DARK LABYRINTH by Shayne and Carolyn
Part 3 - Joint Force


"Look, I'm tellin' ya," Solo repeated wearily as he alighted from the hovercar, "it ain't gonna work your way."

Vader stepped from the vehicle into a waiting honor-guard of stormtroopers, examining his surroundings with obvious disdain. Mos Eisley Speeder Rentals was a grubby run down shed-like building that looked set to fall down in the next sandstorm. But the vehicles parked in its yard were of surprising variety and looked to be in reasonable repair.

"I see." Vader was probably being sarcastic, it was impossible to say for sure. Damn that black mask! Solo relied on being able to read body language in his dealings and Vader was nearly impossible to read.

"Glad to hear it," Solo said just as sarcastically. He lifted his manacled hands. "Get these off me and I'll go talk to Geordie."

Vader turned to him, the air suddenly chill. "I see you think I know nothing of interrogation technique." He tilted his head at Solo's uplifted hands. "And that you think me stupid enough to free you."

Solo gave a steady look, normally he would have met his adversary eye-to-eye. "You want Luke, I want Luke. Fast. You try interrogating Geordie and he'll freeze up, forget what he may have seen."

"I do not try, Solo. I succeed. Watch and learn!"

Solo dropped his hands, shook his head and said exasperatedly, "You'll scare him off!"

Geordie was indeed nowhere to be seen and his assistant insisted he himself had been elsewhere and knew nothing of the day's rentals. Solo leant insolently against a rear wall, watching as Vader and his troops all but destroyed the premises in their search for information. Solo may not have had facial expression as a guide, but he was beginning to pick up other clues. Currently Vader's posture screamed frustration. Two troopers came in the back way, a young human male dragged between them.

"Geordie!" Solo exclaimed, jerking forward. "Hey! Take it easy with him!"

"S-Solo?" Geordie looked near scared to death. "They got you too?"

"It ain't as bad as it looks." Solo moved closer. "They just need my brains, can't manage by themselves, y'know."

Geordie snorted, some tension leaving him. "Yeah?"

"There has been an abduction," Vader interrupted, cloak swirling as he approached the prisoner. "One of your vehicles was used."

Geordie swallowed hard, stared up at the dark helmeted head. "It's been a busy day. Jabba's got somethin' goin' on, people comin' in from all over." He flashed Solo a look. "Some of 'em are after you, Han. Did they take a friend of yours by mistake?"
"Not exactly." Solo edged closer, elbowing the trooper aside. "But it is my friend who's missing. Listen, Geordie, they dragged him into an old model SoroSuub XP291, blue finish."

"Sorry. We got five or six like that, all out, some this morning, some yesterday."

"Where are your rental records?" Vader was definitely losing patience.

"We don't keep records. Uh, that's why we do good trade," Geordie explained nervously. "No datapads, no scans, just cash and a security deposit."

"But you must remember who came in," Solo urged.

"Everyone uses middle men. The same people, you know 'em, Han. They make their business running vehicles to people who'd rather stay out of sight."

"Enough!" Vader roared. "Tell me who they were!" He lifted a gloved hand, formed a fist, and Geordie rose from his feet, hands to his throat.

"I swear.." the young mechanic began, then garbled words as he choked for air.

"Let him go! " Solo stepped between Vader and Geordie, reached for Vader's hand, but troopers dragged him away. "For Stars sake!" Solo cursed and struggled, watching as Geordie's face turned red then blue, "He can't talk when he can't breathe!"
Vader regained control, released the youngster who dropped to the floor. Solo glared, shook off the troopers and went to his friend'said. "You okay?" he asked, bending down to rub Geordie's back.

"No," the youngster said sullenly, rubbing at his throat.
"Hey!" Solo gave him a wounded look. "It's not my fault. These aren't fashion statement." He jangled the manacles, then sighed heavily. "These people we're after, they took Luke."

Geordie jerked upright and stared, horrified. "Yeah," Solo said grimly, "and according to Ugly over there," he nodded in Vader's direction, "they ain't treatin' him nice."

"Well," Geordie said hoarsely, "why didn't you say so before?" He lowered his voice still further so that Solo was forced to lean closer. "You know how we really keep records, in cypher?" Solo nodded, aware that Vader had turned and was watching them closely. "I can download for you and you can go over it with a fine wire. But, my guess is the people you want are dealing through Jabba's link with NotSub."
NotSub was Mos Eisley's one and only supposed private security agency. Solo straightened, groaned, ran a hand through his disarrayed hair. "Say it's not Thrung. Anyone but that stretched out streak of double-crossing slime."

Geordie smiled ruefully. "Right first time."

"Thrung?" Vader rumbled, pacing across the room to them.
"I know where to find him," Solo moved quickly to shield Geordie from further questioning. "Which after your little show here ain't gonna be easy. Next time we do it my way."

Next time came and went and nothing changed. The routine at the speeder rental store was repeated several times all through what was one of the longest, most frustrating nights of Solo's life. To be fair, Vader had it worse. There had been four more instances when the Dark Lord had been stopped dead in his tracks, paralysed as he was connected psychically to whatever agony Luke's captors chose to inflict.

Vader's rage after each of these attacks was almost palpable, his officers visibly trembling and trying to stay out of range. Solo figured his own fury was at least Vader's equal, increasing the tension-filled, threatening mood. It certainly didn't improve their chances of getting answers from those beings they suspected might lead them to Thrung and thus to Luke. Vader had killed the last one, temper erupting into a frenzy that left one of Thrung's minions, a Devaronian, with his head a messy pulp sprayed over the adobe walls.

Now, finally, Vader's rage seemed to have entered a new possibly more dangerous stage. Icy cold, calculating, he had calmly allowed Solo to give advice and agreed to abide by his assessment. The Corellian knew Thrung's late night habits, knew where the Ho'Din liked to come to drink, to whore around, and brag about the day's takings. Solo convinced Vader to keep himself and troops out of sight, all currently hiding in a warehouse building across the square facing the old run-down cantina/inn known as The Raider's Roost.

Weary, still suffering the after-effects of carbon-freeze, Solo slumped down to sit on the stone floor in a shadowy corner, wedging himself there and leaning his head back against the wall. He was worried about Luke, hungry, exhausted, cramped, and annoyed that Vader still refused to give the order to have the wrist manacles removed. Solo sat and watched through gritty, tired eyes as the Dark Lord paced, his long, black cloak sweeping the dirty floor. Captain Simms, his aide, a greasy-haired, hollow-cheeked, thin little man, knelt by a window shutter, scanner poked through a crack as he waited the Ho-Din's appearance. Two more Imperials watched from other locations.

Time dragged, the night became chill despite the earlier heat, and Solo wondered what Vader might do to him if Thrung never showed. The Dark Lord was certainly primed for more murders. The next he knew, Solo was being roughly roused from deep sleep, someone kicking none too gently at his booted shin. He opened bleary eyes, groggily aware he was bound by manacles. A sinister, black-masked and cloaked figure loomed over him -- and panic set Solo's heart racing, the nightmare come to life.

For a moment he was back in the carbon freeze chamber, Vader preparing his execution. "No!" he yelled hoarsely, pushed hard against the floor, scrambled to his feet. Vader took a step back, turned away, and suddenly Han understood where he was. He forced out the breath he'd desperately sucked in, expecting not to be able to draw another. Judging by Vader's unusual backward step, he knew Solo had awakened in terror -- and knew why too. Solo felt a twinge of shame then a flare of bright hot rage as he glared at the black-cloaked figure responsible for instilling that fear.

"Thrung is here," Vader snarled, one enormous gloved fist clenched so fiercely Solo wondered he couldn't hear bones cracking.
"Told ya he'd show," Solo said, still inwardly trembling with suppressed rage. He checked his blaster holster before he remembered it was empty, frowning irritably as the metal cuffs pinched his wrists. "What time is it?"

"The first sun will rise soon," Vader indicated the grey light filtering through the shutters. "Your plan had best succeed, Solo. my patience is at an end."

Solo held up his manacled hands. "So get these off me and let me go to work." Simms was nowhere in sight but Solo expected a trooper to come forward, key in hand. Instead Vader simply made a flicking motion with one finger and the heavy manacles unlocked and fell clanging to the stone floor. Solo gaped and swallowed against a dry throat. Funny how that ability should unsettle him when he'd spent the night watching Vader use the Force to break bones and worse. He gathered his courage, lifted his chin, looked defiantly up at the ebony mask reflecting the dim light. "Did you get the bribe tokens?"

