with mocking laughter from Jabba and the rest of the court. Laughter that degenerated into a shocked gasp as the Wookiee’s binders fell off and she produced and activated a thermal detonator.
Cursing silently to himself, Luke unhooked the lightsabre from his belt. The next step in their plan had been for him to try and ‘talk’ the Hutt into giving them Solo, using a bit of mental coercion through the Force. Whether the sight of Solo hanging on the wall like a grim work of art had triggered a knee jerk reaction from her, Luke wasn’t sure, but Leia, it seemed, had decided they should skip that part of the plan and go straight to using a more conventional sort of force.
The Wookiee roared threateningly, then the music stopped abruptly and Luke felt his right hand go dead. Confused, he hastily bent to pick up the lightsabre that had fallen from his right hand with his left, but it shot across the floor to vanish among a sea of legs and bodies. He automatically reached out with the Force to call it back into his hand, felt it respond, then a violent tug in the opposite direction pulled it away from him again.
There was another Force user in the room!
He looked hastily at Leia, wondering if she had used the Force to pull the lightsabre to herself and, if so, how? When only a few days ago she’d barely been able to lift a pebble. Then he saw with dismay that, in the several seconds he’d been distracted, all their plans had gone to hell. The Wookiee was in full battle mode, tearing into Jabba’s guards like they were paper dolls, trying to get to the princess who was being manhandled by several Gamorreans. Luke immediately abandoned his search for the lightsabre and rushed towards the dais, using the Force to push the denizens obstructing his progress out of his way as he unholstered his blaster with his left hand and fired at the guards holding Leia. The blaster was as dead as his right hand it seemed, and Luke dimly decided that the Hutt must have activated some sort of defence system which killed anything electronic. An electromagnetic pulse or something similar.
Leia had been unmasked, captured and, seeing the lustful expression on Jabba’s face, Luke abandoned any attempt at subtlety and used the Force to hurl her captors across the room. He had almost reached her when the Hutt looked him in the eye and suddenly the floor vanished from under his feet.
He landed on and slid helplessly down a wide stone chute, which deposited him a moment later on a sandy floor ten metres below the throne room. Chewbacca and several Gamorrean guards had fallen with him and he rolled out of the way before they could crash into him. The Gamorreans were squealing pathetically and one of them was unsuccessfully trying to climb back up the stone chute. Their reactions strongly suggested he should be worried.
He glanced up at the grate he’d fallen through and chastised himself for being so stupidly arrogant to have walked into such an old fashioned trap. The grate itself was currently ringed with excited spectators, all jeering and placing bets, and he could see Jabba leaning over from his dais. He could also see the look of horror on Leia’s face. Then he heard the low rumble that he suspected belonged to some sort of large animal, and turned in time to see the heavy metal gate at the other end of their small prison rise.
The Gamorreans were screaming with total panic.
Calm, he told himself. Must remain calm. Focus on the Force.
Luke shrugged off his cloak, letting it pool with the scattering of bones on the sandy floor, and took up a defensive position beside the Wookiee. The creature that came in through the gate must have stood at least 5 metres high, and was almost as broad. It eyed the prey that had been dropped into its den for a moment, then snatched up one of the panicking Gamorreans with a huge, clawed hand, and bit it in half with one powerful snap of its jaws.
Luke could feel the instinctive urge to panic rising in his own body and asked Chewbacca hurriedly, "Do you know what it is?"
The Wookiee answered, but Luke had no idea what he’d said. Swiftly coming to the conclusion that they would not be able to fight the creature, Luke said matter-of-factly, "We need to find a way out of here. Now."
The beast had spotted the Gamorrean that was still frantically trying to climb back up the chute and moved purposefully across the large den, picked up the screaming guard, and ate him whole.
While it was busy chewing Luke and Chewie hurried to the other side of the den, frantically searching the walls for any sort of escape route. Luke found a crevice that was just wide enough for himself, but not for the Wookiee. Chewbacca had his claws out and was testing the walls, perhaps hoping he could climb out, when Luke’s eyes fell on the heavy gate the beast had come through. He hurriedly decided that their best hope would be to get that gate back down between them and the beast.
"Chewie!" he said, yelling to be heard over the roaring of the beast and the jeering of the crowd over their heads, and indicated the alcove the behemoth had come from. The Wookiee seemed to catch on because he headed that way, but Luke suddenly realised that his yelling had focussed the beast’s attention on himself. Fighting his own instinctive flee reflex, Luke spent precious seconds watching the beast approach while he waited for Chewbacca to reach the relative safety of the alcove then, at the last possible moment, ducked inside the crevice.
The beast roared its frustration while it clawed at the crack in the wall and Luke pressed himself back as far as he could, but still the creature’s claws came far to close for comfort. Then the outer edge of the small crevice started to crumble. Encouraged, the beast increased its efforts, and Luke watched with horror as his temporary cover crumbled.
He ran out between the creature’s legs, hoping its size would make it that little bit slower. But it was well practised in the ways of cornered prey and walloped him with one foot, sending him sprawling across the sandy floor.
Gasping to fill his winded lungs and ignoring the sand in his eyes and mouth, Luke struggled to get to his feet, all the while moving away from the beast. Nevertheless, a moment later, he felt his feet leave the floor, groaning as the beast’s fingers tightened around his torso and made it even harder to breathe.