"Simms is bringing them." Vader hissed like a reptile in the shadows, cloak swirling as he turned around, half-lifting a fist in threat at Solo. "It would not be wise to cross me, Corellian."

That did it! The burning ember of Solo's rage flared to life, erupting beyond his control. Eyes blazing with that inner fire, jaw tight, Solo took a step toward Vader, hefting a forefinger in place of a weapon. "Just who the hell do you think you are?!" Solo roared. One of the troopers almost dropped his blaster in pure shock, the young ensign by the window gasped, face going sheet white, eyes bulging in terror of a retribution that would surely kill them all.

Solo barely noticed, took another pace forward, finger almost touching the Dark Lord's chest. "You torture me, freeze me, damn near kill me, then have the gall to stand there and threaten me! Well, I ain't buyin'! You got that!? You think having the power ... to.."

Vader's fist came up all the way, black-gloved fingers tightening ,and Solo's throat contorted. Still his eyes burned hatred, lips twisting into a sneer as he managed to gasp, "Yeah, shut me up... because.. you're .. afraid!" The pressure increased then abruptly lessened. Solo drew a wheezing breath, coughed. "These men," he said hoarsely, waving an arm at the Imperials, "fear you. What a lonely way to live. Terror doesn't buy respect, or loyalty. You want Luke to join you, think again. He doesn't take well to intimidation either!"

Vader edged closer, boot-tips touching Solo's. "Are you quite finished?"

"Hell, no!" Solo refused to back off, hands going to his hips, chin jutting forward. "How long is it since you heard it like it really is?!"

The door slid open, Simms choosing just that moment to return. Beyond Vader's back, Solo saw the aide freeze in his tracks, taking in the tableau before him. "M'Lord?" he gulped, then hurriedly added, "It can wait."

He half-turned as if intending to leave, but Solo stepped round Vader, asked, "You got the credits?"

Simms nodded, not looking at Solo, eyes still fixed on Vader's back, wide with fear. For one moment Solo almost felt sorry for Vader's underlings. "Ahh, don't mind him," Solo said. "His ego took some damage. He'll get over it."

There was a whoosh-click from Vader's respirator, perhaps a sighing breath, and tension drained from the room. "Give him what he wants," Vader said. "Get him out of here before I kill him."
"Ha!" Solo exclaimed. "Real clever. Kill everyone who tells you the truth. Get yourself a nice collection of yes-men."
"How much?" Simms said frostily, taking a pouch of coins from his tunic.

"Ten thousand."

"Ten thousand! My Lord," Simms looked pleadingly to his master, "That's sheer piracy!"

"What, " Solo also looked back at Vader, "your fair-haired boy ain't worth that much?"

"Give it to him," Vader ordered flatly.

"And my blaster too," Solo said, enjoying Simm's sour mood and forced compliance.

Vader nodded and Solo felt relief surge through him as finally his weapon was returned. He slid it into the holster, leaving his hands free to accept the pile of credit tokens Simm's counted out. Solo licked his lips, amazed to find it was all there -- he'd never really believed they'd give him so much. He could bribe the entire city with ten thousand credits! He shoved the pieces into a leather pouch and slid it into a vest pocket, turned to the door. "I'll be back soon," he said, trying to forget Luke's avowal that lies could be sensed through the Force. The flanking troopers stepped aside, the door slid back, and Solo sighed in heart felt appreciation as he exited into the dawnlight.

The Raiders' Roost was more an inn than a cantina, or -- Solo snorted derisively -- it could be considered such by any being down on his luck enough to risk waking up with his throat slashed by the other residents. Solo stepped into the dusty street, tilting his head back to look up at the dingy ferrocrete and rock slabbed, three storey building with its once ornate but now grimy glass windows. Jabba made a lot of money out of this place via the whores he forced to work here, some of whom were technically still his slaves. But not for long, Solo decided, lifting a hand to the bulging credit pouch inside his shirt, not for long.

Cheered by that thought, and hopes of soon finding Luke and blasting the hell outa the Tatoo System, Solo swaggered up the steps and through the carved archway, stopping just inside the entry-hall to peer into the dimly-lit main bar room, encircled above by a gallery flanked by bedrooms. One thing about Ho'Dins, they were easy to spot in a crowd. And Thrung was even easier than most, being a typically flamboyant, malicious and greedy. No wonder he'd been forced to leave his homeworld, he could only be listed as a deviant due for re-education. Well, Solo released the tie down on the holster, adjusted the grip, he was willing to teach the Ho'Din a lesson or two.

The feel of the blaster butt beneath his fingers bought a sudden unwelcome thought -- Vader had given it over too easily. Solo slid the weapon free, turned it over, checked the charge pack, and froze where he stood. It was reading empty, completely drained.

"You filthy, double-crossing slimy pig-whore's spawn!" Someone chose just that moment to prod him from behind, urging him to move along and stop blocking the entryway. Solo swung about, eyes blazing feral fury, he snatched at the shorter being's robes, hauled him from his feet, spat, "You want somethin'?" The creature shook and trembled, spluttering incoherent apologies. "Ahh, crawl back into your hole!" Solo dropped him, drew a deep breath, fighting for control as he went on inside.

He collapsed into the nearest empty booth, tried to think what to do now. He'd already planned his exit out of here via a tunnel the Imperials would know nothing about. He could just go back to Chewie, get the hell outa here while he was still breathing. But Luke.... Shit. There was nothing for it but to go ahead as planned -- minus his firepower. He'd just have to try bluffing Thrung. Ha! Might as well try bluffing a sarlaac! This would have to be fast and merciless.

He could see Thrung's bright purple braided locks bobbing from his rounded, skeletal head as he talked excitedly to a four-armed, amply breasted whore sitting across from him. She looked near bored to death. The Ho'Din was almost as tall as Chewie, and while he didn't have a wookiee's strength, he was at least three times stronger than human. Make that four times, Solo amended sourly, considering his present status, AWOL from Sick Bay. Wonderful. The things I do for you, Skywalker. He glanced back at the bar where the usual odd assortment of galactic outcasts were gathered. Inspiration struck. There was more than one way to roast a mynock.

He got to his feet, ignoring the servo-droid, and pushed through the ranks to lean against the bar. The barkeep, Tullyu was human though he more closely resembled a Gammorean than a man. Saliva dripped from his prominent lower teeth as he swung about to regard the Corellian disfavorably. Solo dumped two hundred credits and Tullyu scooped them up into massive sweaty hands, looking even uglier as he tried to smile. "Your finest Toovolian brandy," Solo said, then palming another five hundred, said, "Make it your special. Eighty six vintage."

Tullyu's beady eyes narrowed suspiciously and he leaned closer, giving Solo a whiff of fetid breath. "We already had the enforcers in here once tonight, Solo. If you're gonna cause trouble, I want damage money too. Up front. Two thousand." Solo sneered, fixed the man with a glare abrim with the past day's frustrations. "One. Take it or you get trouble now."
Tullyu flinched, nodded acceptance. Solo handed over the extra credits, then waited while the brandy was spiked as per his orders. Tullyu handed him the bottle along with the necessary antidote. Solo gulped it down, then bottle in left hand, and right close by his useless blaster, strode openly toward Thrung's table.

Seeing his approach, the Ho'Din jumped to his feet, wanting to use his towering height to advantage. The chair fell back behind him and he drew his weapon, a small but lethal needler. The whore shrieked, turned about, spotted Solo, and ducked for cover. Several other patrons did likewise.

"Hey!" Solo put on his most ingenuous-but-dangerous smile, spread his arms wide. "It's only me. Ain't ya gonna welcome me back? Jus' wanna celebrate my freedom is all."

Ignoring Thrung's wavering gun, Solo thumped the brandy bottle onto the table, and deliberately spilled two thousand credit pieces beside it. "I'm rich," he said, feigning drunkenness. " I've been lookin' for my friends all night. Can't find 'em." He pulled up a chair, sat down, and stared up at the Ho'Din. "You'll have t' do."
Thrung watched suspiciously, then began to relax as Solo poured himself a drink, and sloshed more into the Ho'Din's glass. His pale, lidless eyes flicked hungrily to regard the pile of credits. "What do you want, Solo?"

"Like I said --"

"Cut the crap. It's all over town. You and the Imps are looking for Skywalker."

"Right." Solo gave up the act, leaned forward, one hand on the table. "I just got clear of Vader. He's not a nice man. I need a drink, and I'm willing to pay big time for a little info. Do we do this peacable, or not?"

The Ho'Din snorted derisively but giving some sort of signal to someone at the back of the room, holstered his weapon and sat down. "No way am I crossing my contractor, Solo."

"Ha! You already crossed Jabba doin' this deal, you can't get in any deeper. I can give you enough to buy passage outa here. You're gonna need it."

Thrung considered, eyeing the tokens, then said, "Not likely. I made a lot out of this deal. I can split with Jabba and still come out ahead."

"You got worse problems. Vader is burning on a short fuse. He's left a trail of very messy corpses out there -- and your name is next on his list."

Thrung gulped, tried to look casual, but failed as he reached for the brandy with a trembling hand. He swallowed the liquor in one hit. "I only arranged transport. They didn't say who they were hitting."

Han sipped his drink, and poured another for the Ho'Din. "You wanna explain that to Vader? He has a problem with listening, prefers picking direct through people's brains -- after he smears 'em over the walls."

Thrung's pasty face shone, damp and gleaming with sweat. "I'd need a lot to get clear of The Empire. Six thousand."

"Five. And I keep Vader from coming after you."

"You got it on you?"

Solo emptied the pouch. Thrung gaped, then leaned forward, peering bleary-eyed and reaching unsteadily, the drug already taking effect. Solo grabbed the thin wrist. "Where is Skywalker?" The words were a living threat, low and urgent. Busy trying to scoop up his payment, Thrung said, "Jabba's Maze. North Section 19, tunnel store three."

"Guards?"

"I saw four, plus two Imp officers. Could be more."

"Thank you," Solo said sarcastically. "You better be right. If I don't find Luke, I'll be back for you."

Thrung looked up at him hazily. "Wha' makes you think..." He tried to stand, stumbled, reached clumsily for his gun, couldn't free it from its sleeve. "You slimerat!" he spat. "You ... drugged.."

"Nothin' serious." Solo stood, pushed the table, sent Thrung flying flat on his back, the fall driving the Ho'Din all the way into unconsciousness. "Sleep it off and pray I don't have to be here when you wake up." He bent, snatched Thrung's blaster, and collected the credit pieces, not noticing ominous movement at the back of the room. He got back to his feet just in time to have his head almost blasted clean from his shoulders as Thrung's two Devaronian bodyguards spotted him standing over their fallen boss.

Solo dived behind the overturned table, patrons screamed, scattered. Solo fired a couple of shots from Thrung's wonderfully high-charged weapon, jumped to his feet, and dashed for the stairs to the upper gallery. Two more bolts sent shards of timber wall panelling flying, tearing at his shirt and jacket. He shouldered into the first bedroom door, popped it open, entered, slammed it shut and barred it behind him. In a bed in the center of the room, three beings left off their amorous tangle, one screaming fearfully, the other, a red-haired human female, smiled and called, "Han, darlin'. Join us. It's been too long."

"Geesel," he greeted, giving her a quick smile. "Sorry. I'm in a rush. Maybe next time." She pouted. He reached into his shirt, threw the credit pouch into her lap, ignoring the pounding on the door. "You and the girls have been wanting to leave Jabba's employ. That should help with your escape plans. Cover for me?"
"Always," she gave him a genuine, if somewhat wry smile, watching as he made his way to a rear corner of the room and reached for a notch in the ceiling. She emptied the pouch, gasped, and called, "Han, this is a fortune!"

Solo had freed the hatch and swung his legs up and into the darkened hole. He winked down at her. "Leave a nice farewell note for Jabba. Be sure to mention my name."

Geesel hugged the credits to her ample bosom, eyes shining. "Thank you!" Solo's upper body and feet disappeared, leaving only his posterior. "Nice view!" she called as that body part also disappeared and the hatch was closed, leaving a seamless ceiling. She sighed. "Maybe a freebee next time." The door splintered, and she shoved the pouch into her bra, leaned down and snarled at her clients who had tried to burrow under the bed. "You saw nothing!"

Sitting in the narrow ceiling crawl space, Solo caught his breath, heard the door crash inward below, and Geesel cried, "He went out the window!"

"That's my girl!" Solo grinned. He stood, doubled forward beneath what was the floor to the next level, and feeling rather smug, began making his way in the dark toward the back stairs and a rear tunnel that would lead him to The Maze, Luke, then the Falcon, and freedom. He lifted his comlink, pressed the rendezvous co-ordinates which would be relayed to Chewbacca. Busy with that, peering at the keypad in the gloom, he didn't see the two, small bounty hunters until they were round the corner, weapons drawn. Rodians had excellent night-sight. It was fortunate they were terrible marksmen. The first bolt went wide, Solo ducked, looked up just as the second Rodian fired. Splinters from the timber wall sliced into his face and upper arm, blood dripped into his eyes.

"We have you now, Solo!" The lead Rodian called. "You cannot go back and you cannot get by us. Throw down your weapon. Surrender and we will take you to Jabba alive."

"Ha!" Solo snarled. He fired a volley but the Rodians ducked back into the shelter provided by the junction of stairs and corridor. The noise of the blaster exchange would soon attract attention, and Thrung'smob would be on him from the rear. Solo aimed the Ho'Din's weapon at the deck/ceiling, set it for wide beam, and fired a sustained blast. Plastiboard melted, support struts gave way, and Solo fell through the hole, his flanks burning with radiated heat. Fortunately, he landed on the bed. Unfortunately, someone took a potshot at him. He cursed, squinting in the gloom.

"Don't shoot!" a female voice called. "It's only Solo." There was a scuffle and Han knew the whore had wrestled the weapon away from a nervous client. Lights came up, and Solo gave his curly-haired rescuer a smile.

"Thanks, Aveela. I owe ya. Check with Geesel. I gotta run." He leaped from the bed, headed for the window, intending to slide it open and step out onto the ledge running around the second floor. The Rodians crashed through, blasters firing and at the same moment the bedroom door burst open and the Devaronians entered, also firing on full charge. None had time to aim properly, but a ricocheting bolt glanced across Solo'sribs, sending him sprawling backward to crash through the window in a spectacular shower of glass shards.

Solo had just enough time to utter his favorite curse before he bounced off the first floor awning and impacted with the unpaved alley that ran behind the building, all the wind knocked out of him, every bone rattled to the marrow. Dazed, he tried to crawl into the shelter of some piled trash, but his limbs simply refused to obey him. He had dropped the stolen blaster as he fell, and he searched desperately for it, feeling about in the rotting garbage and sand, his vision blurred and early morning shadows filling the alleyway. Blaster bolts suddenly rained down from above, and he yelped, scrabbling forward then back as he was first clipped on the heel, then near had his hair parted. Fountains of sand erupted about him, and garbage went flying to land with moist splats across his back. He flung his arms up over his head and prayed for salvation.

Abruptly, the violence about him ended, though oddly he could still hear blaster fire from above. He peaked out between his fingers, saw laser fire bouncing from an invisible shield not a few feet above him. He gaped, twisted about and looked toward the alley mouth, but his view was blocked by a dark cloaked figure in a pair of shiny boots. Vader held an arm outstretched, palm upturned, repelling the lethal rain. Solo saw it but he didn't believe it.

Stormtroopers came clattering up to stand behind their dark master, laser rifles spitting fire as they took aim at the attackers overhead. Resistance was short-lived, Solo's adversaries judging discretion the better part of valour. Solo lay belly-down in the dirt, mouth open, eyes wide, as he stared up at Vader, amazed to find himself still breathing.

The Dark Lord took a pace closer, masked head titled to regard the Corellian. "You have an amazing variety of enemies, Solo," he rumbled. "Is there anyone in the galaxy you haven't driven to try and kill you?"

Solo blinked, shaken but indignant. "I'm a popular guy. Worth a lot to Jabba." He pushed himself to his knees, grabbed at the wall, and levered himself upright. The world turned in slow circles about him, making it very difficult to focus the killer glare he needed to fry Vader where he stood. "You sent me in there with an empty blaster!" The savagery he couldn't find for his eyes at least echoed satisfyingly in his words.