It was largely instinct that got him using the Force to throw whatever was loose in the den at the creature, and its head was momentarily obscured in a cloud of sand and debris. But it did not let him go.
He threw his arms up to protect his head from a large bone that bounced off the beast’s shoulder then, thinking quickly, called the bone to him using the Force. His right hand was still not working and he found himself ensuring the grip his left hand had on it by steadying the bone with his right forearm. As the beast opened its mouth to pop him in, Luke jammed its jaws open with the large bone.
Frustrated, the beast dropped him while it dealt with this new impediment to its desire, roaring with outrage.
Luke didn’t hesitate; he fled to the alcove where Chewie was waiting. The Wookiee was straining through a second gate, vainly trying to reach the controls that would release the heavy gate and seal them off from the creature. On the other side of that gate were several spectators, all of whom were laughing at the Wookiee’s vain attempts.
Without looking back, Luke used the Force to release the heavy gate as he ran underneath it, heard the mechanism groan as it suddenly let go, then heard a peculiar sort of squeak from the creature as the gate slammed into place.
As soon as he reached the outer gate, Luke turned around to see that the first gate had come down on the creature’s head. It struggled for a moment, then died with a great wheeze.
There was a moment of shocked silence from the room above, then the din was even greater than before. Jabba was roaring, sounding anything but happy and a human spectator just outside the second gate looked totally devastated.
Luke sagged against the second gate; breathing hard and simply feeling relieved. He looked at Chewbacca and saw that the Wookiee had not relaxed. He was carefully watching what was happening on the other side of the gate. Luke didn’t doubt there would be repercussions for this, but he was not about to apologise to anyone for not letting himself get eaten.
A group of guards was hastily gathering on the other side of the second gate and Luke pulled himself together, still struggling to get the last of the sand out of his eyes. Then the gate rose and they were ushered through.
Luke and Chewbacca were brought before Jabba again with binders on their wrists. Leia was almost lying on the Hutt, held there, Luke realised angrily, by a chain that was attached to a collar around her neck. He unlocked the collar using the Force, and Leia smiled gratefully at him, struggling to get away from the Hutt. But Jabba’s ineffectual looking little arms were surprisingly strong, and she was dragged back against him. Nevertheless, she still looked happy and relieved to see Luke and Chewbacca alive, and Luke sensed she felt certain that her rescue was at hand.
With a thought he released his own binders and those on the Wookiee, causing a stir among the crowd, particularly the guards, and played on the nervous tension in the room by rattling everything loose that was lying around. He sensed the exit of half the room’s population, but didn’t take his eyes off the Hutt to check.
The Hutt rumbled deep in his chest and the protocol droid that was standing behind him stepped forward.
"Jedi," it said.
The Twi’Lek was hastily whispering in Jabba’s ear, but Jabba kept talking and the droid kept translating.
"For the outrageous crime of killing his favourite pet Rancor, His Eminence, Jabba the Hutt, has decreed that you will be terminated immediately."
"You will release Captain Solo and the girl to me," Luke said firmly, using the Force to empower his words with coercion. Again he sensed another presence, another Force user in the room. Another Force user that wasn’t Leia. He refused to let it distract him and pushed it to the back of his mind.
"We will release Captain Solo and the girl to the Jedi," Jabba’s majordomo repeated in Huttese and the protocol droid automatically translated.
"You weak minded fool!" Jabba replied, shoving him off the dais. "He’s using an old Jedi mind trick."
Luke took a step closer to the dais and Jabba’s eyes narrowed fractionally. The droid translated as he said, "Your mind powers will not work on me, boy."
"Nevertheless, I am taking Captain Solo and the girl with me. You can either profit from this, or be destroyed. It’s your choice. But I warn you not to underestimate my powers."
Jabba the Hutt laughed. A deep, cunning laugh. "I like Captain Solo where he is," the droid translated. "And I will enjoy watching you die, Jedi." An element of outrage returned to Jabba’s voice as he added, "You killed my favourite pet. For that I should feed you to a sandworm. Or, better yet… to the Sarlacc." He seemed delighted by his own suggestion, and a caterwaul of malicious laughter rippled through the crowd.
"There you will find a new definition of pain and suffering as you are slowly digested alive," he added.
Luke shared a look of dark amusement with the Wookiee and decided he’d had enough. Time to leave. He turned eyes full of purpose back towards the Hutt then suddenly found himself unable to draw breath. He grabbed at his throat to loosen whatever had been wrapped around it, dimly wondering why he hadn’t felt it coming, and why the Wookiee wasn’t helping him.
There was nothing around his neck.
He felt the grip tighten and suddenly knew it for what it was: a Force choke. And berated himself for not investigating his awareness of the other Force user in the room. There were spots in front of his eyes now and he heard Leia shriek his name as he fell to his knees.
Leia! he called mentally. Help me!
The roaring in his head drowned out the noise around him as he helplessly tried to fight off the unseen attack, and soon the need for oxygen outweighed everything else. He could feel himself passing out and allowed himself to panic, using the surge of adrenaline it provided to locate his assailant. He couldn’t see her at all, but he could feel her; could feel the Emperor’s will behind her purpose. Instinctively Luke sent out a mental Force blast that should have knocked her unconscious.
He didn’t know if it did though because something came crashing down on his head.