Vader's armoured chin lifted. "And you intended betrayal."
"I never made any deals with you!" Solo snapped. "I could have been killed, drawing on Thrung with no firepower. I can't find Luke for you if I'm dead!"

"If you had failed I would not. You wanted your chance, you had it. And he told you where Luke is, I feel it."

Solo sneered, said nothing. Leaning heavily against the wall, he stumbled toward the alley mouth, the troopers making way, watching as he staggered about like a drunkard. Blood trickled into his eyes, his ribs burned every time he drew breath, and his right foot protested every step. To top that his clothing was tattered, muddied and splattered with foul-smelling garbage.

"You seem a little the worse for wear," Vader commented at his back. He stepped round Solo and signalled his aide, who spoke into a comlink, saying, "We need a medic."

"I'm fine," Solo told Simms, then added sneeringly, "but I'm touched by your concern." Reaching the open square flanking the Raider's Roost, Solo hunted for something to sit on, found nothing, and slumped down to sit on a nearby step. He hung his head in his hands, trying to get his breath and stop the nauseating spinning of sky and city. A medic appeared from somewhere, ran a scanner over Solo and announced, "Nothing serious, m'Lord."

"Says you," Solo commented, surprised when he caught a responding smile on the young man's face.

"I'll give him a stim shot," the medic continued. "It should keep him on his feet."

Solo hated injections but submitted, knowing he'd stand no chance of reaching Luke before Vader without some relief. There was a clattering of boot steps and the boyish-faced Ensign came to a breathless halt, saluting Simms who stood nearby. "Thrung didn't have it on him, sir," he reported nervously. "The others say Solo took it back."

Simms turned about, bent down to Solo, blue-grey eyes coldly assessing. "Where is the ten thousand?" he asked.

"What ten thousand?" Solo blinked at him dazedly, wincing as the medic began binding his ribs with bacta dressing.
Simms shook his head in annoyance, pushed the medic aside and began pulling at Solo's already tattered shirt. "Where is it?" he repeated.

"I dropped it," Solo said, breathing easier as the stim took effect and his head began to clear. "The Empire's really that hard up for money, huh? Sad."

"Where!" Simms sounded frantic, and Solo wondered what the penalty was for poor accounting. Knowing Vader, probably something painless, like evisceration.

"Wait, I remember," Solo declared. Simms sighed relief. "All that brandy runs through fast. I had to use the facilities. Look in there, all those credits made quite a splash."

Simms gaped, jaw slung low, eyes wide. Behind him, Vader made an odd snorting sound that could have been laughter.

"Forget the credits, Simms," Vader said and the officer flinched, saluted and stepped back. "Now," the Dark Lord rumbled in his best most menacing fashion, towering over Solo and blotting out the early morning sunlight, "you were about to take me to Skywalker."

Solo considered witholding the information, then remembered seeing a man's head explode and several others come close to being strangled to death. He sighed, wiped a grimy hand across his aching eyes and looked up. "He's in The Maze. It won't be easy. I just hope Jabba hasn't changed all the codes and reset the snares since I was there last."
* * *

Mineral-rich sands had drawn human colonists to remote, barren Tatooine, the first settlement beginning under what was now MosEisley. Here was an almost endless system of natural limestone tunnels and caves, providing the initial shelter from the twin suns' killing heat. The caverns had been enlarged and improved, then when the miners left, Jabba put The Maze to good use, storing smuggled goods out of sight, enabling the local authorities to easily turn a blind eye. Solo had come to know The Maze well during his time running spice for The Hutt, his innate Corellian sense of direction making him more adept at memorising routes than most.

Stepping through the northern arched entrance, Solo led the way, striding carefully down a long flight of rock hewn stairs that opened out on a wide area circled by brightly lit tunnel mouths. At Solo's back, Vader came to a standstill, impatient and dismayed by the warren confronting them. Scanners were of no use, the place was alive with Jabba's people and native fauna.
The Dark Lord turned to Solo. "You are certain this Thrung gave you the correct location? I still cannot sense Luke."

"No," Solo said bluntly. "But it should be somewhere in this section at least. You said they must have Luke out of it," he shrugged, "so your mumbo-jumbo ain't gonna do you any good."
"Mumbo-jumbo?" Vader repeated.

"I wouldn't advise taking the most direct route, it's probably set to explode in our faces. In fact the entire place is covered with security devices and traps laid by The Hutt's people."

Vader let out a hissing breath, hands on hips, head turning irritably to survey the encircling entryways. "Which one?"

"None of them," Solo said. "They're for tourists and Imperials only. Over here." He took a pace to one side, went to his knees and heaved a piece of paving aside. Beneath it was an archaic leverlock. Solo pushed down and a trapdoor slowly slid aside, revealing a shadowy, narrow stairway leading down into the gloom. Solo looked up at Vader. "After you."

"Oh, I insist," Vader said. "After you."

They climbed down some distance in procession, Solo, Vader, Simms, troopers, the Imperials taking side tunnels at the Corellian's direction. Solo pointed out sensors and triggers he recalled from previous visits. The route became darker, the air thick with dust, the limestone walls and ceiling crowding in, adding to an ominous, claustrophobic mood. Vader in particular was uncomfortable, Solo and the others had only to duck their heads, but the Dark Lord was reduced to bending almost double.
"Surely there is an easier route," Simms complained when they paused for rest.

"Absolutely," Solo looked back at him. "Like I said. But they're security coded and I ain't on Jabba's favorite people list anymore. You can go negotiate with him if you want, might take a while though. Days probably." Simms sighed irritably and turned away. Solo smiled and got to his feet. "This tunnel will bring us out onto the main route again, close to Thrung's location."

A little while later, Solo was as relieved as Vader when the backway gleamed with bright light ahead and they stepped clear into a sizeable tunnel big enough to take float pallets laden with smuggled merchandise, or slaves.

"He's here!" Vader exclaimed suddenly, sounding elated. "I can sense him."

"Great," Solo said. The Dark Lord pushed by him, and he added, "No, wait! You've got to have the codes!"

"I will deactivate the sensors," Vader said, impatiently striding ahead.

"Fine," Solo tried to argue, "but some of them don't work on the usual system. Watch it." He pointed up at a blinking sensor. Vader made a flicking motion and it went dark. "Huh," Solo said, impressed in spite of himself.

Vader gathered speed, Solo, Simms, and the troopers almost having to jog to keep up with him. They rounded a curve and were confronted by an intersection. Vader didn't wait for Solo's advice, he continued on following his sense of Luke's presence. The chosen tunnel sloped steeply downward, narrower than the others, its floor adrift with ankle-deep sand. Keeping balance was difficult at such a pace and Vader's shoulders sometimes scraped against the rock walls. About half way down, peering in the gloom, Solo heard a loud click, and Vader said, "What?"

"Kreth!" Solo swore. He threw himself forward, slamming hard into Vader's legs, bracing his arms to add more impact. The Dark Lord overbalanced on the steep descent and toppled forward to roll down slope. There was a thunderous explosion mixed with a cracking sound and the rock roof gave way.

A swirling cloud of sand and debris rushed forward to engulf Vader and push him flat again as he attempted to get to his feet. His respirator laboured but filtered the air, and when the rolling thunder finally fell silent, and the dust began to settle, he turned back. The cave in had sealed the tunnel completely behind him. Solo lay trapped, almost invisible, buried by the leading edge of rubble. Further back, Vader knew the explosion had killed most of his troopers. Summoning the Force, the Dark Lord began freeing the Corellian.

Solo coughed, groaned, there was painful pressure pinning his legs and making his ribs creak as he fought for air. He was lying on his belly, trapped by rock and sand. He could see nothing but blackness, couldn't move, was helpless, trapped. Panic gnawed at his control. Then slowly at first, darkness began giving way to light, faint, dusty, grey light. His head came clear and he squinted upward, saw a shadowy figure looming over him, saying something he couldn't make out for the ringing in his ears. Then he heard, "Keep still. I will get you out."
Vader! The Dark Lord was digging him out?! Well, Solo amended, not digging. Pressure and pain eased, rocks and sand were simply floating upward, moving away to drop harmlessly to one side. Solo stared, gaped at the drifting rocks, then at Vader who stood, hand outstretched, concentrating, directing traffic. Damned if The Force didn't have some useful applications after all! Less heavily weighted, Solo wriggled, freed an arm, shoved at some of the debris. He struggled to a sitting position and winced as abused body parts reported in.

Vader came closer, bent over him, said, "I think you just saved my life, Solo." He sounded incredulous, almost astounded. As an afterthought he extended a helping hand, asked, "Are you all right?"

Solo took the gloved hand and was hauled, staggering upright. "No," he said over clenched teeth. He began rubbing at a bruised shoulder.

"No?" Vader leaned forward, apparently trying to examine him in the gloom.

"No," Solo looked up at him, scowling. "I saved your life? I gotta be brain-damaged!" He pushed past Vader, stumbling a few paces down the slope. "Idiot!" he muttered, "Idiot, idiot, idiot!" Breathless, he leaned against the wall, looked back toward the cave-in. Vader was watching him, his respirator making that same odd sound Solo had heard only once before. Laughter. The Dark Lord was amused, chuckling to himself. "Fine," Han grumbled. "You have reached a new low, Solo -- clown for The Empire!" He shook his head in self-disgust, then began staggering back up-slope toward the leading edge of the fall.
Coming to a standstill before it, Solo blinked, aware only now of just how much damage the explosion had caused. The faint light that barely illuminated the tunnel was falling from above the rock-slide, coming not from the rear, but rather from the side. It pierced the shadows in a shaft of dusty gold, and Solo realized a hole had been blasted sideways, clean through the rock walls adjoining two parallel tunnels. The other side must be lit by artificial glow rods the same as this one had been before the explosion cut power. At the rear, the way out was completely blocked, tons of rock falling from the roof to crush everything in its path. Solo stared a moment, rubbed at his bruises, and said, "I coulda been killed!"

Something moved at Solo's feet and he looked down to see a bloodied, uniformed arm pushing up feebly from beneath the rubble. Simms had been following close at Solo's back, must have been thrown down slope by the force of the blast. Solo went to his knees, then looked back up at Vader. "What about him?" he asked, realizing he was still too weak and shaken to do any digging. "Can't you use your fancy tricks to get him out too?"
Eerie shifting light painted liquid streaks of gold over black as Vader's helmet tilted, surprised. "Why should you care?"

"Well, I .." Solo frowned. There was a hoarse, drawn out moan from the trapped man. "Help me!" Solo began weakly trying to clear debris. Vader didn't move. "Come on, will ya! He's hurting!"

"There is no time for this," Vader said irritably.

"Fine!" Solo snapped. Simms' hand had found Solo's arm and was gripping with desperate, pleading intensity. "You go on then, but I ain't leavin' your officer to die!"

Vader sighed and dust motes whirled, the tunnel filling with hissing echoes. He lifted a black draped arm and huge chunks of stone floated up and clear, dropping to one side. Han shoved armfuls of sand away from the trapped man, freeing his head and shoulders, then pulling his upper body clear. Simms cried out and blood flowed scarlet and thick from his mouth. He exhaled a gurgling sigh and slumped, dying, into Solo's arms. Han watched helplessly as the last light left the Imperial's eyes, glazing over, fixed and staring. Solo cursed, lay the man back.

Vader watched dispassionately, then said, "You are an interesting man, Solo. I begin to understand why Luke values you so highly." He bent and offered his hand to help Solo climb unsteadily to his feet.
* * *

They'd brought him awake during the interminable night only to hurt him, without questions, for reasons never made clear. If it was torture it seemed to have been done pure sadism's sake. And it certainly hadn't taken much effort - there were lots of very tender spots to jab. They only had to squeeze his poor, mangled leg. Or hit the side of his head...the older one had enjoyed that....and once they'd punched him in the stomach, two or three times. That type of punishment had sent him back into unconsciousness again and they'd done it only once. He couldn't hurt if he wasn't awake.

The drugs coming into his arm through a tube had kept him confused, unable to concentrate enough to use his Force abilities in any way constructive. But this latest waking was different. There was no active pain beside the usual dull aches and he could sense his two Imperial captors across the room. They seemed to be arguing or talking loudly about something, and not paying any attention to him...thankfully. Luke turned his head a little and saw that although the needle was still in his arm the IV line was hanging out of it, the drugs dripping along his arm to form a puddle on the side of the trolley.

He lay very still, straining to listen, frustrated by the fuzzy numbness that hung about his mind. He could hear them but they didn't seem to making a lot of sense....

"...and you know what I said to start with, that the traps wouldn't likely catch him. You were too fancy, Lorn."

"Nobody likes a told-you-so, Taylon. They weren't fancy, they were non-electronic, he shouldn't have been able to sense them at all." Luke heard a sigh. "We'll have to go to the back-up plan, then. Are you absolutely sure the codes will totally disable the main engines and controls?"

"Now you're questioning my ability to do my job. Typical. The moment you press that thing the main engines cut out and the controls and navcomputer lock into the preprogrammed flightpath. Twenty minutes later the "Destructor" takes out Mos Eisley and everything in a ten-span radius."

The second man spoke, sounding impatient. "And you absolutely certain no-one up there can break the program in time"

"I know the crew, dammit - it is my ship! The code I've used is beyond any of them."

"Fine." There was a pause, and Luke thought the older man looked towards him. "We can get to the shuttle and get out of here before Vader gets any closer. We don't need the boy anymore. Take my blaster and finish him. Maybe it will put Vader off enough to make it even easier for us to get out."

There was a loud sigh of annoyance. "Why do I have to do this stuff, Lorn?"
"Because I said so. Now do it while I check out the corridor..."

As soon as he'd heard the word "blaster" Luke had begun to look about for some sort of weapon. No time for anything fancy - there was a piece of broken metal pole lying at an angle against the wall just a couple of feet away the trolley. Letting the hand furthest away from the two men slide down, he twitched his fingers and the Force obediently came to him, a dark flow he recognised and accepted for its sudden strength.

Anger and frustration flared up in his mind, triggered by memories of repeated torture and the pole flipped up into his hand. His fingers wrapped around the cool metal and he twisted it around until the sharp was forward. It was about as long as the lower part of his arm, a solid steel spike with its end split to a fine point by whatever force had broken it.

The officer raised his blaster and Luke twisted over, all his pains lost in the hot fury that exploded within him. He sent it to kill and it flew like a living thing, thudding into the officer's body, straight into his heart.

The impact was so great that the man was physically lifted off his feet and thrown back into the wall. The pole went completely through him and impaled him onto the wall. He screamed and shuddered, dying even as his fingers tightened convulsively on the trigger of the weapon in his hand.

The energy from the blaster struck the ceiling, shattering a supporting beam and blasting it away from the wall braces. Luke, already unbalanced by the force of his throw, tumbled from the trolley onto the floor. He rolled in a desperate attempt to avoid the falling beam. He almost made it...the big metal spar struck the trolley, rebounded and teetered for a moment - then slid down and landed across his legs.

* * *

Taking Vader's outstretched hand, stumbling upright, Solo was trying to figure if The Dark Lord had just complimented him. Then he yelped and tried to pull free, Vader's fist closing vice-like on Solo's fingers.

"Luke!" Vader whispered, coldly elated. "Yes. Harness the Dark! Yes!"

He let go of Solo's hand and the Corellian stood flexing his fingers. "Not again," Han said sourly. "What are they doin' to him this time?"

"No," Vader said, "Luke has killed one of them."

"Yeah?" Solo lifted his head, "Way to go, Skywalker!"

"Indeed. Come, we must hurry, they will.... " The Dark Lord's words ended on a gasping inhalation of agony. "Luke," he repeated, but this time on a despairing groan. "Son."

"That does it!" Solo said. "Come on, we gotta get in
there!"

Immediately round the curve at the foot of the slope, bright light shone from the cracks surrounding a door that sagged in its frame. Vader lifted an arm, slammed it with some unseen power, and it came fully open. Solo hurried to come up and stand just behind Vader, trying to see round him, as suddenly, inexplicably,
the Dark Lord froze in his tracks.

* * *

He must have screamed when the beam struck him but he couldn't remember. The pain had shocked him into complete awareness but it also dulled his thinking so that the first sense of danger he had was the sudden wrenching of a hand pulling his head up by the hair. He blinked up into a pair of crazed dark eyes as something hard and cold was jammed under his chin, forcing his face to one side. And at the same moment he felt the unmistakable Force presence of Vader.

Everything was happening too fast. Luke took a deep careful breath, closed his eyes then opened them again, determined to focus, to find some sort of calm. The older of the two officers was crouched next to him, holding his head up in the same painful grasp and the sharp object under his jaw was a blaster barrel. He sensed hatred, fear, all the swirling angry emotions that worked on his tired, aching mind like little electric shocks. He shuddered and the man holding him hissed.

"If you want to live a little longer, Skywalker, stay still. I won't hesitate to blow your brains out."

Luke calmed himself as the sense of his father's presence strengthened. He caught sight of the dark figure out of the corner of his eye as Vader came to the shattered doorway. He went to step through when Luke's captor snapped out a command.

"Stop. If you come inside I'll kill him. If you try to use your damned Force on me, if you don't do what I tell you to, I'll kill him. Is that clear enough, my Lord Vader?"

Vader stopped at the threshold and Luke sensed his fury, barely contained. "I hear you. What is it you want?"

Luke felt the man shiver, not from fear, but from a palpable hatred. "Want? I want you dead. You don't know who I am, do you?"

"I do not."

"Does the name Ozzel mean anything to you?"

Vader's head moved up a fraction. "As in Admiral Ozzel?"

"Yes. My father. I'm Lorn Ozzel, his oldest son. The last of his children alive, now that your son has killed my brother. My father spent his whole life in loyal service and was rewarded by being choked to death on his own bridge. By you." Ozzel's voice lowered to a shaking croak. "It took me a long time to plan all this. You stand there in your black armour and think you're invulnerable. Well, you aren't. I'm going to see that you don't only die, but you die in shame. You'll be a failure, the ship under your command will be destroyed and will wipe out the major centre of life on this wretched dustball of a planet in the process." He gave a dry laugh. "All anyone will remember of you is death and failure. And no-one will give a damn about you. Anymore than you gave a damn about my father."

Ozzel's voice was shaking with emotion and Luke could sense his barely maintained control. The fury was almost physical, radiating outwards from him like an emotional heat. Ozzel let go of his hair and reached into his pocket; the gun was still pressed under Luke's chin but he saw the man pull something out. It was a small triggering device and Luke fought to understand why he knew the thing was very important....

"....and right now you're in a no-win situation. If you kill me, I kill your son. If you don't, I kill you. What's it to be?"

* * *

Waiting only until he had heard the first threat against Luke's life, Solo turned and charged back up slope. Reaching the cave-in, Solo bent down, dug about Simms' body until he found the officer's blaster pistol, then weapon in hand, scrambled up the debris slope to the hole blasted through the wall. He clawed at it, widening it with his bare hands, still it was a very tight squeeze. He wriggled through, half-falling, half-sliding clear into the parallel tunnel. He staggered to his feet, got his bearings and raced round a winding bend, then climbed a short flight of rough steps that levelled out on a small landing where a door stood ajar, warped by the force of the blast.

Solo moved closer, stuck his head cautiously into the gap. Slightly below and forward of him he could see Luke's captor still intent on delivering a venom-filled speech to Vader
who stood like a dark spectre in the opposite doorway. The
Imperial officer's hand trembled with the power of his rage, and
he pressed a blaster barrel cruelly deep into the underside of
Skywalker's jaw. Luke's face was twisted to one side just sufficient for him to catch a glimpse of Solo, his pain-filled eyes suddenly wide with hope. Han winked at him encouragingly, but wondered what to do. He couldn't just shoot the Imperial, the death grip would trigger the weapon and kill Luke too.

Solo cursed, knowing there was only one way to do this. Luke must have sensed Solo's desperation, his intended possible
self-sacrifice, for his blue eyes rolled suddenly, fixing Solo
with a frown. Han merely shrugged and gave him a "Be ready"
signal. He nodded at Vader, telling Luke he'd need the Dark Lord
to cover for him. Luke blinked by way of understanding, then
closed his eyes, trying to relax enough to let his father know theplan, Solo supposed.

Suddenly, Solo saw Vader respond, his posture shifting fractionally as his masked head seemed to lift and spot the Corellian's presence at the rear of the room. Solo edged further into the room, pausing to give Vader a smug grin and a cheeky wave of his fingers. Han bent and picked up a rock, was about to throw it clear of him, but his foot slipped and more rocks rolled clear, giving away his position too soon.

The Imperial swung about, firing as he moved, altering his aim as he spotted Solo. The fiery bolt seared past Solo's shoulder as he dived forward, way too close for comfort. Sprawled in the dirt, Solo fired wide, simply wanting to keep the man distracted from Luke. Then he saw such was no longer necessary. The Imperial gave a strangled cry, jerked back, flung away from Luke to impact with the farther wall. He slumped down to lie in a crumpled, lifeless heap close by another officer's impaled figure. Solo stared at the two dead men, both killed by powers he liked to pretend didn't exist. Luke had killed that first one!? Han swallowed hard, then staggered back to his feet, hurrying to assist Luke, wanting to reach him before Vader.

"Hey, kid," Solo said, gently sliding an arm beneath his friend's shoulders. "You gonna make it?" Luke managed a smile but his eyes remained clouded with agony. Only then did Solo see the heavy beam pinning Skywalker's broken leg. Cursing, Solo bent toward it, shoving but finding it beyond his strength.

"Vader," Han called urgently, not stopping to look up, "Get this thing off him. Now!"

Han saw Luke gape in surprise from him to Vader and back, then the durasteel beam was floating upward, drifting clear, then dropping aside with a solid thud. Vader did not come any closer, seemed preoccupied with something.

Solo bent back to Luke, smiled and said, "Your old man's pretty good at that, ain't he?"

Luke's eyes rounded in pure astonishment, taking the edge from his pain. "You ... you believe me?" he said, wincing as he strained to sit up.

"Sure," Solo said distractedly, fumbling for the aid kit clipped to his belt. "Keep still until I can get some painkiller into ya at least." Han flicked a nervous glance toward Vader but the Dark Lord seemed intent on listening to an officer speaking to him via comlink. "He can call all the back-up he likes," Han told Luke, eyes and jaw grim with determination, "Ain't nothing stoppin' me taking you home, kid." Finished with his first aid, he took Luke's arm about his shoulders, began carefully easing him up. "Come on, we're leavin' this party."

"Oh, no!" Luke exclaimed, staring at something he apparently hadn't noticed until the medication cleared his blurred eyesight. He sounded anguished, despairing.

"What do ya mean, oh no!" Solo said angrily. He glared at Vader. "Leave him be, dammit! He's coming with me!"

"The trigger," Luke explained. "It's been activated."

"What trigger?" Solo asked.

"Come," Vader said, leaving his comlink and stepping forward. "I will carry you, Luke. Together we may yet prevent disaster. We must combine our power to push my ship back into orbit."

"No way!" Solo protested, registering only "combine power" and assuming Vader was taking up where he'd left off on Bespin. Clumsily, Solo tried to hang on to Luke and aim the Imperial blaster all at once.

"Yes," Luke was saying, "we can do it if we can get close enough. But there's so little time."

"Do what?!" Solo shouted, looking from one to the other in utter exasperation.

"My Star Destroyer has been sabotaged," Vader explained tersely. "These scum have set it on a crash course with this city. We have only minutes. You must lead us from this maze, quickly!"
"Kreth!" Solo looked to Luke for confirmation, then said, "Right, follow me. There's a freight lift tube. Its coded against entry but not exit. We can get to the surface that way."
"Good thinking," Vader complimented, he stepped forward, arm out stretched. "I will carry Luke." Solo baulked, and Vader added testily, "Easier and faster." Before Solo could react, Vader had swept Luke up into powerful arms, turned and headed for the back door.

Solo fell into stride, looked across at Luke, shook his head, and said, "You Skywalkers, always looking to me to get you out of a tight spot."

Luke flashed a grin, which became slightly puzzled as he looked from his father to Solo and back again. "I know the drugs are making me a bit slow, but how did the both of you manage to get me at the same time? Is this how it seems - are you two working together?"

Vader's only response was a muffled snort and Luke's curiosity grew. As the car arrived at the top of tube Han shrugged and hit the door control. "Rescues are my speciality, he needed some expert help."

At the top of the lift tube, out in the searing daylight, Vader realized there was another problem. "I can call my shuttle to me, but.."

"There's no time." Luke concluded.

"Lucky for you, I'm here," Solo said smugly. He lifted his comlink, said, "Chewie? Can ya hear me, pal?" There was a wookiee howl of affirmation. "Bring her in now. Tractor us up. We ain't got a moment to lose."

Vader's head turned slightly towards Solo. "Expert help?" he said in a soft, sacrcastic voice. "Corellian arrogance." He looked down at his son. "One day in this man's presence has taxed even my control; I am very impressed by your patience."

Solo felt immense enjoyment when the Dark Lord jumped, genuinely startled, as the Falcon suddenly swooped down on them. The battered freighter blocked the suns, appearing out of hiding from behind a nearby cliff wall. The tractor beam locked on, but did not activate. Chewbacca called an angry comment, and Solo bellowed, "Yes, him too! Just do it, will ya! There's no time to explain. We need him."

Chewbacca's less than happy growls continued, but the tractor beam suddenly took hold, lifting Solo and Vader who was still cradling Luke. The beam drew them carefully up and into the Falcon's opened bellyhatch, setting them down gently in the forward hold just behind the cockpit.

"Punch it, Chewie," Solo yelled. "Get us as close as possible to that Star Destroyer." That earned a wookiee howl of utter disbelief. Solo threw his companions a long-suffering look as he turned and raced for the cockpit.

Solo sprinted, rebounding off crash panelling as the Falcon accelerated, changing course. He all but fell into the pilot's seat, taking control just as Vader entered, Luke in his
arms. The young rebel's presence was probably all that saved Vader from dealing with a wookiee onslaught. Chewbacca snarled, spitting hatred, blue eyes flashing.

"Not now!" Solo hefted a warning forefinger. "We need him. And I need you to keep your eyes glued to those readouts. That Destroyer is falling, aimed straight for Mos Eisley. We gotta get closer."

Chewbacca blinked, then whoofed a comment to which Solo responded, "Yes, I said closer!"

* * *

Han and Chewie didn't believe they could do it, and Luke wasn't so sure either. The only thing that gave him hope was the memory of Yoda, the image of the tiny little creature lifting a five megweight X-Wing out of the Dagobah swamp. Size matters not....

He looked across at Vader, speaking softly as Han and Chewie continued their conversation. "Can we do this...it's so heavy?"

Vader reached out and took Luke's hand. "With your assistance I could shift a moon from its orbit. But you must trust me. You must submerge all doubt. You must believe in me, in yourself, in the Force. But it must be my type of Force. There is no time, nor any way, to use the Light Side. Only the Dark Side can give us the power we need in the time we have. Do you understand, son?"

Luke nodded wearily. He was tired and in pain but it would be very easy to tap into that terrible energy waiting just beyond the limits of his control. And all he had to do was trust the one person in the Universe he should trust the least. But too many lives weighed in the balance and there was no time to test his own worth against them.

He heard Han's shocked oath and looked out through the front port. High above them the atmosphere was being lit by something huge; a spear of flame was making the air buckle and smoke, sending visible shockwaves through the dry sky. As the Falcon came closer the huge wedge shape could be seen trying to claw its way back to the empty spaces where it belonged. Dozens of tiny retros sparked along its side as its crew fought to control its fall. But without the main engines its own huge weight was pulling it down the gravity well towards the desert floor...and Mos Eisley.

Luke looked back at Vader as he felt his father gather his will. He closed his eyes and reached out, pushing down his instinctive desire to use the Light Side, letting the dark fires in Vader trigger the same energies in him. Their power melded all too easily, sliding together in cohesive patterns, blending as only the power of two blood-related Force users could.

They didn't need to see each other, or the Destroyer, or anything. It was the simplest thing to reach out and feel it as it slid through the atmosphere in a spiralling descent, a huge multi-levelled conglomerate of metal and energy, filled with life force, some terrified, some unknowing, falling towards destruction.

Without words they knew what to do. They began pulling in power, sucking it from the world around and beneath them, feeding on the emotions and energies of every living thing. The energy became a vortex and that part of the duo that was Luke tapped into the flaming energies, his young mind staggering under the impact of that awful power. But he felt himself braced in some indescribable way by the enormous strength, the rock-like immovable spirit of his father.

Together we could reshape the Galaxy... He wasn't sure if he'd thought that or Vader had. In a way that he could never afterwards describe Luke joined his father, opening himself in total co-operation. The Darkness offered itself, looking for doubt and weakness, finding only commitment. To doubt was to fail. And in that moment he didn't doubt, he knew that he could do anything, be anything.

He helped mould the power, forming it around the turbulent essence that was the Destroyer, opening himself further to the dark energies that surged unseen around him. It was intoxicating to handle such tremendous power. He pushed it to Vader who manipulated it with a deft, knowing skill, playing the Dark like a master musician. There was power enough and to spare to nudge the great weight upwards, to slowly push the pointed, burning nose of the big ship until it was heading back upwards towards safe, empty space.

When it was done Luke let the power slide away. Exhaustion came on him in a black wave and he felt himself falling, dropped from the peak of euphoria into the cold reality of his own mortal existence. As the link with his father dissolved Luke felt Vader's shuddering collapse even as the stress slapped him down into darkness.......

* * *

Solo saw it, but he didn't believe it. Almost imperceptibly at first, then gathering momentum, the Star Destroyer began climbing, pushed back into orbit. "You did it!" Han whooped. He turned about to congratulate Luke, thoughts already darkening, wondering what Vader would do now.

But Solo could only gape, finding both Vader and Skywalker incapable of taking action of any kind. Both were unconscious, Luke slumped half out of his seat, chest and head almost touching the deck, arms sprawled there. Solo moved to settle the rebel back in his seat, noting that fortunately for Luke, Vader had not also toppled sideways, but had collapsed neatly back into his own seat.

Chewbacca snarled, taking up his invective-filled commentary from where he had left off. He suggested several means of sending the Dark Lord's soul to meet its final justice, settling for tearing Vader limb from limb.

"Kinda messy," Solo said distractedly, straightening upfrom tending Luke. "A blaster bolt would make just the one nice,neat hole. Right about here, I'd guess." He lifted a forefinger, pressed at a spot between Vader's masked eyes. "Better do it before he comes round and chokes me to death."
Solo slapped a fresh charge pack into his blaster, aimed, began squeezing the trigger. Suddenly, he eased back, lowered the blaster barrel.

"Aww, damn," he muttered. He glanced across to Luke, then said again on a long, weary sigh, "Damn. I can't do it. Maybe if he wakes up, but not like this."

Chewbacca lumbered closer, waving his arms threateningly. He reached down, grabbed at Vader's respirator, huge fists set to crush it, pull it free. Then he too hesitated, blue eyes flicking to Solo's face. He let out a mewing sound of frustration, shook his shaggy head in self-disgust and dropped his hands, barking a sharp comment.

"Yeah, I know we're a pair of hopeless suckers," Solo agreed. "But I can't do it, and you can't do it. Hey, at least I have an excuse." Chewbacca looked inquiringly at him. "I could say I'm sparing him because that's the way Luke would want it."

Chewie begged to differ, bending down to lift Skywalker's prosthetic hand, citing it as evidence.

"Yeah, that's what you'd think," Solo said grimly. He holstered the blaster, bent to pull one of Vader's arms about his shoulders. "Some family they make, a father who'd slice off his own son's hand."

Bending to assist, Chewbacca froze, barked incredulity, and stared as if he thought Solo mad.

"Oh, quit lookin' at me like that," Han grouched. "I did not lose all my brain cells in the carbon freeze. It's true I tell you. You can ask Luke all about it. Now," he grunted, trying to take Vader's deadweight, "will ya give me a hand here, or do ya want a see me break my back?"

Chewbacca elbowed Solo aside, heaved the Dark Lord up bythe arms, let him drop, then dragged him aft. Solo followed, then in reply to the wookiee's query said, "No, ya big pirate, not the airlock. He might land on someone down there. Put him in the escape pod." Chewbacca growled unhappily. "Yeah, yeah, I know I'm gonna regret this later. Thanks for reminding me."
He watched as Chewbacca lifted Vader and laboriously began stuffing him through the small pod hatch. It was a tight fit and something snagged on the edge of the hatch as Chewie pushed Vader inside.

"Hold it," Han said, "something's stuck." He bent forward, pulled the Dark Lord's cloak aside and saw the silver and black light-sabre on his belt. A wicked smile pulled up one corner of his mouth and he pulled the sabre from the belt clip. "This'l make a nice souvenir for Luke."

As Chewbacca straightened up and prepared to shut the hatch Solo snatched up a datapad, punched in a message, leaned into the pod, and shoved the pad into Vader's gloved fist. Smirking happily, he began buckling the safety harness. Vader stirred, showing signs of returning to consciousness. "To hell with that!" Solo exclaimed, abandoning the straps. He jumped back so fast that he bumped his head on the hatch. Chewbacca chuckled.

"Oh, shut up and get him out of here."

Solo slammed the hatch, not needing to check air pressure as they were still in atmospheric flight and Vader's suit would compensate for minor differences. Chewbacca punched the release lever and there was a dull thump as the pod clamps let go and the retros fired.

Wookiee and Corellian sighed in shared relief, hurrying forward to watch from the cockpit's viewscreen as the pod descended ever lower toward Tatooine's smooth red-brown surface.

"Good riddance," Solo said. He turned and went back to Skywalker, finding him still unconscious but breathing easily, face relaxed and free of pain. "You're a mess, kid," he said affectionately. "I gotta get you cleaned up before I can gift wrap you and deliver you to the Princess."

He bent down, intending to lift Skywalker into his arms and carry him back to his cabin. A sudden wave of dizziness washed over him and pain flared in his shoulder and ribs, Skywallker's weight pulling at abused muscles. Solo gritted his teeth, set himself to try again. A furry pair of wookiee hands grasped him about the waist and gently moved him aside. Chewbacca shook his shaggy head admonishingly and rumbled something to his Captain.
"Okay, okay, ya big showoff!" Solo stood back and let his partner pick up Luke as easily as if he weighed nothing. "So, I'm a little the worse for wear -- you try hangin' out with The Dark and Menacing One an entire day!" He followed the wookiee and his burden tiredly, glad Chewbacca couldn't see how stiffly he was moving. The stim shot had finally worn off. But the wookiee must have eyes in the back of his head, barking a comment to which Solo insisted, "No, no, I'll be fine. Put him on my bunk. I can take a nap on the rec couch later."

Carefully, Chewbacca obeyed, easing Luke down onto the padded surface, then reached up for the med-kit stored nearby.

"I'll patch him up," Solo said, taking the kit. "Go set the co-ords for home. The sooner we're outa here the more I'll like it, though that Destroyer shouldn't bother us for quite a while yet. And they still gotta pick up their boss!"

* * *

Luke opened his eyes with a sigh. It was the first time in many days that he had woken without pain. The first thing he saw was Han placing a dressing on his much-abused leg. Solo was certainly looking a bit the worse for wear himself; he was dirty, his clothing torn and stained and he carried various bruises, scrapes and scratches on his face and arms. But after the extraordinary, magical events of the day it was wonderful to see the battered, human face of his friend.

"You've got a kinder touch than the last person to work on that leg. Will I live?"

Solo's head turned, smiling. "If you listen to me you might, kid. I've put on a nerve block...how's it feel?"

Luke tried to wriggle his toes. "Wonderful, I can't feel a thing." He looked about, suddenly remembering. "Where's Vader?" Luke searched through the Force for his father's presence. He looked back in gathering alarm as he realised Vader wasn't close by. "Han...."

Solo's eyebrow quirked upwards and he gave a shrug. "Where d'you think?"

"Han, what have you done?"

Solo's lips twitched in a quick smile. "Saved you yet again, my friend." He saw the growing genuine concern in Luke's eyes and the smile grew. "Don't worry, he's okay. Not likely to be very happy, but alive, back where he started from."

"You mean...?

"Yeah, back down on Tattooine wandering around the desert. Not that Chewie and I didn't think of several other possibilities. Chewie's idea in particular would have made a real mess of the cockpit. And while we did give some serious thought to shoving him out the airlock..." He saw Luke's frown and shook his head. "... I used one of my escape pods. Those pods cost me a fortune, kid, so you owe me. You want to put in the good word with the Princess on that one for me?"

Luke gave a short, guilty sight of relief. Now that he had the time to feel he could sense Vader's lifeforce, distant but strong below them on the planet's surface. There was no conscious thought but he was alive. The fact that he felt pleased about that he would leave for later consideration.

"Did the Star Destroyer make it into a stable orbit?"

"Yep. It's limping around below us and a few thousand spans behind. They won't be going anywhere till they get their systems back on line." Han finished checking the dressings and unfolded a blanket across Luke's legs. "There, all done."

"Thanks...for everything."

"Glad I could help. Oh, by the way, I have something for you, a little souvenir .... from your father." Han pulled a familiar-lookin object from the shelf above his head and placed it in Luke's surprised grasp.

Luke looked down at the lighsabre in stunned disbelief before speaking in a hushed, awed whisper. "You stole his lightsabre!"

Han shrugged, obviously pleased with himself. "Well, he took my blaster, so I took his sabre. Seemed only fair."

Luke continued to stare at the sabre for some moments, wondering if he imagined the faint buzz of Vader's presence in the cool metal shaft. It was the cap for an altogether amazing day. "This I want to hear about." He put the sabre aside and sat back, looking up at Solo. "Let's have it."

Han leant back, arms crossed over his chest. "Well now, kid, that's quite a long story."

"And do I look like I'm going anywhere? Spill it, Solo!" Luke shook his head. "I can't believe that you and Vader spent the day together and both of you are still breathing."

Han spread his hands. "Now, if you aren't gonna believe me there's no point going on."

"Han!"

Han slid into a nearby chair, leant back, tucked his hands behind his head and propped both feet onto the bunk. "Well, you know, rescues are my specialty: I showed Vader how it's done. He couldn't have managed it without me."

Luke rolled his eyes and sighed. "Will you stop bragging and tell me what happened!"

"Alright, it went this way; after I left you in the hospital to get back to the ship......."

As Han revealed the day's events Luke wasn't sure whether he was more impressed with Han's ingenuity, audacity or plain good luck. It was an incredible tale and Luke was enjoying it in spite of himself when he felt a sudden sharp and very loud voice through the Force.

Luke!

Han saw Luke twitch and stopped in mid-sentence.

"What?"

"Vader. He's awake - and you're right - he's not very happy."

"Told ya."

Luke waved one hand. "Ssh. I'm listening." Luke's forehead wrinkled in concentration as he listened then he slowly began to smile. Shaking his head, Luke looked at Solo and, sure enough, the Corellian was grinning insufferably. "I gather he appreciates not being spaced, but your message has got him stirred up...... That's two you owe me" Luke grinned suddenly, sensing Vader's grudging amusement . "It seems you've made something of an impression on him." He paused. "In more ways than one."

He gave Han a penetrating look, remembering the spirit and character beneath the brash surface. His father had discovered that as well, it seemed. "You've managed to earn my father's respect, which I suspect is rarely given to his enemies. And what's this "two you owe me" business?" Han somehow managed to look more smug then surprisingly he suddenly looked a little embarrassed and squirmed in his seat.

When he refused to speak Luke reached out to Vader with a question. His eyes widened as he looked across at his friend.

"You what? Saved his life - what next!" Luke shook his head, amused and surprised at once. Then he sensed something else, the memory of an event that stirred the Force, a small piece of past history involving Han and Vader.... "There's something more, isn't there? Something you said to him...?

Han shrugged again. "Ok, so we had this talk, right before I went after Thrung. Vader was gettin' nasty and I had to put him in his place. He needed to hear a few home truths so I told him...."

Off in the cockpit Chewbacca was preparing the Falcon for the jump to hyperdrive, glad to be leaving Tatooine behind. As he sat in the co-pilots chair he heard Luke give a loud exclamation of surprised delight.

"You told Vader what?!"

Chewie chuckled to himself; knowing Solo he could well imagine the scene. With a sigh of relief that everything was back to normal, Chewbacca punched the controls and the Falcon jumped into hyperdrive, leaving Tatooine behind in a swirl of streaking stars.


End